Shabbat Shelakh L’kha: Trust or Fail

In these days of many kinds of prayers, let us consider the nature of Jewish prayer. Jews pray in highly specific ways, teaching us by way of this mindfulness practice a Jewish ethics of existence.

The first kind of prayer we see demonstrated in our siddur, our makhzor and any other kind of prayer compilation is תהילה tehilah – praise. It is the expression of what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called the “radical amazement” of being alive. The morning prayers, for example, remind us to be aware of and grateful for our body’s abilities, of just waking up alive.

The prayer of praise captures that moment when you stand on a mountain top and see the beauty of all that is, and know your place in it. That mountaintop is experienced in parenting, in friendship, in community, in love.

The second kind of prayer is בקשה, bakashah – seeking. It is to see the beauty from the mountaintop and seek the link to that beauty through the ethics and obligations of our days. The vision is wholeness, and the bridge we seek to build to it is the mitzvot of justice and kindness we are taught to fulfill.

Bridge-building is difficult and dangerous, marked by thankless effort, uncertainty and fear. This is true whether one lays bricks across a cavern or reaches out, step by step, to challenge injustice. The one unforgivable sin of this work is to undermine the most important building material of all: trust.

In the parashat hashavua our ancestors had come so close to their vision of wholeness. Before they entered, scouts were sent ahead into the uncertainty. When they returned, they reported much beauty and promise, but also challenges and obstacles to overcome.

The great sin happened here: the people refused to make the effort to trust that the path they were on was worthwhile, that it would indeed lead to the beauty of the vision they longed for. Rather than face the difficulty with trust, they gave in to fear, and lost the moment. They never got another chance; it would be many years of wandering before that bridge would finally be built.

Only three weeks ago on Shabbat we marked Shavuot, the moment when our people stood at a mountain and saw, for once clearly, the meaning of their lives. That moment was marked by fire, by lightning and thunder and the blast of the shofar. It was probably terrifying. Such moments of naked exposure to truth probably always are.

From that mountaintop we have been privileged in these days to see a vision of justice for the United States. Dr Martin Luther King Jr taught us that the road is long and there are no guarantees that any one of us will get there. Not unlike the wilderness generation, many of us have not been taught to trust, and it is terrifying to recognize the might of the evil unleashed among those of us who are Black and Brown. 

On this Juneteenth of 2020, we are privileged to experience the presence of G*d in history and event. The building of the bridge to a better world has made some progress, and that brings us to our third kind of prayer: הודאה, hoda’ah – gratitude.

Little by little, each in our own way, we carry forward our people’s memory of the vision we had on the mountaintop: of community, of justice, and of wholeness. May we be true to it, and trust it in the uncertainty and fear of our days. 

Shabbat shalom and Happy Juneteenth!

Rabbi Ariel

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)

Shabbat BaMidbar and Shavuot 5778: Into The Wilderness

Our parashat hashavua is called after the name of the book it opens, BaMidbar, “in the wilderness.” The first verse is both simple and completely mysterious:
וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל-מֹשֶׁה בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי G‑d spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai (1:1)
This is the Shabbat before Shavuot, the Festival on which we commemorate the day when the people of Israel stood in G*d’s presence and received from that moment the heart of the Torah, the Aseret haDibrot, the Ten Words. I invite you to join me in considering that simple, and profound, idea.
First: “G*d spoke to Moshe.” what does it mean to say that G*d spoke?
 
Second: a human being, Moshe, experiences a sense of connection with G*d. We are so used to it in the Torah that we read blithely over it, looking for the action, forgetting as we humans do to be awed by the thought of what it means to be in the Presence of G*d. 
 
Third: what is the content of the davar, the word that G*d speaks? In Jewish tradition, that content is Torah, writ large: our tradition considers all learning that leads to spiritual wholeness to be Torah, not just the five books we keep in a sacred scroll.
Ancient wisdom tells us plainly that such Torah is not heard, or received, easily. We don’t get it on the couch watching television, nor even simply hiking through the woods. It comes when we know that we are standing in the Presence.
 

