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.” 

Shabbat BeShalakh: Freedom to be Joyful, or Not

Finally, after 400 years of dreaming about a future that is not yet within our grasp, the time is now. All that seemed to be obstacles has fallen away; the door that leads away from enslavement to now is beckoning toward the commitment to what will be.

Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh. Trust, HaShem tells Moshe, not in what is, but in what is not yet. I will be what I will be; we will be what we are not yet. 

In our parashah, called BeShalakh, the Torah records the great Song of the Sea, chanted to a special melody, during which the congregation rises in respect and excitement at the moment of the great memory relived. 

They’ve crossed the great Sea. Pharaoh can no longer threaten them. Moses and Miriam and the Children of Israel sing and rejoice and celebrate. They have been liberated from bondage. 

They are free! All that they dreamed is now true. And now what?

Grumbling. Complaining. The Hebrew word is ַוַיִּלֹּנוּ  va’yilonu: The people grumbled against Moses: “What shall we drink”? (Exodus 15:24)

Yes. Rather than giving themselves up to celebration and gratitude, the Israelites complained. Rather than trust the vision now realized, they turned their eyes away and grumbled about sore feet, moaning over an entirely unrealistic memory of their Egyptian situation.

The whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron: “We wish HaShem had killed us in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat and ate our fill of bread. You brought us out to this wilderness to starve!” (Exodus 16:3).

In Jewish mysticism, we are taught that there are two spiritual states: mokhin d’katnut, “diminished spirit,” and mokhin d’gadlut, “expansive spirit.” Fear is a state that strangles us down to a place of diminished spirit, complaining, angry, hurt, unable to permit ourselves to hope. Curiously, it occurs not when we are beaten down by our situation, but, often, when we are standing on the threshhold of escape from all that holds us down. 

It is at that moment when we ourselves are the weight that holds ourselves down. The state of mokhin d’katnut rushes in just at the moment when we might give ourselves to joy rather than fear.

Why is the language of lovemaking so hard to learn?

Why is the body so often dumb flesh?

Why does the mind so often choose to fly away

at the moment the word waited for all one’s life 

is about to be spoken?

– Alice Walker, The Temple of My Familiar

Here is what it truly means to enter the wilderness. To leave Egypt is to leave that which is comfortingly familiar, even if it stifles growth and freedom and dreams. To leave Egypt is to walk into a wilderness which is only romantic on a bumper sticker; in real life we often see such a moment as scary and unsafe, and we do not see that it is our invitation into mokhin d’gadlut, a chance – that may not come again – to hold out our arms and embrace existence, and to sing its praises.

Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh. Trust, HaShem tells Moshe, not in what is, but in what is not yet. I will be what I will be; we will be what we are not yet. 

On this Shabbat, consider: what do you long to hear, yet run from? Can you begin to understand how it holds not only you back from the ability to trust others, and life itself – and how that holds you, and me as well, from exploring the freedom we might share to move through the wilderness in joy?

Shabbat Bo: Come, O Spring

Parashat Bo arrives at a moment that feels like the return of spring. The timing for the parashah in which we read of our redemption from slavery in Egypt, coinciding with a week in which we saw the beginning of the Biden-Harris Administration, seems singularly appropriate since Tu B’Shevat, our annual celebration of spring’s first signs, begins this coming Wednesday evening January 27. 

For “a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother” who “can dream of becoming president only to find herself reciting for one” and all of us who see reason to breath, along with the national youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman, a sigh of relief, it seems like this might be the beginning of a long denied rebirth of hope for the U.S. 

I saw with pleased recognition a poem that started making the rounds on social media yesterday. We used to read it often when we gathered for prayer, but it somehow disappeared from my collection. Now, as you can imagine, it’s back:

Sometimes

Sometimes things don’t go, after all,

from bad to worse. Some years, muscadel

faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don’t fail.

Sometimes you aim high, and all goes well.

A people sometimes will step back from war,

elect an honest person, decide they care

enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.

Some of us become what we were born for.

Sometimes our best intentions do not go

amiss; sometimes we do as we meant to.

The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow

that seemed hard frozen; may it happen for you.

(slightly adapted for gender accessibility)

I was surprised to read on a website devoted to her poetry that Sheenagh Pugh “hates” the poem: “I think most people read it wrong. When read carefully, it says sometimes things go right, but not that often, and usually only when people make some kind of effort in that direction.”

She has a point. The leaders of the previous administration and their criminal enablers did everything possible to stay in power – challenging votes and invalidating them, challenging results in court, attempting to bribe and threaten; we only saw a hopeful sunrise on January 20 because of the  incredible effort of so many, Stacey Abrams of Georgia leading them all. 

Things go right, and not that often, and usually only when people make some kind of effort. Right on cue, a propos of our parashah, Jewish tradition asks, how was it that the Israelites were able to escape Egypt? And the answer is not so different from Sheenagh Pugh’s: 

The Israelites did not deny the existence of God; they refused to give up their Hebrew names or language, or deny their Jewish identity. 

– Ephod Bad on Pesakh Haggadah, Maggid, First Fruits Declaration 19

In short, they made an effort: 

“There was a time when you were not a slave, remember that. You walked alone, full of laughter, you bathed bare-bellied. You say you have lost all recollection of it, remember . . . You say there are no words to describe this time, you say it does not exist. But remember. Make an effort to remember. Or, failing that, invent.”

