Shabbat Sh’lakh L’kha: Don’t Be Afraid, Together We Can Do This

We are learning, as a human family and as Jews, the price of fear, and of second-hand information. It’s a long road, stretching all the way back to our parashat hashavua. In Sh’lakh L’kha, we have crossed the wilderness, we are camped on the edge of the Land of Promise. Perhaps it’s only human that we do not go immediately forward, trusting in G*d to support us into this final form of the unknown. Instead, Moshe our leader sends twelve scouts ahead of us, to travel the length and breadth of the land, and to bring back a report to the People Israel, waiting breathlessly, excited and, yes, also afraid. There is, after all, something about the final moment of truth from which we quail.

Why is the language of lovemaking so hard to learn?
Why is the body so often dumb flesh?
Why does the mind so often choose to fly away
at the moment the word waited for all one’s life is about to be spoken?

– Alice Walker, The Temple of My Familiar

The scouts complete their mission and return. They all agree that the land is beautiful and fertile. Then one of them begins to relate the size of the fortified cities and their inhabitants. “Really?” I can imagine the response. “How big are they?” asks one. “Are they fierce?” another anxiously inquires. “Do they eat people? I heard they eat people!” And before long Moshe has a full-fledged panic on his hands. Fear is electric, and it can bond us all together in a syngergistic current that makes of a casual remark a trigger for all the terrors an active imagination can create.

What makes the final step, that move from almost to arrival so terribly difficult that we begin to imagine all the ways that it cannot possibly succeed?
The entry into the Land of Promise is not only a geographical move. Viewed from the mythical perspective, we can feel the resonance to anything that is longed for, anything that is promised in some wonderful perfect future. It is no accident that in many stories of the journey to fulfillment, monsters must be battled. In Judaism those terrors are sometimes in the world around us, as we can see in the form of those who fight against change even when it is manifestly for the better, for themselves and for the world.
But the terror are also that which we conjure up inside us, and that urge, which our tradition names the yetzer hara’, the “evil impulse,” is often our most significant challenge. The yetzer, we are taught, is not only an impulse to do evil; it is also that impulse which keeps us from believing in ourselves and in our ability to reach our Promise.
Why would the Israelites hesitate to enter the fulfillment of the Promise they lived for?
Why do people vote against their own interests?
Why do we so often run away from the love and wholeness
that is so close to our grasp,
and for which we so long?
On this Shabbat, Pride Shabbat, we celebrate the power of love in all its forms. Judaism teaches that love is the highest human expression, and Jewish mysticism promises that when we reach understanding, judgement and mercy will merge into compassion.
Don’t misunderstand me: there is evil, and there are real dangers. That’s why we have to always remember to stick together. There are real monsters out there. But the Israelites didn’t check on that report; didn’t consider the effect they might be experiencing, of the fear of the unknown. They panicked – without ever verifying if there really was anything to fear. That second-hand information cost them forty years more of wandering before another chance would come to reach the Promise.
Look inside: is there a magnifier there, enlarging every fear until they seem like monsters? The answer is to reach out of yourself. Get a new perspective: check what you think you know. Question your doubts as well as your beliefs. Ask someone you trust for another opinion – and not someone who will only agree with you. Get a second opinion about that which most terrifies you – there’s no need to add to the real monsters with those we construct out of fear, second hand.
Don’t be afraid, said Joshua and Caleb, the only two scouts who disagreed with the rest. Together we can do this. The Israelites did not hear them. Can we, so much further (we hope) down the road of learning about letting fear control us, hear them? When we support each other, we will find a way to let go of those fierce, people-eating monsters that appear between us and our wholeness when we are nearly, almost there. When we defeat the mirage of terror created by our own yetzer hara’ we will see it: the Land of the Promise we all long for.

Shabbat BeHa’alot’kha: Light the Way Forward

Our parashah begins with these words:
 
