Shabbat Sh’lakh L’kha: Don’t Be Afraid, Together We Can Do This

We are learning, as a human family and as Jews, the price of fear, and of second-hand information. It’s a long road, stretching all the way back to our parashat hashavua. In Sh’lakh L’kha, we have crossed the wilderness, we are camped on the edge of the Land of Promise. Perhaps it’s only human that we do not go immediately forward, trusting in G*d to support us into this final form of the unknown. Instead, Moshe our leader sends twelve scouts ahead of us, to travel the length and breadth of the land, and to bring back a report to the People Israel, waiting breathlessly, excited and, yes, also afraid. There is, after all, something about the final moment of truth from which we quail.

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

The scouts complete their mission and return. They all agree that the land is beautiful and fertile. Then one of them begins to relate the size of the fortified cities and their inhabitants. “Really?” I can imagine the response. “How big are they?” asks one. “Are they fierce?” another anxiously inquires. “Do they eat people? I heard they eat people!” And before long Moshe has a full-fledged panic on his hands. Fear is electric, and it can bond us all together in a syngergistic current that makes of a casual remark a trigger for all the terrors an active imagination can create.

What makes the final step, that move from almost to arrival so terribly difficult that we begin to imagine all the ways that it cannot possibly succeed?
The entry into the Land of Promise is not only a geographical move. Viewed from the mythical perspective, we can feel the resonance to anything that is longed for, anything that is promised in some wonderful perfect future. It is no accident that in many stories of the journey to fulfillment, monsters must be battled. In Judaism those terrors are sometimes in the world around us, as we can see in the form of those who fight against change even when it is manifestly for the better, for themselves and for the world.
But the terror are also that which we conjure up inside us, and that urge, which our tradition names the yetzer hara’, the “evil impulse,” is often our most significant challenge. The yetzer, we are taught, is not only an impulse to do evil; it is also that impulse which keeps us from believing in ourselves and in our ability to reach our Promise.
Why would the Israelites hesitate to enter the fulfillment of the Promise they lived for?
Why do people vote against their own interests?
Why do we so often run away from the love and wholeness
that is so close to our grasp,
and for which we so long?
On this Shabbat, Pride Shabbat, we celebrate the power of love in all its forms. Judaism teaches that love is the highest human expression, and Jewish mysticism promises that when we reach understanding, judgement and mercy will merge into compassion.
Don’t misunderstand me: there is evil, and there are real dangers. That’s why we have to always remember to stick together. There are real monsters out there. But the Israelites didn’t check on that report; didn’t consider the effect they might be experiencing, of the fear of the unknown. They panicked – without ever verifying if there really was anything to fear. That second-hand information cost them forty years more of wandering before another chance would come to reach the Promise.
Look inside: is there a magnifier there, enlarging every fear until they seem like monsters? The answer is to reach out of yourself. Get a new perspective: check what you think you know. Question your doubts as well as your beliefs. Ask someone you trust for another opinion – and not someone who will only agree with you. Get a second opinion about that which most terrifies you – there’s no need to add to the real monsters with those we construct out of fear, second hand.
Don’t be afraid, said Joshua and Caleb, the only two scouts who disagreed with the rest. Together we can do this. The Israelites did not hear them. Can we, so much further (we hope) down the road of learning about letting fear control us, hear them? When we support each other, we will find a way to let go of those fierce, people-eating monsters that appear between us and our wholeness when we are nearly, almost there. When we defeat the mirage of terror created by our own yetzer hara’ we will see it: the Land of the Promise we all long for.

Shabbat BeHa’alot’kha: Light the Way Forward

Our parashah begins with these words:
 
