The Work of Our Hands – Shabbat Tetzaveh 5779 (2019)

Ma’asei yadeinu – deeds done with our hands – are very much on my mind as Shabbat Tetzaveh approaches. I’ve spent today (Thursday) walking in Memphis, much of it at the site of the Lorraine Motel, the site of Martin Luther King’s assassination, and now the National Civil Rights Museum. In 1968, the Lorraine served Memphis’s large African American community, sitting a block off of Main Street, then the bustling central artery of a vibrant neighborhood. A half century later, signs of gentrification abound; Main Street now boasts art galleries, coffeehouses, hotels in waiting, and a number of museums, all of them dedicated to aspects of the African American experience. 

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The museum at the Lorraine tells the four hundred year story of that experience with a special emphasis on the Civil Rights movement and Dr. King’s leadership. The exhibit is exhaustive, powerful, and extraordinarily moving. Visit, if you haven’t already; it is worth the journey. In great detail, the National Civil Rights Museum makes clear that the African American struggle for equality and liberty, an effort that began with the enslavement of the first Africans in North America in 1619, has always been the work of many hands. Dr. King never operated alone. He led a movement whose workers were many; the hands of many produced the advances of the King years of 1955-1968. The famous photo of Dr. King’s aides and advisors pointing out the spot from which the bullet that killed him had come poignantly illustrates the point.

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Across the street, in a building that was once the boarding house in which James Earl Ray, King’s assassin, took a room in April of 1968, the museum’s exhibit continues. Standing by the windows that directly faced room 306 at the Lorraine Motel, I thought a lot about the work of that one man’s hands, the criminal, murderous, painfully destructive, history altering work of one man’s hands.

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We make our offerings, for good or for ill, with our hands. The Torah’s description of the ordination of Aaron and his sons as priests includes a lovely detail. The fat parts of the ram of ordination, the sacrificial offering that marks the sacred occasion, along with the animal’s right thigh, are gathered together along with “one flat loaf of bread, one cake of oil bread, and one wafer” in order to be placed “on the palms of Aaron and his sons.” The ram is presented as an elevation offering – tenufa – according to a rather precise procedure. “Take them from their hands and turn them into smoke upon the altar with the burnt offering, as a pleasing odor before the Lord; it is an offering by fire to the Lord.” A proper elevation offering requires that the offerer present the sacrifice with her/his own hands. Life changing work can’t be outsourced, an insight not unique to the Torah and Israelite religion. Witness an ancient Egyptian and a 16th century Aztec version of the same idea. 

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Literary theorist Jacques Derrida describes the work of one’s hands as a “singular and immemorial archive.”  Each of us makes a unique contribution. Every offering is singular. And every offering leaves its mark. The Psalmist’s plaintive prayer resonates still. “May the favor of the Lord, our God, be upon us; let the work of our hands (ma’asei yadeinu) prosper, O prosper the work of our hands!” [Psalms 90:17]

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Upright Writing – Shabbat Terumah 5779 (2019)

The auditorium at Temple Emanuel in New York City was filled to the brim this past Tuesday evening for a gathering of 70 Torah scrolls. The scrolls, all originally from Bohemia and Moravia in the Czech Republic, were gathered by the Nazis during the Shoah, and then warehoused near Prague. In 1964, a London based group called the Memorial Scrolls Trust became the ‘owners’ of more than 1500 Czech Holocaust Torah scrolls, and in the decades that followed, the trust placed most of the scrolls in Jewish communities around the world on permanent loan. Congregation Beth Am Israel is blessed to serve as guardian of MST #780, a 220+ year old Torah, classified as an ‘orphan’ as its community of origin is unknown. #780 participated in this week’s gathering in New York, joyfully accompanied by a full minyan of Beth Am Israel folk.

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It was extraordinarily moving to be in the presence of 70 Shoah Torahs, to see them held and carried with such love, to rise along with 700 people to honor these survivors of our people’s worst horror. Elliot Cole carried #780 with humility and with great joy. 

