Shabbat Pinkhas: The Three Weeks

חָנֵּנִי ה’ כִּי אֻמְלַל אָנִי רְפָאֵנִי ה’ כִּי נִבְהֲלוּ עֲצָמָי וְנַפְשִׁי נִבְהֲלָה מְאֹד ואת ה’ עַד מָתָי

Heal me, for I am very low. I am chaos within. My soul is in very great chaos, and you, HaShem, how long? Takhanun 

Today a man will be buried who died in the heat wave this week. Herb Weinstein ז״ל was a special human being who maintained Jewish community ties across the spectrum, from Shir Tikvah to Chabad. May his memory be a blessing and an inspiration to us all.

When we stand at a graveside or when we remember a loved one, now gone, during Yizkor prayers on the Festivals and Yom Kippur, we often encounter this passage:

There is a time and purpose for every human experience:

A time for being born and a time for dying, 

A time for planting and a time for uprooting the planted

A time for weeping and a time for laughing, 

A time for wailing and a time for dancing;

A time for throwing stones and a time for gathering stones, 

A time for embracing and a time for shunning embraces,

A time for loving and a time for hating; 

A time for war and a time for peace.

 (Kohelet 3)

The tragedy of Herb’s death because of a heat wave, along with at least sixty other victims, demands that we consider the place in our lives for anguish, for fear, and for apprehension. These Three Weeks are exactly meant for that purpose. 

The Three Weeks are observed in Jewish practice as a memorial to our ancestors who were massacred in the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. In contemplating the catastrophe the Jewish people found a way to bring meaning to so much otherwise senseless death by asking 

What is the cause of this horror?

What might we have allowed to be done that contributed to it?

What can we do, within our human capacity, to ensure that this never happens again?

This kind of spiritual empowerment allows us not to be enervated by what is otherwise senseless tragedy. As we follow the daily horror of the building collapse in Seaside Florida, the natural response is to find someone to blame. Yet the more powerful and effective response urged upon us during this Three Weeks of contemplation is to allow ourselves the full learning, as we consider the three questions our tradition asks about our own ancient tragedy of Tisha B’Av.

There is a time for dying, yes, but tragic death should bring us to seek out the lesson implied. The ancient wisdom of Kohelet demands that we consider the climate emergency with all the urgency that the young leadership of the Sunrise Movement demand. 

There is a time for weeping over that which is tragically lost.

There is a time for throwing stones, which is to say, to determine what is at fault in our society and to act to change it.

We must give ourselves time to mourn, to feel the natural responses of apprehension and despair. The lesson of the Three Weeks is that we are not helpless: once we have gone through the necessary stages of mourning and of contemplation, there is a time to act upon our learning. There is a time for uprooting that which we have planted, or allowed to be planted. 

May we in our personal spiritual journey, and in that which intersects with our larger circles of belonging, make room for true wailing, so that there may again, HaShem willing, be dancing.

Shabbat Shalom, and may you find consolation along with all those who mourn

Listen to Palestinian Voices

Last week I was privileged to be part of a panel discussion organized by VACA House of Hope in El Aziriyah Palestine. The other panelists included Milad Vosgueritchian, co-founder and director of the trauma-informed kindergarten, and Aziz Abu Sarah, his close friend and leader of Mejdi Tours, as well as a pastor from Eureka CA.

In the wake of the recent murderous hostility between Hamas and Israel, we were all asked the same question. How do we go on, continuing to try to hope, to build for peace, to believe that the work of our hands will be enduring?

If you listen to U.S. voices, you will hear much confusion of anger, pain, frustration, and outrage, in words that are often not accurate, and sometimes more emotional than rational. If you listen to Palestinian voices on the ground in Palestine, you will discover more nuance, more maturity, and more compassionate courage.

Finding Salaam After the Shattering is on YouTube here.

It is a privilege to learn from those who live the reality. They have much to teach us if we will listen to their voices.

How not to be like Korakh: the wisdom of humility

Do not separate yourself from the community – Hillel, Pirke Avot 2.5

This week’s Parashah records a paradigmatic moment of leadership disagreement. While most Israelites are consumed with the daily challenges of life – the tent is tilting, we have to pack for the move, where is the goat? – leadership is comparably, appropriately engaged with the logistics and messaging of moving the Israelites forward on their journey.

One of the leadership, a Levite named Korakh (a cousin of Moshe, Miriam and Aaron), declares that the rest of the leadership is irreparably compromised. He challenges Moshe in front of all the people. The people take sides. Moshe loses confidence in himself and his ability to lead.

