Shabbat Toldot: It Can Stop Here

Have you ever been vilified? Or known someone who was? We tend to shake our heads over the person as well as the process, decrying “cancel culture” but believing that the lashon hara’ must have some root in truth.

Our parashat hashavua describes two brothers, twins, who are quite different. One loves the outdoors and becomes a skilled hunter with bow and arrow; the other likes to stay closer to the tents, helping to shepherd the flocks. They might be seen a metaphor for the classic clash we detect between hunter and farmer. There is nothing to suggest in the text that one is evil and one is righteous.

Then comes the family dysfunction. The twins’ mother comes from a family that thought nothing of deception, even among family members; the father was traumatized early by his father’s violence, and seems bereft of volition. Is it any wonder that the woman deceives her husband in order to make sure that the twin she loves better is the inheritor, even though he was born second? Is it surprising that the child she favors goes along with it?

The manipulation of mother and son against father and brother is appalling. The Torah describes the grief of the cheated son and the deceived father in heartrending terms.

The surprising thing is that, for two thousand years of Jewish tradition, our ancestors did everything they could through Midrash and superstition to twist the character of Esau into someone who deserved being cheated. And we are left with this curiosity: a people that holds up the ethical concept of lishpot l’khaf zekhut, always giving someone the benefit of the doubt (until proven otherwise), has gone out of its way to defend the indefensible.

Why does our tradition vilify Esau? It’s a story that we tell to ourselves that answers when other inexplicable hurt. Esau, our bigger and more powerful sibling, becomes associated with Rome, and then with Christianity – bigger, more powerful cultures at whose hands we have suffered Exile, persecution and mass murder. Why would brother Jacob be justified in betraying brother Esau? Only in retrospect; only because the absent, innocent Esau becomes symbolic of evil.

There’s no truth to it, except for the truth that we all hurt, and sometimes we weave elaborate stories about why that end up blaming someone innocent. And then there’s so much riding on that story, so much depending upon it, that we can’t undo it. The person is sacrificed to the place we need them to take for life to make sense to us.

This struggle is at the heart of the long and painful series of incidents, fears, hopes and betrayals that characterize the relationship of Palestinians and Israelis over the past century. Historically, we Jews carry so much trauma that many of us consider distrust of outsiders to be a traditional virtue. In Israel and beyond, Jews draw a line between the 1930s anti-British Hebron riots, in which Arabs massacred Jewish neighbors, all the way to Oslo, and the tradition that grows up around old fears creates new expectations of betrayal and of evil. From Esau to the Mufti of Jerusalem, we’ve woven a way to make sense of our fears, and even today when we behold the injustice of the Occupation which our own Jewish ethics tells us is wrong, some of our people are trapped by the old fears. And others speak only words of condemnation.

We who inherit all this can’t rehabilitate Esau’s reputation, and we can’t convince generations of traumatized Jews that their fears are not real. But perhaps we can be the generation that does not continue to live out of fear; the generation that refocuses us upon judging each person l’khaf zekhut, giving the benefit of the doubt.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Ariel

An invitation to learn starting December 13 2022: A one-year course on Israel and Palestine

Israel and Palestine: Learn before you Think

The goal of this course is to create a safe learning environment for Jews to discuss and reckon with the complexities of our relationship with Israel. The State of Israel is both the fulfillment of the millennial dream of a homeland for Jews and the cause Palestinian pain and suffering caused by the Israeli government. 

There are very few safe spaces for Jews to wrestle with the right and wrong of Zionism without the overlay of antisemitism that magnifies internalized self-hatred and intergenerational trauma. I invite you to join me in a year-long course which will guide participants through a carefully moderated, mutually respectful exploration of the historical, cultural and spiritual link of the Jewish people to Israel and the tragedy of the ongoing Israeli state’s oppression of the people of Palestine. All Jews and those who are learning to become Jews who come from a place of human heartbreak, not demonization, are welcome.

This year-long discussion will culminate in a study tour of Palestine and Israel led by Mejdi Tours, in order to see in person the people and places we’ve learned about, including El Azariyah, Ramallah, Bethlehem, and  Jerusalem.

For more information stay tuned to an announcement next week.

Hayye Sarah: No One Gets Out Alive

וַיִּהְיוּ֙ חַיֵּ֣י שָׂרָ֔ה מֵאָ֥ה שָׁנָ֛ה וְעֶשְׂרִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה וְשֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֑ים שְׁנֵ֖י חַיֵּ֥י שָׂרָֽה

Sarah’s lifetime—the span of Sarah’s life—came to one hundred and twenty-seven years. (Genesis 23.1)

Literally: “The life of Sarah was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years.”

All that lives will die. Even you, even me. Despite exercise and diet. While we know that there are ways we can act that are likely to enhance our days, we cannot control how many there will be.

As with all the stories recorded in our Torah, we approach the death of Sarah as a learning moment. As we have lived and died in many different majority cultures during two millennia of homelessness, different times have produced different commentaries.

Talmud (2-5th century Babylonia) whilst Sarah was living, a light had been burning in the tent from one Sabbath eve to the next, there was always a blessing in the dough (a miraculous increase) and a cloud was always hanging over the tent (as a divine protection), but since her death all these had stopped. However, when Rebecca came, they reappeared” (Genesis Rabbah 60:16).

Rashi (11th century France): The reason the word שנה shanah, “year”, is written at every term is to tell you that each term must be explained by itself as a complete number: at the age of one hundred she was as a woman of twenty as regards sin — for just as at the age of twenty one may regard her as having never sinned, since she had not then reached the age when she was subject to punishment, so, too, when she was one hundred years old she was sinless — and when she was twenty she was as beautiful as when she was seven (Rashi on Bereshit Rabbah 58:1).

Midrash (2nd-12th century Europe) The sun of Sarah did not set until the sun of Rivkah had risen, as it is written, “the sun rises and the sun sets” (Ecclesiastes 1.5) There is no tzadik / tzadeket [righteous person] who disappears from the world until another is born. (Midrash Lekakh Tov, Genesis 23.1:1)

To this we might add in our own day something that we note as important, even subversive, in our own day: her life partner Abraham took the time to grieve. He did not immediately begin to organize Life After Sarah, or even to arrange for her burial site. He sat down next to the body of Sarah and he wept.

