Shabbat Shavuot: community – a healing of spiritual exile

The mystical doctrine of the sefirot clearly shows that we are all connected. We just don’t always sense it. We spend our life learning through experience and observation that, contrary to the popular American slogan, we are not really “rugged individuals”, solitarily in control of our own fate. First we learn that others will tell us what to do, and we do not have a choice in the matter. Then we learn that we need others to validate our own sense of our existence. Finally, if we are lucky, we come to understand the depth of our interconnectedness with others, and we realize that we could not live without it.
In the ancient world, humans had a much better chance of survival if they banded together and depended upon each other for the fulfillment of common needs – water, food, safety. Today we see demonstrated in many positive and negative ways our dependence upon others and their choices, even as they are affected by us and ours. Thus, in ways we cannot even begin to understand, everything we do reverberates.
No matter what our degree of understanding, the Kabbalah indicates, we must always remember that no event in the universe lacks a specific purpose. In language and content that remarkably mirrors that of contemporary physicists, Rabbi Moses Chaim Luzzatto of the eighteenth century observed, “The patterns and systems of all existence [are set up] in such a fashion that all of them are interconnected.” – Edward Hoffman, The Way of Spendour: Jewish Mysticism and Modern Psychology, 39.
For Judaism, to inquire into one’s own life is to engage in the three pillars of the world’s existence and stability: Torah, avodah, and g’milut hasadim – study, prayer, and acts which fulfill our relational responsibility.  Each of the aspects of this three-fold path to personal meaning leads us to other human beings: study is a personal experience of learning which is traditionally pursued in hevruta, a pairing which provides the benefit of the synergy of shared learning; the personal act of prayer (which includes meditation, self-assessment, and other modes) requires a minyan, a group, to invoke holiness; and acts which fulfill relational responsibility demand of us first that we engage the other, so that we might ascertain what is required of us in each individual situation.
We are individuals embedded in communities; we are herd animals, whose welfare often depends upon how others react to us, and we are isolated and lonely, trapped inside our own minds. Much of human history has demonstrated that we cannot exist without each other, yet the strong message of our modern culture is that each must learn to “be yourself”, “find yourself”, “fulfill yourself”. Carol Gilligan first drew our attention to the reality that our first state of existence is to be literally tied to another person, by the umbilical cord upon which each new life depends; yet we also know that to become a functioning adult, we have to separate from that nurturing source, so that we might learn to nurture in our turn.
The problem we’ve discovered in the celebration of individualism is that it is easy to over-emphasize, and there is much to lose by way of this imbalance of the value of the one over against the many.  Sociologist Kenneth Gergen summarizes the problem:
Most authoritative accounts of “the way things are” contain hidden values, the critics surmise, and one of the most problematic of these is the value placed on individualism.
Western culture has long placed a strong value on the individual’s self-determination (usually limited to the male). It is the good person, it is said, who makes his own decisions, resists group pressure, and “does it his way”. It is the spirit of individualism to which the culture pays tribute for economic prosperity, military victories, and a strong democracy. Yet, the critics point out, this same cultural value has many shortcomings. In particular, it invites people to think of themselves as fundamentally isolated, alone to ponder and create their own fate. Because cooperating with others means “sacrificing one’s own desire” to the will of others, individualism also discourages cooperation and the development of community. A me-first attitude is also invited, because if we are all isolated individuals then self-gain is to be preferred to the gain of others. Indeed, propose the critics, if individualism remains the dominant value, the future well-being of the planet is jeopardized. We now possess the means for annihilating all human life, and values that stress independence, self-determination, and self-gain militate against cooperation for the good of all. They foster a context for destructive conflict. – Kenneth Gergen The Saturated Self: Dilemmas Of Identity in Contemporary Life, 97-98.
Charles Guignon describes the challenge of balancing the self and the other in terms of living an authentic life. Considering the nature of human life before the advent of  the modern social emphasis placed on the self, he sees an individuality with much less well-defined boundaries.
The premodern regarded the self as extending into and inextricably intertwined with one’s wider context, “with the specific gods and spirits that inhabit that world, with my tribe, kinship system and family, and with those who have come before and those who are yet to come.”  – Charles Guignon, On Being Authentic, 18.
It is  very much in this spirit that, in the book of Deuteronomy, the Israelites understand the moment when they accept the relationship of the community with God to be both a moment in which they participate as individuals, and also a reality which reaches far beyond the individuals who they were. Here the Israelites are seen as individuals who are “inextricably intertwined”, with kinship groups defined in the widest sense, including servants and those who are not kin, but have joined the Israelites in their journey:
You stand this day, all of you, before YHVH your God – your tribal heads, your elders, your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, then stranger in your camp, the woodchopper to the waterdrawer – to enter into the covenant of YHVH your God, which YHVH is concluding with you this day…as he swore to your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I make this covenant not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before YHVH your God, and with those who are not with us here this day. – Deuteronomy 29.9-14