By three things was the Torah given: by fire, water and wilderness. By fire, as it is written (Exodus 19:18): “Now Mount Sinai was altogether on smoke, because G‑d descended upon it in fire.” By water, as it is written (Judges 4:4): “The heavens also dripped, yes, the clouds dripped water.” And by wilderness, as it is written (Numbers 1:1): “G‑d spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai.”  (Midrash Rabbah)

Fire – This morning I as you awoke to the news of another school shooting. As I write, the news is that ten human lives have been violently ended by gunfire in Santa Fe High School outside of Galveston Texas. This is the twenty-second school shooting since the beginning of 2018, an average of more than one per week. And our hearts are heavy for the violent deaths of all those caught up in violence everywhere: Palestinians in Gaza, Arabs in Syria, Rohingya in Myanmar, African Americans in the United States.
What Torah must we learn by this fire?
Water – The arrogance of modernity caused us to dismiss ancient warnings that link our social ethics to our ability to thrive on the earth; one prominent example is that second paragraph of the Shema: “Take care, lest you become confused and turn away and serve other gods, and HaShem become angry and shut up the the heavens so that there will be no rain, and the ground shall not yield to you, and you will perish.” (Deut.11.16-17) But today we see a divine anger – the earth’s righteous anger, which is just another way of knowing HaShem – expressed in the climate change that we have brought upon ourselves through turning away to worship the gods of convenience, of wealth and power.
What Torah must we learn by this water?
Our Torah was given in the wilderness, we are told; wilderness, chaotic and unsettled, unknown and undefined. We do not receive it in the comfort of our convictions and in the safety of our agreements, but only in the chaos and uncertainty of learning and spiritual growth.
What Torah must we learn in this wilderness?
On this Shabbat in the wilderness, on this Shavuot that commemorates awareness of the Presence found only within that wilderness, may our fear and sadness and anger lead not to despair but to an active desire to brave the uncertainty and plunge in to the unknown, that we might be in the Presence, that we might know the Awe, that we might seek the davar, the Word that heals and helps us to learn, and helps us to do.

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 Naso: Lift Every Face

I have been away, even away from media, on a month sabbatical to mark my twenty-fifth year as a Rabbi. This is my first opportunity to seek with you some sense of response to the tragedy that occurred in my hometown on Sunday.

That day was Shavuot, the spring Festival of the Harvest. We should have been delighting in our gardens and our farmer’s markets and the gift of green in spring in ways that are so Portland, and in the Jewish way too, gathering to chant the praises of Hallel and eating dairy and marking the gift of moral law given to our people on that day (the spring harvest Festival is also the day on which we remember hearing the Ten Words at Sinai).

Instead of having the luxury of taking a day to consider how we might focus ourselves more on our daily internal journey toward spiritual wholeness and community, using our Ten Words as a moral support, we are confronted with the horror of the moral failure of our society. And we devolve toward the same endless morass of media coverage, and the same awful words. Hate. Guns. Death.

Once again guns. Once again the craven moral failure of congressional leadership, using this tragedy, once again, for political interests, proving themselves unable to lead us anywhere except further into darkness.

Black Lives Matter has awakened us to the failure of our police to “protect and serve”. What might it take for the United States of America to confront the failure of our elected leadership to represent us? There are more guns than people in the U.S. now.

As a Rabbi, I do not seek to offer you a definitive answer as much as to help you find the ways in which Jewish tradition will lead you toward your own sense of your best moral response to evil. I do not say whether to respond; especially one the other side of Sinai, still with its looming shadow above us, moral response is an urgent requirement.

What are you, an individual, to do? Jewish tradition offers you clear moral guidance. First: no Jew is only an individual. We have the support of community with us. And second, that community’s ancient rituals have just offered us The Ten Words, our oldest moral code. They include these: do not murder.

* don’t let go of your anger at the swelling tide of evil our elected representatives allow by avoiding gun control legislation. They are guilty of aiding and abetting mass murder by their refusal to act. Use your anger; let it give you strength to bind up wounds as you can, offer your support to the grieving, and fight off the helplessness that you cannot allow to seduce you into believing that there is nothing you can do. Love, as much as you can.

* show up. Know that your presence and your voice must be used for a moral response or you are abdicating your responsibility. Those leaders who refuse to act must hear that we see them and we condemn them. Find a way to respond meaningfully: write a letter, send a donation, participate in a march or a vigil, and vote, every time, knowledgeably.

Finally – the media has told us that this is a hate crime against the LGBTQ community, and indeed, statistics show that for the first time, the number of hate crimes against that community has overtaken the number focused against Jews. The Pulse night club billed itself as a gay club. Politicians who refuse to recognize that are criminally avoiding their leadership responsibility.

But it is important to let Shabbat Naso remind us of something difficult to parse, and that is our shared humanity. When is it best to hold a group apart for sympathy, or for condemnation for that matter? When must we note our differences so that we can cherish them as our havdalah prayer teaches, and we must we assert that we are all the same, created in the Image of G*d, as our Judaism asserts?

