Rock, Staff, Water – Shabbat Beshallah 5778 (2018)

This week I had the privilege of sitting, and learning, and meditating, and celebrating, with some of my favorite teachers, as part of an IJS Hevraya (Alumni) Retreat. Melila Hellner-Eshed walked us through a series of texts focused on two key moments in Moses’s biography – his encounter with the burning bush and his striking the rock to bring forth water for the people of Israel. We struggled to make sense of the big symbols of the Torah’s dense narratives – the bush (which burns but is not consumed), the staff (which is also a serpent), the rock, the water – and found ways to read our own experiences and lives into our tradition’s powerful texts. This Shabbat, I share with you my midrash/poem, an effort to see and understand the events described in Exodus and Numbers through the eyes of the rock. Enjoy, and Shabbat Shalom.

The Rock’s Lament

Trust, you say. Have faith.

Things develop at their own pace.

Sit, watch. You’ll see it yourself.

Sitting I can handle. Watching too.

 

I watched a bush on fire once

It was quite a sight – big, miraculous

Burned for an hour, maybe more

And still, it stood.

 

Strange, I thought. A sign? A fluke?

Maybe a test. Or perhaps a hoax.

How long must one sit and watch and wait

To learn what happens in the end.

Maybe nothing happens.

 

Trust, you say. Have faith.

You should listen to your own advice.

You with the staff, striking not once but twice.

And I, who watched and waited and sat.

In the end, I gave you water.

Despite your fire, despite your rage.

 

Clear, sweet, cool water

From a well deep below, at the desert’s edge

A relief for parched throats and thirsty hearts.

Trust, I say. Have faith.

Things develop at their own pace.

 

Jan Steen - Moses Striking the Rock

[Jan Steen, Moses Striking the Rock, 1660-1661, Philadelphia Museum of Art]

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark – Shabbat Bo 5778 (2018)

The story of the Exodus confounds our usual way of thinking about light and dark. In that normal mode, dark and light are opposites and enemies. Redemption means the vanquishing of darkness by overwhelming light. It’s a powerful motif, an idea that motivates and inspires on many levels. Darkness, which seems so powerful, can be defeated by only a small bit of light.

The Bible’s grand narrative begins in the dark. And when God begins to create, the very first Divine act, the essential move that brings order out of chaos, is the summoning of light. Dark=chaos; light=order. “And God saw that is was very good.”

The plague of darkness, the penultimate punishment delivered to Egypt, reverses the process of Creation. Moses is told to raise up his arm and to bring about darkness over the land of Egypt – vi’hi hoshekh al eretz mizrayim. The y’hi or of Genesis is undone by the vi’hi hoshekh of Exodus. The binary, however, stands, as “all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings”.

andromeda_1300x1751lede

The tenth plague and the Exodus itself complicate the light/dark picture in dramatic fashion. God’s final blow to Egypt is directed at night, the long anticipated moment of redemption takes place in the dark. In Aviva Zornberg’s phrase, the Exodus is a “narrative of the night,” and notably, we continue to celebrate it and re-enact it at night to this day. Sometimes dark=chaos; sometimes the dark is very good indeed.

One way to think about this moment of redemption is to describe it as the consummation of the love relationship between God and Israel. A beautiful Midrash captures just that sense of Bo’s narrative by attaching it to a verse from the Bible’s great love poem, the Song of Songs. I was asleep, but my heart was wakeful. Hark, my beloved knocks!’ (Song of Songs 5:2) I was asleep to redemption, says the Midrash, but my heart was wakeful to, and for, the moment when God will come to redeem. That moment arrives around the middle of night, ka’hatzot ha’laila in the Torah’s words. Yes, the Midrash relates redemption to romance! Love, after all, is love. Which leads me to two musical expressions of the same idea. Enjoy Wilson Pickett’s classic ‘In the Midnight Hour’ and the Robert Cray Band’s sultry and bluesy ‘Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.’

