Shabbat BeHa’alot’kha: We Need More Light

The days are as long as they get right now, yet we need light desperately: the light of hope, the light of healing, the light of happiness, all obscured in the horror of realizing that our own Federal government is operating concentration camps full of children and adults who are innocent of any crime.

 

For us Jews with our community history, this particular transgression of the current administration is the most traumatic of all the long list of the sins it commits. Our help will come from the same place: our history, our culture, and our community. We know more than anyone that when the world becomes a chaotic and frightening place, individuals who hold on to their integrity and continue to do the right thing are the shining lights that save our sanity and inspire us to hold on.

 

Shabbat BeHa’alot’kha begins with light, that of the menorah in the Mishkan, the sacred space at the center of the Israelite wilderness encampment.

 

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר֖ ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר

HaShem spoke to Moses, saying

דַּבֵּר֙ אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֔ן וְאָמַרְתָּ֖ אֵלָ֑יו בְּהַעֲלֹֽתְךָ֙ אֶת־הַנֵּרֹ֔ת אֶל־מוּל֙ פְּנֵ֣י הַמְּנוֹרָ֔ה יָאִ֖ירוּ שִׁבְעַ֥ת הַנֵּרֽוֹת׃

Tell Aaron: “When you set up the light, let the seven lamps shed their light at the front of the menorah.”

BaMidbar 8.1-2

 

This simple instruction seems obvious – set up the light so it best illuminates the room – yet it must be stated. Our ancestors read such mitzvot carefully, looking for the deeper symbolic meaning that would justify an otherwise simplistic and easy to overlook command. What they found is a metaphor for our Jewish community.

 

The menorah symbolizes the Jewish people. It has seven branches, symbolizing different paths to G*d, but is made of a single gold piece. The various differences and qualities do not detract from the unity. This means that diversity need not lead to division Each individual talent should lead to a synthesis of different views and behavior. – Rabbi Menakhem Mendel Schneerson

 

Throughout our history, community is central to Jewish survival. Yet Jewish community does not move in lockstep, but in as many directions as there are menorah branches, if not more:

 

  1. different spiritual practices: some love Torah study, some love prayer, some love service to others.
  2. different expressions of belonging: some give money, some in-kind, some make a visit or volunteer to fill a community need.
  3. different personal needs
  4. different perspectives and ways of knowing
  5. different expressions of self
  6. different Jewish backgrounds
  7. different feelings about Israel

 

It is obvious that there are many differences among us, and that these differences are part of what make us so special as a religious community.

 

What is not so obvious is how to fulfill the mitzvah of making sure that each of our lights is carefully centered toward the front of the space we share.

 

Are we patient enough to hear out someone who thinks differently? are we respectful of other’s sense of self and need? Most of all, do we remember to give each other the benefit of our doubt before judging?

 

During the summer our Talmud class studies Pirke Avot, a selection of ancient rabbinical ethical “sound bites.” Among them we find this:

 

Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing it.

 

I am proud that our congregation is not only a member of the Community of Welcoming Congregations, we are 25% LGBTQIA+ identified. During this month when we are offered the opportunity to consider more deeply what it is like to be queer (Pride month), or what it is like to be a person of color (June 19th was Juneteenth), the real significance of the mitzvah of the menorah seems to be this:

 

Be like Aaron, noting how each member of our beloved community shines their light. Do what you can to make sure each light shines clear and bright.

 

If you are extroverted and passionate, this means being quiet and assuming that the quiet person will say something that you need to hear.

If you are a cis person, it means graciously offering your personal pronouns so that a trans person won’t feel awkward in their need to do so.

If you are a man, it means thinking carefully about whether you let women be people.

If you are smart, it means remembering that according to Jewish tradition, the truly wise are those who learn from others.

If you are white, it means remembering that not every Jew is.

If you are a born Jew, it means never asking anyone whether they converted.

 

We cannot heal the world, but while we do what we can, our history, our culture and our religious tradition demonstrate the power of acting according to our ethics anyway. Especially under stress, it matters so very much that we still are able to hold hands and face the world together, compassionate and gentle with each other.

 

Let your light shine! and look carefully to help others shine as happily as possible. In all this darkness, we need more light.

