Shabbat Shemini: You Can Rise Up

The fifty days between the two harvest festivals of Pesakh and Shavuot are traditionally counted. The daily count is called Sefirat haOmer, the “counting of the [barley] measure,” because in the unceasing toil of ancient agricultural subsistence, every day of the harvest was a time to count in gratitude and in hope for continuing harvest.

The counting of the omer was interpreted for new relevance during the 2000 year Exile of the Jewish people from the land of Israel, and very often from the ability to farm. The ancient Rabbis recognized in this 50 day period a chance to consider the eternal truth that one does not cease to be a slave overnight. One does not alter a perspective quickly, nor take easily to a layer of change over years of habit. In truth, there are those who prefer never to countenance change at all, as well as those who embrace it. Most of us are somewhere in the broad and confusing middle, wandering in a wilderness of some comforting habit, and some jarring change.

These 50 days offer us a yearly opportunity to contemplate this ancient invitation: are you moving forward, or are you circling back around? No judgement, just an effort at clarity: where are you on your path? Are you happy in it? What choices have you made, and what narrow places constrain you?

In a play on the words sefirat haOmer, the mystics of our tradition offer us the sefirot haOmer, a way of counting our days and considering their impact on us and the world through looking at aspects of our selfhood.

For one whole week we consider how our own sense of compassion intersects with our attribute of judgement, of mercy, of consequences, of wisdom, of our own sense of what grounds us, and more. The next week, we go through the same characteristics of our existence, but from a different angle. And so on, for seven weeks of considering our response to the Eternal question

Ayeka? Where are you?

as HaShem asked the first humans as they hid themselves (to no avail) in Eden.

Eternity asks us ayeka? every day. Every day we are too busy and too distracted to hear. But for 50 days, we are urged by our tradition to take the time to listen.

The first weeks of our contemplation find us at the level of our physicality. This is truly human; we begin as small organisms that do nothing but exist physically. As we mature, we develop into emotional, intellectual, and spiritual beings.

This is where our parashat hashavua finds us, grappling with the nature of our physical existence. It offers a profound lesson in the first day on the job of two priests in the new Mishkan, the sacred space created to approach the presence of HaShem. 

But it does not go well.

Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered HaShem a fire offering which had not been instructed. Fire came forth from HaShem and consumed them, and they died. (Leviticus 10.1-2)

Judaism has never derogated physicality; Jewish teachings recognize that the body must be cared for before one can learn. But to remain in the grip of focus upon the physical will destroy us. The teaching for us in the sefirot haOmer is perhaps this:

if you don’t take care of your physical body you are not able to rise above the level of the physical. The invitation to the 50 days of contemplation of all one’s harvest are not simply or only physical, though, and if you are only concerned with your body, you are stuck in a circling. 

For anyone who is physically endangered by illness or dysmorphia, it is imperative, in the light of this teaching, to act with clarity and fullness to address that danger. Until you are physically safe, you cannot rise to the next level. And to grow into your fullness, you need to rise.

The same is true of the emotional level of our lives, which is considered next. Then the intellectual – each with its own traps, lest we believe that any one of our characteristics is enough to define us. We contain multitudes, as Walt Whitman sang of himself. We reflect Eternity in all its aspects, each of us and every single one of us. 

On this Shabbat we have counted the days from Pesakh to Yom HaShoah, and soon we will commemorate Yom HaAtzma’ut. The experience of releasing one’s energy from constraints similarly may presage destruction as well as hope rising from that destruction. The Jewish people will continue to count past these monumental dates for our people. Join us, as we attempt to rise all the way through an inner as well as communal journey that may, if we are willing, lead us all the way to meaningful personal existence within meaningful supportive community – rising to the moment of Sinai, where we can finally see.

Shabbat hol hamo’ed Pesakh: the Imperative of Joy

On Sunday evening at our Second Seder we counted the plagues:

world wide pandemic and more than 2.5 million souls lost

Oregon fires

Texas ice storm 

George Floyd

economic hardship

assault on the U.S. Capitol

children in U.S. concentration camps

31 million people without health insurance

white supremacy violence

The Federal government repeatedly using weapons of war against Portland citizens

Our Haggadah refuses to narrate the story of freedom without stopping to grieve. It is painful to learn this, but the lesson is demonstrably true over millennia: human life is a mixture of joy and pain, triumph and bitterness, of Pyrrhic victories and defeat’s silver linings. 

