Shabbat Nakhamu: Sometimes the Answer is No

This Shabbat we study the second parashah of Devarim, Deuteronomy, called Va’Etkhanan, “I implored.” The name refers to the pleading of Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our Teacher, to be allowed to enter the Land of Promise which has been his life’s dream and every day work. According to the Midrash (ancient Rabbinical literature which show us how to explore for deeper meanings in the Torah text), after G*d does not relent, Moshe tries to bargain (an honorable Middle Eastern tradition):

Then Moses said, “Master of the universe, if I am not to enter the Land alive, let me enter dead, as the bones of Joseph are about to enter.” … ‘No’ is G*d’s reply… Then Moses said, “Master of the universe, if You will not let me enter the Land of Israel, allow me to remain [alive] like the beasts of the field, who eat grass, drink water, and thus savor the world–let me be like one of these.” At that, G*d replied, “Enough. Speak no more to Me of this matter” (Deut. 3:26).

But Moses spoke up again, “Master of the universe, if not [like a beast of the field], then let me become like a bird that flies daily in every direction to gather its food and in the evening returns to its nest–let me be like one of these.” The Holy One replied again, “Enough.”

This Midrash reflects that our ancestors did not believe in magic, nor in miracles that a human could pry out of the Divine; more, the Rabbis of antiquity knew very well from their own experience that bad things happen, even to good people, and while we may plead with all our heart, it may not change the outcome. Sometimes, even when we pray our hardest and most creatively for what we want, the answer is still going to be No.

This Shabbat marks the days after the biggest NO our people can experience; it is the NO to the plea to be spared, to not let destruction happen, to not let all be lost. Tisha B’Av (the 9th day of the month of Av), now three days ago, marks our memory of the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of our people. Much prayer seemed to be for nothing.
But this Shabbat, only a few days after that nadir, is called Nakhamu, “be comforted.” It seems a surprising and perhaps even offensive idea; awful things happened although I prayed and pleaded and hoped that they should not, how am I to find comfort? The Prophet Isaiah, who saw terrible suffering and destruction in his lifetime, offers this:
 נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ, עַמִּי–יֹאמַר, אֱלֹהֵ-כֶם. Comfort you, O be comforted My people, says your G*d.
דַּבְּרוּ עַל-לֵב יְרוּשָׁלִַם, וְקִרְאוּ אֵלֶיהָ–כִּי מָלְאָה צְבָאָהּ, כִּי נִרְצָה עֲו‍ֹנָהּ:  כִּי לָקְחָה מִיַּד י-ה, כִּפְלַיִם בְּכָל-חַטֹּאתֶיהָ. Tell Jerusalem to take heart, proclaim unto her that her time is accomplished, that her guilt is paid off; that she has received of HaShem’s hand more than enough reflection back for all her sins.
קוֹל קוֹרֵא–בַּמִּדְבָּר, פַּנּוּ דֶּרֶךְ י-ה; יַשְּׁרוּ, בָּעֲרָבָה, מְסִלָּה, לֵאלֹהֵ-נוּ. Listen! a voice calls out: ‘Clear in the wilderness the way of HaShem, make way in the desert a highway for our G*d.
כָּל-גֶּיא, יִנָּשֵׂא, וְכָל-הַר וְגִבְעָה, יִשְׁפָּלוּ; וְהָיָה הֶעָקֹב לְמִישׁוֹר, וְהָרְכָסִים לְבִקְעָה. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the rugged shall be made level, and the rough places plain;
וְנִגְלָה, כְּבוֹד י-ה; וְרָאוּ כָל-בָּשָׂר יַחְדָּו, כִּי פִּי י-ה דִּבֵּר.  {פ} The glory of HaShem shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of HaShem has proclaimed it.’
קוֹל אֹמֵר קְרָא, וְאָמַר מָה אֶקְרָא; כָּל-הַבָּשָׂר חָצִיר, וְכָל-חַסְדּוֹ כְּצִיץ הַשָּׂדֶה. Listen! a voice calls out: ‘Proclaim!’ and there is a reply: ‘What shall I proclaim?’ ‘All flesh is grass, and all the goodness of it is as the flower of the field;
יָבֵשׁ חָצִיר נָבֵל צִיץ, כִּי רוּחַ י-ה נָשְׁבָה בּוֹ; אָכֵן חָצִיר, הָעָם. The grass withers and the flower fades when the breath of Eternity blows on it; surely the people are grass.
יָבֵשׁ חָצִיר, נָבֵל צִיץ; וּדְבַר-אֱלֹהֵ-נוּ, יָקוּם לְעוֹלָם.  {ס} The grass withers and the flower fades; but an Eternal word stands for ever.’  (Isaiah 40.1-8)
All of us, and all of our struggles and pain, are not all that there is in this world. While suffering is real and terrible in one place, joy and gratitude are equally real in another. Rather than a comforting which promises an answer for our pain, so that we can understand it, Isaiah reflects the reality of the Rabbis who chose this text for this week many generations ago: we are like grass, which fades so quickly; all our joy and our pain fades as fast.
If it all passes, then our tradition offers us not answers, but how to respond, and what to do while we are here. Our daily prayers tell us that we are to follow G*d’s example as demonstrated in the Torah:
to somekh noflim, hold each other up as each of us falls,
to rofeh holim, care for those who are suffering,
to matir asurim, help those who are trapped to become free,
and
to m’kayyem emunato lisheyney afar, faithfully maintaining the memory of those who “sleep in the dust.”
The comforting, we are promised, will come of itself; not because we found someone to make our suffering central, but because we’ve found a community in which to make sure that it does not become central to us, through seeking and doing the mitzvot that make our lives holy, no matter how long or short, happy or troubled, they may be.
Thus, we are told, we are able to immerse ourselves in the ultimate comfort: imitation of G*d, leading us closer with every act to G*d. Rabbi Akiba called G*d Mikveh Israel, “the Hope of Israel.”