דַּבֵּר, אֶל-אַהֲרֹן, וְאָמַרְתָּ, אֵלָיו:  בְּהַעֲלֹתְךָ, אֶת-הַנֵּרֹת, אֶל-מוּל פְּנֵי הַמְּנוֹרָה, יָאִירוּ שִׁבְעַת הַנֵּרוֹת.
“Speak to Aaron, tell him: in your lifting up of the lamps, it is toward the front of the menorah [lamp stand] that the seven lights should illuminate.” (Num.8.2)
This is difficult to understand without visualizing the menorah. It is a large, seven-branched lamp stand, and at the top are not seven candles, but seven oil lamps. They look like a simple example of the famous Aladdin’s lamp; they are designed to hold oil, poured in the larger end’s hole, which feeds the wick protruding from the hole at its smaller end.
These small oil burning lamps are ubiquitous in archaeological digs in Israel. They are about the size of your hand, and constitute the equivalent of a torch in a land without so much wood to burn.
Aaron is told to situate the lamps in the menorah in such a way that they give light at the front of the menorah. While this is a reasonable safety measure against setting the Tent of Meeting in which the menorah stood on fire, the seven-branched lamp stand and the direction of its light also invites us to consider a deeper, more symbolic level of meaning.
What does it mean to say that when you lift up a light, it should burn forward?
It is taught that the menorah might symbolize the Jewish people: seven branches, multiple paths in Jewish life. Yet the menorah is fashioned of a single piece of precious metal, demonstrating that the different paths we take need not detract from seeing our community as fundamentally united. Diversity need not lead to division. Rather, differing individual talents can be brought into a synthesis stronger for its various nuances.
Similarly, the menorah can symbolize our society: especially as we enter Pride Week it is appropriate to note the many colors of the Rainbow Flag and the beauty of diversity it evokes. Different paths need not detract from the essential light shed by the human menorah we can become together.
But it’s the light, not the seven branches, that most compels this week – a week in which we experienced the darkness shed by those who rally for racism and lift up the flag of hatred. And so Torah comes on this Shabbat to remind us that we have light to shed, illumination to direct forward. It is not enough for us to share our light among ourselves – Jewish tradition commands us to direct it forward. Onward, despite the demoralization and confusion sown by fear; upward, as our former First Lady taught: “when they go low, we go high.”
The menorah demonstrates that each of us need not agree with each other on what act is the right one for this day and this time; there are many ways forward, and we must understand that to which we are best suited, so that the light we each bring will shine as brightly as it can.
Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other.

Standing Up Is Dangerous, Yet We Must Stand Up

Just before Shabbat entered the world last Friday evening, a tragedy occurred in Portland. Two men who tried to intervene in the harassment of two teenage Muslim women were murdered. By Shabbat afternoon, over a thousand people had come together to mourn, to comfort each other and to encourage each other and ourselves to continue to rise up, as the two men did, against acts of hate in our public spaces. By Sunday morning, news of the murders had been publicized internationally. By Sunday evening, nearly half a million dollars had been raised for the families of the two victims as well as a third person who survived the attack (and needs help with medical bills, to our shame as a country).
Perhaps you remember that in January and February Shir Tikvah organized an opportunity for us to learn about non-violent intervention in cases of public acts of hate. Perhaps it is just now that you feel it hitting home, as I do: standing up for another person in an attempt to intervene to keep that person safe is not necessarily, and certainly not guaranteed to be, a safe act.
What are we, then, to do, with this frightening new reality?There are those who have already called for armed police on every MAX train. No doubt there are even those who are calling for each of us to carry a concealed weapon. But reactions which stoke our fear and mistrust of each other will only drive us farther away from each other, and not toward peaceful co-existence.
Traditional Jewish ethics teaches us to see G*d as our role model, and to reach out to others as described in our daily prayers: to lift up the fallen, to heal the sick, to free the captive, to keep faith with those who sleep in the dust (the Gevurot prayer of the Amidah).
Yet we are also taught in Jewish tradition to care for all life, including our own; piku’akh nefesh, saving life, comes before all other mitzvot. Sacrificing oneself is not encouraged, unless there is no other way. Yet from our own experiences, the Jewish people has also learned, as the Israeli historian Yehudah Bauer puts it, the three mitzvot of the Holocaust:
You shall not be a perpetrator; you shall not be a victim; you shall not be a bystander.
Non-violent intervention is a complex act; if you remember, our teachers told us that it may escalate, and we ourselves may find ourselves in danger. When hate is abroad, none of us are safe: not the victim, not the intervener, and not the bystander, who will one day be engulfed in the hate s/he has done nothing to try to stop.
This is all a great shock for those of us whose parents worked hard to shield us from the murderous hatred our people knew in Europe; for some of us, we have never felt even a little bit unsafe. We must support each other as we face this new reality, and give each other the time that we have to begin to try to accustom ourselves to a new, harsh reality.
Violence is always wrong. Compassion is always right. The difficulty is in our daily struggle to identify what’s truly happening and to find the right path forward through it. Let the mitzvot of our prayers live for you not only as a challenge to your acts but as a guiding light of sanity when you are trying to figure out what to do. No matter what, it is right to try to lift up the fallen, to heal the sick, to free the captive, to keep faith with those who sleep in the dust. 
 
And luckily, you can join the communal prayers anytime you want to meditate on just how this framework of mitzvot can hold you up, when you realize you also must stand up.

