Friday, August 11, 2017

Parshat Ekev: Miracle Clothes, Miracle Shoes & Shabbat

When we love a piece of clothing, or a pair of shoes, we face a dilemma.  We want to wear these things whenever it’s appropriate, but we also want them to last. 

And when the item finally does wear out, in my own experience it’s usually someone else who breaks the bad news that it’s time for me to part with it, and, eventually, and reluctantly, I do.

Clothing and other things wear out, and so do we.  We fight back against fatigue with caffeine, the occasional nap, and otherwise.  John is one of my former coaches at UFC Gym, a man who is strong, and does endurance and strength races.  I told him I started to drink more water each morning and less caffeine and that it helped me to feel better.  I expected him to wholeheartedly endorse my new habit.  He smiled and said, “Yes, I do drink a glass of water first but then I need my coffee.”

Shabbat is a time each week we face the reality that we all get worn out, tired, and need a re-fresh.  This Shabbat though we read something in Ekev, our parshah, about the way our clothes did not wear out over the 40 years in the wilderness, and our feet did not swell from the rigors of walking countless miles – meaning that our shoes held together, too.

So how come our clothes no longer miraculously survive decades of use?  How come our feet hurt at the end of the day?

As Rabbenu Bachya emphasizes in reflecting on these miracles, God changes the way nature functions.  Others emphasize that the clothing the Israelites wore when leaving Egypt grows with them over time.

Curiously, Moses says nothing about the people themselves! 

Judging by their rebellious behavior throughout the journey, their nerves are frayed, strained, even broken.

And it is for that reason that God gives Shabbat to our ancestors in the wilderness and to us.

Shabbat is not a miracle cure.  In fact, it’s not necessarily even restful.  A friend in college woke up late in the afternoon one Saturday and said, “I feel like I slept right through Shabbat.”  And I wondered whether a full day of sleep, of restorative rest, would fulfill either the letter or spirit of our weekly holiday.  And I concluded that it would not.  While our tradition says, “Ha’shena meshubachat”, on Shabbat ‘sleep is praiseworthy’, Shabbat is a form of rest and renewal that is more active.  Shabbat can leave us feeling physically tired at the same time as we recharge our neshamah, our spirit, for the week ahead.

Moses focuses on the physical -- miracle clothes and healthy feet.

Shabbat attempts to reprogram our perceptions, primarily our perception of time.

We usually talk about time as though it’s a physical thing or product – with expressions like to make time, to have time, to waste time.  It sounds like all time is the same, one thing, and that we can create more of it as needed – if only!  Shabbat reminds us that all time is not the same and it is a precious resource.  Time is a gift, and time is holy, more holy than things.   Without time, the world as we know it does not exist & we end up like Alice in Wonderland.

This Shabbat we can begin to appreciate in a fresh, new way the gift of Shabbat by following the inspiration of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel – on Shabbat we appreciate that the sun, the moon, the people we love, the trees, flowers and everything – we appreciate that it all exists, and we don’t have to add anything to it.  For one day, as our Rabbis teach, we convince ourselves (as much as is possible) all our work is done, all tasks completed, and we take together one, long, deep breath…ahhh!

Clothes and shoes wear out, but Shabbat never does.  As the great Achad Ha’am taught us, “More than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people.”  In a nod to our ancestors, let’s take our shoes off while it’s still warm, let our feet feel the texture of the grass, or sand, and take us back to that moment at the end of a week of creation, when God, on the very first Shabbat, stops, looks around at everything that had been created, and says, “Hineh tov m’od, it is all very good.”

Friday, August 4, 2017

Va'et'chanan - The Shema: A Vision of the world now and the world as it could be

The internet buzzes with rumors about an upcoming new iphone or other smartphone.

70 years ago David Ben Gurion and 10 others led the way in writing Israel’s Declaration of Independence – setting out a vision of what they hoped would be the spirit of a nation reborn.

We’re always curious about the future.  We want to know what is going to happen before it does.  It’s comforting to have at least some idea of what to expect.

Within ourselves, it’s especially challenging to look ahead – each of us as one among 7.5 billion people on earth.

But as a Jewish community we face both the present, and the unknown ahead as a community, as a family.

This week we confront our perception of the present as we read in our parsha the words that define us, “Shema Yisrael Ado-nai Elo-henu Ado-nai Echad.”  ‘Hear Israel, Ado-nai Our God, Ado-nai is One.’

