Keeping the Fire Burning – Shabbat ha-Gadol-Parashat Tzav 5775 (2015)

Shabbat ha-Gadol, the Great Sabbath which immediately precedes Passover, is about reconciliation. The Haftarah (prophetic reading) assigned to this Shabbat concludes with this ringing and poignant proclamation: “Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord. He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction.” [Malachi 3:23-24]

What does it mean to reconcile? How are conflicts resolved? How might ruptures and tears be repaired? The days before Pesah invite us into these questions. This moment in our lives, individually and communally, makes those questions urgent pleas, even imperatives.

A pair of teachings – one rabbinic, one Hasidic – on the opening words of Parashat Tzav (this week’s Torah reading) point toward a path of healing and wholeness. Tzav begins with a description of the burnt offering, a sacrifice that is be fully consumed by fire on the altar. And the Torah is preoccupied with that fire, thrice repeating its insistence that fire be kept burning. The Midrash connects that opening command with a surprising, and interesting, verse in Proverbs. “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers up all faults.” (Proverbs 10:12) Both love and hate look and feel like fire, the Midrash seems to suggest. Burning intensity characterizes both.

Sefat Emet – the work of the great 19th century Hasidic master R. Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger – jumps off from that binary of love and hate and offers a powerful and challenging lesson. Ultimately, the fire of love conquers the fire of hate. Along the way, however, the two engage one another in struggle. It is the mixture of them, teaches Sefat Emet, that transforms night into day. As he puts it: “the struggle in the heart of the one who serves goes on ‘all night until the morning.’”

The Sefat Emet’s word for struggle is mil’hama, the Hebrew terms for war. The inner battle needs to be undertaken daily. Which means, of course, that the darkness never goes away. Our sacred task is to take it one over and over again. There are times when that internal war feels more intense. Perhaps this is such a time. The Prophet Elijah will be invited to Seder tables around the Jewish world next week. We deeply need his message of reconciliation.

Shabbat Shalom.

Whole & Making Mistakes – Shabbat Vayikra 5775 (2015)

The opening chapters of Sefer Vayikra detail a series of sacrificial offerings in two broad categories. The first group represents free-will or voluntary gifts brought to God by an individual while the second involves obligatory offerings that result from inadvertent errors committed either by specific leaders or by the community of Israel as a whole.

Each of Leviticus’s first three chapters presents one type of voluntary offering while chapter four lays out a number of cases requiring a “sin offering” (hatat in Hebrew). The last of the voluntary offerings is known as zevah sh’lamim – a sacrifice of well-being, while the first of the obligatory cases focuses on a high priest and the community which he serves who have inadvertently erred.

The transition from the one to the other, the seam, interests me. A sense of well-being on the one side coupled with a recognition of shortcoming on the other; two seemingly opposed sensibilities with barely a break between them.

I imagine that we’ve all experienced the move from wholeness and satisfaction to the uneasy feeling that something is out of place and I hope that we’ve all experienced that same flow in the opposite direction. And certainly we can understand that addressing and correcting that which is out of place can pave the way to wholeness and peace. For me, the interesting and challenging question is whether one can feel and experience both at the same time.

Is it possible to feel shalem – whole and fulfilled – and to recognize one’s own shortcomings at the same time? I believe that we can and often do, as individuals and as members of a community. What’s most beautiful about these opening chapters of Leviticus is the awareness that conflicting emotions and mindsets actually co-exist, and the simultaneous insistence that each be acted upon in its own right. How true to life is that?!?

Shabbat Shalom

By the Numbers – Shabbat Vaykhel-Pekudei 5775 (2015)


You may recognize that number as pi. Here’s the opening line of the wikipedia article about pi – “The number π is a mathematical constant, the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, commonly approximated as 3.14159.”

This Shabbat is its day. To be more precise, on March 14, 2015 – 3/14/15 – at 9:26 (AM or PM the way we Americans tell time) and 53 seconds, we will arrive at a once in century moment when pi’s first digits come together. Don’t miss it; it won’t happen again until March 14, 2115!

