People, Get Ready! – Shabbat Mishpatim/Shekalim/Rosh Hodesh Adar 5781(2021)

Shabbat Shekalim (plural of shekel) marks the beginning of spring on our calendar. Adar is here, which means that Nisan and Pesah are right around the corner. People get ready!

Preparation commences with the announcement of a levy, a per capita tax described in the special Torah reading for Shabbat Shekalim.

“This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall pay: a half-shekel by the sanctuary weight—twenty gerahs to the shekel—a half-shekel as an offering to the LORD.” [Exodus 30:13] The Hebrew for ‘sanctuary weight’ is the phrase shekel ha-kodesh, literally ‘sacred or holy shekel’.

In Biblical times, a shekel was a weight or measure. By late antiquity, coins were called shekalim. So, what makes a coin, a shekel, holy?

My teacher and mentor, Rabbi Gordon Tucker, cites a famous passage in the Mishnah in articulating his answer to that question.

“When a person stamps coins with a single seal they all appear identical to one another. But the supreme Sovereign of sovereigns of sovereigns, the Blessed Holy One, stamped all people with the seal that was given to Adam, and not one of them is similar to another”. [Mishhan Sanhedrin 4:5]  

Here are Rabbi Tucker’s words: “What this mishnah testifies to is that in late antiquity, there was a Jewish cultural meme that we are, metaphorically, God’s coins, stamped with the image of the divine.” Pushing it a bit farther, “later tradition understood the physical coin given to the Temple to be a metonym (a surrogate) for the human giving it, an act that signified devotion to the One whose Temple it was, and whose image was stamped on each person.”

We, you and I, are the coin, and our gift to God’s sanctuary represents our ‘devotion to the One whose Temple it was.’ The actual ask of Shabbat Shekalim, then, is ‘give yourself’!

The Piaseczner Rav – R Kalonymous Kalman Shapira (1889-1943) – pushes the idea still farther.

“Moses our teacher was perplexed: How is it possible to offer atonement for our souls [with the donation of a physical coin]?  Don’t we need to give our souls over [to God]?  [Can we achieve repentance and reunion with God at the cost of half a shekel?]  Coins have no inherent value.  Coins only possess [monetary] value because human beings pursue them.” The Piaseczner then quotes a powerful and perplexing teaching found in the Talmud of the Land of Israel (Shekalim 1:6]: ‘Rabbi Meir taught: God manifested the likeness of a fiery coin from underneath the Throne of Glory.  God showed it to Moses and said to him: ‘This they shall give.’ (Exodus 30:13). The likeness of this they shall give.’

That burning coin is the human soul, yours and mine. And it is that fire – our passion, our desire, our aspiration – that we are asked to invest with and in divine and sacred purpose. As my teacher, Rabbi Yael Saidoff, beautifully puts it: “God asked for the shekel coins, not because God wants our money, but because God wants the burning passion we attach to such objects… The fire around the shekel coin symbolizes Israel’s passion and devotion.”

Shabbat Shekalim is here; Adar, too! Nisan and Pesah can’t be too far off. People, get ready!

Shabbat Shalom. Hodesh Tov.

Standing at Sinai in the Midst of a Pandemic – Two Poems and a Midrash – Shabbat Yitro 5781 (2021)