Shabbat Tetzaveh: Values Are Not Expendable

Our parashat hashauva for this week is Tetzaveh, which can literally be translated “tell them what to do.” One reason for the Torah’s powerful presence in our people’s lives over several millennia is the sure sense, explicitly offered, that someone is telling us the right thing to do.
If only we had such a plumb line to grasp to carry us through the chaos of our days. The President of the U.S. uses his power to sow disorder and suffering; our Jewish community finds ourselves targeted and afraid for our safety; and this week here in Portland our own police force has been found to be cooperating with violent white supremacist thugs who have targeted our city for their hate and violence.
Add to this the sufferings of normal daily life – some in our own congregational community are housing insecure, others of us are ill. Some face death. Some are struggling with other kinds of personal challenges to their happiness.
This week the Portland City Council voted to end our Portland police’s cooperation with the FBI (you can learn more from OPB’s report here). After the vote, Mayor Wheeler was reported by OPB as saying: “while values are extremely important, values alone cannot protect the safety of the community.”
With respect to the difficulty of his job and what he may have meant (since it is a Jewish value to give the benefit of the doubt), I appeared at that City Council meeting to speak of those values that I believe must define our city as a community: mutual respect, personal safety, and insistence on transparency in the service of truth.
In so many places in our lives, we are all tempted to compromise on our values in the service of being safe. The value of due process even for the evil man in the White House; the value of living our lives in the dignity of freedom despite our fear; and the value of upholding a community ethic of social justice as an end, not a luxury. The Mayor has it backward, it seems to me: unless there is a value we uphold as essential to the nature of our safety, our safety itself will be compromised. We can see this in the decision some join to militarize the security of our own Jewish institutions in the wake of the Pittsburgh massacre – זכרונם לברכה may their memory be a blessing. And we can see it in the support some gave to the Joint Terrorism Task Force, to the extent of excusing abuses suffered by minority communities – since once we are afraid, we have a hard time finding the room in our hearts to care about others who are also afraid, and who are the first target.
Unless we defend our values first and last, what kind of society are we creating? Not a just one, probably; not one in which, in the end, when they come for you, there will be anyone left to speak up. A society that operates without absolute values is an absolute abhorrence to our prophets, and they rightly see its destruction as brought about by internal rot (children are still in cages today) more than the outside forces that were so feared.
The first line of our parashah, the one that gives us its name, is this:
וְאַתָּ֞ה תְּצַוֶּ֣ה ׀ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל וְיִקְח֨וּ אֵלֶ֜יךָ שֶׁ֣מֶן זַ֥יִת זָ֛ךְ כָּתִ֖ית לַמָּא֑וֹר לְהַעֲלֹ֥ת נֵ֖ר תָּמִֽיד׃

You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly.

From this we can derive what is perhaps the most important value supporting us this week, and all weeks: shed a light on it. Bring the fuel that keeps the light burning bright. Truth and goodness flourish in light; only evil cannot stand it. For this we owe a great debt of gratitude to all the journalists investigating and digging and reporting in this time of rising hostility to that targeted community.
Only values that transcend moments of fear, of chaos, and of violence can protect our community, at the end of the day. May we continue to support each other in learning them, sharing them, and upholding them: hazak hazak vnithazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other.

Shabbat Akharei Mot: A Little Light

Shabbat Akharei Mot begins in a poignant way, with a reminder of a tragic accident. We read about the death of Nadav and Abihu in parashat Shemini, only a few weeks ago, before Pesakh: young men, their first day on the job after much rigorous training, and something, all unforeseen, went terribly wrong. Akharei Mot, “after the death”, presents its contents in that context: the tragic death of the young, with much to live for, and much yet to do.

Accidents such as this tragedy might shake a modern Western American’s faith. Some say “what kind of G*d would allow such a thing?”. Others simply deny that there can be a G*d in a world where innocents suffer. 

It makes this parashah all the more compelling, because after the deaths of the two young men are noted, the text goes on to describe the next stage in the training of the surviving priests. When they died, their father, Aaron, withdrew from his public responsibility and took some private time to mourn. And then the life of the community went on, and Aaron went on with his service to his community as High Priest.

The father of the dead boys did not say “I quit because I have suffered unfairly.” Aaron did not say “I don’t believe in G*d because my sons died accidentally.” And he did not say “I proclaim myself against all organized religion because this is horrible and doesn’t make sense.” 

Those three responses to tragedy are understandable when they are made as a cry of pain, but they are not intelligible. In essence, all three are ways of cursing the darkness rather than struggling to light a candle.  

This is not to say that a better response would be “G*d knows best” or “there was a reason for this” or, G*d forbid, “G*d chose to take them because G*d loved them so much.” Those responses make G*d out to be an emotional terrorist.