 

Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other

Shabbat BaMidbar: Fire, Water and Wilderness

The name of our parashah this week is the same as the name of the Book we are now beginning, once again, to study: BaMidbar, “in the wilderness,” the Book called Numbers in English. So far in our journey from Egypt toward that which is Promised, our Torah has recounted for us the escape itself, the arrival at Mt Sinai, the building of the Mikdash, the sacred space, and the details of how we are to approach the Presence of G*d, in that space and, for that matter, everywhere else. From the arrival at Sinai, all the action has taken place at the foot of that mountain. Now, “on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they came out of Egypt” (Num.1.1), we are preparing to leave Sinai, and to strike off across the untracked wilderness.

This parashah is always read just before Shavuot, the Festival of the giving of the Torah which we will celebrate next Tuesday evening through Wednesday (and Thursday, which is the 2nd day of the Diaspora). Our ancestors, contemplating the context for our receiving the Torah, note that it was given “amidst three things: fire, water, and wilderness” (Midrash Rabbah).

Fire, as we learn from the account of Sinai enveloped in smoke and fire, G*d appearing in a burning bush, and the pillar of fire that will lead us onward, symbolized in the fire that is to be kept ever-burning on the altar and in our hearts.

Water, as we know from the story of our people entering the Sea of Reeds in an act of faith, and crossing through it in a way as miraculous as if on dry land.

Wilderness, for the thirty-nine years our ancestors will make their way, each day in the faith that they are slowly approaching that which has been Promised, that safe resting place which will be Home.

The Lubliner Rebbe noted that the first two of these elements are momentary occurrences: our people came through fire and water, and it was done. But the wilderness journey was a sustained, on-going struggle in uncertainty.

The Festival of Shavuot is often described by our tradition as the wedding between G*d and the People of Israel, and the Torah is, therefore, our ketubah. And we can see the similarity: the fire and water of initial passion and emotion, which in time settles into the daily wandering in the wilderness which is a true, living relationship. Whether with another individual or with one’s kehillah, one’s intentional Jewish community, an initial attraction and excitement will inevitably settle into the real struggle to deal with all the uncertainties of living, evolving, and growing – as an individual and with others.

To truly exist in the wilderness takes dedication, strength and courage: the courage to stay engaged when one’s certainties are upset, the strength to hold still and listen to that which is new, and the dedication to stick with the meaning of the journey on the bad days, the days of mokhin d’katnut, as the mystics put it, when we are small-minded and not kind, neither to others nor to ourselves.

On this Shabbat, we are invited to dive deep into remembering the state of wandering – not in the easy way of the bumper sticker, wandering among institutions that do not ask for our personal loyalty, but in the difficult way of being that leads to that which is Promised:

The wilderness is not just a desert through which we wandered for forty years. It is a way of being. A place that demands being open to the flow of life around you. A place that demands being honest with yourself without regard to the cost in personal anxiety; a place that demands being present with all of yourself.

In the wilderness your possessions cannot surround you. Your preconceptions cannot protect you. Your logic cannot promise you the future. Your guilt can no longer place you safely in the past. You are left alone each day with an immediacy that astonishes, chastens, and exults. You see the world as if for the first time.

Now you might say that the promise of such spirited awareness could only keep one with the greatest determination in the wilderness but for a moment or so. That such a way of being would be like breathing pure oxygen. We would live our lives in but a few hours and die of old age. As our ancestors complained, It is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness (Exodus 14.12). 

And indeed, that is your choice. (Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, Honey From the Rock)  

Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other for the journey, in Israel, in the U.S., and in our own intentional communities –  that journey which continues at our feet right here, right now.