All the more remarkable, then, that our ancient tradition also insists on lifting up the moments of joy shining like a shaft of light through all the darkness. Yes there is fear, and pain, and confusion; yes, there are birds singing in the trees after the ice storm, and people who will hold out their hand to you when you are hurting. 

The story of the Israelites’ escape from Egypt is easy to look back from this distance. Through the veil of centuries the past is hazy. It’s easy to tell children the simple story: Moshe Rabbenu led us all out, and we all followed. Even though the Torah itself will show us repeatedly in the upcoming Book of BaMidbar (Numbers) that we fought constantly and drove our leader to despair, we all still have a mental image of a group that suffered, a group that walked out of Egypt bravely, a group that crossed the Sea, and a group that stood at Sinai.

In truth, it’s always more complicated. Midrash, that layer of ancient lore which fills in the human dimension of Torah, lays it out:

only one-fifth of the Israelites left Egypt; the other four-fifths died in Egypt, for they refused to believe. (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Ishmael 13.19.3)

All the more precious, then, to celebrate when we reach the other side of the sea. On this Shabbat hol hamo’ed Pesakh the terror begins our special Torah reading:

וּפַרְעֹ֖ה הִקְרִ֑יב וַיִּשְׂאוּ֩ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֨ל אֶת־עֵינֵיהֶ֜ם וְהִנֵּ֥ה מִצְרַ֣יִם ׀ נֹסֵ֣עַ אַחֲרֵיהֶ֗ם וַיִּֽירְאוּ֙ מְאֹ֔ד וַיִּצְעֲק֥וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל אֶל־יְהוָֽה׃

Pharaoh and the chariots of war drew closer and closer to the Israelite people, and it was terrifying, and we screamed out our fear (Exodus 14.10)

And after the chaos and fear, there is the silence of finding ourselves on the other side: somehow, suddenly, the din is over and it is just us. Bedraggled, but safe for the moment, on the far side of the fear we once knew. 

Then the prophet Miriam fills the silence with her famous song, teaching us in this first instance the lesson that will sustain us through all our existence as a people: there must be moments of joy.

וַתִּקַּח֩ מִרְיָ֨ם הַנְּבִיאָ֜ה אֲח֧וֹת אַהֲרֹ֛ן אֶת־הַתֹּ֖ף בְּיָדָ֑הּ וַתֵּצֶ֤אןָ כָֽל־הַנָּשִׁים֙ אַחֲרֶ֔יהָ בְּתֻפִּ֖ים וּבִמְחֹלֹֽת

Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, took the drum in her hand, and all the women followed after her with their drums, in circle dance

וַתַּ֥עַן לָהֶ֖ם מִרְיָ֑ם שִׁ֤ירוּ לַֽיהוָה֙ כִּֽי־גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה ס֥וּס וְרֹכְב֖וֹ רָמָ֥ה בַיָּֽם׃ 

Miriam shaped their response: sing gratitude and praise! our terror is drowned in the sea!

(Exodus 15.20-21)

On this Shabbat, we lift up our joy. On this Shabbat, in the face of fears past and future uncertainty, we take this sacred moment to feel gratitude for what has been, and focus on confidence in what we know we are.

On this Shabbat, may you who are hurt, wounded, unhappy after a year of plagues and so much stress, find the burden of your sorrow lightened and the veil of your fears lifted. May the Sea you have crossed, in between the pain of the past and all we are able to imagine going wrong in the future, nevertheless turn in your memory and imagination from a terrifying wall of death to a life-giving mikveh of hope. 

mo’adim l’simkha – May the Intermediate Days of the Festival bring you joy!

shabbat shalom

Rabbi Ariel

Because What Do I Know about Love

Except that we are at sea in it 

– and parched for its lack?

Let down your buckets, my dears. 

Haul up the sweet, swaying spill.

Tilt your face to the stream.

Be washed. 

Be drenched. 

Turn loose

the dripping dogs to shake themselves among you.

Flood the decks; fill the cisterns. 

