What is the ‘fiery furnace’ really? – more on Lekh L’kha 5778 (2017)

We’re now three weeks into the new Torah reading cycle and I already deeply appreciate year two of the triennial cycle. Year two readings occupy the middle sections of each parasha, often where the heart of the matter resides. This year, this week, I find myself taken by Genesis 15 which offers up a wonderfully different angle on Abram/Abraham. Throughout Lekh L’kha, Abram acts. He journeys from his home to Canaan, he walks the Land upon his arrival, he travels to Egypt and encounters the Pharaoh there, he settles disputes peacefully, he fights and wins military battles, he takes on domestic turmoil in his own household, and he enters into more than one covenant with God the last of which calls upon him to circumcise himself and all the males of his clan. By the end of this action packed parasha, Abram has become Abraham, the ‘father of many nations,’ as the Torah puts it.

Genesis 15 has a different feel from the chapters that surround it, and the Abram of this middle narrative presents a different face to us as readers. The confident patriarch, wanderer, and warrior of most of Lekh L’kha is, here, a worried and inward looking soul searcher. As opposed to the sagas that surround it, the tale told in Genesis 15 takes place at night, an apt moment, in my experience at least, for fear and anxiety. One midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 44:5, Theodor-Albeck, pp. 428-429, Aviva Zornberg, translation) frames the whole episode inside of Abram’s qualms (hirhurim).

“And it was after these things” (Genesis 15:1): after the hirhurim, the troubled thoughts that ensued. Who was troubled? Abraham questioned God, ‘Master of the Universe, You made a covenant with Noah that You would never destroy his children. Then I came along and pleased You better, so that my relation with You overrode his. Perhaps someone else will come along and please You better than me, so that his relation with You overrides mine?’

Abram worries about his own expendability. As I write these words, I realize that I worry about the same thing. I suspect we all do. Abram craves, we crave, durable connection and long term relationship, something that human beings need in order to thrive. The possibility of its absence keeps Abram up at night. God’s response intrigues me.

God  replied, ‘Among Noah’s children there are no righteous people who intercede for others, but among yours there will be.’

God’s message to Abram and to us is that if you want long term commitment from others you have to demonstrate it first. The Hebrew for ‘righteous people who intercede for others’ is m’ginim shel tzaddikim which is usefully and suggestively ambiguous. It could mean ‘righteous people who defend others,’ and it could also mean ‘people who defend the righteous’. People, in other words, whose commitment to righteousness and justice, and to others who practice righteousness and do justice, is long term, reliable, durable. And that life posture, suggests our Midrash, is transmitted across generations. Abraham’s children and grandchildren, indeed all of his descendants, will follow his example. Talk about long term commitment.

In the darkness of Genesis 15, God reminds Abraham not only of his future and his legacy, but also of his origins. “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to assign this land to you as a possession.” (verse 7) You came from someplace else, says God, and I lifted you from that place and transported you to this new moment, opening, opportunity. One of the Targumim (Pseudo-Jonathan) preserves an ancient tradition in translating our verse. ‘Ur of the Chaldeans’ – ur kasdim in Hebrew – is read as the fiery furnace of the Kasdai. God carries Abram not from a specific place but rather from a state of mind, a personal status. We know the image of the fiery furnace from elsewhere in the Bible. It’s an enclosed space, a deathtrap, a place of searing pain and agonizing death. God’s redemptive act carries Abram from slavery to freedom, from agonizing pain to unending possibility, from the fiery furnace to the fertile fields of the Promised Land and to the fatherhood of a new people. It’s quite a transformation!

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(Ephraim Moses Lilien, ‘Abraham Contemplates the Stars’, 1908)

I’ve been thinking about my own fiery furnaces – the spaces and aspects of my life that confine, frighten, terrify, and burn. I’ve been thinking too about the grandeur of the night sky and the impossibility of counting the stars. One of God’s promises to Abram in Genesis 15 goes like this: “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your offspring be.” And I’ve been thinking, finally, about my personal ‘promised land.’ Abram’s inner journey follows that trajectory. My inner journey, and yours, proceeds according to a similar itinerary. Without this interior quest and transformation, the more visible, outer journey – both Abram’s and ours –  can’t happen. With it, well, the sky’s the limit!