The attack at Pulse was an attack on us all. It was an attack on certain individuals for certain characteristics but it was also an attack on us all. Gandhi once said “I am a Christian, I am a Jew, I am a Hindu, and so are you.”  Learning from that prophet, seeing where his words coincide with Jewish ethics, we can add a verse: 

I am gay, lesbian, trans, and bisexual; 

I am an immigrant Muslim; 

I am a cowardly congressman, 

and so are you.

Hate divides us. If love is to conquer all, it must reach all. Yes, vote the criminally irresponsible out, but don’t hate them. That is the yetzer hara’, the evil impulse, and when we hate those who hate we do nothing but continue to feed and strengthen that hatred.

The parashah this Shabbat is Naso, which refers to the method of taking a census used by the ancient Israelites: to count each one was to account for each one, expressed in the Hebrew idiom naso et rosh, “lift up the head”. We don’t count by bodies, but by lifting up each head to look each person in the face. 

When we do that, when we lift every face, we see the human in each one, even those with whom we cannot relate. When we all find a way to look into the eyes of each other in our world, only then will we find a way forward out of this horrible, horrible pit.

Naso et rosh, lift your head, and help others to do so as well. Help the grieving to look up toward the sun and its promise in this time of our spring festival; help the LGBTQ community to lift up in pride this Sunday; and may you feel the strength that you are offering echo back to you so that you, too, can find a way to look up, and around, and see G*d’s presence reflected in this still so broken and hurting world – a promise, just like spring, that the small bud of love will grow again and again.

Shabbat BaMidbar, erev Shavuot: What Is This Torah That We Receive?

The very first lines of Pirke Avot, a famous collection of Rabbinic 1st-century ethical “sayings of the ancestors”, goes like this:

Moshe received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua; 

Joshua to the elders;

the elders to the prophets; 

and the prophets handed it down to the men of the Great Assembly.

Pirke Avot 1.1

The question is, what exactly is that Torah? A close reading of the Scriptures itself indicates that what Moshe received and what he passed on were not identical. We see this in several instances in which Moshe has to consult G-d for guidance, even after the Torah, with all its laws, is given. And Moshe also “edits” G-d’s directions (which is what Torah literally is, the word “Torah” being Hebrew for “direction”); as the people prepare to receive the Torah at Mt. Sinai, described in Exodus, we see him explicitly doing so:

HaShem said unto Moshe: ‘Go unto the people, and sanctify them to-day and to-morrow, and let them wash their garments, and be ready for the third day; for on the third day HaShem will come down in the sight of all the people upon Mount Sinai. … And Moses went down from the mount unto the people, and sanctified the people; and they washed their garments. And he said unto the people: ‘Be ready for the third day; do not come near a woman.’  (Exodus 19.10-15)

If Moshe transmits Torah with interpretation at the moment at which Torah is transmitted, then it seems clear that Torah is understood to be something more than the five written books that we revere as key to the meaning of Jewish life in all ages. It’s the “all ages” part that we should note. As our friends in the UCC church put it, “G-d is still speaking,”

Torah means “direction”. We are directed upon a path, in Hebrew halakhah. The meaning of our progress upon that path is always being interpreted; we, directed by the Torah sheh-b’khtav, Written Torah, are constantly accompanied by the Oral Torah, Torah sheh-b’al peh. Moshe invented it at the moment that he interpreted G-d’s directions for getting ready to receive Torah. And this process of interpretation, of making what we should do clear to us at every moment, must continue as it always has, because otherwise Torah would no longer direct us in our lives as they are now. Life keeps changing. Teachers keep unveiling new levels of understanding implicit in Torah. They were always there, just as the petals of a rose were always there in the tightly closed bud: under the light of sun and warmth, the rose unfurls new beauty, and with the light of interpretation and commentary, Torah does the same.

This is why we need not be irritated by the specifics of Moshe’s interpretation. It must have been necessary at that time, in that place. But Torah continues to unfurl. We are not limited by its shape in earlier days; rather, we are all gardeners, invited to help to bring Torah into the 21st century more fully – more open, more relevant, more amazing in the learning we can do and the depths of human spiritual experience we can reach.

BaMidbar, our parashat hashavua, means “in the wilderness”, and indeed we often find ourselves wandering, wondering where to find direction along our path. At the close of this Shabbat we’ll have a chance to review the path, the direction, and the gift as the Festival of Shavuot begins. According to Jewish tradition, we confirm our acceptance of Torah every year on Shavuot, and in some ways, every time we recite the blessing for Torah. What is this Torah we receive?  What does it mean for us?

May we each find our own personal blessing in Torah’s direction, as well as that of our community and our people, so that we can join the Psalmist in declaring that “these words are a light for my eyes, a lamp for my feet.” (Psalm 119.105)