כֻּלָּם כְּבָר הָלְכוּ אֶל הָהָר וּמְחַכִּים 

,מְחַכִּים לִרְאוֹת, בְּשֶׁקֶט רַב מְחַכִּים 

שֶׁלֹּא כְּמִנְהָגָם גַּם הַחֲמוֹרִים, גַּם הַגְּמַלִּים 

בַּשֶּׁקֶט הַזֶּה צִפּוֹר לֹא צִיְּצָה 

,גַּם יְלָדִים עַל כִּתְפֵי אֲבוֹתֵיהֶם 

וְהַשֶּׁקֶט רַב מִנְּשׂא כְּמוֹ לִפְנֵי דָּבָר 

נוֹרָא וְגָדוֹל וַאֲנִי עוֹד רָצִיתִי 

לְהַסְפִּיק וְלִתְלוֹת אֶת הַכְּבָסִים 

לַעֲשׂוֹת זְמַן לְעַצְמִי לְתַקֵּן רֵיחוֹתַי 

וְחִמַּמְתִּי אֶת הֶחָלָב לַתִּינוֹק, שֶׁלֹּא יִרְעַב 

שֶׁלֹּא יִבְכֶּה חָלִילָה, בָּרֶגַע הַלֹּא 

מַתְאִים, כַּמָּה זְמַן עַד כְּלוֹת. הַצִּפִּיָּה 

.שֶׁתִּתְיַבֵּשׁ הַכְּבִיסָה וְהַתִּינוֹק מָה 

אִישׁ לֹא יָדַע וַאֲנִי רָאִיתִי שֶׁרוּחַ קַלָּה, כְּמוֹ נְשִׁימָתוֹ שֶׁל אִישׁ יָשֵׁן, עָבְרָה 

בַּכְּבָסִים וְנִפְּחָה כְּרֵסָהּ 

שֶׁל כֻּתָּנְתִּי וּמַפַּת הַשַּׁבָּת 

הָיְתָה מִפְרָשׂ לָבָן בְּאֶמְצַע הַמִּדְבָּר 

וְיָצָאנוּ מִשָּׁם עַל הַתְּכֵלֶת 

הַרְחֵק לַמָּקוֹם בּוֹ

נִפְרֹט רִמּוֹנִים וְנֹאכַל עֲסִיסָם 

לַמָּקוֹם בּוֹ 

לָאַהֲבָה 

.שֵׁם מְפֹרָשׁ

חוה פנחס-כהן ״שם מפרש״ 

They’ve all gone to the mountain to wait
to wait and see, most quietly they wait,
against their nature even donkeys, even camels
in this quiet a bird did not chirp
even children on their father’s shoulders,
the quiet too much to bear as if before a matter
so awesome and great but I still wished
to finish hanging the laundry
to make time for myself, to refresh my aroma
and I warmed the baby’s milk, lest he be hungry,
lest he cry, perish the thought, at an improper
moment, how much longer till it ends. The expectation
that the laundry will dry and the baby, what.
No one knew
but I saw a light wind, like the breath of a person asleep, pass through the laundry and inflate the middle
of my shirt and the Sabbath tablecloth
was a white sail in the middle of the wilderness
and we went from there on azure
far to the place where 

we’ll open pomegranates and devour their juice 

to the place where
love has
a manifest name. 

— Hava Pinhas-Cohen ‘A Manifest Name’ [translation, David C Jacobson] 

————————————————————————————————————

אָמַר רַבִּי אַבָּהוּ בְּשֵׁם רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן, כְּשֶׁנָּתַן הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוְּ הוּא אֶת הַתּוֹרָה, צִפּוֹר לֹא צָוַח, עוֹף לֹא פָּרַח, שׁוֹר לֹא גָּעָה, אוֹפַנִּים לֹא עָפוּ, שְׂרָפִים לֹא אָמְרוּ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ, הַיָּם לֹא נִזְדַּעֲזָע, הַבְּרִיּוֹת לֹא דִּבְּרוּ, אֶלָּא הָעוֹלָם שׁוֹתֵק וּמַחֲרִישׁ, וְיָצָא הַקּוֹל: אָנֹכִי ה’ אֱלֹהֶיָך…כְּשֶׁדִּבֵּר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוְּך הוּא עַל הַר סִינַי, הִשְׁתִּיק כָּל הָעוֹלָם, כְּדֵי שֶׁיֵּדְעוּ הַבְּרִיּוֹת שֶׁאֵין חוּץ מִמֶּנּוּ, וְאָמַר: אָנֹכִי ה’ אֱלֹהֶיך

[שמות רבה, כ״ט: ט] 

When the Holy One of Blessing gave the Torah no bird chirped (tzavah), no fowl flew, no ox lowed, Ophanim did not fly, Seraphim did not say “Holy, Holy,” the sea did not move, people did not speak. The world was completely quiet and still and the voice of God, “I am the Lord your God” went out…(God) quieted the whole world so that all creatures would know that no one but God said, “I am the Lord your God.”

