The Mitzvah: Lessons from Va'etchanan for Now

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In this week's Torah portion, Va'etchanan, Moshe continues to recount the major events of the last 40 years. The Torah is approaching its end. Moshe's life is approaching its end. This Jewish year is approaching its end. And before all of those things happen, Moshe gets his swansong -- he gets to give one very long speech on the banks of the Jordan. That's what's happening at this moment in our Torah reading cycle. This week, among other things, Moshe retells the giving of the Ten Commandments.

The giving of the Torah is framed as a covenant, a two-way agreement. Moshe reiterates that that covenant isn't between our ancestors and God -- it's an eternal covenant between God and us, we who are living. The Ten Commandments begin, אָֽנֹכִ֖י֙ יְהֹוָ֣''ה אֱלֹהֶ֑֔יךָ, "I am YHVH your God."  They start with a reminder that God is our God -- and wow, there's a question for the ages: what does it mean to say "my God"? How is my relationship with God my own? How is your relationship with God uniquely yours?

The whole verse is, "I am YHVH your God Who brought you out of constriction, out of the house of bondage." (Deut. 5:6) The first commandment, Jewishly speaking, isn't commanding us per se -- it's reminding us. God is our God -- mine, and yours, and yours, and yours. "God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, God of Leah, God of Rachel," as the amidah prayer says. Each of us has a relationship with the Holy. And each of us is brought out of constriction into freedom.

Maybe "the G-word" doesn't speak to you. The Hebrew name YHVH seems to be a unique version of the verb to be, simultaneously implying Was and Is and Will Be, or we might say Being itself -- or, better, Becoming. What does it mean to be in relationship with the force behind becoming, to find holiness in the reality of transformation and change? What does it mean to be in relationship with justice and with lovingkindness -- two of the qualities our tradition says are manifest both in God and in us? 

The teacher of my teachers, Reb Zalman z"l, used to quote R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev -- "The God you don't believe in, I might not believe in, either." Reb Zalman would've wanted to shift the conversation away from theology -- what we do or don't believe about God -- and instead toward when and how we experience something beyond ourselves. When and how do we experience justice or love or holiness or change? And do we let that experience shape our actions in the world? 

In Deuteronomy 6:1, we read:

וְזֹ֣את הַמִּצְוָ֗ה הַֽחֻקִּים֙ וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוָּ֛ה יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֖ם לְלַמֵּ֣ד אֶתְכֶ֑ם

"This is the Instruction -- the chukim and mishpatim -- that your God YHVH has commanded [me] to impart to you..."

Chukim means engraved-commandments. Like the mitzvah of brit milah, which is literally inscribed on some of our bodies. Or the mitzvah of kashrut, Jewish dietary practice. Chukim are mitzvot that operate on levels beyond the rational. And mishpatim means justice-commandments, interpersonal and ethical mitzvot. In context here, this is a big lead-up to whatever Moshe is about to say next. Drumroll please! Whatever Moshe is about to say is core to our tradition, even more than the so-called Big Ten.

The Instruction -- the Mitzvah in question -- is a passage of Torah we call the Sh'ma and V'ahavta. It's part of daily prayer. We recite it when we lie down and when we rise up; we teach it to our generations; we speak about this mitzvah when we are at home, and when we're out in the world. This passage tells us to listen up; to love God with all we've got; to keep reciting these words, learning them and teaching them wherever we are. And, again: whether or not we "believe in God," these words still have power. 

I looked to see what some of our meforshim, the classical commentators, said about these words. Rashi (who lived around the year 1100) says that the commandment to "love God" means to do the mitzvot out of a sense of love, rather than out of a sense of fear, e.g. fear of punishment. One who does mitzvot out of love is considered to be at a higher spiritual level than someone who only does mitzvot because they're afraid of what might happen if they don't. It's better to be motivated by love than by fear. 

Ibn Ezra says: in antiquity the word lev, heart, also meant mind. For him, the way we love God with all our heart is by always learning, always going deeper into our texts and traditions. And arguably the more Torah we learn, the more mitzvot we'll feel called to do. That's the opinion of the commentator known as the Sforno. He says these verses come to help us recognize that when we love God, we'll take joy in doing mitzvot, because there's nothing better than doing what brings joy to our Beloved.

Okay: so maybe loving God means doing mitzvot out of love instead of fear. And maybe loving God is something we express through learning. And maybe it's about finding joy in doing what's right, because  when we do what's right, we bring joy to our Creator. This year, what jumps out at me is the placement of these verses in our seasonal cycle. Rosh Hashanah begins six weeks from tomorrow. Tomorrow in our Reverse Omer journey we'll begin the week of Yesod, which means Foundations or Generations.

What could be more foundational to Judaism than the sh'ma and v'ahavta? We affirm the unity that underpins the universe. Twice a day we remind ourselves to love God, to put these words on our hearts and teach them to our generations and affix them to our doorposts. We use these words to mark our transitions in space (a mezuzah reminds us to pause and notice the sacred when we come and go.) And we use these words to mark our transitions in time: evening and morning, lying down and rising up.

Six weeks before Rosh Hashanah, we reach these verses in our cycle of Torah readings. It's almost if the Torah herself is whispering to us: hey, y'all, the holidays are coming. And maybe we've let our spiritual practices slide, lately. Maybe because it's summer and we're distracted. Or because the world is a Lot, between the news headlines and the climate crisis and monkeypox and whatever else, and we're distracted. Or because we have too much to do and we're distracted. Or we're... just distracted.

This week's Torah portion reminds us:

Stop and breathe.

Listen, and remember the Oneness beneath all things.

Stop to pray the v'ahavta. Cultivate the intention and the ability to love.

Stop to kiss the mezuzah. Be mindful in comings and goings.

Stop to focus on the mitzvot that shape our lives at home and when we're out in the world. The logical mitzvot, and the ones that transcend logic. The spiritual mitzvot and the ethical mitzvot. The ones between us and our Source, and the ones between us and each other.

Take these words, and place them on our hearts. Let them inform the actions of our hands. Let them be a headlamp between our eyes to illuminate our path.

Do these spiritual practices, and teach them to those who come after us, because they are tools to help us through whatever comes.

What if we made a point of that, over these next six weeks? What if we made a point of stretching our spiritual muscles twice a day, every day for the next month and a half? How might that change our experience of Rosh Hashanah, and our experience of the new year that will follow? Spiritual practice doesn't change the cards we're dealt or the world we live in, but it can shift how we experience things. An invitation to give that a try. And in six weeks, you can tell me what kind of difference it makes. 

 

This is the d'varling I offered at Shabbat morning services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog on our new website.) 


Who Are We? Lessons from D'varim for Now

 

"אֵ֣לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר דִּבֶּ֤ר מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶל־כּל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּעֵ֖בֶר הַיַּרְדֵּ֑ן…"

"These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan..." (Deut. 1:1)

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Photograph by Munir Alawi, 1839: the banks of the Jordan.

These are the opening words of this week's Torah portion, and the opening words of the book of D'varim, Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is the last of the Five Books. If we're starting Deuteronomy, then the Days of Awe must be just around the corner.

(They are.)

This is the moment in our ancestral story when we pause and take stock. The children of Israel have been wandering in the wilderness for forty years -- in Torah's language, a lifetime.

So we encamp by the river, and Moshe tells the story of the wilderness wandering. He's speaking to the generation born in the wilderness -- those who experienced the Exodus are now gone. When he's done retelling the story, he will cross over into whatever comes after this life. The people will cross over into the next chapter of their journey. And we will cross over into 5783, a new year full of unknowns.

For Moshe and the children of Israel, this is a moment to pause and take stock of where we've been, who we've been, and what we want to carry forward. Of course, the same is true for us every year when we reach this point in our story.

It's a little bit like the moment in Disney's cartoon Amphibia where the protagonist Anne looks at the blank page inscribed, "Who am I?"

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Asking the question of herself helps her realize that she chooses to be someone who does the right thing. As Jews, we ask ourselves that question all the time. Some of us nightly before the bedtime shema. Some of us weekly, before Shabbat. All of us annually, before the Days of Awe. Which is to say... now.

In the midst of this, here comes Moshe in this week's Torah portion, retelling the story of the scouts.

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Remember Shlach? The giant grapes? Mirror illustration by Steve Silbert.

Remember, twelve men went into the Land. They retrieved giant grapes. They said they felt like grasshoppers compared to the giants they saw there. When they came back, ten of them said "we can't do this," and only two said "sure we can." And the people believed the ten who despaired.

So God said, if the people don't have faith, they won't enter the land. This whole generation that knew slavery is going to die in the wilderness, except for Joshua and Caleb.

Moshe tells that story more or less the way we heard it the first time. But he makes one significant change. "Because of you," he says, "יהו''ה was incensed with me too, saying: You shall not enter it either."

Hold up. That's not the reason Torah gave for why Moshe won't enter the land!

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An artist's rendering of what actually kept Moshe out of the Land of Promise.