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‘Our’ Torah turns out to be remarkable and fascinating even beyond its Holocaust history. A sofer (Torah scribe) present at the event dates our scroll to ‘before 1800’ based on some of its lettering and the way in which the panels of parchment are sewn together. And some of that lettering reflects centuries old kabbalistic practices. In particular, our Torah’s sofer periodically drew the letter ‘peh’ in an especially beautiful way. This style of ‘peh’, known as ‘peh m’lufaf’ – a wrapped or enveloped ‘peh’ – looks like the letter ‘peh’ inside the letter ‘peh’. One passerby on Tuesday evening, a young woman who had chanted from one of the Shoah scrolls at her bat mitzvah, called it a ‘pregnant peh’. They’re all over the place in MST #780.

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Here’s a sampling from Parashat Kedoshim, Leviticus 19: 13-19. Every time I open our scroll, I find more and more beautiful and intriguing scribal flourishes. The word m’lufaf – wrapped or enveloped – strikes me as the word of the day. Each scroll in the hall on Tuesday was enveloped with love, wrapped with honor. All of it reminiscent of a beautiful midrash (Deuteronomy Rabbah 3:12) that describes the original gift of Torah presented to Moses on Sinai. Said Resh Lakish (R Shimon b Lakish): “The Torah was given to Moshe, with skin of white fire and written with black fire, sealed in fire, and wrapped with fire (m’lupefet b’eish)…” Wrapped with fire indeed. Truly the story of these Shoah scrolls.

The writing of the Torah has long been a topic of interest and speculation. The early rabbis wondered about the Torah’s ‘original’ language and its ‘original’ lettering. The Hebrew characters that have been in use for the past two thousand years are known by the rabbis as ktav ashurit – Assyrian writing. A delicious teaching (Tosefta Sanhedrin 4:7) suggests that that name conveys the ‘uprightness’ of the letters themselves. Upright = m’ushar; ashur (same letters and root) = Assyrian. Upright and, claims the Tosefta, eternal. The proof? Words from this week’s parasha. The hooks that attach to the vertical boards which form the courtyard of the mishkan (tabernacle) are called vavei ha’amudim. A vav is a hook. It’s also the sixth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, shaped liked a hook. The letters themselves, teach the rabbis, stand up straight, proud, and eternal.

Seventy Shoah Torah scrolls gathered in New York this week. Straight, proud, and eternal. They’re housed in Jewish communities of all stripes and of varying beliefs and viewpoints. The Torah – her words and letters – are the very thing that unites us. Our job is to continue to wrap and envelope Torah with love, with joy, with fire that warms and illuminates and protects.

Shabbat Shalom. 

Holy Moses on the Mountain – Shabbat Mishpatim 5779 (2019)

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of participating in a four day, largely silent, meditation and spirituality retreat. A program of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality (IJS), the retreat gathered 60 or so hazzanim and rabbanim, all of us graduates of IJS’s clergy leadership program. We IJS alumni refer to ourselves as hevraya, Aramaic for fellowship and the term used by the Zohar to describe the group of 2nd century sages who wander the Galilee in search of mystical experiences and wisdom. Our  hevraya gathers, on retreat, to meditate, do yoga, worship, eat mindfully, slow down, and wander a bit in a particularly beautiful canyon in southern California, together. It’s a powerful experience, one that I very much looked forward to joining in this year.

This year’s retreat featured non-stop rain – 6 inches over the course of 4 days to be precise – which put a bit of a damper on things. Despite the wet, I was determined to climb the canyon, part of an exercise known as a hitbodedut walk. Hitbodedut means solitude. The early Hasidim, Nahman of Bratslav most notably, promoted a solitude practice which involved walking alone in the forest in order to pour one’s heart out to God. One walked and talked to God in complete solitude. And ‘talking’ could take the form of shouting, screaming, and crying. No holds barred.

So, on the least rainy of our days on retreat, I took a walk in the canyon, talking up a storm along the way. I climbed the mountain, slowly, carefully, but with determination. About two thirds of the way up, I realized that there was no clear path down. Sliding down on my rear end for significant stretches turned out to be the best approach. I had a lot to say to God in those moments, most of it unprintable here! And did I mention that after three straight days of rain the canyon’s hillside while beautifully green was also beautifully muddy? It was the best hour and a half in a week filled with powerful experiences and profound learning.