[Midrash Shemot Rabbah 29:9] 

——————————————————————————————————-

[El Greco ‘View of Mount Sinai’ 1571]

————————————————-

יְעִירוּנִי בְשִׁמְךָ רַעֲיוֹנָי\וְיָשִימוּ חֲסָדֶיךָ לְפָנָי

הֱבִינוּנִי דְבַר נֶפֶש יְצַרְתָּהּ\ קְשׁוּרָה בִי וְהִיא נִפְלָאת בְּעֵינָי

וְלִבִּי רָאֲךָ וַיַּאֲמֵן בָּךְ\ כְּאִלּוּ מָעֳמָד הָיָה בְּסִינָי

דְּרַשְתִּיךָ בְחֶזְיוֹנַי וְעָבַר\ כְּבוֹדְךָ בִּי וְיָרַד בַּעֲנָנָי

הֱקִימוּנִי שְׂעִפַּי מִיְּצוּעַי\ לְבָרֵךְ שֵׁם כּבוֹדֶךָ אֲדֹנָי.

— יהודה הלוי

My meditations on Your name aroused me, / They set before my face Your acts of love, 

Revealed to me the soul that You created / Bound to me, yet past my understanding.

My heart beheld You and was sure of You, / As if I stood myself at Sinai mountain.
I sought You in my dreams; Your glory passed / Before my face, on clouds descending, landing. 

My thoughts awakened me to rise from bed, / To bless Your glorious name, O Lord, commanding. 

— Yehudah haLevi [translation, Raymond Scheindlin]

Knowing, but Not Quite – Shabbat Beshallah 5781 (2021)

In seeking to make sense of the crossing of the Red Sea and the Israelites’ songful response to it, the Piaseczner Rebbe (R Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, 1889-1943) offers up a meditation on the nature of knowledge itself. ‘Not only within Kabbalah,’ he writes, ‘but even with a straightforward reading of the Torah, we feel something profound that we can’t quite explain to ourselves. What are we feeling? But the taste of joy and light remains with us!’ In good Hasidic and mystical fashion, he adds, “although YHVH has revealed the secret to them, it remains a secret to them because they themselves don’t really understand what it is that they are experiencing.”

As one who is often slow to understand just what it is that I am experiencing in any given moment, I find both comfort and curiosity in the Piaseczner’s words. I know what it’s like to ‘feel something profound that I can’t quite explain to myself.’ And so I do imagine that that’s precisely the experience of our ancestors upon crossing the sea. Something big and important just happened to us, but what exactly was it? What does it mean, and what am I feeling in this profound moment? As the Piaseczner restates his basic idea: ‘When we sense something, but don’t comprehend what it is, we simply feel abiding joy and light.’

To ‘simply feel abiding joy and light’ may just be what is meant by the phrase ‘to be blessed.’ Contemporary poet Alicia Suskin Ostriker puts it together this way:

The Blessing of the Old Woman, The Tulip, and The Dog

To be blessed
said the old woman
is to live and work
so hard
God's love
washes right through you
like milk through a cow

To be blessed
said the dark red tulip
is to knock their eyes out
with the slug of lust
implied by
your up-ended
skirt

To be blessed 
said the dog
is to have a pinch
of God
inside you
and all the other
dogs can smell it

The Piaseczner’s younger contemporary, fellow Warsaw native, and fellow heir to a Hasidic dynasty, Abraham Joshua Heschel expresses the same idea in the language of faith:

