What Keeps Us Safe? – Shabbat Tetzaveh-Zakhor 5778 (2018)

What keeps us safe?

In this week after the Parkland, Florida massacre, questions of safety and security are top of mind. In 21st century America, many structures and mechanisms designed to keep us safe exist. For the most part we take those structures for granted; consider the last time you actually noticed the security officer keeping watch at a public gathering.  Those mechanisms all came crashing down in the terrorized hallways of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last Wednesday. The entire population of a public high school was, for too many minutes, completely at risk and vulnerable, unsafe in the extreme.

So what keeps us safe, especially when the “normal” mechanisms fail? To begin to answer that question (and how can we do anything but begin in the face of this monstrous tragedy?) I believe we need to look inwardly and not to external factors. Yes, it’s true, I always suggest an inward turn first! My abiding sense is that before we debate policy – and there’s plenty of debate to be had – it would be really helpful, and healthy, to examine our fears and to try to articulate and understand what makes us feel safe and secure.

Our tradition offers us some wisdom on that burning question. First, this week’s parashah. Tetzaveh describes the attire of the ancient priests, in particular that of the Kohen Gadol, the High (or Chief) Priest. An essential part of the Kohen Gadol’s wardrobe was a blue robe that featured an unusual hemline. “On its hem make pomegranates of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, all around the hem, with bells of gold between them all around: a golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate, all around the hem of the robe.” (Exodus 28:34-35) The Torah goes on to tell us that “Aaron shall wear it while officiating, so that the sound of it is heard when he comes into the sanctuary before the Lord and when he goes out—that he may not die.” (Exodus 28:35) The blue robe with the pomegranate and bell hem, in other words, protects Aaron the High Priest and keeps him alive!

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That, of course, is completely crazy. How can a woolen robe, even an elegantly accessorized one, actually, physically, save one’s life? A 19th century Hasidic master, Rabbi Yaakov Leiner, points us toward an answer. The pomegranate and the bell, he suggests, are opposing symbols. The hollow bell bespeaks an individual’s emptiness, and hence dependency on God and on others. The seed filled pomegranate represents that very same individual’s strengths and ability to act in the world. The point? The High Priest, and we, need both. What keeps the Kohen Gadol alive is the mix of vulnerability and confidence. At the end of the day, that’s what makes for safety and security.

The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas have emerged this week as our High Priests and Priestesses. They’ve invited us to weep and grieve with them, sharing their vulnerability in poignant and powerful ways. They’ve exhibited their confidence and even audacity, articulating their hopes and dreams with profound eloquence and fearlessly speaking truth to power. They’ve taught us all that community matters, that commitment matters, that love matters. At this truly frightening time, it is the young adults of Parkland, Florida who make me feel safe. It’s not a complete answer; but what a beautiful beginning.

Shabbat Shalom. 

You Have Wings to Soar With – Rav Kook’s Summons to Higher Contemplation

רב קוק, אורות הקדשא סדקריאה להסתכלות עליונה

אם תרצה, בן אדם, הסתכל באור השכינה בכל היקום, הסתכל בעדן החיים השמימיים, איך הם מתפלשים בכל פנה וזוית שבחיים. הרוחניים והחמריים, שנגד עיני בשרך, ונגד עיני רוחך. התבונן בפלאי היצירה, בחיי האלהות שלהם, לא בתור איזה תכנית כהה, שממרחקים מציגים נגד עיניך, כי אם דע את המציאות שאתה חי בה. דע את עצמך,ואת עולמך, דע את הגיוני הלב שלך, ושל כל הוגה וחושב. מצא את מקור החיים שבקרבך, ושממעל לך, שמסביבך, את פארי הדרות החיים, שאתה שרוי בתוכם. האהבה שבקרבך העלה אותה לשורש עזה ועדנת תפארתה, הרחיבה לכל סרעפותיה, לכל אשד נשמת חי העולמים, אשר רק רצוץ המקום של ההגה גורם מיעוט זהרו. הבט על האורות, בתוכיותם. אל יבלעו נשמתך השמות, הניבים והאותיות, הם מסורים בידך, ואי אתה מסור בידיהם. עלה למעלה עלה, כי כח עז לך, יש לך כנפי רוח, כנפי נשרים אבירים. אל תכחש בם, פן יכחשו לך, דרש אותם, וימצאו לך מיד. יקרים וקדושים הם לנו לבושי הציורים, מוכרחים הם לנו, ולכל בעלי גבול במבטיהם הרוחניים ביחוד. אבל תמיד בעת שאנו באים לחיים מדעיים, אסור לנו לזוז מהנקודה העליונה, שרק מהבלתי נתפס אור מתפלש בהנתפס, במהלך האצילות, מאור אין סוף. ואנו קרואים להיות מתעדנים בעדנים שמימיים, בכל פרטי ההכרות, שבכלל הגדול הזה, שממנו תוצאות כל החיים

A Summons to Higher Contemplation – Orot ha-Kodesh, 1:64

If you will it, man, observe the light of the divine presence that pervades all existence. Observe the harmony of the heavenly realm, how it pervades every aspect of life, the spiritual and the material, which are before your eyes of flesh and your eyes of the spirit.

Contemplate the wonders of creation, the divine dimension of their being, not as a dim configuration that is presented to you from the distance but as the reality in which you live.

Know yourself, and your world; know the meditations of your heart, and of every thinker; find the source of your own life, and of the life beyond you, around you, the glorious splendor of the life in which you have your being.

