Mourning becomes Dancing – Shabbat Miketz/Hanukkah 5779 (2018)

Jewish tradition assigns a specific psalm to each day of the week and to each of the holidays. The special psalm for Hanukkah, Psalm 30, includes a hint of that practice in its superscription. Mizmor shir hanukkat ha-bayit l’David – Psalm, song for the dedication of the house, for David (in Robert Alter’s elegant translation). The superscription is more than a little cryptic and problematic. The phrase mizmor l’David – a psalm for/of David – appears at the head of many psalms. Here, and only here, those words are separated from one another, and the words between them for a coherent statement of their own. This poem is to be read, then, as a ‘song for the dedication of the house.’

Bayit – house – often refers to the Temple in Jerusalem, THE house. But which one? The first Temple, while imagined and perhaps planned by David, was built by Solomon. The second Temple was built centuries later. Or is the reference to a still later dedication, perhaps the (re)dedication undertaken by the Maccabees in 164BCE?

The theme of the psalm itself deepens the dilemma. As Nahum Sarna puts it, “a straightforward reading of this psalm conveys the picture of a pious worshiper who gives thanks to God for recovery from a deadly illness.” Psalm 30 is, Sarna continues, “typical of biblical thanksgiving psalms in general.” Even more, the “genre of thanksgiving hymns (was) widespread in the ancient near eastern world.” A thank you for recovery from disease, “gratitude for deliverance” in Sarna’s fine phrase, makes for a beautiful poem. How, if at all, does it connect to Hanukkah?

 

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illuminated manuscript of the first book of Maccabees, 10th c., Leiden University Library

 

Psalm 30, read metaphorically, I suggest, is a perfect Hanukkah psalm on multiple levels. As Sarna’s sensitive reading of the poem makes clear, the psalm conjures up a public declaration of gratitude. The individual experience of healing and renewed health is affirmed and celebrated by a congregation. Recovery, let alone deliverance, is a communal occasion, not just a personal one.

Hanukkah celebrates recovery on both the historical and mythological planes. The Maccabees/Hasmoneans restore the Temple in Jerusalem to ritual purity and to its proper use. And all of that happens during the year’s darkest week. A beautiful Talmudic tale describes the first human being celebrating the return of daylight just after the winter solstice, just after mourning the disappearance of that light in the days just prior. The Temple’s restoration and the light’s return both strike me as (more than) ample rationales for celebration, private and public.

Psalm 30 also presents an image that echoes the Joseph story, parts of which serve always as the Torah reading on the Shabbat of Hanukkah. “Lord, You brought me up from Sheol, gave me life from those gone down to the Pit.” “Sheol in this context,” says Sarna, “is a metaphor for imminent mortal danger.” Joseph finds himself in a literal pit more than once, and by this week’s parasha (Miketz) he has been delivered from imminent mortal danger two or three times (at least).

Finally, there’s the matter of tears. This week (in parasha time, that is) Joseph weeps privately upon seeing his only full brother Benjamin for the first time in twenty plus years. Next week, he will shed tears openly at the moment at which he reveals himself to all of his brothers. Psalm 30, too, speaks of tears, and in an entirely upbeat way, in its most beloved phrase. Two translations of Psalm 30, verse 6, first Alter’s, then Pamela Greenberg’s.

“At evening one beds down weeping, and in the morning, glad song.”
“At night, I went to bed weeping; in the morning – a cry of joy.”

The speaker of Psalm 30 serves up the punch line, a phrase which aptly and powerfully summarizes Joseph’s story, the Hanukkah story, and the story (hopefully) of our lives. “You changed my mourning clothes to dancing, your loosened my sackcloth and covered me with joy. So that my depths might sing out to you and never be stilled, God, my Help, I will spill out gratitude to you forever.” Transformation can, and does, happen. Temples are restored, light returns, new life emerges from the pit, mourning gives way to dancing. This Hanukkah, every Hanukkah, we celebrate that much and more.

Hag Urim Sameah – A Grateful and Joy-filled Hanukkah.
Shabbat Shalom.