Authentic faith is more than an echo of a tradition. It is a creative situation, an event. For God is not always silent, and man is not always blind. In every man’s life there are moments when there is a lifting of the veil at the horizon of the known, opening a sight of the eternal. Each of us has at least once in his life experienced the momentous reality of God. Each of us has once caught a glimpse of the beauty, peace and power that flow through the souls of those who are devoted to Him. But such experiences or inspiration are rare events. To some people they are like shooting stars, passing unremembered. In others they kindle a light that is never quenched. The remembrance of that experience and the loyalty to the response of that moment are the forces sustain our faith. In this sense, faith is faithfulness, loyalty to an event, loyalty to our response. [Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man is Not Alone]

This Shabbat we remember the experience of the sea splitting, of walking through it on dry ground, of making the journey from slavery to freedom. This Shabbat we join with our ancestors in their joyful and songful response of that moment. Those acts of loyalty are, precisely, the forces that sustain our faith, whether we know it or not.

Shabbat Shalom.

Learning from the Darkness – Shabbat Bo 5781 (2021)

We generally think of darkness as a bad thing, associating it with evil and struggle and suffering. But what if darkness isn’t altogether bad? What if darkness has something to teach us?

Barbara Brown Taylor, Episcopal Priest, writer and scholar, offers this provocative assessment: “I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light” (Learning to Walk in the Dark: p. 5).

The dramatic denouement of the Exodus story takes place, almost entirely, in the dark. Aviva Zornberg notes that the last three plagues all happen in the dark – locusts obliterate the sky; darkness itself, first born killed in the middle of the night. She titles the Exodus story the ‘Narrative of the Night’ and reminds us that the actual moment of the Israelites’ liberation happens ‘around midnight’. Freedom happens in the dark.

The Torah’s narrative certainly needs darkness as much as it needs light. Perhaps we do too.

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהוָ֜ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה נְטֵ֤ה יָֽדְךָ֙ עַל־הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וִ֥יהִי חֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־אֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם וְיָמֵ֖שׁ חֹֽשֶׁךְ׃

וַיֵּ֥ט מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶת־יָד֖וֹ עַל־הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם וַיְהִ֧י חֹֽשֶׁךְ־אֲפֵלָ֛ה בְּכָל־אֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם שְׁלֹ֥שֶׁת יָמִֽים׃

לֹֽא־רָא֞וּ אִ֣ישׁ אֶת־אָחִ֗יו וְלֹא־קָ֛מוּ אִ֥ישׁ מִתַּחְתָּ֖יו שְׁלֹ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֑ים וּֽלְכָל־בְּנֵ֧י יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל הָ֥יָה א֖וֹר בְּמוֹשְׁבֹתָֽם׃

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Hold out your arm toward the sky that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched.” Moses held out his arm toward the sky and thick darkness was upon all the land of Egypt for three days. People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings. [Exodus 10:21-23]

The ancient rabbis take apart the Bible’s description of the plague of darkness line by line. They have a lot of questions.

‘a darkness that can be touched’ – how thick was it? This darkness had actual tactile substance. You could touch it, feel it, hold it in your hands. Thick as a coin, say the rabbis.

How long did it last? – 3 days or maybe 7 days; and during that time one who was seated couldn’t stand up, one who was standing couldn’t sit, one who was crouching couldn’t straighten her/himself. A darkness that froze people in place; that literally stopped time.

This quality of darkness feels especially resonant to me in this past year, having long ago lost track of what day it is at any given moment; it’s still March isn’t it?

‘thick darkness’ – where did it come from? Two possibilities: above or below. Below makes a certain kind of sense – from Gehinom says R Nehemiah. But R Judah says it comes from above, and he quotes a most amazing verse from Psalm 18 to prove it.

