Shabbat Shemot: Listen and See that All Is One

we have met the enemy and they are us – cartoonist Walt Kellly in the comic strip Pogo

What is the cause of uprisings? the seed of violence? what did we see on Wednesday in Washington D.C., and all spring and summer in Portland?

Others will turn to political scientists and sociologists; to these sources of wisdom we are fortunate to add another resource: the Torah. Torah in its widest sense, which invites us to seek wisdom with which to respond to the challenges of our days thoughtfully, from our people’s experience and insights.

A new book of the Torah greets us on this Shabbat Shemot. (Even the way we name our weeks when we tell time centers Torah and its weekly offerings of consolations and challenges to our way of thinking!)

A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “look, the Israelite people are far too much for us. Let us deal wisely with them, lest they increase, and in the event of war, join with our enemies and rise from the ground.” – Exodus 1.8-10

Once, Joseph had saved Egypt from famine. But the beginning of parashat Shemot, the first parashah of the book of Shemot, called Exodus in English, describes a time long after. Now the Israelites living in the midst of Egyptian society are suspect. They seem dangerous. After consultation, Pharaoh’s ministers advised him to murder every baby Hebrew boy by throwing them into the Nile
“because they are too much for us.”

Why would the Israelites become suspect?
Why were they suddenly seen as possibly dangerous? 

The Torah, and the midrash investigating the deeper meanings of its words, point to the very words: this people are too many for us, they might be our enemies. This is the timeless, fearful rhetoric of us vs. them.

The Jewish response to this is to suggest something far deeper and more difficult to fully grasp, and it is the true meaning of the Shema – that we are all One. There is no us vs them; only shifting groups that change and coalesce around thinking and feeling processes that we are only partly aware of in ourselves and around us.


Unless you are willing to try to understand that, you will never be able to grasp the insight that true monotheism offers you – the kind Isaiah tried to teach us:

יוצר אור ובורא חושך עשה שלום ובורא רע אני ה עושה כל אלה
Shaper of Light, Creator of Darkness, Maker of Peace and Creator of Evil; I HaShem do all these things. – Isaiah 45.7

To understand the central tenet of Jewish spiritual culture is harder than we might understand at first grasp. It tells us that there is no such thing as radical individualism. The mystics compare this to a drop of water in a stream; each of us is such a drop of water. We are barely aware of the ocean in which all our acts are contained, carried and influenced. We are, as Rabbi Lawrence Kushner put it in his writing, all linked by Invisible Lines of Connection.

More than one psychologist has suggested that the self was never meant to carry its own weight. We are herd animals. We would rather feel safe at home in a bad agreement than alone in righteousness, for good reasons: one who is alone is in danger of death – or the lesser death of ostracism – at the hands of the many. That is the spirit of the mob this week at the U.S. Capitol; it is the same spirit in the Klan. It is the same human spirit in a youth group and a football team and a group of anarchists breaking windows at night downtown.

We are all the same in our basic needs. We are all the same in our humanity. We are all influenced by factors in our makeup, our history, our community – and there are so many that we are completely unaware of! 

It follows that there is no meaningless violence – only causes that we do not as yet understand – or do not wish to understand. We may feel a certain leaning to condemn one more than the other. In such moments we do well to remember that none of us can claim to know Truth, but only a partial truth. 

As white supremacy expresses itself in police violence against Black bodies, so does alienation from social values similarly express itself – in violence that we want to distance ourselves from for our own safety.

Yet we all own all human acts, those we are aware of and those we are not, those we commit and those we witness. Yom Kippur puts these words in our mouths: for the sin we committed on purpose and for the sin we committed by mistake, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement. Atonement means at – one – ment, recognizing that we live within and among, not separate from, all that makes us recoil as well as all that makes us happy.

To believe in meaningless vandalism from individual thugs who can be punished individually for their individual stupidity or anger is the final absurdity – of which, alas, too many of us are convinced. It allows us to deny our own complicity in the state of our society. 