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Margins & Mainstream – Shabbat Vayeshev 5779 (2018)

With Hanukkah fast approaching, it must be Joseph time. Parashat Vayeshev begins the long cycle of Joseph stories which conclude the book of Genesis. We pick up the story at the moment in which Joseph – a slave purchased from Ishmaelites to whom his brothers had sold him – first arrives in Egypt. In terse, fast moving, prose, the Torah describes Joseph as one to whom “the Lord lent success to everything he undertook.” Joseph possesses the Bible’s version of the ‘Midas touch.’ Anything he touches turns to gold.

The Hebrew root that means success – tzadik, lamed, khet – also means to rush or to hurry. And Joseph is a young man in a hurry. The Torah’s rapid fire description yields that very sense of speed and ambition. Nahum Sarna notes that the author portrays multiple stages of success – ‘his master saw’, ‘he took a liking to Joseph’, ‘he made him him personal attendant’, ‘and put him in charge of his household’. Notably, the four stages involve an external, and entirely worldly, definition of success. Joseph’s master, Potiphar, recognizes Joseph’s ability and competency, and step by step, elevates his power and authority.

And yet, his very success renders him vulnerable; by the middle of the chapter Joseph finds himself in jail, subject to the whims of the ‘real’ authorities in Egypt. Perhaps ‘success’ – whatever that term really means – isn’t everything.

 

 

This brief piece of Joseph’s longer and larger story raises many questions for me. What really constitutes success? And who decides if one is successful or not? And, finally, what can we learn from Joseph’s experience about the dynamics of being an outsider? If we understand Joseph as a person on the margins attempting to break into the mainstream, what might we come to understand about the experience and feelings of ‘outsiders’ in our time and place?

For all of his achievement and success – on his own behalf and to the benefit of others – Joseph remains an outsider, a foreigner, an ‘other’. Parashat Vayeshev is our first opportunity to get inside the head and heart of this great outsider. Joseph has much to teach us.

Shabbat Shalom.

Angels in the Architecture – Shabbat Va-yeitzei 5779 (2018)

Song lyrics frequently float around my brain. This week, a verse of Paul Simon’s ‘You Can Call Me Al’ has run in a pretty constant loop. Here goes:

A man walks down the street
It’s a street in a strange world
Maybe it’s the third world
Maybe it’s his first time around
He doesn’t speak the language
He holds no currency
He is a foreign man
He is surrounded by the sound, the sound
Cattle in the marketplace
Scatterlings and orphanages

He looks around, around
He sees angels in the architecture
Spinning in infinity
He says, “Amen!” and “Hallelujah!”

A stranger, in a strange place, a foreigner who can’t communicate with the locals, notices ‘angels in the architecture’ and proclaims ‘Amen’ and ‘Hallelujah!’

former_church_house_belfast_8_-_geograph-org-uk_-_771969[Church House, Belfast, Northern Ireland]

Our ancestor Jacob, at both the front and back ends of Parashat Va-yeitzei, is that stranger. On the run in both instances, he encounters angels. The first set climbs up and down the famous ladder about which he dreams on his first night away from home, fleeing his brother Esau’s wrath. The second set await him as he leaves his father-in-law Laban’s household and heads home where he will again face his brother Esau.

'Jacob_Returning_to_Canaan'_Willem_van_Nieulandt_the_Younger,_1611,_Pushkin_Museum[Jacob Returning to Canaan by Willem van Nieulandt the Younger, 1611]

The scenes that frame Parashat Va-yeitzei are the very definition of liminal moments – times of transition from one state, or status, or mode of being, to another. Liminal moments are scary, anxiety filled. That’s why the angels show up. Jacob needs their reassurance; their presence signals that everything will be all right (which summons up a thousand other lyrics, but that’s for a different week!).

Feeling out of place is, of course, not limited to travels in the third world nor to instances of fleeing from or running toward home. To the contrary. Human experience is filled with moments of foreign-ness, and they happen even in very familiar surroundings. That, I suggest, is why Jacob’s story resonates. We all walk down ‘streets in a strange world,’ and often enough it is, or at least feels like, the ‘first time around.’ Jacob’s message? There are angels out there. And they show up – in whatever form – at the key moments. Look for them.

