In my car: a case of wine, my suitcase, giant sticky-tab pages, markers, a dry erase board, more markers, guitar, tallit and tefillin, siddur, Sfat Emet book, water shoes, sneakers, sun hat, computer bag, bentschers, non-perishable groceries for the dinner I'm cooking on Monday, and half a bottle of fig arak left over from Shavuot. It must be time for Bayit: Building Jewish's annual visioning / strategic planning / learning for its own sake / HiHo prep / vacation week!
Reading this week's Torah portion, Eikev, the verses that leapt out at me were Deuteronomy 8:3-4:
"God subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your fathers had ever known, in order to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, but that man may live on anything that God decrees. The clothes upon you did not wear out, nor did your feet swell these forty years."
Reading these verses, I thought two things:
One -- what an extraordinary teaching about trust. Moshe is reminding the children of Israel that during their forty years' wandering in the wilderness, God gave them everything they needed. God gave them something entirely unprecedented and new, this foodstuff called manna. And God kept their clothes from going threadbare, and kept their feet nimble and comfortable. This is a teaching about trusting that if we are open, the universe will give us what we need.
And two -- holy wow, I wish we had access to that right now.
This has been an extraordinarily difficult week to pay attention to the news. There's talk of detaining refugee and migrant children indefinitely. The Amazon rainforest, the "lungs of the earth," is literally on fire -- and not because of an accident, but because people are intentionally clear-cutting forest and burning the stumps to make room for more profitable cattle-grazing land, even though without that rainforest our planet may not survive.
God, we could really use some manna. And we could really use a miraculous rainstorm to put out the Amazon's fires. And we could really use a boost in humanity's capacity for compassion. Our compassion and our readiness to act need to not wear out, the way our spiritual ancestors' shoes didn't wear out. On the contrary, we need for our compassion and our readiness to act to be strengthened, because the needs of the world are so great, and it looks like they're only going to get greater.
I poured out my heart to God asking for those things, and here's the answer that came to me:
Manna isn't on offer these days. And God doesn't send floods to save us from our own avarice. That's not how God works in the world. God works in the world through us. As we sang earlier tonight, "Ours are the arms, the fingers, the voices."
We have tools at our disposal to help us cultivate and strengthen our compassion, our love for the other, our willingness to extend ourselves to the migrant and the refugee, our readiness to care for the holy temple we call planet Earth. Prayer and meditation and tzedakah and teshuvah are spiritual practices designed for exactly that purpose. Prayer and meditation and tzedakah and teshuvah are spiritual technologies designed to refine our souls and boost our readiness to do what's right.
Prayer and meditation and tzedakah and teshuvah can help us respond ethically to the current administration's attacks on the Flores settlement that protects the rights of refugee children. And to the burning of the rainforests and the greed that fuels those choices. And to every need there is. These are our tradition's core spiritual technologies: are we using them?
In just over five weeks, we'll come together for Rosh Hashanah and we'll hear the majestic words of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer. (I've written about that prayer before.) We'll remind ourselves that we never know, in the year to come, who will die by fire and who by water. And we will affirm that tefilah, and teshuvah, and tzedakah, avert the severity of the divine decree.
Tefilah: prayer, meditation, spiritual practice writ large. Teshuvah: repentance, atonement, turning ourselves around. And tzedakah: righteous giving, giving to the other in a way motivated not by "charity" but by our core sense of justice. That's how we mitigate whatever comes our way. That's how we take care of each other. That's how we take care of our world.
Prayer and repentance and tzedakah can't necessarily change what is. (Though sometimes they can. And if you have a few dollars to spare, donate to a worthy cause at havdalah, and #bealight to make the world a better place.) But tefilah, teshuvah, and tzedakah can change what we do about what is. We can "believe in God" or we can choose not to believe, but either way, Jewish tradition demands that we do what's right. Jewish tradition demands that we act. Prayer and teshuvah can strengthen us to act.
