Shabbat Zakhor: What Commands You to Remember?

This Shabbat is not only named Tetzaveh, “you shall command” for the Torah reading assigned to it, but also Zakhor, for the imperative “remember!” which denotes the special Torah reading added to the regular weekly parashah. This is the second of four special Shabbatot that mark the days we count down (or, more appropriately, up) to Pesakh, the “Festival of Matzot”.

The meaning of the counting is mindfulness, in its own way a form of remembering: as we near one of the most significant moments in the Jewish calendar, special Haftarah readings emphasize certain themes which help us notice, and be aware of the time passing.

The meaning of counting “up” (instead of down, the usual idiom) refers to the Jewish teaching that we always add to holiness, and never take away. That’s why we light one candle on the first night of Hanukkah and add a light each night (it is at least just as logical to start with eight and take one away each night, since we are remembering a certain amount of dedicated oil, which was reduced each day). Upward and onward, so to speak.

The four special Shabbatot (they are compared to the Seder’s Four Cups of Wine) can be seen as invitations upward, one Shabbat at a time. The first is Shabbat Shekalim, on which we take note of our financial condition as we near the Jewish calendar’s New Year (Pesakh takes place during the month of Nisan, which is the first month of the Jewish calendar); we make adjustments, and get ready to pay taxes and give tzedakah as we are expected to do. The third, Shabbat Parah, describes the conditions for spiritual readiness (“ritual purity”) required to prepare oneself for the Seder. The fourth, Shabbat haHodesh, “the Month”, proclaims the beginning of Nisan: it’s time to prepare your Seder.

Then there is this Shabbat, the second one of the series, called Shabbat Zakhor. It calls upon us to “remember!” The question is, remember what? And how is memory a move upward, toward a more complete spiritual readiness, and openness?

Memory, it turns out, has always been a primary requirement for spiritual readiness among our people. Our ancestors, we are told, traveled up to Jerusalem to celebrate this Festival in the ancient past. When they reached the top of this physical and spiritual aliyah (going up) they were promised that they would all be able to actually see the Face of G-d, as long as they brought their zakhur with them – their memory.

What does it mean to see the Face of G-d via memory? To consider this question we have to be willing to put down a lot of assumptions, for example: 

1. that G-d is a sort of manipulative Wizard of Oz

2. that G-d has a face the way a human being does

3. that our ancestors were qualitatively less intelligent than we are in matters spiritual

If you are able to reject these Jewishly unfounded imaginings, then consider: the Hebrew word that most directly refers to G-d is nothing less than the letters that indicate the Hebrew verb “to be” in all its tenses; past, present, future – and imperative. Was, Is, Will Be, Be! The Jewish G-d is best (though badly) evoked through the ideas of endless time (Eternity) and endless space (Everywhere). And we share in all of it. The only issue is whether we remember that. Abraham Joshua Heschel once defined the human being as “a messenger who forgot the message”.

Remember where you come from. Let that memory carry you back, before your own individual being in time and space. And in your mind’s reaching, you will begin to be able to envision a hint of that endless eternity of which you are a small, momentary utterance, part of all being and its warp and woof, utterly necessary and completely at home. 

Remember, and let that remembering move you upward, and onward, toward the you that you are yet meant to be, step by step, Shabbat by Shabbat.

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Shabbat Terumah: Making a Place for God

We have left Egypt, and at the foot of Mt. Sinai we have witnessed a great and ineffable moment of connection with That Which Cannot Be Named, and which nevertheless worked to link all of us together with certainty in that mystery. We were going forward together, as a people.

But not yet. In this week’s parashah, we are still camped at Sinai, in the days and weeks after the climactic moments of awe and exhilaration. Now what? It is clear that the world is different, is newly-begun; what is not so clear yet is the way in which we will move into it.

Somehow, the impetus to build a holy place came forth from that time. It is interesting to consider what it means to call a place holy.

There are some awesome holy places in the world, places built specifically so that we could seek G-d’s presence. There are cathedrals, temples, mosques, and, of course, shuls. This past week I was privileged to encounter the heiau, the Hawaiian holy place, and to learn about its construction. A heiau is constructed of lava rocks, some of them quite dense and heavy, which are moved great distances by human chains, people handing the rocks from one to the next, hundreds and even thousands of people all working together. A heiau can measure as much as 140 by 180 feet and be 30 feet high. That’s a lot of rocks, and even more coordinated action bringing together a huge number of people.