God makes that call when Moshe angrily hits a rock to make it produce water, instead of speaking to it as God instructed him. We might quibble with that decision-making. Was it really fair for God to punish Moshe that much for one moment of anger? But fair or not, that's definitely how the story went.

And now Moshe's changing it up. He's conveniently forgetting that the reason he won't live to enter the Land is because he chose violence instead of speech. It's because of his own actions and choices -- not because the people lost faith.

As our ancestral story pauses on the banks of the Jordan, we're at the edge of a new year. Because it's human nature, maybe we're tempted to do what Moshe just did: to retell the story of the last year in a way that avoids taking responsibility.

Where do we want to pretend away our own poor choices? How often do we want to say, "it's their fault," pointing a finger at someone else because that feels more comfortable than admitting that we messed up? 

It's okay to feel the impulse to do what Moshe did. It's not okay to actually follow in his footsteps here. Our spiritual tradition asks us to do better than that. 

This is the inner work of teshuvah -- repentance; return; turning our lives around. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg writes that there are five specific steps to repentance work:

1. Owning the harm perpetrated (ideally publicly) / 2. Do the work to become the kind of person who doesn't do harm (which requires a ton of inner work) / 3. Make restitution for harm done, in whatever way possible / 4. THEN apologize for the harm caused in whatever way that will make it as right as possible with the victim / 5. When faced with the opportunity to cause similar harm in the future, make a better choice

(I can't wait for her new book on this subject, On Repentance and Repair, due just before Rosh Hashanah.)

Unfortunately we don't get to see Moshe doing this kind of repentance work. He blames his misfortune on somebody else -- the scouts who brought back a negative report. Tradition teaches that the scouts returned with that negative report on Tisha b'Av, which begins tonight -- though it's Shabbat, so we'll observe the day on Sunday instead.

Tisha b'Av is a day of mourning. In addition to being the anniversary of the scouts' screw-up, Tisha b'Av is the date when Babylon destroyed the first Temple, the date when Rome destroyed the second Temple, the date when the first Crusade began in 1096. Also the date of many other tragedies visited on the Jewish people through our history.

Tradition also teaches that the 9th of Av is the day when moshiach will be born -- the messiah, redemption, ultimate hope, or maybe the age or era when the work of healing creation will be complete. It's as though recognizing that wow, the world is really broken can be the first step toward repair.

(It can.)

On Sunday we'll take first steps toward the repair inherent in a new year, full of new possibility. We'll begin the reverse Omer count -- 49 days until Rosh Hashanah. In the spring, after Pesach, we count seven weeks of the Omer as we prepare ourselves to receive Torah anew at Sinai on Shavuot. Now, as fall approaches, we count seven weeks as we prepare ourselves to enter a new year.

So much has happened in the last year that it may feel like a lifetime. 

Who have we been, over the lifetime of the last year? When were we hopeful, and when did we despair? What do we feel proud of, and what do we wish we could pretend never happened (or wish we could blame on someone else)? What's the inner work we need to do, in order to do the outer relational and healing work that others can see?

Rosh Hashanah begins seven weeks from Sunday night. Who have we been this year, and who will we choose to become?

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This is the d'varling that Rabbi Rachel offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog at the new CBI website.) 


The Messenger We Need

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This week's Torah portion, Balak, contains the second talking animal in Torah! (The first one was the snake who spoke to Eve, way back at the start of Bereshit.)

In this week's installment of our story: Balak, the king of Moab, sees the children of Israel encamped on his land. We're migrants, fleeing slavery in Egypt.

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Balak gets agitated, and compares us to a swarm of insects. He sends an envoy to Bil'am, a foreign prophet, asking him to come and curse us to make us go away.

The first thing Bil'am does is consult with YHVH, and God tells him not to curse us. So he says nope, sorry, can't.

Balak sends more envoys, promises him all kinds of riches, until finally Bil'am shrugs and says, okay, I guess. I'll come to you, but I can only say what God puts in my mouth to say.

When he gets to Moab, he gets up on a mountaintop and what comes out of his mouth are blessings. Balak grouses, ugh, it's not working, try cursing them from a different mountaintop. But again, what comes out are blessings. The third time, he says:

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Illustration by Steve Silbert; available at Redbubble!

"How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling-places, O Israel!" -- the words we sing as Mah Tovu sometimes on Shabbat morning. Balak yells at him, and he points out, "Hey, I told you I could only say what God puts in my mouth to say." And then for good measure, he offers a curse... on Balak!

It's a great story. But I want to focus on the part before he gets to Moab to do the cursing that turns into blessing.

Bil'am's on the road, riding on a donkey. And Torah tells us, a מַלְאַ֧ךְ יְהֹוָ֛ה, a "messenger of God," stands in his way as an adversary. Maybe you recognize the word mal'ach from Shalom Aleichem, the song we often sing on Friday nights to welcome the angels of Shabbat? Mal'ach, the word for messenger, also means angel.

Artists renderings of Bilam and the donkey

Apparently Bil'am doesn't see this mal'ach. The donkey does, though, and she swerves. So Bil'am whacks her with a stick. After the third time this happens, YHVH opens the donkey's mouth, and she says to Bil'am, "What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times??"

(And maybe it's because my son was in the local sixth grade production of Shrek: The Musical a few weeks ago, but I can't help hearing this in Eddie Murphey's donkey voice.)

Shrek and Donkey

Then, Torah tells us, God uncovers Bil'am's eyes and he sees the messenger of God standing in the way, and he bows down to the ground.

There was an angel standing right in front of him, and he didn't see.

*

Jewish tradition offers us a lot of different ideas about what angels are and what they do. Here are three of my favorites.

quote about an angel behind every blade of grass

Midrash teaches that even every humble blade of grass has an angel dedicated to its existence, who taps it and tells it to grow. (Bereshit Rabbah 10:6)

Talmud teaches that the unnamed people who materialize to deliver an important message in Torah are angels. Like the "men" who showed up to tell Sarah she was pregnant. Or the "man" who tells Joseph, "Oh, your brothers went that way."

Our mystical tradition also offers all kinds of ways to think about angels. Dr. Tamar Frankiel notes that, "Kabbalists have taught that while some angels are created by God, others develop from the results of human actions. Thus, the angel created by a good deed continues to exist and can return, so to speak, to affect people in a positive way."

I love the idea that everything on earth has a dedicated angel supporting it. I love the idea that we create angels with our actions. And I love the idea of the unnamed people in Torah being mal'achim -- messengers -- because it implies that anybody could be one. Maybe in our era, mal'ach is a role we play for each other.

What would it be like to approach every interaction as though the other person might be a messenger of the divine? If everyone I meet might have a message for me, does that change how I walk in the world? How about if I might unknowingly be carrying the message that someone else needs?

It's interesting that the angel in Bil'am's story is described as לְשָׂטָ֣ן ל֑וֹ / l'satan lo -- placed there "to oppose him." Apparently it's this angel's job in this moment to stand in his way. What would it be like to experience whatever's blocking us as an angel, a messenger from God? Whatever's getting in the way of the work, our stuck places, our frustration -- could those be messengers too, placed here to wake us up, to prod us to grow?

(The verb l'satan means to oppose, and yes, this is the origin of the idea of an angel who stands in opposition, which in Christian tradition became a figure named Satan. But that's another story.)

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I feel a pang of recognition, reading about Bil'am. He was so preoccupied with his journey that his eyes were closed to the messenger of God standing right in front of him. Haven't we all been there?

Two artists renderings of Jacob's ladder

It makes me think of another figure in Torah who encounters an angel. His name was Jacob. Maybe you remember: he tricks his father into giving him the blessing reserved for the firstborn, and then he runs away from his slightly older twin, Esau. He has a dream about a ladder and some angels. When he wakes, he gasps, "God was in this place, and I -- I did not know!"

Spiritual life is a neverending journey. We notice the presence of the holy; we get distracted; we notice again. Waking up and recognizing that God is in this place, or that the person in front of me might tell me something that could change my life, or that the animal beside me notices something that I don't -- none of that is one-and-done.

And we might not need the same message all the time. Maybe today I need an angel to remind me that there are good reasons to have hope. And tomorrow I might need someone to remind me to take action to make the world a better place.

Or maybe it's my job today to bring both of those messages to you.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


Land of Promise: Teachings from Shlach for Right Now

 

Land of Promise: Teachings from Shlach for Right Now
In this week's Torah portion, Sh'lach, Moshe sends twelve scouts to check out the Land of Promise. Ten of them return terrified. The grapes are so big they require two men and a carrying frame. The people are giants. "We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them." (
Numbers 13:33) Caleb and Joshua promise that the land flows with milk and honey. But the other ten are afraid. The people revolt, crying out, "If only we had died in Egypt!"

God decides that the generation who knew slavery will not enter the Land of Promise. Their spirits are too crushed by hardship. Their self-doubt becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Old fashioned map of the United States featuring Biblical place names

The European colonists who came to this place knew Torah's stories, of course. George Washington alluded to America as a Land of Promise in 1785. (And you don't have to travel far around here to find a Canaan, or a Goshen, or a Salem – all Biblical place-names.)