Shabbat Shalom.

Voices and Hands – Shabbat Toldot 5779 (2018)

Divisions abound. Red America, Blue America. The House. The Senate. Israel. Diaspora. Left. Right. Black. White. Christian. Muslim. Jew. Everywhere one looks we’re divided.

Even with some historical perspective – we (Americans, Jews, American Jews) have always, or at least often, been divided and contentious – the current divisions worry me. Today’s splits feel threatening, ready to explode in dangerous ways. In the wake of the Tree of Life massacre, it’s hard to imagine feeling otherwise. Two Shabbatot ago, some of the divisions that surround us morphed into a murderous rampage in a synagogue. Some divisions can be deadly.

Parashat Toldot brings us the birth of Esau and Jacob – Rebekah and Isaac’s twin sons. They are about as un-identical as twins can be. The Book of Jubilees, a 2nd century BCE paraphrase of the Hebrew Bible, begins their story this way: “And in the sixth week in the second year Rebekah bore two children for Isaac, Jacob and Esau. And Jacob was smooth and upright, but Esau was a fierce man and rustic and hairy. And Jacob used to dwell in the tents. And the youths grew up and Jacob learned writing, but Esau did not learn because he was a rustic man and a hunter. And he learned war, and all of his deeds were fierce.” (Jubilees 19:13-14)

In a similar vein, Philo of Alexandria (1st century BCE) presents the twins as diametrically opposed types. “Rebekah…had conceived the two warring natures of good and evil, and considering the two of them carefully – as wisdom might dictate – she perceived them to be jumping about (inside her), the first skirmishes of the war that was to go on between these contenders.” (Cain & Abel 4)

Civilized. Rustic. Writing. Hunting. Good. Evil. And, at least according to some thinkers, these opposing natures, qualities, characteristics, are eternally at war. The conflicts described in Parashat Toldot are merely “the first skirmishes.”

 

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[Judith Kotz, Tel Aviv, Israel]

The dramatic high point of Toldot takes place as Jacob, pretending to be Esau, presents a cooked meal to Isaac, in exchange for the aging patriarch’s blessing. Feeling Jacob’s arms and hearing his voice, Isaac exclaims: ha-kol kol ya’akov v’ha-yadaim y’dei esav – “The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau.” Voices and hands needn’t stand in fundamental opposition to one another. But here they do. As one teaching in Bereshit Rabbah puts it: “Jacob wields power only by his voice; Esau wields dominion only by his hands.” (Bereshit Rabbah 65:20)

Even in the moment of intense and painful division in our world and in our lives, I’d like to imagine the possibility of voices and hands aligned with one another, the possibility, that is, of peace and respect and hope and kindness across the divides. We needn’t all think alike; after all, hands can do things that voices cannot, and vice versa. Reading one as absolute evil and the other as absolute good doesn’t help. Esau and Jacob, let’s remember, were born of the same mother and father, and grew up in the same household. And by story’s end, they reconcile, forgive, and come together as one. We’re two weeks away, in parasha time, from that great reunion. But this Shabbat, in the heat and hurt of the things which divide us, know that it’s out there.

Shabbat Shalom.

Love & Comfort – Shabbat Hayyei Sarah 5779 (2018)

The longest chapter in the Book of Genesis ends with the touching moment of Isaac and Rebekah’s first meeting. Rebekah has traveled from her home in Haran, accompanied by Abraham’s (unnamed) servant, to become Isaac’s bride. The Torah describes their meeting in just a few sentences:

And Isaac went out walking in the field toward evening and, looking up, he saw camels approaching. Raising her eyes, Rebekah saw Isaac. She alighted from the camel and said to the servant, “Who is that man walking in the field toward us?” And the servant said, “That is my master.” So she took her veil and covered herself. The servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death. [Genesis 24:63-67]