There is a third possible response to unimaginable tragedy. Caught between the utter darkness of a father’s grief and his stance so close to G*d, in all its wholeness and joy, the Torah records that “Aaron was silent.” (Lev. 10.3)

There is undeserved suffering in this world. There is much evil as well that we do to each other. But there is also much undeserved joy, and much good that we do to each other. Neither makes sense. There is a mystery at the heart of life that we can approach but will never discern. And in the face of that mystery there is nothing we can say. All we can do is to assert that while we cannot control, or even understand, why bad things happen, we can try to control and understand our responses – and we can choose to reach out to each other, to do what we can when we see suffering and alleviate it. And when all is dark, we can choose not to give in to it, to deny any hope of light or meaning or truth. We can choose to nurture the little light that we can see, if we look carefully, among ourselves.

That is why we gather in organized community and call it religious. It is there that we search together for hope, not certainty. Hope is all the light we have. 

Shabbat Bereshit: We’ll Keep the Light On

The earth was formless and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep (Bereshit 1:2)

First comes darkness, then light.  (Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 77b)

At the beginning, there is darkness. This is not only true of the account of Creation as we find it in the Book we call Bereshit, known in English as “Genesis”. It is true of life, as well – our own, as we are conceived, and of much of the rest of Existence.

Darkness is a challenge to those of us life forms which depend upon our eyes to navigate. In the light, we orient ourselves by looking around; we judge our surroundings by visual cues; we can assess threat or safety at a distance, and signal the same. But in darkness we wander, disoriented, perhaps even lost. We seek to relieve it by finding a source of light, and the relief you have felt when you realized that the batteries were still good in the old flashlight is recognizable to us all.

These days of our lives are meant to be so full of joy, as we have just come through our Days of Awe, our fall Sukkot harvest festival, and our yearly blowout with our beloved Torah. But there is increased violence here at home; today there are reports of more than one random shooting in a public place. And there are terrible reports coming in from Israel, where one act of violence after another has led to speculation in Israel’s newspaper of note of a third Intifada. And there are other sadnesses: medical workers come under attack in a bombing raid. Refugees face indifference, and worse. A homeless man begs on a street corner near you.

Here is the real challenge to our lives and the way we live them: do we really believe that the things we do bring light to this world of ours, which so desperately needs it? Jewish tradition urges us not to underestimate the power of the choices we make, and the acts by which we are known. Every small spark of kindness can add to the light in this world by which we find our way out of this terrifying darkness. But the challenge is to stay focused upon the power of a small act, when one might give in to the impulse to believe that there’s no use, that it doesn’t matter.

On this Shabbat, consider your own morale and your purpose in the world. Do you perhaps wonder about whether you can really make a meaningful difference in the misery you see all around you? If so, remember this: your own personal ethics either stay with you under this kind of stress, or they need an upgrade. To turn away and say that there is nothing you can do is to misunderstand your purpose in the world. As another teacher put it:

“Let there be light” was the first statement in Creation, because “light” is the true purpose of existence. To bring light is our purpose: that each of us transform our situation and environment from darkness and negativity to light and goodness. Through the study of Torah and the fulfillment of mitzvot, we strengthen the light of creation. 

It’s getting darker. It’s getting colder. And this is when you need the most support for your own ethical choices and your confidence in them. Refuse to give in to cynicism. Get that free upgrade by lending your presence and getting strength from your religious community. This is the village that devotes itself to keeping the light on – through davening, study, and the kindness that can be shown only through social justice work.

Rabbi Hayim of Tzanz used to tell this parable: a man, wandering lost in the forest for several days, finally encountered another. He called out: brother, show me the way out of this forest! The other replied, but I too am lost. I can only tell you this: the ways I have tried lead nowhere. They have only led me astray. Take my hand, and let us search for the way together. Rabbi Hayim would add: so it is with us. When we go our separate ways, we may go astray. Let us join hands and look for the way together.

Shabbat B’Haalot’kha: What the Light Reveals

The parashat hashavua (Torah parashah for the week) begins with G-d’s command to the High Priest, Moshe’s brother Aharon:

“When you raise [b’haalot’kha] light in the lamps, they shall be lit so as to illuminate the face of the menorah” (Numbers 8:2). 

If you remember that this was a menorah not of candles but of oil lamps, shaped as in the photo, it becomes easier to understand this instruction. The menorah is standing against the wall of the Mishkan, and the oil lamp upon the top of each branch should be situated so that the wick end is toward the front of the menorah, away from the wall.

imgres

This may simply be good fire-prevention advice, but of course our tradition sees the possibility of deeper meaning in these words. Consider:

The Jewish creation story does not describe a conquering and destroying of darkness in order to create light; rather, light is drawn from the darkness, even as forms are drawn from formlessness. The mystical text Sefer Yetzirah describes creation in this way: “Out of chaos G-d formed substance, making what is not into what is, hewing enormous pillars out of ether that cannot be grasped.”

