‘Solid Ground’ – Shabbat Hayyei Sarah 5780 (2019)

Hayyei Sarah brings the cycle of Abraham and Sarah stories to a close. Their story has been a frenzy of activity; constantly in motion, Abraham and Sarah left their place of birth and upbringing, traveled to a new ‘home’ and kept moving throughout the course of their lives. The Hasidic masters tag Abraham (and by extension Sarah) as a ‘walker’, one who is continuously striving and growing spiritually, ever on foot, always ‘walking’.

Hayyei Sarah’s opening passage brings us new vocabulary, offering us as readers a different model and sensibility to emulate. At Sarah’s death, Abraham seeks out ahuzat kever – a burial plot – in the place where they have lived. 19th century scholar Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that the “underlying idea of ahuzah is being settled, the act of permanent settling.” Abraham, whose “calling has been wandering”, now seeks something solid that he can hold onto, and that can hold onto him and his descendants far into the future.

 

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Hacksilver pieces of differing weights; hoard from Tel ‘Akko. (Photo by M. Eisenberg)

 

Hayyei Sarah focuses on two pieces of ‘solid ground’ – actual land (that is, real estate) and marriage (that is, long term, durable, intimate relationship). After securing a burial plot for Sarah at a price of 400 silver pieces (“not outrageous””not cheap” in the estimation of archeologist Tzilla Eshel, somewhere around $625,000 in today’s terms) Abraham deploys his servant to journey eastward in search of a partner and spouse for Isaac. At the end of a long life spent wandering, Abraham seeks a measure of certainty and permanence.

I’m moved by Abraham’s desire for ‘solid ground.’ In this moment of profound uncertainty, I deeply feel the need to grasp values and commitments that in turn have a hold on me. Perhaps you do as well. In Sarah our Mother and Abraham our Father we have blessedly enduring role models. Even in a deeply unsettling time, there is solid ground available to us. Time to take hold of it and not let go.

Shabbat Shalom.

Hospitality, then Justice – Shabbat Vayera 5780 (2019)

Nahum Sarna, the great 20th century Bible scholar, describes Genesis 18, the opening passage of Parashat Vayera as a chapter that “divides into two distinct parts.” Part one describes “the appearance of angelic visitors to Abraham” while part two details “the intended divine visitation upon Sodom and Gomorrah.” Acknowledging that “the two topics appear to be discrete”, Sarna also suggests that they are “closely interconnected”: “The first carries a message of life and posterity, the second of death and everlasting destruction. Both reveal the nobility of Abraham’s character; both disclose the workings of divine Providence”. [JPS Torah Commentary, Genesis, p. 128]

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Abraham Receiving the Three Angels, by Bartolome Esteban Murillo, 17th century

My friend and teacher, Rabbi Shai Held, sees a powerful connection between the two parts of Genesis 18. “Our covenant with God is not just about having children”, he writes; “it is also about the kind of children we have. Abraham is promised a son, but he must raise him with a passion for what is good and just. The continued flow of divine blessing depends on it”. For Rabbi Held, the key verse in the passage is this one: “For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord (derekh Adonai) by doing what is just and right, in order that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what (the Lord) has promised him” (Genesis 18:19)

That ‘way of the Lord’ consists of what exactly? Aviva Zornberg’s beautiful reading of Vayera suggests that God’s way involves a sequential prioritizing of some of our tradition’s central values. Hospitality and hesed come first, to be followed by righteousness and justice. Here’s Zornberg: “To judge the earth is to annihilate it. Mishpat (justice) is the modality that human beings can never appropriate as their own…To adhere to such standards is to destroy the world; in order to build the world, hesed, the generous perception of alternative possibilities, is necessary.” [The Beginning of Desire, p. 110]

A passion for justice devoid of a prior commitment to kindness and hospitality destroys. In contrast, a passion for mishpat rooted in and anchored by a lived commitment to hesed builds lives, communities, and the world itself. That’s way of Abraham and Sarah; that’s meant to be the learned path of their posterity; that’s derekh Adonai.

Shabbat Shalom..