Shabbat Shalom.

 

 

From Fiery Furnace to Founder – Shabbat Lekh L’kha 5778 (2017)

The Abram of Parashat Lekh L’kha is a doer, an initiator who hits the road, encounters world leaders, engages in battle, settles large tracts of land, accumulates great wealth, settles domestic disputes, and enters into a series of agreements (or covenants) with neighbors, relatives, and God. And all of that before God changes his name to the more familiar Abraham! Who is this Biblical action hero? Where does he come from? And what motivates his relentless activity?

Tucked away amid the activism of Lekh L’kha, the Torah describes a nighttime encounter between Abram and God, a moment of worry and introspection for Abram, an opportunity for support and reassurance for God. The exchange begins with divine words: “Fear not, Abram, I am a shield to you; Your reward shall be very great.” Abram, it seems, has a whole lot on his mind. Perhaps he’s afraid that his enemies will seek revenge after the just concluded hostilities described in the previous chapter of Genesis. Perhaps he’s concerned about the absence of an heir, as the Torah indeed spells out in the coming lines. Perhaps, as one midrash suggests, Abram fears that God will override the covenant just entered into in favor of a new agreement with a new, and more attractive, partner. Abram, like all of us, worries about the past, the present and the future, about his deeds, his standing, and his self worth, all at the same time.

One of God’s strategies for alleviating Abram’s anxiety is to remind him of his origins. “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to assign this land to you as a possession.” The language is reminiscent of the opening of the Ten Commandments – “I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt…” Slavery in Egypt, then, equals Ur of the Chaldeans. What happened in Ur? An ancient tradition understands Ur not as a place name but as a noun which means fire. One of the Aramaic translations of Genesis (Targum [Pseudo-] Jonathan) reads Ur Kasdim as the fiery furnace of the Kasdai. God, in other words, saved Abram from a raging fire and brought him to a new moment, an opportunity to build and expand and grow.

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[“The Three Hebrews in the Fiery Furnace”Catacombs of Priscilla, Rome, 3rd/4th c.]

The Targum’s transformation of Ur from the realm of geography to that of religious experience is, in turn, reminiscent of another famous Biblical story. Daniel’s three companions and colleagues, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, stand accused (by Chaldeans no less!) of insubordination, having failed to bow down to a brand new, and very impressive, golden statue of King Nebuchadnezzar. As punishment, the king orders the three bound and tossed into a fiery furnace heated up to seven times its normal temperature. Miraculously, they emerge unharmed, prompting Nebuchadnezzar to proclaim the greatness of “the Most High God” – “How great are God’s signs; how mighty God’s wonders! God’s kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and God’s dominion endures throughout the generations.” (Daniel 3)

God, then, lifted Abram from the fiery furnace – real or metaphorical – and set him on a new course. That path will take Abram to a new land and to encounters with a whole new cast of characters, or, at the very least, to new kinds of encounters with the people around him. Abram’s inner life – his steadfastness and faith – charts and determines that course far more than do his actions, heroic though they may be. His miraculous escape from the fiery furnace teaches Abram that he’s not alone, and that his achievements are not his alone. Like all of us, he depends on ‘the kindness of strangers’ and God’s limitless hesed. Propelled by the awareness of the universe’s fundamental goodness, and outfitted with a new, more universalistic, name, Abraham is now prepared for the tests, struggles and challenges to come. His journey will take him from the fiery furnace to the founding of a people and the forging of a new tradition. That’s the legacy we inherit.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rainbow Connections – Shabbat Noah 5778 (2017)

“Why are there so many songs about rainbows? And what is on the other side?” Kermit the Frog’s contribution to an age old inquiry has been popping up on my internal screen of late. Rainbows grab our attention and capture our imagination. If ancient literature and art is any indication, they always have.