Western culture urges us to keep going, not to let death and sorrow disrupt our routine. In so doing it makes death much harder than necessary. On this Shabbat, consider the alternative: follow in the footsteps of your Jewish ancestors, who search the life and death of loved ones for meaning by which to live. And, most important perhaps, mandate time and space to consider our own in the shadow of theirs. May it be said of us when we die, as of Sarah, that she lived.

Shabbat VaYera: Community

Sodom and Gomorrah was a community too…

תָּנֵי רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן יוֹחָאי, מָשָׁל לִבְנֵי אָדָם שֶׁהָיוּ יוֹשְׁבִין בִּסְפִינָה נָטַל אֶחָד מֵהֶן מַקְדֵּחַ וְהִתְחִיל קוֹדֵחַ תַּחְתָּיו, אָמְרוּ לוֹ חֲבֵרָיו מַה אַתָּה יוֹשֵׁב וְעוֹשֶׂה, אָמַר לָהֶם מָה אִכְפַּת לָכֶם לֹא תַחְתִּי אֲנִי קוֹדֵחַ, 

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught a parable: People were on a ship. One took a drill and started drilling underneath their seat. The others said: What are you doing?! The reply: What do you care. Is this not underneath my area that I am drilling?!  

– VaYikra Rabbah 4.6

Does your community help you find light in darkness?

Does your community expand your understanding of what it is to care?

Does your community offer you support when you can’t go it alone?

We all need it as a natural condition of human existence. What is it, then, that makes human community so difficult? Is it the devastating flood of the evil we do, or the babel of misunderstandings as we each seek the language of our personal identity? Is it exterior forces that dominate us, or is it our own incompleteness that makes us feel overwhelmed? Is it that we follow the wrong leader, or that we don’t let ourselves learn?

In the parashat hashavua this week we see Sarah establishing her household in a grove of trees, representing a certain kind of community – it takes a forest. Yet she sees clearly when a situation of too many conflicting needs must be resolved. Abraham sits alone in his tent, but recognizes multiplicity in the holiness he encounters when three strangers bring him one holy word. 

What the philosopher Emanuel Levinas called the “difficult balance” between freedom and belonging, between loneliness and the search for others with whom one can feel safe, is a lifelong effort. In this parashah, Abraham’s brother Lot chooses to join a community in which he may be safe, but is not safe for all. Behind his securely locked door he can pretend not to see that which is done with his tax dollars, but when the community’s evil destroys it, he no longer has a door at all.

הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אַל תְּהִי בָז לְכָל אָדָם, וְאַל תְּהִי מַפְלִיג לְכָל דָּבָר, שֶׁאֵין לְךָ אָדָם שֶׁאֵין לוֹ שָׁעָה וְאֵין לְךָ דָבָר שֶׁאֵין לוֹ מָקוֹם

Ben Azzai used to say: do not despise any one, and do not discriminate against anything, for there is no one that does not have their hour, and there is no thing that does not have its place.  (Pirke Avot 4.3)

What community are you a part of? How does it help you to find your distinct language of existence, and with whom do you share enough of that language to feel safe, at least for today? But that’s not enough, we’ve learned – now, apply the Sodom and Gomorrah test: is your safety sustainable? Or does it despise – ignore – certain people and ideas, to its own detriment?

On this Shabbat, take a step deeper into meaningful community. Discern what that means for you. Choose to accept the support offered you, and decide what resources you will offer of your own.  

And when you take that step, may you find to your delight that in seeking to answer your own need, you have become part of someone else’s answer to theirs.

That is the holy community we all deserve, and that we can build together – by sharing your holy light with that of others, we can learn to discern a good path.

Shabbat No’akh: What A Mess

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ה’ אֶמְחֶ֨ה אֶת־הָאָדָ֤ם אֲשֶׁר־בָּרָ֙אתִי֙ מֵעַל֙ פְּנֵ֣י הָֽאֲדָמָ֔ה מֵֽאָדָם֙ עַד־בְּהֵמָ֔ה עַד־רֶ֖מֶשׂ וְעַד־ע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם כִּ֥י נִחַ֖מְתִּי כִּ֥י עֲשִׂיתִֽם׃

ה said, “I will blot out from the earth humankind whom I created—humans together with beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky; for I regret that I made them.” (Bereshit 6.7)

At the end of last week’s parashah HaShem has come to the conclusion that the world is hopelessly flawed:

וַיַּ֣רְא ה’ כִּ֥י רַבָּ֛ה רָעַ֥ת הָאָדָ֖ם בָּאָ֑רֶץ וְכׇל־יֵ֙צֶר֙ מַחְשְׁבֹ֣ת לִבּ֔וֹ רַ֥ק רַ֖ע כׇּל־הַיּֽוֹם׃

‘ה saw how great was human wickedness on earth—how every plan devised by the human mind was nothing but evil all the time. (Bereshit 6.5)

Feel familiar? The campaign season only exacerbates the worst qualities of human beings; they are there all the time. This is why ancient Jewish tradition contemplates whether or not human beings should have been created in the following midrash.

When HaShem said “let us create the human being” the angels fell to arguing about it; one group argued for, one against. “They will be creators of beauty and inspiration” said one; another retorted, “they will bring bloodshed and destruction.” HaShem could not deny the truth of either assertion, so HaShem ignored it…while they were arguing HaShem created the human and said “Look, it’s alive!” (Bereshit Rabbah 8.5)

And now, only a few chapters later, HaShem has decided to destroy it all. 

The attendant issue that bothers many of us is that many innocents were also destroyed. We deflect the real learning of this text by turning against the image of a puppet master god that we create for the purpose: why would a divine being erase the lives of innocent along with guilty? What kind of horrible deity is this?

But that’s a straw god. The resonance of this ancient myth is more subtle. We, created in the Image of HaShem, too easily turn away from truth we do not find palatable and go ahead with what we want – just like HaShem in the midrash. 

And it’s true: sometimes we do lose patience, and wish for the larger problems of our society to just go away. We want to believe in politicians who offer us a certain answer – ideally, one in which we do not have to participate.

According to U.S. law, a religious institution can take up and support a political cause, but not an individual campaigning for elected leadership. I support this idea wholeheartedly because I’m not your political advisor, nor should I be. My expertise, such as it may be, is to try to expand our awareness of the spiritual grounding that should be of a piece with your voting choices. 

The individuals who want your vote come and go. What kind of world are you choosing to build when you choose one or the other? 