 

 

Transformation! – Shabbat Lekh L’kha 5780 (2019)

Avram and Sarai model the possibility of transformation – of one’s self, of one’s path in life, of reality itself, of the world as a whole. Aviva Zornberg’s evocative essay about Lekh L’kha employs much of the powerful vocabulary of what she calls ‘the imperative of transformation.’ Transformation is about the desire to ‘become other’; it is an ‘existential condition’, a ‘quasi-autonomous urge…to create (oneself) anew’. God’s call to Avram, in Zornberg’s reading, is a seductive ‘voice urging discontinuity’, one that sets in motion ‘a kind of inner vagabondry’ suggestive of ‘freedom from the cognitive norms of (one’s) society’. [The Beginning of Desire, pp. 78-81]

Zornberg’s language echoes that of the Torah itself; the forward motion of Genesis 12 is palpable, whether read or heard it feels vigorous and dynamic. Avram and Sarai are on the go. How, one wonders, do they know that it’s time to move? And how do they know to where? R Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev’s equally evocative reading of Lekh L’kha’s opening words focuses our attention on such concerns. ‘Here is the rule,’ teaches Levi Yitzhak. ‘When you are uncertain if you should do something or not, pay attention: if you sense clarity in your thinking, in your inner awareness, then you should do thing. This is the meaning of God’s promise I will show you: this word implies clarity of awareness.’ [Kedushat Levi, R Jonathan Slater, ‘A Partner in Holiness’ p. 24]

For Levi Yitzhak (and for us?) the ‘voice urging discontinuity’ comes from within! Inner awareness, then, is the first step, the prerequisite, to real and enduring transformation. Avram and Sarai’s restlessness is less a response to external conditions than it is a growing awareness of their own inner needs and wants. How/who do I want to be in the world? No billboard or megaphone out there will broadcast the answer to that question. Seek out the ‘still, small voice.’ That’s Levi Yitzhak’s advice. ‘Clarity of awarenss’ leads to transformation.

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And transformation, in turn, brings about blessing in abundance. Second Isaiah charted the whole process a couple of millennia ago – ‘Listen to Me, you who pursue justice, You who seek the Lord: Look back to the rock from which you were hewn, to the quarry from which you were dug. Look back to Abraham your father and to Sarah who brought you forth. For he was only one person when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many’. [Isaiah 51:1-2] Go forth also means dig deep. That’s where the insight which leads to transformation is to be found. Blessing in abundance will follow.

Shabbat Shalom.

Relatable Righteousness – Shabbat Noah 5780 (2019)

Daily, I trip over one of the middle blessings of the weekday ‘Amidah.

.עַל הַצַּדִּיקִים וְעַל הַחֲסִידִים. וְעַל זִקְנֵי עַמְּךָ בֵּית יִשרָאֵל. וְעַל פְּלֵיטַת סופְרֵיהֶם. וְעַל גֵּרֵי הַצֶּדֶק. וְעָלֵינוּ

“May Your compassion, Adonai our God, flow to the righteous (tzaddikkim), the pious (hasidim), the leaders of the people Israel, the remnant of the sages, the righteous converts, (geirei ha-tzedek), and us all (‘aleinu)…”

I, as a worshipper, don’t include myself as among the righteous. Indeed, a line or two later the blessing articulates this request: וְשים חֶלְקֵנוּ עִמָּהֶם – “and may our share be among them.” The commentary in Siddur Lev Shalem puts it well: “In the shadow of these people we ask for God to turn to us as well.”

A couple of questions: If I am neither righteous nor pious, then who/what am I? Who are ‘these people’ – the righteous and the pious? Are ‘they’ people I know or are they imagined prototypes? Either way, is it possible for me to be/become more like them?

 

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[Venice, mosaic, 12th century]

 

Parashat Noah opens with a well known statement about the central character’s character.

נֹ֗חַ אִ֥ישׁ צַדִּ֛יק תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו אֶת־הָֽאֱלֹהִ֖ים הִֽתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹֽחַ׃  – “Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God.” Close readers will note that the Torah’s statement is actually three statements – 1. Noah was righteous (tzaddik); 2. Noah was blameless (tamim) in his age (b’dorotav); and 3. Noah walked with God.

Would Noah have been ‘blameless’ in another age or generation? In evaluating righteousness, how much does general environment matter? Perhaps Noah’s ability to be ‘righteous’ in a time of lawlessness means that he’d be ‘righteous’ in a less challenging environment as well. And perhaps, the Torah means to convey the precise opposite – only relative to his surroundings can Noah be described as ‘righteous’; in a time of different (higher?) standards, he’d not have measured up.

Dena Weiss makes beautiful sense of Noah’s righteousness and its intended role modeling potential for each of us. “The reason why Noah, a totally average person, is nevertheless called a tzaddik is so that we ordinary readers of the Torah will think to ourselves, ‘If that totally average person can be considered righteous, can be called a tzaddik, then so can I.’ … Noah is relatable and Noah is emulatable. The secret of Parashat Noah is that Noah is us. He is righteous in the way that we are.”