For the many tribes and nations who originally inhabited this land, the arrival of Europeans was catastrophic because of foreign germs, foreign worldviews, and policies like the Indian Removal Act. (Perhaps this is a good time to mention that our beloved synagogue is built on Mohican land -- and that the Mohican people are still around!)

Europeans coming to these shores was terrible news for Native Americans. We can hold that truth alongside the truth that many of our forebears emigrated to this nation seeking dignity and equality denied to Jews elsewhere.

My mother was one of them. She told me endlessly how fortunate she felt to have found refuge here. America was supposed to be a nation of equality, where it would be safe to be Jewish, where we could strive to better ourselves and our communities alongside everyone else.

And yet we know that America's promise of liberty and justice for all wasn't originally "for all" -- only for straight white property-owning men. The week now ending held Juneteenth, a reminder of how long it took for the promise of freedom to reach enslaved Black people in Texas. (Arguably we’re still working on fulfilling the promise of justice.) The enslaved were brought here by force. But even our forebears who came here willingly, came in search of a promise that is not yet complete.

Right now the promise of equal rights and justice may feel further-away than many of us have known it to be. The January 6th hearings reawaken the horror of watching an angry mob storm the United States Capitol... and now we live with the added horror of knowing that a large segment of the country doesn't believe that the insurrection was real, or that it was wrong.

The same voices denying the facts of the presidential election and subsequent insurrection are also denying gender-affirming health care to trans kids. Four states have banned that care, and fifteen others are considering following suit. Twenty-six states will ban abortion now that Roe has fallen -- some have already done so. And don’t even get me started on the news out of my state of origin this week.

None of this is consonant with Jewish teaching or practice. Rabbis and laypeople in every branch of Judaism (from Reform to Orthodox) support gender-affirming care, and teach that everyone across the spectrum of gender and orientation is made in the image of God. Judaism has also long held that life begins at first breath, not at the first merging of two cells.

But the Supreme Court has struck down Roe... and is also poised to decide on whether or not to gut the federal government's ability to mitigate climate change. Given what we know about the current makeup of the Court, that outcome isn't looking good either. I empathize with the scouts who looked at the challenges ahead and felt like grasshoppers.

So right on time, here come the scouts to remind us that despair is not a good option. Giving in to despair means giving up on hope. Last Rosh Hashanah I offered a teaching from Mariame Kaba who reminds us that hope is a discipline. Hope's not a feeling, it's a practice. It asks us to work. I didn’t realize how resonant that teaching would be this year -- or how necessary.

Earlier this morning we prayed these words from Michael Walzer: 

Standing on the parted shores of history
we still believe what we were taught 
before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot;

that wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt;
that there is a better place, a promised land;
that the winding way to that promise 
passes through the wilderness.

That there is no way to get from here to there
except by joining hands, marching 
together.
This moment may feel like wilderness. And it's easy to look at the forces arrayed against the environment, against the principles of human dignity and justice, against queer people and trans people, against Black and Indigenous people and people of color, against immigrants and refugees, against anyone with a uterus, against us as Jews, and feel like those forces are giants and we are grasshoppers.

But look again closely at that verse in this week's Torah portion. "We looked like grasshoppers in our eyes, and so we were in their eyes." We saw ourselves as tiny, puny, unable to impact the world around us -- and so we became that way. But we can choose to see ourselves differently.

We might not get all the way "there." But that doesn't absolve us from trying. My b-mitzvah students may remember that famous line from Pirkei Avot, "It is not incumbent on us to complete the work, but neither are we free to refrain from beginning it." I think of the Land of Promise as a direction, not a destination. Like moshiachtzeit, the messianic age.

The work is standing up for those more vulnerable than we -- in Torah's language, the orphan, the widow, and the stranger. Standing up for immmigrants and refugees. For trans kids at risk of losing health care, and for their parents. For everyone with a uterus in states where forced birth is becoming law. For Black neighborhoods at higher risk of flooding, and people in drought-stricken areas at higher risk of fire. For Mother Earth herself -- so fragile and full of life.

MLK quote: the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice

Rev. Martin Luther King taught that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. I think we know now that the arc of the moral universe only bends toward justice if we push it and pull it and bend it with our own hands and hearts. It can bend toward justice; it has to bend toward justice. And it's aleinu -- it's on us -- to make that real. We need to see ourselves not as grasshoppers, but as a community that stands up for those who need us most. 

 

This is the d'var Torah I offered at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires on Shabbat morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


Hineni / Here I Am

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Here I am
ready and willing
to hear your voice

in the golden fire
that tips the willow trees
with spring sunlight --

to breathe your fragrance
on my fingers
kissed by rosemary --

to feel you with me
night and day
with every heartbeat.

You are becoming.
I want to become
worthy to walk with you.

I'm taking off my shoes,
exposed feet vulnerable
on shifting sand.

My heart is bare too:
ready to hear
and be changed.

 


 

Here I am -  הנני / Hineni is Moses' response to God at the burning bush (Exodus 3:4).

Ready and willing - As in the blessing before counting the Omer, "Here I am, ready and willing..."

You are becoming. - The Name that God gives to Moses at the bush is אהיה אשר אהיה / Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, "I am becoming what I am becoming." (Exodus 3:14)

I'm taking off my shoes - See Exodus 3:5. (See also Remove the habits...)

 

 

This poem was written in preparation for Shavuot. Here are a few others:


In a Society: Teachings from Kedoshim for Right Now

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My son and I often say, "We live in a society." For us it's shorthand, a reminder about community. We need to be mindful of people's needs, because we live in a society. If a kid is being bullied, stand up for them, because we live in a society. If a neighbor needs help carrying in the groceries, offer to help, because we live in a society. We have obligations to each other, because we live in a society.

Enter this week's Torah portion, Kedoshim. קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ / Kedoshim tihiyu: "y'all shall be holy, for I your God am holy!" The imperative is in the plural. Y'all be holy now! This isn't about individual righteous behavior. Because -- say it with me now -- we live in a society. So what does it mean to be kedoshim, to be holy as a community? Here are some of Torah's answers in this week's parsha:

Don't glean to the edges of your fields... leave [harvest] for the poor and the stranger. (Lev. 19:10) 
Don't withhold a worker's wages until morning. (Lev. 19:13) 
Don't place a stumbling block before the blind. (Lev. 19:14) 
Don't render an unfair decision; judge justly. (Lev. 19:15) 
Don't stand idly by upon the blood of your fellow. (Lev. 19:16)

These verses are so important that we hear them twice a year: in our cycle of regular Torah readings, and again on the afternoon of Yom Kippur. On that holiest day of the year, Torah reminds us: a righteous society is one that centers the needs of the vulnerable. In a righteous society, we take pains to ensure justice. And we must not stand idly by when others are harmed.

Earlier this week the news broke that the Supreme Court is likely to strike down Roe v. Wade. This isn't a surprise, but it still feels shocking to recognize that the right to bodily autonomy can be taken away. Here in Massachusetts that right is protected, but there are 26 states where that right will disappear as soon as Roe falls. In half of this country, half of the people will lose a right.

Jewish tradition not only permits but even mandates abortion when the pregnant person's life is at risk. Until a fetus is born and draws breath, the life of the pregnant person is paramount. This is a mainstream understanding of Jewish law, expressed by rabbis ranging from Reform to Conservative to Orthodox. What SCOTUS seems poised to do violates our religious freedom.

What SCOTUS is poised to do will cause unimaginable harm. It is horrific to think of being forced to bear a child. In many states, abortion will become illegal even in cases of (God forbid) rape or incest. These are ugly words. It pains me to say them. But this is real, and we need to face it, because people are going to suffer. I don't know how best to help them. But we need to try.

Talmud teaches kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, all of Israel is responsible for one another. Phrased more universally, we are all responsible for one other. Living in a society means there are things we owe to each other. As Jews, we especially have an obligation to those who are most vulnerable. Torah tells us repeatedly to care for the widow, the orphan, the stranger: those most at risk. 

As the National Council of Jewish Women reminds us:

We know that limiting reproductive health access has disastrous consequences. Those who lack access to reproductive health care — disproportionately those struggling financially; Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities; young people; rural communities; immigrants; people living with disabilities; and LGBTQ individuals — are more likely to live in poverty and to remain in abusive relationships. And unsafe abortions are a leading cause of death worldwide; high rates of unsafe abortions are directly associated with laws restricting access to critical health care. [Source: Rabbis for Repro.]

I am not a legal scholar by any stretch, but reputable voices have argued that if the Supreme Court nullifies the fundamental right to privacy that underpins Roe v. Wade, other decisions that hinge on that right may also be at risk. I keep coming back to words from the writer Roxane Gay: "Any civil right contingent upon political whims is not actually a civil right." 

I've spoken with many of you this week who are profoundly shaken by what's unfolding. I hear and I honor your grief and anxiety, anger and fear. We may be poised to lose many of the last century's advances. It's important to give ourselves space to feel what we're feeling. And then we need to channel our feelings into action, to help those who will be most at-risk in days to come.