יָ֤שֶׁת חֹ֨שֶׁךְ ׀ סִתְר֗וֹ סְבִֽיבוֹתָ֥יו סֻכָּת֑וֹ חֶשְׁכַת־מַ֝֗יִם עָבֵ֥י שְׁחָקִֽים׃

“God made darkness a screen; dark thunderheads, dense clouds of the sky were God’s pavilion round about.” [Psalm 18:12]

What is to be learned from the darkness of the 9th plague? Lessons that light wouldn’t or couldn’t have taught us? Things that might save our lives?

A whole bunch of things, I think. Darkness isn’t just the absence of light; it’s a feeling, a quality that one actually holds and touches. And it comes from more than one place – maybe from down below (Gehinom), maybe from within, and maybe from above which means that somehow, somewhere, someway, God is in the darkness, present and protecting us even when and where there is no light. And, darkness paralyzes us, disabling us from being able to move, grow, change, even to see one another.

That last lesson I believe provides the way out, the path to liberation. Seeing one another is the antidote, the solution, the paving stones on the route to redemption. To become free people, the Israelites have to see one another, which is to say, they have to become the light!

The great Maya Angelou, in a brief reflection on her own work as a poet, gives powerful expression to that idea: “When I’m writing, I am trying to find out who I am, who we are, what we’re capable of, how we feel, how we lose and stand up, and go on from darkness into darkness.” 

This past year has been a time of darkness in our lives, in our world, perhaps in our hearts. But that darkness has been an extraordinary teacher, helping us to discern who we are and what we’re capable of – we’re resilient and determined it turns out; creative, kind, caring and compassionate too. We’re able to ‘lose and stand up’ and keep on going ‘from darkness into darkness’. Light wouldn’t have taught us any of that. And those learnings have and will continue to save our lives. Our ancestors’ great and dramatic dash to freedom is a move from darkness into darkness. And only slowly, and after a good long time, into light. It works because they choose to BE the light that ventures into the darkness. We have to BE the light – for ourselves, for one another, for our community, for our country, for the world. We have to BE the light.

This week began with the 35th observance of Martin Luther King Day and included our country’s 59th Presidential Inauguration. It’s been quite an extraordinary week. Dr King’s famous words, first spoken in a sermon 60+ years ago, resonate and inspire this January: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

And finally, Reverend Dr Howard Thurman – a mentor and teacher of Dr King’s – offers a prayer that feels right for this moment in our lives, our world, our country:

Lord, open unto me
Open unto me – light for my darkness.
Open unto me – courage for my fear.
Open unto me – hope for my despair.
Open unto me – peace for my turmoil.
Open unto me – joy for my sorrow.
Open unto me — strength for my weakness.
Open unto me – wisdom for my confusion.
Open unto me – forgiveness for my sins.
Open unto me – love for my hates.
Open unto me – thy Self for my self.
Lord, Lord, open unto me!

Amen.

And Shabbat Shalom.

Climb Every Mountain – Shabbat Toldot 5781 (2020)

Sing along if you know it!

The bear went over the mountain (3x), And what do you think she saw?

She saw another mountain (3x), And what do you think she did?

She climbed the other mountain (3x), And what do you think she saw?

She saw another mountain (3x), And so on and so on…

A teaching of the Piaseczner Rabbi (Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, Warsaw, 1889-1943) summoned up that childhood lyric for me this week. Writing about the need for preparation in the performance of mitzvot, the Piaseczner offers a parable:

“A person climbs a tall mountain. Do we only say that she went up the mountain when she arrives at the peak? (No!) We can say (she went up the mountain) with each and every step she takes. Even when she is only halfway up the mountain, she has already ascended the mountain, above all the people who are (still standing) at ground-level. If the mountain were not so high, she would have already reached the peak. You could say that she has already ascended the mountain, but now she has further to go on a second mountain, which is found above the mountain she has already scaled.” (translation, Rabbi Yael Saidoff) 

[Michal Parzuchowski]