Relatable righteousness, I suggest, connects Noah and the daily Amidah. Both invite us to strive for just a bit more in our very challenging time. And both models hold out the hope of Divine grace and compassion in response to that striving. ‘May our share be among them’ indeed. Shabbat Shalom.

Oh, the Water! – Shabbat Bereshit 5780 (2019)

First there was water. Before the ‘beginning’ the ‘unformed’ earth featured ‘darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water.’ The first three days of Creation as recounted in the Torah are all about the water. And the trajectory is crystal clear. On day one — not ‘first’, simply ‘one’ — absolute unity reigns supreme. God, says Rashi, is יָחִיד בְּעוֹלָמוֹ — alone, distinct, unique, One in God’s universe. Even at the end of ‘day one’ nothing else, ‘no thing’ else that is, exists. God and an enormous mass of undifferentiated water.

Creation proceeds by a series of “binary, contrasting units” (Aviva Zornberg’s phrase) starting with heaven and earth: “darkness and light, the lower waters and the upper waters, seas and dry land, sun and moon. The act of havdalah, ‘separation’, is central.” Dividing this from that is the essential dynamic of Creation. No additional thing comes to be without havdalah.

Trace the water through the first three days. We move from ‘darkness over the surface of the deep’ to ‘Let there be an expanse in the midst of the water, that it may separate water from water’ on the second day, to ‘Let the water below the sky be gathered into one area, that the dry land may appear’ on the third day. Separation, separation, separation; division, division, division. The separations are purposeful. Zornberg states it with characteristic clarity and eloquence: Humanity “is foreshadowed by the splittings and differentiations of matter that begin on the second day.” What’s more, humanity’s “freedom to perceive and to act is founded on those primal disintegrations.”

The dividings, generative of new possibility as they are, come at a cost. “The idea of separation and difference,” writes Zornberg, “has a tragic resonance” giving rise to “alienation” and “conflict.” Beautifully, Zornberg takes note of “the yearning of the split-off parts of the cosmos for a primordial condition of unitary being.” The Midrash powerfully captures that ‘tragic resonance’ – ‘Said R Berekhiah: the upper and lower waters separated from one another with weeping.’ [Bereshit Rabbah 5:4]  (לֹא פֵּרְשׁוּ הַמַּיִם הַתַּחְתּוֹנִים מִן הָעֶלְיוֹנִים אֶלָּא בִּבְכִיָּ) Parting is such sweet sorrow; here, it sets the stage for all of Creation, and it is simultaneously cause for bitter weeping. Necessary and generative separation goes hand in hand with yearning and longing for the unity that once existed. It’s the story of humanity.

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The third day actually presents both modes – toward more division and toward newfound unity – in its first words. “God said, ‘Let the water below the sky be gathered into one area, that the dry land may appear.’ And it was so.” Water is separated from dry land and water is gathered together to form a new unified entity identified in the next verse as the sea. Think of it as the ‘two step’ of Creation. Or, if you prefer, the interplay of incoming waves and outflowing undertow. The Hebrew for ‘gathered’ is yikavu whose root – kuf, vav, heh – also means ‘hope.’  The possibility of unity – smaller than the ‘original primordial’ variety but unity nonetheless – is, remains, will ever be present, will ever be our practical, achievable hope. That, too, is the story of humanity.

Shabbat Shalom.

What’s Below? – Yom Kippur 5780 (2019)

My great grandmother, Beckie Mendelsohn, came to America in 1902, at the age of 14, from a town in Romania called Piatra Neamt. A beautiful spot, Piatra Neamt is nestled in the Carpathian Mountains, a place of deeps lakes and rolling hills. It is one of the oldest populated areas in the country, inhabited already for 10,000 years, maybe longer. The hills and lakes of northeastern Romania were formed tens of thousands of years ago by a series of volcanic eruptions. I want to tell you about one of them.

 

About 100 miles to the south of Grandma Beckie’s hometown, the Ciomadul volcano last blew its top approximately 30,000 years ago. It left behind a picturesque crater lake and a lovely landscape. Geologists, not to mention many generations of local people, have considered Ciomadul a dead volcano, extinct, its moment long passed, no danger of it ever erupting again.