We are all co-creators with the Eternal Flow of Life, and we are also co-destroyers. This world is difficult and full of harshness, and we dare not become cynical, becoming just another casualty of it. Just as the classic midrash includes a prayer asking HaShem to be merciful and not angry toward our flawed Creation, so we must look inward and pray for ourselves:

May it be our will that our mercy overcomes our anger.

May our mercy prevail over our other attributes,

And may we act toward all other creatures with the attribute of mercy.

Kol Nidre 5783: Hatanu L’fanekha – What Reflects Back

I. What is Evil?

On Rosh HaShanah I offered you a drasha on the idea of community, and how mitzvot are the links that create meaningful Jewish community.

Of course! I want to talk about community – after not being together in the fullness of our Kehillah Kedoshah since March of 2020 (and for me even longer, since Hanukkah of 2019) we are all newly appreciative of meaningful. community, and being able simply to be with other people.

We still have to be careful, of course. But having a vaccine, having masks, having a way to overcome what has separated us is a great joy. 

 Yet it is true, we are discovering, that after two plus years of isolation and distance our lives are not “going back to normal.” No: our lives are forever changed, and not only by the pandemic.

On Rosh HaShanah I suggested that the promise – and challenge – of  meaningful community is that in some way we, as a community, act as a mirror for each one of us. As each one of us is a reflection of the holy to each other, so all of us together are a multi-faceted, super-charged reflection back at each one of us.

I know that I have a “good side” for photographs. But when I am open to the communication of community in all its various facets and prisms of vision, all my sides are reflecting back at me. And that’s not always easy to see.

What happens when so much of what reflects back at each one of us is, well,  awful? The larger communities in which we exist reflect much to make us sad:

  • Corporate greed
  • Gig economy and destruction of the middle class
  • Climate collapse
  • Rising fascism
  • Violence of the state against its residents
  • Pandemics 
  • Emotional delay and suffering of our children
  • Persecution of minority groups – trans, of color, Jews…

From those who believed that Progress was a promising one-way street, to those who are tired of being left out of the Promises that are made, many of us are asking: What is going on here? What’s gone so wrong?

On this Yom Kippur I want to ask you to consider with me a question: what if our “theory” of what’s wrong is what’s wrong? Think about it: part of the Christian heritage of Western civilization is to view what is wrong as immoral. In the Church’s teachings, our lives are depicted as an eternal battle between right and wrong, between the moral and the immoral, between good and evil.

This approach would seem on some level to be, at the very least, very useful: everything can be assigned to one side or the other of the great scale of life. But then you get into some perverse thinking, in which natural disasters, since they aren’t good, must be evil….the pandemic, for example. But all the variants of COVID-19 are not some group of thugs; not a band of white supremacists, or fascists, or even the Supreme Court. 

Yet some people honestly do see pandemics, and earthquakes, and hurricanes, as evil which must be “deserved”, and so go about assigning moral blame for a natural phenomenon. Then one gets into the complicated business of hell, and who goes there, and why. Just like concepts of god, evil is domesticated, infantilized into an existential version o “time out” and “no dessert.”

As might be expected, the Jewish spiritual approach is quite different. That which we see as evil is part of the imbalance of sefirot, i.e. monotheism…evil is more like a disease that has been allowed to flourish. And disease, such as a pandemic, doesn’t notice if you’ve been good or bad.

II. “once the Angel of Destruction is allowed to begin work, there is no differentiation between righteous and wicked.”

A frightening ancient saying comes from our ancestors in writings that date at least to the Roman destruction of Israel. 

תאני רב יוסף מאי דכתיב (שמות יב, כב) ואתם לא תצאו איש מפתח ביתו עד בקר כיון שניתן רשות למשחית אינו מבחין בין צדיקים לרשעים ולא עוד אלא שמתחיל מן הצדיקים תחלה שנאמר (יחזקאל כא, ח) והכרתי ממך צדיק ורשע

Rav Yosef asked: “What is the meaning of that which is written with regard to the plague of the firstborn: And none of you shall go out of the opening of his house until the morning (Shemot 12:22)? If the plague was not decreed upon the Jewish people, why were they not permitted to leave their homes?” Because: “Once permission is granted to the destroyer to kill, it does not distinguish between the righteous and the wicked. And not only that, but it begins with the righteous first…” (BT Bava Kamma 60a)

What our ancestors understood is that evil does not discriminate; it wipes out the good along with the bad. We  have seen in our study of Torah, in a long list of horrifying warnings, that if our society does not foster the good, we will all be swept up in the evil. It won’t be a matter of who deserves it.

Why do bad things happen indiscriminately? Why does it seem that we are being judged as a group? Aren’t we all responsible only for our own acts? Shouldn’t good people be rewarded and evil people be punished? Isn’t that what free will is all about?

Here we have a category mistake. To think about being judged for sin in this way is not Jewish; it’s Christian. Years ago my Rabbi and teacher Dr Byron Sherwin ז”ל was schmoozing with his friend the Cardinal of Chicago, when the Cardinal said to the Rabbi: “Byron, I think I’ve figured out what the problem is with my people. They all speak Protestant; Catholic is their second language.” Byron told me that he suspected that it’s the same with us Jews: Protestant is our first language, our cultural “mother tongue.” Many of us don’t even realize how different the Jewish perspective might be  from what we might assume is Jewish. We’re Jews, so isn’t the way we think Jewish?

No. Not necessarily. Okay, so, in Jewish, how are we to understand good and evil, and why do good people suffer, and why is wheat so often swept away with chaff? The challenge is to actually be willing to see good and evil as all part of one great wholeness.

Consider how our mystics understand evil: an uncontrolled growth that comes out of a normal process, an extreme that becomes too much of what might have otherwise been a good thing. In this way of understanding, evil is nothing more or less than an excess of Gevurah, of the part of our world which is necessary for strength, for boundary setting, and for discernment.

An overdose of Gevurah is not in itself evil, although it opens the gate to evil, according to the mystics. But the overgrowth of Gevurah is a disease in the same way that cancer is a disease. Not a moral failing. Not an ethical lack. Not something that is “deserved.”

To understand how mixed up our categories have become, consider the definition of cancer that I found in the American Heritage dictionary:

  1. Any of various malignant neoplasms characterized by the proliferation of anaplastic cells that tend to invade surrounding tissue and metastasize to new body sites.
  1. The pathological condition characterized by such growths.
  1. A pernicious, spreading evil.

