Shabbat BeHa’alot’kha: Lift It Up

Last week the parashah began with the command to lift up every face; this week, the word beha’alot’kha, “in your lifting up” refers to raising up the lights of the menorah, the seven-branched lamp designed by G*d, according to Jewish tradition, to illuminate the holy place.
To lift up the face is to see the eyes, and to take account of each human soul. To lift up light is, literally, to raise a light and to cause it to shine far and wide. The two parshiot together summon us to an act both lovely and heroic: to look each other in the eye, and to lift up the light we find in each eye so that our combined light can illuminate the darkness. What more relevant message could the Torah bring to us in our time…
Nishmat adam ner HaShem – “the human soul is G*d’s light,” says the Psalmist. Each of us has a soul like a firefly, briefly, blinkingly, lighting up our surroundings. Seven of us – the count in a menorah – shed a bit more light. How many menorot might it take to light up the despair some of us might feel on any given day, these days? Jewish tradition says that the critical mass is a minyan of ten. We know there is strength and support in numbers (and indeed, we are in the Book of Numbers).
The wisdom of our ancestors offers us two linked lessons on this Shabbat, derived from the juxtaposition of last week’s and this week’s parashiot. First: every pair of human eyes bears the light of a human soul. To forget this, and to demonize any human being, is to lose hold of the spiritual path that we follow and that supports us. Second: each one of us who so chooses can light up the world, just a little bit, by standing up in a place of darkness to share our light.
That might mean intervening in lashon hara’, when you hear someone speaking in a way that dehumanizes any other person; it might mean a donation in support of causes that shed light; and it might mean joining me, if you are in Portland, this Sunday June 3 downtown (do you remember how we gathered, so many of us, last year on Sunday June 4?) to declare that we will not cede our public spaces to those who preach hate and exclusion.
The great human being and rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, joined Dr. Martin Luther King Jr marching in Selma. Afterward he said that he felt that his legs were doing the praying at that time. This Shabbat, we will pray to remind ourselves of the values we seek to raise up by the way we live. On Sunday, pray with your legs if you can, and join me in raising up the light of those values in the public spaces of our city, that so badly need the light of love that values every human soul.
Advertisements

Shabbat Akharei Mot-Kedoshim: Choices Don’t Free You, They Distract You

On any given day, we are confronted with choices, and have to make a decision regarding how best to choose; that is, how best to live. In some ways we imagine that our lives are so much better than our ancestors, who, we presume, made their choices from a much narrower range of options, and therefore must not have been as happy as we are. More choices must mean more freedom, and that must mean more happiness – or so we might think.
What a contrast the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel offer us:
… who, then, is the free person?  The creative person who is not carried away by the flow of necessity, not bound by the chains of process and not enslaved by circumstance. We are free in precious moments … liberty is not the constant state of human beings. We all have the potential for freedom but in fact we act freely only in rare moments of creativity.
Jewish tradition offers a framework of meaning for one’s everyday acts that one might argue “free us up” for the moments of creative freedom to which we might find ourselves called. Some days, it simply pares down to manageable size the collection of decisions one needs to make. The obligations that replace some of those choices are called mitzvot. You might say that the mitzvot take care of the daily choices that otherwise distract us from what’s truly meaningful and needs our careful attention. Take kashrut for one: what you are having for lunch, for example, is so much less important than choosing what social justice organization to support.
On this Shabbat the parashat hashavua records what scholars call the “Holiness Code,” a list of specific acts to which we are obligated by our belonging to the Covenant of the Jewish people with G*d. We might consider them the grounding in the quotidian which enables us to save our energy for the surprising and the unusual.
Consider these, taken from this Shabbat’s text:
ט  וּבְקֻצְרְכֶם אֶת-קְצִיר אַרְצְכֶם,
לֹא תְכַלֶּה פְּאַת שָׂדְךָ לִקְצֹר; וְלֶקֶט קְצִירְךָ, לֹא תְלַקֵּט.
When you reap the harvest of your land, do not wholly reap the corner of your field, nor gather the gleanings of your harvest.

when you gather in that which is yours, leave some, and give up your belief in ownership of it.