 

New technology affords scientists a deeper look at the rocky crust beneath the crater of Saint Anne Lake; the result of this renewed look below the surface reveals something truly startling – somewhere between 5 and 14 cubic miles of magma still simmering far underground. As the authors of the original scientific journal article put it: “This illustrates the important longevity of a magmatic reservoir at temperature above the solidus, which implies that there is still a potential for rapid mush rejuvenation. That a seemingly dead volcano like Ciomadul is actually capable of erupting in the future calls for renewed attention to ‘inactive’ volcanoes worldwide and perhaps for a redefinition of their activity/inactivity status.”

 

If ‘rapid mush rejuvenation’ doesn’t stir your spirit, you may prefer William Faulkner’s pithier version: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

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On Rosh Hashanah I invited us to ponder מה למעלה? What’s above and beyond us?

Today, on Yom Kippur I’d like to invites to go deep and to ask ourselves: מה למטה?

What’s below the surface, beneath our feet, deep under the ground.

 

Jonah, says the Midrash, takes an underground journey while in the belly of the big fish.

[Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 10]: (Jonah) said to it (i.e. the fish), Behold, I have saved you from the mouth of Leviathan, show me what is in the sea and in the depths. It showed him the great river of the waters of the Ocean, as it is said, “The deep was round about me” (Jonah 2:5), and it showed him the paths of the Reed Sea through which Israel passed, as it is said, “The reeds were wrapped about my head” (ibid.); and it showed him the place whence the waves of the sea and its billows flow, as it is said, “All of your waves and your billows passed over me” (Jonah 2:3); and it showed him the pillars of the earth in its foundations, as it is said, “The earth with her bars for the world were by me” (Jonah 2:6); and it showed him the lowest Sheol, as it is said, “Yet have you brought up my life from destruction, O Lord, my God” (ibid.); and it showed him Gehinnom, as it is said, “Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you did hear my voice” (Jonah 2:2); and it showed him (what was) beneath the Temple of God, as it is said,”(I went down) to the bottom of the mountains” (Jonah 2:6). Hence we may learn that Jerusalem stands upon seven (hills), and he saw there the Eben Shethiyah (Foundation Stone) fixed in the depths. He saw the sons of Korah standing and praying over it. And the fish said to Jonah, Behold you stand beneath the Temple of God, pray and you will be answered.

 

Robert McFarlane’s remarkable book ‘Underland’ notes our culture’s ‘aversion to the underland’ and the ‘many reasons we tend to turn away from what lies beneath.’ ‘But now more than ever,’ he suggests, ‘we need to understand the underland…’ ‘Force yourself to see more deeply’ is McFarlane’s call to arms. His book details McFarlane’s own journeys down below; and his stories, he claims, highlight a seeming paradox: ‘that darkness might be a medium of vision, and that descent may be a movement towards revelation rather than deprivation.’

 

McFarlane’s chapter on Paris alone is worth the price of admission, with its description of catacombs and reservoirs, underground vaults and passageways, an entire ‘invisible city’ populated by different classes and groups of climbers, explorers, infiltrators. Along the way, McFarlane quotes Walter Benjamin: ‘Paris is built over a system of caverns…this great technological system of tunnels and thoroughfares interconnects with the ancient vaults, the limestone quarries, the grottoes and the catacombs which, since the early Middle Ages, have time and again been entered and traversed.’

 

Darkness = medium of vision; descent = movement towards revelation!

 

Let’s go underground, shall we?

 

1619 “In August of 1619, a ship appeared on this horizon, near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the English colony of Virginia. It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed. In the 400th anniversary of this fateful moment, it is finally time to tell our story truthfully.” The New York Times’s 1619 project “aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.”

 

Earlier this year, along a handful of BAI folk, I had the opportunity to take a trip down south. We went to explore what a congregational trip might look like and I want to share just a pair of highlights from the dozens of powerful and moving moments that we experienced together.

 

A late night walk in downtown Montgomery, AL revealed to me that Rosa Parks’ bus stop, the route of Jefferson Davis’ inaugural parade, the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church (Dr King’s pulpit in the 1950’s), and the first Confederate White House are all in one spot, literally a stone’s throw away from one another.

 

Part of our journey this winter was to Helena, AK – now site of a memorial to the victims of the Elaine Massacre, America’s very worst incident of racial violence, which took place 100 years ago this past week. The monument faces Helena’s court house and is around the corner from the town’s very beautiful, and fully restored, synagogue. If you’re not from eastern Arkansas, you’ve likely never heard of the Elaine Massacre. I certainly hadn’t. It’s part of what lies beneath our feet.