Just as each step of climbing a mountain is climbing the mountain itself, so too each element of preparation for performing a mitzvah is itself a mitzvah, as long as one focuses one’s energy on that mitzvah at each step along the way. With the ‘right’ awareness, the first step is itself a complete journey, even as it leads to the next step and the next, and so on and so on…Indeed, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” 

[Paul Gaugin ‘Tahitian Mountains’ (1893)]

For the Piaseczner, our Ancestor Isaac is the great exemplar of this kind of spiritual awareness. Isaac, whose adult story is told in Parashat Toldot, journeys along the same path already traveled by his father Abraham. He’s the second batter making his way around the same bases already traversed by the lead off hitter! And Isaac’s son Jacob will undertake some of the same travels in the next generation. All of the matriarchs and patriarchs, and especially Rebekah and Isaac, climb mountains, aware that their ascent – significant and sacred in its own right – is also a lead up to the next ascent and eventually to an ultimate ascent.

Keep climbing! One holy step at a time. One of these days, we may actually get ‘there’!

Shabbat Shalom.  

Troubled Thoughts – Shabbat Lekh L’kha 5781 (2020)

In this week of painful anniversaries and equally painful local and national happenings, I’ve had an old Paul Simon lyric echoing in my head and heart. 

And I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered

I don’t have a friend who feels at ease

I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered

or driven to its knees…

A lifetime ago, Simon’s ‘American Tune’ captured a moment that he called ‘the age’s most uncertain hour.’ Today his words feel prescient and fresh. 

The ancient rabbis had a word for that kind of uncertainty and feeling of unease. Hirhurim – qualms or troubled thoughts – is the word employed by the Midrash to describe our ancestor Abraham at a number of critical moments in his life’s journey. In his troubled state, Abraham asks questions, hard and deep and fundamental questions, mainly of God. Where are we headed? What does it all mean? How do I remain faithful and hopeful through the present, exhausting turmoil? 

Ephraim Moses Lilien, ‘Abraham’ (1908)

We of battered souls and shattered dreams have many of the same kinds of questions in this age’s most uncertain hour. 

Beautifully and poetically, Aviva Zornberg expands our understanding of hirhurim, “a term that expresses the imaginative, passionate level of consciousness” with which Abraham is credited. Hirhurim connotes “vagueness, the inchoate dream state that precedes gestation.” It is “a heated, fluid state in which many things are implicit” but not yet “crystallized.” 

One Midrash (Tanhuma, Lekh L’kha 2) describes Abraham (and us I think) as one who “sewed the whole world together in the presence of God” AND as “a person who tears apart and sews together.” Sewing together, tearing apart, sewing together, over and over again. That’s the state of consciousness that the rabbis call hirhurim. That’s us in the autumn of 2020. 

This week’s anniversaries – of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 and the Tree of Life massacre in 2018 – summon up all of those hard questions and more. Have we overcome our internal divisions and sinat hinam (gratuitous hatred) or are we just as divided and hate filled in 2020 as we were a quarter of century ago? Have we done enough to protect ourselves, our places of worship, our communities in the two years since that terrible Shabbat morning in Pittsburgh? Have we made progress in rooting out violent anti-Semitism from American society and life? Where are we headed? How do we remain hopeful through the turmoil?

 

Rembrant van Rijn, “Abraham Entertaining the Angels” (1646)

The current turmoil only magnifies the “anarchic range of consciousness” (Zornberg again) that is hirhurim. The continuing and worsening pandemic, the looming election, and the tragic police shooting and protests and looting that have followed in our city all serve to deepen and amplify our shared unease and troubled thoughts. ‘Most uncertain hour’ indeed.