All communal holy places seem to have this in common: it takes many people to create one. As our parashat hashavua puts it, every member of the Israelite community is called upon to participate, to bring a terumah, an offering of that which they are and which they have to give. There is work for all, with only one requirement: “all whose hearts so move them.” (Exodus 25.2) 

Our hearts have to be in the work, or it can’t be holy. In other words, there many be many shuls, churches, temples, and mosques which are glorious and grand, but unless we are all involved in the building, and our hearts are truly in it, it won’t be a holy place. We can’t all carry heavy rocks, and not all of us can design a Sukkah that will stay up a week, much less a shul, but all of us have the gift of our joy and intention.

“Where is G-d?” the Kotzker Rebbe was once asked. “Where?” he replied, “wherever you let G-d in.”

What are you involved in building in your life? a project, a program, a kitchen remodel? On this Shabbat consider: even as a shul is not a holy place unless our hearts are in it, so also, in every place in which you are truly there with an open heart, that place is holy. And then you will understand the insight of the Shelah, Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (called the Shelah after the acronym of the name of his most well-known book of Torah commentary, the Shnei Lukhot HaBrit):

They shall make for Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell amidst them (25:8)

The verse does not say, “and I will dwell within it,” but “and I will dwell within them”–within each and every one of them. (the Shelah)

Shabbat Yitro: What Do You Hear When You Hear the Voice of G-d?

What do you hear when you are in the presence of that which matters most? This week we read of G-d’s gift of the Aseret haDibrot, the “Ten Utterances”, to the People of Israel. The Torah text describes thunder and lightning, fire and smoke, on top of Mt. Sinai. But the midrash, teachings of the ancient Sages that lead us beyond the surface level of text toward a deeper understanding of what actually happened, suggests that

in that hour the world was completely silent. No one dared to breathe. No bird sang, no ox lowed, the sea did not roar, and no creature uttered a sound….Then G-d spoke…  (Midrash Aseret haDibrot to Ex.20.2)

Consider the way the world goes silent when you are truly shocked out of your normal self by an experience; everything seems to slow down, sound recedes, and you are left in the enormity of the moment. Nothing is as you expected. It is precisely in this moment that we are capable of seeing that which we cannot see because we have never seen it before. 

This is what Jewish tradition calls “revelation”, and this is the essential Jewish revelatory moment. Although this is a communal experience (we all stood at Sinai together), there is something very personal about it. The Rabbis of the Talmud even suggest that:

every single word that went forth from the Omnipotent was split up into seventy languages. The School of R. Ishmael taught: Like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces: just as a hammer is divided into many sparks, so every single word that went forth from the Holy Blessed One split up into seventy languages.  (Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 88b)

Rabbinic commentary suggests that we actually heard very little at Sinai, that it is not possible, after all, for human ears and brains to process something as awesomely Other as the Voice of G-d; if there is such a thing, we are going to be the last to identify it. The choice in the animated movie “Prince of Egypt” to convey G-d’s voice as that of the actor playing Moshe was a way of saying exactly that – we cannot really hear G-d’s voice, but we can hear something in our own hearts and minds that may be an echo of it.

What did the People of Israel really hear at Sinai? It is a question that continues to occupy the commentaries for generations. What seems quite clear from all the commentary is that these oral utterances were heard differently by different Israelites – which is, after all, our own experience, even as the words have long been written down, which might seem to narrow the possible interpretations.

It does not. Each of us stands at Sinai in our own way, and proof of this is in the way each of us responds to a moment in which we feel the Presence of G-d, that is, that which matters most. It pulls us out of ourselves into a larger sense of existence, and a deeper sense of being.

This is where the mystics come down: what we heard at Sinai was not words but the sound of Nothing, that is, No One Thing but Every Thing that is about to be heard. We “heard” the sense of a Presence, and all the rest, in a way, is commentary.

What does that Utterance sound like? Some call it a compelling ethical certainty; others know it as a reassuring grounding in suffering. All of us can hear it in our hearts if we are ready to be still. What might be revealed to you, in any moment, if you listen to the silence of what might be said next?