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/30/opinion/elaine-massacre-1919-arkansas.html

 

Not just events of 50 or 100 or 150 years ago. 1619 continues to echo.

 

Just last week, the NY Times reported on “a little-noticed strategy document published last month to guide law enforcement on emerging threats”.

Here’s some language from the Department of Homeland Security’s newly published “Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence”.

White supremacist violent extremism, one type of racially- and ethnically-motivated violent extremism, is one of the most potent forces driving domestic terrorism.

Kevin K. McAleenan, then acting secretary of homeland security, in a recent talk shared this: “I would like to take this opportunity to be direct and unambiguous in addressing a major issue of our time. In our modern age, the continuation of racially based violent extremism, particularly violent white supremacy, is an abhorrent affront to the nation.”

Magma of violent white supremacy still hot and still stirring below our feet…

And a bit more from the DHS report:

White supremacist violent extremists often scapegoat the Jewish people, voicing anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. On October 27, 2018, a gunman attacked Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where the Tree of Life synagogue, D’Or Hadash, and Or L’Simcha congregations were gathered, killing 11 people and wounding six, including four law enforcement personnel who responded to the scene. Before the attack, he posted messages on Gab accusing a Jewish charity that assisted refugees of bringing in “invaders” to kill “our people.” Six months later, on April 27, 2019, a gunman opened fire on a synagogue in Poway, California, killing one. The shooter published an anti-Semitic manifesto on 8chan, citing the Christchurch and Pittsburgh gunmen as inspirations, and echoing similar anti-immigrant conspiracy theories.

And it’s not just Pittsburgh and Poway. Nor is anti-Semitism solely an expression of white supremacist thinking and hate. Consider Brooklyn over the past few months where Orthodox Jewish men have been violently attacked on the street a number of times… Or Berlin just this past week where a knife wielding attacker shouting ‘God is great’ in Arabic attempted to force his way into Kabbalat Shabbat worship at the historic Masorti synagogue there…not to mention the too many off hand, seemingly casual expressions of anti-Semitism that come from political leaders both right and left.

 

One community that has faced anti-Semitic threats directly is in White Fish, Montana. Their rabbi, a good friend, is named Francine Roston. Here’s what Rabbi Roston wrote to her community last week:

There is antisemitism in the world. What are we going to do about it? I must tell you that I have many answers to this question.

1 We are going to call it out and we are going to condemn it.
2 We are not going to view every antisemitic flier, or statement of a politician, as a death-threat against the Jewish people. In other words, we are going to identify the act or statement as antisemitic, if it meets the definition, and we will either speak out about it or make sure that someone else has represented our views, condemning the act or statement.
3 When we feel endangered, we are going to seek support from law enforcement, our fellow Jews and our neighbors of all persuasions.
4 We are going to practice self-care and when we feel threatened, act first to regain a sense of security and peace.
5 We are never going to get rid of racism or antisemitism. I learned this valuable lesson from Mr. Joe Levin, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center. I heard him teach this at a talk: we will never end racism or antisemitism, but what we CAN do is change the way people respond. We can make sure that hatred is not normalized and that our communities respond in productive ways so that hatred is given no fresh ground to grow in.
6 We are NOT going to allow the antisemitic, racist actions and statements of others stop us from living our lives as proud American Jews. As Americans we have the right to gather in prayer and practice our religion in peace. As Jews we have spiritual resources to help us meet every experience life brings us. This is our New Year! Next week is the holiest day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur! We will not allow the cowardly, routine dropping of racist, antisemitic leaflets keep us from gathering as a community in prayer and celebration…

I strongly believe that the way we prevent the spread and growth of antisemitism and white supremacy is by strengthening community relationships so that there is no fertile ground for hate to take root. While there were white supremacist, antisemitic fliers dropped in Whitefish on Monday, I want you to know that the press attention brought phone, text and email messages from my Christian minister colleagues expressing their sadness, support for our community and condemnation of the hateful acts…

We are not alone. We are not in danger. We have work to do. Work of the heart and soul. Get to it! 

I read Rabbi Roston’s powerful words on Facebook where I also found some very beautiful responses to her. Here’s Deborah Lipstadt’s addendum:

Well said. Well done. And if I can add one thing to do or not to do: to let antisemitism be what defines and unites us. We are Jews not because of antisemitism. We are Jews DESPITE antisemitism. G’mar tov.

