Shabbat Ki Tisa: At One Ment

Atonement is really At-One-Ment. This lovely play on the English word conveys the truth that the Jewish concept of “sin” is simply that which separates us from each other, and from the wholeness to which we are meant to belong. It is a “missing the mark” which leaves us feeling alone and vulnerable. The only effective repentance is that which is restorative of the individual’s relationship with our own wholeness, and with that which connects us to the whole world, in the great wide path of the human spiritual journey in which we live, move, and have our being.
In this week’s parashah, we relive our ancestors’ most egregious act of separation from themselves, each other and G*d (another word for the world beyond us of which we are an essential part). So soon after the act of courage and faith in each other that allowed us to leave Egypt, so close upon the heels of entering into the Covenant of promise between us and the vision we shared at that moment, we panicked and lost that faith. Our ancestors created a pitiful substitute for the Sinai moment: a small model of a bull, molded of the gold and other metal they could collect. Then they stood around it and proclaimed “this is your god O Israel!”
To be fair, they were pitiful: afraid of the present, unsure of the future. We can relate in these dark days when our highest leadership is similarly absent, in that it displays its incompetence to lead, and to gather us together around a meaningful vision. No great leader such as Moshe Rabbenu (familiarly and lovingly called “Moshe our Rabbi” in our rabbinic tradition) is going to appear to save us from ourselves. It doesn’t really work to look for one person to lead us forth from our common challenge, anyway, since no leader will be able to stand up under all our needs and projections.
The Torah, as a record of our people’s uncertain struggle for meaning and for goodness, relates that restorative justice requires all of us; the first step as the Israelites took it was to stop tolerating the evil speech and deeds of those within the community. The second step was to include everyone whose heart so moved them to participate in building the holy space that would now stand for a sadder, wiser relationship with the Wholeness we seek. With the right intention, this work shows us that we need each person’s honest, individual, unique contribution. Only in this way does our atonement become at-one-ment.
In the documentary film Lies and Miracles, the Oregon premiere of which Shir Tikvah was privileged to host this week at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, the survivor Irenka Traunik ז״ל relates the trauma she experienced as a small child exiled with her family to a Siberian labor camp. “I really do believe that people are created good,” she said, “and then something happens that ruins them.”
Not everyone repented of the Golden Calf incident, as it is known. And so we learn that It’s important to keep both halves of Irenka’s statement in mind, as our Jewish theology does. While we pray that all of us be included in a happy healthy life, in our prayers every morning we also ask for help to separate ourselves from אדם רע וחבר רע – from “an evil person and an evil companion.” We must insist that those in a healthy community be willing to be at one with its values, and if that is not possible, there must be a separation, for the sake of clarity of values, and for the sake of the health of the whole. Every community must do its best to be at one with its highest vision; we can’t expect perfection, any more than our ancestors could, but we must keep trying for the best we can do.
Recognizing that we are all doing the best we can is necessary. Kal v’homer, as Talmudic reasoning offer us, “all the more so,” we must recognize and lift up true atonement and its capacity to heal us.

Shabbat Ki Tisa, and Shushan Purim: Sowing Hate is a Form of Murder

Well, we’ve heard the Megillat Ester, and Shabbat Ki Tisa is upon us, and we haven’t learned much yet, apparently.
I find myself much dismayed. Incidents come to my attention. Haman is still among us, and inside of us.
You, who believe you need not check your hypocrisy, because that there’s no way that the sin you accuse in another can possibly touch you.
You, who betray your words of caring for our community with careless acts that show you consider its true worth to you to be beneath concern.
You who think so little of the love another has for our community, giving endless volunteer time and heart, that you treat them without courtesy.
Causing harm to another’s reputation or name, causing embarrassment to them in any way within a community, refusing in our righteous anger to give the benefit of the doubt, is judged by our Jewish legal tradition to be a sin akin to murder.
This week in the parashah we see that when our commitment to each other is not strong, when we start to undermine the gentle, vulnerable bonds of trust that holds our community together, there is great harm, perhaps irreparable, that we do to each other. The sin of that small gold bull caused not only the actual deaths of many involved, but the death of that community’s hope for true unity on their way forward into the wilderness.
The wilderness is still there to be crossed; we can’t avoid that. But we can work a little harder to treat each other with decency, if not to “love your neighbor as yourself” if that’s too difficult for you right now, at least to consider “that which is hateful to you, do not do to another.” Both are foundational ethical teachings demanded of you as a Jew.
Purim is still with us; that holy day that the Rabbis suggest is actually much more significant than we realize. An ancient teaching points out that on the other end of the year, as fall begins, we observe a day the name of which can literally be understood as “the day which is like Purim” – Yom ha-Kippurim. Purim, our teachers suggest, is a day of considering the value of life, how we live it, at what cost, and the masks we need to finally stop wearing if we are to face each other honestly. A covenant relationship thrives on no less than this. Those with exit strategies in place if things don’t go their way are not speaking the language of Jewish covenant.
Today is Shushan Purim, on which Jews celebrate the holiday who lived in cities which were walled at the time of the Purim story. Perhaps that’s the best day for us to observe it, those of us who are still insisting on walls between us and those with whom we share what is supposed to be a covenant community where we learn to work on the essential human values of trust and love.
Haman is not some caricature; it is the part of you that does not stop to think of the hurt you cause another when you feel justified in your act. Who are you to choose not to risk trust? What will it take for each of us to figure out how to blot out the selfishness of the yetzer hara’ within us, that focuses only upon our own well-being?
This Shabbat, the Torah calls out to us to learn from what are too many examples of selfishness and blindness in our people’s past, and consider the real damage each of us can do unless we are ready to really learn this truth we have been taught to repeat from an early age.
Forgive as we would be forgiven,
extend the courtesy that we expect to receive,
and be kind; be kind; be kind to each other.