It’s an important question for meaningful, intentional community: when should we step forward with confidence in our own, lone voice? When should we learn the humility of submitting our own ego needs to a greater cause?

Korakh’s story ends with his argument invalidated in a rather spectacular way, for which HaShem is usually charged with heavy-handedness. I want to suggest another reading, based on a comparison with a famous story from the Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 2.9). In it, two Rabbis who are both significant Jewish community leaders have disagreed on the proclamation of the New Moon, thereby affecting the date of Yom Kippur. 

Upon hearing that Rabbi Yehoshua had challenged his ruling, Rabban Gamliel sent a message to him: I decree against you that you must appear before me with your staff and with your money on the day on which Yom Kippur occurs according to your calculation; according to my calculation, that day is the eleventh of Tishrei, the day after Yom Kippur. 

*To travel with one’s staff and money on Yom Kippur is forbidden. Rabban Gamliel, who is the titular head of the Jewish people, is inviting Rabbi Yehoshua to make a choice: either defy his authority publicly (and cause a split in the Jewish people), or submit to Rabban Gamliel’s ruling.

Rabbi Akiva went and found Rabbi Yehoshua distressed that the head of the Great Sanhedrin was forcing him to desecrate the day that he maintained was Yom Kippur. In an attempt to console him, Rabbi Akiva said to Rabbi Yehoshua: I can learn from a [Torah] verse that everything that Rabban Gamliel did in sanctifying the month is done, i.e., it is valid. As it is stated: “These are the appointed seasons of the Lord, sacred convocations, which you shall proclaim in their season” (Leviticus 23:4). This verse indicates that whether you have proclaimed them at their proper time or whether you have declared them not at their proper time, I have only these Festivals as established by the representatives of the Jewish people. 

*The ingenious Rabbi Akiva, who can interpret things other people cannot even see, teaches his colleague that “you shall proclaim” can be understood to indicate that whenever the Jews proclaim the holy day, that is the proper time of the holy day, even if it’s demonstrably wrong, even for HaShem. 

Community cohesion is more important that being right.

Rabbi Yehoshua then came to Rabbi Dosa ben Horkinas, who said to him: If we come to debate and question the rulings of the court of Rabban Gamliel, we must debate and question the rulings of every court that has stood from the days of Moses until now. As it is stated: “Then Moses went up, and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy of the Elders of Israel” (Exodus 24:9). But why were the names of these seventy Elders not specified? Rather, this comes to teach that every set of three judges that stands as a court over the Jewish people has the same status as the court of Moses. Since it is not revealed who sat on that court, apparently it is enough that they were official judges in a Jewish court. 

 *Rabbi Yehoshua is not yet sure, so he goes to another valued colleague, who makes the institutional argument: don’t undermine the authority, because if you do, you undermine the entire system.

Community cohesion is more important that the personality and behavior of the leader.

When Rabbi Yehoshua heard that even Rabbi Dosa ben Horkinas maintained that they must submit to Rabban Gamliel’s decision, he took his staff and his money in his hand, and went to Yavne to Rabban Gamliel on the day on which Yom Kippur occurred according to his own calculation. Upon seeing him, Rabban Gamliel stood up and kissed him on his head. He said to him: Come in peace, my teacher and my student. You are my teacher in wisdom, as Rabbi Yehoshua was wiser than anyone else in his generation, and you are my student, as you accepted my statement, despite your disagreement.

The two leaders here demonstrate makhloket l’shem shamayim, disagreement which is for a greater cause than their own feelings, and which does not hold grudges, for the sake of the larger community they both serve. Thus the entire Jewish community observed Yom Kippur on the same day. A community already in turmoil after the trauma wreaked upon them by the Roman empire’s destruction of Jerusalem was not further exacerbated. 

Korakh could never see beyond his own sense of outrage: he was right, even if he caused damage to the identity formation of the Israelite people at this delicate stage. And, fittingly, he himself was literally swallowed up by the undermining of order – the chaos – that he invited.

Truly, Rabbi Yehoshua was wise. Perhaps he was thinking about Korakh. May we learn wisdom from both Gamaliel and Yehoshua, whose disagreement did not swallow up innocent people and destroy community morale; it encourages us to believe that we can learn to disagree deeply, yet love and respect each other as we wish ourselves to be loved and respected.

Shabbat Shalom

Shabbat Shelakh: Trust

Perhaps the undermining of the idea of trust began for many of us with the cultural saturation in the U.S. of the slogan “trust, but verify.” Or perhaps it is an internal result of the persecutions Jews have endured for many centuries. No matter the cause, the lack of ability to trust – to suspend suspicion and cynicism – is inimical to spiritual life. It is also directly destructive of Jewish community.