Bubbling magma not so far below the surface…

 

And, also true…

A lovely set of rabbinic stories describe a network of tunnels beneath Eretz Yisrael…rendering the ‘underland’ as a place of deepest and easiest connection [Talmud Yerushalmi, Ma’aser Sheni 5:1(56a)]:

Women of Tzippori would travel and spend Shabbat in the Temple and then be first to return to their own fig trees in the Galilee come morning.

Women of Lod would knead dough, travel to Jerusalem to pray, and be back before the dough had risen!

How? מחילות היו ונגנזו – there used to be tunnels that have become hidden.

 

And much of our history is to found underground as well. Foundations – including the ‘Kotel’ tunnels, and the new underground passageway from the Gihon spring to the Temple mount itself, just two recently excavated examples of the glory that still resides underneath.

One exits from that underground Herodian passageway at Robinson’s Arch, at the southwest corner of the Temple mount which has been excavated down to the Roman era street: there one encounters ancient market stalls evoking the Christian scriptural stories of Jesus and the moneychangers; there’s the outline of the arch itself which was a main entrance into Temple compound for generations of Jews; and a quite prominent hole in cornerstone, according to Islamic legend, the very place where Muhammad tethered his horse before beginning a night journey to the heavens. That possibility of sharing in holiness, of truly and deeply understanding and appreciating one another’s traditions and faith, that resides underground as well.

And it’s not the only treasure to be found beneath the earth.

A delicious Hasidic story:

“Reb Izik dreamed that he should journey to Prague, where he would find a great treasure.

So, he journeyed to Prague. All day long he would walk back and forth near the bridge, deep in thought, hesitant to dig, out of fear of the soldiers who guarded the bridge. Each night he would return to the inn to rest. And he did so for many, many days.

After watching for many days, one day, one of the guards called out to Reb Izik and gently asked, ‘what are you looking for, for whom are you waiting here for so many days?’ So Reb Izik told the guard his story, of his recurring dream that depicted a treasure buried in this spot, and how he had come to Prague to find it.

The guard, of course, had the opposite dream – that if he journeyed to Krakow and went to the home of R. Izik, he would find a treasure buried under R. Izik’s stove. Thinking the whole thing foolish, the guard never made the journey.

Suddenly, R. Izik knew the real purpose of his journey to Prague. Immediately, he turned around, journeyed home, searched, dug, and found the treasure in his own house. With the wealth from that treasure, Reb Izik built in Krakow a shul bearing his name, one that still stands.”

So taught the 19th century Hasidic master Reb Simcha Bunem.

“Deep waters,” teaches the Book of Proverbs (20:5), are “the counsels in a person’s heart, but a woman or man of discernment can draw them out.”

Hovot haLevavot, our tradition’s first organized Mussar book, pushes deeper:

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[‘Deep Waters’ David Munroe]

 

A third Sage said “there is wisdom which lies hidden in the hearts of the wise, like secret treasure. If they conceal it, man cannot discover it. If they reveal it, man cannot deny the correctness of their words regarding it. And this is as Scripture says ‘wisdom in the heart of man is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out’ (Prov. 20:5), i.e. wisdom is innate in a man’s being, in his nature and faculties of perception, like water that is hidden in the depths of the earth. The intelligent and understanding individual will strive to investigate what is in his potential and inward faculties in order to discover and expose this wisdom, and will draw it forth from his heart, just as one searches for water that is in the depths of the earth.”

 

The past is never dead. It isn’t even past! From the darkness of the ‘underland’ we have the opportunity to develop deeper and more focused vision. And from our descent below we have the opportunity to make a move towards revelation. We get to discover and expose the deeply hidden wisdom in our hearts and underground. So start digging; the treasure really is under your feet!

L’shana tova tikateivu v’teihateimu – לשנה טובה תכתבו ותחתמו

 

 

 

How Does the Song Go? – Kol Nidre 5780 (2019)

Let’s start with Brene Brown’s book of a few years ago ‘Daring Greatly.’ The title comes from a famous Theodore Roosevelt speech – Citizenship in a Republic – presented at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1910. Here are Roosevelt’s words:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again,

because there is not effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause;

who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly…

And here’s Dr Brown’s opening take on TR’s stirring words:

This is vulnerability. Everything I’ve learned from over a decade of research on vulnerability has taught me this exact lesson. Vulnerability is not knowing victory or defeat, it’s understanding the necessity of both; it’s engaging. It’s being all in.