Shabbat Ki Tisa: Thinking Outside Your Self

This is the Shabbat of parashat Ki Tisa, the most famous part of which is the debacle of the Golden Calf. On one foot (the Jewish idiom for “in a nutshell”): We have just lived through the glorious commitment ceremony between us and G-d, and received the promise of the Torah (at least the Aseret haDibrot, the “Ten Utterances”) as our ketubah. We begin to build a sacred space to celebrate that relationship and seek its intimacy. Then Moshe goes up to Mt Sinai to get the Torah from G-d – and there our troubles begin.

According to the midrash, it was all due to a misunderstanding:

When Moses ascended the mountain, he said to them: After forty days, in the first six hours of the day, I shall return. They thought that the day of his ascent should be counted as one of the forty, while he meant forty full, 24-hour days. In truth, the day of his ascent – Sivan 7 – should not have been counted, since it did not include its previous night, meaning that the forty days ended on Tammuz 17.

On the 16th of Tammuz the satan came and filled the world with darkness and confusion. Said he to them: “Where is your teacher Moses?” “He has ascended on high,” they answered him. “The sixth hour has come,” said he to them, but they disregarded him. “He is dead”–but they disregarded him. So the satan showed them a vision of Moses’ bier. This is what they said to Aaron, “For this man Moses, who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him.”   (Rashi; Talmud, Shabbat 89a).

The appearance of the satan in this story is fascinating, because in Jewish midrashic tradition, the satan is expressed as that which sabotages the relationship of the Jewish people with G-d, or between two Jews. In this story, the satan does nothing creative to bring about the disaster of the Golden Calf – it simply amplifies and “tempts” into hysteria something that is already there.

What could have caused our people to stray so utterly, and commit so painful a betrayal, so quickly after the joyous Sinai moment of “we will do and we will hear”? Perhaps it was really nothing more than letting themselves get caught up in a never-ending loop of mutual concern, which turned into escalating fear, which turned into catastrophic fantasy – thus we might all find ourselves falling down a big, black rabbit hole of our own making and without any reality other than that of our own, utterly unfounded conviction.

It’s too bad that they could not hear Aaron trying to tell them: there’s nothing wrong with Moshe; he’s on his way. All you’ve done is get nervous and mistake the time.

Where does the satan come to amplify your own fears or misgivings, and turn them into a stumbling block before which no good intention can possibly get through to you? Is it a feeling that you haven’t been heard, when if you checked you’d find out you had? Is it an ill-considered desire for your own definition of perfection that gets in the way of the communal good? If it keeps you away from G-d and feeling distanced from those with whom you share community, then maybe you need to try thinking outside yourself and your own, already formed convictions. Maybe you are wrong. Maybe there’s another perspective. Maybe you need to open your heart and listen.

The wonderful thing about community is the trust we are offered, and the chance to turn to someone and say “please check my thinking here”. Where one may be lost in the dark, two or more have a better chance of finding the light again.

Shabbat hol hamo’ed Pesakh: What Does It Take To Make A Clean Break?

I believed that the Soviet Union was dead and gone; I even thought that war between the nations of Europe was a thing of the past. I was certain that people carrying giant placards depicting the face of Stalin in Red Square during political rallies in the past twenty years were hopelessly anachronistic. I was sure that the rise of a new generation would bury the bad old ways beyond reclaiming.

The news of the last few weeks has surprised me. The ghost of the Cold War and all its related horrors – racism, persecution of minorities, and trampling of individuality – is not dead. As William Faulkner famously said, “the past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.

How long does it take to make a clean break with the past? When do you know that you will never go back to Egypt? As anyone knows who has ever made a big change in life, the one thing that crossing a barrier teaches you for sure is that once breached, most can be breached again. And maybe it’s a natural thing – it is, after all, the path one knows best, having followed it with one’s own will. Backsliding is a human norm – the most difficult of all our self-made prisons to escape.

The parashat hashavua for the middle of Pesakh is a special reading, out of our normal Torah reading cycle: Exodus 33.12-34.26, followed by Numbers 28.19-25. In the first reading we are reminded of our very first backsliding. Following the great Escape from Egypt, we crossed the Sea and committed ourselves utterly to a new and better way of living; and within three months of that great crossing, we crossed back over. We did not actually, physically return to Egypt, but we did in our hearts. We repudiated Moshe, we built a calf-god made of gold, and we killed those who tried to stop us.

It took a state of war, and a lot of suffering and death, to bring the Israelite people back to the path of commitment we had begun. Most of our own personal backsliding is less widely destructive, though it can be no less personally catastrophic. An addict once recovered goes back to the addiction; a woman freed of an abusive relationship returns; promises we’ve made to ourselves and others to live more meaningfully starting NOW recede into last week’s sunnier horizon.

On this Shabbat hol hamo’ed Pesakh, the outer world is crying out to us as loudly as possible with this message and this question: what does it take for you to make a clean break with the past and become your best self? And what is the cost – to yourself, to your community, to the world – if you do not?