In our parashat hashavua we see the effect of anger, discomfort, and fear on the first Jewish community’s ability to trust. That is to say, they couldn’t. Poised on the edge of what they said they wanted, the Jewish people were unable to find within themselves what it took to take a step together, in trust that they would be all right in the uncertainty of the step. 

From that day to this, life keeps sending us the lesson that spiritual life demands trust. Yet so little in our daily life encourages it! Yet we are not the first to face such a challenge. One of the rewards of being part of a community is to learn about others who have struggled to learn trust – both in ourselves and our capacity, and, relatedly, in those who share our path with us.

To be unable to trust, our parashah shows us, is to remain in Egypt. It is to be a slave: to one’s fear, to one’s past patterns, to one’s isolation. 

The opposite of spiritual slavery is not safety; it is not making it “home.” It is knowing that one is not alone even when one is unsafe, wandering in uncertainty, afraid of tomorrow. The opposite of spiritual slavery is the kehillah kedoshah, the community that becomes holy because those who are part of it are able to trust each other with their lives and the meaning of their lives.

Without trust in ourselves and each other, we cannot sustain meaningful community.

Trust, correctly understood, is not about passively expecting a Divine presence to care for us. It is also not about assuming that the other with whom one disagrees is correct. It is about letting go of the mistaken idea that one can control the world – when, truly, all we can control is our response to it, as the Talmud teaches:

One who has enough to eat today and worries about tomorrow has no faith. 

– Talmud Bavli Sotah 48b

Bitakhon (“security” in modern Israeli Hebrew) is an important ethic in Judaism. Learning the power of trust in oneself and one’s capacity, when it leads to trusting others appropriately within one’s community, is also a source of strength.

This type of confidence was so important to Rabbi Yosef Yuzel Horowitz, the founder of the Novardak school of Mussar (19th-20th century, Lithuania), that he would give his students drastic challenges so they could grow in bitakhon

One student was afraid of the dark. Rabbi Yosef Yuzel instructed him to spend the night in the cemetery saying psalms. Another student was afraid of being humiliated. To him, the rabbi gave the challenge of going into a bakery and asking for nails and into a hardware store and asking for bread. 

The point of both these challenges was to condition the students to have bitakhon and realize that nothing harmful would happen to them if they faced their fears. The students of Novardak went on to found over 100 yeshivot throughout Eastern Europe, withstanding tremendous opposition and threats from Russian authorities. (Bitakhon) https://images.shulcloud.com/428/uploads/PDFs/bitachon-for-participants.pdf

Trust is not easily learned when one has been hurt. Thus community life is difficult, often marked by disappointment. Those who engage in community organizing and relationship development know that the unforgivable sin of this work is to undermine trust, because it is the most important connective tissue of all.

In the parashat hashavua our ancestors came so close to their vision of wholeness. Before they entered, scouts were sent ahead into the uncertainty. When they returned, they reported much beauty and promise, but also challenges and obstacles to overcome.

The great sin happened here: the people refused to make the effort to trust that the path they were on was worthwhile, that it would indeed lead to the beauty of the vision they longed for. Rather than face the difficulty with trust, they gave in to fear, and lost the moment. They never got another chance. They remained slaves.

The spiritual path is not one of arrival, but of one day at a time. May we learn to wander not alone, not enslaved by our past fears, but together, with trust in each other. The wandering will still be uncertain, but the path will be so much more beautiful.

Shabbat B’Ha’alot’kha: None of Us Can Do This Alone

The self is not built to carry its own weight.” – Roy Baumeister, social psychologist

The Jewish people are hard to please. Apparently against all odds they have escaped from Egyptian slavery, as is described in the Torah narrative of Exodus. Having had a time to rest and recover from that fearful event all during the book of Leviticus, they are now invigorated – and complaining. 

There isn’t enough food.

The food isn’t good enough.

There isn’t enough water.

The water isn’t good enough.

Are we there yet?

Let’s go back to Egypt.

Bless him, even Moshe Rabbenu was not always up to the task of staying positive in the face of the real challenges of leadership. And so in this week’s parashah we see him telling HaShem 

לֹא-אוּכַל אָנֹכִי לְבַדִּי, לָשֵׂאת אֶת-כָּל-הָעָם הַזֶּה

“I cannot by myself alone bear all this people.” 