י  וְכַרְמְךָ לֹא תְעוֹלֵל, וּפֶרֶט כַּרְמְךָ לֹא תְלַקֵּט:
לֶעָנִי וְלַגֵּר תַּעֲזֹב אֹתָם, אֲנִי יְ-ה אֱלֹ-כֶם.
10 Do not glean your vineyard, nor gather the fallen fruit of the vineyard;
leave them for the poor and for the stranger: I am HaShem your G*d.

don’t spend everything you have on yourself; put some of what you’ve gained into a tzedakah fund that cares for the poor.

יא  לֹא, תִּגְנֹבוּ; וְלֹא-תְכַחֲשׁוּ וְלֹא-תְשַׁקְּרוּ, אִישׁ בַּעֲמִיתוֹ. 11 Do not steal; do not deal falsely nor lie one to another.

don’t pretend the facts are otherwise in order to suit your desires or goals.

יב  וְלֹא-תִשָּׁבְעוּ בִשְׁמִי, לַשָּׁקֶר:  וְחִלַּלְתָּ אֶת-שֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֲנִי יְ-ה.

………….

12 Do not swear by G*d’s name falsely and make it contemptible: I am HaShem.

Don’t swear “by all that is holy” and lie, because when it is found out,
no one will respect anything that you hold holy.

…….

יז  לֹא-תִשְׂנָא אֶת-אָחִיךָ, בִּלְבָבֶךָ; הוֹכֵחַ תּוֹכִיחַ אֶת-עֲמִיתֶךָ,
וְלֹא-תִשָּׂא עָלָיו חֵטְא.
17 Do not hate another in your heart; rebuke your neighbour,
do not bear sin because of your neighbor.

Expressing anger without acting against someone who does wrong is itself wrong; speak out and seek to confront that person, lest you be part of the problem.

יח  לֹא-תִקֹּם וְלֹא-תִטֹּר אֶת-בְּנֵי עַמֶּךָ,
וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ:  אֲנִי, יְ-ה.
18 Do not take vengeance, nor hold any grudge against your people.
Love your neighbour as yourself: I am HaShem.

And yet, do not write off that person who does wrong, and remember
forever that wrong, and hold it against that person – treat everyone else
as you would wish to be treated, if you truly believe that there’s a G*d you follow (however you might define the Source of your certainties and your life), and a people to which you belong.

Some things are already set down for you as a Jew (or someone who loves and travels with one). Let them hold you up in moments of crisis. These are part of your bedrock, allowing us to stand firm upon it. Thus we have the strength to create that which needs our careful, conscious, ethical choices.
Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other

A Rabbinic Statement Supporting the Lakota Nation in its Opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline

From the Shalom Center:

We are living in the midst of a profound spiritual crisis in American society, expressed in the current election campaign and in many other forms as well.

One of the most poignant is the nonviolent protest in North Dakota, led by people of the First Nations, against the imposition of the oil-bearing Dakota Access Pipeline upon the sacred ancestral lands of the Sioux Nation. The pipeline is desecrating their graves, threatening to poison the water of the Missouri River, and endangering the entire web of life of Mother Earth by increasing the burning of fossil fuels.

Already hundreds of representatives from many of the First Nations living in the United States, gathered for the first time in history beyond all previous divisions and alliances, together with growing numbers of other Americans and of indigenous peoples from other countries, have gathered to face this onslaught with prayerful nonviolent resistance.

Yet as they pray, police have already used dogs, pepper gas, and clubs – and with rifles loaded and lifted threaten to use deadly force — to impose this destructive pipeline on the region, on the nation, and on the Earth.

As spiritual leaders and teachers of the Jewish people, we affirm Torah’s commitment to protect the Earth from which the human race was born (Gen 2: 7) and which we are commanded to allow to rest in rhythmic celebration of the Creator (Lev. 25: 1-12, 23).

Indeed, Torah adds that if we block this rhythmic rest, the exhausted earth will erupt against us (Lev 26: 34-35, 43). These commands and warnings were rooted in our ancestors’ deep experience of the sacred unity of all life.

They are confirmed by scientists today.

And already we are seeing these ancient prophecies and modern scientific predictions come to life — in higher rates of asthma and cancer where coal, oil, and fracked unnatural gas are extracted, refined, and burned; in unprecedented floods and droughts and superstorms all around the planet.

On April 4, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel stood together in Riverside Church in New York City. Dr. King spoke out not only against the Vietnam War but even more deeply against what he called the deadly triplets afflicting America — racism, militarism, and materialism. And he called for a commitment to nonviolent activism to bring about a “revolution in values” for America.