Then drink, and find it fresh.

You have sailed all unknowing

into your home river.

– author unknown

We Need a Nekhemta

Spring is here – and with it, more light! We can go outside, safely distanced, and bask in sunshine. Relief for light, and the ability to see more and further, is a natural response. We are like the new growth it the spring, flowering in delight.

But after the last 9 days, with eight massacred in Atlanta and ten in Boulder by lone gunmen, and another tragedy averted, again in Atlanta, only yesterday, we might want to close our eyes, turn off the lights, and go back inside. 

Sorrow darkens these days that should be so full of hope and joy for the rising numbers of vaccinated, and the falling numbers of those infected. We want so badly for things to be all right now, with the former administration defeated in its bid for more power, and the assault on the national Capitol turned away. 

But white supremacy is not ended, and the bigotry and racism that endangers the happiness of Jews as well as that of our siblings in the Queer community, Muslims, and all people BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and of Color). There will be, has v’shalom, more tragedies in the days to come while lawmakers refuse to impose gun control.

Perhaps the reason for the popularity of books such as the Harry Potter series, Lord of the Rings, and so many more is that they reflect our true situation back at us: sometimes evil is overt, sometimes quiescent – but never truly eradicated until a great day of reckoning comes. That day always requires the heroes to overcome their differences among themselves in order to unleash their full capacity to do justice.

In Jewish tradition this teaching is transmitted on this Shabbat, the last before Pesakh. This Shabbat is Shabbat HaGadol, the “Great Shabbat,” perhaps so called because of the last lines of the special Haftarah:

הִנֵּ֤ה אָֽנֹכִי֙ שֹׁלֵ֣חַ לָכֶ֔ם אֵ֖ת אֵלִיָּ֣ה הַנָּבִ֑יא לִפְנֵ֗י בּ֚וֹא י֣וֹם יְהוָ֔ה הַגָּד֖וֹל וְהַנּוֹרָֽא׃

וְהֵשִׁ֤יב לֵב־אָבוֹת֙ עַל־בָּנִ֔ים וְלֵ֥ב בָּנִ֖ים עַל־אֲבוֹתָ֑ם פֶּן־אָב֕וֹא וְהִכֵּיתִ֥י אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ חֵֽרֶם׃

[הנה אנכי שלח לכם את אליה הנביא לפני בוא יום יהוה הגדול והנורא]

Elijah the prophet will come to us before the coming 

of that awesome, horrifying day.

Prophetic vision shall reconcile us, each to each other, 

so that, when the awful day of reckoning comes, 

we are not utterly destroyed. 

[Elijah the prophet will come to us before the coming 

of that awesome, horrifying day.]

Malakhi 3.23-24 [23]

Note that the penultimate line is repeated. It’s an ancient practice, called nekhemta, “consolation.” We are not allowed to end a message, whether from Torah, haftarah, or a sermon or other presentation, on a negative note. We have to provide a nekhemta.


Our ancestors knew far better than we how difficult it is to be a Jew, part of a marginalized, persecuted community. Two and a half years after the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue, we are only beginning to relearn what they lived with. The traditional message they might send to us is like a message in a bottle which we open up and read in the Humash this Shabbat: it will get worse before it gets better. There is no safety from what is happening.


והיא שאמדה לאבותינו שלא אחד בלבד אמד עלינו לכלותינו
It did not happen only once; in every generation there is the danger that evil will rise up and attempt to make an end of us
– The Haggadah 


What happens to some of us, happens in a very real way to all of us in this nation, because our sense of safety and well-being is assaulted even though we are not in Atlanta, nor Boulder, nor Pittsburgh – and we know that it can happen here.

Where is our nekhemta, if not in the reality of our community? We are not alone. We may not be able to erect an impervious fortress around us, but we can hold hands and let the burden of the self’s inner nightmares be shared.

Our nekhemta is in reconciling to each other, past the individualism of the 20th century and the isolation of pandemic fear. After a year of enforced separateness, we are going to need each other’s closeness and support.

I look forward to being your nekhemta, and you mine, in the days and weeks and months to come, as we campaign for sane gun laws and watch legislative madness and worry about who will be next. 