This is the one statement of faith that all Jews regardless of background or observance agree upon.  These are the words we say every morning when we wake up, every night when we go to sleep, and in the last moments of life itself – we affirm the belief in One God of the Universe who unifies everything and is the Source of everything we see and know.

But then, at the end of every service, we sing the words of the prophet Zechariah as part of the Alenu prayer.  “Bayom hahu yiyeh Ado-nai echad uShmo echad.”

“On that day (in the future) God will be One and God’s Name will be One.”(14:9)

The Shema is definitive.  We believe, we know that God is One.  It’s the basis for our worldview that we are all deeply connected through time and through the Torah and its teachings.

But Zechariah seems to say the Shema is an aspiration, it’s a hope, it’s a dream, it’s just a hint like the iphone rumors swirling around.

There are great Jewish thinkers who explain this apparent contradiction.  The great Rashi, Radak (David Kimchi) explain Zecharia’s prophecy is about the other peoples of the world, that Zehcariah foresees a time that others will recognize the One God of the Universe.

But I see here another lesson, a lesson rooted in the idea that we are partners with God in creation, that creation is ongoing, and that our work is ongoing. 

Before prayers, the Kabbalah teaches we say ‘I am saying this prayer for the purpose of unifying the Holy One and the Shechinah’ – this means, our prayers, our words, our mitzvoth, our actions, contribute toward creating the unity that we seek – they contribute toward making God’s Name One in the world.

So many things challenge our ability to see unity and holiness around us.  Surrounded by so many people, we can still feel lonely.  Overwhelmed with news and information, we can still feel we haven’t found truth.  Moving so quickly in the car and our routines, we may miss the colors and contrasts, the art that is there already in nature.

The relationship between Shema and Bayom hahu, between our statement of faith and Zecharia’s commentary on it, is a motivation, a call to action, that where there is loneliness we have the ability to create chaverut, fellowship and friendship, where there is a surplus of information, we remember that truth is elusive and we should be open for ideas that are different from our own, and where we move too fast, there is time, especially on Shabbat, to appreciate the miracles we see in each other’s eyes, and in the color and life around us.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Acharei Mot: The Most Important Room in the World

Try to imagine you have a room in your house that you leave locked all the time except for one hour each year. 

In that space, you must keep an item, something that represents who you are, who you aspire to be, something that if it became lost – you could not imagine living without it.

Take a moment to picture that space.  And more importantly, take a moment to picture what is inside it.  Is it one thing?  Many things?   Is it something that is tangible or something that is intangible?

In the opening verses of our Torah portion this week, God instructs Moses to instruct his brother Aaron how to enter the Holy of Holies, the space in the Mishkan and Later Temples where we find the Ark of the Covenant.  The High Priest only enters this space once a year on Yom Kippur.

God says, “Be’zot yavo Aharon el Ha’kodesh…”  Be’Zot is a strange word here, meaning ‘with this’, or ‘in this way’ or ‘thus’.  ‘In this way’ Aaron shall enter the Holy Place.

Our ancestors noticed this word and suggested that since it is an unexpected word here, then the explanation for this word is also beyond its literal reading.

The Gematria, the numerical value of Be’zot, is 410, equivalent to the number of years the first Temple stood.

The most Holy site for the Jewish people contained within it the most Holy object.  For the Jewish people at that time, the Temple and the Ark were like the Holy Places in our homes and the Holy Items in our homes that we envisioned a few moments ago.

However, by the end of the 410 years, the Ark was gone.  And we have no idea where it is. 

(“Then it shall come to pass, when you are multiplied and increased in the land in those days,” says the Lord, “that they will say no more, ‘The ark of the covenant of the Lord.’ It shall not come to mind, nor shall they remember it, nor shall they visit it, nor shall it be made anymore.(Jeremiah 3:16))

When the exiles returned and built a smaller 2nd Temple, there was no Ark inside it.  When Herod raised a hill in Jerusalem and one of the most glorious Temples in the ancient world on that hill, there were priests and sacrifices, Levites singing song to the pilgrims, but not Ark.

The Holy of Holies was empty and still the priest went in once a year to seek atonement and forgiveness for the entire people.

And so, I share that when I tried this exercise, I saw nothing in the once a year space.  I saw the people I love, and, I saw myself. 

I believe this is what the priest saw as well, or at least what he projected.  He saw the faces of every Jewish soul and asked God for mercy and forgiveness on their behalf. 

It was a chesed shel emet he did, an act of complete loving kindness, because without the Ark it was an even greater act of faith.  Nothing tangible.  No spot above the holy winged beings carved on the cover where the sins were collected.

