Shabbat Zakhor: Remember to Forget

The parashat hashavua is Terumah, which begins with the insistence that if we would know the holy – know peace, serenity, friendship and love – we must build a holy place in which to focus our intention:

Let Them make Me a sanctuary where I can be among them (Exodus 25.8) We cannot truly understand the impact of this verse of Torah until we understand that according to Jewish mystical insights, the words “them,” “me,” and “I” all refer to each one of us.

But what is “them” and what is “me” when we also must learn that we are all “I”, that is, we are all One? What must our shared space look like if it is to be holy? Every year Purim comes just now, to test our sense of self and challenge it, with the upending of our expectations of what is normal:

Purim invites us to set aside a time in which we completely reverse our wardrobe, which in turn reverses our identity. It is an invitation to…cross and reverse all the other dichotomies and uniforms of our lives as well. On Purim we are using clothes against themselves, to deny their power to box us in, and simultaneously to redeem us from needing redemption…

Purim…makes us wonder if there is an “authentic self” at all, or whether it is all just endless masks upon masks.

On the surface, it seems that Purim involves an escape from reality…Purim provides us with the hope that the garments we put on that seem only to mask our present realities can reveal the deep-seated consciousness of our potential for change, our ability to bring happiness and fulfillment to our lives.

 …we may ask what lies beneath a story that intimates the absence of God and meaning, and the holiday of Purim, which is about frivolity and play. Underneath the garment of the story is perhaps a glimpse of the existence of a force in the universe that can help us move beyond who we are and what our lives presently are, and enable us to become who we aspire to be.*

On this Shabbat Zakhor, which always comes just before Purim, Torah teaches us that if we are to survive, we must learn what to remember and what to forget. Shabbat Zakhor reminds us that we cannot become who we are meant to be, a holy community of Israel, until we allow the power of the Universe to move us to forget the destructive nature of the community-disrupting Amalek – which is to say to stop learning from it, stop copying it, and erase it from the future of the human story.

The great historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi in his book Zakhor (“remember”) offers the insight that we will become depends upon both what we remember and what we forget. On this Shabbat may we remember that an authentic self cannot be built on anger or reactiveness, nor on “going it alone,” but only on the truth that “them,” “me,” and “I” are all One.

We celebrate Purim next Thursday evening, February 25. Wear something that will remind you of the endless masks, and help you ask yourself what is beneath them. What do you need to remember, and what are you better off forgetting, so that you can thrive as a spiritual and communal being?

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*Cohen, D. N. J. (2012). Masking and Unmasking Ourselves: Interpreting Biblical Texts on Clothing & Identity (1 edition). Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights

Shabbat Mishpatim: The Necessary Subversiveness of Delight

Be Happy, It’s Adar!

How is it possible that we can be commanded to be happy on a given day? That on the first of Adar, two weeks from Purim, we should somehow manage to be joyful? 

The more we know of life, the more we are saddened. Global communication brings news of a friend’s death, a mourner’s bereavement. The childlike delight in falling snow leaves us worried about our unhoused neighbors, threatened with death by this very same beauty. And the most common response to those who have been given the life saving COVID-19 vaccine is anger and suspicion, not joy and hope.

And here comes the subversive Jewish tradition, on this erev Shabbat Mishpatim, insisting that despite it all, we must pick ourselves up, lift up our faces, and find a way to laugh, to feel delight, nevertheless.

One of the best behavioral practices for depression is to “fake it til you make it.” Don’t feel like smiling? go to a mirror, look at your face. Tempted to give way to a frown? push the edges of your mouth up anyway. It can literally make a difference in how you feel when you act “as if” you feel.

Perhaps that’s the command: go through the motions. Although we think of this as a negative, in Jewish history it has actually been a lifesaving practice. Consider this five minute meditation: I invite you to try it as you prepare for Shabbat:

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Read:

We visualize life as but a means for experiencing fulfillment. We talk about things “worth living for,” yet in our superficial view of life, we fail to appreciate the most profound joy of all: life itself.  – Rabbi Hayim Shmulevitz (1902-1979)

Speak aloud:

“Mouth filled with laughter, lips with shouts of joy.”

