Eclipse Torah: Martin Buber on the Eclipse of G*d

Such is the nature of this hour. But what of the next? 

Religion is essentially the act of holding fast to G*d. And that does not mean holding fast to an image that one has made of G*d, nor even holding fast to the faith in G*d that one has conceived. It means holding fast to the existing G*d. The earth would not hold fast to its conception of the sun (if it had one), nor to its connection with it, but with the sun itself.

In contrast to religion so understood, philosophy is here regarded as the process, reaching from the time when reflection first became independent to its more contemporary crisis, the last stage of which is the intellectual letting go of G*d.

This process begin with our no longer contenting ourselves, as pre-philosophical people did, with picturing the living G*d, to whom one formerly only called – with a call of despair or rapture which occasionally became its first name – as a Something, a thing among things, a being among beings, an It.

The beginning of philosophizing means that this Something changes from an object of imagination, wishes, and feelings to one that is conceptually comprehensible, to an object of thought.

….

…on the other side, in the development of religion itself….instead of understanding events as calls which make demands on one, one wishes oneself to demand without having to hearken. “I have,” we say, “power over the powers I conjure.” And that continues, with sundry modifications, wherever one celebrates rites without being turned to the Thou and without really meaning its Presence…..

One who is not present perceives no Presence.

…and now one who is seemingly holding fast to G*d becomes aware of the eclipsed Transcendence.

What is it that we mean when we speak of an eclipse of G*d which is even now taking place? Through this metaphor we make the tremendous assumption that we can glance up to G*d with our “mind’s eye,” or rather being’s eye, as with our bodily eye to the sun, and that something can step between our existence and G*d’s as between the earth and the sun. That this glance of the being exists, wholly unillusory, yielding no images yet first make possible all image, no other court in the world attest than that of faith. It is not to be proved; it is only to be experienced; we have experienced it. And that other, that which steps in between, one also experiences, today.

….

In our age, the I-it relation, gigantically swollen, has usurped, practically uncontested, the mastery and the rule….this I that is unable to say Thou, unable to meet a being essentially, is lord of the hour. This selfhood that has become omnipotent, with all the It around it, can naturally acknowledge neither G*d nor any genuine absolute which manifests itself to us as of non-human origin. It steps in between and shuts off from us the light of heaven.

Such is the nature of this hour. But what of the next? It is a modern superstition that the character of an age acts as fate for the next. One lets it prescribe what is possible to do and hence what it permitted. One surely cannot swim against the stream, one says. But perhaps one can swim with a new stream whose source is still hidden? In another image, the I-Thou relation has gone into the catacombs – who can say with how much greater power it will step forth! Who can say when the I-it relation will be directed anew to it assisting place and activity!

The most important events in the history of that embodied possibility called human begin are the occasionally occurring beginnings of new epochs, determined by forces previously invisible or unregarded. Each age is, of course, a continuation of the preceding one, but a continuation can be confirmation and it can be refutation.

Something is taking place in the depths that as yet needs no name. Tomorrow even it many happen that it will be beckoned to from the heights, across the heads of the earthy archons. The eclipse of the light of G*d is no extinction; even tomorrow that which has stepped in between may give way.

Martin Buber, from Eclipse of G*d, excerpted in The Writings of Martin Buber, ed. Will Herberg (1956)

 

 

 

 

