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 Yitro: Community comes from Sinai

On this Shabbat Yitro our parashat hashavua describes the moment of standing at Sinai, that moment that made us a community.

Close readers of the Torah such as our ancient and modern commentators and interpreters have long noted that the Torah speaks of those who came out of Egypt as an erev-rav, a “mixed multitude,” and yet, interestingly enough, the description of those who stood at Sinai at the moment of commitment are all described as Israelites. Something about that moment made our ancestors, and us, into the Jewish community to which we all belong.

Belonging is a difficult thing. “I’m not a joiner,” some of us might say. The sociologist Robert Putnam noted in the 1990s that more and more people were going bowling, but less and less were joining leagues. In his study Bowling Alone he found that Americans were losing the social linkages that create and maintain meaningful community in our neighborhoods, in our schools, and in our work places. We are more likely now to sue a neighbor then meet at the back fence to talk over issues we may have.

It’s more complex for Jews and Jewish community. It’s a common truth among Jews that you can walk with the community, or walk away from the community, but as a Jew you are never really without the community. Ironically, it’s often the non-Jewish world that reminds Jews of that, by assuming and assigning us as part of a group that we individually may not feel close to, or may have attempted to disown completely.

The days we are living through now reinforce this communal aspect of our singular identities. Some of us are attacked because we are Jews, not because of something we’ve individually done or said, even as some of us are threatened because of other aspects of our selves – we are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer, we are People of Color, we are Immigrants and Refugees. Not because of something we’ve said or done, but because we belong to a certain group.

Belonging, then, is a two-sided coin. All of us seek out belonging somewhere. We need each other, but many of us never learned the skills we need to connect socially. And at the same time we are inevitably assigned to group belonging regardless of our choice of where we might choose to belong. 

What does the Jewish group – the Jewish community that began at Sinai – mean for Jews and the people who love them? 

First: Jewish community is that in which all Jews and their families belong, rather as in the famous line from the Robert Frost poem: “Home is, when you go there, they have to take you in.” It’s family in the most profound sense. Even though we don’t all know (or like!) each other, we are all MOT (“members of the tribe”) to each other.

Second: Jewish community is demanding: it is there for us at all levels, and it needs us at all levels. In times of simkha or mourning, there is no place a Jew can go that the Jewish community cannot gather in support. The Jewish community exists on profoundly necessary levels for spiritual growth and deep human development. Ironically, one often encounters that truth precisely in the discomfort we “individuals” feel when we sense that this group is more than a voluntary connection, and while it promises more to us, it also expects more from us. 

Finally, consider the “all” part of that phrase, “all of us.” All of us stood at Sinai. Each one of us is part of the All, but to experience that requires us to relinquish some part of our “I.” In return it promises us that none of us will ever be alone.

The joy and the pain of it is this: it is not enough to find a comfortable place in community if that community does not challenge us to become more whole in ourselves, pushing us past our current judgment of ourselves and toward compassion, humility, and the willingness to grow. 

At Sinai we learned: Community is powerful. All of us standing together can face what must be faced.

Shabbat Nitzavim: What We Owe

Our parashat hashavua (Torah reading of the week) begins with quite a compelling scene: the entire Israelite community, gathered together on just the other side of the Jordan River from the Land of forty years’ struggle and search. The parashah begins with “you are standing this day, all of you, before G*d….to enter into the Covenant which G*d is making with you this day” (Devarim 29.9-11, excerpted).

This is already a curiosity; after all, didn’t we do this, back at Sinai, forty years ago? What does it mean to enter into the Covenant now, on the plains of Moab, on the cusp of the Land?

Our parashah goes on to specify that “not with you alone is this Covenant made, but also with those who are not (yet) here.” (Devarim 29.13-14, excerpted) This detail led our ancestors to question: how can the generation of the wilderness make a Covenant with G*d that implicates us as well? How can that be valid? 