May your Pesakh celebration be meaningful despite the continued distancing; may you hold on a bit longer until we can be together again.

hazak, hazak v’nit’hazek – let us be strong and hold on to each other

…one more nekhemta: 

Orthodox Jew and folk singer Dovid Mordachai: “What the Hell Are Kitniyot?”  Not only wryly funny but very informative:

Shabbat Tetzaveh: For Want of a Tent Peg

Our parashat hashavua is Tetzaveh, from the same root as mitzvah, that is, obligation. The parashah’s name is generic: every week we are presented with mitzvot, which we are to carry out. No matter what the occasion or occurrence, there’s always a mitzvah to fulfill; this is the framework that structures Jewish life. 

The mitzvot are the details of a Jewish life, changing according to the need of the moment, and always specific to it. The building of the wilderness mishkan where we will gather to evoke the presence of HaShem is a myriad of mitzvah details: commands regarding the materials, the utensils, the objects, and the priests’ clothing. Some are hard to follow, others difficult to carry out, requiring specific expertise.

There’s a lovely little message hidden in a simple-seeming word, the Hebrew for “tent peg,” which looks like this: אדני האוהל  The word for “peg” in Hebrew looks exactly like HaShem’s name when it is spelled out. The lesson, of course, is that “G*d is in the details” – as it were, in every tent peg. This teaches that each one of us, doing the job which is ours as participants in our community, is as important, and holy, as each of the tent pegs which secured the Israelite mishkan. 

Each tent peg does its job, strengthened by the next tent peg. If one fails, all are affected; each draws strength from the next, isha el akhotah, “each woman and her sister” as the Torah puts it.

To understand this is to begin to see that which is unique about the Jewish path; even as each of us must move our own feet, yet none of us walks alone. The quality of the trust we build among each other is the true measure of the common work of the mishkan, and the beauty of the building is not in its aesthetics but its ethics.

It has only been a few weeks since we left Egypt; we’re still getting to know each other. But the most important test has already been presented, in the leap of faith presented to us at the Sea, when we began crossing over, together, despite our uncertainty about whether the sea would part and we would survive.

The faith needed for such a leap is not about where you are headed, nor about how uncertain the view ahead may be. We can never really know what will be tomorrow. All we have is what is here today. The faith we need is in each other: those with whom we leap. 

Shabbat Zakhor: Remember to Forget

The parashat hashavua is Terumah, which begins with the insistence that if we would know the holy – know peace, serenity, friendship and love – we must build a holy place in which to focus our intention:

Let Them make Me a sanctuary where I can be among them (Exodus 25.8) We cannot truly understand the impact of this verse of Torah until we understand that according to Jewish mystical insights, the words “them,” “me,” and “I” all refer to each one of us.

But what is “them” and what is “me” when we also must learn that we are all “I”, that is, we are all One? What must our shared space look like if it is to be holy? Every year Purim comes just now, to test our sense of self and challenge it, with the upending of our expectations of what is normal:

Purim invites us to set aside a time in which we completely reverse our wardrobe, which in turn reverses our identity. It is an invitation to…cross and reverse all the other dichotomies and uniforms of our lives as well. On Purim we are using clothes against themselves, to deny their power to box us in, and simultaneously to redeem us from needing redemption…

Purim…makes us wonder if there is an “authentic self” at all, or whether it is all just endless masks upon masks.

On the surface, it seems that Purim involves an escape from reality…Purim provides us with the hope that the garments we put on that seem only to mask our present realities can reveal the deep-seated consciousness of our potential for change, our ability to bring happiness and fulfillment to our lives.

 …we may ask what lies beneath a story that intimates the absence of God and meaning, and the holiday of Purim, which is about frivolity and play. Underneath the garment of the story is perhaps a glimpse of the existence of a force in the universe that can help us move beyond who we are and what our lives presently are, and enable us to become who we aspire to be.*

On this Shabbat Zakhor, which always comes just before Purim, Torah teaches us that if we are to survive, we must learn what to remember and what to forget. Shabbat Zakhor reminds us that we cannot become who we are meant to be, a holy community of Israel, until we allow the power of the Universe to move us to forget the destructive nature of the community-disrupting Amalek – which is to say to stop learning from it, stop copying it, and erase it from the future of the human story.