Shabbat Re’eh: Blessing, and Curse, and Charlottesville

This Shabbat our parashah begins with words that are both simple and profound:
רְאֵה, אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם–הַיּוֹם:  בְּרָכָה, וּקְלָלָה. Look, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse:
אֶת-הַבְּרָכָה–אֲשֶׁר תִּשְׁמְעוּ, אֶל-מִצְו‍ֹת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתכֶם, הַיּוֹם. blessing, if you hold to the mitzvot of HaShem your God, which you are given this day;
וְהַקְּלָלָה, אִם-לֹא תִשְׁמְעוּ אֶל-מִצְו‍ֹת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, וְסַרְתֶּם מִן-הַדֶּרֶךְ, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם:  לָלֶכֶת, אַחֲרֵי אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים–אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יְדַעְתֶּם. and curse, if you do not hold to the mitzvot of HaShem your God, but instead turn aside from the way which I show you this day, and go after other gods, which you don’t even know. (Deut.11.26-28)
Simple, because most of us can tell the difference between a blessing and a curse pretty quickly. Yet how difficult it is to understand why some see blessing in what others know to be a curse. Just looking is apparently not going to be enough, and so Moshe goes on to refer to a most interesting pedagogical ritual:
וְהָיָה, כִּי יְבִיאֲךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-אַתָּה בָא-שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ–וְנָתַתָּה אֶת-הַבְּרָכָה עַל-הַר גְּרִזִים, וְאֶת-הַקְּלָלָה עַל-הַר עֵיבָל. When HaShem your God brings you into the land you are about to enter, you shall set the blessing upon mount Gerizim, and the curse upon mount Ebal.  (Deut. 11.29)
The way that this works is an unforgettable visual and physical lesson. When the Israelites arrive in the Land of Israel, they are to travel to the area of the city of Shekhem, in central Israel. Nearby they will find two mountains, one called Gerizim and one Ebal. Half of the Israelites are to stand upon each mountain, with the Levites standing in between. The Levites recite the curses that will fall upon those who are not faithful to our people’s Covenant with G*d, and the people say amen, and then the Levites recite the blessings of holding fast to that Covenant, and once again the people respond amen.
 
What do these two mountains have to do with it? They are chosen because they are indelible visual images of blessing and curse: Mt Gerizim still today is lush and fertile, green and lovely, which Mt Ebal is barren, dry and rocky. And yet they are two mountains that are located right next to each other!
A student of the Rambam – Maimonides – traveled in the Land of Israel in the 14th century and reported that while Ebal was dry, “seventy springs of water flow from Gerizim.” The Hebrew word for a pool of water such as that formed by a spring is bereykhah. The word for “blessing” is berakhah. Gerizim was overflowing with the blessing of life-giving water.
That which overflows with life and sustenance, that which supports growth and beauty, is a blessing. Whatever is coming out of Ebal, big strong mountain that it is, does not support life, and sustenance and beauty do not grow from it. You can’t grow a blessing from a curse.
It is not clear how some of our fellow citizens assert that there is blessing where we most assuredly see a curse, how some can find sustenance in terror and murder, and somehow feel justified. But it is very clear that some of the elected leaders of our United States are causing curses to take root and spread where blessing would have been as easy to nurture – and insisting that they see nothing wrong.
Let’s be clear: what happened in Charlottesville was white supremacist terror inflicted on innocent people; it was a living, ugly curse. Those who opposed it asserted with beautiful courage the reality of blessing in our lives. They were a blessing.
Those who spread hate will in the end be as barren as Mt Ebal, and their names and acts will be as curses. Those who oppose hate will be remembered for blessing, as our tradition says: zikhronam l’vrakha, their memory is a blessing.
Charlottesville is not and will not be unique; but as many times as hatred shows itself, encouraged by irresponsible, cynical, evil people, just as many times you and I will rally against it. All of us, each in our own way, can and must hold fast to the mitzvot that keep us tethered to blessing.
The mitzvah of gathering as we did at City Hall last Sunday to remember and to rededicate ourselves to resistance;
the mitzvah of writing letters to Federal and State officials insisting on human and civil rights;
the mitzvah of looking out for each other, forgiving each other just because we need to magnify love, not anger, right now.

 

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

Voices From Charlottesville

I stood in a crowd while a mob advocating genocide pepper sprayed us and threw smoke bombs and rocks at us and the police stood by and calmly watched.

They murdered people in my city today. They committed acts of terrorism.

If I ever hear any of you try and derail this into a “free speech” debate or talk about how “both sides” should be accountable, not only will I consider you human garbage, it will become very apparent which side you are actually on.

