Shabbat Lekh-L’kha: Making Light in Darkness

(image: close up in Torah scroll of Genesis 1.4 ויבדל אלהים בין האור ובין החשך G*d divided between the light and the darkness.)

Shalom Shir Tikvah learning community,

It’s getting darker every day now. How shall we trust our footsteps when we can’t see them? Where is the light that will dispel this hoshekh, this unnatural darkness that weighs us down?

This week we see that Abraham had precisely the questions we have.

As we make our way through the second year of the Triennial Cycle we move into the details of the more famous stories which make up the title images of each parashah. In the case of LekhL’kha, there is a famous introductory image of the fearless Abraham leaving everything familiar behind and setting off into a completely unknown future. 

This year, however, we are in the weeds. Abraham is a transient, a homeless wanderer, a landless stranger in a strange land in which he has had to fight to keep his family safe. Abraham and Sarah have no children, and no sure sense of their future. 

Then one day, the Torah relates in our parashah, the Presence of HaShem comes to Abraham:

אַחַ֣ר ׀ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֗לֶּה הָיָ֤ה דְבַר־יְהוָה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם בַּֽמַּחֲזֶ֖ה לֵאמֹ֑ר אַל־תִּירָ֣א אַבְרָ֗ם אָנֹכִי֙ מָגֵ֣ן לָ֔ךְ שְׂכָרְךָ֖ הַרְבֵּ֥ה מְאֹֽד׃ 

Some time later, the word of HaShem came to Abram in a vision saying “Fear not, Abram, I am a shield to you; Your reward shall be very great.” 

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אַבְרָ֗ם אֲדֹנָ֤י יֱהוִה֙ מַה־תִּתֶּן־לִ֔י וְאָנֹכִ֖י הוֹלֵ֣ךְ עֲרִירִ֑י 

But Abram said, “O HaShem, what can You give me, seeing that I shall die childless?” (Genesis 15.1-2)

The commentator Rashi explains that the word ערירי ‘ariri “childless” here really means “rootless.” The further implication in ancient Hebrew is that all one’s work is for nothing unless one creates something that outlasts one.

That ancient anxiety which defines the meaning of one’s life as that which outlives it has turned many of us into builders for the future, and even we Jews, who are taught that there is no sure existence other than this one, occupy ourselves in planning for the future and peopling it, in our imagination and, for some of us, with our offspring.

But what do we do in uncertain times when the future is not assured? If our work is only for the future, how can we possibly value the present moment for itself?

The haftarah for Shabbat Lekh-l’kha seems to speak directly to us in these moments of existential uncertainty: 

לָ֤מָּה תֹאמַר֙ יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב וּתְדַבֵּ֖ר יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל נִסְתְּרָ֤ה דַרְכִּי֙ מֵֽיְהוָ֔ה וּמֵאֱלֹהַ֖י מִשְׁפָּטִ֥י יַעֲבֽוֹר׃ 

Why do you say, O Jacob, Why declare, O Israel, “My way is hid from HaShem, My cause is ignored by my G*d”? (Isaiah 40.27)

Isaiah underscores what HaShem is trying to say to Abraham in the parashah: Trust is All. And so we ask, trust in what?

Not the future, which is uncertain. 

Only in ourselves, and each other, and our shared path – a three-part strength that creates a light strong enough to dispel the darkness around us.

All our lives are rehearsals for the moment when we need to know in our souls what to do and why. I’ve always felt that Jews are particularly lucky in that we have a spiritual mandate of doing and connecting which is always inviting us in. (When I lived and worked in Ukraine in the mid 1990s I met post-Soviet citizens who no longer knew who they were; the Jews with whom I lived knew exactly who they were, and what they could do.)

Community gatherings for learning and prayer and doing kindness can become meaningful in themselves to you, not for some future purpose but for blessing this day with the light that you yourself can create.  Through your engagement in the mitzvot that structure the acts and ethics of Jewish life you create the light of meaning not only for yourself, but for the person next to you who needs it as badly as you do. 

Now matters. This moment is all. What is the mitzvah you can do right now? If you do not know, ask. Believe in your ability to bring light to us all enough to ask.

Abraham went on after the moment of questioning the meaning of his life. He learned to trust in the path he was on. Because of this, we are taught, he became a source of light not only for his companions but for the Source of Life, as we see later in this same parashah:

וַיְהִ֣יאַבְרָ֔םבֶּן־תִּשְׁעִ֥יםשָׁנָ֖הוְתֵ֣שַׁעשָׁנִ֑יםוַיֵּרָ֨איְהוָ֜האֶל־אַבְרָ֗םוַיֹּ֤אמֶראֵלָיו֙אֲנִי־אֵ֣לשַׁדַּ֔יהִתְהַלֵּ֥ךְלְפָנַ֖יוֶהְיֵ֥התָמִֽים׃ 

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, HaShem (finally) appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am the Source of your Creativity. Walk in My ways and you will be whole.”