Our society confuses the technical with the moral to the extent that there is no distinguishing between them in the dictionary definition.

Some months ago now I was invited to join a national organization which uses a curiously Jewish approach to violence. Cure Violence Global works  from an epidemiological model. The model holds that violence cannot be eradicated by incarceration, but is a disease that it can be ameliorated, and stopped altogether, if we look at it as a deadly contagion. 

What’s wrong with punishing those who do violence? Why not use gevurah to control gevurah? Simply that when we look at the punitive response that we’ve been using in the United States we can see clearly that it’s not working. Neither mandatory minimum sentencing nor death penalties have stopped violence. As a matter of fact, something we’re doing is causing it to get worse, because the U.S. has the highest percentage of its residents incarcerated in the world. 

We often hear that the only way to create peace in our midst is to increase “law and order,” but so far that approach has not worked, and there’s no reason to believe that it ever will. The sin here is not someone else’s moral failing; it’s our own willingness to let the scar tissue of our lives numb us to the pain of others.

*Putting our faith in “law and order” instead of compassion and creativity, out of frustration and anger because one’s own business is affected. *Believing that as long as we can’t see it happening, then somehow it’s better. 

*Building higher walls and gating communities works about as well on the actual underlying issue as enforcing surface calm in a dysfunctional family. Sooner or later, the tension between misery and pretend peace explodes…much like a raisin in the sun.

III. Hevlei haMashiakh

Disease is not a moral fault. Trauma is a fact of life. But as those who have experienced truth and reconciliation exercises have discovered, sitting across a table and talking to your loved one’s murderer is somehow more healing than watching that murderer writhe in agony in an electric chair.

Disease is not a sin. But allowing the spread of contagion is. Choosing to turn one’s head, to gaze only at one’s own pain, is the moral failing here. Declaring the pandemic is over just because one is sick of wearing a mask requires a pretty hard shell over the heart, not to feel for those who are immune compromised and fearful of what we don’t yet know about COVID.

On this Yom Kippur eve, I ask you to join me in considering the sins of our society, the world of which we are a part, as they reflect ourselves back at us; like a funroom mirror, only the distortion of the divine image is not funny but tragic. And it’s a true reflection.

This is the meaning of wholeness in Jewish tradition; it is about finding a way to embrace every aspect of our collective being as us. Evil is part of the system just as goodness is; evil is too much Gevurah, too many anaplastic cells, an imbalance in the Wholeness. The imbalance is not healed by more violence meeting violence; only applying the opposite – grace, mercy, love – can do that. 

We are part of that system; each one of us is affected, even if we are not incarcerated, or redlined, or bullied into suicide. 

On Yom Kippur we ask not to be judged for our sins but to find mercy and forgiveness. We sing in the collective plural: HaShem, forgive us for we have sinned. Judge us in the scale of merit, be compassionate, have mercy upon us. Help us balance the gevurah in which we participate with the hesed, the mercy and gracewe so badly need, for healing, for wholeness. We’re praying to the common Self that we share to help us all heal.

Look for it: the ways that violence has touched you. Has it caused you to become harsh rather than kind? Has it made it difficult for you to feel compassion? When were you last able to act with mercy regardless of whether someone “deserved” it?

Is the effect of our society’s violence in your words? 

Has it infected your assumptions? 

What does our society reflect back at you, upon serious contemplation? 

Where does it hurt?

Remember that we’re not talking here about it being your moral fault. We’re diagnosing spiritual hurt here. We are all human. Every one of us was born pure. Punishing won’t help what’s wrong, but setting our intention to look for the pure spark in each of them, in each of us, might just keep us all from catching the violence contagion.

Are you cynical? Do you feel despair? Are there people you’ve given up on? Is there anger in you that you consider righteous, because you’ve judged that whoever you’re angry at is immoral?

Jewish ethical tradition teaches that the most dangerous of all emotions is anger.

כָּל הַכּוֹעֵס – חָכְמָתוֹ וּנְבוּאָתוֹ מִסְתַּלֶקֶת, 

Anyone who gets angry loses their wisdom and foresight.

הַקָּדוֹשׁ־בָּרוּךְ־הוּא אוֹהֵב לְמִי שֶׁאֵינוֹ כּוֹעֵס וּלְמִי שֶׁאֵינוֹ מַעֲמִיד עַל מִדּוֹתָיו

The Holy One loves a person who keeps from getting angry, and also one who does not insist on retribution. (Nahman of Bratslav, Sefer HaMiddot, 1810)

What does it mean to say that the Holy One loves such a person? Don’t let the language put you off: it’s just another way of saying that if you do not let anger rule you, if you do not insist on retribution, you will live a more whole, more peaceful life. No matter what happens to you.

תַּנְיָא, אָמַר רַבִּי יִשְׁמָעֵאל בֶּן אֱלִישָׁע: פַּעַם אַחַת, נִכְנַסְתִּי לְהַקְטִיר קְטוֹרֶת לִפְנַי וְלִפְנִים, וְרָאִיתִי אַכְתְּרִיאֵל יָהּ ה׳ צְבָאוֹת, שֶׁהוּא יוֹשֵׁב עַל כִּסֵּא רָם וְנִשָּׂא, וְאָמַר לִי: ״יִשְׁמָעֵאל בְּנִי, בָּרְכֵנִי!״ אָמַרְתִּי לוֹ: ״יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶיךָ, שֶׁיִּכְבְּשׁוּ רַחֲמֶיךָ אֶת כַּעַסְךָ, וְיִגּוֹלּוּ רַחֲמֶיךָ עַל מִדּוֹתֶיךָ, וְתִתְנַהֵג עִם בָּנֶיךָ בְּמִדַּת הָרַחֲמִים.״ וְנִעְנַע לִי בְּרֹאשׁוֹ.

Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha, the High Priest, said: Once, on Yom Kippur, I entered the innermost sanctum, the Holy of Holies, to offer incense, and in a vision I saw HaShem seated upon a high and exalted throne.

And HaShem said to me: Yishmael, My child, bless Me. 

I said to HaShem: 

“May it be Your will that Your mercy overcome Your anger, 

and may Your mercy prevail over Your other attributes, 

and may You act toward Your children with the attribute of mercy.”

The Holy Blessed One nodded. (BT Berakhot 7a)

If we are all created in the Image of the Divine, then on this Kol Nidre:

May it be our will that our mercy overcomes our anger.