One cannot be neutral about white supremacy and terrorism and genetic cleansing any more than one can be neutral about child rape. You are either against the Nazis or ok with letting them take over our society and kill me and nearly everyone I love.”

– Kali Cichon

“We are home and safe. The last 24 hours were intense. We initially went to Charlottesville to see Dr. West speak but when we got there, it was full. We ended up doing our best to hold space outside of the Rotunda. We managed not to get surrounded by the fascists with torches so that was good. We did make it down to the protest on Saturday and a got a little bit of yelling in. It was intense.
A few quick things:
1. If, after today, you believe one side is as bad as the other, I have nothing more to say to you ever.
2. I never want to hear anybody trash millennials again. I would estimate the average age of the group who held the space in the rotunda which I was not physically able to do was 25.
3. I lost track of the number of M.AGA hats and shirts I saw on fascists.
4. It turns out that militia members with semiautomatic rifles are the well behaved ones even if they are terrifying. I’m a little afraid this will change later tonight.
5. We have to stand up, even a little bit.

The most important: Black & Brown people are being terrorized every day. I could escape back into whiteness.”

– Lee Ann Kinkade

 

Lee Ann’s friend who acted as a medic Friday night is in the ICU. This was a horror show.

2 of my friends were there. “You will not replace us , JEW will not replace us” is what they were chanting. One friend , who is Jewish and disabled, was there as the torches poured into the U of V and circled them. She has Cerebral Palsy , and cannot move quickly or with stability . She was with her husband and one other friend who helped her actually run. Lee Ann does not have a body meant for running and she’s gonna be in bed all week. But they feel lucky to have gotten out before the circle of torches completely closed around them.

People had assault weapons with live ammo. Thank god she says the ones with the biggest weapons actually behaved less violently. Lee Ann Kinkade is her name. she said the Kiddush as they were being circled. It was the only prayer she could remember at the time. She wanted to tell me that she held Jewish space and gave Nazis the finger. She felt silly for saying the kiddush. I said she put aside space to be holy , a Jewish space, and it didn’t matter that she was so scared she probably forgot her own name. It was a victory.

The friend in the ICU goes by the name of Star. Can you add their name for a mi sheberakh? She is in surgery now and is expected to live. I just found out.

                                                                        Michelle Levin

MAGA, a Requiem 

I know she told somebody
She’d be careful today.
Before the world broke open and
that Dodge Charger
Dragged down 4th Street looking
For the biggest crowd of black bodies
Still in town.

Call it what it is, sir.
While they wear your hats and chant your name.

Lee Ann Kinkade

 

Shabbat Ekev: Can You Hear the Footsteps?

Our parashat hashavua, the part of the Torah we study this week, is called Ekev. The word refers to a certain sense of causality: “it will happen that all will be well with you because you follow the divine law” says Moshe to the Israelites: as a result of your devotion to this path, you can expect G*d to be devoted to you, as well, in the Covenant relationship you as a people have sworn to uphold.
The word עקב – ekev – infers the sense of something that follows on the heels of something else. The word ekev also means “heel.” Jacob was named Ya’akov because he was born holding on to the heel (ekev, ya’AKOV) of his twin brother Esav. This is not about coincidence but one thing happening because of another.
The Book Devarim, Deuteronomy, is full of a growing sense of urgency, as the people Israel stand on the edge of the river and wonder what the next steps might bring for their lives, veiled by water and roiled by the uncertainty of the future as they are. Our ancestors have responded to this sense of suspension – between the known “here” and the unknown of the מעבר – ma’avar, the transition they face. As they dive down below the level of פשט pshat, the “surface” level of understanding, their מדרש midrash digging down to deeper levels of seeing derive different insights at different times through different contexts.
Some interpretations are for our personal consideration:
Rashi interprets the use of this word ekev as an allusion to those mitzvot which a person tramples with her heels—the Torah is telling us to respect all the mitvot equally, even those that seem less significant to our finite minds.
Ibn Ezra interprets it in the sense of “in the end” (i.e., “in the heels of,” or in the sense that the heel is at the extremity of the body)—the reward of a mitzvah following on the heels of the mitzvah.
Some interpretations are philosophical, or mystical:
Rabbeinu Bakhyah sees suggestion that we understand and experience only the “heel” of a mitzvah, and cannot appreciate its full measure and worth.
The Baal HaTurim gives a gematriatic explanation: the word ekev is used because it has a numerical value of 172—the number of words in the Aseret haDibrot, the Ten Utterances we heard at Sinai.
Some interpretations are national:
 the Tzemach Tzedek sees the use of the word ekev as a reference to ikveta d’meshicha, the generation of “the heels of the Mashiakh.” It is taught that the last generation of the Exile is called “the heels of the Mashiakh” by our tradition for two reasons. First, because human beings will reach their lowest spiritual level before the End of Days comes, and second, paradoxically, it is also the generation in which the approaching presence of the End of Days will be most felt – the footsteps of the Mashiakh will be heard.
 