The great historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi in his book Zakhor (“remember”) offers the insight that we will become depends upon both what we remember and what we forget. On this Shabbat may we remember that an authentic self cannot be built on anger or reactiveness, nor on “going it alone,” but only on the truth that “them,” “me,” and “I” are all One.

We celebrate Purim next Thursday evening, February 25. Wear something that will remind you of the endless masks, and help you ask yourself what is beneath them. What do you need to remember, and what are you better off forgetting, so that you can thrive as a spiritual and communal being?

____________________

*Cohen, D. N. J. (2012). Masking and Unmasking Ourselves: Interpreting Biblical Texts on Clothing & Identity (1 edition). Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights

Shabbat Mishpatim: The Necessary Subversiveness of Delight

Be Happy, It’s Adar!

How is it possible that we can be commanded to be happy on a given day? That on the first of Adar, two weeks from Purim, we should somehow manage to be joyful? 

The more we know of life, the more we are saddened. Global communication brings news of a friend’s death, a mourner’s bereavement. The childlike delight in falling snow leaves us worried about our unhoused neighbors, threatened with death by this very same beauty. And the most common response to those who have been given the life saving COVID-19 vaccine is anger and suspicion, not joy and hope.

And here comes the subversive Jewish tradition, on this erev Shabbat Mishpatim, insisting that despite it all, we must pick ourselves up, lift up our faces, and find a way to laugh, to feel delight, nevertheless.

One of the best behavioral practices for depression is to “fake it til you make it.” Don’t feel like smiling? go to a mirror, look at your face. Tempted to give way to a frown? push the edges of your mouth up anyway. It can literally make a difference in how you feel when you act “as if” you feel.

Perhaps that’s the command: go through the motions. Although we think of this as a negative, in Jewish history it has actually been a lifesaving practice. Consider this five minute meditation: I invite you to try it as you prepare for Shabbat:

_______________________________________

Read:

We visualize life as but a means for experiencing fulfillment. We talk about things “worth living for,” yet in our superficial view of life, we fail to appreciate the most profound joy of all: life itself.  – Rabbi Hayim Shmulevitz (1902-1979)

Speak aloud:

“Mouth filled with laughter, lips with shouts of joy.”

Practice:

Step away from your busyness and savor a moment; stay with it until you can feel the joy that is available to you.

– Alan Morinis

Every Day, Holy Day: the Jewish Tradition of Mussar

________________________________________

To delight in the moment is to lift our hearts past the false gods that command us to number our days in misery. Put on the cheerful music, laugh out loud at a silly old skit on Youtube, read a poem – and know that you have acted as courageously as a human being can.

shabbat shalom

A Brief for the Defense

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving

somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.

But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.

Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not

be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not

be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women

at the fountain are laughing together between

the suffering they have known and the awfulness

in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody

in the village is very sick. There is laughter

every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,

and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.

If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,

we lessen the importance of their deprivation.

We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,

but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have

the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless

furnace of this world. To make injustice the only

measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.

If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,

we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.

We must admit there will be music despite everything.

We stand at the prow again of a small ship

anchored late at night in the tiny port

looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront

is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.

To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat

comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth

all the years of sorrow that are to come.

  • Jack Gilbert, in REFUSING HEAVEN (Knopf, 2005)

Shabbat Yitro: Seeing Requires Silence

On this Shabbat our parashat hashavua recounts the moment when our ancestors stood at the foot of Mt Sinai and underwent a transformative moment.

Many have asked what exactly we saw and heard in that moment, when the earth shook and the shofar sounded and fire lit up the mountain. On this erev Shabbat I want to ask how it was that we were able to see, and hear; in other words, not what happened to us, from some exterior force or awareness, that we were able to experience the moment, but what came from inside us?

