Troubled Water – Shabbat Hukkat 5778 (2018)

 

Paul Simon’s farewell tour got me inspired. It was a beautiful evening, and since his music – and most notably his 1986 album ‘Graceland’ – forms a a significant part of my life’s ‘soundtrack’, a memorable and nostalgic one as well. Somewhere in the middle of his set, Simon shared some reminiscences about his hit song ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’. It’s been covered dozens of times, most powerfully by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Johnny Cash, and Willie Nelson. But for me, it’s the original Simon and Garfunkel version that is most resonant. It’s been running through my head all week.

 

We live in a time of truly troubled waters. The Rio Grande, marking the border between Mexico and the United States, is only the most obvious example. And the scenes from that border – of migrant families sleeping on a bridge over the Rio Grande’s troubled waters, and of crying children being separated from their parents upon crossing into the United States – have broken our hearts and outraged and infuriated us. Can it really be the policy of this country of immigrants to so badly mistreat those seeking asylum here? Can it really be the policy of our democracy to so demean people who desire nothing more than a better life for themselves and their children?

 

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Parashat Hukkat revolves around the well known story of Moses hitting the rock in order to provide water for the people of Israel. The place where that event occurs is Mei merivah – Waters of Contention. The people have quarreled with Moses (and with God) and so the water that quenches their thirst is troubled in the extreme. That place, according to the Torah, is simultaneously the spot where Moses (and Aaron) failed to sanctify the Divine Name AND the locale where God is sanctified.

12But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” 13Those are the Waters of Meribah—meaning that the Israelites quarrelled with the Lord—through which He affirmed His sanctity.

Places of outrage and the desecration of God’s name are also, perhaps of necessity, places where God’s name can be sanctified. True for the Wilderness of Zin; true as well for the Rio Grande. Troubled waters stand on one side of that equation. Bridges stand on the other. It’s time – now, right now – to build bridges of compassion, of understanding, of welcome. The troubled waters won’t disappear anytime soon. They can, however, be transcended. That’s our work.

Shabbat Shalom.

Enjoy the music –

 

 

 

The Cracks Remain Open – Shabbat Korah 5778 (2018)

Here’s the dramatic denouement of the Korah story. “… the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korah’s people and all their possessions. They went down alive into Sheol, with all that belonged to them; the earth closed over them and they vanished from the midst of the congregation.”

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Three brief reflections, each tied to a popular song lyric from the 70s or 80s.

First – Carole King’s great classic:

I feel the earth move under my feet,I feel the sky tumbling down, I feel my heart start to trembling, Whenever you’re around…

The image of the earth moving, and even opening its mouth, along with that of the sky tumbling down, describes the loss of control associated with being in love. Korah, whom the Midrash labels a ‘taker’ loves himself and his possessions, and not much else. The earth, perhaps, reciprocates.

Second – ‘The Boy in the Bubble’ (the first song on Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’):

These are the days of miracle and wonder, This is the long distance call, The way the camera follows us in slo-mo, The way we look to us all, The way we look to a distant constellation, That’s dying in a corner of the sky, These are the days of miracle and wonder, And don’t cry baby, don’t cry…

Says Pirkei Avot (5:8), Ten things were created at dusk on the eve of (the first) Shabbat, and these are they: the mouth of the earth (that swallowed up Korah and his band)…Says the Maharal of Prague (16th century) commenting on that teaching, “they are not entirely natural but they are close to nature, they are all physical objects and as such are part of nature, but insofar as they are unlike other physical objects they also stand outside of nature.” In other words, these are the days of miracle and wonder.

Third – Midnight Oil’s 80’s classic ‘Bed Are Burning’:

How can we dance when our earth is turning 

How do we sleep while our beds are burning

How can we dance when our world feels upside down, when we are confronted with dizzying twists and turns on a daily, no, hourly basis? How can we sleep when it feels like the earth regularly – and not just to show Korah and company who’s boss – opens it mouth and swallows people and ideals and deeply held commitments alive? Ramban differentiates between the earth’s opening for Korah and more ‘normal’ occurrences like earthquakes. Normally, “the cracks remain open.” They feel wide open right about now.

Shabbat Shalom. 

A Different Spirit – Shabbat Sh’lah L’kha 5778 (2018)

Calev ben Yefunneh, the hero of the story told in Parashat Shlach L’cha, possesses ruach acheret – a different spirit. (Numbers 14:24) What does that mean? Different from what/whom? And in what way(s)? In its context, the words ‘different spirit’ separate Calev from the other scouts; he, indeed, differs from them in his assessment of Israel’s ability to enter into the land immediately. The Torah itself spells that out in its next phrase – (Calev) remained loyal to Me. The others break faith; Calev keeps the faith. The phrase – ruach acheret (different spirit) – is striking. No other Biblical hero receives that designation. Only Calev; and only here in the story of the scouts and their reconnaissance mission in the Land.

