Shabbat Ekev: Listen With Care

Which of us is not angry, disappointed, even resentful, of the way our lives have changed in the past few years? Aren’t we all getting very tired of the stress served up daily by the media, infusing our every interaction with each other?
Of course, there is more than one response to this situation. In Jewish tradition there is always more than one answer, even as the old joke goes: “on the one hand…and on the other hand.” The story goes that a Rabbi once listened carefully to two litigants, and after each finished her complaint, said, “you’re right.” A witness to the proceedings objected, “Rabbi, they can’t both be right.” The Rabbi turned to that witness and responded, “you’re right.”
The more carefully one listens to each person, the more we can hear some whisper of truth in that person – and then of course this leads to the realization that truth itself is complicated and difficult and always partial in our lives.
In mindfulness practice, we are taught to slow down, to take a breath, and to seek to balance the stress we feel with a spiritual teaching: 1. each human being is created in the Image of G*d, 2. you are not required to do all the work, just your part, or 3. all Israel are responsible, each for each other. In such a way, we can be reminded to take care to listen to each other with the respect we wish to receive ourselves – slowly, with kindness and mercy.
This week’s Torah text seems to urge us to take care, and listen carefully, as a mitzvah in itself. The parashah is called Ekev, which means “as a result of” or “therefore.” Specifically:
  וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן, אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם, אֹתָם–וְשָׁמַר ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְךָ, אֶת-הַבְּרִית וְאֶת-הַחֶסֶד, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע, לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ. If you will take care to listen well and do the mitzvot commanded to you, then HaShem your G*d will take care with you and the covenant and the mercy promised for all generations (Devarim 7.12)
The word ekev literally means “heel.” This led ancient scholars to comment that we are being warned specifically about the mitzvot that we generally “trample with our heels” (Rashi), i.e. those that we dismiss as not being important. Maimonides suggests that the mitzvot in question are those for which the reward will come only at the end, i.e. the obligation will seem thankless. An early modern Eastern European Rabbi suggested that the reference is to the generation which belongs to the “heels of the Messiah,” meaning a generation suffering the “labor pains” associated with the End of Days. That generation is considered to be the spiritually lowest of all those living in Exile.
On this Shabbat, consider:
what mitzvah do you trample by letting the stress get the better of you, turning you toward anger and away from mercy?
What mitzvah do you need to recommit to doing even though you don’t feel thanked for it?
To what voice do you need to listen more carefully?
We so much need to take care of each other and feel cared for ourselves. May it be that on this Shabbat we take another step toward finding consolation for ourselves, through offering it, in small and caring ways, toward each other.
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Shabbat BeHar-BeHukotai: Love Your Mother