May our mercy prevail over our other attributes,

And may we act toward all other creatures with the attribute of mercy.

May our acts of mercy and of grace help us all find the way to refu’ah shleymah, complete healing, from the violence that infects our souls and causes us pain, and causes our world so much misery.

יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ יְהוָ֖ה וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ

May you feel the blessing in your life strengthening you

יָאֵ֨ר יְהוָ֧ה ׀ פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ

May the holy Oneness of life illuminate your struggle

יִשָּׂ֨א יְהוָ֤ה ׀ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם

May you lift your face toward Life and may you know wholeness, shalom, peace.

BaMidbar 6.24-26

Rosh HaShanah 5783: Identity and Kehillah

I. Individuality: just another word for nothing left to lose

I’ve never done the Hineni prayer which is only for those who lead the prayers during the Days of Awe; it always seemed arrogant to hold myself apart from our community in that way. We all stand before Truth and Eternity equally. 

Yet it’s also true that I’m the rabbi and you’re not – and seriously, that role is precious to me. I feel the responsibility and try to bear it with care. It’s a significant and important part of my identity.

It’s identity I want to talk about with you tonight, and about who each of us is, we individual identities that are part of this community – to which we belong, which belongs to us, is made up of us, yet is also beyond any one of us….

First I want to invoke our context. Some of you have heard me talk about the Third Era of Jewish life. In a nutshell, this concept posits that the Jewish people have lived in two distinct eras already (the Biblical and the Rabbinic) and that we are now in transition to a Third Era. Because we are living through the transition, we cannot know what the Third Era will eventually look like for us; but the Jewish people is not disappearing by any means. We are in the process of re-birthing ourselves into a new world.

What distinguishes our dawning Third Era is a new idea: that of autonomy and individualism. The sense of oneself as self-determining is only a few hundred years old and only applies to the philosophy of human beings who lived within the context of a Western European society. It was the backlash against a controlling European Church and absolute monarchies that led to Kant asserting that each of us is actually, and must be, self-governing. 

If you think about it, it’s a bedrock assumption that many of us never question. The certainty that each of us determines our own life is as solid as the fact that the sun rises in the morning. Or that when I was growing up in Central Florida it would rain every day in the summertime at the same time, 4pm. There would be a downpour and then the sun would come out.

It doesn’t do that anymore. And, well, how self-determining are we, after all? How many aspects of your life feel beyond your control on the eve of this new Jewish year of 5783?

Physically and spiritually, we are not random particles buzzing about in the universe; we do live in patterns that are human. There’s a finer point here, and it’s about free will, our capacity for choice within the larger forces that do shape our fate and are beyond our power to change. 

We are part of structures within which we make choices. As one philosopher put it,

“One may learn from others one’s moral obligations, but only in the sense that a mathematician learns from other mathematicians.” I think this is a brilliant metaphor for how we live our lives: mathematicians don’t invent the axioms within which they work, they just apply them as they go where curiosity and imagination lead.

We may say it, we may even believe that “no one is the boss of me”, but we do so in the face of wildly contradictory evidence: “the boss of me” is often felt as by any one of us as a responsibility to a family, a job, or a community. So there’s a contradiction here.

And here’s our problem: as the self-determining individuals that we think we are, we are hundreds of years cut off from the community that could help us parse it meaningfully. 

In other words, I can’t figure myself out unless sooner or later I can turn to you to ask you if I’m making sense.

II. Attachment disorder

How does the individual find a way into belonging to meaningful community – to the end of being radically alone?

Here’s where Judaism has a real advantage: we literally pray heteronomy. (That’s not a gender term! It means the opposite of autonomy – i.e. commanded by something Other.) 

What we mean by this is that Jewish spiritual culture does not expect you to create your own identity and be your only guide; for us, you are supposed to get a study partner, find a teacher, and live in obligation to that which gave you life and keeps you alive. 

Judaism is, in other words, counter-culture to the modernity which is, nevertheless, reshaping it. Those of us who were raised in autonomy cannot easily become heteronomous, although it does happen. The rest of us wander, looking for a safe space to rest from the exhaustion of maintaining our selves, alone and disconnected. The self was not meant to carry its own weight.

This word heteronomous, the opposite of autonomous, is so Jewish an idea that if you look it up at the Merriam-Webster dictionary website, the first example is Jewish. The website presents a newspaper quote from a contemporary Jewish leader, Rabbi Avi Weiss, who states:

Torah m’Sinai is a form of heteronomous law, a structure of law that operates independent of any individual or group.” You can join it, but you can’t personalize it, since it exists beyond you. (It’s not “Sheila-ism” as academics of boomer sociology call the penchant of believing that one can be one’s own god, and pick and choose what rituals “work” for the individual.)

When you are seeking to belong that which is beyond you, how do you begin? When you are new to community, how do you catch the wave? I remember when a lovely and very thoughtful older woman was considering becoming a member of our congregational family. After meeting with me – more than once – to carefully consider the whole idea of belonging, she took the leap and joined up! And not long after she came back to me: “Rabbi, I’m a member now. How do I do it?”

This is where it’s appropriate to be an individual, and vitally important to have a sense of yourself within a group. In an intentional Jewish community, the entry is really in answering a simple question. 

To take the first step into belonging, you have to ask yourself: which mitzvah do you want to do? Because Jewish community is primarily about fulfilling the mitzvot that define a shul: beit midrash, a “place of study,” beit tefilah, a “place of prayer” and beit knesset, a place to come together, get caught up, share a meal.

It’s rather like a symphony, where each one of us is an instrument with our own personal sound. Once everyone is situated within their identity – your strength, and your interest – and learning how to move in harmony with everyone else, we make beautiful music together. Shir Tikvah means song, after all – song of hope.

The question of that harmony with others becomes key to finding our place. 

III. “Safe space” v “brave space” 

The ongoing challenge of the balance of self and other (the Jewish philosopher Emanuel Levinas: the Other commands me) why is is so hard for some of us to become part of the community? Why do some of us leave at the drop of a hat, as if it’s only about us and our comfort?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this and I have an idea I’d like to consider with you. What if community is the ultimate mirror of the individual, projected outward and reflected back atcha? What if that’s what can be so difficult about it? The balance of self and community is not just a myriad of other selves, the community becomes a sort of Self.

I’ve watched that reality play out in real time over the years at our shul. In 2002 15 people got together and mutually covenanted to create a new Jewish congregation in Portland. I was privileged to be invited to be their Rabbi.

