Shabbat Lekh L’kha: Be Curious, Be Brave

I recently received an email offering new Torah commentaries “for the curious and brave” – a provocative phrase that immediately makes me feel a sense of challenge. After all, I think that our Torah study is already pretty satisfying to the curious, and challenging to the brave. But I’m also excited to check out the new commentaries (see below to see for yourself) to see if there really is something that will open yet another doorway, yet another glorious trove of possible learning – and the implications thereof, which are the best part.

This week’s parashah offers us the classic role model of the curious and brave: Abraham, to whom suddenly G-d appears, with no warning and for no reason that we can discern from the text itself. The first verse of the parashah is this:

א  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-אַבְרָם, לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ.

1 Now G-d said to Abram: ‘Get yourself out of your country, and from your kindred, and from your parents’ house, to the land that I will show you.

Abram (he becomes Abraham later in this parashah) shows both curiosity and bravery in his response: he picks up household and effects, unquestioningly, and goes. He doesn’t ask where to, nor how long, nor in any other way does he demand more information.

Applying the mandate of the curious and brave student, which seems already much less demanding than the qualities of heart and soul required of Abraham, we look more closely for glimmers of meaning.

One of the most interesting aspects of this verse is the strange grammatical construct לך לך – lekh l’kha, which is here translated “get yourself going”, so to speak. But because the grammar is obscure (one can translate these two words, which look alike, as if they are alike: “to you, to you” or “go, go”, or any variation between them) there are other ways to understand it, and the mystics have a wonderful suggestion. “Go to yourself.” Abram is being told that it is precisely by leaving all with which he is familiar that he will come to some new vision in his life, and more, that he will come to himself.

By leaving himself he will come to know himself. And so, we are told, it is with us. By separating from our patterns, our familiar acquaintances, and our expected daily routines, we may hopefully expect, after some explorations without and within, to come full circle, and, as T. S. Eliot said, “know the place for the first time”. This is not a command to leave everything behind forever, only to be willing to allow some distance from our comfortable habits of thought and action in order to let in a bit more light, and to be willing to walk a new path in order to come to understand old familiar realities. What are you entirely sure of, so sure that it is like “country, kindred and parents’ house”? And what might you see if you step away from that fortress of certainty?

As with life, we know that good Torah study requires us to leave adamant conviction at the door and to be willing to entertain the possibility that there exists more wisdom even than we already possess. In this way, humility is a necessary precondition for curiosity, and, interestingly enough, for bravery as well. And the first word of the parashah calls to us that the right time is now, it is always now. Go forth into the world a little bit farther and deeper than you have until now, be curious and be brave, go forth and go to yourself. Perhaps one of the new commentaries below will help!

New JPS Torah Commentaries “for the curious and brave”:

Brave-The Bible’s Many Voices, by Michael Carasik offers a close textual study of the rich variety of literary genres that comprise the Tanakh. Spend a few sessions with each voice: the historical, theological, legal, prophetic, wisdom, women’s, poetic, and foreign. A 24-session syllabus/study guide is available on our website.

Braver-From Gods to God: How the Bible Debunked, Suppressed, or Changed Ancient Myths and Legends, by Hebrew University professors Yair Zakovich and Avigdor Shinan. This 30-chapter bestseller from Israel will have you rethink the Bible stories you know, and startle you with the ones you don’t!

Braver-The Aura of Torah: A Kabbalistic-Hasidic Commentary to the Weekly Torah Portion, by Rabbi Larry Tabick. Many of these texts have never appeared in English before. The excerpts are brief and the commentary is lucid. These masters provoke a personal encounter with Torah.

Bravest-Outside the Bible: Ancient Jewish Writings Related to Scripture, by Louis Feldman, James Kugel and Lawrence Schiffman and seventy other scholars of Second Temple literature. Become reacquainted with the biblical family you thought you knew through the daring works that were excluded from the Hebrew canon. An 18-session syllabus/study guide is available on our website, along with a sampling of selected texts from this landmark three-volume anthology.

And just now out: The Lost Matriarch: Finding Leah in the Bible and Midrash, by Jerry Rabow, a student of Rabbi Harold Schulweis, which is also perfect for adult education and has an accompanying syllabus.