דַּבֵּר, אֶל-אַהֲרֹן, וְאָמַרְתָּ, אֵלָיו:  בְּהַעֲלֹתְךָ, אֶת-הַנֵּרֹת, אֶל-מוּל פְּנֵי הַמְּנוֹרָה, יָאִירוּ שִׁבְעַת הַנֵּרוֹת.
“Speak to Aaron, tell him: in your lifting up of the lamps, it is toward the front of the menorah [lamp stand] that the seven lights should illuminate.” (Num.8.2)
This is difficult to understand without visualizing the menorah. It is a large, seven-branched lamp stand, and at the top are not seven candles, but seven oil lamps. They look like a simple example of the famous Aladdin’s lamp; they are designed to hold oil, poured in the larger end’s hole, which feeds the wick protruding from the hole at its smaller end.
These small oil burning lamps are ubiquitous in archaeological digs in Israel. They are about the size of your hand, and constitute the equivalent of a torch in a land without so much wood to burn.
Aaron is told to situate the lamps in the menorah in such a way that they give light at the front of the menorah. While this is a reasonable safety measure against setting the Tent of Meeting in which the menorah stood on fire, the seven-branched lamp stand and the direction of its light also invites us to consider a deeper, more symbolic level of meaning.
What does it mean to say that when you lift up a light, it should burn forward?
It is taught that the menorah might symbolize the Jewish people: seven branches, multiple paths in Jewish life. Yet the menorah is fashioned of a single piece of precious metal, demonstrating that the different paths we take need not detract from seeing our community as fundamentally united. Diversity need not lead to division. Rather, differing individual talents can be brought into a synthesis stronger for its various nuances.
Similarly, the menorah can symbolize our society: especially as we enter Pride Week it is appropriate to note the many colors of the Rainbow Flag and the beauty of diversity it evokes. Different paths need not detract from the essential light shed by the human menorah we can become together.
But it’s the light, not the seven branches, that most compels this week – a week in which we experienced the darkness shed by those who rally for racism and lift up the flag of hatred. And so Torah comes on this Shabbat to remind us that we have light to shed, illumination to direct forward. It is not enough for us to share our light among ourselves – Jewish tradition commands us to direct it forward. Onward, despite the demoralization and confusion sown by fear; upward, as our former First Lady taught: “when they go low, we go high.”
The menorah demonstrates that each of us need not agree with each other on what act is the right one for this day and this time; there are many ways forward, and we must understand that to which we are best suited, so that the light we each bring will shine as brightly as it can.
Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other.

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.

Shabbat BeHar/BeHukkotai: Taking Refuge in the PaRDeS of Learning

Yesterday I was on a conference call with a national social justice organization, during which we were told that “usually, we expect to operate with a six-month window. Lately we have revised that to six days.”  Such is the sense of frantic, non-stop chaos in the political sphere of our nation’s existence.
Thank G*d that we Jews have the ability to balance our necessary social and political awareness with a much longer, calmer perspective: that of the halakhah, the structured path, and the aggadah, the informing narrative, of our people’s long history. No matter what is happening in the moment, you can gain a moment of calm with which to view a wider horizon by going through a simple mental exercise: what’s the parashat hashavua (the parashah, or section, of the week), and how does it offer resonance in this moment?
The parashah this shavua is a double: BeHar, “on the mountain”, and BeHukkotai, “with My laws.”  Applying our four-fold PaRDeS tool for exploring Torah we find much that can help us put the latest news of today and every day into a manageable context. Consider it a refuge from immediacy. Pardes is an ancient Persian loan word meaning “garden”; it is also the root of the word “paradise.”
1. P is for peshat; on the “simple” or surface level of meaning we have this teaching: BeHar, on the mountain, refers to Mount Sinai. It’s a surprising reminder that here, as we finish up the Book VaYikra (Leviticus) we haven’t yet left the mountain where we stood all together to enter into the Covenant. It took us only fifty days to arrive there, but we have been there ever since. And when we do leave, soon enough, to begin the wanderings described in the Book BaMidbar (Numbers), we will take with us a souvenir in the most significant sense of the word. That eternal reminder, or azkarah (memorial) of the Sinai experience, is referred to in the name of the next parashah, BeHukkotai, “with My laws.” On the first day that our people ventured forth from Sinai, and on every single day since, we have had with us the gift of the guide we got there.
2. D is for drash (interpretation), and yes, the letters go out of the word’s order: on this deeper level of investigating meaning we dive beneath the surface meaning of a verse. These two parshiyot are full of the laws that are meant to create an ethical Jewish society, among them this one: “when you buy and sell property, you shall not defraud your neighbor” (Lev.25.14). Rabbi Simkha Bunem of Pyshiskha (1765-1827) “drashed”, i.e. taught as a midrash (interpretation) on this law: “Legally, it is only forbidden to defraud one’s neighbor. But a good Jew must go beyond the letter of the law, and take care not to delude oneself, either.” Understood this way, we are commanded not to cheat ourselves in terms of value, mentally, physically or spiritually. You know what you’re worth, as an Image of G*d in the world, and what your neighbor is worth, too.
3. R is for remez (hint). In parashat BeHar we are commanded to count 49 years and to declare every 50th year to be a Yovel (“Jubilee”) year, a holy time: “you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants….you shall not sow, neither shall you reap.” (Lev.25.10-11) Hints might come from noticing context and juxtaposition, and just before this command is that of sounding the Shofar on the Day of Atonement in order to declare the Yovel year. Might we understand from this that the year cannot be considered holy, a year when there will be enough to eat without sowing and reaping, if Atonement is not achieved first? Could we understand this, further, as a warning that unless we care for the land and its inhabitants appropriately and ethically, it will not yield its abundance to us? The Torah itself leads us to this conclusion in parashat BeHukkotai, in which we are warned that if we abuse the land and its inhabitants, sooner or later the land will rest, but we will not be there to see it.
4. S is for sode (secret). We are aware of this level of understanding, but we cannot achieve it. There is that which will remain beyond us, and there is a mystery at the heart of life we will never understand. Rabbi Hayim of Tzantz taught that our awareness of our inability to understand life makes our lives a constant search through a dark, trackless forest. All we can do, the Rebbe said, is to hold hands, and look for the way together.
On this Shabbat, give thanks for sun and longer days in which to enjoy life as we can, understanding what we might of the chaotic days in which we live, grateful for learning that leads to deeper interpretations and community that supports us in our common seeking. This, too, is Torah, and we need to learn it.
Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other.