Jewish tradition is braver than that, and in every honest moment of study and prayer we are invited to step from safe space into that brave space. Brave Space – actually a recently developed concept to improve our thoughtfulness about how we behave in diverse community – is a useful way of fact-checking the truth you feel safe with, and allows you to consider how you might grow beyond your current definition of personal safety, in ways that might allow others to feel more safe with your support. Learn more here: Fakequity 

The Shema should remind us of our link to everything else in Creation every time we recite it – and if we are not Jews who daven regularly, we might be those who recite it at bedtime, and know that it has also become the cry of defiance of our martyrs. Why should it have become a sacred utterance if not because it stands beyond our ability to fully grasp, and therefore is always urging us to do better, to think more compassionately and with more humility, seeking the wisdom which our tradition tells us is the path to peace?

In this week of national horror and disgrace, to be overwhelmed is to fail in our response. The Shema is defiance because it calls us to recognize and accept our part, both in the evil and in the good that we can rally to overcome evil by our small, every day actions, and by recognizing how they add up. That’s what the gift of our mitzvot are, and they matter more now than ever. No, that’s wrong: they always matter; it’s we who must change.


Hazak, hazak, v’nithazek – let us be strong and strengthen each other

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 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 Ekev: What Happens When You Listen

This week our parashat hashavua (parsha, “section”, of the week) is named Ekev. The word literally means “heel”, as in Jacob/Yaakov’s name, given to him because he emerged from the womb holding on to his brother Esav’s heel. This same word ekev paired with another conjugation of shema leads the Jewishly attuned ear to an entirely different place, that of the Akedah – possibly the most troubling Torah text of all, with which we struggle on Rosh HaShanah. Ekev, ekev, because of, due to, on account of…..

Parashat Ekev begins with this verse (Deut. 7.12):

יב  וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן, אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם, אֹתָם–וְשָׁמַר י-ה אֱלֹקיךָ לְךָ, אֶת-הַבְּרִית וְאֶת-הַחֶסֶד, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע, לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ.

It shall be that because you listen to these just teachings, and guard and do them, that the HaShem your G*d will guard for you the Covenant and the Covenant-loyalty sworn to your ancestors

V’hayah ekev tish’meh’un, “it will be on the heels of your listening”. The expectation here is that listening leads to a real result. One might see it as “hear and obey” but the great teachers of our tradition offer us much more to consider.

One insight is based upon a very close look at the first few words: “According to the joy and a person’s desire to fulfill the mitzvot, so one merits to hear, to attain, and to fulfill them….If you take the responsibility for the mitzvah upon yourself in joy, by means of this you will be able to listen.” 

This teaching from the Sefat Emet takes an ancient Talmudic comment connecting the word V’hayah with joy, and invites us to consider that v’hayah is for each of us a relative concept, linked to the satisfaction we take in the mitzvah.  מצוה גוררת מצוה – “The reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah.” In the moment when we are to recite the blessing before doing the mitzvah, we have the opportunity to become mindful of this amazing idea: that every moment is pregnant with meaning, if we are able to listen.

This is the ultimate salve for the burnout some of us begin to feel in our weaker moments. Not thanked enough? not having the work noticed enough? We all have that kind of childish moment when we want to be noticed doing a good thing. At that moment it is up to our more grown-up self to reassure the child within: stay in touch with the joy of the mitzvah, have fun with it because it is a mitzvah, and, as the Sefat Emet teaches, we will finally understand the meaning of the Shema, “to love G*d with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your resources.”

This ancient Jewish teaching is the source of the Western ethical idea that whatever we do, we should do our best to do it well. Whatever we are doing is not only about our small self, but has an effect, as we know, on the larger shared Self of the World within which we live our lives.

First, one must learn to listen carefully. Not simply waiting until another has finished speaking so that we can say our truth, but listening in such a way that it has a real effect. Maybe it allows you to be a better listener, not defensive or dismissive; maybe it allows you to begin to consider trading in your truth for a better one. A possibly apocryphal but still great quote attributed to the economist John Maynard Keynes can lead our way: when accused of changing his position on some important issue of economics, he is said to have replied, “When the facts change, sir, I change my mind. What do you do?”

If we listen, only if, says the Torah, then something good will happen. It is an interesting test. How do you change when you really, really listen? It’s something we can practice at any moment. Sometimes we need to listen to ourselves, sometimes to something outside.

We are promised that alert, respectful, careful listening will lead to something – to change, and, finally, to growth of the spirit – when, finally, one comes to a place where one truly feels that the reward of the mitzvah is the mitzvah, and the sense that one is closer to the Source of the mitzvot. And you will know when you are there, because you will feel the joy.