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[British Museum, etching, 1801]

Isaac’s walk in the field is often understood as a meditation; it’s timing – ‘toward evening’ – connects with the daily afternoon prayer known as mincha. Rebekah sees Isaac at prayer. The sight of him overwhelms her. Rashi’s rewrite of the Midrash beautifully articulates this nuance. “She saw him majestic, and she was dumbfounded in his presence.” Aviva Zornberg detects a powerful and elemental clash in this moment. “What Rebecca sees in Isaac is the vital anguish at the heart of his prayers, a remoteness from the sunlit world of hesed that she inhabits.” The anguish of Isaac collides head on with the easy and untroubled hesed of Rebekah. Zornberg asks a powerful, and correct, question. “What dialogue is possible between two who have met in such a way?”

Yet, anguish and hesed do collide on occasion. Our current moment is such an occasion. A mere week ago, eleven murders turned the Tree of Life into a place of death and destruction. And during this past week, eleven funerals and shivas have extended that anguish for the loved ones of the victims, the beautiful Jews of Pittsburgh, and for all of us. The response to all that anguish has been overflowing hesed from every quarter and of every variety. In the face of horror, and in the presence of abiding decency and goodness, hesed and anguish can not only engage in dialogue, they can produce poetry.

 

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[Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Meeting of Isaac and Rebekah, circa 1600]

 

The last sentence of the Torah’s description of Rebekah and Isaac’s first meeting contains two verbs. They tell the whole story. “Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.” I’m not certain that time heals. I am 100% sure that love does. Overcoming his anguish and hurt, Isaac finds the ability to respond to Rebekah’s kindness with love. Comfort follows. Love others; allow yourself to be loved by others; comfort one another; find comfort. That’s the path. That’s the need of the hour. Simply that.

Shabbat Shalom.

 

Tree of Life Reflections – A Week of Funerals and Shiva

I’m simultaneously angry, sad, horrified, bewildered, furious, scared, defiant, perplexed, disheartened, confused, and clear. I can’t read another word, let alone say another thing, and, I can’t refrain from gobbling up every article and post that flashes on my screen. I refuse to watch or listen to one more news story and I am unable to turn the radio or television off. Haunted and heartened all at once.

I’m haunted by so many of the details of last Shabbat’s terrible massacre at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. I’m haunted by the fact that on Shabbat Vayera, the parasha that includes the terrifying tale of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Isaac, eleven Jews were murdered in synagogue. “Quick! Hurry to do our Creator’s will!” wrote one medieval poet, memorializing the horrors of the Crusades. “His (Isaac’s) father tied him who was offered on Mount Moriah…but we without being tied are slain for God’s love…” I’m haunted by the fact that Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words, written a mere decade after his own escape from the horrors of the Shoah, suddenly seem relevant. “There is a high cost of living to be paid by a Jew,” he wrote. “Some of us, tired of sacrifice and exertion, often wonder: Is Jewish existence worth the price? Others are overcome with panic; they are perplexed and despair of recovery.” The dark history of murderous anti-Semitism forced its way into contemporary America this past Shabbat. That’s haunting.

I’m haunted, and horrified, by the hate that has risen to the surface in our country. Hate, too, has a long and bloody history. The specifically American varieties – nativism and racism most notably – have reemerged in our time. Just days before the Tree of Life massacre, two African-Americans –  Vicki Lee Jones  and Maurice E. Stallard – were shot and killed at a Kroger Supermarket in Jeffersontown, Kentucky simply because they were black. Jews are hardly the only address. Our political leaders have done far too little to respond, and, yes, I’m being polite. It is entirely reasonable for us to expect elected officials, from the President on down, to speak unequivocally, plainly, and with moral clarity about such matters. I’m haunted, and angered, by the failure of our ‘leaders’ to exercise moral leadership. At a different moment of crisis, Heschel in a famous telegram called on President Kennedy to “declare state of moral emergency.” “The hour calls for high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity,” wrote Heschel. We’ve not seen so much as a hint of either.