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Moses’ mountain climbing marks the concluding passage of Parashat Mishpatim. It’s the last piece of ma’amad har Sinai – our people’s gathering at Mount Sinai. The Sefat Emet – the great 19th century Hasidic master – narrates Moses’s hitbodedut walk this way: “Now it says: ‘Come up to Me upon the mountain and be there…’ (Exodus 24:12) – this means that Moses was transformed into a new being, like one of the ministering angels. Our sages taught that he entered the cloud and was garbed in cloud, to make him like one of the angels. That is why he was there for forty days…” Making no claims on angelic status, Sefat Emet’s narrative aptly describes my scamper up and slide down that muddy mountain in California. It felt transforming, and more than a bit like stepping into a cloud. Luckily for Moses, he wasn’t at Sinai during the rainy season. And, he a clear path back down!

Shabbat Shalom.

Shekhinah & Us – Shabbat Yitro 5779 (2019)

“There are two aspects of the Sinai event: revealing the Shekhinah and giving the Torah.” So suggests Abraham Joshua Heschel in his encyclopedic magnum opus Torah Min ha-Shamayim b’Espaklaria shel ha-Dorot (Heavenly Torah As Refracted Through the Generations). The Hebrew is (somehow both) terse and poetic: Sh’tei b’hinot b’ma’aseh Sinai – Two aspects/factors/vectors/elements of the gathering of the children of Israel at Mount Sinai. Gilui Shekhinah v’Matan Torah – revelation of Shekhinah (the indwelling feminine aspect of God) and the giving (or gift) of Torah. The latter Heschel calls instruction (hora’ah); the former he titles redemption (t’shuah).

 

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[Raphael, Fresco in Apostolic Palace, Rome 1518-19]

 

In these few words, Heschel channels and summarizes an ancient rabbinic interpretive tradition. The Torah’s phrase, “The Lord came down upon Mount Sinai, on the top of the mountain” (Exodus 19:20), describes the Shekhinah, the aspect of God that keeps the Israelites company throughout their journey. As an early Midrash (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai) puts it “When Israel went down to Egypt, Shekhinah went down with them; when they encamped at the sea, Shekhinah was with them; when they came to the wilderness, Shekhinah was with them.” When they gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai, we might add, Shekhinah was with them.

Heschel’s sequence, which mirrors that of the Torah, is deeply significant. The Shekhinah embraces and envelopes the people. In later Jewish thought, Kabbalah and Hasidism most notably, the Shekhinah takes on maternal qualities and attributes. She nurtures, empathizes with, cries with, rejoices with, the people, present at every step along the way. Embrace and nurture precede instruction. One hugs one’s kids first; explicit teaching comes later.

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[Avner Moriah, Standing at Sinai]

 

So what happened at Sinai? First (and foremost!) our ancestors met the Shekhinah. They learned that they were not alone; they felt the love. Then, they received the gift of Torah, Divine wisdom and instruction. Compassion first, commandment second. As we mark the Sinai moment this Shabbat, how might we access the Shekhinah’s presence? A beautiful passage from the Zohar (2:163b) offers a lovely and compelling answer.

“Rabbi Yose, Rabbi Yehudah, and Rabbi Hiyya were traveling on the road, and Rabbi El’azar met them. As soon as they saw him, they all dismounted from their donkeys. Rabbi El’azar said, ‘Surely I have seen the face of Shekhinah! For when one sees the righteous or virtuous of the generation and meets them, they are surely the face of Shekhinah. Why are they called the face of Shekhinah? Because Shekhinah is hidden within them: She is in concealment and they are revealed, for those close to Shekhinah are called Her face. And who are they? Those with whom She adorns Herself to appear before the supernal King. Now, since you are here, surely Shekhinah is arrayed upon you, and you are Her face.’”

When we meet one another, face to face, we meet Shekhinah. Then we’re ready and able to  receive the gift of Torah.