Shabbat BeHar/BeHukkotai: Taking Refuge in the PaRDeS of Learning

Yesterday I was on a conference call with a national social justice organization, during which we were told that “usually, we expect to operate with a six-month window. Lately we have revised that to six days.”  Such is the sense of frantic, non-stop chaos in the political sphere of our nation’s existence.
Thank G*d that we Jews have the ability to balance our necessary social and political awareness with a much longer, calmer perspective: that of the halakhah, the structured path, and the aggadah, the informing narrative, of our people’s long history. No matter what is happening in the moment, you can gain a moment of calm with which to view a wider horizon by going through a simple mental exercise: what’s the parashat hashavua (the parashah, or section, of the week), and how does it offer resonance in this moment?
The parashah this shavua is a double: BeHar, “on the mountain”, and BeHukkotai, “with My laws.”  Applying our four-fold PaRDeS tool for exploring Torah we find much that can help us put the latest news of today and every day into a manageable context. Consider it a refuge from immediacy. Pardes is an ancient Persian loan word meaning “garden”; it is also the root of the word “paradise.”
1. P is for peshat; on the “simple” or surface level of meaning we have this teaching: BeHar, on the mountain, refers to Mount Sinai. It’s a surprising reminder that here, as we finish up the Book VaYikra (Leviticus) we haven’t yet left the mountain where we stood all together to enter into the Covenant. It took us only fifty days to arrive there, but we have been there ever since. And when we do leave, soon enough, to begin the wanderings described in the Book BaMidbar (Numbers), we will take with us a souvenir in the most significant sense of the word. That eternal reminder, or azkarah (memorial) of the Sinai experience, is referred to in the name of the next parashah, BeHukkotai, “with My laws.” On the first day that our people ventured forth from Sinai, and on every single day since, we have had with us the gift of the guide we got there.
2. D is for drash (interpretation), and yes, the letters go out of the word’s order: on this deeper level of investigating meaning we dive beneath the surface meaning of a verse. These two parshiyot are full of the laws that are meant to create an ethical Jewish society, among them this one: “when you buy and sell property, you shall not defraud your neighbor” (Lev.25.14). Rabbi Simkha Bunem of Pyshiskha (1765-1827) “drashed”, i.e. taught as a midrash (interpretation) on this law: “Legally, it is only forbidden to defraud one’s neighbor. But a good Jew must go beyond the letter of the law, and take care not to delude oneself, either.” Understood this way, we are commanded not to cheat ourselves in terms of value, mentally, physically or spiritually. You know what you’re worth, as an Image of G*d in the world, and what your neighbor is worth, too.
3. R is for remez (hint). In parashat BeHar we are commanded to count 49 years and to declare every 50th year to be a Yovel (“Jubilee”) year, a holy time: “you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants….you shall not sow, neither shall you reap.” (Lev.25.10-11) Hints might come from noticing context and juxtaposition, and just before this command is that of sounding the Shofar on the Day of Atonement in order to declare the Yovel year. Might we understand from this that the year cannot be considered holy, a year when there will be enough to eat without sowing and reaping, if Atonement is not achieved first? Could we understand this, further, as a warning that unless we care for the land and its inhabitants appropriately and ethically, it will not yield its abundance to us? The Torah itself leads us to this conclusion in parashat BeHukkotai, in which we are warned that if we abuse the land and its inhabitants, sooner or later the land will rest, but we will not be there to see it.
4. S is for sode (secret). We are aware of this level of understanding, but we cannot achieve it. There is that which will remain beyond us, and there is a mystery at the heart of life we will never understand. Rabbi Hayim of Tzantz taught that our awareness of our inability to understand life makes our lives a constant search through a dark, trackless forest. All we can do, the Rebbe said, is to hold hands, and look for the way together.
On this Shabbat, give thanks for sun and longer days in which to enjoy life as we can, understanding what we might of the chaotic days in which we live, grateful for learning that leads to deeper interpretations and community that supports us in our common seeking. This, too, is Torah, and we need to learn it.
Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other.

May Day: Short Sighted Police Leadership

I submitted this letter to the Oregonian but I can’t even find the responses they published to the “hot button” question regarding whether the police were too harsh on May Day at the rally and march downtown. I don’t think they published my response – so here it is.

The actions of the Portland Police demonstrate short-sighted thinking among those who direct them

I was there, downtown, on May Day 2017 in Portland, and I remain dismayed by the outcome for all those who had gathered to participate in this celebration of workers’ solidarity. It was truly amazing and heartening to see the different groups there.

I was disappointed by the small minority of people who were clearly bent on destruction from the moment the march began. Men – some young, some old enough to know better – with megaphones hurled abuse at the police who stood alongside the route. Some were content with words, but others were eager to do damage.

And I was horrified by the actions of the police. Rather than working to separate out the minority violent element from the march, there was indiscriminate escalation, including the throwing of tear gas – by definition a weapon that cannot discriminate between the thug and the peaceful marcher.

Those who direct police actions must be told: neither tear gas nor beatings is ever effective in creating a peaceful society. Only justice can do that.

Our police must be trained to distinguish between the destructive element and the peaceful marchers, citizens they are sworn to protect and to serve. The City of Portland must change the tone of police interaction with peaceful marchers. They did not deserve the disrespect of having their permit summarily revoked and their march ended, unjustly identified with a small minority which acted destructively.

Rabbi Ariel Stone