To compare the premodern approach to the modern attitude toward religious belonging is to trace a very long, from the perspective of history, pendulum swing between the self and the community. On one side, the self subsumed by the community through which the individual finds definition. On the other, the self seeking radical separation from the community, again in order to define itself. The modern stance toward the community is that one must separate from it in order to “find oneself” and develop a true sense of one’s selfhood. The community is seen as limiting, even diminishing. Yet in a premodern religious sensibility, interestingly, the sense of individual insignificance which can proceed from a feeling that one belongs to a whole which is far greater than the self, is not necessarily disempowering or negating of the self. Guignon points out that such a sense of the vastness to which one belongs may be what develops the human capacity for awe.
The conception of the self as inextricably tied to a wider context also makes possible the ancient virtue of reverence, a way of experiencing things that includes an awareness of the intricate interwovenness of all reality, the dependence of each person on something greater than him- or herself, the consequent sense of human limitations that comes from such an awareness, and an experience of awe before the forces that lie outside human control. – Guignon, 19.
In the modern period, we are steeped in the supposition that our lives should be dedicated to individuality and independence. We are meant to be autonomous, and no one outside of ourselves can command us. We freely choose, and we can choose to distance ourselves from anyone who does not agree with us or support our choices.
Comparing Guignon’s descriptions of premodern religious thought about personal existence to our own modern assumptions about our God-given selfhood can be an arresting experience. As we have already noted, for modern humans, there is a sense of sovereignty about the self which overturns traditional obedience to religious practices which are undertaken despite personal feelings or willingness. In marked contrast, for premodern religion, “we have an obligation to shape ourselves in order to measure up to an external criterion”:
what is important is not how you feel at any given moment, but rather that you cultivate your feelings so that you will come to feel the right way about the right sorts of things at the right time. Feelings are not givens we have to deal with. They are raw materials we have to work over and discipline in order to make them properly functioning components of a self that is itself a properly functioning component of something greater than itself. – Guignon, 21.
The premodern experience of time is communal; “in this way of experiencing time, there is ‘a sort of mythical present that is periodically reintegrated by means of rites’.”
With each periodical festival, the participants find the same sacred time – the same that had been manifested in the festival of the previous year or in the festival of a century earlier; it is the time that was created and sanctified by the gods….in other words the participants in the festivel meet in it the first appearance of sacred time, as it appeared ab origine, in illo tempore (at the origin, in that time]. – Mircea Eliade, cited in Guignon, 22
One of the most central commandments of Pesakh is that “in each generation, one must see oneself as if one personally came out of Egypt, bayamim hahem bazman hazeh, in those days at this time.” (Haggadah Shel Pesakh)  The movement of the people from slavery to freedom was the greater context within which each individual found a meaningful path because each knew herself to be part of a greater meaning. One’s commitment to that path, defined not by oneself but by the community, might be seen by some moderns as limiting of the freedom to choose one’s own way; or it might be seen as ultimately freeing oneself from a nightmare of existential anxiety in which one cannot make meaningful decisions about how to live because one first must daily decide who one is!
The power of the ancient story of the Israelite Exodus to lift human beings out of existential gridlock and into a life suffused with meaning and depth in every activity is such that it has reached far beyond its original cultural context; the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s drew form for its passion, and passionate rhetoric, from the Jewish redemption story. On the day before his assassination, Martin Luther King Jr. defined the meaning of his life not by his own quality or length of life, but by the life of the people of which he knew himself to be an integral part:
We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! Www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkivebeentothemountaintop.htm
Here is a sense of being at home in the world despite what happens to oneself, because one knows with whom one belongs. Guignon describes the perspective of the pre-modern person who knew the group in which she belonged:
given such an outlook, it was possible to have a fairly strong sense of life’s meaning – an ability to feel oneself to be part of some overarching scheme of things that ultimately (if not evidently at any particular moment) made sense. In such a worldview, you just are what you do. A person just is what he or she does in performing socially established roles and carrying out the functions necessary to the smooth functioning of the wider context of the world. – Guignon, 24
We of early 21st century America do not live in that world. In our modern world, the idea of the self has expanded, and now people are admired who are “individualists”. The modern human being considers herself to be autonomous, deciding for herself what she will do, who she will be. Conformism with groups is derided, and the creative loner is romanticized. Why is it, then, that in this wonderful world of self-celebration, we find ourselves feeling much more alone?
Part of the problem, in Yom Kippur terms, may be found in the imbalance of the self vis-à-vis others, and vis-à-vis God.
The worldview that emerges with the rise of modern science is anthropocentric to the extent that it treats the human self – understood as the knowing subject who objectifies, knows and controls – as the center of the universe….At the end of this transition what is left is a world consisting of raw materials at our disposal; nature is encountered, in Heidegger’s words, as a giant filling station supplying energy for our needs. – Guignon 32-33