May this Shabbat bring you comfort in that you are able to offer love and support to others, and in so doing immerse yourself in the love and support and hope that you, and we all, need.

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

Shabbat Pinhas: Too Easy to Blame a Person

This parashat hashavua is troubling; in the last verses of last week’s parashah, a young man named Pinkhas (or Phineas in English) who serves as a kohen, a priest (grandson of Aaron the High Priest, no less) has murdered two people who were perceived to be publicly flouting the authority of Moshe. The parashah clearly describes his extrajudicial action: he saw the behavior, and he picked up his spear and ran the two through.
The opening verses of our parashah do not describe his punishment for going outside the legal system, for neglecting to give each person the benefit of the doubt, or for taking the law as he saw it into his own hands. Rather, the opening verses describe G*d’s “reward” for his behavior:
פִּינְחָס בֶּן-אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן-אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן, הֵשִׁיב אֶת-חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת-קִנְאָתִי, בְּתוֹכָם; וְלֹא-כִלִּיתִי אֶת-בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּקִנְאָתִי. ‘Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, turned My wrath away from the children of Israel, in that he was very jealous for My sake among them, so that I did not destroy the children of Israel in My anger.
לָכֵן, אֱמֹר:  הִנְנִי נֹתֵן לוֹ אֶת-בְּרִיתִי, שָׁלוֹם. Wherefore say: Behold, I give unto him My Covenant of Peace;
וְהָיְתָה לּוֹ וּלְזַרְעוֹ אַחֲרָיו, בְּרִית כְּהֻנַּת עוֹלָם–תַּחַת, אֲשֶׁר קִנֵּא לֵאל-הָיו, וַיְכַפֵּר, עַל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. and it shall be unto him, and to his seed after him, the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was jealous for his G*d, and made atonement for the children of Israel.’  (Num. 25.11-13)
This is upsetting to read, and it was so for the Rabbis, our ancient Sages, as well. They did their best to rule out Pinkhas’ behavior as an aberration, as something not to be emulated, nor he himself to be held up as a role model. Not unlike what we ourselves do when we rule something to be “the exception that proves the rule.”  Some have taught that you could expect nothing less of a priest, a descendant of Levi, that bloodthirsty son of Jacob, anyway; best that they be the ones assigned to slaughtering animals for sacrifice.
But the reality is more difficult and more compelling. The argument that sometimes a stroke of violence is necessary has fueled every assassin’s argument, from Gavrilo Princip to John Wilkes Booth to Brutus – and as well to those who, at a cocktail party, ask you if, having the chance, you would have killed the leader of Germany in World War II.
The belief that a well-placed murder will change the world is deep enough to emerge in a muted form in social media, as Kathy Griffin and Johnny Depp have recently demonstrated.
In Jewish history, the murder of the Babylonian-appointed governor of Judea, a man named Gedalyah. To this day, the Jewish people has kept this day as a minor fast day on our calendar of religious observances. This murder, of a man who was no doubt considered a tool of the enemy by many Jews, in essence made us worse off, for it ended Jewish autonomy in Ancient Israel after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian Empire.
If only it was so easy to remove all that plagues us – by doing away with the person who represents it, who is empowered by it, who seems to be controlling it – when in reality, we have placed that person there, and we empower it. He does not control it, any more than the symptoms of dysfunction in a family are caused by the person who acts them out.
Pinkhas did the lazy thing. It’s so much harder to work for real, deep, thorough-going social healing. Or personal healing – much easier to find some one thing or person to blame, when, really, that thing or person is doing G*d’s work as a holy messenger of Truth, if we learn how to hear it.
The work that heals us is more difficult and less dramatic. We’re engaged in it every time we see a mitzvah and do it. We’re closer to the world we want every Shabbat, and every time we pause to encourage each other and ourselves by being together and comparing notes.
During these Three Weeks, when we focus on all that has gone wrong, and the sadness we carry in our peoplehood and in our own hearts, may we help each other remember that every goodness also counts, and is gathered up.