Parashat Yitro describes the day when we arrived at the area around the foot of the mountain:

וַיִּסְע֣וּ מֵרְפִידִ֗ים וַיָּבֹ֙אוּ֙ מִדְבַּ֣ר סִינַ֔י וַֽיַּחֲנ֖וּ בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר וַיִּֽחַן־שָׁ֥ם יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל נֶ֥גֶד הָהָֽר׃

They traveled by way of Refidim and arrived in the wilderness of Sinai, and they camped there; as one, Israel was camped opposite the mountain. (Exodus 19.2)

It has been noted that the phrase “Israel was camped” is in the singular, as if all Israel were of one mind and heart. It has also wryly been noted that this is the only time in all of Jewish history when this was the case. But that doesn’t erase the significance of the lesson. six verses later “the people answered as one, saying ‘all that HaShem has spoken we will do!” (Ex.19.8)

What happened in those moments is that this famously stiff-necked and bad-tempered group all somehow were as one. 

Most commentaries on the Sinai moment wonder what was heard. The most striking answer is that we heard nothing: no thing, the pregnant moment just before every thing became potentially possible. There is an undefined, undefinable moment of silence when our fears and hopes are all stilled and we are capable of looking beyond ourselves to what might yet be.

When the Torah was given, no bird chirped, no fowl fluttered, no ox lowed, the angels did not fly, the serafim did not utter “holy holy holy,” the sea did not roar, the creatures did not speak. Then it was heard: Anokhi…” (Exodus Rabbah 29.7)

We heard nothing, and that was when we began to hear. 

This is the silence – absolute, inner and outer – out of which creation arose in the beginning. It is the same silence that is the only way we can see beyond ourselves and perhaps feel, for a moment, the unity that our ancestors knew at Sinai, when they forgot themselves and saw, and heard, as one.

Fill us as the tide rushes into the reeds in the marsh

Fill us as the rushing water overflows the pitcher

Fill us as light fills a room with its dancing.

Let the little quarrels of the bones and the snarling

of the lesser appetites and the whining of the ego cease.

Let silence still us so you may show us your shining

and we can out of that stillness rise and praise.

– Marge Piercy

On this Shabbat, consider what you can hear when you quiet your self. On this Shabbat, may you put aside all the quarrels and snarling and whining of life for just a bit, and contemplate this ancient truth: l’kha dumiyah tehilah, “to you, silence is praise.” 

Shabbat BeShalakh: Freedom to be Joyful, or Not

Finally, after 400 years of dreaming about a future that is not yet within our grasp, the time is now. All that seemed to be obstacles has fallen away; the door that leads away from enslavement to now is beckoning toward the commitment to what will be.

Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh. Trust, HaShem tells Moshe, not in what is, but in what is not yet. I will be what I will be; we will be what we are not yet. 

In our parashah, called BeShalakh, the Torah records the great Song of the Sea, chanted to a special melody, during which the congregation rises in respect and excitement at the moment of the great memory relived. 

They’ve crossed the great Sea. Pharaoh can no longer threaten them. Moses and Miriam and the Children of Israel sing and rejoice and celebrate. They have been liberated from bondage. 

They are free! All that they dreamed is now true. And now what?

Grumbling. Complaining. The Hebrew word is ַוַיִּלֹּנוּ  va’yilonu: The people grumbled against Moses: “What shall we drink”? (Exodus 15:24)

Yes. Rather than giving themselves up to celebration and gratitude, the Israelites complained. Rather than trust the vision now realized, they turned their eyes away and grumbled about sore feet, moaning over an entirely unrealistic memory of their Egyptian situation.

The whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron: “We wish HaShem had killed us in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat and ate our fill of bread. You brought us out to this wilderness to starve!” (Exodus 16:3).

In Jewish mysticism, we are taught that there are two spiritual states: mokhin d’katnut, “diminished spirit,” and mokhin d’gadlut, “expansive spirit.” Fear is a state that strangles us down to a place of diminished spirit, complaining, angry, hurt, unable to permit ourselves to hope. Curiously, it occurs not when we are beaten down by our situation, but, often, when we are standing on the threshhold of escape from all that holds us down. 

It is at that moment when we ourselves are the weight that holds ourselves down. The state of mokhin d’katnut rushes in just at the moment when we might give ourselves to joy rather than fear.

Why is the language of lovemaking so hard to learn?

Why is the body so often dumb flesh?

Why does the mind so often choose to fly away

at the moment the word waited for all one’s life 

is about to be spoken?