 

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[Gustav Klimt “Tree of Life” 1909]

 

I’m heartened by the overwhelming outpouring of love and support seen and heard in communities all across the country. In our own little corner of America, we have extraordinary neighbors. The expression of love and commitment that many of us witnessed in our own sanctuary this past Sunday evening continues to bring me to tears. If you weren’t able to join us on Sunday, please do yourself the favor of watching it. Video of the central moment can be found here – https://vimeo.com/297642448

We Jews are decidedly not alone in America in 2018. It isn’t 1096, or 1492, or 1938. We face real dangers, of course; and we’re blessed to have allies, friends, people of good will and good hearts who are right now standing with us and for us.

I’m heartened by the resilience and determination and dignity of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community. I’ve gotten to see and hear our Steel City brothers and sisters from afar – on television, radio, social media – but many in our own community hail from Pittsburgh and have family and friends there now. The scenes and words from this week’s funerals are truly heartbreaking. They’re also poignant and inspiring. Heschel, in that same essay, observes that “a sense of contact with the ultimate dawns upon most people when their self-reliance is swept away by violent misery.” “Judaism,” he then suggests, “is the attempt to instill in us that sense as an everyday awareness.” I’m heartened to observe that ‘everyday awareness’ even at a distance. Contact with the sublime, Heschel concludes, “leads us to regard injustice as a metaphysical calamity, to sense the divine significance of human happiness, to keep slightly above the twilight of the self, ready to perceive the constant dawn in our souls.”

Last Shabbat’s murderous injustice is both a physical and ‘metaphysical calamity.’ And, miraculously, it has sparked a newfound readiness ‘to perceive the constant dawn in our souls.’ We are resilient and we are not alone. We stand in the twilight and we are able to apprehend the constant dawn. I’m haunted and I’m heartened all at the same time. The memories of these eleven of our sisters and brothers are already a blessing. So may they be for all time. 

The Inner Dynamics of Hineni – Shabbat Vayera 5779 (2018)

When Abraham responds to God’s call with the word hineni – ‘Here I am’ – he is speaking the language of humility. So claims Midrash Tanhuma, followed in turn by Rashi and Rav Kook. The Midrash surprises me. Hineni has always felt like an expression of audacity to me. The word hineni, writes contemporary Bible scholar Jon Levenson, “connotes readiness, attentiveness, responsiveness.” Chutzpah and humility strike me as antonyms, not synonyms. And yet, Rav Kook writes such things as “when (humility) is genuine, it inspires joy, courage, and inner dignity,” and “at times it is not necessary to be afraid of greatness, which inspires a person to do great things. All humility is based on such holy greatness.”

Perhaps I don’t understand the meaning of humility! It turns out that the great masters of Mussar, our tradition’s literature of ethical insight and character refinement, understand humility in a similar way. One of the traditional sources with which they illustrate the middah – attribute or character trait – of ‘anava/humility is a Talmudic teaching (Bavli Berakhot 6b) that also focuses on Abraham. “Said Rabbi Helbo, quoting Rav Huna: One who sets a specific place (makom) for his prayer, the God of Abraham will support her. When that individual dies it is said about her/him that s/he was an ‘anav – a humble person – a hasid – a saintly person – and a disciple of Abraham our Ancestor.” “How do we know,” the Talmud now asks, “that Abraham our Ancestor has a set place for prayers? From this verse (Genesis 19:27): ‘Next morning, Abraham hurried to the place (makom) where he had stood (‘amad) before the Lord.’ And ‘standing’ refers to prayer…”

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By claiming my own fixed space, I am also leaving room for others. My space is mine and not someone else’s; by the same token, that individual’s space is hers/his and not mine. “No more than my place; no less than my space.” A person of genuine humility occupies her rightful space and not one millimeter more. He is not afraid of greatness, and at the same time s/he is deeply respectful of others and of their prerogatives. Abraham our Ancestor is the paradigm, our role model in pursuit of ‘anava – humility – in our lives. May his example inspire each of us to do great things and to strive for holy greatness!

Shabbat Shalom.