Shabbat Shalom

Dark Enough? See the Stars! – In memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – 2018

 

Remarks delivered by Rabbi David Ackerman – January 14, 2018

Zion Baptist Church of Ardmore, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Celebration Service

——————————————————————————————————————-

‘ad ana? How long? That two word phrase serves as the refrain to Psalm 13, a small but mighty expression of righteous despair and worry. Let’s go phrase by phrase.

עַד־אָ֣נָה יְ֭הוָה תִּשְׁכָּחֵ֣נִי נֶ֑צַח

How long, O Lord; will You ignore me forever?

עַד־אָ֓נָה׀ תַּסְתִּ֖יר אֶת־פָּנֶ֣יךָ מִמֶּֽנִּי׃

How long will You hide Your face from me?

עַד־אָ֨נָה אָשִׁ֪ית עֵצ֡וֹת בְּנַפְשִׁ֗י יָג֣וֹן בִּלְבָבִ֣י יוֹמָ֑ם

How long will I have cares on my mind, grief in my heart all day?

עַד־אָ֓נָה׀ יָר֖וּם אֹיְבִ֣י עָלָֽי׃
How long will my enemy have the upper hand?

‘ad ana? How long?

An old Bob Dylan song has been running around my head for the past few weeks. It’s kind of a blues number, taken from his great Blood on the Tracks album, a piece of vinyl that kept me company through most of high school and beyond. Here’re the phrases I’ve been ‘hearing’ of late.

They say the darkest hour is right before the dawn

They say the darkest hour is right before the dawn

But you wouldn’t know it by me

Every day’s been darkness since you been gone

Dylan’s brief lines capture some essential truths. Darkness and light run into one another; they’re neighbors, cousins, maybe even siblings. And their intersection happens not every so often, but every day, daily, like clockwork, at the exact moments of dawn and dusk. And finally, darkness comes in different shapes and sizes. There’s the darkness out there, the kind that deepens through the night and then dissipates with dawn. And then there’s the darkness in one’s heart and soul, the kind that fills every day ‘since you been gone’.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the interplay of darkness and light. We’ve just passed through the darkest part of the year, those few days in December when the nights are at their longest and the days at their shortest. We marked one of those dark nights together here at Zion Baptist Church, joining as one united community to light lights against the darkness on the second night of Hanukkah. Now, on the other side of that moment, the days grow longer (if not warmer!), bit by bit, imperceptibly at first, but in a few weeks times with greater strides. Light has returned and there’s more of it to come.

The Talmud tells a delicious story about adam ha’rishon – the very first human being. When adam ha’rishon – the first human – saw the day was progressively diminishing, he said: Woe is me; perhaps because I sinned the world is becoming dark around me and is reverting to chaos and disorder. And this is the death that was sentenced upon me from Heaven, as it is written: “And to dust shall you return” (Genesis 3:19). He arose and spent eight days in fasting and in prayer.  Once he saw the season of Tevet, and saw that the day was progressively lengthening he said: this is the order of the world (minhago shel ‘olam hu). He went and observed a festival for eight days. Upon the next year, he observed both these and these as days of festivities. He established these festivals for the sake of Heaven, but they,  established them for the sake of idol worship. (Bavli Avodah Zarah 8a)

There’s a whole lot to be said about this tale. Adam ha’rishon is a mindful observer, noticing the patterns and rhythms of the natural world. Adam ha’rishon is also an introspective, reflective individual, able to consider the possibility that darkness comes from within, only to be mirrored by the world outside.

A similar set of insights emerges from the Torah’s description of the 9th plague, which we’ll encounter this coming week. Let’s learn a little.

21 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.” 22 Moses held out his arm toward the sky and thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days. 23 People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where s/he was; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings. (Exodus 10:21-23)

This is a tough plague. On one hand, this plague doesn’t do any physical harm to the Egyptians; one the other, the spiritual injury of darkness is profound and maybe long lasting. Let’s take a closer look.

“a darkness that can be touched…” It is palpable, a darkness that can be actually felt…according to the Midrash. What did it feel like? Hold it in your hand; roll it around a little?