Shabbat Noakh: Sometimes It Floods

Sometimes life comes at you faster than you can thoughtfully respond. In our parashat hashavua one person, Noakh, suddenly discovers that his world is going to end in a great flood of water that will cover the earth as far as he knows it to exist. He builds a giant boat as he is directed by G-d, and he and his family are saved from the death that meets the rest of humankind, and also many animals. Our tradition finds fault with him, based upon a close reading of Genesis 6.9: “Noakh was righteous in his generation.” The Rabbis asked of this verse, what kind of compliment is that? His generation is so wicked that G-d blots them out….They point to Abraham, who, when G-d announced the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra, insisted that G-d distinguish between guilty and innocent. Noakh, on the other hand, when news of the flood reaches him, does not ask and does not argue.

But what else is different, if we compare Abraham and Noakh? Abraham is G-d’s chosen, protected and guided toward a blessed future in a land promised to his descendants. Noakh has no such support, at least not as described in the Torah. He lives in a world which is literally going to hell, and he is experiencing the incredible stress of social breakdown, hatred acted upon in ways that empty out all notions of ethics and decency….and he is, after all, only human.

I am in Israel this week, visiting family and in particular meeting my new cousin, Ofri, who was born on Purim. From here the view is strikingly different from that which we experience from our safely distant perspective in the U.S. Here, we heard about Wednesday’s attack in the local hourly news that comes over the radio, and details emerged over the local internet hour by hour. At the same time, Israelis join right now in mourning young people who were taking vacation from their army service, hiking in Nepal, and were killed by a sudden snowstorm and avalanche. And oh, yes, the latest news about the so-called Islamic State conveys information about what is happening not so far from here – although here in the village it is so quiet that it is almost impossible to believe that such upheaval is actually occurring.

Just now the latest news bulletin on the hour came through as we prepare for Shabbat; two young Israeli adults on holiday in Nepal were killed when the bus they were traveling on plunged into a ravine. My cousin Eli got very quiet for a moment, but there was nothing much to say other than what we already know we are thinking: so sad, so very sad. If you had pushed us further, we might have continued with: and so pointless. Oh, and there is news that tension is increasing in Jerusalem: rocks are being thrown, tires and light-rail stations set on fire.

It feels like a flood of terribly bad, sad news, and within it the different kinds of bad news come together in a way that blurs distinctions. Perhaps this is what Noakh was feeling when G-d announced the great flood. Maybe he was so beaten down by one sad experience after another, one horror following upon the next, that in all the attendant stress he simply lost his ability to act according to his highest human potential. It does happen that we can be so brutalized by experience that we are no longer really ourselves.

Whatever we in our faraway quiet America feel justified to judge about life here in Israel, let’s remember to apply the ancient Jewish ethical principle l’khaf zekhut, “benefit of the doubt”. Perhaps people really are doing the best they can in some very stressful, brutalizing circumstances.

Please join me this Shabbat in praying for the peace of Jerusalem, and all places – a Jewish kind of prayer which presupposes action to bring it about.

Shabbat Bereshit: Beginning Again, But Not at the Beginning

Here we go again with the beginning!

This week we begin once again to read the Torah. Our parashah is Bereshit, “in [the process of] beginning”. We all know how it begins, and we all know what happens in the story: creation of the world, then of plants, animals and human beings, and then the trouble starts. There’s a snake, and the first murder, which is a fratricide: Cain kills his brother Abel.

Life can seem like a nightmare of repetition some days; somewhere in the world, another war is breaking out. Another famine is causing the suffering of millions. Another act of violence is diminishing the humanity of all it touches. It makes you want to turn off the news forever.

It seems hopeless, yet Judaism teaches hope. In our liturgy, our theology, and our seeking of justice, we are trained always to hope. Not in an irresponsible way, but hope, nevertheless. It is said that in the Warsaw Ghetto, above the entrance to a shul, were inscribed the famous urging of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav: “No matter what, Jews, do not despair!” Jews historically vote for rehabilitation, not capital punishment, because there’s always hope. In Jewish law one may never assume that someone is no longer living, even if the person was last seen in a war zone, or is very old and frail. There’s always hope.

As we begin again at the beginning, we know that we will soon read again of sin, of murder, of war and of misery.

We will also read of courage, of kindness, of righteousness, and of how many stars can be seen in the sky on a night when we remember to look up.

That’s the reason, we are told, that we are to hope. We are not automatons, doomed to repetition. We learn from our experiences, and we listen to those who are wiser than we. We sometimes feel trapped in repetitive patterns – but we take part in being trapped, and we can choose to change the pattern, and our part in it.