When we kindle light, as Aharon is commanded to do in this parashah, we then stand in the light that that we have created. To kindle light is to move, quite literally, from darkness into light. As we do so, we are invited to consider the deeper meaning of kindling light –  to step into the light, to see and to be seen. In a Jewish sense, this does not mean that we should try to eradicate the parts of ourselves that are “dark”, but rather that we should try to stay focused on the light and what it shows us. 

All the Israelites were in a state of awe at standing in the presence of G-d. There is an old midrash which relates that Aharon was embarrassed that, as High Priest, his job was merely to light the seven lights of the menorah, and that he had not been called to bring a sacrifice as others had at this point in the Torah narrative. 

Yet he obeyed: “Thus Aaron did in front of the menorah” (Numbers 8.3); he did not change what he was doing, nor hide. Only after doing his job did he come to see the importance of the light he had kindled for others as well as himself.

It is easy to shrink from light that reveals you. To focus on the light, to fulfill what is expected of one even when one is overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the All in which one participates, is to stand before G-d, revealed as yourself. To be willing to be revealed – to others, to ourselves – is not easy, but that is the command. “Lift up the light toward the face” of the menorah, that the light may enter the sacred space that you share with us. Only after will you see what you are meant to see by that light.

A mystical teaching promises that one who can approach the light in that way, willing to share what the light will show, can be healed and made whole by the act of that lighting. Anyone lighting Shabbat candles with this kavanah (intention) will fulfill the role of the High Priest, and by the kindling evoke Aharon’s lighting of the first Menorah. And then all will be raised up by that light which you have kindled out of yourself, sharing yourself – up, just a bit more than we were before, unto an Upper World of wholeness, and peace.

Shabbat VaYeshev: What Do You See in the Light?

One of my favorite English lines from an old siddur is from a Kaddish meditation: “in light we see; in light we are seen.” This kind of light is not only visible, of course; illumination can also be of the “aha” kind, when something suddenly clarifies in the mind. The universal illustration for that at one time was a light bulb suddenly illuminating over one’s head. Suddenly, that which was hidden is visible. We can see, and we are seen.

This week the parashat hashavua is called VaYeshev, “dwell”. It is the last time that the name of the parashah will be taken from a story about Jacob’s life; now the acts of his children become central. The narrative for the year of the Triennial Cycle begins with a story that seems tangential to the action, but has great power to illuminate:

Judah, son of Jacob, has a daughter in law, Tamar; she has been promised that she will marry Judah’s son, but Judah avoids fulfilling the promise. Tamar is hidden away in the tents of the women, where he can pretend not to see her. Recently after being widowed, he travels to Timnah for the sheep-shearing. By the side of the road he sees a veiled woman – the convention of the time was that prostitutes veiled themselves. He sleeps with her, unaware of who she is, gives her his signet and his staff, and then he travels home again, and continues with his life. 

Three months later Tamar is accused of having sex outside of marriage (an offense punishable by death for a woman in certain circumstances). “Let her be brought out and burned,” (Gen.38.24) says her father in law. “Wait a minute,” she says. “The father of the baby is the man who owns this signet and this staff.” And Judah admits that “she is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to Shelah my son.” (Gen.38.26) 

Judah hides from Tamar by pretending he cannot see her, and rationalizing that she’s probably fine.

Tamar hides from Judah by veiling herself, and the two darknesses kindle a great light, one that would have destroyed her if she had not been clever enough to grab that signet of his.

But the fire that he would have kindled against her becomes the catalyst for a moment of illumination. In it, he sees himself in disgust and her act as brave.

“In light we see, in light we are seen.” It may not be easy to like what we see, and there may be that which is immolated in the moment of truth – but in that moment we will also, inevitably, see the necessary way forward on the path of our lives more clearly, more honestly, and more meaningfully. We cannot always dwell in light; the clarity would be overwhelming for us, as the Zohar teaches. In the future, that great light – from which we will feel no need to hide – will once again shine on the righteous, and it will include us all. That’s the promise of the light that we yearn for, even as we flee, sometimes, from what it shows us.

Hanukkah is a time of light; may it also be a time of illumination, of clarity, and of understanding for you.