“thick darknesss descended upon all the land of Egypt…” How thick? The thickness of a dinar coin, says the Midrash. But notice that this darkness descended from the sky! What is its source? Another Midrash details that there is darkness from above and darkness from below; they are of different kinds, with different qualities and effects.

“people could not see one another…no one could get up from where he was…” Groping in the darkness is how one Midrash puts it. And we all know a bit of that experience. Where is that flashlight that I know I put in the bathroom cabinet for a moment just like this one?!? Now, imagine three days of that kind of groping in the darkness. You get the picture. One contemporary writer calls it the “catatonic terror of absolute helplessness.”

An early 20th century rabbinic interpreter makes this essential claim. Since it would defy the very order of nature for the darkness to be a physical entity, what the Torah describes is a subjective kind of blindness. It is, our teacher writes, “not in the air but in the eyes of people.” The proof comes in the next verse.

“but the Israelites enjoyed light…” The big point is that the light and the dark co-exist! They intersect, they share space, they live in one place at the same time.

Andrea spoke powerfully a little while ago about Charlottesville, Virginia and the terrifying events that took place there over the summer. Nomi and I and a couple of our kids took a little road trip over winter break. We spent a night and a day in Charlottesville. We saw the Robert E Lee statue, the starting point of this summer’s notorious march, now wrapped in black plastic. Everyone knows it’s there; you just can’t see the monument itself. We walked the Lawn, the historic heart of the University of Virginia campus, peeking into some of the historic buildings on its perimeter, marveling at that great space’s elegant design and enduring beauty.

And then later on the same day, we drove up the hill and visited a place called Monticello. Both the Lawn and the Rotunda on UVA’s campus and Monticello were designed by the 3rd President of the United States of America. You all know his name. Jefferson’s home is an extraordinary place, truly beautiful and inspiring. It rests on the mountainside on which he grew up; he knew it like the back of his hand. He built his home in order to capture the roundness and beauty of the rolling hills of the surrounding countryside. It’s nothing short of spectacular.

Famously, Thomas Jefferson authored a pretty significant document in the life of our country, a document first promulgated not too far from here, a proclamation that contained the phrase “all men are created equal.” At his request and insistence, the wording on Jefferson’s tombstone, in the family graveyard at the edge of his plantation, identifies him as the “author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia”. Here’s what the tombstone doesn’t tell us. The space between Jefferson’s home and that family graveyard is known as Mulberry Row. In Jefferson’s time, Mulberry Row was lined with workshops and living quarters occupied and inhabited by his slaves. More slaves lived on Monticello than did free people. Some of them carried the family name of Hemings, and we know that story, now amply proven by carefully evaluated DNA evidence.

Freedom, liberty, slaves, slavery, all rolled into one. This is not just an ‘irony’ of our country’s history, it’s a flat out contradiction. And Jefferson, perhaps better than any of America’s founders, embodied that contradiction.

The truth is, we were compelled to visit Monticello that day by the pleas of the Hamilton fanatic in our family who knew about “Thomas Jefferson coming home” to Monticello from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brilliant lyrics. 

The song is called ‘What’d I Miss?’ –

JEFFERSON:

So what’d I miss? What’d I miss?

Virginia, my home sweet home, I wanna give you a kiss

I’ve been in Paris meeting lots of different ladies…

I guess I basic’lly missed the late eighties…

I traveled the wide, wide world and came back to this…

Lookin’ at the rolling fields…I can’t believe that we are free               

ENSEMBLE:

Believe that we are free

Most of the people who looked at those rolling fields from Monticello’s highest point couldn’t believe that they were free for the simple reason that they weren’t. Neither could most of the residents of the Commonwealth of Virginia in the late 1780’s. In the simplest of terms, that’s what our country’s third President missed. It is the fundamental contradiction at the heart of our story as a nation. Believe that we are free.