The great flood story that constitutes Parashat Noah concludes with the appearance of a rainbow whose significance is spelled out by the Torah. “This is the sign that I set for the covenant between Me and you, and every living creature with you, for all ages to come. I have set My bow in the clouds, and it shall serve as a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow appears in the clouds, I will remember My covenant between Me and you and every living creature among all flesh, so that the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh…” The rainbow stands for God’s promise, ‘the covenant between Me and you’, not to repeat the deluge that wiped out all of humanity in Noah’s time.

That promise, says the Torah, is everlasting. But rainbows are ephemeral. They only appear in very specific circumstances and they don’t last. That’s their charm and also, I suspect, the reason that the rainbow continues to serve as such a potent and inspiring symbol. So what is this thing called a rainbow, and what does it teach us?

Let’s start with science. Here’s the beginning of the wikipedia article called ‘Rainbow.’ “A rainbow is a meteorological phenomenon that is caused by reflection, refraction and dispersion of light in water droplets resulting in a spectrum of light appearing in the sky. It takes the form of a multicolored circular arc. Rainbows caused by sunlight always appear in the section of sky directly opposite the sun.” And here’s the really fun part about our ‘meteorological phenomenon’ – “A rainbow is not located at a specific distance from the observer, but comes from an optical illusion caused by any water droplets viewed from a certain angle relative to a light source. Thus, a rainbow is not an object and cannot be physically approached. Indeed, it is impossible for an observer to see a rainbow from water droplets at any angle other than the customary one of 42 degrees from the direction opposite the light source.” Of course it’s 42 degrees! (That’s a nod to the Douglas Adams fans out there.) So, a rainbow is an optical illusion, not an object that can be touched or held. No wonder there are so many songs about rainbows; or at least so many interpretations and understandings of its symbolism.

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(John Constable, Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadow 1831)

To the prophet Ezekiel, the rainbow represent the actual Divine Presence, God Himself/Herself. His stunning vision of the Holy One ends on this note: “Like the appearance of the bow which shines in the clouds on a day of rain, such was the appearance of the surrounding radiance. That was the appearance of the semblance of the Presence of the Lord. When I beheld it, I flung myself down on my face.” (Ezekiel 1:28) The rabbis also saw magic and mystery in rainbows. The rainbow of the flood story, teaches Pirkei Avot, was one of ten things created at the very end of the sixth day, at dusk on the eve of the very first Shabbat. It’s of the created world but not exactly; part of nature and, at the same time, beyond it.

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(Peter Paul Rubens, Landscape with a Rainbow 1638)

The rainbow’s dual status gives rise to many interpretations. It symbolizes peace, operating as a reversed bow whose arrows are no longer aimed toward earth. It symbolizes harmony, pulling together the seven colors of the light spectrum (Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain!). It symbolizes the diversity of humanity along with our underlying unity having all come from the same source. In Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s rich phrase, ‘the dignity of difference.’ And it symbolizes covenant, the enduring connection between God and humanity, among people of different backgrounds and dispositions, between all of us and the earth that sustains us.

So let’s conclude with a blessing, the berakha assigned by our tradition upon seeing a rainbow.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ אֶלוֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם זוֹכֵר הַבְּרִית וְנֶאֱמָן בִּבְרִיתוֹ וְקַיָם בְּמַאֲמָרוֹ

Baruch ata Ado-nai Elo-heinu melekh ha’olam zokheir ha’brit v’ne’eman b’v’rito v’kayam b’ma’amaro.

Praised are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who remembers the covenant, is faithful to God’s covenant, and upholds the Divine word.

Amen

Longing for the Land – Sh’mini Atzeret 5778 (2017)

This year it hit me in the middle of Ne’ilah (the final worship service of Yom Kippur). The theme of gates – of light, blessing and joy, of kindness, forgiveness and peace as the Mahzor puts it – summoned up the gates of Jerusalem for me. A set of readings shared with the congregation made the connection explicit.

 

And then, unplanned, our shul’s Hazzan began to sing the opening words of Yerushalayim shel Zahav – ‘the mountain air, cool as wine and the scent of pines; carried on the breeze of twilight with the sounds of bells; in the slumber of tree and stone captured in her dream; the city sits in solitude a wall at her heart…’ At that moment, magically, I was there, or, our sanctuary in suburban Philadelphia became Jerusalem.