The work of justice is long. If the Supreme Court takes away rights that we now enjoy, then we will work toward a world in which those rights are restored. As we read in Pirkei Avot (which I've been studying with our b-mitzvah students), "It is not incumbent on us to finish the work, but neither are we free to refrain from beginning it." As Torah teaches, do not stand idly by.

A couple of verses after the one about not standing idly by, we reach the verse we've been singing all morning: וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ / "Love your fellow human being as yourself."  Rabbi Akiva called this vderse clal gadol, "a great principle," or possibly "The great principle" of Torah. It's at the heart of Torah -- metaphorically, per Akiva, and also pretty much literally in the very middle.

Cornel West wrote, "Justice is what love looks like in public." The way we love our fellow human beings is by working toward justice. God, give us the strength to stand up for those who are most at risk. Give us the strength to not stand idly by. Give us the strength to build a world of greater justice for everyone, because that is how we live out the commandment to love.

And let us say: amen.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at Shabbat morning services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires, cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog on the synagogue website and to Builders Blog at Bayit.


Not In My Torah

I was studying Torah with colleagues on Monday night (May 2) when the news broke that SCOTUS is likely to strike down Roe v. Wade. The sweep of fear and grief across the room was palpable.

In a sense, this isn’t a surprise. We’ve known for a while that this is what the Christian right wants.

It’s still gutting.

On a personal level: I have a uterus. There are 26 states where abortion will become immediately illegal if Roe is struck down. If I lived in one of them, I would instantly lose the right to control my own body.

Because of my preexisting conditions, a pregnancy would likely kill me. If, God forbid, I were raped, I would be forced to carry that pregnancy to term. I have skin in this game.

But in the big picture, this isn’t about me. It’s about countless millions who will suffer when the right to reproductive health care is denied. It’s about human dignity and bodily autonomy and the fundamental betrayal of having our basic human rights taken away...

That's the beginning of a piece I wrote this morning, after hearing the news last night about where SCOTUS seems poised to go. You can read the whole thing at Religion News Service, and I hope that you will: The Christian Right's Abortion Policy Isn't In My Torah


After (the) Death - Yizkor

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We're in a slightly strange position today, spiritually speaking. We are a Reform congregation, and in the Reform world, Pesach is a seven-day festival -- as it is in Israel for Jews of all denominations. Today is no longer Pesach; it's "just" Shabbat, like any other Shabbat.

And yet we're saying the Yizkor memorial prayers today, which is a thing we do at the end of Pesach. We could have held a special service for the seventh day of Pesach and recited Yizkor yesterday, but most of us don't have the practice of taking off work for 7th day chag.

So here we are, preparing for Yizkor even though it isn't Pesach for us. This year, maybe because I am myself a mourner, I noticed something about the confluence of Yizkor and the Torah portion we read today, the first part of Acharei Mot, "After the Death."

The death in question is that of Aaron's two sons, who died after bringing "strange fire" before God. At the moment of their death, Torah tells us, Aaron was silent. Sometimes, loss can steal our ability even to speak. We have no words, because in that moment there are no words to have.

After the death of Aaron's sons, God tells Moses to tell Aaron not to come "at will" into the Holy of Holies, because God's presence there is so powerful that Aaron might die. Instead, Torah outlines a set of practices: here are the garments to wear, the offerings to bring, in order to be safe.

In Torah's paradigm, direct unmediated experience of God is dangerous. (That's why when Moshe asks to see God's glory, God covers him in the cleft of a rock face and passes by, and Moshe only gets to witness the divine Afterimage.) The rituals of sacrifice made contact with God safe.

Grief and loss can overwhelm us, even blow out our regular spiritual circuits. And they're meant to. This is what it means to be human: to love, and to lose. Our tradition's mourning rituals provide structure, telling us when to stay home and when to emerge, and when to give ourselves space to remember.

Reciting the Yizkor prayers four times a year gives a predictable rhythm to the ebb and flow of mourning. The prayers are the same, whether at Yom Kippur or Shemini Atzeret or Pesach or Shavuot, but the way we feel saying them might change over the course of the year -- or from year to year.

A loss that's brand-new can be raw and overwhelming, can steal our words and our breath. A loss that's decades old might feel familiar, more like a broken bone long-ago healed than like a stab wound. Yizkor carries us through from new sharp loss to old familiar recollection.

That shift might take years, and there's no way to rush it. Grief takes the time it takes, and we feel what we feel, and eventually the sharp edges become gentler. Saying Yizkor four times a year is our spiritual technology for plugging in to our losses in community in a way that's safe.

Suddenly it feels exactly right to me that this year's end-of-Pesach Yizkor coincides with reading this first part of Acharei Mot. Like Aaron, we are faced with the question of how to make meaning after loss... and how to feel everything we need to feel while also functioning in the world.

Aaron relied on ritual to safely enter behind the curtain into the place where God's presence was most palpable. And we rely on ritual in our practice of Yizkor, the words we pray as we remember our dead. This too is a kind of going-behind-the-curtain into direct personal encounter.

Even if you don't typically wear a tallit for prayer, I invite you to pick one up as we begin Yizkor. Wrap yourself in it; maybe it feels like an embrace. And when we enter into silence, go behind the curtain of your tallit and take some time to connect with memory and with those whom you've lost.

May our prayers and our song and our silence be a safe container for whatever each of us needs to feel. May this ancient practice hold us up and help us through. And may we emerge from today's encounter with loss and memory feeling present and whole, and sanctified, and not alone.

 

This is my d'varling from Shabbat morning services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


Tazria and What Community Is For

 

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This week's Torah portion, Tazria, speaks in detail about a condition called tzara'at.

Many translations render tzara'at as leprosy, though that's clearly not what this is. Some other year I'll teach about the different ways our tradition has understood tzara'at, e.g. as a spiritual sickness, or a metaphor for slander, or a punishment for racism. This year I want to talk about something else.

Torah teaches this week that a person with tzara'at is considered tamei. So is someone who's given birth, or who's been in contact with a dead body. A lot of translations use the language of "unclean" and "clean" for the Hebrew terms tamei and tahor, though I really don't like that translation.

Rabbi Rachel Adler teaches that tum'ah (the state of being tamei) implies being charged-up with a kind of spiritual electricity. Something about contact with blood or birth or death makes us vibrate spiritually at a different frequency for a while. (I have written about this before.)

This isn't about uncleanness, and it isn't a value judgment. All of us are tahor sometimes and tamei sometimes, and being postpartum or in contact with death really is a different spiritual space. Okay. But what does this have to do with tzara'at, whatever it is, and what is this text calling us to do?

When the priest determined that someone had tzara'at, that person would be quarantined from the community for seven days. Then there was another examination. If the affliction was still there, the person was instructed to call out, "Tamei, tamei!" as they went about their business.

Reading this, I've often felt sorry for the m'tzora (the person with tzara'at). It isn't bad enough that they have this condition; now they have to proclaim their situation everywhere they go?! But this year a friend pointed me toward a passage in Talmud that completely changes how I feel about this verse:

As it is taught in a baraita: It is derived from the verse: “And he will cry: Tamei, tamei” (Leviticus 13:45), that a person with tzara'at must publicize the fact that he is tamei. He must announce his pain to the masses, and the masses will pray for mercy on his behalf. And likewise, one to whom any unfortunate matter happens must announce it to the masses, and then the masses will pray for mercy on his behalf. (B.T. Chullin 78a)

The reason for calling out "Tamei, tamei!" is not to shame the person who's afflicted. After all, as R. Adler notes, everyone is tahor sometimes and tamei sometimes. Talmud means to teach that when we are afflicted, we need to make that known to the community so the community can pray for us.

This leads to the question of what prayer is for. Do we pray in order to effect an outcome, or do we pray in order to sensitize ourselves to the needs of those around us? Both of these are legitimate Jewish theologies of prayer, though for me, the second one is the one that really resonates.

When I pray for someone's healing, I know that my prayer may not change their medical condition. But the act of extending my heart to God on their behalf can change me. And from that changed place, I am more aware of their needs, and that's what impels me to take action to help them.

Maybe that means checking in to see how they are. Or paying them a visit. Or providing a meal. Or wearing a mask because they're immunocompromised. Or avoiding perfume because scents give them migraines. Or sending a note. Or even just asking if they're okay, and really listening in response.

These aren't the rabbi's job. (Though I do try to do these things!) These are the responsibility of the community.  This is why we we list aloud each week those for whom we pray for healing -- so that the community will know that so-and-so is sick and in need of our prayers, our support, and our care.

The same is true of someone who's grieving, or who's lost a job, or who's grappling with depression or mental illness, or -- you name it. After all, Talmud tells us that when we are experiencing "any unfortunate matter," we should communicate that to our community so the community can step up.

Jewishly speaking, that's the purpose of community: to feed the hungry and comfort the mourner. To pray for each others' well-being, and then take actions that uplift those prayers and make them real. The purpose of community is to take care of whoever's in need. I really love that.