We're entering into Shabbes-time: the one day each week when we get to set the cares of the world aside. Let our worries and our griefs run off our shoulders. And when the new week begins, it'll be on us to do what we can to build a better world. Even if we know we can't do enough. The only unacceptable choice is despair and inaction.
In the rabbinic text known as Avot de Rabbi Natan (page 31b), we read,
If you are holding a sapling in your hand and someone tells you, 'Come quickly, the messiah is here!', first finish planting the tree and then go to greet the messiah.
If you're holding a sapling and you hear that everything is healed, the traumas of the world as we've known it are over, there's no more war or bloodshed or hurt -- plant the sapling before you celebrate. And I think this also means: if you're holding a sapling and you hear that everything is destroyed, that the world is burning and cannot be redeemed -- plant the sapling before you mourn. No matter what, plant the sapling. Plant the seeds of hope. Engage in an act of compassion. That's what it is to be a Jew.
This is my d'varling from Shabbat services at my shul (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)
"I'll be at synagogue for Tisha b'Av," I tell my son. What's that, he asks. "It's when we remember that we used to have a Temple in Jerusalem, but it was destroyed. So we built it again, and it was destroyed again. It's a time for thinking about all the things that hurt -- in our history and in the world now." That doesn't sound like a holiday, says my son. That sounds sad.
And then he asks, why can't we just have holidays for the happy things? "Lots of our holidays are joyful," I point out. "Most of our holidays are joyful! This is the one where we let ourselves feel the things that hurt." His response makes me clutch at my heart: he says, simply, but I don't want to feel sad. "You're a kid, you don't have to," I assure him.
It's age-appropriate that he doesn't want to feel sad. (Especially now, a scant few months after his first grandparent's death. We're both still navigating that.) It's age-appropriate for him not to want to engage with the world's brokenness, how bad things happen to good people, the fall of the Temples, any of it. Right now he needs a sense of safety, not a broken heart.
It's easy to knock "pediatric" theology -- childlike theology that doesn't (yet) engage with theodicy and suffering. If we never grow beyond that, our spiritual selves and our relationship with tradition will be stunted. We might choose to throw away relationship with God and tradition altogether because the simple version we got as kids doesn't speak to life's challenges.
And yet... for a kid, simple and sweet theology is appropriate. I'm grateful that my kid has the luxury of not living with tough questions of theodicy and suffering on a daily basis. I keep thinking about the children whose testimonies make up this prayer. I wish every child had the luxuries my child enjoys. I wish the suffering in Lamentations didn't still look so familiar.
Of course, there are adults who never outgrow reluctance to feel sadness or difficult emotions. I empathize: celebrations are plenty more fun than funerals. But when we want religion to be a source of happiness and light, but don't want to feel loss or sadness or culpability, our spiritual lives get out of whack. That's spiritual bypassing. Tisha b'Av is the opposite of that.
Tisha b'Av calls us into uncomfortable relationship with loss and sadness and culpability. Loss is hard-baked into the human experience: we can embrace it or we can ignore it, but we can't avoid it. But the sense of culpability -- taking responsibility for our role in the brokenness; facing our complicity in the patterns that lead to brokenness -- that one's up to us.
And to me that's the most fascinating thing about Tisha b'Av: how the tradition makes the spiritual move of saying: yeah, it's our fault. Tradition says this is the anniversary of the date when the scouts brought back a false report, a fearful report, dooming their entire generation to wander in the wilderness. Because we didn't trust, our homeless wandering continued.
Tradition says the Temples, destroyed on this date, fell because of our transgressions -- the first one because of idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed, and the second one because of sinat chinam, senseless hatred, which teaches us that senseless hatred is equivalent to idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed. (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 9b.) That's a hell of a teaching.
As R' Alan Lew notes, in his Tisha b'Av chapter in This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared, any historian can tell you that we couldn't have stopped the juggernaut of the Roman Empire, or for that matter Babylon before it. But the tradition says: that historical truth is irrelevant. What matters here is the spiritual truth that calls us to take responsibility.