You will continue to repeat what you are doing until you learn what you need to learn from it. That learning is “Torah” in the widest sense, for it is your capacity to learn life lessons and plumb their truth depths. And then you will walk away from the damaging repetitions of your past, because you will have learned what you needed to learn from them. And then, feeling a new sense of strength, you will be ready to face the next challenge.

How will this year be different from all other years that have come before it? This year we are in the third year of our Triennial Cycle of Torah reading. We will begin not with the very beginning of Bereshit, but much later, near the end of chapter 4. One of the first verses we read is this:

א  זֶה סֵפֶר, תּוֹלְדֹת אָדָם:  בְּיוֹם, בְּרֹא אֱלֹהִים אָדָם, בִּדְמוּת אֱלֹהִים, עָשָׂה אֹתוֹ.

1 This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day that God created the human being, in the likeness of God it was made;

ב  זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה, בְּרָאָם; וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם, וַיִּקְרָא אֶת-שְׁמָם אָדָם, בְּיוֹם, הִבָּרְאָם.

2 male and female created it was created, and G-d blessed them, and called their name Adam, in the day when they were created.

We will begin with an entirely different beginning – after the Garden of Eden, past the snake, way past the misunderstanding and bad feelings that led to murder. The terrible news from the world around us does not define our future, only our present. This verse from chapter five is not the first statement, but perhaps it is the result of some learning, some experience, and some re-thinking. It offers us a simpler, essential version of human beginnings: one single being, made up of all the human potential in the world. From this verse the tradition derives the teaching that despite all that divides and differentiates us, each individual, precious life is worth the life of the world, because in each one is a whole world of potential.

And therefore, in each one of us is that hope – of an entire world of potential. How will your year be different from all those before it?

Shabbat hol hamo’ed Sukkot: the fragile sukkah can only be protected with ethics

Our Sukkah is up, and swaying a bit, as it does every year. It’s a stark reminder that it is so very difficult for human beings to really be safe and secure from the storms that threaten our lives.

Curiously, our parashah for the Shabbat of hol hamo’ed (intermediate days of) Sukkot doesn’t mention the sukkah. Rather, it includes two readings: the major one from Exodus, and a maftir taken from a Deuteronomy. The two readings taken together present a fascinating picture of what our ancestors considered most significant at the time of the fall harvest: caring for each other and the earth.

In the larger, main reading from Exodus, we are not told of how many sacrifices one is to bring on this day, nor are we given a story with moral import. Instead, in Exodus 22.24-23.17 we read Jewish laws of sharing one’s harvest with others; not only specifically what one reaps agriculturally, but in the wider context of sharing one’s capacity for honestly and ethics. We are urged to show up and be seen both in this reading and in the maftir:

 Three times in a year shall all your males appear before ה your G-d in the place which G-d shall choose; on the Feast of Matzah, and on the Feast of Shavuot, and on the Feast of Sukkot; and they shall not appear before ה empty. (Deut. 16.16)

When we look at the Hebrew we learn that there’s a fascinating way to understand the phrase “all your males”. The word translated here as “males” can also be translated as “memory”, leading to the possible interpretation that we are all meant to show up mindfully, remembering who we are and where we come from, and what our responsibilities are. We are not to show up empty: we must bring our ethics with us.

This brings us to some very specific opportunities to consider how our fragile sukkah speaks to us of larger circles of vulnerability in our lives which we must face, with great care and a copy of Jewish ethics in hand – and in mind – at all times.

* A sukkah is a dwelling place; we are commanded to live in it, have meals in it, sleep in it, in order to remind ourselves of the fragility of human shelter. For those of us for whom living in a sukkah is not an option, we should nevertheless take time during this week to stand in one and meditate upon our responsibility to those among us who are in need of shelter: the homeless, the nearly homeless, the vulnerable in their homes.

* The State of Israel is the Jewish home, and it is similarly vulnerable. When Jews were homeless we experienced horrifying vulnerability; today, our state is fragile both within and without. It needs our support to develop into the peaceful and inspirational light unto the nations that Israel’s declaration of independence aspires to be.

* our kehillah, our own congregational community and that of the larger circles of Jewish community regionally, nationally and world-wide, are challenged with stresses, about Israel as well as other issues. The way in which we respond will either strengthen us and our sacred dwelling places, or weaken them.