Practice:

Step away from your busyness and savor a moment; stay with it until you can feel the joy that is available to you.

– Alan Morinis

Every Day, Holy Day: the Jewish Tradition of Mussar

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To delight in the moment is to lift our hearts past the false gods that command us to number our days in misery. Put on the cheerful music, laugh out loud at a silly old skit on Youtube, read a poem – and know that you have acted as courageously as a human being can.

shabbat shalom

A Brief for the Defense

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving

somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.

But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.

Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not

be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not

be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women

at the fountain are laughing together between

the suffering they have known and the awfulness

in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody

in the village is very sick. There is laughter

every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,

and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.

If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,

we lessen the importance of their deprivation.

We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,

but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have

the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless

furnace of this world. To make injustice the only

measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.

If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,

we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.

We must admit there will be music despite everything.

We stand at the prow again of a small ship

anchored late at night in the tiny port

looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront

is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.

To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat

comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth

all the years of sorrow that are to come.

  • Jack Gilbert, in REFUSING HEAVEN (Knopf, 2005)

Shabbat Yitro: Seeing Requires Silence

On this Shabbat our parashat hashavua recounts the moment when our ancestors stood at the foot of Mt Sinai and underwent a transformative moment.

Many have asked what exactly we saw and heard in that moment, when the earth shook and the shofar sounded and fire lit up the mountain. On this erev Shabbat I want to ask how it was that we were able to see, and hear; in other words, not what happened to us, from some exterior force or awareness, that we were able to experience the moment, but what came from inside us?

Parashat Yitro describes the day when we arrived at the area around the foot of the mountain:

וַיִּסְע֣וּ מֵרְפִידִ֗ים וַיָּבֹ֙אוּ֙ מִדְבַּ֣ר סִינַ֔י וַֽיַּחֲנ֖וּ בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר וַיִּֽחַן־שָׁ֥ם יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל נֶ֥גֶד הָהָֽר׃

They traveled by way of Refidim and arrived in the wilderness of Sinai, and they camped there; as one, Israel was camped opposite the mountain. (Exodus 19.2)

It has been noted that the phrase “Israel was camped” is in the singular, as if all Israel were of one mind and heart. It has also wryly been noted that this is the only time in all of Jewish history when this was the case. But that doesn’t erase the significance of the lesson. six verses later “the people answered as one, saying ‘all that HaShem has spoken we will do!” (Ex.19.8)

What happened in those moments is that this famously stiff-necked and bad-tempered group all somehow were as one. 

Most commentaries on the Sinai moment wonder what was heard. The most striking answer is that we heard nothing: no thing, the pregnant moment just before every thing became potentially possible. There is an undefined, undefinable moment of silence when our fears and hopes are all stilled and we are capable of looking beyond ourselves to what might yet be.

When the Torah was given, no bird chirped, no fowl fluttered, no ox lowed, the angels did not fly, the serafim did not utter “holy holy holy,” the sea did not roar, the creatures did not speak. Then it was heard: Anokhi…” (Exodus Rabbah 29.7)

We heard nothing, and that was when we began to hear. 

This is the silence – absolute, inner and outer – out of which creation arose in the beginning. It is the same silence that is the only way we can see beyond ourselves and perhaps feel, for a moment, the unity that our ancestors knew at Sinai, when they forgot themselves and saw, and heard, as one.

Fill us as the tide rushes into the reeds in the marsh

Fill us as the rushing water overflows the pitcher

Fill us as light fills a room with its dancing.

Let the little quarrels of the bones and the snarling

of the lesser appetites and the whining of the ego cease.

Let silence still us so you may show us your shining

and we can out of that stillness rise and praise.

– Marge Piercy

On this Shabbat, consider what you can hear when you quiet your self. On this Shabbat, may you put aside all the quarrels and snarling and whining of life for just a bit, and contemplate this ancient truth: l’kha dumiyah tehilah, “to you, silence is praise.”