In his Torah commentary, the medieval Sage Abravanel of Aragon explains that “there is no doubt that if a person receives a loan from another, that the duty of repayment falls upon that person, and on that person’s descendants. Just as children inherit property, so they inherit debts, even if they were not alive when the debt was incurred.” (Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Devarim p. 299)

The Jewish Covenant with G*d is not a gift, he said; neither is the Land associated with it. The Jewish people inherits our position in trust. Something of our ancestors’ commitment falls upon us, and something of that wilderness wandering is our inheritance as well. We owe G*d a debt of gratitude, argued Abravanel.

What do we owe, and to whom? At this time of greeting a New Year, we feel the absence of those who are not here to share it with us. Recollect more deeply and you may feel the echo of many past generations, all of whom upheld some responsibility and knew some sense of indebtedness for that which they had. We are born into a world we did not make, and would too easily accept it as a gift. But it is not a gift. We are born into a Covenant reality and in each generation it falls to new hands to pass it on, to pay it forward.

The generation that stood at the Jordan learned this on the plains of Moab: their parents and grandparents stood at Sinai, and they themselves also stood before G*d, though they were not at Sinai. Or perhaps because they understood in that moment that when they stood together in Covenant, that place – wherever they were – was Sinai. The same message is offered to us every year during the holy day of Shavuot, when we stand, again, at Sinai, wherever we are, and hear, once again, the words of Covenant, and of our eternal indebtedness.

This week we marked the death of Shimon Peres, the last of the founding generation of the State of Israel. One more generation passes, and as Amos Oz asked at his funeral, who will now take up his cause of peace? Who will count themselves indebted to the Covenant he tried to uphold?

To those who planted trees, the fruit of which we eat, we owe our sustenance; to those who built roads, we owe our ability to go where we will. And to those who created the conditions within which we were born, and raised, and learned, and grew – to that village, of whatever size, in which we lived in a Covenant relationship that allowed us to thrive or at least to survive, we are indebted.

On the Sunday between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur there is a tradition to visit a cemetery, to reflect upon those who came before us, and faithfully discharged their part of the debt we all owe. It cannot be paid back, but only forward – by tzedakah, by gemilut hasadim, and by asking not “what is owed to me?” but rather, “what can I do to give back in gratitude for the gift of my life?”

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 Yitro: What Makes a Jewish Leader?

Our parashat hashavua is Yitro. This parashah, in which we find described the revelation of the Jewish path symbolized by the Ten Words, is not named “Great Moments At Sinai” but Yitro [usually vocalized as Jethro in English], which is the name of Moshe’s father in law. Yitro is a Midianite priest – and so our parashah of the great moment of the Israelites standing at Sinai and entering into the Covenant is named for not only a non-Jew but (how to put this)  leader of a non-Jewish religion. 

About the fact that Moshe “intermarried”, this was par for the course at the time; Israelite men found life partners from everywhere. Jewish identity at the time passed through the male line, father to the son.

About Yitro, there is much midrash which recognizes that in the parashah he intervenes to give Moshe excellent leadership advice early on. The commentaries list his virtues, and those of Moshe as well (who was able to take advice from his father in law). The rabbinic focus on Yitro’s obvious leadership qualities must have been foremost in their minds when they settled upon the haftarah for today. Although it does describe a revelatory moment every bit as dramatic as that of Sinai for the prophet Isaiah, the interesting insight has to do not with the overwhelming presence of the Jewish vision of G-d, but of the uniquely Jewish sensitivities required of a Jewish leader.

In that spirit I offer you this weekly source of commentary on haftarah in hopes that you will find as much interest and insight in it as I do:

This week’s haftarah, while found in the sixth chapter of the book of Isaiah, is seen by most as the Isaiah’s inaugural prophecy. In it, Isaiah experiences the famous vision of the divine throne room where the fiery angels praise God with the famous words “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts, the whole world is filled with His glory” (6:3). What confounds this majestic picture is Isaiah’s response where he seemingly expresses his unworthiness to experience this vision: “Woe is me, I am lost! For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my own eyes have beheld the King Lord of Hosts.” (6:5) Isaiah’s words were followed up by what seems to be either a punishment or a purification ceremony: ‘Then flew unto me one of the fiery angels, with a glowing stone in his hand, which he had taken with his tongs from the altar and he touched my mouth with it, and said: lo, this has touched your lips and your sin is taken away.” (6:6-7)