Shabbat Balak: the Holy and the Idolatrous

Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’akov, mishk’notekha Yisrael, “how beautiful are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel” – these words, which appear in the siddur at the very beginning of morning Tefilah, are part of our parashat hashavua, called Balak. The words are those of a mercenary prophet, Bil’am, hired to curse the people Israel by King Balak of Moab. How do the words of a foe become quotable? how does the name of an adversary become that of the parashah?
 
The Primishlaner Rebbe explained this, saying that there are those who hide their anti-Semitism and say that they are friends; Balak did not hide his, and for his honesty he merited having his name given to a parashah. (Fun di Chasidishe Osros, in The Soul of the Torah, ed. Victor Cohen)
It’s a useful reminder: someone we dislike may still be capable of saying something we need to hear. Bil’am wasn’t even a Hebrew prophet and our tradition keeps his words so close at hand that they are part of daily prayer. It is possible to hear what we need to learn any where, in any place, if we are listening – but only if we are ready to hear that which challenges ideas and convictions we have already built our lives and beliefs on.
Bil’am spoke of both the tents of Jacob and the homes of Israel. It is taught that the “tents of Jacob” refer to the women, and the “homes of Israel” refer to the men. If we view gender identity as a spectrum, these are the poles between which we find ourselves. Bil’am asserts that both are beautiful, and in so doing evokes an embrace of all that might be within and without those tents but somehow is a necessary part of their beauty – even including him, who came to curse, but ended up blessing.
Here are some words from different tents of our Jewish community, some of which we might dislike, all of which we need to hear.
“Ancient humans looked up to the stars, modern humans down to the headlines. Both are fools.”Torat Menakhem 5742. The lesson here is that we are no different, no more sophisticated and advanced, than our ancestors. We want to put our faith in something we can grasp. Whether it’s an answer that you can hold fast as the political waters roil, or a therapy that will carry you through physical or mental challenges, or a belief you’d like to develop as strongly as a rock that never has to move – the urge to depend upon something is deep. But if in order to hold it fast we simplify it or narrow it, that to which we would hold fast will be too small, too shallow, and it will not hold.
Those small things, to which we’d like to hold fast so that they can keep us safe, those answers to the question of life – they are our idols. Your financial advisor, your doctor, or your religious belief that distances you from hearing others- all idolatry. As the theologian Rachel Adler teaches, idolatry is that which follows from any definition of G*d which diminishes G*d in any way. Calling G*d “He” and believing that G*d is literally male and not all genders is idolatry, as is believing that G*d favors one people over another, or one person over another – or that G*d can be defined, at all.
Lately the Western Wall, it too has become an object of idolatry, distracting us from the real religious teaching – and opportunity – of the moment. From a Progressive Rabbi in Israel:
As an Israeli Reform rabbi I am depressed by the behavior of North American Jewry. We have been fighting the battle for religious pluralism for so long. I did four weddings this month – all of the couples had to go abroad to be married civilly so their union would be recognized in the Jewish State. The struggle for a pluralistic prayer space at the Kotel is not at the heart of the matter for most Israelis in general or for Israeli Reform Jews in particular. We have extremely mixed feelings about the Kotel for many reasons (a religious site that has become a fetishization of stones, an historical/national site that has become a place for military ceremonies…) .  This is a symbolic issue that reflects the growing power of the Ultra Orthodox rabbinate.
The general Israeli public appreciates that we are at the frontline in the battle to make Israel as pluralist as possible. They are confused by our obsession with the Kotel.
My prayer is that North American Jewry throw itself into the real struggle for religious pluralism in Israel even if it is less sexy then being dragged away from Kotel by the police while wrapped in a tallit and holding a Torah.
 