There is much in Jewish tradition that speaks of the End of Days with apprehension. “Let the End of Days come, but I do not wish to witness it,” said one Talmudic Rabbi. It will be a time when the center will not hold, when chaos will not seem like an enjoyable variation on a boring life but a maelstrom in which nothing is reliable, and no one is dependable.
 
“Repent one day before your death,” our tradition urges. Of course, we cannot know that day; but perhaps under the teaching is a sense that when you are afraid of your death, aware of your mortality and its limits, feeling not at all empowered or able to meet the chaos of a day, one remedy may be to do a mitzvah. Every mitzvah brings with it, after all, some small sense that one is still capable of acting meaningfully in the world – the reward, however small it may seem, that follows upon its heels.
 
And then, even in the face of chaos, of fear, and of meaninglessness – all of which carry death in their wings – in the aftermath of any small mitzvah, any little candle in the wind, we will still be able listen for the steps of hope.

Shabbat Nakhamu: Sometimes the Answer is No

This Shabbat we study the second parashah of Devarim, Deuteronomy, called Va’Etkhanan, “I implored.” The name refers to the pleading of Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our Teacher, to be allowed to enter the Land of Promise which has been his life’s dream and every day work. According to the Midrash (ancient Rabbinical literature which show us how to explore for deeper meanings in the Torah text), after G*d does not relent, Moshe tries to bargain (an honorable Middle Eastern tradition):

Then Moses said, “Master of the universe, if I am not to enter the Land alive, let me enter dead, as the bones of Joseph are about to enter.” … ‘No’ is G*d’s reply… Then Moses said, “Master of the universe, if You will not let me enter the Land of Israel, allow me to remain [alive] like the beasts of the field, who eat grass, drink water, and thus savor the world–let me be like one of these.” At that, G*d replied, “Enough. Speak no more to Me of this matter” (Deut. 3:26).

But Moses spoke up again, “Master of the universe, if not [like a beast of the field], then let me become like a bird that flies daily in every direction to gather its food and in the evening returns to its nest–let me be like one of these.” The Holy One replied again, “Enough.”

This Midrash reflects that our ancestors did not believe in magic, nor in miracles that a human could pry out of the Divine; more, the Rabbis of antiquity knew very well from their own experience that bad things happen, even to good people, and while we may plead with all our heart, it may not change the outcome. Sometimes, even when we pray our hardest and most creatively for what we want, the answer is still going to be No.