– Moses, BaMidbar 11.14

After Nirvana, the laundry, goes the Buddhist saying. If we are able to maintain the same equanimity in both situations, all will be well. But for most of us, the valleys of life where we spend most of our time cause us to quickly forget the moments of peak experience. After the giving of the Torah, the Israelites are saying, what have you done for us lately?

And they’re right. Leadership requires constancy, and respect for the vagaries of human existence. And Moses is right: no one person can fulfill all of another human being’s needs. 

This moment of extremis for Moshe does not cause him to back away from leadership, though, but to envision a different kind of leadership. Seventy of the Israelites, those who have demonstrated their own capacity for leadership, are called forth and 

וַיָּאצֶל מִן-הָרוּחַ אֲשֶׁר עָלָיו, וַיִּתֵּן עַל-שִׁבְעִים

HaShem drew upon the spirit that was upon Moshe and shared it with the seventy. 

BaMidbar 11.25

Moshe is called the humblest of leaders, and this week we see why. His servant Joshua protests that others, even outside these 70, are acting as if they have divine authority along with Moshe. The true leader’s response is not Joshua’s – to restrict access to the divine – but to recognize it where it is true, and lift it up:

הַמְקַנֵּא אַתָּה לִי; וּמִי יִתֵּן כָּל-עַם יְהוָה, נְבִיאִים

“Don’t worry about my authority. Would that all the people were prophets!” 

BaMidbar 11. 29

May we come to understand Torah’s teaching here: that none of us is expected to lead alone, and that all of us may be possessed of something that others will respond to. It is the people as a whole who carry the Presence of HaShem, not any one of us.

It’s up to us together to create the holiness of a community. May we learn to respect the complaints and the compliments along the way as necessary learning, as we learn what it means to truly be a meaningful, intentional, blessed community.

Shabbat BaMidbar: Wilderness of Doubt

שָׁל֨וֹם ׀ שָׁל֜וֹם לָרָח֧וֹק וְלַקָּר֛וֹב אָמַ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה וּרְפָאתִֽיו׃

peace, peace to the far and to the near – Isaiah 57.19 

This week our parashah records the beginning of the wandering of the Jewish people – for the Torah, the wandering lasted for 40 years, but in a real way, it has never ended. We wander in a wilderness of words, of beliefs, and – most of all – often of terrible, existential doubt.

Far from us, rockets rain down on Israelis and Palestinians alike this week, and we watch from afar, horrified at the senseless violence and the loss of precious lives.  All too often at a moment like this we see the terrible things human beings do to each other, and some of us may ask how G*d could allow such suffering.

Close to us, Israel is attacked in ways that sometimes veer from legitimate to antisemitic, undermining both our sense of loyalty to our Jewish community, and our ability to join with those we usually seek out to work together for justice. Must we be anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, to be good, ethical Jews?

From afar it may seem easy to see the path to peace: condemnation without nuance is the refuge of the exhausted, impatient, and ignorant. It’s the close up peace that is far more difficult to envision and to engage. When you know and love people it’s much harder to dismiss their feelings, their lives, their experiences.

The Jewish community is fortunate to have built-in resources for these moments. The only question is whether or not Jews will use them. Those resources are community connection and support, a tradition of learning which is fearless and compassionate, and an eternal injunction not to despair.

We, all of us who follow the Jewish path of meaning, are about to stand, once again, at Sinai.

Na’aseh v’nishmah, our ancestors proclaimed at Mt Sinai, that make-or-break moment of commitment to the spiritual path we still follow. “We will do and we will shema.” This singularly important word in our Jewish tradition, shema, should not be translated “hear” in a passive sense; our ancestors when they used it meant to listen, to pay attention, learn…and to obey the ethical impulse within and without.

Not to be passive, to obey, means to engage. To continue to learn, not to turn away and close our eyes: to pay attention to and defend those nuances where compassion and empathy still live.

The lesson of Sinai which we will contemplate on the Sunday night and Monday morning of Shavuot is that we must commit to continuing to learn, and to do. If there is anything that the last four years should have taught us, it is that as Jews (and those who love them, and walk that path with us) we are gifted with a strong prophetic ethical tradition. It supports us when we wander in doubt, by reminding us that doubt is not the enemy of truth, but that which clears away the dross that obscures it.

It’s not easy. We have learned in the past four years that antisemitism is real, and alive, and a vital link in the growth of white supremacy. 

It is not news to us who are students of modern Jewish history that criticism of Israel is often shaded with antisemitism. It is not an unfamiliar feeling to be uneasy, feeling caught between our ethics and the fact that we are sometimes cudgeled with them unethically.