― Monique Wittig, Les Guérillères

These are days when we must make an effort to remember, past the desire to relax and breathe a sigh of relief, that the evil that has risen up in our society is not vanquished because its feckless figurehead is off camera. 

Remember that in our escape from Egypt, there were moments: we thought we were safe and then we saw Pharaoh’s army chasing us. As one senior researcher at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center said to the Guardian news source: “my primary concern about this moment is the Q to JQ move”; “the Jewish question” which is the white nationalist and neo-Nazi antisemitic belief that Jews control the world.

We have to hold them both in our awareness. Remember that we were once not slaves, we walked without fear and were whole. Remember that Pharaoh cannot be trusted, and may be chasing us.

And spring, thus summoned with hope and with watchfulness, may yet come. But now it is still January.

Shabbat Va’Era: Time to Grow Up


The words of HaShem came to Moshe: “I am The Source of That Which Was, Will Be, Is – your ancestors knew me as a Sheltering Mother; they did not come to this Awareness which is now Yours.” Exodus 6.2-3
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This period of time, the week that was and the one that will be, are a time the likes of which we have not known in our lifetime: the juxtaposition of the invasion of the U.S. Capitol by an armed mob which included members of police and national guards, and the Inauguration of a new U.S. President, which will take place G*d willing in just a few days, on Wednesday January 20 2021.

The ancient Israelite awareness of HaShem here being taught to Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our teacher, is perfectly timed to invite us into reflection upon the necessary links between last week and this, and between the experience of the ancestors and that of the People of Israel led by Moshe, Miriam and Aaron.

When we are young, we know only the Source of Shaddai, the mothering, nurturing source of life symbolized by the breast, that original source of life upon which we all depended as infants. Young children, psychologically speaking, are focused upon personal physical survival before anything else.

When we are feeling threatened for our very physical survival, we too focus very narrowly. What can I depend upon? what will keep me safe above all else?

It has been noted by many commentators and scholars that the Torah sketches the birth, growth and maturation not only of some heroic (or otherwise) individuals, but also of the Jewish people. Here in the beginning of the Book of Exodus, a shift is occurring that comes precisely well-timed for us.

The end of Eden, as it were, comes when in the process of maturing, we become aware that life is not safe. And so our teacher Rashi explains how it is that HaShem can say to Moshe that the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of Genesis did not know the Name HaShem (the yud hey vav hey) when we can see it right there, in the Torah scroll, used in reference to the Ultimate in the lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah? 

I HaShem was not recognized by them as Faithful and Reliable, for I did not fulfill promises to them in their lifetimes. – Rashi to Ex 6.3

Our earliest ancestors – those who belong to all of us as the earliest examples of what it means to struggle toward a spiritual awareness beyond our full comprehension (even as life is!) – never knew a safe resting place for their lives. The fullest expression of their spiritual path was limited by their ability to mature into the knowledge that life is not safe. Life is not fair. We are not always going to be protected by El Shaddai, the breast that saved us when we were infants.

Recognizing HaShem is the difficult, life-long challenge for Moshe and his People of Israel and it is still our challenge today. To fully grasp that our spiritual path does not bring physical safety – only spiritual certainty, and only then on a good day – requires our understanding that life is a wandering in a wilderness, “a long process of maturation that has no definite end.” (Pardes, The Biography of Ancient Israel, 3)

Events in the U.S. Capitol only solidify the fearful surmise many have felt for some time: the institutions of capitalism and democracy are twisted out of the promising shape they held for our parents or grandparents when they sought refuge in this country, and reassured themselves and each other that this is the greatest country in the world for Jews and for everyone else as well. At this moment we do not know if the oligarchy that seeks to overthrow elected government will be successful in that mission.

We cannot guarantee safety, neither by prayer nor by buying a gun. All we can do is try to be as grown up as we can about the reality of our lives. The choices we make, by which we are known and defined as human beings and as Jews, should stand up under this pressure, or they are not good choices. 

We cannot guarantee safety, but we can rely upon the three pillars that keep our personal world, as a Jewish community, strong: gathering in community for learning in Torah study, gathering in community for prayer and reflection, and seeking each other’s welfare the best we can in acts of tzedakah.

The people of Israel have to learn to grow up in order to make it through the wilderness. Just as Jacob spent his life wavering between his childish Jacob behavior and that of the adult Israel, so do we as individuals and as a people. We will witness the “one step forward, two steps back” struggle of the Israelites from now through the rest of the Jewish year of Torah study. Some will be lost as others continue onward toward a future we cannot define.

This is true of those who will seek to become unidentifiable as Jews in pursuit of safety; this is true of those who turn away from any uncertainty. We felt we had been promised safety, and that promise was not fulfilled: these are difficult times! The god El Shaddai of infancy does not exist; the god HaShem of maturity is not conducive to emotional uprisings (see Korakh, the Golden Calf, et al).

The last refuge of those who do not want to grow up is to demand safety. To truly become a mature community is to recognize that one must do one’s best every day, because no one knows what will happen tomorrow – except that we will still be there for each other, offering compassion and encouragement for each other when the wilderness of our fears howls.

Hazak, hazak, v’nithazek – let us hold on, and hold on to each other

Shabbat shalom
Rabbi Ariel