When we began to grow and to respond to the challenges and opportunities of the early 21st century, some of our founders were surprised by the way the community was growing. Some were discomfited, fought against it, and then finally left. Others embraced the unexpected with delight, or at least with equanimity, and grew spiritually in ways they never would have expected.

What was the difference between them? 

We are taught that HaShem is present in Jewish spiritual community. It’s true that when we pray together, we affect each other in our shared experience in ways that do not happen when we are alone. 

But let’s push it a little farther, following the lead of the mystics, who always push for the next level of wondering:

If each of us reflects the image of the Holy as individuals, then our spiritual community must also be reflecting…something. Is it possible that our community also reflects back to us as a mirror does? And tells us something about ourselves, maybe sometimes something we’re not ready to accept?

In the construction of the mishkan in the wilderness, the Torah recounts that the women who served at the entrance to the Tent collectively used their mirrors for the creation of a large open vessel for water, in which we were to immerse hands and feet before entering the Holy place. Is there something about the reflection we saw in the water in which we immersed that was a necessary gaze into a mirror, into our soul? 

Perhaps it is sometimes difficult to be in community because it offers us a mirror into our selves, our individuality, that is not always easy to see.

When you’re alone you can become convinced of your path. Only when you’re immersed in community together with us can your spiritual identity be challenged, questioned, polished, enhanced, and supported.

Safe Space v Brave Space 

III.  In Jewish tradition, finding one’s place within community is an obligation if you are truly to live a meaningful life.

Thus “Voluntary” membership in a spiritual community is not a choice for one whose sense of identity is Jewish, but a vital act for supporting that identity.

I recently realized that my Fitbit is a really good analogy for what I’m trying to say here. I got a Fitbit to become familiar with my heart rate as a measurement of fitness. (Of course the first email I got was an invitation to join the Fitbit community.) And over time I saw that the daily use of the Fitbit becomes a structure that can hold a day together: how many steps now? How many now? Is the sense of satisfaction at the end of the day when you hit your goal because of that goal, or because there was an awareness you could carry with you all day long that knitted the disparate parts of your experiences together into one neat readout?

Here is how the novelist Howard Jacobson puts it:

Without obligation and repetition he was as chaff in the wind. If religion meant anything he could understand, it was this: doing again what had worked when you did it the last time, doing it because you believed you had to, remonstrating against the random, refusing to be tossed about the universe as though the universe had no use for you. That was the beginning and the end of religious devotion to him, anyway. Not what you owed to a god but what you owed to the idea that you weren’t arbitrary or accidental. And whatever you did more than three times a week, at the same time and with the same reverence, was another blow struck against the haphazard.

The regular practice of a mitzvah doesn’t just make you a good Jew; over time it carries the promise of helping you to become a coherent Self.

  1. The community within which you carry out your practice will benefit (Hevra Kadisha, Yad l’Yad, Tefilah, Tikkun Olam)
  1. you will find a new sense of strength to get through your days (if only because you’ll be distracted!).

I know a woman whose son was diagnosed with a chronic incurable disease. She is at her best when she’s working on helping someone else, or taking care of some problem; it gives her strength to be reminded that though she feels helpless to “fix” her son, she really can bring relief to other situations. One by one, each mitzvah builds a rock of stability. Holding on to it, we can best stay afloat in all the chaos of our lives.

A mitzvah is not a good deed, but it can make you a good person.

One mitzvah is not going to save the world, but one regular mitzvah can sustain you and, over time, become your Rock.

No mitzvah will stave off death, but any mitzvah can help you find meaning in every day of your life.

Shabbat Nitzavim: Who Is The Jewish Community?

כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה “All Israel are guarantors for each other” (Talmud Bavli, Shevuot 39a). 

But a person cannot serve as a guarantor unless they is more resourceful in some way than the one they are guaranteeing. For example, a poor person obviously would not be accepted as a guarantor for a rich person’s loan. So if the Talmud says that all Jews serve as guarantors to each other, this means that in every Jew there is a quality in which they are superior to all others.

– The Lubavitcher Rebbe

In the 1980s the Who Is A Jew controversy rocked the Israeli-American Jewish relationship. At its heart was a disagreement over gatekeeping; it should have been called Who Is A Rabbi? It was a struggle for the power of declaring who is in, and who is not, in the Jewish community. 

In other words, as our parashat hashavua, Nitzavim, puts it, who is included when we are told that we all “stand this day before HaShem” to enter into the Covenant of the Jewish people with each other and with this vision of holiness to which we are committed?

Rabbis officiate at identity rituals – brit milah, brit mitzvah, and conversion – and in the 1980s women were beginning to be admitted into progressive rabbinical schools. That made all progressive Rabbis suspect to the Israeli Orthodox establishment. The same anxiety was manifest when the first LGBTQ+ Rabbis were ordained.

This anxiety is understandable in a world in which identity and its attendant politics are a focus of much intensity, and we see it on all sides in our days. Interestingly enough, however, the ancient understanding of Jewish belonging was not defined in some “primitive” narrow way, but with a wide and surprisingly pragmatic embrace, as demonstrated in the first lines of the parashah (Deut 29.9-14):

אַתֶּ֨ם נִצָּבִ֤ים הַיּוֹם֙ כֻּלְּכֶ֔ם לִפְנֵ֖י ה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֑ם רָאשֵׁיכֶ֣ם שִׁבְטֵיכֶ֗ם זִקְנֵיכֶם֙ וְשֹׁ֣טְרֵיכֶ֔ם כֹּ֖ל אִ֥ישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

You stand this day, all of you, before your G*d ‘ה – your tribal heads, your elders, and your officials, every person in Israel

טַפְּכֶ֣ם נְשֵׁיכֶ֔ם וְגֵ֣רְךָ֔ אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּקֶ֣רֶב מַחֲנֶ֑יךָ מֵחֹטֵ֣ב עֵצֶ֔יךָ עַ֖ד שֹׁאֵ֥ב מֵימֶֽיךָ׃

You, your children, your spouses, and the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water-drawer

In the first two verses we are told that class, gender, age and financial status are immaterial; we all are seen as equal before that which is Eternal. Note that the “stranger within the camp” – a term which is used to indicate the person who seeks to join the Jewish people through conversion in rabbinical Judaism – is included.