“Where before our goal on earth might have been seen as finding our place in the cosmos or compliance with God’s will, the new aim is seen as attaining power and mastery over nature.”  This reminds us of more ancient words: p’ru ur’vu umil’u et ha’aretz v’khivshuha, “be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it.”  While this would seem to indicate that it is God’s will that we impose our own will on all other forms of life and the planet itself, we also find, not long after, that God put the human in the garden of Eden l’ovdah ul’shomrah, “to work it and to guard it.” (Genesis 2.15)  And so we see that the promise of mastery over nature, our opportunities to take for ourselves of its riches, comes with the responsibility to use our power to preserve and guard the world which sustains and enriches us. Like everything else we shall explore, there is a balance here, between the appetites of this moment and our ability to envision what may yet be. Eyzehu khakham?  haro’eh et hanolad, “who is wise? one who can see what is being born.” (Pirke Avot 2.9)  When we make what we think are individual choices, what is the impact upon the world of which we are a part? Who would have thought that, by exploring our own potential, we might tip the balance too far in the other direction, and lose track of the way back, or forward, to go home again?
We have left the Garden of Eden, as a place where we knew exactly who we were and what we were to do – and not do. The resulting exile in which we find ourselves is like that of the first humans; they left not the only home they had ever known, but also the certain nearness of God’s presence, with all its implications for covenant, commitment and belonging. Faced with the aimless freedom of that perspective, Pascal wrote, “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.” (Cited in Guignon, 42)  Our modern predicament is that we have reasoned ourselves into the realization that
We are finite beings who face an end that will define the whole of our being once and for all. It is entirely up to us what that life amounts to, what it adds up to in the end. We are the authors of our fate. Moreover, the meaning and value of that life depends not on our outer accomplishments, but solely on the condition of our inner self: the decisions and commitments we make in shaping our own souls as we traverse life’s path….You have but one life to live. This is not a rehearsal. The clock is ticking; time runs its course. It is up to you to make something of your life. You have only yourself to turn to.  – Guignon 40
We have struggled to free ourselves from external coercive forces, but unfortunately for us, those forces are implicit in a meaningful connection to one’s home, family, and community. In disconnecting from external impositions on our freedom, have unmoored ourselves. The Jewish paradigm for this reality is the call to Abraham: lekh l’kha m’artzekha, mimoladet’kha umibeyt avikha, “leave your land, your home and your family”. (Genesis 12.1) In this command, and in Abraham’s response, we see the uneasy balance of the individual and the need for community: Abraham, accompanied by his wife Sarah, follows the call he hears, which takes them far away from home. But the first thing that the couple does, according to the medieval teacher Rabbi Shlomo Yitzkhaki (better known by his acronym Rashi) is to begin to invite others to join them. Their journey as the first Jews can only be meaningful if they create a community.
This is the deeper spiritual meaning of exile: it occurs when we are distanced from a sense of belonging, and from a sense of home. We are in exile from each other when we trust less and less in our neighbors and even those with whom we join in community groups, to the point that not everyone is willing to have their name and address listed even in a synagogue’s internal directory of members. We are in exile from each other when we insist on our own individual rights over the common welfare, making personal choices which detract from the common good. And we are in exile from each other when we cling to the belief that we are actually independent individuals, ignoring complex human networks of production, distribution and social organization upon which we depend every time we turn on an electric light, drop by the store to buy bread, or proceed through a green light in our automobile, confident that the traffic at the crossroad has stopped.
And we are painfully in exile from each other when we lose touch with old friends because someone moved away; when we cannot find the time to nurture friendships because everyone is so busy; when we lose family connections after a harsh word or a misunderstanding is allowed to go unhealed. We will not become ourselves without clearing up tangled connections between us and those others upon whom our physical and psychological well-being depends – and we will not find clarity until we learn that we are not  and cannot ever be alone.
It is paradoxical to consider that to become ourselves as individuals, we must be willing to reach outside the self and commit ourselves to the others with whom we interact in our every day lives, those who make up our community. Yet, as Carol Gilligan  pointed out in her In a Different Voice, the real paradox is that we consider ourselves first and foremost individuals, when our first existential reality in the world is one of ultimate connectedness – the umbilical cord and the breast, upon which we depended, once upon a time, for our very lives.
The longing in human nature which is understood by psychology to be a desire to return to the idyll of early childhood, characterized as it is by the certainty of being safe and cared for by others, is expressed religiously in terms of gan Eden, the primeval garden of wholeness and peace that we remember in our past, and search for in our future, throughout our lives.
We will not be happy there alone: lo tov heyot adam levado, “it is not good for the human being to be alone.” (Genesis 2.18) Judaism envisions the future garden as a place we work toward together, within the covenant relationship with share with God, into which we entered together. It requires of us our full presence, our full commitment to the journey, “with all your intellect, with all your passion, with all of what you are”.  (Deuteronomy 6.5)

