Shekhinah & Us – Shabbat Yitro 5779 (2019)

“There are two aspects of the Sinai event: revealing the Shekhinah and giving the Torah.” So suggests Abraham Joshua Heschel in his encyclopedic magnum opus Torah Min ha-Shamayim b’Espaklaria shel ha-Dorot (Heavenly Torah As Refracted Through the Generations). The Hebrew is (somehow both) terse and poetic: Sh’tei b’hinot b’ma’aseh Sinai – Two aspects/factors/vectors/elements of the gathering of the children of Israel at Mount Sinai. Gilui Shekhinah v’Matan Torah – revelation of Shekhinah (the indwelling feminine aspect of God) and the giving (or gift) of Torah. The latter Heschel calls instruction (hora’ah); the former he titles redemption (t’shuah).



[Raphael, Fresco in Apostolic Palace, Rome 1518-19]


In these few words, Heschel channels and summarizes an ancient rabbinic interpretive tradition. The Torah’s phrase, “The Lord came down upon Mount Sinai, on the top of the mountain” (Exodus 19:20), describes the Shekhinah, the aspect of God that keeps the Israelites company throughout their journey. As an early Midrash (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai) puts it “When Israel went down to Egypt, Shekhinah went down with them; when they encamped at the sea, Shekhinah was with them; when they came to the wilderness, Shekhinah was with them.” When they gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai, we might add, Shekhinah was with them.

Heschel’s sequence, which mirrors that of the Torah, is deeply significant. The Shekhinah embraces and envelopes the people. In later Jewish thought, Kabbalah and Hasidism most notably, the Shekhinah takes on maternal qualities and attributes. She nurtures, empathizes with, cries with, rejoices with, the people, present at every step along the way. Embrace and nurture precede instruction. One hugs one’s kids first; explicit teaching comes later.


[Avner Moriah, Standing at Sinai]


So what happened at Sinai? First (and foremost!) our ancestors met the Shekhinah. They learned that they were not alone; they felt the love. Then, they received the gift of Torah, Divine wisdom and instruction. Compassion first, commandment second. As we mark the Sinai moment this Shabbat, how might we access the Shekhinah’s presence? A beautiful passage from the Zohar (2:163b) offers a lovely and compelling answer.

“Rabbi Yose, Rabbi Yehudah, and Rabbi Hiyya were traveling on the road, and Rabbi El’azar met them. As soon as they saw him, they all dismounted from their donkeys. Rabbi El’azar said, ‘Surely I have seen the face of Shekhinah! For when one sees the righteous or virtuous of the generation and meets them, they are surely the face of Shekhinah. Why are they called the face of Shekhinah? Because Shekhinah is hidden within them: She is in concealment and they are revealed, for those close to Shekhinah are called Her face. And who are they? Those with whom She adorns Herself to appear before the supernal King. Now, since you are here, surely Shekhinah is arrayed upon you, and you are Her face.’”

When we meet one another, face to face, we meet Shekhinah. Then we’re ready and able to  receive the gift of Torah.

Shabbat Shalom.

The Zigzag Path – Shabbat Beshallah/Shabbat Shira 5779 (2019)

“Whereas a cow extends its neck in a straight line, a camel curves its neck.” So remarks R Shimon b Elazar in Talmud Yerushalmi Eruvin (2:1, 20a). Strange as it sounds, camels and cows teach us something deep and important about freedom, redemption, and life. Sometimes straight lines are what we need; other times, curves work better. The categories – akumah (zigzag or curved) and peshutah (straight or direct) – come to us from rabbinic deliberations regarding carrying on Shabbat. An eruv (plural eruvin) is a public space that is marked off so that it becomes semi-private and therefore an area in which one may carry on Shabbat. In the realm of eruvin curves and straight lines matter. One is like a camel; the other like a cow.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 11th century France) borrow’s the language of Eruvin to describe the Israelite’s path out of Egypt. “God led the people roundabout” says the Torah (Exodus 13:18). Says Rashi, “God led them roundabout (taking them) from the direct/predictable route (derekh ha-peshuta) to the zigzag/circuitous route (derekh ha-‘akumah).” Redemption won’t come in an instant; no express train from Egypt to the Promised Land. This long march to freedom will consist of forty years of zigging and zagging.

Following Aviva Zornberg’s delicious insight, the curvy path will be intellectual and emotional as well as geographic. In her rich words “places of vision and faith” and “places of doubt and revision” will alternate all the way from the crossing of the Red Sea to the crossing of the Jordan River a generation and more later. Think of it as the Torah’s version of ‘two steps forward and one step back.’ We’ll eventually get there, but it won’t be quick. Camels and their curves seem better suited to such a journey than do cows and their straight lines.



[Agnolo Bronzino ‘The Crossing of the Red Sea’ (1542) Palazzo Vecchio, Florence]


The dramatic high point of the Exodus narrative – the crossing of the Red Sea – isn’t the story’s ending. It’s just the beginning of the road, a long and winding one which truly never disappears. The road, to summon up another popular culture reference, really does go on forever. And while I’m at it, the zigzag path moves back and forth between moments of intense, shining light and instances of darkness and near blindness; it’s truly a long, strange trip.

We often encounter Parashat Beshallah on MLK Weekend. It’s a powerful and fruitful confluence. Dr. King’s famous words, part of an address to a Southern Christian Leadership Council gathering in 1967, strike me as a poignant and brilliant reflection on the zigzag path to freedom. “When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Long arc, moments of despair and darkness, lots of zigs and zags. And also, the discovery of ‘a way out of no way’ and the ever present promise of transformation. That’s the real life story of freedom, then and now.