And the Midrash explains that what HaShem was really saying here is this:

בּוֹא וְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנָי

“Come, and light the way before Me.” (Bereshit Rabbah 30)

The multi-wick flame of the havdalah candle reminds us that our shared lights are brighter than any individual can generate. Come, and let us light the way together.

Shabbat VaEra: Revelation Hurts

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

Shabbat 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 HaGadol: Being Commanded isn’t Enough, and Neither is Being Free

The days before and after Shabbat haGadol, “the Great Shabbat,” are meant to be a time of excitement and joy, of running around to find the best ingredients and the nicest symbolic foods for our Seder. It’s a time to clean house, to bring out the Pesakh plates and the “good” utensils in honor of the holy day, and of looking forward to being with people we love for the special evening. It’s also a time to review the Haggadah, to prepare to sell the hametz, and to remind ourselves – or enjoy learning for the first time – all the laws and customs and habits.

Shabbat haGadol is always the Shabbat just preceding the Seder. This year the parashat hashavua is Tzav, “command.” And it’s worth taking a moment to let that word remind us that for our ancestors, the preparations for and the observances of Pesakh were not something to decide upon but obligations to fulfill and commands to obey. We are on the other side of an abyss from that world, a would defined by the certainty that one’s life was plotted out with clear rules and duties. It may sound burdensome, but Jewish tradition insists that there is a freedom inherent within submission to the mitzvot. 

We live on the other side of that abyss, in a world of choices that we believe we make freely – until we consider the impact of the influences upon the choices we make: what our friends do, what we believe is expected of us, what our parents formed in us from an early age which we either strive to fulfill or are still in reaction against. Then there’s marketing, advertising, and all the other ways in which our society creates the conditions for psychological suggestion. In a world of so many influences, how are we supposed to know what the best choice might be? And what makes us think that we are really free to discern and make that choice?

The great Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz (brother of the great Torah teacher Nehama Leibowitz – what was that family’s Seder like?) taught that freedom is an illusion. “Cows grazing in a meadow are free,” he said, “they have no obligations at all. Neither are they capable of achieving anything at all. Do you want to be as free as a cow?”

We human beings have obligations, not least to those cows. But that realization is not enough, just as the sign posted in the gym where I exercise five days a week is not, in its urging me to “Live With Intention – Be Bold and Fearless – Make a Difference.” One following these promptings could just as easily apply them to intentionally using the nuclear option in the Senate to force a Supreme Court confirmation, boldly and fearlessly gutting the EPA, and making a difference in the Syrian conflict by bombing refugees.

It’s not enough to be free, and it’s not even enough to know you are commanded, if you do not have a sense of how, and and community to check yourself with. Mitzvot offer a valid and beautiful way to answer the question of “how”,  and the community, through which law is adumbrated and flexed, is the way that the Jewish people developed a meta-ethic of “love your neighbor as yourself” which is meant to communally overrule (by practicing, or, more to the point, not) some of our eternal Torah laws which are not so appropriate.

The sacred Jewish community isn’t perfect, and neither are its laws – both are holy inspiration, though, faithfully if imperfectly transmitted by human hearts and hands. It makes our review of the Pesakh laws comforting – we’re going to do once again something our people has done for millennia – and it guides our free choice, narrowing down the options to something more relevant, coherent, and, even, safe, in the face of all that chaos of what might otherwise seem an endless, meaningless flow of equally valid choices.  

May you find comfort in the mitzvot and the excitement of Pesakh, and be reassured that in the face of unimaginable tragedy wherever it exists in our world, these mitzvot have Eternal meaning. We may not always know what that meaning is – but we’ll only discover it by immersing ourselves in the doing. Consider it your thread of sanity and certainty in all this rain.

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

Shabbat Lekh L’kha: Go Forth, in Jewish

This week we cannot assert that the Jewish lifelines of Torah study and prayer are irrelevant for our day. This week it is almost unnerving how much the Torah and our Jewish tradition have to say to us to guide our thoughts and decisions.

The haftarah for this Shabbat asserts:

The coastlands look on in fear,

the ends of the earth tremble. (Isaiah 41.5)

There have been those who have told me, in the past and more recently, that they prefer my messages when they do not overtly refer to politics. In that, those who have shared such a thought with me are in good company with our ancestors and with our Jewish community today; we all would like to simply go home and rest at the end of a difficult week, with no thoughts of more that we are called upon to do.

But the Jewish answer is this: you can go tell it to Jeremiah and Isaiah, to Micah and Elijah and Huldah. Our great prophets declared, for then and for always, that to be Jewish is to engage with G*d’s creation in all its forms. G*d is expressed in the world in every human breath and every planetary utterance, and it is hutzpah to assert that we will curate our response to the mitzvah to exclude that which troubles our rest.