Rosh HaShanah 5780 – The Akedah: Stop Killing the Future

Rosh HaShanah 5780 Akedah D’var Torah: Stop Killing the Future

 

Have you seen the Greta Thunburg helpline? It’s “for adults angry at a child.” The video I saw begins with a middle-aged white man who calls the helpline and confesses that he’s been screaming at the image of Greta addressing the U.N. Climate Summit.

 

Over 5000 attacks on Twitter, not to mention on Fox News and other right wing media, have targeted Greta with seriously hateful ad hominem attacks ad absurdum for her strong words declaring that world leaders are doing too little, much too late, to respond to climate change.

 

What is it about adults who do this? What causes people, old enough to know better, to turn on those who speak truth?

 

This is not a new problem: the ancient prophets of Israel were shouted down, beaten up and even murdered for predicting that the unethical social behavior would cause the downfall of the society. Greta is not the first to speak out; young climate activists have been organizing for years. Their voices are like those of the ancient prophets, and I marvel again at how the youth of the world speak and act in ways that are true, clarion responses to the world we live in, and suffer in.

 

I would like to bring this question as a lens with which to consider the Akedah, Rosh HaShanah’s very troubling Torah reading.

 

For many generations our people, confronting this text, have focused upon the three individual actors in the drama. When Sarah is focused upon, it is by feminists who ask where she was. If Isaac is mentioned, it is to argue over his age, and debate why he is not mentioned at the end of the story. And there are those who say that if this was a test by HaShem, Abraham failed it if he could believe that our G*d would ever command such a horror.