Where is hope to be found? Zornberg’s unpacking of the image of sewing, tearing, sewing again yields a spectacular insight. “In the current generated between the two poles of ‘rending and rendering one’ there is intensified life!” On these painful anniversaries, and in the midst of our current turmoil we reside precisely, if uncomfortably, between those very poles. Much like our ancestor Abraham, we “desire to reintegrate (our) own world with God.” May we, following his example, come to deeper “understand and resolution” which might open the way to the uncovering of “further mysteries” and more and more “invitations to love.” 

As a popular saying has it: “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass…It’s about learning to dance in the rain.”

Shabbat Shalom.

Beloved is Humanity – Shabbat Noah 5781 (2020)

“Beloved are human beings, in that they were created in the Image (b’tzelem) (of God).” So begins a well-known teaching from Pirkei Avot, shared in Rabbi Akiva’s name. So far, so good. Now things get ‘complicated by an opaque follow-up’ to borrow my teacher Rabbi Gordon Tucker’s words.  

“Even more beloved, in that it was made known to them that they had been created in the Image (of God), as it is said: ‘For in the divine image did God create humankind’ (Genesis 9:6).” Tucker’s solution? “The knowledge of this essential aspect of ourselves is something we are meant to live up to, and thus to be accountable to.” 

So, God created us (and all human beings) in the divine image which makes us (and all human beings) beloved. Plus, since we’re aware that we’ve been created in the divine image, we are even more beloved, and even more accountable for our actions. 

Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel, detail

Yair Lorberbaum, Israeli law professor and scholar, puts the pieces together beautifully in his groundbreaking book “In God’s Image”. 

“R Akiva’s observation is as much concerned with God’s love for humanity and the reason for that love, as it is with the beloved status of human beings. According to this analysis, not only is man beloved by God; he is, or should be, beloved by his fellow man, for all human beings resemble one another: all of them are made from the same stamp.”

Perhaps Bob Marley said it best: “One Love, One Heart, let’s get together and feel alright.” Shabbat Shalom.

Back to the Garden – Shabbat B’reishit 5781 (2020)

Shabbat Breishit is here (!) and with it an invitation to us to ‘step into’ the Garden of Eden. Real place? Mythic locale? Symbol? 

The Zohar stands squarely in the symbol and myth camp. “’A river issues from Eden to water the garden’ (Genesis 2:10)….That river flowing forth is called the world that is coming – coming constantly and never ceasing. This is delight of the righteous, to attain this world that is coming, constantly watering the garden and never ceasing.” [Zohar (Idra Zuta) 3:290b, translation Daniel Matt] 

My teacher, Melila Hellner-Eshed, suggests that the river symbolizes (among other things) ‘the dynamic state of reality’, ‘quest’, and ‘unceasing human creativity’, while the garden is ‘human consciousness’. The garden of Eden and its rivers (there are four of them) then, can be wherever we happen to be. 

And yet, the temptation to locate and depict Eden has been long with us as the images below attest. Enjoy this year’s visit to the garden!

Shabbat Shalom.

Jan Breughel & Peter Paul Rubens, ‘Garden of Eden’, 1615

map by Pierre Mortier, 1700
Adi Holzer, ‘The Garden of Eden’, 2012

mosaic in  mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, 5th century

Biblia, das ist, die gantze Heilige Schrifft Deudsch [Wittenberg: Hans Lufft, 1536] British Library

World map from Beatus of Liebana, In Apocalypsin [Monastry of san Domingo de Silos, 1109] British Library

Tied Together – Shmini Atzeret/Simchat Torah 5781 (2020)

I spend a fair amount of time worrying about ‘the Jewish people’ — ‘our’ (dis)unity, ‘our’ (dis)connectedness, ‘our’ (un)shared destiny. And my worry meter has been in the red for a while now. Among the things that divide us, politics looms largest (and loudest) in the current moment. It’s been painful, bewildering, and disheartening to watch and to experience. 