On the mountain we are summoned:

“Choose life, if you would live, by dedicating yourself to Eternity, holding fast to that which is true and enduring.” – Devarim 30.19-20

In these final days of the Omer count,within the days of preparation for the holy day of Shavuot,

come and learn once again that we are partners with the Holy One in the ongoing work of creation. Rededicate yourself to mitzvot that keep you from wondering what you can do to assert and strengthen your choosing, ethical self. We don’t have answers, but we do have the ethical imperative to stay focused on the Image of the Divine within each human being – and that is already a profound response to suffering far from us, and that which is near.

_____________________________________

Further learning:

A remarkable teaching in the Babylonian Talmud (Nedarim 20a) reads: a person who has no shame, such a person’s ancestors did not stand at Sinai. I don’t read this as genealogical research, but as ethical teaching. To be heirs of those who stood at Sinai, to stand ourselves at the foot of the mountain, means not only to affirm identity. It means to take responsibility. Acts of senseless violence perpetrated in the name of Judaism are acts of desecration, to be decried and resisted, not enabled and tolerated.  

– Rabbi Michael Marmur, Rabbis for Human Rights, Israel

I’m reminded that in that workshop with JFREJ and Cherie Brown, she mentioned that Harvey Jackins, founder of Co-Counseling, once drew a diagram of anti-Semitism as a loose noose. Perhaps the Jews in the US are safe for good. Or perhaps now is a time of loose nooses for us. Or maybe, they’re not so loose after all.

– Yotam Marom, Toward the Next Jewish Rebellion

Though we know not what we will do, our eyes are upon You. 

Remember mother-love and merciful kindness, for they are eternal. 

May that kindness for which we yearn be upon us. 

We are brought very low….

have compassion, HaShem, have compassion. 

– Tahanun, Miles Hochstein, By The Shore of a Western Sea

Shabbat BeHar-BeHukotai: Emet v’Emunah

“true and reliable” in the Age of Fake News

אֵ֥לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר תַּֽעֲשׂ֑וּ דַּבְּר֤וּ אֱמֶת֙ אִ֣ישׁ אֶת־רֵעֵ֔הוּ אֱמֶת֙ וּמִשְׁפַּ֣ט שָׁל֔וֹם שִׁפְט֖וּ בְּשַׁעֲרֵיכֶֽם׃
You must speak the truth, and judge truthfully and fairly in all your dwelling places
Zekharyah 8.16
The double parashah that we study this week, BeHar and BeHukotai, bring us to the end of the Book VaYikra (Leviticus). In it we find social justice halakhahwhich seems to us, these days, wise in ways that modernity did not take into account: let the land rest, let the people rest, let the creatures rest, if you would live and thrive. 

The concept of the Yovel, the “Jubilee” year, is presented in parashat BeHar:

וְקִדַּשְׁתֶּ֗ם אֵ֣ת שְׁנַ֤ת הַחֲמִשִּׁים֙ שָׁנָ֔ה וּקְרָאתֶ֥ם דְּר֛וֹר בָּאָ֖רֶץ לְכָל־יֹשְׁבֶ֑יהָ יוֹבֵ֥ל הִוא֙ תִּהְיֶ֣ה לָכֶ֔ם וְשַׁבְתֶּ֗ם אִ֚ישׁ אֶל־אֲחֻזָּת֔וֹ וְאִ֥ישׁ אֶל־מִשְׁפַּחְתּ֖וֹ תָּשֻֽׁבוּ
You must make the fiftieth year holy by proclaiming release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be yovel for you: each of you shall return to the place you came from; each of you shall return to your family. 

It’s an attractive idea, but this concept of the cosmic do-over, where we take all the playing pieces off the board of life and start over again entirely equal and fresh, is of course unworkable in a society. Memories are created, and scars remain.  

There’s an advantage, though, to the accumulation of memories: the learning creates communities of meaning such as ours. One of the foremost needs of a human being is to belong to a community that affirms one’s sense of self and place in the universe. As the social psychologist Roy Baumeister has written, the self is not meant to carry its own weight. 

Belonging, it turns out, is so central a need for us that we prefer it to any other good. In “Belonging Is Stronger than Facts,” in today’s New York Times, the journalist Max Fisher considers the way in which the need to be part of a supportive group outweighs abstract ideals such as truth and justice.  

“As much as we like to think of ourselves as rational beings who put truth-seeking above all else, we are social animals wired for survival. In times of perceived conflict or social change, we seek security in groups. And that makes us eager to consume information, true or not, that lets us see the world as a conflict putting our righteous ingroup against a nefarious outgroup.This need can emerge especially out of a sense of social destabilization. As a result, misinformation is often prevalent among communities that feel destabilized by unwanted change or, in the case of some minorities, powerless in the face of dominant forces.” 