So, there is lots of darkness. It doesn’t all emerge from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in 2018. It was there long before; it’s been there all along. It will be there tomorrow, and next week, and next year as well. It is part of the very fabric of our life together as a people, perhaps even minhago shel ‘olam – the way of the world. Some of it is external.

Let’s talk about the kind of darkness that is internal. There’s an idea in psychology that says that each of us has within what are referred to as our shadows. We each have a shadow self. There are parts of us that stay in the shadows. We keep those parts carefully hidden because they’re not pretty. I have more than my fair share of them; you probably have less than your fair share; we all have shadows.

Here’s the trick – and I borrow this idea not only from psychology but also from the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. The Baal Shem teaches that everything that exists, including our inner shadows, is here for us to see and to hear; it’s all  here to awaken and arouse us. Our job is to notice our own shadows. How often do you notice your shadows? Not very often if you’re at all like me. But once you notice your shadow side, once you take it in hand, roll it around and feel it, notice that it is actually palpable, then, teaches the Baal Shem, you can lift up your own darkness, take ownership of it, and begin to transform it, a little bit at a time, into the light it was meant to be.

Yes, there is lots of darkness and of many different kinds. There’s Egyptian darkness and there’s also Israelite darkness. There’s Thomas Jefferson’s darkness and there’s America’s darkness. There is your darkness and there is my darkness. There’s our darkness.

I bring to you a passage from Dr. King’s very last spoken words, his famous ‘Been to the Mountaintop’ sermon, delivered the night before he was murdered. Reflecting on when in history he might have wished to live, Dr. King had this to say:

‘Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy. Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding.’

On Friday night, Reverend Pollard taught us about one of Dr. King’s mentors and teachers, the Reverend Dr. Howard Thurman. Dr. Thurman was a prolific author, a leader in promoting non-violence as the way forward, and a powerful orator. Dr. Thurman’s brilliant three word invocation – Lord, it’s dark – was the right prayer half a century ago. It works today as well. When he uttered it, he was calling that gathering to see the darkness – internal and external – and to commit to transforming it. That was the work then, when Dr. King still walked the earth. Fifty years after his assassination, that’s still our work.

Psalm 13’s last verse – you do remember Psalm 13, don’t you?

 וַאֲנִ֤י׀ בְּחַסְדְּךָ֣ בָטַחְתִּי֮

As for me, I trust in Your faithfulness, Your hesed, Your love,

יָ֤גֵ֥ל לִבִּ֗י בִּֽישׁוּעָ֫תֶ֥ךָ

my heart will exult in Your salvation, Your deliverance.

אָשִׁ֥ירָה לַיה-וָ֑ה כִּ֖י גָמַ֣ל עָלָֽי׃

I will sing to the Lord, for God has been good to me.

“only when it is dark enough can you see the stars…”

We are called today to see the stars, to be the stars, and to connect our stars one to another. Let’s go be stars. God bless you all.

‘Mere Magic’ – Shabbat Va’era 5778 (2018)

Magic Aladdins Genie lamp

Do you believe in magic?

In addition to Moses, Aaron, and Pharaoh, Parashat Va’era features a somewhat mysterious group of individuals known as hartumei mizrayim – the Egyptian magicians. They play an ironic and darkly humorous role in the unfolding story of the signs and wonders that afflict Egypt in the lead up to the Exodus itself. Whatever Aaron and Moses do, the Egyptian magicians mimic. They too can transform their walking sticks into serpents; they too can turn the Nile to blood and fill Egypt with frogs. They run out of steam with the third portent, the plague knowns as vermin. “The magicians did the like with their spells to produce lice, but they could not…and the magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God!” (Exodus 8:14-15)

At the beginning of the tale, however, it is Pharaoh who mocks Moses and Aaron. In the words of the Midrash: “These are the kinds of wonders that your God does?! People generally bring merchandise to a place where they don’t have already have it! Do they bring buckets of seafood to Banias? Do they bring fish to Akko [a fishing town]?! Don’t you know that all the magic arts are in my domain?” (Shemot Rabbah 9:6) It’s the ancient near eastern analogue to ‘bringing coals to Newcastle’! And indeed, ancient Egypt was known as the world’s leading center of magic and magical arts.