This week we finish reading the Book VaYikra, Leviticus, with another double parashat hashavua. The name of the first of the two, BeHar, offers already a nice little learning. The word behar, actually three words in English, means “at the mountain” and refers to Mount Sinai. The first verse goes on to specify:
וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, בְּהַר סִינַי לֵאמֹר דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם, כִּי תָבֹאוּ אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לָכֶם–וְשָׁבְתָה הָאָרֶץ, שַׁבָּת לה’. HaShem spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the People of Israel, and say unto them: When you come into the land which I give you, the land shall keep a Shabbat unto HaShem.
From this our teacher Rashi asks a famous question: Mah inyan shemitta atzel Har Sinai? “What does shemitta have to do with Mt. Sinai?” This is the Jewish version of a phrase you may know – “what does that have to do with the price of tea in China?” In both cases the question concerns the apparent lack of relationship between two subjects – in our case, letting the land rest, called shemitta, and Mt. Sinai. Why is Mt. Sinai mentioned here, at this moment? It might be more than just a subtle reminder that in just another week we will reach Shavuot, the day on which we commemorate standing at Sinai to receive the Torah.
Many answers have been offered by different commentators, wise teachers and curious students:
1. you might think that letting the land rest is merely an economic matter and not spiritual, and therefore we recall the moment we stood at Mt Sinai in proximity to it to remind you.
2. the shemitta year is only one out of seven, yet its impact blesses the other six (by letting the land restore itself naturally for a complete year). You might think that Shabbat, only one out of seven, is a small thing, yet it was commanded at Mt Sinai and, if we rest, it will bless our entire week.
3. The Sefat Emet teaches that this mitzvah is so central that all of Torah depends upon it, and that is why Mt Sinai, which we associate with the giving of the Torah, is mentioned here:
Letting the land lay fallow – letting go of our need to work it, to work, to be productive, to control our future – leaving that in G*d’s hands, that is the foundation of the entire Torah, which necessitates a measure of submission to God’s will and a relinquishing control in this world. To embrace a life of Torah, one needs a measure of letting go. (from Steven Exler, The Bayit)
And, finally, a contemporary teacher asks: What does it mean that the whole Torah is dependent upon the laws of Shemittah?
It means, very simply, that the entirety of our religious lives, our spiritual lives, are built upon the very physical reality of a functioning earth. None of the world of Torah gets off the ground – literally – unless the ground is healthy. We cannot do anything without an earth which is nourished, sustained, sustainable, and healthy. If we have no clean air to breathe, no clean water to drink, no clean soil to plant in, then we have no foundation in which to root – literally – our religious lives. It is a simple, basic truth: we need to take care of our earth to have a future upon it. (Steven Exler, The Bayit)
As the following parashah, parashat BeHukotai, makes very clear, if we fall from Mt Sinai, we and the earth will suffer together. Our ancestors understood the existential linkage between our ethical behavior and our world’s physical existence. On this Shabbat before the secular holiday of Mothers’ Day, may we consider that other Mother of ours, the planet upon which we live, breath and find our meaning.

Shabbat VaEra: Revelation Hurts

The name of this week’s parashat hashavua is VaEra, “I appeared.” This, simply put and so very understated, is the epic moment in which Moshe experiences Divine Revelation. G*d becomes unmistakably, believably, manifest. All subsequent experiences of revelation in Jewish history fall short of it; as the last words of the Torah will put it many weeks from now,
 וְלֹא-קָם נָבִיא עוֹד בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל, כְּמֹשֶׁה, אֲשֶׁר יְדָעוֹ יְהוָה, פָּנִים אֶל-פָּנִים. Never again has there appeared a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom HaShem knew face to face (Ex.34.10)
Interestingly, this is not the first meeting of Moshe and G*d – that happened last week, in parashat Shemot. This is different: Moshe has gone to meet with Pharaoh, and been rebuffed; his first foray into politics and social justice actually met with the opposite result. Pharaoh vindictively increases the Israelites’ misery by upping production quotas and withholding the necessary material. The Israelites turn on Moshe, blaming him for just making everything worse.
The Torah indicates, therefore, that it is only then, after failure, recrimination and demoralization, that Moshe experiences something deeper, and more revealing, about the holy touch he senses. What happened to cause this opportunity for deeper connection, greater revelation?
Jewish commentaries from Rashi to the Lubavitcher Rebbe are intrigued by the comparison G*d makes, as the Torah depicts G*d saying to Moshe
וָאֵרָא, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם אֶל-יִצְחָק וְאֶל-יַעֲקֹב–בְּאֵל שַׁדָּי; וּשְׁמִי יְהוָה, לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but by My name יה-ה I did not appear to them (Ex.6.3)
Our teachers note that El Shaddai can be translated as El “G*d” sheh “that is” Dai “enough,” in other words, they experienced as much as was enough for them. They did not question, they accepted the touch of G*d and did not ask for more. Moshe’s experience is different. To the Patriarchs G*d was revealed only as El Sha-dai, relating to them via their constraints and limitations within the created reality. But to Moshe and that generation, enslaved, suffering and miserable, G*d was revealed, for the very first time, in essential truth.
Revelation, in other words, hurts. When one is rocked back on one’s heels and feels that one’s efforts are for nothing, when one feels rejected and misunderstood, this is the moment  when one may actually be on the cusp of a deeper, more authentic opportunity. The moment of feeling hurt requires us to look within ourselves to see where our true strength lies – and only when the ego is diminished are we able to sense the real quality of our own connection to the rest of the world, and to the wholeness of the universe which we call G*d for lack of a better term.
As Rabbi Akiba once put it, why does the Shema command us to “place these words upon the heart.” Why not in the heart? Because the heart is usually so confident, so distracted, so unaware of its own need. On all those normal days, place the words upon your heart. Then, on the day when the heart breaks, they will be able to get in.
Moshe initially wanted nothing to do with the full depth of awareness of G*d which was offered him; it is not easy nor pleasant to have our minds and hearts stretched in such a challenging way. But our entire history hung upon his ability to step up. What history hangs upon ours?
Here is history offering itself to us: this coming Monday we celebrate the memory of Martin Luther King Jr on the Federally recognized day devoted to him. This year, I invite you to join me in supporting those who seeks to “take back” that memory and hear that prophetic voice to its fullest, essential truth. I offer you his Letter From Birmingham Jail as a place to start.
Yes, Shabbat is for rest and reflection – and regathering our energy to go back out there on Sunday, and Monday, and all the days ahead, to seek what happens in the space after failure, demoralization, and heartache. Let’s go back out there together.

