Shabbat BaMidbar: Fire, Water and Wilderness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Shabbat HaHodesh: Say His Name

This Shabbat carries so much significance – it is Shabbat HaHodesh, the Shabbat of The Month, that is, the first month of the Jewish year, the month in which we will commemorate the Exodus from Egypt. That escape occurred on the 14th day of the month we now call Nisan, and every year we gather to tell the tale. The power, we are taught, is in the words that we share.

And when your children ask you, “What do you mean by this ritual?” you shall tell them, “this is the Passover.” (Ex.12.26-27)

Our Rabbis taught that even those who know the tale well are considered praiseworthy if they tell it at length, this story of how one moves from slavery to freedom. Tell it again, tell it over and over, tell it until it is heard, and recognized.

We are so much in need of that story today. When we retell it, we remind ourselves of the importance of saying what is important out loud. From the beginning of creation, when the first people helped G*d create the world by naming all its creatures, Jewish tradition has understood the great power of speaking truth in words, out loud.

When I visited City Hall on the morning of March 1, I witnessed the power of speaking words directly. A group lifted up the simple chant:

Say his name! Quanice Hayes! Say his name! Quanice Hayes! Say his name! Quanice Hayes! 

No matter how you feel about the tactic of refusing to allow regular city business to proceed as usual by showing up during open city council sessions and disrupting them, it is powerful to realize that a simple, repeated chant cuts right through such attempts to proceed with business as usual.

There is a tremendous power in speaking truth directly. Alas, we also know that there is a great deal of power in refusing to speak what should be spoken, and thus recognized as real and significant.

Our Jewish tradition decries the act of remaining silent when speaking up is the needed moral act, even as it denounces those who speak falsely in order to manipulate the truth to their own advantage. We have a surfeit of the latter, but what do we know about the former? 

For Zion’s sake I wil not be silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be still, until her justice shines like a light, and her help like a burning torch. (Isaiah 62.1)

That chant continues to ring in my ears: Say his name! Quanice Hayes! Say his name! Quanice Hayes! Say his name! Quanice Hayes! 

On this Shabbat HaHodesh, we are called to consider the importance of saying our truth out loud, and supporting the rights of others to that same speech. The words of G*d echo through every person’s truth, even – probably especially – the truths that disturb our peace and quiet. 

And on this Shabbat which is also called VaYakhel-Pekudey, after the Torah parashah that we are reading in the yearly cycle, we cannot but also note that VaYakhel, which means “gathering”, reminds us that words must not only be spoken aloud, but also heard, and witnessed, by the gathered community. Only in such a community of shared meaning and purpose do our words fulfill their purpose: to tell the story, and tell what it means.

Today at 2pm Quanice Hayes will finally be laid to rest – a horribly long time after he was tragically killed. His name joins too long a list of other young African American men killed at the hands of police. To say his name is to insist that we listen, and that we tell that story too, as many times as necessary until we finally discover the way from slavery to freedom for all.

In every generation we are commanded to consider that we ourselves are going out of Egypt. (BT Pesakhim 116b)

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

Shabbat shalom

Shabbat Shemot 5776: what do you see in that bush?

One of the useful things about Torah is that every word of the sacred document has been pored over for so many generations, by so many devoted readers, that the commentaries are legion, and a well-worn path of interpretation lies before us as we in our own day consider what insights our Torah might divulge. As my teacher Byron Sherwin ז״ל used to say to me, “you don’t have to go outside the sources to be a feminist, you just have to keep digging to find what’s already there.” Replace the word “feminist” with any other sense of identity that you have that you may feel is outside the reach of our ancient wells of wisdom and experience, and, well, Dr Sherwin would suggest that the fault we find is in ourselves, not the Torah (or our stars, for that matter).

Every week we gather to read the Torah and to consider ancient, medieval, and modern commentaries upon it. We sometimes struggle with questions of legitimate boundaries; what is a Jewish interpretation? how is it developed? And we tend to privilege the more ancient as the more authoritative. That’s a natural inclination, and it is true that the ancient interpretations have formed the Judaism that we live in; what is less certain, and much more open, is the question of what interpretations we help to create and carry forward to develop th Judaism of the next generation.