This century’s “pi day” coincides with Parashat Pekudei whose first words offer up a list of numbers, numbers which describe the inventory of materials utilized in building the mishkan. What a beautiful confluence!

The Talmudic rabbis, despite their knowledge of mathematics and appreciation of its practical value, worried about the mindless use of numbers. “Blessing cannot dwell in that which is numbered or measured” they teach us. (Talmud Bavli, Taanit 8b) And yet, the mishkan, the vessel for the Divine Presence, simultaneously symbolizes the greatest possible blessing and comes about through a rather impressive amount of numbering and measuring. How to square that circle?!?

Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, the great 19th century Hasidic master, suggests that accounting and numbering for its own sake leads to bad things. “The wicked one will, in looking at something, separate it from the supernal source of the wellspring of life,” he writes. In contrast, “accounting, numbering, and measuring for a higher purpose” can bring about blessing. That, says, Levi Yitzhak, is what all the numbers at the beginning of Parashat Pekudei come to teach us. Count with purpose and you’ll be all right.

Which leads me back to pi. Without an awareness of “the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter,” our ancestors would never have been able to build the mishkan. Pi, seen as a window into the wonder and beauty of Creation leads to blessing. Not bad for a beloved mathematical constant. Happy Pi Day to us all.

Shabbat Shalom.

Tablets and Living Torah: Who Knows Two? – Shabbat Ki Tissa 5775 (2015)

“Who knows two? I know two. Two are the tablets of the covenant…”

These well known lines from the Passover Seder song Ehad mi yode’a (Who knows One?) highlight a central motif in Parshat Ki Tissa. The “tablets of the covenant,” or in Exodus, “the tablets of the Pact,” (shnei luhot ha’edut) serve as the framing device of the great saga of betrayal that lies at the heart of this week’s reading.

The people, made anxious by Moses’s absence, create a golden calf, an object that seems designed to focus their devotion, while at the very same moment, Moses, atop Sinai, is receiving the tablets from God. As Moses descends the mountain and sees the revelry in the camp with the calf of gold at its center, “he hurls the tablets from his hands and shatters them at the foot of the mountain.” (Exodus 32:19)

The moment of rupture is marked by the destruction both of the idol and of the physical symbol of God’s teaching and the Covenant which it details. It’s a stunning juxtaposition.

Stringing together a number of Rabbinic and Medieval teachings that draw on the Torah’s words, it becomes possible to understand the tablets as a potential idol, a physical item that itself runs the risk of becoming the object of veneration and devotion. How else to understand the claim of the Talmud that God approved of Moses’ destructive act, so much so that God grants Moses a yasher koach?!? (Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 87a)

The tablets, despite their Divine origins, are in the end just a thing, an item that can be replaced, as the carving of a new set of tablets by Moses toward the end of the parashah makes eminently clear. And in that light, I suggest, we can understand two intriguing teachings, one Talmudic and one more modern, both of which have simultaneously charmed and perplexed me.

On the basis of a verse in the book of Samuel (2 Samuel 6:2) which describes the arrival of the Ark in the City of David, the Talmud proclaims that “the tablets and the fragments of the tables were deposited in the ark.” (Talmud Bavli, Bava Batra 14b) Why the fragments? To remind us that while the tablets contain and convey God’s words, they are not themselves God. The words, the ideas, the precepts, last forever. Tablets, in contrast, can be shattered.

Moses Mendelssohn, the great early modern Jewish philosopher, charmingly captures a similar idea. These words appear in Mendelssohn’s book Jerusalem published in 1783. “We teach and instruct one another only through writings; we learn to know nature and man only from writings. We work and relax, edify and amuse ourselves through overmuch writing. The preacher does not converse with his congregation; he reads or declaims to it a written treatise. The professor reads his written lectures from the chair. Everything is dead letter; the spirit of living conversation has vanished.”

Torah, from the very beginning, means to be a living conversation, not a dead letter. Which leads me to a question. Who knows two?