 

And yet…there are disturbing whispers of something else, something deep and true and horrifying, in old midrashim about this story.  Why, after all, were the rabbis of antiquity, whose lives were informed by those midrashim, compelled to designate the Akedah as a Rosh HaShanah reading for the ages?

 

It’s important to know that in Jewish tradition, a midrash is a text which explores the nuances of a Torah story, often in strikingly profound psychological ways. Some collections of midrashim are two thousand years old; some only a thousand. No matter when it was created, you can depend on a midrash to upend your understanding of a text; it invites you deeper, into meanings that are veiled, and which open up whole new possibilities of hidden truth.

 

There is one midrash, which scholars believe was partially suppressed already in antiquity, which asserts that Isaac “was bound on the altar…and was reduced to ashes and his sacrificial dust was cast on Mount Moriah.”[1]

You might ask why it was suppressed (the answer would seem to be that it contradicts the rest of the tradition, not to mention the Torah itself), but I want to ask something else: why does it exist?

Why, if not to confront us with a deep and disturbing truth? Why, if not to remind us that in ancient days people did kill their children as offerings to their gods, and that today some people do kill their children in offerings to their tortured sense of something inevitable, and that the rest of us come closer than we might imagine to such an unimaginable act – not as aware individuals, perhaps, but nevertheless as part and parcel of a larger social organism that still regularly offers up its children.

 

Poets have long understood something of this strange and terrifying truth. Consider this:

 

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

 

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,

And took the fire with him, and a knife.

And as they sojourned both of them together,

Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,

Behold the preparations, fire and iron,

But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?

Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,

and builded parapets and trenches there,

And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.

When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,

Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,

Neither do anything to him. Behold,

A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;

Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

 

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

 

– Wilfred Owen – 1893-1918

 

I suggest to you this morning that the truth of the Akedah is that we are a short-sighted, self-centered, possibly outright suicidal species. The least we do is to force our children into compliance with the vision we have for our lives and theirs, be it war, or corporate profit, or some other kind of blind and devastating dead end.

 

Humanity’s self-destructiveness is insidious. It may be obvious and shocking to us when it happens to those to whom we can relate, but it is also happening on a larger scale.

 

There are so many examples of the future offered up as a sacrifice to that which is held in awe in the present:

 

*200,000 youth, mostly of color, enter the criminal justice system each year.

 

*We’ll never know how many young people have been torn from their parents’ arms – Native American, enslaved African, immigrant single mothers, incarcerated mothers – never to be reunited.

 

*Right now there are 11,000 children held in camps, more in other facilities throughout the United States.

 

When it comes to demonstrating what we value, society seems to act as if our future was of no concern to us. Parental leave to care for new babies is too often expensive and difficult to come by. School are as underfunded as if raising and educating children was not a vital activity for the health of our society. And gun control is still considered a bill that can wait, both in our state and in our nation’s capital, while this year alone there were twenty-two school shootings as of July 26.

 

What kind of species murders its future? Why would Abraham perceive that there was any good reason for him to kill his offspring?

 

Does Abraham see that Isaac is the future, a future that someday will not include him? Is he trying to kill his own death? In abusing Greta Thunberg and other children who show us clearly our own future, are we doing anything more complicated than simply closing our eyes and ears to what we don’t want to hear – at their expense and, of course, our own?

 

Perhaps this is the wisdom of the ancients: is this why they mandated that we read this difficult passage every year at a time when we are obligated to consider our acts, and their consequences? Is this why they chose to rub our noses in this horror every year?

 

So much commentary has been written to try to explain it, perhaps to explain it away. The most compelling for me isn’t an explanation but a sort of insight, in a midrash in which Isaac returns to Sarah and himself explains what happened:

 

The mother asked, where have you been, my son?

He answered, my father took me.

And if not for the messenger of G*d, kim’at shelo nishkhat.[2]

 

This is translated as “I was almost slaughtered.” But what it literally means is “a little more and I would not have been slaughtered.”

 

The vagueness of this grammatical construction is the only hope I have been able to find in this whole horrifying learning. Almost not slaughtered is, as if it were, almost slaughtered.