Shabbat Shalom.

The Zigzag Path – Shabbat Beshallah/Shabbat Shira 5779 (2019)

“Whereas a cow extends its neck in a straight line, a camel curves its neck.” So remarks R Shimon b Elazar in Talmud Yerushalmi Eruvin (2:1, 20a). Strange as it sounds, camels and cows teach us something deep and important about freedom, redemption, and life. Sometimes straight lines are what we need; other times, curves work better. The categories – akumah (zigzag or curved) and peshutah (straight or direct) – come to us from rabbinic deliberations regarding carrying on Shabbat. An eruv (plural eruvin) is a public space that is marked off so that it becomes semi-private and therefore an area in which one may carry on Shabbat. In the realm of eruvin curves and straight lines matter. One is like a camel; the other like a cow.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 11th century France) borrow’s the language of Eruvin to describe the Israelite’s path out of Egypt. “God led the people roundabout” says the Torah (Exodus 13:18). Says Rashi, “God led them roundabout (taking them) from the direct/predictable route (derekh ha-peshuta) to the zigzag/circuitous route (derekh ha-‘akumah).” Redemption won’t come in an instant; no express train from Egypt to the Promised Land. This long march to freedom will consist of forty years of zigging and zagging.

Following Aviva Zornberg’s delicious insight, the curvy path will be intellectual and emotional as well as geographic. In her rich words “places of vision and faith” and “places of doubt and revision” will alternate all the way from the crossing of the Red Sea to the crossing of the Jordan River a generation and more later. Think of it as the Torah’s version of ‘two steps forward and one step back.’ We’ll eventually get there, but it won’t be quick. Camels and their curves seem better suited to such a journey than do cows and their straight lines.

 

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[Agnolo Bronzino ‘The Crossing of the Red Sea’ (1542) Palazzo Vecchio, Florence]

 

The dramatic high point of the Exodus narrative – the crossing of the Red Sea – isn’t the story’s ending. It’s just the beginning of the road, a long and winding one which truly never disappears. The road, to summon up another popular culture reference, really does go on forever. And while I’m at it, the zigzag path moves back and forth between moments of intense, shining light and instances of darkness and near blindness; it’s truly a long, strange trip.

We often encounter Parashat Beshallah on MLK Weekend. It’s a powerful and fruitful confluence. Dr. King’s famous words, part of an address to a Southern Christian Leadership Council gathering in 1967, strike me as a poignant and brilliant reflection on the zigzag path to freedom. “When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Long arc, moments of despair and darkness, lots of zigs and zags. And also, the discovery of ‘a way out of no way’ and the ever present promise of transformation. That’s the real life story of freedom, then and now.

Shabbat Shalom.

Night Moves – Shabbat Bo 5779 (2019)

“Most of one’s knowledge is acquired at night.” So writes R Moses Maimonides (Rambam), the 12th century philosopher and halakhist. (Rambam, Laws of Torah Study 3:13). Quoting a series of rabbinic teachings, Maimonides goes on to sing the praises of nighttime Torah study. “And whoever occupies herself with the study of the Torah by night – a mark of spiritual grace (hut shel hesed) distinguishes him by day.” In a similar vein, R Shimon b Lakish, the great 3rd century Talmudic sage, opines that “the moon was created only for study!” (lo ibarei sihara ela l’girsa!) (Talmud Bavli, Eruvin 65a)

Barbara Brown Taylor, celebrated Episcopal priest and author, shares a similar insight in her stunning book “Learning to Walk in the Dark” – “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.” Movingly, Reverend Taylor describes “the gift of lunar spirituality, in which the divine light available to me waxes and wanes with the season.”

What, then, is the special ‘knowledge acquired at night’? What, exactly, does ‘the gift of lunar spirituality’ contain? What do we learn from the moon, both her light and her darkness?

Parashat Bo brings to us the moment of the Exodus itself, the long anticipated departure of the children of Israel from Egypt, from Pharaoh, from slavery. They will spend 40 years, a full generation and more,  journeying toward freedom. And notably, the long march to the promised land begins with their ‘learning to walk in the dark.’