In the Dakota confrontation, all three of those triplets have borne monstrous offspring in one clarifying moment:

Corporate greed has in this case taken the “materialism” triplet to its extreme; the armed police have brought militarism home; the trampling on Native rights and needs echoes the earliest racism of our past.

For all these reasons, we urgently call on President Obama as Commander-in-Chief of the Army Corps of Engineers to firmly and clearly prohibit the Dakota Access Pipeline from encroaching on the Missouri River, and we urge all state and federal agencies to affirm and respect the role of the Native communities in defending the weave of life upon the continent we know as North America, and they have for centuries called Turtle Island.

And we call on Jewish communities and their leaders throughout our country to speak out in congregations and publicly, to gather in prayerful vigils in our own communities, and to assist the Lakota protest as it moves into a stern Dakota winter by sending money to buy clothing, food, and other supplies for a lengthy steadfast stay. Please send your gifts by clicking here: http://www.ocetisakowincamp.org/

We encourage our communities to call North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple at (701) 328-2200 to leave a message stating your opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline; to call the White House at (202) 456-1111 or (202) 456-1414 to tell President Obama to rescind the Army Corps of Engineers’ permit for the Dakota Access Pipeline; and to call the Army Corps of Engineers (202) 761-5903 and demand that they rescind the permit.

In his Riverside speech, Dr. King lifted up “the fierce urgency of Now.” And in our lives today, facing both a spiritual crisis in America and a world-wide spiritual crisis in the relationship between adam and adamah, humanity and Earth, the urgency of Now is far more fierce.

This letter has so far been signed by more than 270 Rabbis and Cantors at the initiative of Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s Shalom Center

Shabbat Va’Etkhanan: Your Life is a Prayer

Our parashah is called Va’Etkhanan, literally translated “I beseech.” Moshe is recounting to us how he begged G*d for the one thing he could not have: the ability to cross over the Jordan River with the People of Israel into the Promised Land. Moshe our leader was denied the satisfaction of crossing the finish line himself. Although he was allowed to see it from afar, G*d made it clear to him that he would not enter. 

This type of prayer, from the root kh.n.n, is familiar to us: we call those prayers Selikhot, and recite them every year at the time of Atonement. So it seems that our parashat hashavua acts for us as an early warning system. Yom Kippur is coming! From Shabbat Va’Etkhanan it is a bit less than eight weeks in the future.

There are many words for prayer in our sources. An ancient commentary on our parashah offers that 

“prayer is called by ten names: cry, howl, groan, song, encounter, stricture, prostration, judgment, and beseeching.” (Midrash Rabbah) 

It can be startling to consider how many of our acts are actually a form of prayer. Now we can see why Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that when he marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in Selma, he felt that his feet were praying. But which form of prayer did he mean? 

It would give us a pretty picture to contemplate if we consider that he meant “encounter” or even “song”; indeed, the famous photograph gives support for that reading. But as we in our community grapple with our responsibility as part of the White community of the United States of America, and keep tripping over our vulnerability as part of the Jewish community of the world, we may find ourselves more able to relate to more painful moments of prayer:

Stricture: we may feel confused, and constrained in our ability to act meaningfully.

Groan: more and more people tell me that they are no longer watching the news, for it is too painful.

Prostration: this is a posture of helplessness in the face of overwhelming anxiety.

Rabbi Heschel’s statement offers us a way to explore this idea further: it seems that the Jewish concept of prayer covers much human territory. More, it does so by offering context out of Jewish history, culture and ethics. To pray, for Jews, is sometimes to sit in meditation on the words and what they mean; but more often, it is to act in full awareness that by our acts we carry out the words and their meaning.

It can be a perfect circle: the words help us find meaning, and we instill meaning into the words by carrying them out.

So this is what Rabbi Heschel might have meant for us by his marching in Selma, and calling it prayer: each of us Jews becomes the best possible White citizen of the U.S. when we are empowered by the awareness that our lives are prayers, and when we know what that means, and can mean, for us.

We are now entering a time of focus upon beseeching G*d for clarity, for understanding and for mercy, preparatory to and part of the atonement process. May you find your own way into all ten expressions of Jewish prayer and may it empower you to see all your life as one great prayer, in every moment. There is much crying, much howling, that is a true expression of our day. May there also be much opportunity – made by our efforts – for song.

 images