The love that is astir in you – raise it to its basic potency and its noblest beauty, extend it to all its dimensions, toward every manifestation of the soul that sustains the universe, whose splendor is dimmed only because of the deficiency of the person viewing it.

Look at the lights, in their inwardness. Let not the names, the words, the idiom and the letters confine your soul. They are under your control, you are not under theirs.

Ascend toward the heights, because you are of mighty prowess, you have wings to soar with, wings of mighty eagles. Do not fail them, lest they fail you; seek for them, and they will at once be ready for you.

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The forms that robe reality are precious and holy to us, and especially to all who are limited in their spiritual perception. But always, when we approach a life of enlightenment, we must not swerve from the perspective that light flows from the incomprehensible, by way of emanation, from the light of the En Sof.

And we are summoned to share in the heavenly delight, in all the particularized perceptions, which are included in this universal whole, from which all the proliferations of life are engendered. (translation, Ben Zion Bokser)

Get Up, Stand Up! – Shabbat Terumah 5778 (2018)

Very often, old Bob Marley tunes run through my head; they constitute a discernible percentage of my personal soundtrack. This week’s reggae classic has been ‘Get Up, Stand Up!’ – an early 70’s number written by Marley and Peter Tosh. One notable bit of trivia – this was the last song that Marley performed live. As last words go, it’s a pretty good one.

Here are some of Get Up, Stand Up’s central lines –

Most people think
Great God will come from the skies
Take away everything
And make everybody feel high
But if you know what life is worth
You will look for yours on earth
And now you see the light
You stand up for your rights. Jah!

I’m taken with the theology of Get Up, Stand Up, which describes a reciprocal relationship that connects God and humanity. God shows up when we stand up; we need to step toward one another in order to connect. Sitting back and waiting won’t bring God any closer. So suggest Tosh and Marley.

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So too suggests the mishkan – the portable sanctuary or Tabernacle whose construction details fill this week’s parasha. The sidewalls of the mishkan are to be built from acacia wood planks that stand upright. An 18th century, mystically minded commentator named R Haim ibn ‘Attar, reads the symbolism of the mishkan, teaching us that the Hebrew word for plank, KeReSH, holds a deep allegorical meaning. The letters that form that word – Kuf, Resh, Shin – also form the word KeSHeR – connection. The fact, in turn, teaches that the “planks (kerashim) are connections (k’sharim) by means of which all the holy aspects (behinot) of above and below are connected and united.” Great God fills the mishkan with Divine Presence (shekhinah) when we “make the planks for the Tabernacle of acacia wood, upright.” (Exodus 26:15)

An early Hasidic master, R Elimelekh of Lishensk, pushes the allegory one critical step further. Noting that the Hebrew word for falsehood – SheKeR – is also formed by the same three letters, R Elimelekh reads the Torah’s command this way: “make of yourself a plank for the Tabernacle (keresh la’mishkan), that is be(come) a chariot for the Divine Presence (merkavah la’Shekhinah).” Standing upright, being a KeReSH, means resisting SHeKeR. That’s how one carries the Divine Presence within. That’s how we get to connect heaven and earth in our own lives and in our time and place. 

So…”now you see the light; You stand up for your rights.”

Shabbat Shalom

Don’t Oppress the Stranger – Shabbat Mishpatim 5778 (2018)

For all of its remoteness and antiquated formulation, Parashat Mishpatim feels extraordinarily relevant and timely to me. Mishpatim’s collection of ancient norms and rules reveals, upon closer reading, a compelling and contemporary collection of ethical principles and thoughtful personal practices.

One example, among many possible candidates, tells the story. On thirty six occasions, the Torah articulates a warning to love, or care for, or not harm, or not oppress the stranger, the Biblical ger. Two of the Torah’s ‘stranger alerts’ appear in Mishpatim, with explanatory rationales attached. Version one reads: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Version two, perhaps an expansion (?), proclaims: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”

You were strangers, hence you know what it feels like to be a stranger. Therefore, don’t oppress a stranger. Simple enough.

Two pieces of medieval commentary dramatically expand the category, serving up a cluster of ethical principles that could (should!) be applied to any one of a number of contemporary questions.

Abraham Ibn Ezra, a 12th century polymath as the title of a collection of essays devoted to his work and thought puts it, lets us know that you (we, I) must not oppress a stranger because you (we, I) are more powerful than s/he. Doing harm to one who is weaker, suggests Ibn Ezra, is the essential offense, whether that individual is a stranger, a widow, an orphan, not to mention an immigrant, a refugee, a person who enjoys less privilege, etc…You (we, I) get the point!

Ibn Ezra offers us more. Seeing it happen, and neglecting, failing, declining, to step in to assist the oppressed renders us (you, me) oppressors in our own right. Ibn Ezra’s high bar means that there is no such thing as ‘innocent’ by standing. Once we (you) are aware we’re (you’re) obligated to act.

And Moses ben Nahman, a 13th century giant (known by his initials – Ramban), reads Mishpatim’s two warnings about strangers to mean this: “you know that the soul of any stranger is lowly towards himself, and he sighs and cries, and his eyes are always to God – and God will have mercy upon him, as God had mercy upon you.” When it comes to strangers, teaches Ramban, empathy and compassion are the order of the day.

Strangers, widow, orphans. Fill in the contemporary analogue. The Torah’s ethic couldn’t be more clear. Don’t oppress; don’t inappropriately take advantage of your power; don’t stand by when others oppress the less powerful; respond with empathy; above all, summon up your compassion. Nothing antiquated or remote about that.

Shabbat Shalom.