 

Children embody the future. In the Talmud they are called neti’ot, saplings. Like young trees, children respond honestly to nurturing, and they’re pretty good at surviving storms, drought, and being transplanted. On some very basic level, we are hard-wired to have them and, on a personal level, to protect them. But right now, the trees that are being destroyed through climate change are not only in the Amazon. Can we find the line between the two meanings of kim’at shelo nishkhat?

 

It only makes sense to prioritize and invest in our children’s well-being. Nothing else makes sense, if we love them, if we love life, if we love ourselves. What will it take, for each of us who lives in this brutalized society of ours, to get back in touch with the kind of vision that grows love, instead of fear? What will it take for us to say that perhaps this is the way it has been, but it is not the way it will be? What will it take before the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber, and schools get all the funding they need?

 

May our children help us to envision, in joy and in hope, the future we might share through them, and not just our own death.

 

 

[1] Shibbolei HaLeket, cited in Shalom Spiegel’s The Last Trial, 35.

[2] Rashi, parashat Haye Sarah, based on Tanhuma and VaYikrah Rabbah.

Shabbat VaEra: To Appear, Perchance to be Seen

Our parashat hashavua (the week’s Torah text) describes the ultimate I-Thou moment, between Moshe Rabbenu (the way Moses is known in our tradition, as “Moshe our Rabbi”) and HaShem (the way G*d is known in our tradition. Out of respect, the word “adonai” is avoided, in speech and in print, outside of prayer).

‘וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֵלָ֖יו אֲנִ֥י ה
G*d spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am HaShem.
וָאֵרָ֗א אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֛ם אֶל־יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֖ב בְּאֵ֣ל שַׁדָּ֑י וּשְׁמִ֣י ה’ לֹ֥א נוֹדַ֖עְתִּי לָהֶֽם׃
I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name ‘ה. (Exodus 6.3)
This passage, which gives our parashah its name, Va”Era (“I appeared”), drives the commentators crazy. After all, we can easily demonstrate that the Tetragrammaton (the polite Greek way to say “four letter word,” in this case referring to the personal Name by which Jews refer to our G*d) does appear in the texts describing the lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. So what can this possibly mean? Does the book of Exodus not even know the book of Genesis? Who edited this collection of sacred texts anyway?
The brilliant medieval commentator Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, affectionately known by all Torah studying Jews today by his acronym Rashi, has a wonderful, mind-opening solution to the question:
It is not written here לא הודעתי [My name HaShem] I did not make known to them, but לא נודעתי [by My name, HaShem], was I not known [unto them] — i. e. I was not recognised by them in My attribute of “keeping faith”, by reason of which My name is called ה׳, which denotes that I am certain to substantiate My promise, for, indeed, I made promises to them but did not fulfill them [during their lifetime]. (Sefaria.org)
Rashi invites us to take a very close look at the grammar of the words here. It is not written “I did not announce My Name to them” but “My Name was not known to them.” How incredibly prosaic, how ironic, how every-day-inevitable this is! To “appear,” it seems, is not necessarily to “be seen,” much less to be understood.
We can all relate to the possible interpretations of the difference between these two phrases, which essentially can be expressed as the difference between “I said” and “you heard.”
It might mean that I keep telling you something but it does not sink in;
or perhaps that I said this but you heard that;
or that, as Rashi says, what you heard was a word that remains unfulfilled in your world.
Much of our Jewish ethical tradition is based upon the kind of listening that the philosopher Martin Buber described in his work I and Thou (his philosophy is full of his Jewish experience and wisdom). After all, we are a people which historically declares shema – “listen!” as our most central saying. Buber teaches that by closely listening to another, we come to really see who that person is, and not only in relationship to us.
This is a deliberate ethic of behavior which is easily overlooked in our daily running about. So much doesn’t sink in, sometimes because we’ve been so bombarded by harshness that we have developed our defenses against really listening. But Rashi’s insight, in the final analysis, indicates this: if we cannot really hear, then much will remain unfulfilled for us. We will hear what we perceive to be promises, but they will go unrealized. We will hear but misunderstand. It won’t sink in. Yet Jewish ethics insists that a word, once spoken, is sacred and must be fulfilled.
Va’Era literally means “I was seen.” Each of us needs to be seen – something we do best when we listen to each other carefully, compassionately, and  without thinking ahead to what we ourselves will say next. On this Shabbat, may you open up to your own deep and generous capacity for listening, and in so doing find the reassurance you need that you, also, will be heard, and seen.