Returning to Torah's teaching that someone with tzara'at is tamei: yeah, our afflictions -- whether illness or another kind of suffering -- can make us feel disconnected, different from everyone else. But when we can admit that we're in that place, that's when others can reach in and be with us where we are.

This year I'm also noticing an aural connection between the words m'tzora (a person with tzara'at) and Mitzrayim (Egypt, the Narrow Place, constriction and tsuris) In two weeks we'll celebrate the Exodus from Egypt, Y'tziat Mitzrayim -- going forth from the constriction of suffering into expansive hope.

Tazria reminds us that when we've got tsuris, it's our job to let the community know so the community can pray for us -- and act in ways that make those prayers real. That's how we get to Y'tziat Mitzrayim: by taking care of each other. No one needs to be alone in suffering. No one crosses the sea alone.

 

This is my d'varling from Shabbat morning services at CBI of the Berkshires (cross-posted to my new From the Rabbi blog.)

The image at the top of this page combines a photograph by Len Radin with a parsha poster by Hillel Smith, available on his website.


Perpetual fire

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"A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out." (Lev.6:6)

 

Kindling is easy.
I nudge a lighter
with my thumb:

instant flame for
the shiva candle
on my counter.

After seven days
that flame dies.
Does my father

recede further? No --
his eyes are gone
but not the spark

that lit them.
The altar is gone;
the fire's not.

The Temple's gone
like dad's body,
returned to earth.

The Shabbes table
is an altar now,
complete with salt.

There are candles,
but they aren't
fire forever burning.

The fire forever burning
is the fact of Shabbes,
the act of Shabbes.

And my father?
Cigar smoke lingers
like priestly incense.

If I can
hear his voice,
remember his laugh

he's still here
though I can't clasp
his hand anymore.

We remember Shabbat.
We remember our dead.
The fire does not go out.

 

This poem serves as my commentary on this week's Torah portion, Tzav, offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Israel and cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog there.

Written in memory of my dad Marvin Barenblat z"l, for whom I've been sitting shiva all week.

I'm particularly fond of the Torah poem for this parsha that appears in 70 faces, too: Tzav: Command


The wilderness of not knowing: Ki Tisa 5782

In recent weeks we've been reading Torah's instructions for the mishkan, the sacred space that we build so God's presence may dwell in us. Soon we'll start reading about the actual building thereof. But in between the blueprints and the construction, in this week's Torah portion, there's another story.

"When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, 'Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that fellow Moses -- the man who brought us from the land of Egypt -- we do not know what has happened to him..." (Ex. 32:1)

Golden-calf_Time for the Golden Calf.

This year I'm noticing a new emotional valance. Moses went up the mountain, and they probably expected him to come right back down. But he didn't. And the path ahead began to seem uncertain. Maybe they felt like life was on pause, or felt uncertain when they would start moving again.

Instead of that nebulous uncertainty, they wanted something tangible. Don't tell us you don't know how long it will be: we want to get back to normal now. Just make something up so we can feel normal now, because the not-knowing and the waiting are psychologically and spiritually uncomfortable!

I think we know that feeling. And if that's sometimes true for us, how much more true it must have been for our spiritual ancestors emerging from slavery? Not knowing can be terrifying, especially for someone unaccustomed to freedom. They were like children: seeking easy answers, resisting growing up.

The thing is, there's holiness in the not-knowing. There's holiness in opening ourselves to the uncertainties of wilderness. It's no coincidence that our ancestors hear God's voice most clearly in the wilderness. The midbar (wilderness) is where God m'daber (speaks) -- or at least, where we hear.

Right now I'm in a different kind of midbar, a different kind of wilderness waiting. Some of you know that my father, who is eighty-seven, has been in and out of the hospital this winter with COVID and then post-COVID complications. He's now receiving hospice care. The end of his journey is beginning.

And we don't know when the end will be. The weight of that not-knowing is tremendous sometimes. There's a temptation to lurch toward certainties, to clutch at "answers" that aren't really answers. To think: what can we throw at this to yield a nice, satisfying answer that will get us back to normal?

But there is no "back to normal" when someone is dying. I can't go back to the years when he was vital and vibrant, because this is a new part of his journey now -- and mine. So I'm in the wilderness. It's not comfortable, sitting with mortality. I empathize with the Children of Israel making that calf.

And I know that this wilderness has something to teach me, if I can quiet my racing thoughts and anxious heart in order to learn. This is my own wilderness -- mine, and my family's. And... soon we will reach one million COVID deaths in the United States. There are a lot of us in this wilderness.

This week's Torah portion reminds me that it's tempting to clutch at whatever we think will make us feel better. Anything to push away this not-knowing, whether the uncertainty is personal (like my father's trajectory) or communal (like COVID). Not knowing what comes next (or when) is uncomfortable.

Today's golden calves are a bit subtler than the literal statue in Torah. Maybe we focus on denial of death, or on our outrage about the latest horrific headlines. Either way, we become like the guy in the Zen parable about the teacup: keeping our cup so artificially full that no wisdom can pour in.

This Shabbes, let's take time to be with the not-knowing. We don't know when death will come: that's not just true for my dad in hospice. We don't know when the pandemic will recede. We don't know when Moses will come back down the mountain. Let's open our hearts, and let the not-knowing in.

 

This is my d'varling from Kabbalat Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires. (Cross-posted to my new From the Rabbi blog at CBI's new website.)


The Gifts - video

One of the best things about sharing creativity online is when other creative folks make something beautiful and new, arising out of / inspired by / in conversation with something that I created.

Like this right here, created by two longtime blogfriends:

The Gifts from Allan Hollander on Vimeo.

The audio recording is by Allan Hollander, and the animation is by Alison Kent.

The poem was originally published in my first book-length collection of poetry, 70 faces: Torah poems (Phoenicia, 2011). If you don't have a copy, I hope you'll consider picking one up wherever fine books are sold. 


Four gifts

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This week's Torah portion contains one of my favorite verses: "Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I might dwell among them." The Hebrew could also mean "within them." We build God a sanctuary so that God -- holiness, love, justice -- can dwell within us.

This year, I'm struck by the colors and the textures. Acacia wood covered over with hammered gold. Fine linen. Goat hair. Blue and purple and crimson, blue and purple and crimson, blue and purple and crimson. (Perhaps you've noticed those colors in this morning's slides!)

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A glimpse of this morning's slide deck.

I can almost feel the homespun cloth between my fingers, and the contrast with the fine linen. And my eyes crave the vibrancy. Picture the shining metals and acacia wood. The rich colors of blue and purple and crimson -- in modern language, they "pop."

I was talking with someone from the congregation this week who observed that it feels like we've collectively lost access to something we really need. We've lost spontaneity, or fun, or joy. Everything feels uphill, and joy feels out of reach. I hear that a lot, these days.

896,000 Americans have died from COVID so far. We lost 405,399 in World War II. We lost 58,000 in Vietnam. The number of COVID deaths thus far is so much higher, I can't begin to process it. And that's just here. Unlike any war, this virus is everywhere.

Dayenu, that would be enough! and then there's school boards banning Holocaust books, and a caravan of angry people taking over downtown Ottawa, and -- it's a lot. It's really and truly a lot. What tools can this Torah portion full of ancient blueprints give us for that?!

I found four. Here they are.

 

1. Beauty in the wilderness

At this moment in our story, our ancestors are arguably traumatized. They went from slavery and hard labor and constricted spirit, to wandering in the wilderness with no clear sense for what's next. They're probably exhausted, maybe afraid, and ready to be done.

Exhausted, maybe afraid, and ready to be done -- does that ring a bell? And that's exactly when God says: bring the gifts of your heart, everyone who is so moved. Bring wood and precious metals, bring the most vividly-colored yarn and fabric, and make beauty.

Our hearts and souls and spirits need beauty, even in the wilderness -- or maybe especially in the wilderness. It may be tempting to say that art and beauty, vibrant colors and music, sacred spaces of all kinds are a luxury. Torah teaches otherwise.


2. Sanctuary

Think about the meaning of the English word sanctuary. As in, "give me sanctuary!" To me it evokes a safe place, a sacred space, a place where no one can hurt me. A place where I can flee from all of life's troubles. Where I'm safe, and can feel hopeful, and be at peace.

Wow, I yearn for that right now. I'll bet some of you do too. A place of safety and holiness and dignity, a place where nothing and no one will do us harm, a place where we can lay down our load and be at peace and maybe even feel joy. Like a vacation, but deeper and more real.

We need that, just as our ancient ancestors did. And the only way to build it is together. To build a mishkan (from the root שכנ, as in Shechinah, divine Presence) -- to build a place where God can dwell -- requires all of us... and that safe holy place is for everyone.

 

3. Use what we've got

Like our spiritual ancestors, we can use what we have to connect with holiness wherever we are. They had acacia and gold, blue and purple and crimson yarn. Maybe right now, for us, it's a special tablecloth, or a hand-knitted sweater, or a cherished recipe: all tools for holiness.