Isaiah’s words do not offer us a clear picture of what he saw as his own failings. This gave interpreters an opportunity to express their visions of his failing. One such expression can be found in this midrash: Since he saw the ministering angels praising the Holy One Blessed Be He and did not join them in praising Him, he became troubled, likening himself to a man of unclean lips, for if I would have joined my praise to theirs, I would have lived forever like them. How could I possibly have remained silent? While he stood dumbfounded over the matter, he uttered some unnecessary words: ‘I live among an unclean people’. The Holy One Blessed Be He said to him: ‘Regarding the words ‘For I am a man of unclean lips’, I can forgive you and allow you to bear responsibility for yourself, but regarding My children how could you say ‘I live among an unclean people’? Immediately, he bore the consequences of his words, as it is written: ‘The one of the fiery angels flew over to me with a live coal’. (6:6).” (Pesikta Rabati 33)

This midrash sees the prophet as an advocate for his people. A prophet or leader who would veer from this mission was to be considered sinful and worthy of punishment. This midrash sees Isaiah as falling short of this role and as requiring intervention. Only after this initiation was Isaiah worthy to serve his people. 

This colorful interpretation of Isaiah’s introduction to his role as a prophet is intended as a powerful message to all those who take on the mantle of leadership.

About This Commentary  This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in  Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva.  He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. 

Shabbat Yitro: What Do You Hear When You Hear the Voice of G-d?

What do you hear when you are in the presence of that which matters most? This week we read of G-d’s gift of the Aseret haDibrot, the “Ten Utterances”, to the People of Israel. The Torah text describes thunder and lightning, fire and smoke, on top of Mt. Sinai. But the midrash, teachings of the ancient Sages that lead us beyond the surface level of text toward a deeper understanding of what actually happened, suggests that

in that hour the world was completely silent. No one dared to breathe. No bird sang, no ox lowed, the sea did not roar, and no creature uttered a sound….Then G-d spoke…  (Midrash Aseret haDibrot to Ex.20.2)

Consider the way the world goes silent when you are truly shocked out of your normal self by an experience; everything seems to slow down, sound recedes, and you are left in the enormity of the moment. Nothing is as you expected. It is precisely in this moment that we are capable of seeing that which we cannot see because we have never seen it before. 

This is what Jewish tradition calls “revelation”, and this is the essential Jewish revelatory moment. Although this is a communal experience (we all stood at Sinai together), there is something very personal about it. The Rabbis of the Talmud even suggest that:

every single word that went forth from the Omnipotent was split up into seventy languages. The School of R. Ishmael taught: Like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces: just as a hammer is divided into many sparks, so every single word that went forth from the Holy Blessed One split up into seventy languages.  (Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 88b)

Rabbinic commentary suggests that we actually heard very little at Sinai, that it is not possible, after all, for human ears and brains to process something as awesomely Other as the Voice of G-d; if there is such a thing, we are going to be the last to identify it. The choice in the animated movie “Prince of Egypt” to convey G-d’s voice as that of the actor playing Moshe was a way of saying exactly that – we cannot really hear G-d’s voice, but we can hear something in our own hearts and minds that may be an echo of it.

What did the People of Israel really hear at Sinai? It is a question that continues to occupy the commentaries for generations. What seems quite clear from all the commentary is that these oral utterances were heard differently by different Israelites – which is, after all, our own experience, even as the words have long been written down, which might seem to narrow the possible interpretations.

It does not. Each of us stands at Sinai in our own way, and proof of this is in the way each of us responds to a moment in which we feel the Presence of G-d, that is, that which matters most. It pulls us out of ourselves into a larger sense of existence, and a deeper sense of being.

This is where the mystics come down: what we heard at Sinai was not words but the sound of Nothing, that is, No One Thing but Every Thing that is about to be heard. We “heard” the sense of a Presence, and all the rest, in a way, is commentary.

What does that Utterance sound like? Some call it a compelling ethical certainty; others know it as a reassuring grounding in suffering. All of us can hear it in our hearts if we are ready to be still. What might be revealed to you, in any moment, if you listen to the silence of what might be said next?