 

A number of early Hasidic masters unpack our phrase and dramatically expand its range and meaning. R Zev Wolf of Zhitomir (18th century), the Or ha-Meir, describes the different spirit as one that knows that God doesn’t come to people with arguments and proofs. Rather, one with a ‘different spirit’ is one whose heart is truly and fully with God, and whose very being rises to the level of ‘avodah – Divine/Sacred work or service. One possesses ruach acheret, writes R Zev Wolf, “as long as one’s heart inclines toward heaven.” R Kalonymus Kalman Epstein (late 18th/early 19th century), the Ma’or va-Shemesh, adds, a ‘different spirit’ describes one whose heart is on fire for Divine service. And for Rav Nahman of Braslav (late 18th/early 19th century) this ‘different spirit’ “not found in the rest of the masses” has an extraordinary effect. “Whoever draws close to her/him is strengthened and the true faith of holiness is repaired for him/her.”

 

Pride-flags

 

On this Pride Shabbat, I have the concept/category of ruach acheret – different spirit – very much on my mind. Today, a quarter of a million people participated in Tel Aviv’s 20th annual Pride Parade. And on Sunday many members of the Beth Am Israel community will take up the march as part of Philadelphia’s 30th annual Pride Celebration. There’s much to celebrate and there’s much to be done to raise awareness, to make our world a safer and more welcoming place for all, and to advocate for the diverse needs of the LGBTQ+ community. I’m deeply proud of our congregation’s commitment to the different spirit of our time, and I hope to see many fellow Beth Am Israelites at PhillyPride on Sunday.

 

Calev’s different spirit is associated with another big theological claim. All of the members of the desert generation have seen and experienced the Divine Presence. Only Calev fully absorbs and integrates that experience. Uniquely, he understands that “the Lord’s Presence fills the whole world.” The theological corollary is the belief that all – gay, straight, bi, unsure, a, trans, cys – are created in the Divine Image. We, all of us and each of us, reflect(s) the Presence that fills the Universe. Calev’s difference points the way to a deeper and more enduring truth. We all are “imbued with a different spirit.” And so we all have the opportunity to enter the land, to feel, sense, and experience God’s enveloping Presence which gave birth to the Universe and fills it still.

Shabbat Shalom. 

Run Away! – Shabbat B’ha’alot’kha 5778 (2018)

The ancient Israelites are so eager to get on with their journey to the land of Canaan that they run away from Sinai, the very place where they’ve met God and received the Divine commands. That, at least, is how a number of ancient interpreters read this momentous verse from Parashat B’ha’alot’kha: “They marched three days’ distance from the mountain of YHVH, with the Ark of YHWH’s Covenant marching ahead of them < three days’ distance > to scout out for them a place to encamp.” [Numbers 10:33, translation B. Levine]

 

Midrash Vay’khulu offers a particularly pungent telling. “It is like a school student (tinok) leaving school who flees and goes (she’boreah v’holeikh lo); that is the way in which they fled (hayu borhim) from Mount Sinai, a three days’ journey, for they learned much Torah at Sinai.” Ramban (R Moses Nachmanides, 13th century Barcelona-Eretz Yisrael) has our school student add: ‘Perhaps God will give us more commandments (if we stay)!’ To which he adds “their intention was to remove themselves from there because it was the mountain of God.”

 

I actually understand how the Israelites feel, particularly at this time of the year. The heat and humidity have me humming James Taylor’s great song

Summer’s here, I’m for that. Got my rubber sandals, got my straw hat.
Drinking cold beer, man, I’m just glad that I’m here.
It’s my favorite time of the year and I’m glad that I’m here, yeah.

Summer’s almost here, school’s almost out for the summer, and the temptation to get out/get away/get going grows by the hour.

 

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[Illustration from the 13th c. Morgan Bible of David bringing the Ark into Jerusalem.]

 

The Israelites, however, don’t make a clean break. The Ark of YHWH’s Covenant comes with, according to another midrash – Sifre Bemidbar – carrying the broken first set of tablets inside. Sure, leave Sinai; but don’t forget what happened there. In fact, take the consequences of your first running away from God with you. The past, as William Faulkner famously put it, isn’t actually past. Indeed, we keep learning even after leaving school! We carry our broken tablets (‘sacred fragments’ in my teacher Neil Gillman’s lovely phrase) with us wherever our journeys take us. And, to follow the metaphor all the way, we each have our own unique Ark in which our fragments, holy and profane, travel.

 

Beginning with the Torah itself, our tradition preserves a number of ‘Ark Songs’ – poetic odes to the containers of our pasts and our tablets, broken and intact. The Talmud’s poem is especially stirring –

Be exalted, be exalted, acacia-Ark! Loom high in your great beauty! Overlaid with embroidered god, Glorious in the shrine of the Temple, Majestic with many ornaments. (Talmud Bavli, Avodah Zarah 22b)

May our Arks loom high in beauty and remain majestic with many ornaments.

 

Shabbat Shalom and Happy June!