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The prayers concluded, the shofar was sounded, we went to break-fast, slept in the next morning, life resumed. The moment was gone but the longing remains, splashing into the busy days of Sukkot. Our lulav and etrog places the produce of the Land of Israel in my hands each day of the week long holiday. And our sukkah is filled with reminders of Israel – posters and flags, plastic pomegranates and cheap tin hamsas – lots of opportunity to yearn for the Land and her people, our people, my people.

 

This year, my longing has a new quality, a ferocity and an urgency that I don’t remembering feeling before. Our oldest son made aliyah at the end of 2016 and he began his army service a bit more than six months ago. This is his first holiday cycle spent in Israel, the first time that we haven’t seated our whole family in our sukkah. I miss him. And even though he serves in a non-combat unit, I worry about him. Nomi and I are deeply, overwhelmingly proud of him. I wish we could be together in Israel this Sukkot, traveling the Land and enjoying its produce in many forms. That desire is a significant part of my yearning this year.

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Quite a few of the special prayers for Sukkot, especially the many piyyutim (liturgical poems) written specifically for these days, feature images of the Temple, Jerusalem, and the Land of Israel. One poem, the work of a medieval German rabbi and scholar named Elazar ben Yehuda, captures my longing in an especially lovely way. It’s an alphabetical acrostic meant for the evening service on Sh’mini Atzeret. Here are a few of Rabbi Elazar’s moving lines.

 

“I pray for your well-being (shalom) beloved Jerusalem / glorious things are spoken of you, within you are decked with love / joyous is the flute played for five or six days at the water drawing ceremony / where the knowledge of the Holy Spirit is drawn out from the great command / behold as the musician played with verve at Your royal abode / and you shall be called, ‘Desired, A City No Longer Forsaken.'”

 

Evoking Biblical language, Rabbi Elazar describes celebratory song and dance taking place in every nook and cranny of the Holy City. “Every courtyard in Jerusalem is illuminated by the joy in the Holy Place!” Rabbi Elazar was a mystic and a Talmudist, an heir to the pietistic tradition of 11th and 12th century German Jewry. He also never saw the earthly Jerusalem, or any other part of the Land of Israel for that matter. It existed in his mind’s eye, in his heart, in his soul. And, as this and other poems of his makes clear, he powerfully longed to walk along Jerusalem’s pathways and to sing and dance in her courtyards.

 

I yearn for the same, and also for Tel Aviv’s beaches and cafes, and the Negev’s dunes and wadis, and the Galilee’s green hills and deep valleys, and the warmth, gusto, and spirit of Israel’s people. The scents and sounds of Sukkot heighten my longing for the Land every year; this year I’m feeling it bad. Rabbi Elazar’s last line combines two well known phrases from the Psalms. Sha’alu sh’lom yerushalayim, shalom ‘al yisrael.  “Pray for the well-being of Jerusalem, may there be peace over Israel.” So may it be.

 

Hag Sameah!

 

 

 

 

More on Truth – Sukkot 5778 (2017)

Flip through the opening pages of any traditional siddur and you will encounter a rapid fire series of didactic statements and motivational quotations, designed, apparently, to focus the worshipper’s attention on the essential purposes and deeper goals of prayer. Prominent among these snippets is a citation from a relatively late midrashic compilation (Tanna d’Bei Eliyahu 19) that advises one about to pray to “acknowledge truth and to speak truth in one’s heart.” (modeh al ha-emet v’doveir emet bi’l’vavo). What do these two phrases mean to teach us?

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The first clause – modeh ‘al ha-emet “acknowledge truth” – first appears in a teaching in Pirkei Avot (5:7). Shiva d’varim ba’golem v’shiva be’haham – Seven qualities characterize an unformed person (golem) and seven characterize a person of wisdom…the wise individual “acknowledges the truth.” Avot d’Rabbi Natan, an early companion volume to Pirkei Avot, adds that one ought not be embarrassed or ashamed to acknowledge truth.