– Alice Walker, The Temple of My Familiar

Here is what it truly means to enter the wilderness. To leave Egypt is to leave that which is comfortingly familiar, even if it stifles growth and freedom and dreams. To leave Egypt is to walk into a wilderness which is only romantic on a bumper sticker; in real life we often see such a moment as scary and unsafe, and we do not see that it is our invitation into mokhin d’gadlut, a chance – that may not come again – to hold out our arms and embrace existence, and to sing its praises.

Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh. Trust, HaShem tells Moshe, not in what is, but in what is not yet. I will be what I will be; we will be what we are not yet. 

On this Shabbat, consider: what do you long to hear, yet run from? Can you begin to understand how it holds not only you back from the ability to trust others, and life itself – and how that holds you, and me as well, from exploring the freedom we might share to move through the wilderness in joy?

Shabbat Bo: Come, O Spring

Parashat Bo arrives at a moment that feels like the return of spring. The timing for the parashah in which we read of our redemption from slavery in Egypt, coinciding with a week in which we saw the beginning of the Biden-Harris Administration, seems singularly appropriate since Tu B’Shevat, our annual celebration of spring’s first signs, begins this coming Wednesday evening January 27. 

For “a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother” who “can dream of becoming president only to find herself reciting for one” and all of us who see reason to breath, along with the national youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman, a sigh of relief, it seems like this might be the beginning of a long denied rebirth of hope for the U.S. 

I saw with pleased recognition a poem that started making the rounds on social media yesterday. We used to read it often when we gathered for prayer, but it somehow disappeared from my collection. Now, as you can imagine, it’s back:

Sometimes

Sometimes things don’t go, after all,

from bad to worse. Some years, muscadel

faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don’t fail.

Sometimes you aim high, and all goes well.

A people sometimes will step back from war,

elect an honest person, decide they care

enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.

Some of us become what we were born for.

Sometimes our best intentions do not go

amiss; sometimes we do as we meant to.

The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow

that seemed hard frozen; may it happen for you.

(slightly adapted for gender accessibility)

I was surprised to read on a website devoted to her poetry that Sheenagh Pugh “hates” the poem: “I think most people read it wrong. When read carefully, it says sometimes things go right, but not that often, and usually only when people make some kind of effort in that direction.”

She has a point. The leaders of the previous administration and their criminal enablers did everything possible to stay in power – challenging votes and invalidating them, challenging results in court, attempting to bribe and threaten; we only saw a hopeful sunrise on January 20 because of the  incredible effort of so many, Stacey Abrams of Georgia leading them all. 

Things go right, and not that often, and usually only when people make some kind of effort. Right on cue, a propos of our parashah, Jewish tradition asks, how was it that the Israelites were able to escape Egypt? And the answer is not so different from Sheenagh Pugh’s: 

The Israelites did not deny the existence of God; they refused to give up their Hebrew names or language, or deny their Jewish identity. 

– Ephod Bad on Pesakh Haggadah, Maggid, First Fruits Declaration 19

In short, they made an effort: 

“There was a time when you were not a slave, remember that. You walked alone, full of laughter, you bathed bare-bellied. You say you have lost all recollection of it, remember . . . You say there are no words to describe this time, you say it does not exist. But remember. Make an effort to remember. Or, failing that, invent.”

― Monique Wittig, Les Guérillères

These are days when we must make an effort to remember, past the desire to relax and breathe a sigh of relief, that the evil that has risen up in our society is not vanquished because its feckless figurehead is off camera. 

Remember that in our escape from Egypt, there were moments: we thought we were safe and then we saw Pharaoh’s army chasing us. As one senior researcher at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center said to the Guardian news source: “my primary concern about this moment is the Q to JQ move”; “the Jewish question” which is the white nationalist and neo-Nazi antisemitic belief that Jews control the world.

We have to hold them both in our awareness. Remember that we were once not slaves, we walked without fear and were whole. Remember that Pharaoh cannot be trusted, and may be chasing us.

And spring, thus summoned with hope and with watchfulness, may yet come. But now it is still January.

Shabbat Va’Era: Time to Grow Up


The words of HaShem came to Moshe: “I am The Source of That Which Was, Will Be, Is – your ancestors knew me as a Sheltering Mother; they did not come to this Awareness which is now Yours.” Exodus 6.2-3
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This period of time, the week that was and the one that will be, are a time the likes of which we have not known in our lifetime: the juxtaposition of the invasion of the U.S. Capitol by an armed mob which included members of police and national guards, and the Inauguration of a new U.S. President, which will take place G*d willing in just a few days, on Wednesday January 20 2021.