As our people nears the holy day when we annually relive the moment of our commitment to each other and to our path of meaning, it is worth considering the gift in our hands: we know where we belong. We are part of a people and a purpose which stretches far beyond a moment’s uncertainty; we belong to a history and a future that needs us to learn it and shape it. Each of us is needed. 

Emet v’Emunah are the words we repeat every time we gather to pray: “truth” and “reliability.” True and enduring, we say, is this community of spiritual seekers. True and reliable, we affirm, is our support for each other. True and eternal, we declare, are the beliefs and values of our people and its sense of the Holy in and beyond our lives.

In this age of fake news, we Jews have a truth we can cling to, and that informs and strengthens our belonging with each other. From the mishkan of the wilderness built by the gifts of the Israelites, to the sacred spaces we wandering Jews construct in so many places so many generations later, we belong to our story, and it needs the gifts each of us bring.

The truth is that we need it just as much as it needs us; us, and our reliable presence for each other. That is a truth that has lasted much longer than the lies and hate of any era.

Even when it weighs us down too, at least we know that a better way of being is possible. May we cling to that, and to each other.

Shabbat Akharei Mot-Kedoshim: One Step At A Time

“Be holy as HaShem is holy.”

Our days are full of unnerving paradoxes, and this week was no exception:

This week George Floyd’s killer was found guilty of murder despite being a white police officer, AND police with the identical training killed Andrew Brown, Daunte Wright, Ma’khia Bryant and, here in Portland, Robert Delgado.

This week we delighted in so much delightful sunny weather that lifted our spirits and warmed our bodies, AND in Portland Oregon the average historical high temperature for April is 62F degrees.

This week we know many more people who are vaccinated and feel their fears of COVID-19 fading, AND in Multnomah County the number of cases is rising significantly.

One week, and an eternity of experiences, thoughts and feelings.

In times such as ours with so much uncertainty it is good to know that our spiritual tradition can ground us. When we feel overwhelmed with all of it, Judaism brings us back down to the good solid foundation of our souls, what our tradition calls “our Rock and our Redeemer.” The Rock we hold on to for support when we would otherwise be swept away by the currents that buffet our individual selves, and in that clinging find meaning and purpose that Redeems any sense that life is only arbitrary, only overwhelming, only chaos.

The Rock and the Redeemer, or as we might call it the steady support and the answer to fears of meaninglessness, calls to us through the Torah this week: be holy as I am holy. 

Holiness is an ancient Hebrew concept is not some rarified concept of piousness; Judaism doesn’t know what “holier than thou” means. To be holy, for Jews, is to be dedicated to a particular purpose. For us, in these chaotic times, remembering to be holy is a true life saver. 

Being holy literally requires you to narrow down your focus, streamline your life, and do what matters. The Rabbis of the Talmud offer a definition that has yet to be improved:

Rabbi Ḥama, bar Rabbi Ḥanina asked, What is the meaning of that which is written: “After HaShem your God shall you walk?”(Deuteronomy 13:5)?…. is it actually possible for a person to follow the Divine Presence? Hasn’t it already been stated: “For the Lord your God is a devouring fire, a jealous God” (Deuteronomy 4:24), and one cannot approach fire!

Rather, the meaning is that one should follow the attributes of the Holy One: 

*Just as HaShem clothes the naked, as it is written: “HaShem made for the human beings garments of skin, and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21), so too, should you clothe the naked. 

*Just as the Holy One visits the sick, as it is written “HaShem appeared unto him by the terebinths of Mamre [after his circumcision]” (Genesis 18:1), so too, should you visit the sick. 

*Just as the Holy One consoles mourners: “And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed Isaac his son” (Genesis 25:11), so too, should you console mourners. 

*Just as the Holy One buried the dead, as it is written: “Moshe was buried in the valley in the land of Moab” (Deuteronomy 34:6), so too, should you bury the dead.  – BT Sotah 14a

This is not some esoteric ideal but the simple, daily practice of compassion and caring for others. According to the mystical tradition that emerges from Judaism, this ethic of caring for others is the only way to personal salvation – of rescuing our lives from emptiness.

The Sefirat haOmer in which we find ourselves during this time between Pesakh and Shavuot invites us to perceive this simple lesson in the ultimate depths of existence, both of our individual selves and of All the world, and All time.

Today we count 25 days since Passover began; in our daily ‘Omer count, today is the day upon which we are to contemplate the ways in which the characteristic of hod influences the element of netzakh in our lives.