The tables turn, of course. Total reversal is, on one level, what the Exodus story is all about. Slaves can become free people, and they do. The world’s greatest power can be laid low by a ragtag group of former servants, and it is. The Sea can be split, and indeed it is. Tomorrow can be a new day, and the past needn’t define or dictate the future. And so, with sincere apology to the Harry Potter fans out there, including the ones with whom I live, there’s a power greater than wizardry. Magicians and tyrants, blessedly, are not the ultimate authority. As Mel Brooks (in his 2000 Year Old Man guise) might have put it, “there’s something bigger than Pharaoh.” And it isn’t smoke and mirrors.

Shabbat Shalom.

‘Word People’ – Shabbat Shemot 5778 (2018)

Moses, at the beginning of his commission, declares himself to “never have been a man of words.” “I am,” he protests to God, who has called him to serve as God’s and the people of Israel’s spokesperson, “heavy of speech and heavy of tongue.” Setting aside the ironic twist of a spokesperson with a speech defect, I wonder what it means to be a person of words. If Moses’s challenge is heaviness or slowness of mouth and tongue, what would lightness of speech and words look and sound like?

One ancient interpreter, an Alexandrian Jewish playwright known as Ezekiel the Tragedian, sets the Mosaic predicament to poetry. “I am not by nature eloquent; my tongue with difficulty speaks, I stammer, so that I cannot speak before the king.” (Exagoge, 113-115) If eloquence and fluency are the criteria, I suspect that most of us wouldn’t qualify as ‘word people.’ I certainly wouldn’t. Verbose as I am, I often find it difficult to find, let alone speak, the right words. And I spend a great deal of time with words – speaking, reading, writing, conversing, listening. Imagine Moses then, a shepherd who spent long solitary and wordless hours with his flock, now summoned to speak on behalf of God and God’s people! His worry and hesitancy make sense; how could he possibly rise to the occasion?

exodus_23_icon[Marc Chagall, Burning Bush, 1966]

A Midrash picks up on Moses’s anxiety. “If you are not fluent do not worry; I am the creator of mouths…and if I want you to be fluent you shall be. I prefer to work a miracle through you at the time you speak – that you will say the right thing due to my being with your mouth.” [Midrash Shemot Rabbah 3:15(1)] Saying the right thing, at the right time, in the right way, utilizing the right words, truly feels like a miracle. How does that miracle come about?

A modern day example of the miracle of fluent speech is the Hebrew writer Aharon Appelfeld z”l who passed away this week. A child survivor of the Shoah, Appelfeld grew up in a German speaking home near Cernowitz – then Rumania, today Ukraine – and also knew Yiddish courtesy of his rural grandparents with whom he frequently visited as a child. After the war, in which his mother was murdered, and in which he was separated from his father, Appelfeld came to Israel where he had to learn a new language along with a new culture. That he emerged as one of the great Hebrew writers of our time is nothing short of miraculous.

For Appelfeld, the new language was a vehicle for grappling with the great dislocations of his and our people’s life in the 20th century. As Philip Roth, a close friend of Appelfeld’s put it, he was a “displaced writer of displaced fiction who has made of displacement and disorientation a subject uniquely his own.” Of this week’s obituaries for Aharon Appelfeld, I hope you’ll take the time to read this piece in the NY Times – https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/04/obituaries/aharon-appelfeld-dies.html – and the great writer’s last published interview with David Samuels in Tablet – http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/books/228475/last-conversation-aharon-appelfeld

Appelfeld and Moses, I suggest, share in the great Jewish stories of dislocation and of the miracle of speech which comes to heal, repair and restore. May Aharon Appelfeld’s memory be always for a blessing. And may Moses’s fluent and powerful words continue to shape our path and our destiny for many years to come.

Shabbat Shalom.