And a bit more: Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with out vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection.

Tonight, I want to explore vulnerability – yours, mine, ours – with you. I want to dig into Brene Brown’s big categories with you: courage and clarity, fear and disconnection, engagement and vulnerability.

And to get at that web of emotions and values, I want to dip into words that are precious to me, words that, with their accompanying music, have kept me company for many decades. Perhaps they’ve accompanied you on your journey as well…

It’s all on the accompanying handout…

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Robert Hunter z”l – GD’s lyricist and songwriter, author and composer of many of that band’s most beloved songs.

Ripple – a vulnerability prayer. “It’s a hand-me-down, the thoughts are broken, perhaps they’re better left unsung. I don’t know, don’t really care, Let there be songs to fill the air…”

Also a prayer about yearning and engagement. “Reach out your hand if your cup is empty, if your cup be full may it be again.”

Also a prayer about wonder and mystery. “Let it be known there is a fountain that was not made by the hand of men.”

And, finally, a prayer about paradox. “You who choose to lead must follow but if you fall you fall alone; If you should stand then who’s to guide you? If I knew the way I would take you home.”

On RH I shared with you four lunar lessons. Tonight, with Robert Hunter’s help, I’d like to pose four questions for us to take on this road between the dawn and the dark of night.

what I want to know, is are you kind?

what I want to know, will you come with me?

what I want to know, where does the time go?

what I want to know, how does the song go?

Hunter’s fir kashes are all about vulnerability and engagement. The lead in to the 3rd question strikes me as especially important – ‘Like the morning sun you come and like the wind you go; ain’t no time to hate, barely time to wait, wo oh, what I want to know, where does the time go?’

How does the song go? Our lives are a song, one that we compose as we go. Bruce Chatwin’s great book The Songlines traces the aboriginal practice of walking and singing one’s one songline in an act of self discovery and coming of age. My songline is infused with a whole lot of Robert Hunter’s words.

The Wheel – choice of engagement – ‘You can’t let go and you can’t hold on. You can’t go back and you can’t stand still.’ So we are, each of us, on that wheel. I really don’t know whether Hunter ever read Heschel, but a beautiful essay of Heschel’s focused on Prayer teaches much the same about vulnerability and perspective. “We do not step out of the world when we pray; (prayer too is an act of engagement!) we merely see the world in a different setting. The self is not the hub, but the spoke of the revolving wheel. ‘Every time the wheel turn ‘round, Bound to cover just a little more ground.’ Amen!

For much the same length of time, Toni Morrison’s vivid and rich words have also kept me company. As we mark and mourn her passing two months ago, let these powerful thoughts wash over you…

Q: Do you write to figure out exactly how you feel about a subject? A: No, I know how I feel. My feelings are the result of prejudices and convictions like everybody else’s. But I am interested in the complexity, the vulnerability of an idea. It is not “this is what I believe,” because that would not be a book, just a tract. A book is “this may be what I believe, but suppose I am wrong . . . what could it be?” Or, “I don’t know what it is, but I am interested in finding out what it might mean to me, as well as to other people.”

“The idea of the place is visionary, is change, throbs with life and leans toward the edge. The idea of the place is burrowing into the heart of a theory, of a concept, casting its gaze toward the limitlessness of the universe, not merely moving toward the future but in certain instances driving it. The idea of the place despises those forces in academic institutions so fearful of independent thought, so alarmed by challenge they prefer oblivion, irrelevance, rather than shoulder the hard responsibilities of change.”

Back to Brene Brown:

“Daring greatly is not about winning or losing. It’s about courage. In a world where scarcity and shame dominate and feeling afraid has become second nature, vulnerability is subversive. Uncomfortable. It’s even a little dangerous at times.”

A lot like Yom Kippur itself, which is about courage and uncomfortable, utterly subversive vulnerability. Brene Brown invites us, though, to consider the alternative which she describes as “standing on the outside of my life looking in and wondering what it would be like if I had the courage to show up and let myself be seen.”

Show up this Yom Kippur (and every day after this YK as well) and let yourself be seen by and to yourself. It is only the women and men in the arena, who know great enthusiasms and who strive valiantly, who get to find out how the song goes. None of us knows the way; our only shot at going home is to take one another by the hand and hit the road.

Tonight’s last word belongs to Robert Hunter,  my very favorite of all of his lyrics –

‘Once in while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.’ Perhaps you’ll get shown the light in this strange place on this Kol Nidre. I very much hope so.