I’m far from the first rabbi to worry out loud about the ‘oneness’ of the people of Israel. The ancient rabbis hit upon a number of beautiful metaphors with which they offered their pleas for Jewish unity. “‘Israel are as scattered sheep’ says the prophet Jeremiah, and just as a ewe feels pain in all parts of its body when one part is hurt, so does all Israel feel it when one Jew is hurt.” [Mekhilta d’Rabbi Shimon b Yohai, Yitro, Exodus 19:6]. 

Or, when all the tribes of Israel ‘form one unified group (aguda ahat)’ then God reigns fully on earth and in heaven. “A parable: A man brought two ships, tied them to anchor and iron weights, stationed them in the middle of the sea, and built a palace upon them. As long as the two ships are tied to each other, the palace stands firm. Once the ships are separated, the palace cannot stand.” [Sifre Devarim #346]

And, famously, as well as seasonally fitting, the four species that constitute the luvav and etrog each symbolize a different sort of Jew. One has Torah and good deeds; one has Torah and lacks good deeds; one lacks Torah and has good deeds; one lacks both Torah and good deeds. “When they are connected to one another as one unified group, they can atone for one another. And if they do that, then I (God) am exalted.” [Midrash Vayikra Rabbah 30:12]

Nearly 90 years ago, another challenging and tumultuous time, R Abraham Isaac Kook offered us similarly heartfelt pleas for Jewish togetherness. “Let us be known by the general name of the people of Israel, not by the name of a party or a camp. Let us know that in each camp there is much to be mended, and much light and good that one can receive from the other.” And “lay aside anger, learn to look at each other, party to party, with the eyes of compassionate brothers cast together into great trouble, willing to unite for one sacred goal: the common good, its dignity and sacred service…”

Novelist Marilynn Robinson, writing in today’s New York Times about American (dis)unity, captures the emotion underneath Rav Kook’s words. “Deeper, though, is a feeling like a love of family, a hope that whoever by whatever accident or choice falls under the definition of family will thrive and will experience even a difficult life as a blessing because his or her worth is a fact without conditions.” That’s the stuff of our unity as a people. We’re deeply in need of a serious dose of it right about now. 

Shabbat Shalom & Hag Sameah!

Sukkot 5781 (2020) — Spread the Sukkah of Wholeness

Sefat Emet, the 19th century Hasidic master, asks a beautiful question. “Why should Israel be selected among all creatures to be God’s own possession?” Working off of the multiple meanings of the Hebrew word pores (peh, resh, samekh) he goes to offer a powerful claim about the festival of Sukkot and the meaning of the sukkah in which we’ll dwell for the next week. 

“God,” he writes, “is wholeness itself. Why then did God choose a fragment of something? Scripture answers: ‘I dwell with the lowly and those of humble spirit” (Isaiah 57:15). The Zohar adds that a person with a broken heart is indeed whole. This in fact is to be said in God’s praise: wherever God dwells there is wholeness; God make a whole out of the half.” 

The people of Israel are the fragment, the half, of which the Sefat Emet speaks; a (small) portion of all of humanity, all of which is created in God’s image. Why would God choose us, then, to be God’s people? Here comes our teacher’s quite moving answer: 

“This is the real meaning of ‘who spreads a sukkah of peace’ (words from the evening prayer service). The inner point that is everywhere is wholeness; Israel represents this among God’s creatures. On Sukkot seventy bullocks are offered for the seventy nations. The water libation (an ancient Sukkot observance) is also interpreted by the Talmud to mean that Israel should pray for God’s kingdom to spread over all Creation!” 

My teacher, Rabbi Art Green, explains that “the point is that Israel are chosen to serve God for the sake of all humanity and all Creation. If they think only of their own good and their own needs, they are like the faithless servant, the one concerned only with reward.” 

We’ve made it through Yom Kippur together and, though broken-hearted, in one piece. Time now to set our sights on “the survival and maintenance of all existence.” (Green, again). Time, in other words, for us to join with God in spreading the divine sukkah of peace over the world. 

Shabbat Shalom & Hag Sameah!