Shabbat can be a sanctuary -- a day set-apart from the turmoil of the week. Music can be a sanctuary. For me, lately, that's meant singing along with the Encanto soundtrack! When I'm singing, I am lifted out of where I've been. A contemplative cup of tea can be a sanctuary.

Right now, between pandemic and February ice storms, we may feel stuck. But wherever we are can be a holy place, because God goes with us in all of our wanderings. That's why the Ark of the Covenant had gold rings in the side, and gold-covered poles always in the rings.

 

4. Bringing our gifts

And when COVID numbers go down and we gather onsite again, we will bring our gifts to community. That's what the name of this week's Torah portion means: t'rumah, the freewill gifts of the heart. The mishkan was built because everyone was moved to help build it.

What kind of holy community do we want to build together when the snows melt, when the voice of the red-winged blackbird is heard again in the willow tree behind our shul? And what can each of us bring? Because building community is like Stone Soup. It needs all of us.

The mishkan isn't a building, as beautiful as our building is. The mishkan is community -- the way we uplift and take care of each other, learn with each other, pray with each other, do mitzvot with each other. That's how we make a mishkan where holiness really dwells.

 

This is my d'varling from Shabbat morning services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires. (Check out our spiffy new website!) Cross-posted to the new From the Rabbi blog there.


One heart: reading Yitro after Colleyville

 

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In this week's Torah portion, Yitro, we receive Torah at Sinai. Tradition teaches that every Jewish soul that ever was and ever will be was present at Sinai. At Sinai we stood together as one.

This week some of you have told me that you feel more connected than usual to Jews in other places... especially the Jews of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas. That their shul shares our name heightens our sense of closeness.

Last Shabbat while members and the rabbi of that CBI community were held hostage, our hearts were in our throats and our prayers flowed without ceasing. Often a crisis makes us aware of the interconnectedness we usually don't see. In a crisis, it's easy to feel how what happens to one heart tugs at another heart, bound up as we are in what Dr. King called that "inescapable network of mutuality."

What happens to you impacts me. What happens there impacts us here. That's one of the continuing lessons of the pandemic. And this week, our connectedness means that many of us share a feeling of renewed vulnerability.

But we're connected not only because of our shared vulnerability, our shared fears of antisemitism and attack. We're connected because our souls stood together at Sinai. We're connected through mitzvot. In Aramaic, Hebrew's closest sister tongue, the word for connection is tzavta, which shares a root with mitzvah. The mitzvot connect us with God and with each other.

Some of those mitzvot are listed in this week's Torah portion. Be in relationship with the Force of Liberation bringing us forth from life's narrow places. Resist the urge to worship things that are not God, like statues or status. Remember the day of Shabbat and keep it holy, because when we pause our constant making and doing we are re-ensouled.

And some of the mitzvot our tradition holds dear aren't in today's list, because our tradition is comprised of 613 commandments, not just 10. For instance, the mitzvah repeated thirty-six times in Torah, instructing us in no uncertain terms to "Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." The rabbi at CBI Colleyville lived out that mitzvah when he invited an unknown man in on a twenty-degree morning and made him a cup of tea to help him get warm. We all know now how that turned out. And: I still think he was right to do it. Welcoming that stranger was the Jewish thing to do.

How do we do that in a way that keeps us safe as a community? That's a big conversation, and it's one we'll be having for a while. There's no simple answer to balancing the Jewish value of pikuach nefesh (protecting or preserving life) with the Jewish value of hachnasat orchim (welcoming others in hospitality). It's another version of the core spiritual balancing act to which our tradition calls us, between gevurah and chesed -- boundaries and lovingkindness.

It's okay to feel afraid. It would be spiritually dishonest to pretend otherwise. When someone chooses to join the Jewish people, at the end of their beit din and just before immersion there's a ritualized series of questions rooted in Talmud that I ask. They're questions like: don't you know that it's sometimes hard to be Jewish? Don't you know that being Jewish comes with obligations, and yeah, it also comes with antisemitism that will now be aimed at you?

But today I want to add: don't you know that being Jewish is also joyous? Lighting Shabbat candles and letting the week's worries slough away -- telling our core story of liberation at the seder with songs and laughter -- the heart-opening and mind-expanding journey of Jewish learning -- feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and caring for the powerless -- there's so much beauty and meaning here.

All of these connect us with our cousins in Colleyville, and Squirrel Hill, and Poway, and all over the world. Antisemitism is real and it's frightening and it probably isn't ever going away. But the mitzvot, and our Jewish joy -- they can't take that away from us.

The commentator Rashi notes that when Torah describes our encampment at Sinai, it uses a singular verb to teach us that when we gathered at the base of that mountain we were like one being with one heart. We get another hint toward this a few verses later, where we read that the whole community answers יַחְדָּו֙ / yachdav, as one.

It's easy to focus on all the things that divide us: different Jewish denominations, different ways of doing Jewish, different dress codes, different relationships with mitzvot or God or spiritual practice. But at Sinai we had a shared heart. And during last weekend's crisis we felt our shared heart. May the shared heart that we felt while our cousins in Colleyville were in danger stay real for us, long after that danger is gone. And may that shared heart connect and sustain us through whatever comes.

 

This is the d'varling that R. Rachel offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services this week (cross-posted to CBI's From the Rabbi blog.)


From smallness to hope: a d'varling for Bo

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In this week's Torah portion, Bo, we are deep in the story of the plagues and traumas that unfolded as a prelude to yetziat Mitzrayim, our Exodus or going-forth from the Narrow Place.

The Hasidic master known as the Me'or Eynayim teaches that our spiritual ancestors were so overwhelmed by the hardship and servitude of Mitzrayim that they lost דעת / da'at, knowledge or awareness of God. 

Part of what was so painful about Mitzrayim, he says, is that we lost access to our spiritual practices and our traditions. Maybe we had a vague sense that those things had meant something to our ancestors, but we weren't living them. So our awareness of God atrophied like an unused muscle.

When we were in Mitzrayim, says the Me'or Eynayim, our דעת / da'at (awareness) was בגלות / in galut (exile) and בקטנות / in katnut (smallness). Our awareness of God went into exile, our awareness of God became diminished. And then he says something that really leapt out at me, reading it this year: it's as though God says to us, התקטנתי במצרים -- "I made Myself small in Mitzrayim."

As though when our lives contracted, God's own self contracted too. When we are in Mitzrayim, it is as though God shrinks. When we are in tight straits, when our hearts and souls feel constricted, when our lives feel constricted, it's as though God becomes smaller. When our awareness of God atrophies, it's as though God actually shrinks. Wow: this year, that teaching really speaks to me.

There's a website called What Day Of March 2020, and if you go there, it will tell you that today is the 680th day of March 2020. As though time stopped when the pandemic began for us, and that month of March has lasted forever. It's a joke, and it's also not a joke.

Between the Delta variant and the Omicron variant, earlier this week there were more than a million new COVID cases. We're facing our third pandemic Purim, our third pandemic Pesach. Hospitals everywhere are filling up again. We are all tired of this. And it is nowhere near over yet.

Right now the pandemic is our Mitzrayim. These are some tight straits. Maybe our hearts and souls feel constricted. Maybe we're exhausted or overwhelmed or afraid. And when we are in tight straits it's natural for our awareness of God, our sense of where we fit into the Mystery of the cosmos, our capacity to hope to become diminished. For us as for our ancestors, it's as though God becomes smaller.

That could also be a description of what it feels like to grapple with depression. Awareness of God diminishes, capacity to hope diminishes, connectedness to what sustains us diminishes, sense of Mystery diminishes -- it's as though God becomes smaller. This teaching resonates on that level, too... though this isn't just a time of personal Mitzrayim, it's a time of communal Mitzrayim.

This week's Torah portion, and this commentary from the Me'or Eynayim, arrive at just the right time. They're here to remind us that even when we feel like we're in galut in Mitzrayim, exiled in these tight straits, our spiritual task is to trust in yetziat Mitzrayim, to trust in the Exodus. Our work is to cultivate our capacity to feel in our bones that life will not always be like this. That's a big leap of faith.

I think it's a necessary one, if we want to get through this pandemic spiritually intact. Our work is to strengthen our da'at, our awareness of God. If the "G-word" doesn't work for you, try: our awareness of hope, of love, of genuine justice. Because when we strengthen our da'at, we strengthen our capacity not only to trust that better days will come, but also to work toward those better days together.

 

Offered with endless gratitude to my hevre at Bayit, with whom I'm studying the Me'or Eynayim.

This is the d'varling I offered at Shabbat morning services this week, cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.

 


The ones who come after: Vayechi

Vayechi

This week's parsha is Vayechi, "He lived." It opens, "Jacob lived seventeen years in the land of Egypt, so that the span of Jacob’s life came to one hundred and forty-seven years." (Genesis 47:28) As with Chayyei Sarah ("The Life of Sarah") earlier in Genesis, this parsha named after someone's life is actually about their death, because only at the end of a life can its wholeness be measured. 