Hod means many things: beauty and awe, gratitude and – strangely – uncertainty. The Gate of Hod offers us the chance to consider how awe and gratitude go with not-knowing: how is this possible, this thing beyond my comprehension? This life, these hands, this soul that lifts and crashes and lifts again?

Netzakh invites us to consider eternity and endurance, and also victory. On this day in the ‘Omer count we consider how hod exists within the world of netzakh. We are asked:

The way you carry your awareness of hod, how does it speak to the netzakh of your experience?  

This day, how will you balance your awareness of the often ephemeral nature of beauty with that which endures?

This day, what gratitude helps you bear uncertainty?

This day, how might our awareness of awe bring light to the terrible ways human beings try to be victorious over ourselves, each other, and the world itself?

Be holy as I am holy says the Source of All to us. If the Rabbis are right, this path is simple: look for the mitzvah that needs doing in your presence, and do it.

This, as the Torah tells us, is “the law of life.” On this Shabbat, consider what practice of holiness brings you closer to the rock and redeemer of your life. Hold on to that, and it will hold you, this week and every week.

shabbat shalom

Shabbat Tazria-Metzora: The Elixir of Life

 מִי-הָאִישׁ, הֶחָפֵץ חַיִּים Mi ha’Ish he’Hafetz Hayim? Who is the one who desires life? – Psalm 34.13

The early Shabbat morning prayers called p’sukei d’zimra (verses of song) are a way for us to  prepare spiritually to pull aside our Zoom veils and seek the presence of holiness together 

They include some rather direct opportunities for us to do a self-check. Are we living our best lives, are we being our best selves, ethically speaking? For example, we often sing this song:

מִי-הָאִישׁ, הֶחָפֵץ חַיִּים אֹהֵב יָמִים, לִרְאוֹת טוֹב נְצֹר לְשׁוֹנְךָ מֵרָע וּשְׂפָתֶיךָ, מִדַּבֵּר מִרְמָה. סוּר מֵרָע, וַעֲשֵׂה-טוֹב בַּקֵּשׁ שָׁלוֹם וְרָדְפֵהוּ

mi ha’ish he’hafetz hayim ohev yamim lirot tov?

n’tzor l’shonkha meyra’ usfah-teh-ha midabeyr mirmah

sur meyra’ aseh tov, bakesh shalom l’rodfeyhu

Who wants to live a life of loving and being loved?

Shut your mouth from speaking evil; don’t share negative stories

Instead, turn away from that evil and in so doing you will be doing good, and creating peace

(Psalm 34.13-14)

There is an ancient teaching which compares the one who shares gossip about another – and for Jews, with our very strict standard for “evil speech,” this can mean any story at all that influences one’s estimation of another human being away from the khaf zekhut standard. Khaf zekhut means “giving the benefit of the doubt” and it’s a sine qua non for meaningful spiritual community.

Our parashat hashavua is Tazria-Metzora, a part of Torah that has long been understood to get to the heart of how we poison our relationships, and how to refrain from doing so. This year, our time in COVID-19 quarantine brings a new resonance to this very old teaching. Let’s get at it using our PaRDeS interpretive approach:

  1. P p’shat (“surface level meaning”): a metzora is someone who is suffering from tzara’at, a physically disfiguring condition caused by any one of several different possible illnesses. They may be contagious and, whichever it is, it is certainly the cause of suffering – and sometimes death. 
  1. D drash (investigating more deeply): the word metzora can be read as motzi ra’, “bringing forth evil.” This reading brings to mind the verses from Psalm 13: who wants to live well, love and be loved? the one who avoids evil, ra’. 
  1. R remez (“hint”): what words come out of your mouth that allow evil to flourish, instead of life?

There was a peddler who would go around to towns that were close to Tzippori. The peddler would shout “Who wants to buy the elixir of life?” Everyone would crowd around. Rabbi Yannai was sitting and studying Torah and heard the call, “Who wants to buy the elixir of life?” [Rabbi Yannai] said, “I want it.” 

The peddler took out a book of Psalms and showed Rabbi Yannai the verse, “Who is the one who desires life?” The peddler pointed out “What is written after it? ‘guard your tongue from evil […] Turn away from evil and do good’.” 