It is very human to lash out in self-defense when one feels vulnerable; at such times it is, as one Arab child said when she returned to her bilingual and binational Israeli Arab and Jewish school, “easier to hate, to become extreme”. But that way lies only sacrifices and death – and our parashah for this Shabbat indicates that this is not the way for us to respond to our sense of fragility. When the wind makes your sukkah sway, and storms of anger, hate and accusation break over the places where you dwell, remember who you are, where you come from, and fill your hands and your heart with what your tradition requires of you, as the Prophet Micah declared:

to do justice, love mercy, and walk in humility, aware of and focused upon your place in the world.

מועדים לשמחה – may the intermediate days of our Harvest Festival of Sukkot bring you joy

Yom Kippur 5775: Shabbat Shabbaton, the “Mother of all Shabbatot”

The human being is a messenger who forgot the message. – Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

This evening at sundown begins Yom Kippur, a Shabbat like no other. It is called Shabbat Shabbaton, the “Shabbat of Shabbatot” – we might call it “the Mother of all Shabbatot.”  (ShabbatOHT is the plural of Shabbat.) The concept of a shabbat shabbaton is also applied to the Shemitta year, which we have just begun. I will have more on that for you when we reach Sukkot. For now, suffice to say that the shemitta year is a year when the Land of Israel is supposed to have a Shabbat from being worked – no sowing seed, no manipulation at all of the soil. We are to eat only what the land itself will give of its own accord, and in that way to “revert” to a “more natural” relationship with the land – without imposing ourselves upon it.

According to well-established rules of Torah study, we can learn something from the fact that both Yom Kippur and the Shemitta year are called Shabbat Shabbaton. Perhaps it is just this simple: we are not to impose our will on the world during a Shabbat Shabbaton. We step back from overt, pro-active, interactive, goal-oriented behavior. We are to stop considering what’s in it for us, how we should respond in order to encourage a favorable outcome, and so take refuge in planning our future, even if it’s only the next hour we are considering. During a shabbat shabbaton, we are to Be Here Now, and consider: what is this Now? what have we wrought? Leave the question of what we can do about it for later – we escape to that too soon. Stay here, in the question: what have we done?

Yom Kippur is a day of prayer and fasting and, well, more prayer. Why does it take a full twenty-four hours? Why fast? Why repeat the confession of sin so many times? It may be as simple as what you already know in your own life: what is important gets repeated. What is even more important is repeated even more. So often that we begin to be able to hear it. And fasting is meant to express regret, and willingness to change. That’s why we read the Book of Jonah on Yom Kippur afternoon, as an object lesson. If the people of Nineveh (Babylonians!!) could find atonement for sin, so can the Jews – or so we are encouraged to believe.

But, we are still finding it difficult to understand the day: how do we find the modern relevance of a very ancient ritual meant to express repentance for misdeeds?

Some things cannot be explained rationally, although they can be described. The ritual roots of our Yom Kippur observance come from the ancient Jewish response to life-threatening drought. Yom Kippur is, simply, a human response to the terror of death. But it is also much more than that, if only because we are so complicated, and human beings have not changed all that much in only a few thousand years. It’s not easy to explain – one must first be open to the experience.

A few years ago a Jewish public intellectual wrote the following in a private notebook:

The High Holidays are gone and I am impressed once again with the two spirits that dwell in the breast of Judaism…. First, the rationalist (in the Aristotelian sense), which provides rational explanations for religious practice, and the second which takes religious practice as primary and, contemplating it, derives profound human meanings from it. I believe the second is more authentically religious, but also the most dangerous, since it can open doors one didn’t know existed. The first, however, is more “conservative” as well as more popular with rabbis and clerics, since it provides them with plausible explanations for the laity.

When I was at Commentary, we published only anthropological-rational explanations for the holidays. Even then I knew it was a sterile exercise. Judaism does not explain the holidays; the holidays explain Judaism.

(Irving Kristol, cited in http://mosaicmagazine.com/tesserae/2014/09/irving-kristol-born-jewish/)

Never mind trying to figure out ahead of time what you are doing on Yom Kippur. First, let yourself really experience it – join a Jewish community for the prayers (if it was good enough for Franz Rosenzweig, it’s good enough for you to drop by on Yom Kippur day at any welcoming shul.)  Open yourself to the more dangerous spirit of the day, and let’s look for those doors together, as a people standing before G-d, whatever that means.