Joseph brings his sons to their grandfather's bed, and Jacob asks, "Who are they?" Maybe he doesn't recognize them. Maybe he knows they're related to him, but just can't recall their names. Joseph says, "these are my sons, whom God has given me here." I like to imagine that his voice and demeanor are gentle. It's okay that you don't remember; I can tell you who they are. 

I learned the term "benign senescent forgetfulness" from John Jerome z"l in his book On Turning Sixty-Five: Notes from the Field. As a writer and a runner he was fascinated by the effects of aging on body and mind. Benign senescent forgetfulness is the natural tendency of the human brain to start losing track of things. It's normal. As we age, some of what's in our brain just... falls out.

Of course, memory loss can become disabling. I wonder how Jacob handled his inability to remember his grandsons. Did he get frustrated by the mental holes where knowledge used to be? More broadly: could he take comfort in memories of his wives and children, his travels and adventures -- or did disappointments and losses take center stage as other memories slipped away?

Sometimes memory loss sparks paranoia. Because the world doesn't feel right, and words and memories aren't within reach, elders with dementia often lash out at their children or caregivers. That came to mind this year when I read Jacob's parting words for each of his sons. Some of those words are loving and kind; I like reading those. But some of his words seem belligerent, even cruel. 

In Jacob's case, given what we know of his children's lives, some of his anger may be justified. For instance, he accuses Shimon and Levi of violence. I can understand where that's coming from, because they did make violent choices. He intimates that Reuben encroached on Jacob's marriage bed with Bilhah, which may be supported in Torah - though some commentators disagree.

What jumps out at me is how common that accusation is. My grandfather z"l levied a similar accusation  near the end of his life. (Women often accuse their children or caregivers of stealing their things.) We all knew it wasn't true; it was dementia clouding his mind. But it's still painful to hear words like those, especially from someone who had previously been generous of spirit. 

This year I wonder: how did Jacob's deathbed words land with his grown children? Did they find any comfort in the knowledge that some of these words might have been rooted in dementia? And is it fair to blame the curses on dementia while holding on to the blessings that accompanied them? Because some of what Jacob says at the end of his life is gentle and tender!

He compares Judah to a mighty lion; Naftali to a beautiful deer; Joseph to a colt strengthened by God. And to his grandsons Ephraim and Menashe he offers a poignant blessing, saying, "May the angel who keeps me from harm bless the ones who come after!" (That's R. Irwin Keller's singable translation.) And then Jacob pleads, "In their name, may my name be recalled." (Genesis 48:16)

You may recall that he had two names: Ya'akov, "the Heel," and Israel, "God-wrestler." Remembering his names means remembering the whole: the shrewd young trickster, and the patriarch changed by his wrestle with God, and all of his roles and identities in between. When we look at the whole of Jacob's life in this way, I think it's easier to have empathy for how his story ends.

I do think it's okay to blame the curses on dementia while holding on to the blessings. For me, the blessings come from a true place. They come from a heart flowing with love that wants to bestow that love on the generations. The bitter words or curses come from a false place, a mind clouded by confusion. I believe that the loving words are real, and the hurtful words aren't.

And what about us, "the ones who come after?" We're called to compassionate memory. When we remember all of who he was, his "name is recalled in us." Our task is to recall the choices and adventures and accomplishments of our patriarch's lifetime. To hold with compassion the whole of his story: the beginning and middle that came before this runway toward an end.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul at Kabbalat Shabbat services (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) Art by Yoram Raanan

 


Abundance and dreams, resilience and hope: Miketz and Chanukah

Banner (1)Pharaoh's dreams (artist unknown); an oil-lamp chanukiyah.


This week we continue the Joseph story. In this installment, Pharaoh has two disturbing dreams. In one dream, seven happy fat cows emerge from the Nile, followed by seven emaciated cows who eat the fat ones. In the other, the same thing happens with ripe ears of corn and shrunken ones.

No one in his court can interpret the dreams. And then the cupbearer pipes up: I was in your prison a while back, and there was a Hebrew prisoner who interpreted dreams! So Pharaoh sends for Joseph, who says, the dreams mean that seven good years are coming, followed by seven years of famine.

Joseph tells Pharaoh to set someone wise in charge of his storehouses, someone who can save during the years of plenty so there will be food to eat in the lean times. Pharaoh promptly promotes him, saying, "Could we ever possibly find another man like him, a man in whom is the spirit of God?"

(Or in the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda, "Hey yo, I'm gonna need a right-hand man.")

Pharaoh's dreams are about guarding our resources. When there is abundance, set some aside and save it for when there won't be. And this isn't just about individual households saving what they can; Joseph sets aside grain for the whole nation, so the government can make sure everyone makes it through. 

Every year, we read this at Chanukah. As my b-mitzvah students learned this week, there are different stories we can tell about Chanukah. One is the story of oppression and war in the books of Maccabees -- which were not canonized into the Hebrew Bible, though they are part of some Christian Bibles.

Another is the story of the sanctified oil that lasted for eight days. That narrative comes to us from Talmud, and it's the one our tradition chose to enshrine. That Chanukah story is a story about hope, and enough-ness, and the leap into faith when we don't feel like we have enough fuel to keep hope burning.

Sometimes we feel like we don't have enough. Maybe we feel that we ourselves aren't enough. Maybe life feels overwhelming, and in the words of the poet William Stafford, "The darkness around us is deep." The Chanukah story asks us to kindle light exactly then. That's when we need hope most.

This week Torah says: don't use everything up -- resources are finite! Save some of what you have so you can help everyone make it through the lean times! Meanwhile the Chanukah story says: kindle the eternal light, even if you're going to run out of oil! So which one is right? They both are.

The Torah teaching is about things we can touch: protecting our natural resources, not eating all the grain, making sure we can feed people when there's famine. The Chanukah teaching is metaphysical: it's not about oil, but about hope. It's about kindling hope in our hearts, and keeping hope burning.

Earth and water and air and trees and food are finite, and we need to steward them carefully and share them equitably -- that's a big one, we're working on that. But hope provides its own fuel. And like love, it doesn't diminish when we share it. Being a Jew -- for me -- means living up to both of these truths.

We need to be wise with our resources, and help people who live at sea level, and nations that don't yet have enough vaccines. That's never been more true than it is now. And we need to keep hope kindled in our hearts, even when the world seems hopeless, especially when the world seems hopeless. 

The Hasidic master Reb Nachman (b. 1772) struggled with depression. And yet he taught that despair is a sin. Because despair means the complete absence of hope. And that means we've given up on each other, and on ourselves, and on God. And if we've given up, we won't work to repair what's broken.

That's another thing it means to me to be a Jew: tikkun olam, repairing our broken world. We are God's hands in the world. It's aleinu, it's on us, to build a world of greater justice and love and hope -- and not to give up. 

 

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul on Shabbat Chanukah (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


Wrestle and stretch

Jacob-wrestling-with-the-angel

This week's Torah portion, Vayishlach, contains the story from which our people takes its name.

Jacob is on his way to meet up with his brother Esau for the first time in years. He sends his family away: he is alone on the riverbank. There an angel wrestles with him until dawn, and blesses him with a new name, Israel -- "Godwrestler." We are the people Israel, the people who wrestle with God.

Jacob -- Israel -- walks away from that encounter with a limp. His hip has been wrenched; Rashi says it's torn from its joint. I imagine he was never quite the same after his night-time wrestle. Maybe he could feel oncoming damp weather in his aching hip, or in the sciatic nerve that Torah instructs us not to eat.

Our struggles change us. They may leave us limping.

I think we all know something about that now. The last eighteen months have been a struggle. We've wrestled with fear and anxiety, and with loneliness. We've wrestled with disbelief at outright lies about the pandemic being a hoax, or about vaccines being an instrument of government control.

Many of us are grappling with climate grief, the fear that our planet is already irrevocably changed. Or with political anxiety, wondering whether "red America" and "blue America" can really remain one nation. Or with the reality that the pandemic is now endemic and will not go away. That's a lot.

Jacob wrestled for one night and was changed.

How will we be changed by the wrestling we're doing during these pandemic years?

Earlier this fall I had a bout of sciatica, and I went to see my neighborhood bodyworker. She reminded me that when one part of the body hurts, most likely a different part of the body needs work. My lower back ached, so she worked on my hip flexors! Pain often calls us to stretch in the opposite direction.

That's a physical truth, but it landed metaphysically. When despair ties us in knots, we need to stretch into hope. Remember what we learned from Mariame Kaba at Rosh Hashanah: hope is a discipline. We have to practice it, and stretch it, and lean into it exactly when our pain pulls us the other way.

Torah tells us that Jacob's sciatic nerve was wounded in his wrestling. And Torah also references his heel; Jacob's name means heel. When I was getting treatment for my sciatica, my bodyworker picked up my heels and leaned back, pulling on them gently. "I feel like you're making me taller," I joked.

She said: that's because I am. Stress and tension and gravity all conspire to tighten our bodies, but we can lengthen. In fact, every night while we sleep we get taller as we unclench. Just as astronauts get taller when they spend time in zero-gee, away from the literal pressure of earth's gravitational pull.