 

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Departure of the Israelites – David Roberts (1829)

 

In the middle of the night the Lord struck down all the first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sat on the throne to the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the first-born of the cattle. And Pharaoh arose in the night, with all his courtiers and all the Egyptians—because there was a loud cry in Egypt; for there was no house where there was not someone dead. He summoned Moses and Aaron in the night and said, ‘Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you! Go, worship the Lord as you said! Take also your flocks and your herds, as you said, and begone! And may you bring a blessing upon me also!’”

Elsewhere, the Torah describes the departure from Egypt as a daytime affair. In Bo, however, the great moment of redemption happens at night. As Aviva Zornberg puts it, “The night intimates a different kind of freedom, paradoxical, uncanny in many of its dimensions…To leave by day, ‘with hands high’: this is the stuff of epic. But the night is another country.” On that night, the Israelites receive the gift of lunar spirituality; on that night they acquire wisdom; on that night they come to be distinguished by a hut shel hesed – a mark of spiritual grace. “Strange how the night moves.”

Shabbat Shalom.

Mixed Together & Set Apart – Shabbat Va’era 5779 (2019)

The fourth plague perplexes me. ‘Arov in Hebrew, and translated either as ‘a mixture of wild beasts’ or as ‘swarms of mixed insects’ the affliction involves an unruly, and perhaps unnatural combining of pests – whether winged or footed – who bring ruin to Egypt’s land. Robert Alter opts for ‘the horde’ noting that “the only plausible derivation is from the verbal root that means to mix.” ‘Arov, then, is a kind of witches’ brew – an unholy cocktail of ingredients which, in combination, signals danger and leads to destruction.

In later, rabbinic, Hebrew, the same root – ayin, resh, bet – preserves that sense of danger and impropriety. Rabbinic law, built on Biblically articulated norms, identifies a number of things that ought not to be mixed with one another – wool and flax, milk and meat, permitted wine and prohibited wine – often using the term ta’arovet to describe the forbidden combinations.

The antidote to the plague of ‘arov is separation. As the Torah puts it: “on that day I will set apart the region of Goshen, where My people dwell, so that no ‘arov shall be there.” Not only land, but people as well. “And I will make a distinction between My people and your people.” [Exodus 8:18-19] The Hebrew for ‘make a distinction’ is the word p’dut which elsewhere in the Bible means ‘to ransom’, ‘to redeem’, ‘to rescue from danger’. As Alter explains verse 19, “God will grant ransom or rescue from the horde to the Israelites, and that saving act will set them apart from the afflicted Egyptians.”

 

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The Plague of Flies by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (1896-1902) The Jewish Museum, NY

 

With these expressions of separateness, this fourth plague moves from puzzling to deeply troubling for me. The narratives of the later plagues will also emphasize the physical (and spiritual?) separation of the Israelites and the Egyptians. With the affliction of ‘arov this ‘unmixing’ of the two peoples makes its first appearance. The ancient Aramaic translations, known as targumim, put quite a fine point on the phenomenon. “I will put a redemption for my people, but upon your people I will bring an affliction.”

Reflecting on the inner dynamic and specific language of this fourth plague raises complex and difficult questions for me. ‘Arov seems to contrast with commitments and attitudes that I hold dear, such things as diversity and dialogue and the dignity of all human beings. How do I make sense of the Torah’s (apparent) abhorrence of mixture and its (apparent) celebration of segregation? Alter’s translation choice, fully supportable on linguistic and narrative grounds, actually heightens my discomfort. We live in a moment in which innocent people are described by those with power and prestige as ’the horde’, an unholy mixture of people intent on bringing ruin to the land.

The first third of the book of Exodus is, of course, the story of the beginnings of a people, one that happens to be my people. In that context, a particularist focus makes good sense. The plague of ‘arov works the particularist side of the street to great effect. Still, demonizing the universal worries me. In a world overrun by the ravages of ethno-nationalism and hate, the universalist side of the street needs our attention as well.

Shabbat Shalom.