This could be a chance for North American Jews to support issues (beyond religious pluralism) that reflect the values of justice and morality that are at the heart of our beliefs. This would demand a total reshaping of how Diaspora Jewry relates to religious life in Israel. It would demand that Israeli and Diaspora Jews recognize our real power and our real limitations. That is called political maturity.
– Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman
Jerusalem Congregation Kol HaNeshama
 

 

On this Shabbat, consider the ways in which you are distracted from the vision of wholeness you seek, that we all seek; for anything that leads us to rule someone (anyone) out of such a vision is not, after all, really about wholeness. Bil’am is a wonderful role model: he came prepared to curse (and get paid for it!) but when he saw his target, he realized he could only bless. May we look for the blessing in the most cursed of places, and in that way overcome the yetzer hara’ – the evil inclination – that blocks our view of true wholeness for ourselves and our world.

In closing I offer you this redemptive vision as the great Israeli poet Yehudah Amichai described it in this excerpt from his poem “Tourists
Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower,
I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists
was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. “You see
that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch
from the Roman period. Just right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!”
I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them,
“You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it,
left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

Shabbat Nakhamu: Consolation?

This Shabbat, called Nakhamu after the first word of the Haftarah, meant to be a Shabbat of consolation. The first Shabbat after Tisha B’Av, that time of terrible destruction once long ago and now a time to face the equally terrifying consequences of our actions in our own days, is meant to reassure us that, after all the suffering and loss, consolation is possible.

But on this day it is difficult to feel consoled.

A Jew in Jerusalem – called the City of Peace! – attacks fellow Jews marching in the Gay Pride parade with a knife. Other Jews set fire to a Palestinian home and murder a child. Both in the name of religious faith.

Jews in our own community attack each other. Not with weapons, not yet – G-d forbid – but the Rabbis of the Talmud taught that the tongue is as sharp as the sword, and a person can be attacked just as viciously with words as with weapons. All in the name of faith.

According to those Rabbis, our Jerusalem Temple was destroyed as an echo of the destruction we were visiting upon each other. No Jewish organization can exist without the acts which uphold it – which literally hold it up – study of Torah, Avodah – mindfulness, and Gemilut Hasadim – loving kindness. The Temple was destroyed because we pulled its foundational supports out from under it, in acts of commission and omission.

There are many ways to express the foundational structure of organized Jewish life; they all have in common a search for meaning and purpose guided by learning, mindfulness, and acts of loving kindness toward others. They are all variations of one structure: the Jerusalem Temple, symbolized by all the good we are meant to do and taught to do.

And there are as many ways to destroy the Temple and all it symbolizes. The self-destruction we bring down on our own sacred community increases with each act of violence, each religious hypocrisy, each arrogant, “noble” political stand.

It’s no wonder that many Jews are turned away from the Jewish community, as daily we fail to practice the ethics we speak. Where we will find the consolation promised by the Prophet Isaiah in this week’s haftarah?

א  נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ, עַמִּי–יֹאמַר, אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.

Comfort, be comforted, My people, says your God.

ב  דַּבְּרוּ עַל-לֵב יְרוּשָׁלִַם, וְקִרְאוּ אֵלֶיהָ–כִּי מָלְאָה צְבָאָהּ, כִּי נִרְצָה עֲו‍ֹנָהּ:  כִּי לָקְחָה מִיַּד יְהוָה, כִּפְלַיִם בְּכָל-חַטֹּאתֶיהָ.

Speak to the heart of Jerusalem, proclaim to her, that her time of service is accomplished, that her guilt is paid off; that she has received of the hand of ‘ה double for all her sins. (Isaiah 40.1-2)

Our time of service is clearly not yet accomplished. As it was put in an old makhzor, “our sins are confessed in the daily papers.” What will each of us do, in our own small way, to stand against the anger, and fear, and despair of our own day, lest we contribute to the undermining of the three pillars of our spiritual existence as Jews? What are you doing to help hold up the beacon of hope that Jerusalem is supposed to be? 

We cannot hope to act for good in the larger world until we stabilize what should be the source of our inspiration. We must be learning all that strengthens us, each of us, as a Jew; we must be mindful always; and we must act knowing that our every act of loving kindness does, in a small but real way, repair the world. 

Begin now; continue now; redouble your efforts now, that we might yet come to a place of consolation in our days.