In a way it's a victim fantasy. We want to believe that what happened to us must have been our fault, because if it were, then we can act differently next time and protect ourselves from the trauma recurring. But in another way it gives us agency. It reminds us that we can always choose to behave differently, to make teshuvah, to be better people than we were before.
And even if teshuvah doesn't protect us from sorrow and loss, the inner transformation might be its own reward. Because on the afternoon of Tisha b'Av, tradition says, the messiah will be born. We find hope even in our darkest places -- especially in our darkest places. As an adult I find profound comfort in that teaching. It's like the hope at the bottom of Pandora's Box.
The thing is, in order to get to that hope -- in order to get to the uplift of Tisha b'Av afternoon -- we have to be willing to go into the loss and grief and sense of communal responsibility that comes before. Where are our Jewish communities falling into senseless hatred, failing to be welcoming and inclusive? Where are our national / secular communities doing the same?
Tisha b'Av is the hinge that turns us toward the Days of Awe. It's 7 weeks until Rosh Hashanah. We have 7 weeks to take a good look at our selves and souls, our (in)actions and choices. That inner work won't protect us from trauma and loss, personally or nationally. But it might change who we are and how we respond. And isn't that what spiritual life is for?
I had the profound pleasure of coauthoring this week's Builders Blog post with my friend and colleague Rabbi Bella Bogart. In studying this week's Torah portion together, we discerned some important building lessons. And we also discovered that when we were rabbinic students, we had parallel but opposite conversations with mentors, who taught us -- by example both positive and negative -- an important lesson about how to relate to those whom we serve.
Here's a taste:
...First and foremost, Moshe speaks to everyone. (Deut. 1:1) Moshe wants to be sure that no one has reason later to complain that they weren’t there, or they didn’t hear it, or he wasn’t talking to them. No one’s left out or ignored, neither individuals nor groups. This is the first building lesson we find in this parsha: Moshe doesn’t speak about people behind their backs. He doesn’t triangulate. He doesn’t discuss any of the community without all of the community present...
(Sketchnote by the marvelous Steve Silbert, as always.) Read the whole post at Builders Blog: Building lessons from D'varim.
(And if you haven't yet subscribed to Builders Blog, I hope you will do so -- this year we're publishing a series of voices uplifting building lessons from the weekly parsha, and we also share holiday resources and posts about innovation in Jewish life. You can subscribe via the "follow this blog by email" link in the sidebar on the blog page, and you can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter if you're so inclined.)
This week's Torah portion, Matot-Masei, opens with instructions concerning vows. Torah's not just talking about little promises; it's talking about swearing, as in "I swear to God" -- or "I swear by God." Torah takes oaths like these very seriously. So does Jewish tradition writ large. In Hebrew, they're most often called nedarim and shavuot. If those words don't ring a bell, try hearing them this way: "Kol nidre, v'esarei, v'charamei, v'konamei, v'chinuyei, v'kinusei, u-shavuot..." I don't know about you, but when I sing the first line of Kol Nidre I quake in my sandals. I feel like: oh God it can't possibly be time for that yet.
I'm not ready to face the end of summer. (Can't we have another month of July before we move on to August?) I'm not ready to face the Days of Awe and all that they ask of me, not just as a rabbi but as a human being. I'm not ready to face everything I need to repair in my life or in the world. I'm not ready to face the ways in which I've inevitably fallen short. Well: ready or not, here it comes. Tisha b'Av is next weekend, and that spiritual low point places us firmly on the onramp to the Days of Awe. This week's verses about vows and oaths come eight weeks before the new year. The time for taking stock is on its way.
So I read this week's Torah portion, which opens with verses about making vows. And then I turned to the Sfat Emet, the Hasidic master Yehuda Lieb Alter of Ger, whose writings I'm studying this year with my Bayit hevre. The Sfat Emet cites the prophet Jeremiah, "You shall swear by the living God in truth, in justice, and in righteousness." And then he explains that these three qualities of truth, justice, and righteousness map to the three ways we are instructed (in Torah / in the V'ahavta) to love God: "with all [our] hearts, with all [our] souls, and with all [our] being."