Shabbat Ekev: Can You Hear the Footsteps?

Our parashat hashavua, the part of the Torah we study this week, is called Ekev. The word refers to a certain sense of causality: “it will happen that all will be well with you because you follow the divine law” says Moshe to the Israelites: as a result of your devotion to this path, you can expect G*d to be devoted to you, as well, in the Covenant relationship you as a people have sworn to uphold.
The word עקב – ekev – infers the sense of something that follows on the heels of something else. The word ekev also means “heel.” Jacob was named Ya’akov because he was born holding on to the heel (ekev, ya’AKOV) of his twin brother Esav. This is not about coincidence but one thing happening because of another.
The Book Devarim, Deuteronomy, is full of a growing sense of urgency, as the people Israel stand on the edge of the river and wonder what the next steps might bring for their lives, veiled by water and roiled by the uncertainty of the future as they are. Our ancestors have responded to this sense of suspension – between the known “here” and the unknown of the מעבר – ma’avar, the transition they face. As they dive down below the level of פשט pshat, the “surface” level of understanding, their מדרש midrash digging down to deeper levels of seeing derive different insights at different times through different contexts.
Some interpretations are for our personal consideration:
Rashi interprets the use of this word ekev as an allusion to those mitzvot which a person tramples with her heels—the Torah is telling us to respect all the mitvot equally, even those that seem less significant to our finite minds.
Ibn Ezra interprets it in the sense of “in the end” (i.e., “in the heels of,” or in the sense that the heel is at the extremity of the body)—the reward of a mitzvah following on the heels of the mitzvah.
Some interpretations are philosophical, or mystical:
Rabbeinu Bakhyah sees suggestion that we understand and experience only the “heel” of a mitzvah, and cannot appreciate its full measure and worth.
The Baal HaTurim gives a gematriatic explanation: the word ekev is used because it has a numerical value of 172—the number of words in the Aseret haDibrot, the Ten Utterances we heard at Sinai.
Some interpretations are national:
 the Tzemach Tzedek sees the use of the word ekev as a reference to ikveta d’meshicha, the generation of “the heels of the Mashiakh.” It is taught that the last generation of the Exile is called “the heels of the Mashiakh” by our tradition for two reasons. First, because human beings will reach their lowest spiritual level before the End of Days comes, and second, paradoxically, it is also the generation in which the approaching presence of the End of Days will be most felt – the footsteps of the Mashiakh will be heard.
 
There is much in Jewish tradition that speaks of the End of Days with apprehension. “Let the End of Days come, but I do not wish to witness it,” said one Talmudic Rabbi. It will be a time when the center will not hold, when chaos will not seem like an enjoyable variation on a boring life but a maelstrom in which nothing is reliable, and no one is dependable.
 
“Repent one day before your death,” our tradition urges. Of course, we cannot know that day; but perhaps under the teaching is a sense that when you are afraid of your death, aware of your mortality and its limits, feeling not at all empowered or able to meet the chaos of a day, one remedy may be to do a mitzvah. Every mitzvah brings with it, after all, some small sense that one is still capable of acting meaningfully in the world – the reward, however small it may seem, that follows upon its heels.
 