This Shabbat marks the days after the biggest NO our people can experience; it is the NO to the plea to be spared, to not let destruction happen, to not let all be lost. Tisha B’Av (the 9th day of the month of Av), now three days ago, marks our memory of the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of our people. Much prayer seemed to be for nothing.
But this Shabbat, only a few days after that nadir, is called Nakhamu, “be comforted.” It seems a surprising and perhaps even offensive idea; awful things happened although I prayed and pleaded and hoped that they should not, how am I to find comfort? The Prophet Isaiah, who saw terrible suffering and destruction in his lifetime, offers this:
 נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ, עַמִּי–יֹאמַר, אֱלֹהֵ-כֶם. Comfort you, O be comforted My people, says your G*d.
דַּבְּרוּ עַל-לֵב יְרוּשָׁלִַם, וְקִרְאוּ אֵלֶיהָ–כִּי מָלְאָה צְבָאָהּ, כִּי נִרְצָה עֲו‍ֹנָהּ:  כִּי לָקְחָה מִיַּד י-ה, כִּפְלַיִם בְּכָל-חַטֹּאתֶיהָ. Tell Jerusalem to take heart, proclaim unto her that her time is accomplished, that her guilt is paid off; that she has received of HaShem’s hand more than enough reflection back for all her sins.
קוֹל קוֹרֵא–בַּמִּדְבָּר, פַּנּוּ דֶּרֶךְ י-ה; יַשְּׁרוּ, בָּעֲרָבָה, מְסִלָּה, לֵאלֹהֵ-נוּ. Listen! a voice calls out: ‘Clear in the wilderness the way of HaShem, make way in the desert a highway for our G*d.
כָּל-גֶּיא, יִנָּשֵׂא, וְכָל-הַר וְגִבְעָה, יִשְׁפָּלוּ; וְהָיָה הֶעָקֹב לְמִישׁוֹר, וְהָרְכָסִים לְבִקְעָה. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the rugged shall be made level, and the rough places plain;
וְנִגְלָה, כְּבוֹד י-ה; וְרָאוּ כָל-בָּשָׂר יַחְדָּו, כִּי פִּי י-ה דִּבֵּר.  {פ} The glory of HaShem shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of HaShem has proclaimed it.’
קוֹל אֹמֵר קְרָא, וְאָמַר מָה אֶקְרָא; כָּל-הַבָּשָׂר חָצִיר, וְכָל-חַסְדּוֹ כְּצִיץ הַשָּׂדֶה. Listen! a voice calls out: ‘Proclaim!’ and there is a reply: ‘What shall I proclaim?’ ‘All flesh is grass, and all the goodness of it is as the flower of the field;
יָבֵשׁ חָצִיר נָבֵל צִיץ, כִּי רוּחַ י-ה נָשְׁבָה בּוֹ; אָכֵן חָצִיר, הָעָם. The grass withers and the flower fades when the breath of Eternity blows on it; surely the people are grass.
יָבֵשׁ חָצִיר, נָבֵל צִיץ; וּדְבַר-אֱלֹהֵ-נוּ, יָקוּם לְעוֹלָם.  {ס} The grass withers and the flower fades; but an Eternal word stands for ever.’  (Isaiah 40.1-8)
All of us, and all of our struggles and pain, are not all that there is in this world. While suffering is real and terrible in one place, joy and gratitude are equally real in another. Rather than a comforting which promises an answer for our pain, so that we can understand it, Isaiah reflects the reality of the Rabbis who chose this text for this week many generations ago: we are like grass, which fades so quickly; all our joy and our pain fades as fast.
If it all passes, then our tradition offers us not answers, but how to respond, and what to do while we are here. Our daily prayers tell us that we are to follow G*d’s example as demonstrated in the Torah:
to somekh noflim, hold each other up as each of us falls,
to rofeh holim, care for those who are suffering,
to matir asurim, help those who are trapped to become free,
and
to m’kayyem emunato lisheyney afar, faithfully maintaining the memory of those who “sleep in the dust.”
The comforting, we are promised, will come of itself; not because we found someone to make our suffering central, but because we’ve found a community in which to make sure that it does not become central to us, through seeking and doing the mitzvot that make our lives holy, no matter how long or short, happy or troubled, they may be.
Thus, we are told, we are able to immerse ourselves in the ultimate comfort: imitation of G*d, leading us closer with every act to G*d. Rabbi Akiba called G*d Mikveh Israel, “the Hope of Israel.”

May this Shabbat bring you comfort in that you are able to offer love and support to others, and in so doing immerse yourself in the love and support and hope that you, and we all, need.