The ancient Israelite awareness of HaShem here being taught to Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our teacher, is perfectly timed to invite us into reflection upon the necessary links between last week and this, and between the experience of the ancestors and that of the People of Israel led by Moshe, Miriam and Aaron.

When we are young, we know only the Source of Shaddai, the mothering, nurturing source of life symbolized by the breast, that original source of life upon which we all depended as infants. Young children, psychologically speaking, are focused upon personal physical survival before anything else.

When we are feeling threatened for our very physical survival, we too focus very narrowly. What can I depend upon? what will keep me safe above all else?

It has been noted by many commentators and scholars that the Torah sketches the birth, growth and maturation not only of some heroic (or otherwise) individuals, but also of the Jewish people. Here in the beginning of the Book of Exodus, a shift is occurring that comes precisely well-timed for us.

The end of Eden, as it were, comes when in the process of maturing, we become aware that life is not safe. And so our teacher Rashi explains how it is that HaShem can say to Moshe that the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of Genesis did not know the Name HaShem (the yud hey vav hey) when we can see it right there, in the Torah scroll, used in reference to the Ultimate in the lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah? 

I HaShem was not recognized by them as Faithful and Reliable, for I did not fulfill promises to them in their lifetimes. – Rashi to Ex 6.3

Our earliest ancestors – those who belong to all of us as the earliest examples of what it means to struggle toward a spiritual awareness beyond our full comprehension (even as life is!) – never knew a safe resting place for their lives. The fullest expression of their spiritual path was limited by their ability to mature into the knowledge that life is not safe. Life is not fair. We are not always going to be protected by El Shaddai, the breast that saved us when we were infants.

Recognizing HaShem is the difficult, life-long challenge for Moshe and his People of Israel and it is still our challenge today. To fully grasp that our spiritual path does not bring physical safety – only spiritual certainty, and only then on a good day – requires our understanding that life is a wandering in a wilderness, “a long process of maturation that has no definite end.” (Pardes, The Biography of Ancient Israel, 3)

Events in the U.S. Capitol only solidify the fearful surmise many have felt for some time: the institutions of capitalism and democracy are twisted out of the promising shape they held for our parents or grandparents when they sought refuge in this country, and reassured themselves and each other that this is the greatest country in the world for Jews and for everyone else as well. At this moment we do not know if the oligarchy that seeks to overthrow elected government will be successful in that mission.

We cannot guarantee safety, neither by prayer nor by buying a gun. All we can do is try to be as grown up as we can about the reality of our lives. The choices we make, by which we are known and defined as human beings and as Jews, should stand up under this pressure, or they are not good choices. 

We cannot guarantee safety, but we can rely upon the three pillars that keep our personal world, as a Jewish community, strong: gathering in community for learning in Torah study, gathering in community for prayer and reflection, and seeking each other’s welfare the best we can in acts of tzedakah.

The people of Israel have to learn to grow up in order to make it through the wilderness. Just as Jacob spent his life wavering between his childish Jacob behavior and that of the adult Israel, so do we as individuals and as a people. We will witness the “one step forward, two steps back” struggle of the Israelites from now through the rest of the Jewish year of Torah study. Some will be lost as others continue onward toward a future we cannot define.

This is true of those who will seek to become unidentifiable as Jews in pursuit of safety; this is true of those who turn away from any uncertainty. We felt we had been promised safety, and that promise was not fulfilled: these are difficult times! The god El Shaddai of infancy does not exist; the god HaShem of maturity is not conducive to emotional uprisings (see Korakh, the Golden Calf, et al).

The last refuge of those who do not want to grow up is to demand safety. To truly become a mature community is to recognize that one must do one’s best every day, because no one knows what will happen tomorrow – except that we will still be there for each other, offering compassion and encouragement for each other when the wilderness of our fears howls.

Hazak, hazak, v’nithazek – let us hold on, and hold on to each other

Shabbat shalom
Rabbi Ariel