We can feel an urgency echoing over the millennia since our ancestors first told the story of Lekh L’kha, pulling at us – and this is the sound of G*d’s voice calling, although you may prefer to call it by some other name. It does not matter what you call it, it only matters that you hear it. 

We have gathered in larger communities and with each other, feeling a new feeling of needing to answer the call of this week’s parashah: Lekh l’kha, “go out from what you know, from the “homeland” of past certainties, the “parents’ house” of assuming safety and security, the “kindred” of spending time only with those who agree.

Our earliest ancestors – from whom we are all descended, not by bloodlines but by intentional and loyal acts – were known as Ivri, “the one who crosses over”. We are called upon this week as they were with the mitzvah, the obligation, of lekh l’kha, “get going”.

And our tradition does not abandon us there but is with us, with wisdom from our past to help us figure out where we are going. The text itself does not say: it simply commands “Get up and go from your homeland, your family home and your kin, and go to a land that I will show you.” (Bereshit 12.1) 

We’ve been here before, and we know what to do and how to do it. We understand that this command speaks to us personally: Lekh l’kha, “go to yourself, for yourself” – what do you need to change in your life to be a more whole person?

We understand that this command speaks to us communally: Lekh “go to yourself” outward, into the world, in order to find what is l’kha, “for you” inside you.

And we understand that this command speaks to us holistically: Lekh l’kha, one cannot go forth without going inside. None of us is alone, and we must not allow anyone to forget that.

This Shabbat let the ancient words of the Prophet Isaiah inspire you and remind you: we have been here before. As Jews, our history and our tradition support and guide us and we do know what to do, even if we do not know where we are going: we must link hands and go forward together. Without demonizing the other, without ceding the high ethical ground, without losing hope.

They draw near and come,

each one helps the other, 

saying to each other, “take courage!” 

Not only for ourselves in our Jewish community, but beyond “kindred” to communities and individuals across all lines of division, we must reach out: 

The woodworker encourages the smith,

The one who flattens with the hammer 

encourages the one who pounds the anvil.

They say to each other, “it is good!”

and they support each other’s work

that it may not fall. (Isaiah 41.5-7)

May it be for you a Shabbat of spiritual and emotional strength gained from Torah, prayer, and g’milut hasadim, acting with loving kindness, that we may not fall.

Shabbat Bereshit: Get Naked

This week, as we begin again to encounter Torah, we are back at the beginning. The first chapters encompass so much: The world is created: human beings exist, and interact with all other forms of life on earth as well as with each other. And there, of course, is where it gets complicated.

Here’s where we start:  “They were both arumim, the man and the woman, and they were not embarrassed.” (Gen.2.25)

This is followed immediately by “The nakhash was arum, more than any other creature of the field which HaShem had made.” (Gen.3.1)

What is most interesting here is that first instance of arum here is translated “naked”, and the second is translated “clever” or “wily,” or, in Talmudic usage, even “wise.” We can explain this away as an instance of a homonym – two words that sound alike but mean different things. Or we can consider that this was originally an oral text, heard rather than read as words on a page. The similar sound of these two words invites us to consider the associations that we may experience.

In what way might we need to be naked in order to become wise? 

To be naked is to be vulnerable. Sooner or later we all feel that we are under attack; our natural response is to withdraw behind layers of covering. Perhaps one covers oneself with guile, or wariness, or a lot of joking around. None of those “clothes” are impenetrable, though; and what one learns as one lugs one’s suit of armor around is that it gets tiring. To be vulnerable is to be human, and sooner or later we all must admit to that kind of nakedness. Significantly, it is only through that vulnerability that we connect. It is scary, and sometimes it hurts, but in the end it is the only human way.

To be naked is to be open to connection. For example, in order to immerse ritually in a Mikveh one must be naked, radically so: one is not only to remove all clothing, but also any piercings, paint, and jewelry. As you came into the world, so also you go into the Mikveh. Only in this way is a ritual immersion possible; only when all that exists between you and the water disappears can you truly experience tevilah, immersion. To be naked is to be open to your connection to that which is outside you but is also part of you: you are physically connected to the water of the mikveh; religiously, to the community that creates the mikveh; spiritually, to the Torah, which is compared by our ancestors to life-giving water, and the G*d we seek through it.

To be naked is to be seen. The story is told of a Rabbi dying, disciples gathered around. “Rabbi,” one pleaded, “give us your blessing.” The Rabbi responded, “May you revere G*d as much as you do your neighbor.”  “But Rabbi,” another protested, “what kind of blessing is that?” “Ah,” replied the Rabbi, “if you think your neighbor sees you, you watch your behavior. May you always remember that G*d sees you.”

It is written  לעולם יהא אדם ערום ביראה – “One should always be arum in reverence [for HaShem]” (Proverbs 15.1) May you learn how to go around naked all the time inside your clothes, and thus may you find your life blessed by immediacy, joy, and, finally, the wisdom that only comes to those who dare to be open and vulnerable to life.