When she pulled on my heels, I could feel my whole body getting longer: legs telescoping, spine lengthening. We compartmentalize -- imagining that this body part is separate from that one, or that body is separate from mind and heart and soul -- but we are integrated beings: everything is connected.

That's another physical teaching that lands metaphysically. When we tighten up spiritually, that manifests in our bodies. Stress and tension and gravity tighten us, but rest can help us loosen. Shabbat can help us loosen. Giving ourselves a break from the relentless press of news can help us loosen.

So can stretching ourselves toward hope. When the wrestle feels most overwhelming, when we feel most ground-down by everything that's broken, that's exactly when we need to stretch our capacity to hope. Our spiritual practices can help us shift, as the Psalmist wrote, from constriction to expansiveness.

Jacob named the place of the wrestle P'ni-El, the Face of God. May we too encounter divine presence in our wrestling. May our wrenched and tight places give us greater compassion for each other and for ourselves. And may we learn, in our times of constriction, to open up and stretch toward possibility.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul on Shabbat (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) Shared with gratitude to Emily at Embodywork. Image by Marc Chagall.


Integrity and becoming: Toldot

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Our Torah stories are the same every year. But as we change and grow, we find new ideas and understandings in the same old stories.

In the verses from Toldot that we just heard, Isaac is old and his eyes have grown dim. He is preparing to die, and he wants to give his firstborn son a special blessing. Esau and Jacob are twins, but Esau was born first. Isaac sends Esau off to hunt, saying, "bring me back some stew and I'll bless you."

That's when Rebecca steps in, instructing Jacob to fetch a couple of goats. She'll make a stew that he can bring to his father, and that way, he'll get his father's blessing. "But Mom," says Jacob, "Esau is hairy and I'm not. If Dad touches my arm, he'll see me as a trickster and I'll get a curse, not a blessing!" 

"If he curses you, let the curse be on me," says Rebecca. "Just do what I told you to do." So he does, and she covers him with Esau's clothes and with goat skins so he feels hairy to the touch. He takes the stew to his dad. He claims to be Esau. He gets his father's special firstborn-oriented deathbed blessing.

When Esau gets home, he's furious. He begs his father for a blessing, and the blessing he gets is not a very happy one. Esau starts muttering about how he's going to kill Jacob as soon as their dad dies. Rebecca tells Jacob to flee, and that's what sends him off on his big life's journey.

In previous years, reading this story, I've thought about how in the ancient world the older son was always supposed to inherit. Yet throughout Genesis, it's the younger son who gets lifted up. Maybe Torah's teaching us that status, or birth order, doesn't determine our fate.

I've thought about how Jacob, whose name means "Heel" because he emerged from the womb clutching Esau's heel, is kind of being a heel here. It feels like poetic justice when his uncle Laban tricks him into marrying the wrong sister. Maybe Torah's teaching us that the karma of our choices stays with us.

This year, all I can think is: Rebecca in this story is really not teaching the kind of moral lesson that I wish for. It looks like she wants to make sure her favorite kid gets the blessing, so she tells him to trick his father by pretending to be someone he's not? I don't feel good about that.

Earlier in the story, when pregnant, Rebecca asks God why it feels like there's warfare in her womb. God tells her that two nations struggle inside her, and that the older will serve the younger. Maybe that's why midrash teaches that she was a prophet: she knew that Jacob had a special destiny.

Maybe she was practicing what would later be called consequentialism: as long as the outcome is good, then the act that produced that outcome must be moral, right? If it gets us to "Jacob becomes the ancestor of the Jewish people," then whatever steps she took to get there must be okay?

I disagree. How we work toward our goals matters at least as much as whatever those goals are. Integrity matters. Truth matters. Facts matter. I would never instruct my child to pretend to be someone he's not, even if there were some kind of reward for that pretending.

And generally speaking, Jewish tradition takes integrity really seriously. Rambam teaches that we should never "be one thing in mouth and another in heart," that our insides should match our outsides, that deceiving another human being is like stealing their mind and we should never do it.

So why are most of our sages okay with what Rebecca did here? Most of the sages of Jewish tradition argue that this wasn't really a deception, because our mystics teach that Jacob's soul was formed first in the womb. His essence was special. They see Rebecca as helping Jacob become who he truly is.

My friend R. Mike Moskowitz compares it to someone coming out and changing their clothing style. When Jacob changes his outward appearance, with Esau's borrowed clothes and the goat skins on his arms, now his dad is finally able to experience him as he's always seen himself, as he truly is.

I like that interpretation. I agree that parents need to see our kids as they truly are! But for me, it's a stretch to read these verses that way. If we choose to do that, I think we need to be honest with ourselves that we're doing a lot of work to make Rebecca's actions okay when on the surface, they just aren't.

Maybe what Torah is teaching us here is that even our patriarchs and matriarchs were human just like us, and they made mistakes, just like us.

Because even if you want to argue that only the outcomes matter -- the choice that Rebecca makes harms Esau. And I think we can make a case that this choice harms Jacob and Isaac's relationship, too. Even if her intentions were good, Rebecca's choice has negative impacts on the entire family.

(Just wait until you see how Jacob's kids treat each other. Let's just say the unfortunate tradition of parental favoritism doesn't stop here, and the next generation is a little bit of a mess as a result. Maybe you remember a kid named Joseph, whose brothers hate him so much they sell him into slavery...)

I wish that Rebecca had been able to say to Jacob: don't worry about your brother, just go be real with your dad. Tell him you love him, and ask him for the blessing you most need. Ask him for the blessing you're going to need after he dies. Ask him for the blessing that will help you set off on life's journey.

And as for me, I bless you to be continually growing and changing, to wrestle with our traditions and with God, and to always act with integrity as you live into the wholeness of who you are. I wish that Rebecca had been able to say something like that to Jacob. But at least I can say it now to you.

 

This is my d'varling from Shabbat morning services at my shul (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 


Go - a d'varling for Lech-Lecha

Lechlecha
Lech-Lecha: art by Laya Crust.

 


At the start of this week's Torah portion, God says to Avram,

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהֹוָה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃ 

Lech-lecha / go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. (Gen. 12:1)

לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ / Lech-lecha -- can you hear the same sound twice there? That could be translated as "Go, really go!" Or we could translate it as, "Go from yourself," or "Go for yourself." In this verse, God is inviting Avram into a journey. It's a journey of growing up: it's time for him to leave his father's house and become his own person. It's a journey of discovery: figuring out who he is and who he's going to become. It's a literal journey of exploring new territory, and at the same time, an internal journey of becoming.

In this week's Torah portion God and Avram enter into a brit, a covenant -- a sacred agreement. God gives him a new name, Avraham, and promises that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars. God promises to be in relationship with Avraham and his descendants, always. God promises that though Avraham's descendants will go down into Mitzrayim, God will lift us out of that Narrow Place. In return, Avraham gets instructions about mitzvot, commandments. Those are our part of the brit.

Toward the end of this week's Torah portion, God says to Avraham,

הִתְהַלֵּ֥ךְ לְפָנַ֖י וֶהְיֵ֥ה תָמִֽים

Walk in My ways and be tamim. (Gen. 17:1)

The word תָמִֽים / tamim can be translated as blameless, or pure, or whole, or perfect. A few verses later God gives the mitzvah of brit milah, so a lot of commentators say that that mitzvah is how we become "perfect." But Rashi (d. 1105) thinks God is saying, "walk in My ways and be wholehearted, even when life is difficult and you feel like I am testing you." And Ramban (d.1270) points out that לְפָנַ֖י / l'fanai means, "before Me." For him, the verse is God's way of saying, "follow the path that I will show you."

What does it mean to walk in God's ways, or to follow God's path? I think it means listening for that inner voice that says לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ / lech-lecha -- go forth, always keep learning and growing, life is a journey. It means choosing a life of mitzvot, and doing our best to follow that path with all our hearts. This is what it means to be a Jew: we're always learning and growing, we're always going forth into something new. The mitzvot are our roadmap, our way of walking, and they're our end of our covenant with God.

These two instructions are like bookends, and here's the other thing I notice this year. At the start of the parsha, God says "Go forth to the place that I will show you." In the beginning, God is showing us the way. God isn't a person who has a body, but it's as though God were walking in front of us. And at the end, God says הִתְהַלֵּ֥ךְ לְפָנַ֖י / hithalech l'fanai, "walk before Me" -- now we're taking the lead and God is our backup. God is letting us chart the course, and trusting us to know where and how to go.

This is what a good parent does. First, a good parent shows their child where to go and how to be. Here's the the map, these are the instructions, this is how to keep your spiritual life flowing and how to be an ethical person in the world. And then, as the child matures and becomes ready to make informed choices, it's the parent's job to step back and let their kid lead the way. Not stepping too far back -- still there to offer support or guidance -- but giving the kid an opportunity to make choices and to shine.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul at Kabbalat Shabbat. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)