Shabbat Shalom

Purim for Adults…

Purim for Adults…

Purim and kids go together. Think carnivals and costumes, special sweets and silly songs. The focus of many of my favorite childhood memories, Purim seems designed to delight and entertain Jewish children. Often lost in the boisterous bustle of our Purim celebrations is a series of rather adult themes and messages that come to us primarily from the Book of Esther. Esther may read like farce, but a deeper hearing of its utterly improbable story puts us in touch with some very big issues, questions of concern for our ancestors two thousand plus years ago which happen still to be serious concerns for us today.

First (and perhaps foremost) Esther is a diaspora story, a tale that examines the dynamics of life as a minority in the midst of a much larger non-Jewish population. How connected to the larger culture should a Jewish minority seek to be? How separate? How cautious should Jews be about revealing their Jewishness in public? Is it safe to be “out?” Is it dangerous? Our ancestors, perhaps beginning with the Jews of ancient Persia, faced those very questions, and Jewish communities around the world and across the centuries have continually faced them. And, we face them in our contemporary diaspora Jewish lives as well.

In the person of Haman, the Book of Esther raises up the very real and truly terrifying specter of murderous anti-Semitism. Haman’s claim – presented in his words to King Ahasuerus – serves up the classic statement of violent anti-Semitism: “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them…” [Esther 3:8] A certain people…whose laws are different…and who do not obey. We know that story all too well from too much of Jewish history and, alas, we hear that story again in our time in too many places around the world.

The Book of Esther and the traditions of Purim which grew from it raise significant questions about the very adult project of shaping and communicating one’s identity. Esther herself is the star player in this saga of identity revealed and hidden. Who is Esther really? She is introduced to us by two names – Esther and Hadassah – without any indication of which (if any) is her “real” name and which is an add on. And when she enters the king’s court as one of many beautiful young women vying to become queen, Mordecai warns her to conceal her “true” identity. “Esther did not reveal her people or her kindred, for Mordecai had told her not to reveal it.” [Esther 2:10] Her precise relationship with Mordecai is so unclear that the Talmudic rabbis entertain the possibility that they are in fact married to one another! The example of Esther’s shifting and shaded identity invites us as readers to consider our own identities. Who are we, really? And in what ways do we mask our deeper selves with costumes of all shapes and sizes?

Famously, God does not appear in the Book of Esther. The narrative is entirely secular, a court intrigue filled with colorful, if cartoonish, characters, but devoid of a Divine Presence. Readers over the centuries have been prompted to ask where God is in this story? The Talmudic rabbis connected Esther’s name with a theological idea, derived from the Torah in which God, in anger, hides the Divine face. “Where is Esther indicated in the Torah? R. Matan answered: “Then I will indeed hide My face (haster astir) on that day…” [Bavli Hullin 139b] God’s disappearance, at least from the foreground of the story, raises important dilemmas. How do we operate when God can no longer be seen or felt or directly experienced? How do we know we’re on the right track? How do we figure out what God might want from us?

Finally, the Book of Esther opens up the tantalizing question of determining one’s central purpose in life in general and in each specific moment and circumstance. The turning point of the book’s narrative arrives in the form of Mordecai’s ringing directive to Esther: “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace. On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.”  Mordecai’s words motivate Esther to own her true identity and spur her to act. The rest is “history.” Read in personal terms, Mordecai’s challenge to each of us might go something like this – What am I doing here? What is my larger purpose? And am I prepared to step up? No farce here!

Tonight we party. Come morning, the enduring and deep themes of Purim will still be with us. Perhaps that reality helps to explain the perplexing comment with which Maimonides concludes the section on the laws and practices of Purim in his Mishneh Torah. “All Prophetic Books and the Sacred Writings will cease (to be recited in public) during the messianic era except the Book of Esther. It will continue to exist just like the Five Books of the Torah and the laws of the Oral Torah that will never cease. Although ancient troubles will be remembered no longer, as it is written: ‘The troubles of the past are forgotten and hidden from my eyes’ (Isaiah 65:16), the days of Purim will not be abolished, as it is written: ‘These days of Purim shall never be repealed among the Jews, and the memory of them shall never cease from their descendants.’ (Esther 9:28)”

Earlier troubles fade from memory. The really big questions last forever.

Purim Sameah!