Shabbat Shalom.

Night Moves – Shabbat Bo 5779 (2019)

“Most of one’s knowledge is acquired at night.” So writes R Moses Maimonides (Rambam), the 12th century philosopher and halakhist. (Rambam, Laws of Torah Study 3:13). Quoting a series of rabbinic teachings, Maimonides goes on to sing the praises of nighttime Torah study. “And whoever occupies herself with the study of the Torah by night – a mark of spiritual grace (hut shel hesed) distinguishes him by day.” In a similar vein, R Shimon b Lakish, the great 3rd century Talmudic sage, opines that “the moon was created only for study!” (lo ibarei sihara ela l’girsa!) (Talmud Bavli, Eruvin 65a)

Barbara Brown Taylor, celebrated Episcopal priest and author, shares a similar insight in her stunning book “Learning to Walk in the Dark” – “I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.” Movingly, Reverend Taylor describes “the gift of lunar spirituality, in which the divine light available to me waxes and wanes with the season.”

What, then, is the special ‘knowledge acquired at night’? What, exactly, does ‘the gift of lunar spirituality’ contain? What do we learn from the moon, both her light and her darkness?

Parashat Bo brings to us the moment of the Exodus itself, the long anticipated departure of the children of Israel from Egypt, from Pharaoh, from slavery. They will spend 40 years, a full generation and more,  journeying toward freedom. And notably, the long march to the promised land begins with their ‘learning to walk in the dark.’



Departure of the Israelites – David Roberts (1829)


In the middle of the night the Lord struck down all the first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sat on the throne to the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the first-born of the cattle. And Pharaoh arose in the night, with all his courtiers and all the Egyptians—because there was a loud cry in Egypt; for there was no house where there was not someone dead. He summoned Moses and Aaron in the night and said, ‘Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you! Go, worship the Lord as you said! Take also your flocks and your herds, as you said, and begone! And may you bring a blessing upon me also!’”

Elsewhere, the Torah describes the departure from Egypt as a daytime affair. In Bo, however, the great moment of redemption happens at night. As Aviva Zornberg puts it, “The night intimates a different kind of freedom, paradoxical, uncanny in many of its dimensions…To leave by day, ‘with hands high’: this is the stuff of epic. But the night is another country.” On that night, the Israelites receive the gift of lunar spirituality; on that night they acquire wisdom; on that night they come to be distinguished by a hut shel hesed – a mark of spiritual grace. “Strange how the night moves.”

Shabbat Shalom.

Mixed Together & Set Apart – Shabbat Va’era 5779 (2019)

The fourth plague perplexes me. ‘Arov in Hebrew, and translated either as ‘a mixture of wild beasts’ or as ‘swarms of mixed insects’ the affliction involves an unruly, and perhaps unnatural combining of pests – whether winged or footed – who bring ruin to Egypt’s land. Robert Alter opts for ‘the horde’ noting that “the only plausible derivation is from the verbal root that means to mix.” ‘Arov, then, is a kind of witches’ brew – an unholy cocktail of ingredients which, in combination, signals danger and leads to destruction.

In later, rabbinic, Hebrew, the same root – ayin, resh, bet – preserves that sense of danger and impropriety. Rabbinic law, built on Biblically articulated norms, identifies a number of things that ought not to be mixed with one another – wool and flax, milk and meat, permitted wine and prohibited wine – often using the term ta’arovet to describe the forbidden combinations.

The antidote to the plague of ‘arov is separation. As the Torah puts it: “on that day I will set apart the region of Goshen, where My people dwell, so that no ‘arov shall be there.” Not only land, but people as well. “And I will make a distinction between My people and your people.” [Exodus 8:18-19] The Hebrew for ‘make a distinction’ is the word p’dut which elsewhere in the Bible means ‘to ransom’, ‘to redeem’, ‘to rescue from danger’. As Alter explains verse 19, “God will grant ransom or rescue from the horde to the Israelites, and that saving act will set them apart from the afflicted Egyptians.”



The Plague of Flies by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (1896-1902) The Jewish Museum, NY


With these expressions of separateness, this fourth plague moves from puzzling to deeply troubling for me. The narratives of the later plagues will also emphasize the physical (and spiritual?) separation of the Israelites and the Egyptians. With the affliction of ‘arov this ‘unmixing’ of the two peoples makes its first appearance. The ancient Aramaic translations, known as targumim, put quite a fine point on the phenomenon. “I will put a redemption for my people, but upon your people I will bring an affliction.”

Reflecting on the inner dynamic and specific language of this fourth plague raises complex and difficult questions for me. ‘Arov seems to contrast with commitments and attitudes that I hold dear, such things as diversity and dialogue and the dignity of all human beings. How do I make sense of the Torah’s (apparent) abhorrence of mixture and its (apparent) celebration of segregation? Alter’s translation choice, fully supportable on linguistic and narrative grounds, actually heightens my discomfort. We live in a moment in which innocent people are described by those with power and prestige as ’the horde’, an unholy mixture of people intent on bringing ruin to the land.

The first third of the book of Exodus is, of course, the story of the beginnings of a people, one that happens to be my people. In that context, a particularist focus makes good sense. The plague of ‘arov works the particularist side of the street to great effect. Still, demonizing the universal worries me. In a world overrun by the ravages of ethno-nationalism and hate, the universalist side of the street needs our attention as well.

Shabbat Shalom.