Maimonides spells out the concept in much greater detail. In the introduction to his Commentary to the Mishnah, citing the Talmudic example of Hillel and Shammai, he explains that “when these great men…saw that the opinions of him who argues with them are more correct than their own and that his deliberations are better, they would change to his viewpoint. All the more so should other people, when seeing the truth in the argument of their opponent, turn to it (i.e. accept it) without being stubborn…It is concerning this matter that the Sages stated, ‘acknowledge the truth,’ meaning that even if you could save face with sophisticated counterarguments, if you know that your opponent’s viewpoint is the truth, although your argument may be clearer due to his weakness in expressing himself, or because of your ability in argumentation, withdraw to his viewpoint and abandon the fight.”

Rabbenu Yonah Gerondi (Commentary to Avot 5:7) pushes the concept a half step farther.  In the precise situation described by Maimonides, R. Yonah adds one should “not be concerned with victory. Indeed, it is honorable for him, since this is a beautiful and accepted trait.” Imagine that! Losing is an honor when truth emerges from the debate. In contrast, “the golem will not think about this, as it is a disgrace for him when he is defeated.” R Nahman of Bratslav (Likkutei Moharan 1:122) pithily summarizes this train of thought. “Human fallibility being what it is, victory and truth do not always go together. Therefore, if you have to always win, you can’t always be true.”

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The words doveir emet bi’l’vavo derive from Psalm 15. “Lord, who may sojourn in Your tent, who may dwell on Your holy mountain?” asks the Psalmist. Among the list of qualities and behaviors that follows (eleven in all says the Talmud [Bavli Makkot 24a]) is one who “in his heart acknowledges the truth.” The Talmud sets this attribute in a commercial context and identifies an exemplar, a 4th century sage and businessman named Rav Safra. Here’s one case (Tosefta Demai 4:1; Bavli Bava Batra 88a): one who wishes to buy vegetables from the market, selected what might be purchased, and placed them to the side, even if he did this all day, if he does not decide to buy the vegetables he does not acquire them and does not become obligated in separating tithes. If, in contrast, she had already determined to buy the vegetables selected, she acquires them and becomes obligated to separate tithes. Does this apply to all buyers, the Talmud wonders? Its answer – only to buyers at Rav Safra’s level of reverence.

What makes Rav Safra so special? A story: Rav Safra had a donkey that he wished to sell. A potential buyer came to inquire about it while Rav Safra was in the middle of reciting the Sh’ma. “Will you sell for such and such price?” Rav Safra didn’t answer, (since it is prohibited to interrupt one’s recitation of the Sh’ma). The buyer reasoned that the offer wasn’t high enough, so she added to it. When Rav Safra concluded his prayer he said, “From your first words I decided in my heart to sell to you, and so I will not accept the higher price.” (Sheiltot d’Rav Ahai Gaon, Sheil’ta 38; Rashi to Bavli Makkot 24a) As it is written: “who lives without blame, who does what is right, and in her heart acknowledges the truth (Psalms 15:2)”

David Kimhi (Radak), a 13th century Provencal scholar and rabbi, puts all the pieces together in his commentary on the Book of Psalms. First, he claims that human behavior operates in three distinct realms or dimensions: speech (literally, tongue), thought (literally, heart), and deeds. Then, on our phrase he explains: “this one combines both speech and thought. One who says that he speaks truth, will not lie. And the truth he speaks with his mouth is in his heart, for he does not say one thing with his mouth and another in his heart ; and as the words of his mouth are truth, so are the thoughts of his heart. And it is implied in this expression of hers ‘and in her heart acknowledges the truth’ that she carries into effect what she has purposed in her heart – namely, to do good.” Simply put, “she makes truth her purpose.” Or, as R Menahem haMeiri, another 13th century Provencal giant, summarizes it, this “these are the qualities that constitute the obligation of the heart.” Honesty, integrity, and trustworthiness in thought, word, and deed; that’s the entry ticket to God’s tent!

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Imagine if we actually followed the guidance articulated in every prayer book published since the invention of the printing press! The world would be a far better place. A new year has just begun. A commitment to honesty with ourselves and with others feels like an appropriate aspiration. Shanah Tovah & Hag Sameach!