לְעׇבְרְךָ֗ בִּבְרִ֛ית ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ וּבְאָלָת֑וֹ אֲשֶׁר֙ ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ כֹּרֵ֥ת עִמְּךָ֖ הַיּֽוֹם׃

  • to enter into the covenant of your G*d ‘ה, which your God ‘ה is concluding with you this day,

לְמַ֣עַן הָקִֽים־אֹתְךָ֩ הַיּ֨וֹם ׀ ל֜וֹ לְעָ֗ם וְה֤וּא יִֽהְיֶה־לְּךָ֙ לֵֽאלֹהִ֔ים כַּאֲשֶׁ֖ר דִּבֶּר־לָ֑ךְ וְכַאֲשֶׁ֤ר נִשְׁבַּע֙ לַאֲבֹתֶ֔יךָ לְאַבְרָהָ֥ם לְיִצְחָ֖ק וּֽלְיַעֲקֹֽב׃

in order to establish you this day as G*d’s people and in order to be your G*d, as promised you and as sworn to your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The entire community enters the Covenant relationship with HaShem, and all, regardless of entry point, are seen as descendants of the ancestors, equally inheriting their status.

וְלֹ֥א אִתְּכֶ֖ם לְבַדְּכֶ֑ם אָנֹכִ֗י כֹּרֵת֙ אֶת־הַבְּרִ֣ית הַזֹּ֔את וְאֶת־הָאָלָ֖ה הַזֹּֽאת׃

I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone,

כִּי֩ אֶת־אֲשֶׁ֨ר יֶשְׁנ֜וֹ פֹּ֗ה עִמָּ֙נוּ֙ עֹמֵ֣ד הַיּ֔וֹם לִפְנֵ֖י ה’ אֱלֹהֵ֑ינוּ וְאֵ֨ת אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֵינֶ֛נּוּ פֹּ֖ה עִמָּ֥נוּ הַיּֽוֹם׃

but both with those who are standing here with us this day before our G*d ‘ה and with those who are not with us here this day.

Most interesting of all, perhaps, is that the commitment that the people are making on the day that they enter this Covenant agreement is binding upon their descendants, all the way down to us. 

This clearly shows that all those who had made it this far, who were still holding hands and making their way across the wilderness together, were equally invested in, and affirmed by, the Covenant relationship. And that we trusted it, and each other, enough to commit to passing it along to future generations.

That Covenant has been understood, from that day to this, as a mutual reliance: not only between HaShem and the Jewish people, but also between Jews; not only between Jews who know each other and share a congregation, a community, or a state, but also all those who came before us, and all who will, please G*d, come after us.

“This day,” in the first verse refers to Rosh HaShanah, according to the Baal Shem Tov. May all of us in the dawn of the New Year of 5783 find our place within our Jewish community strengthened and affirmed, through our own acts with each other, and for the covenant we keep with those to come.

Shabbat Ki Tavo: I wish this was over

בַּבֹּ֤קֶר תֹּאמַר֙ מִֽי־יִתֵּ֣ן עֶ֔רֶב וּבָעֶ֥רֶב תֹּאמַ֖ר מִֽי־יִתֵּ֣ן בֹּ֑קֶר מִפַּ֤חַד לְבָֽבְךָ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּפְחָ֔ד וּמִמַּרְאֵ֥ה עֵינֶ֖יךָ אֲשֶׁ֥ר תִּרְאֶֽה׃ In the morning you shall say, “If only it were evening!” and in the evening you shall say, “If only it were morning!”—because of what your heart shall dread and your eyes shall see (Deuteronomy 28.67)

Our parashat hashavua is a painful one; Ki Tavo is full of horrifying warnings of what will happen to us if we, as a community made up of individuals with free will, do not live in accordance with the mitzvot. 

וְהָיָ֗ה אִם־לֹ֤א תִשְׁמַע֙ בְּקוֹל֙ יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ לִשְׁמֹ֤ר לַעֲשׂוֹת֙ אֶת־כׇּל־מִצְוֺתָ֣יו וְחֻקֹּתָ֔יו אֲשֶׁ֛ר אָנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּ֑וֹם וּבָ֧אוּ עָלֶ֛יךָ כׇּל־הַקְּלָל֥וֹת הָאֵ֖לֶּה וְהִשִּׂיגֽוּךָ׃

But if you do not obey your God יהוה to observe faithfully all the commandments and laws which I enjoin upon you this day, all these curses shall come upon you and take effect (Devarim 28.15)

This idea can be “dumbed down” into the vision of a cruel puppet master, but for those who are capable of seeing a deeper truth in the command to “observe faithfully.” All it takes is one look at these lines from the Shema:


Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them.


The skies will be shut up so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that ‘ה is assigning to you. (Deut 11.16-17)

What are the “other gods”? They are not the wooden idols that Isaiah speaks of derisively; they are real gods, those of fame and fortune, of power and of greed. In short, all the gods that are worshipped today by too many people. As a result, this warning has come to pass in our day:

וְהָי֣וּ חַיֶּ֔יךָ תְּלֻאִ֥ים לְךָ֖ מִנֶּ֑גֶד וּפָֽחַדְתָּ֙ לַ֣יְלָה וְיוֹמָ֔ם וְלֹ֥א תַאֲמִ֖ין בְּחַיֶּֽיךָ׃

The life you face shall be precarious; you shall be in terror, night and day, with no assurance of survival (Devarim 28.66)

The skies are shut up when there is supposed to be rain! And the “other gods” that are worshipped, the gods of capitalism gone awry and rewarding the greatest greed rather than the greatest love, are still being followed. And the results are terrifying; the sins of humanity and Mother Earth’s pain are written in the daily news.

The parashah comes every year to warn us and to frighten us. This year may it move us all to climate justice action. And let us do so within the supportive context of our Jewish community, still reminding us that there is also joy, and the need to give thanks, within us all, even now.

Shabbat Re’eh: Get It?

וְכׇל־הָעָם֩ רֹאִ֨ים אֶת־הַקּוֹלֹ֜ת וְאֶת־הַלַּפִּידִ֗ם וְאֵת֙ ק֣וֹל הַשֹּׁפָ֔ר וְאֶת־הָהָ֖ר עָשֵׁ֑ן וַיַּ֤רְא הָעָם֙ וַיָּנֻ֔עוּ וַיַּֽעַמְד֖וּ מֵֽרָחֹֽק

All the people saw the thunder and lightning, the call of the shofar, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance.