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

Tisha B’Av: Beyond the Sadness – I Must Own This Evil if I Would Behold the Good

On Monday evening July 31, and all day Tuesday August 1, the Jewish world observes this year’s onset of the 9th day of the Jewish month of Av, called simply by that name in Hebrew: ט’ באב – Tisha B’Av, the great Fast Day of mourning for what was destroyed and will never be again.

What shall we do with Tisha B’Av, we Jews who live in a time when Israel has been re-established, as flawed as any nation state but still: Jerusalem is rebuilt? There are those who assert that to observe the day of mourning as it was done for two millennia of Exile is wrong, for it ignores the historic change in our own day, in which we have seen the end of forced Exile and the rise of chosen Diaspora. And there are those who insist that we should continue to observe Tisha B’Av as we always have, as a day of Yizkor for all our people who were massacred in the Babylonian destruction, the Roman dispersal, the Crusades, the pogroms, the blood libels…
Our tradition contains this teaching: “When one human being is killed, an entire world – of potential, of offspring, of impact – dies with that person. When a human life is saved, a world is saved.” (Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 37a) When Jewish people continue the practice of mourning those long dead and lost, we keep alive the practice of empathy for any human life lost, even those who die in such numbers that the Western mind turns away, numbed. Jews who keep place for mourning fluent in our hearts can demand that we never succumb to such numbness.
There are losses which are in the natural way of things. And there are losses which leave an irreparable hole behind them. Our tradition offers us not only intellectual opportunities for coping with such devastating loss when it happens to us, but also emotional outlets. Such as Tisha B’Av, and the Book of Lamentations we traditionally read on that day.

The empty chair at the Seder table. The end of a certain melody in the room. The hand one reaches for, the hug the body leans in for, before memory corrects for death. The dried up lake, the torn down house, the missing tree.

This is how death
came to the old tree:
in a cold bolt, a single
thrust from a cloud,
in a tearing away of bark
and limbs, a piercing
of much that was necessary.
We had no choice then
but to cut it down–a pine
of great height, that knew much
about weather and small life.
It had been here longer
than any of us. And now
there is a hole in the sky.
 
Jane Flanders, “Testimony”


We are an optimistic people, teaching our children to believe in a perfectible world and, as Anne Frank put it, goodness in the heart of every human being.  Optimism has served us well or we would not still exist. But the mystics reminds us that optimism cannot be used to shut out the unpleasant which is also a part of life, or our lives and souls will not be whole. Tisha B’Av offers us space for the sadness that comes to every life. It offers us the chance to maintain Jewish fluency in dealing with mourning – a useful corrective to the Western emphasis on winning, and on the kind of happiness that is falsely and corrosively held up on too many social media sites, a pathetically useless shield against the inevitability of pain.

At a funeral, we take time to weep, and then, in natural time, move forward. On Tisha B’Av, our people mourns as a people – the more honestly, the more likely we will move forward as a people. Individual Jews (and those who love them) who need a space where it’s okay to be silent, to be sad, to cry, are welcome to explore the personal along with the communal. The embrace of our people and its emotional depth is sufficient for both.

Tisha B’Av challenges us to grapple with that which is not happy, not easy, and not comfortable, and to consider trying on the statement I am responsible in some part for the evil of the world. It’s a powerful evocation of everything that’s wrong with our society right now, with the extra sadness that comes with realizing how many generations we have suffered the same human mistakes, the same evil. We as a community of human beings are part of this. And we as a community can do better.
It is a well known truth that people do not act upon a situation unless they feel that they “own” it in some way. Jewish tradition teaches that we were put upon this earth to own it in precisely this way: it touches us, it affects us, we are not separate from it. Coming to terms with this ownership, this responsibility, opens us not only to guilt over what is wrong, but hope that we can influence and nurture what is right.
And so at the end of Tisha B’Av we will see the Jewish antidote to despair: when contemplating the world and all its hurt, keep putting one foot in front of the other, keep looking for mitzvot to do to raise up the world and us in it. Although the holes will remain, consolation will come. It will.
Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other.