And then, even in the face of chaos, of fear, and of meaninglessness – all of which carry death in their wings – in the aftermath of any small mitzvah, any little candle in the wind, we will still be able listen for the steps of hope.

Shabbat Kedoshim: Neither Inaccessible Nor Absurd

Our parashat hashavua (“section of the week”, i.e. the part of the Torah assigned by ancient Jewish tradition for this week in the Jewish calendar) begins with the most inaccessible and ludicrous of demands: 

“Speak to the People Israel and say to them, ‘be holy [kadosh], as I ‘ה your G*d am holy [kadosh]’.” (Lev. 19.2)

But when we investigate using our tried and true Jewish implements of interpretation, we find that what was thought was far from us is actually very near to us.

What does the Torah mean by kadosh, “holy”? The Rabbis who interpret our tradition, following the invitation to “turn it over and over, for everything is in it” (Pirke Avot 5.22) consider several options. To be kadosh, they offer, is perhaps to act like G*d, or, perhaps, it is to hold oneself separate. I suggest to you that it is both, and we must realize that there are times when to do one we must do the other.

This seems, as I said, either inaccessible or absurd. After all, don’t we strive for unity among all, and if so, why teach that we should hold ourselves separate? And acting like G*d, i.e. “holier than thou”, has a very bad ethical reputation in our world of political manipulation of religion.

But there is a different, more ancient insight from our tradition:

What does it mean to be “kadosh”, i.e. act like G*d?

R. Hama son of R. Hanina said: What does the Torah mean when it says You shall walk after the Lord your God? (Deut.13.5)  Is it, then, possible for a human being to walk after the Shekhinah [i.e. the Presence]; for has it not [also] been said: For HaShem your God is a devouring fire? (Deut.4.24)  

[It means that we should] to walk after the attributes of the Holy One of Blessing:

As G*d clothes the naked, for it is written: And ‘ה made for Adam and for Eve coats of skin, and clothed them (Gen.3.21)  

so you must also clothe the naked. 

The Holy One of Blessing visited the sick, for it is written: And ‘ה appeared unto Abraham by the oaks of Mamre (Gen.18.1)  

so you must also visit the sick. 

The Holy One of Blessing comforted mourners, for it is written: And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that ‘ה blessed Isaac his son (Gen.25.11)  

so you must also comfort mourners. 

The Holy One of Blessing buried the dead, for it is written: And ‘ה buried [Moshe] in the valley (Deut.34.6)  

so you must also bury the dead. (Talmud Bavli, Sotah 14a)

What does it mean to be “kadosh” i.e. be separate?

The 11th century Ashkenazi authority Rashi, using the interpretive tool of noting juxtaposition of texts, suggests that to be kadosh in this manner is to separate ourselves from the acts which are prohibited in the preceding parashah. In other words, just do what the Torah commands.

But the 13th century Sephardi teacher Nahmanides sees a more general idea. He points out that the Torah commands the priests to maintain a certain level of constant separateness from that which would render them unable to do their assigned tasks in the sacred space. (From a teaching by Rabbi Dov Landau of Bar Ilan University, Israel)

The rabbis of antiquity, when asked how we were to go on after the sacred space in Jerusalem, the Temple, was destroyed, answered that the Torah also says you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy people (Ex.19.6). Therefore, Nahmanides teaches, we should all see ourselves as priests in terms of fulfilling the command to be kadosh.

Now more than ever as we struggle to know what is true and good in a world that drags everything into relativity,

as we face feelings of demoralization over the forces of greed and cynicism in our national and local social circles,

as an American politician encourages bigotry and violence against those who would oppose his urge to power,

There is a way forward, and it is neither inaccessible nor absurd: be kadosh by separating yourself from cynicism and greed and demoralization. Be kadosh by holding on to the teachings that formed your sense of ethics. There is nothing inaccessible or absurd in the clear demand of the mitzvah to clothe the naked, visit the sick, comfort the mourner, and, as our Gevurot prayer puts it, “keep faith with those who sleep in the dust”.

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.