The Sfat Emet looks at these two triplets -- truth / justice / righteousness, and hearts / souls / being -- and connects them. He links "truth" with our souls, the life-force that animates us. He links "justice" with our hearts, because the heart needs justice in order to incline in the right way. He links "righteousness" with our very being, as though to remind us that we're called to embody righteousness in all that we are. And then he says that in order to truly receive words of Torah, we need to seek to heal or restore our whole selves, body and soul. I want to unpack that a little bit, because there's something beautiful here.
When the Sfat Emet talks about receiving Torah, he's talking about something beyond just hearing or reading the words of our sacred text. L'kabel, "to receive," isn't passive. It's a whole-self spiritual practice of receptivity to the flow of blessing and wisdom from on high. (It's the root of the word "kabbalah.") He's talking about taking the words into ourselves, taking them on, taking them in, being transformed by them. So that when we say the shema, we're not just singing a nice song: we're experiencing fundamental oneness. So that when we say the v'ahavta, we're embodying love with all that we are.
And in order to do that, we need restoration of our whole selves. We need to do the inner work of repairing our relationships with body and soul, with the physical world and the spiritual world. And we need to pursue not only inner repair, but outer repair: truth, and justice, and righteousness, those qualities that Jeremiah cites. Because inner repair without outer repair is at best insufficient, and at worst deeply damaging. If we use navel-gazing as an excuse to shirk our responsibility to heal the broken world, that's spiritual bypassing -- using the trappings of spiritual life in order to avoid facing what hurts.
So far, so good. But then the Sfat Emet says something that really surprised me. He says it's okay to take an oath to fulfill the mitzvot, because making a promise out loud can help us live up to who we aspire to be. Our tradition regards oaths as serious business, not something to be entered-into lightly. The classical tradition frowns on them altogether! And yet, I know that making a promise aloud can change me. If I say to my child, "I promise I will do everything I can to take care of you," those words express an inner truth and they strengthen my commitment to that truth, because I've spoken it aloud.
What kind of commitment are we willing to make to the mitzvot? What kind of commitment are we willing to make to spiritual practice and the inner work of teshuvah, turning and re-aligning ourselves with God? And -- because inner repair without outer repair is flawed at best -- what kind of commitment are we willing to make to feeding the hungry, protecting the powerless, welcoming the stranger? What kind of commitment are we willing to make to truth, justice, and righteousness? What would our lives look like if we took those commitments seriously, receiving and embodying them in all that we are?
Making commitments is risky. We might fail to live up to them. (Which is why the classical rabbinic tradition frowns on making vows in the first place.) But I've got a secret for you. Yom Kippur is coming, and when it gets here, we're all going to discover that we've fallen down on our promises. Because we're human, and we always do. We're bound to fail sometimes. I don't think that's a good reason to not even try. Yes, making commitments is risky. But a life without those commitments -- without even trying to live by standards of love and justice, truth and righteousness -- would be worse.
And this is where I want to bring in another Hasidic rebbe, the Slonimer, on a passage from the end of this week's portion. He's writing about the establishment of cities of refuge where those who committed manslaughter could be safe from retribution. He goes into some detail about the cities of refuge, and about the spiritual implications of having done something terribly wrong. And then he says that in our day we can take refuge in faith, and in community, and in the shema, and in Shabbat which is the source of holiness and the time each week when we can rekindle our God-connection.
Community is always available to us, if we choose to seek it, and in community we can be inspired to be our best selves even if we know we've fallen short. The shema is always available to us, and we can pray it every day. Shabbat is available to us every week. Even if we've done something wrong, even if we've broken our vows, even if we've fallen down on the job of being the people we want to be, we can take refuge in community and in spiritual practice and in Shabbat. And then when the new week begins, we can try again to live up to all our vows, and to be the people we know we are called to be.
This is the d'varling I offered this morning at my shul (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog). I share it here with gratitude to all of my hevruta learning-partners, and with gratitude to (and for) the spiritual practice of study.