Rabbi Yannai said “All of my days I was reading this verse and I did not know how to interpret it until this peddler came and made it understood – ‘Who is the one who desires life?'” Therefore, at the start of  [parashat Metzora’] Moshe warns Israel and says to them, “This shall be the law for a leper (metzora’)” – the law of the one that gives out a bad name (motzi ra’) [to another]. –  VaYikra Rabbah 16.2

Not sure if you’ve been motzi ra’ this week or this month? Reflect on the time (or times) when you did not remember to give someone else the benefit of the doubt, especially when someone you know personally upset or offended you in some way, or when someone you don’t know personally did something public that you felt free to comment upon. 

Let this be our Shabbat learning, on this 18th day of the Omer count, a day upon which we are taught to consider the nature of our desire for attention against the obligation to be compassionate (Shabbat, the 19th day, will be netzakh in tiferet, a day to consider the eternal nature of compassion – a good day for you to repent of the evil you may have spoken or contributed to by speaking during this week).

It’s not too late to shut our mouths against evil and so much unnecessary contagion, and to choose a loving and life-affirming stay on the planet.

Shabbat Shemini: You Can Rise Up

The fifty days between the two harvest festivals of Pesakh and Shavuot are traditionally counted. The daily count is called Sefirat haOmer, the “counting of the [barley] measure,” because in the unceasing toil of ancient agricultural subsistence, every day of the harvest was a time to count in gratitude and in hope for continuing harvest.

The counting of the omer was interpreted for new relevance during the 2000 year Exile of the Jewish people from the land of Israel, and very often from the ability to farm. The ancient Rabbis recognized in this 50 day period a chance to consider the eternal truth that one does not cease to be a slave overnight. One does not alter a perspective quickly, nor take easily to a layer of change over years of habit. In truth, there are those who prefer never to countenance change at all, as well as those who embrace it. Most of us are somewhere in the broad and confusing middle, wandering in a wilderness of some comforting habit, and some jarring change.

These 50 days offer us a yearly opportunity to contemplate this ancient invitation: are you moving forward, or are you circling back around? No judgement, just an effort at clarity: where are you on your path? Are you happy in it? What choices have you made, and what narrow places constrain you?

In a play on the words sefirat haOmer, the mystics of our tradition offer us the sefirot haOmer, a way of counting our days and considering their impact on us and the world through looking at aspects of our selfhood.

For one whole week we consider how our own sense of compassion intersects with our attribute of judgement, of mercy, of consequences, of wisdom, of our own sense of what grounds us, and more. The next week, we go through the same characteristics of our existence, but from a different angle. And so on, for seven weeks of considering our response to the Eternal question

Ayeka? Where are you?

as HaShem asked the first humans as they hid themselves (to no avail) in Eden.

Eternity asks us ayeka? every day. Every day we are too busy and too distracted to hear. But for 50 days, we are urged by our tradition to take the time to listen.

The first weeks of our contemplation find us at the level of our physicality. This is truly human; we begin as small organisms that do nothing but exist physically. As we mature, we develop into emotional, intellectual, and spiritual beings.

This is where our parashat hashavua finds us, grappling with the nature of our physical existence. It offers a profound lesson in the first day on the job of two priests in the new Mishkan, the sacred space created to approach the presence of HaShem. 

But it does not go well.

Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered HaShem a fire offering which had not been instructed. Fire came forth from HaShem and consumed them, and they died. (Leviticus 10.1-2)

Judaism has never derogated physicality; Jewish teachings recognize that the body must be cared for before one can learn. But to remain in the grip of focus upon the physical will destroy us. The teaching for us in the sefirot haOmer is perhaps this:

if you don’t take care of your physical body you are not able to rise above the level of the physical. The invitation to the 50 days of contemplation of all one’s harvest are not simply or only physical, though, and if you are only concerned with your body, you are stuck in a circling. 

For anyone who is physically endangered by illness or dysmorphia, it is imperative, in the light of this teaching, to act with clarity and fullness to address that danger. Until you are physically safe, you cannot rise to the next level. And to grow into your fullness, you need to rise.

The same is true of the emotional level of our lives, which is considered next. Then the intellectual – each with its own traps, lest we believe that any one of our characteristics is enough to define us. We contain multitudes, as Walt Whitman sang of himself. We reflect Eternity in all its aspects, each of us and every single one of us. 

On this Shabbat we have counted the days from Pesakh to Yom HaShoah, and soon we will commemorate Yom HaAtzma’ut. The experience of releasing one’s energy from constraints similarly may presage destruction as well as hope rising from that destruction. The Jewish people will continue to count past these monumental dates for our people. Join us, as we attempt to rise all the way through an inner as well as communal journey that may, if we are willing, lead us all the way to meaningful personal existence within meaningful supportive community – rising to the moment of Sinai, where we can finally see.