Our parashat hashavua (Torah parashah, “section,” of the week) begins the book of Shemot, also called Exodus. In it we have the famous story of the bush that was burned but was not consumed. The New Yorker magazine recently ran a wonderful cartoon which showed Moshe staring at the bush while G-d, behind a nearby tree, says “that’s just a burning bush; I’m over here.” What a brilliant comment on our tendency to get caught up in the images by which we visualize what truth means to us. Religious imagery is always meant as a pass-through, but we focus on what we can see, and forget about the more complicated, mysterious unseen.

That small bush has led to some wonderful interpretations. I offer you three, and urge you to consider if you can come up with a fourth, and in so doing, join us in the interpretive journey which keeps Torah an endless well of living waters for us all:

1. Why did G-d speak to Moshe out of a bush? To teach us that there is no thing that does not have its place, and no person that does not have her/his moment.  (ben Zoma, Shemot Rabbah)

2. The bush represents the Jewish people, and the fire is our many years of suffering. It cannot destroy us. (13th century French Rabbi Hizkiyanu ben Manoah, known as Hizkuni)

3. How long does it take, when looking at a fire, to notice that the wood is not burning? To see miracles takes focus, and time. (11th century Zaragozan scholar Bahya ibn Pakuda)

There are so many more possible interpretations and insights we might find in that small, ever burning bush. It’s not a trivial thing: gaining facility in finding meaningful insights in a Torah passage transfers directly to the rest of your life. What small thing is right in front of you, full of a meeting with Eternity, and your own place in it, that you need to have?

Shabbat Bo: You Are Here In Ferguson

In this week’s parashah, we read of how we went out of Egypt.

That’s the command: “in every generation, to see ourselves as those who go out of Egypt.” (Talmud, Pesakhim 116b) Not to imagine as if, but to experience the going out ourselves, in an immediate way. How is that possible? I can’t feel myself enslaved as we were in Egypt; I can’t feel what it’s like to leave home at a moment’s notice and without any possessions.

Isn’t it much more comfortable to regard the stories of our religious tradition from a certain distance? Easier to condemn when necessary, to condescend, to dismiss as primitive and under-developed. But the ancients had an ability to sense reality just as acutely as we moderns. Perhaps theirs was a capacity felt in a different register, but it is a perspective that we might benefit from considering. It requires immersing ourselves in a different kind of mind-set, and heart-set.

Consider:

The story goes that the Israelites left Egypt in the middle of a terrifying night during which every first born child and animal in Egypt died. This is hard to take at face value for a true story, but this is where our tradition offers us another way to understand. The story before us is brutal: slavery by degrees, from which we are extricated with wrenching, overwhelming, all-encompassing suddenness. Innocents die in the process – many Israelites and Egyptians whose names we do not know, many more Egyptians with the onset of the plagues even before the death of the first born, and more still to come at the Sea of Reeds.

There is much suffering in a time of great change, and there is destruction ringing the edges of the most beautiful freedom story. Many are dead, with no clear reason or meaning to their tragic deaths. Refugees may be alive, but their futures are bereft. Those whose action or passive compliance allow the suffering to occur also find themselves suffering, for no direct reason that is discernible to them. We drift in darkness and confusion, and turn upon each other with fear rather than compassion.

If we can see ourselves in Egypt, then we can begin to see ourselves leaving Egypt – that is, not each of us personally, but all of us communally. We can begin to discern the beginnings of movement, the promise of upheaval. “Who is wise?” the Talmud records a Rabbi saying, “the one who can see what is being born.” (Pirke Avot 2.9)

Reading this parashat hashavua (weekly parashah, Torah reading) in the same week as Martin Luther King Jr day, after a year in which some of those whose deaths would normally go unrecorded came to prominence – Michael Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford, and, only today, Jerame Reid, brings a special resonance. Their tragic deaths seem meaningless. Their families and communities are refugees in their own nation, and we suffer the echoes of the far-reaching, inchoate destruction without any clear sense of connection.

Jewish tradition insists that we will not leave Egypt until we all go out together – and we as individuals will not all get there, but we as the human race must. When we know this in our hearts we will have understood the meaning of the mitzvah: b’khol dor vador hayav adam lirot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatza mimitzrayim, “in every age and age, we are required to see ourselves as going out of Egypt.” In every age so far, we have not done it. Until we can see it, we cannot do it; until we are here together, we will never get there.