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

Shabbat Zakhor: Fear of G*d

The learning of this week’s parashah all comes down to a confrontation between Shifra and Pu’ah, on one side, and Amalek, on the other. Shifra and Pu’ah were the Hebrew midwives whom Pharaoh commanded to carry out his plan to eradicate the Hebrews by killing all the boy babies as they were born. But the midwives did not follow the command:

וַתִּירֶאןָ הַמְיַלְּדֹת, אֶת-הָאֱלֹ-ם, וְלֹא עָשׂוּ, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר אֲלֵיהֶן מֶלֶךְ מִצְרָיִם;  וַתְּחַיֶּיןָ, אֶת-הַיְלָדִים.

The midwives feared G*d, and did not as the king of Egypt commanded them; they saved the male babies alive. (Ex.1.17)

The midwives “feared G*d.” In contrast, as we are reminded in the special reading associated with our parashah this week, the Amalekites, a tribe living in the Negev wilderness, did not.

זָכוֹר, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה לְךָ …

Remember what Amalek did to you…

אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ, וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כָּל-הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיךָ—וְאַתָּה, עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ; וְלֹא יָרֵא, אֱלֹהִים.

how he met you by the way, and attacked you from behind,

all the weak, straggling in the rear, and you were faint and weary; he had no fear of G*d.(Deut.25.1-18)

The great Torah teacher and commentator Nehama Leibowitz asks, “what is the common denominator of these contexts? What is the character of the fear of G*d that animates or should animate [us]? …the criterion of yir’at shamayim, G*d-fearingness, may be measured by one’s attitude toward the weak and the stranger.” (Studies in Devarim p. 253.)

In a seeming contradiction, we are to remember to forget. We are commanded to remember what Amalek did, but we are also commanded to blot out the memory of it in the world and “under heaven”. There is only one way to do that, and it is not through a simple act of forgetting. The act of blotting out the memory must be an ongoing effort. This is an interesting variation on the famous dictum that “those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it.” Our tradition teaches that Amalek will appear in the behavior of human beings throughout the generations, and we are to remember that it is up to us to resist it wherever and whenever we see it.

The only way that we can eradicate the lack of yirat shamayim is to nurture it, in ourselves and in others whom we teach and for whom we serve as role models. To be G*d-fearing is to uphold standards of common human decency, by reaching back to the source that informed them – religious ethics such as “love your neighbor as yourself” and defending them against cynicism and despair. Jews, as Rabbi Nakhman of Bratslav famously said, are forbidden to despair.

This Shabbat is named for this imperative – Zakhor – “Remember!”  We are commanded to remember the signs of Amalek, and to keep an eye out for all that would attack, demean and take advantage of the weak and the stranger, and resist it. Amalek is rising in our day, and the signs are there in the social assault on all who are politically or economically weak, the refugees and immigrants who are strangers among us, the minority, the historically disadvantaged, the poor.

So much to do. In this holy work, watch out for your yetzer hara’. Your evil inclination will whisper to you that it’s too much, and you have to withdraw, you’re overwhelmed. My people, we have not yet begun to be tested. As we settle in to this struggle, each of us must find a way to draw strength to stay engaged. We are urged by the ancient wisdom of our people:

It is not up to you to finish the work, yet neither are you free to desist from it. (Pirke Avot 2.21)

Take care of yourself; like Shifra and Pu’ah, figure out which mitzvah is yours to do, and stay focused on it.* The great Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik ז״ל once asked, “how can one have yirat shamayim, Awe of Heaven, without beholding the Heavens?” Keep your eyes on what matters, and let your eyes be filled with that which lifts you up – what you believe, what you trust, that which stirs your Awe. 

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