(Shemot 20.15)

On this Shabbat we enter into the month of Elul, so the Shabbat itself is not only named for the parashat hashavua (Torah reading of the week) but also the holiday of the new month: Rosh Hodesh. Once upon a time the new month was a significant holy day; for example, in the ancient story of Saul and David, a Rosh Hodesh holiday meal at the king’s table is the setting for high drama (see I Samuel 20 for the fascinating details). 

The parashah is named Re’eh, and it begins with a simple, unadorned summons: “see.” It is meant figuratively; we are being urged to think, to consider, to try to understand. 

רְאֵ֗ה אָנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם בְּרָכָ֖ה וּקְלָלָֽה

See, I set before you this day blessing and curse (Devarim 11.26)

Jewish tradition tends to focus upon hearing as the primary sense; this is logical for a people so ancient that we begin our story before the written word came to prominence. Then, information shared was embodied: a messenger carried a story, a witness testified to an event. Communication came from me to you and from you to me, and any written text that the messenger carried was only an aide memoire. And so of course we as a people are urged to shema, to listen, and to heed. 

Halakhah, the Jewish guide for our spiritual path, developed a formal social understanding of the importance of hearing, reflected in the fact that those who cannot hear could not testify in a judicial process. No other sense is so central in this way, possibly because those who cannot see are not significantly disadvantaged in an oral culture. In ancient Aramaic, the idiom for “blind” is sagei nahora, “full of light.” 

What happened to make us so much more dependent upon the written word, disembodied as it is? When did we start trusting what we see more than what we hear? How did we start saying “it is written, therefore it is true”? Is it possible that what we truly need to learn to “see” is that no one human sense is self-sufficient? Perhaps this is the founding wisdom of the halakhic ruling that no one witness is enough to convict: an individual cannot even witness against oneself without a second – i.e. in Jewish law you cannot “turn yourself in”.

Interestingly enough, the story of receiving the Torah at Sinai describes an experience of synesthesia, in which neural pathways are opened to multiple senses. In this case, we saw the sound of the shofar. It’s significant that no individual human sense could “make sense” of the theophany; it underscores the communal nature of the experience. We stand before Eternity together, and when one of us finds that one’s vision too overwhelmed, as a supportive spiritual community we can hold hands until sight returns.

During this month of Elul which begins on this Shabbat, may you answer the call to see figuratively: may you behold, and consider, and taste, and hear, and come to recognize the real depths and promise of the gift of your life. Soon the Shofar will sound, and you will be urged to see.

Shabbat Ekev (delayed post): Shamor and Zakhor – You are not HaShem

שָׁמוֹר וְזָכוֹר בְּדִבּוּר אֶחָד הִשְׁמִיעָנוּ אֵל הַמְּיֻחָד

“Keep” and “remember” in one utterance / we were caused to hear by the G*d that unifies (erev Shabbat song Lekha Dodi)

We are making our way through the gorgeous rhetoric of the book Devarim, whose name in English (from Ecclesiastical Greek via Late Latin) sums up its purpose: Deuteronomy, “second law.” It is presented as the final speech of Moshe Rabbenu, reminding us of all the years we journeyed the wilderness together, and all we learned. 

It has long preoccupied scholars of the holy texts that they sometimes contradict each other. For example, in this week’s parashah we find the following statement as Moshe reminisces:

בָּעֵ֨ת הַהִ֜וא אָמַ֧ר ה’ אֵלַ֗י פְּסׇל־לְךָ֞ שְׁנֵֽי־לוּחֹ֤ת אֲבָנִים֙ כָּרִ֣אשֹׁנִ֔ים וַעֲלֵ֥ה אֵלַ֖י הָהָ֑רָה וְעָשִׂ֥יתָ לְּךָ֖ אֲר֥וֹן עֵֽץ׃

Thereupon HaShem said to me, “Carve out two tablets of stone like the first, and come up to Me on the mountain; and make an ark of wood.” (Devarim 10.1)

This statement seems to directly contradict the account in Exodus in which it is clearly stated that the artist Bezalel makes the Ark, which is made of wood but also overlaid with gold. The

great medieval commentator Rashi relies on the explanation offered by the Rabbis of the Talmud, that this was not the Ark that Bezalel made (see Exodus 25.11) but rather another Ark, apparently made by Moshe himself.

Devarim contains other, even more difficult conflicts for those who expect our sacred text to be a perfect book. Perhaps the most famous example is the fact that Devarim contains a second version of the Aseret HaDibrot, the Ten Words. The wording for Shabbat differs from the version in Shemot, Exodus.

In Exodus 20.8:

זָכ֛וֹר֩ אֶת־י֥֨וֹם הַשַּׁבָּ֖֜ת לְקַדְּשֽׁ֗וֹ

Zakhor, “Remember” the Shabbat and keep it holy. 

…and compare Deuteronomy 5.12:

שָׁמ֣֛וֹר אֶת־י֥וֹם֩ הַשַׁבָּ֖֨ת לְקַדְּשׁ֑֜וֹ כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוְּךָ֖֣ ׀ ה’ אֱלֹ-יךָ

Shamor “Observe” the Shabbat and keep it holy, as your G*d HaShem has commanded you.

So which is it? Zakhor or Shamor? This ancient theological difficulty leads to a wonderful insight, for it allows us to remind ourselves that G*d talk is not our talk. The Rabbis insist that every word of Torah has seventy possible meanings. What you see as a contradiction is only shedding light on two possible meanings. You may not be able to say two things at once, but for sure HaShem can! And so the most famous erev Shabbat song, Lekha Dodi, has its most famous line:

שָׁמוֹר וְזָכוֹר בְּדִבּוּר אֶחָד הִשְׁמִיעָנוּ אֵל הַמְּיֻחָד

“Keep” and “remember” in one utterance

We were caused to hear by the G*d that unifies

It’s a delightful contradiction: the Holy Presence that unifies us allows us to discern difference in the single utterance that otherwise we might assume is meant to erase the differences. The erasure of difference is not the work of the Holy One of the Rainbow. “Keep” and “remember” are both right. Or as the old Jewish joke goes, when the Rabbi is confronted by two disputants and says “you’re right, and you’re right” and an onlooker says “Rabbi, how can they possibly both be right?” The Rabbi responds “and you’re right!”

For further frustration for those who want one clear text: There Was Never One Bible