Shabbat Hayye Sarah: Make It Holy

On this Shabbat we will do what we always do, and what Jews in all times and circumstances have done: we will carry on with that which makes our lives meaningful. We will celebrate Shabbat with family of origin and family of choice, and with friends both old, and those newly moved to be with us. We will share a meal and we will immerse ourselves in study and prayer, and in doing so together we will defy the evil we have known.
Jews don’t celebrate martyrdom; our tradition teaches that we should do all we can to live. But when we are killed because we are Jews, in the middle of practicing the rituals that give our Jewish identity meaning, our people recognizes this as kiddush HaShem, a way of making G*d’s name holy in the world. This is the way in which our people names the deaths of innocents in the Shoah and in the massacres, pogroms and inquisitions of our past: no one wants to die in this way, no one seeks it. But if it comes for us, may it be that we are strengthened in our sense of who we are and may it hold us in those last moments!
That which is holy, then, is that which is worth your death, and your life. As it has been said, if you have nothing worth dying for, you have nothing worth living for. But being able to name that for which you are willing to die is only the first step in living in a way that we call holy. We must also be able to name that for which we are living.
Our parashat hashavua (Torah reading for the week) is Hayye Sarah, “the life of Sarah.” The Torah text is summing up the life of the first Matriarch of our people. It begins with Sarah’s obituary, announcing that she lived for “seven years and twenty years and one hundred years.” The commentator Rashi suggests that the years of her life are counted this way because she was as innocent at twenty as she had been at seven, and as beautiful at one hundred as she had been at twenty. She created a holy life.
Wouldn’t it be lovely if upon our deaths it could be said of us that we were as innocent of cynicism and despair at twenty as we were at seven, and as beautiful in our being at one hundred as we were at twenty, and at seven?
In these times, we are realizing that there is no safe place, no guarantee, even as we will do all we can as a community and as families and individuals to keep ourselves safe. Anti-Semitism is real. It hasn’t disappeared any more than other forms of intolerance have. How can we maintain our innocence of cynicism and despair even now, when we are afraid for ourselves and our loved ones? How can we keep focused, despite everything, on creating the inner beauty that comes from a life lived in meaning, and with kindness?
For Jews, the Jewish response is found in tzedakah, in two meanings: first, to mark a person’s death by contributing to a cause which reflects that person’s life, and so to fulfill the Psalmist’s phrase tzedakah tatzil mimavet, tzedakah saves from death.” It does not keep us from dying, but it keeps our memory alive and active in the world. Giving tzedakah defies senseless death by declaring the meaning of a life.
The second way to understand the obligation to do tzedakah in memory of someone’s life is that now, in the face of these murders – not only the eleven in the Pittsburgh shul, but also the nine who died in the Charleston church, and the two who were killed in a Kentucky Kroger’s parking lot, and so many others whose lives were blotted out by senseless hate – we must seek to do tzedek, justice. These deaths occurred because of injustice – that of political corruption, of capitalist greed, and of selfish apathy. We must redouble our efforts to pursue justice and to do justice, in small ways and large.
We can’t do it alone. The more your practice of meaning brings you together with others in meaningful ritual moments, the stronger and more effective you, and we, will be.
Start right now by being kinder to others, and to yourself. Keep your heart open to the pain of empathy, lest we cease to empathize. Stay far from those who invite you to despair, lest you succumb. Come out of your fear and share Shabbat, and the holy moments of every day, with others.
Thus may we all come to know that life is not about simply living. Life becomes holy when we use it to build a life of purpose and of meaning. Whenever it is that you and I and all of us are dead, may others have been lifted up by the way we lived, and may they clearly see the values we meant to live by.
We are in mourning.
We will grieve our dead.
We will not give up our vision for a humanity united in peace.
Hazak hazak vnithazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other.

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.

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.