L’shana tova tikateivu v’teihateimu – לשנה טובה תכתבו ותחתמו


Kol Nidre 5780 (2019)

Words (and some music) by Robert Hunter z”l

Ripple

If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine

And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung

Would you hear my voice come through the music

Would you hold it near as it were your own?

It’s a hand-me-down, the thoughts are broken

Perhaps they’re better left unsung

I don’t know, don’t really care

Let there be songs to fill the air

Ripple in still water

When there is no pebble tossed

Nor wind to blow

Reach out your hand if your cup be empty

If your cup is full may it be again

Let it be known there is a fountain

That was not made by the hands of men

There is a road, no simple highway

Between the dawn and the dark of night

And if you go no one may follow

That path is for your steps alone

Ripple in still water

When there is no pebble tossed

Nor wind to blow

You who choose to lead must follow

But if you fall you fall alone

If you should stand then who’s to guide you?

If I knew the way I would take you home

 

Uncle John’s Band

Well the first days are the hardest days, don’t you worry any more,

Cause when life looks like easy street, there is danger at your door.

Think this through with me, let me know your mind,

Wo, oh, what I want to know, is are you kind?

It’s a buck dancer’s choice my friend; better take my advice.

You know all the rules by now and the fire from the ice.

Will you come with me? won’t you come with me?

Wo, oh, what I want to know, will you come with me?

Goddamn, well I declare, have you seen the like?

Their walls are built of cannonballs, their motto is “don’t tread on me”.

Come hear uncle John’s band playing to the tide,

Come with me, or go alone, he’s come to take his children home.

It’s the same story the crow told me; it’s the only one he knows.

Like the morning sun you come and like the wind you go.

Ain’t no time to hate, barely time to wait,

Wo, oh, what I want to know, where does the time go?

I live in a silver mine and I call it beggar’s tomb;

I got me a violin and I beg you call the tune,

Anybody’s choice, I can hear your voice.

Wo, oh, what I want to know, how does the song go?

Come hear uncle John’s band by the riverside,

Got some things to talk about, here beside the rising tide.

Come hear uncle John’s band playing to the tide,

Come on along, or go alone, he’s come to take his children home.

Wo, oh, what I want to know, how does the song go.

 

The Wheel (lyrics by Robert Hunter z”l)

The wheel is turning and you can’t slow down,

You can’t let go and you can’t hold on,

You can’t go back and you can’t stand still,

If the thunder don’t get you then the lightning will.

Small wheel turn by the fire and rod,

Big wheel turn by the grace of God,

Every time that wheel turn ’round,

Bound to cover just a little more ground.

The wheel is turning and you can’t slow down,

You can’t let go and you can’t hold on,

You can’t go back and you can’t stand still,

If the thunder don’t get you then the lightning will.

Won’t you try just a little bit harder,

Couldn’t you try just a little bit more?

Won’t you try just a little bit harder,

Couldn’t you try just a little bit more?

We do not step out of the world when we pray; we merely see the world in a different setting. The self is not the hub, but the spoke of the revolving wheel. [Abraham Joshua Heschel “Prayer” (1945)]

 

…and more Hunter lines:

Well, I ain’t always right but I’ve never been wrong

Seldom turns out the way it does in a song

Once in a while you get shown the light

In the strangest of places if you look at it right…

Sometimes the light’s all shinin’ on me,

Other times I can barely see.

Lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it’s been…

 

Q: Do you write to figure out exactly how you feel about a subject? A: No, I know how I feel. My feelings are the result of prejudices and convictions like everybody else’s. But I am interested in the complexity, the vulnerability of an idea. It is not “this is what I believe,” because that would not be a book, just a tract. A book is “this may be what I believe, but suppose I am wrong . . . what could it be?” Or, “I don’t know what it is, but I am interested in finding out what it might mean to me, as well as to other people.” [Toni Morrison, The Art of Fiction, No. 134, The Paris Review 128: Fall 1993]

The idea of the place is visionary, is change, throbs with life and leans toward the edge. The idea of the place is burrowing into the heart of a theory, of a concept, casting its gaze toward the limitlessness of the universe, not merely moving toward the future but in certain instances driving it. The idea of the place despises those forces in academic institutions so fearful of independent thought, so alarmed by challenge they prefer oblivion, irrelevance, rather than shoulder the hard responsibilities of change. [Toni Morrison, Princeton 250th Anniversary Convocation, October 25, 1996]

 

Wo, oh, what I want to know, how does the song go?