And when we think of Aaron this way – it makes it easier for us to understand why Aaron is called a ‘rodef shalom’ one who seeks peace – He puts his life on the line in an act of complete giving on behalf of millions of people he doesn’t know and may never meet.

Aaron’s example reminds us how important chesed is, loving-kindness, how fundamental are gentleness, empathy, listening, self-reflection and humility.  Without these things, we risk falling into the same trap Aaron himself did at Mount Sinai when he helped create the golden calf.  In that moment they placed things first instead of people.  They danced around an idol – an idol made up of ‘stuff’ of ‘things’.  They needed reassurance from something they could see and touch, except, in the end what glittered was not gold, and it was melted down, and it disappeared.

Let’s make that room we envisioned.  And let’s visit it more than once a year.  Actually, let’s live in that room, but why?  The ‘why’ is that when the rest of the house falls down or disappears, when we don’t recognize who we are or why we are, when it’s too painful to pray or when we do celebrate and the celebration gives way to ‘real life again’ – this room, this space, will still be there and strong, a source of hope because it contains only what’s most important to us and nothing else.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Shabbat Parshat Tzav - April Fool's Day and Getting Ready for Passover

In 9 days we will begin to celebrate Pesach, Passover, a holiday that is not always what it seems.  Allow me to explain…

We often mistake preparing our homes for Passover with spring-cleaning.  These are very different.

The four questions part is really 1 question divided into four parts.

The hard, crunchy matzah we eat today is not like the matzah our ancestors ate, which was soft.

The Seder is an order, a ritual in a traditional order, but the Haggadah says very little about how we should do each part.

Passover, then, is similar to April Fool’s Day, when something someone says or does is not fact.

     Still, the April Fool’s spirit, ironically, helps us to confront truths in a sharper way perhaps even than reading or studying them.  Humor and April Fool’s type stories force us to stop and think, to really listen. 

     The first day of my freshman year of college was not April Fool’s Day, but I’ll never forget how my macro-economics professor told all of us that he felt he needed to write something on the board that was not correct from time to time.  He said it was important to make sure we were paying attention, analyzing, and not just scribbling notes as fast as we could.

     And so while we generally think of Passover as a holiday that celebrates national freedom and redemption, there is also an individual element.  It’s as though we’re all sitting in that macro-economics class, but instead of the usual professor, God is up at the front of the room, and God is checking in to see whether we’re paying attention, thinking thoroughly and critically about what our ancient story means today.

     Here’s another way Passover defies its usual connotations.  Matzah, the simple, unleavened bread we eat during the holiday teaches us about being humble, thoughtful, recognizing our blessings, and making sure that we help others to share in these blessings. 

     We heard in our Torah reading this morning, “Aaron and his descendants will eat the rest of the [meal] offering.  It must be eaten as matzot, unleavened bread in a holy place…it shall not be baked as leavened bread.”(Lev. 6:9)  Why not have leavened bread in the holiest place?  Aren’t holiness, blessings, and the power of sacrificing for a transcendent good, the greatest things since sliced bread?

     Rabbi Kerry Olitzky explains what is ‘spiritual chametz’, spiritual leavening…quote

“The rabbis suggest that the leaven transcends the physical world. This leaven, this hametz also symbolizes a puffiness of self, an inflated personality, an egocentricity that threatens to eclipse the essential personality of the individual. Ironically, it is what prevents the individual from rising spiritually and moving closer to holiness. Thus, what hametz effectively does in the material world is exactly what it precludes in the realm of the spirit. That’s why it has to be removed.”
(My Jewish Learning – “Spiritual Hametz”)

     These things that we want to clear out from inside ourselves, from our hearts, are not things we necessarily do with intention.  In order to get through the daily grind, to journey through challenging times and living in a world that defies logic, we do things and invent identities for ourselves that build up in us over time like all those pesky files that build up unnoticed on our computers until our system begins to run slower and we are frustrated as we try to do our work.

     While it’s easy to download a system cleaning program for our computers, it’s not so easy to cut through the hametz that builds up inside us.  However mindful we try to be, it is difficult to see ourselves from the outside in, and that’s where April Fool’s Day can be helpful, or at least the spirit of this day, which, by the way, is mentioned in the Torah as an important festival of spiritual cleansing prior to Passover…ok, that’s an April Fool’s.

The spirit of April 1st is a spirit of giving us a gentle push out of our comfort zone.  If we consider what makes us laugh, and what convinces us and does not convince us of the truth, if we can laugh at ourselves and begin to gently shake the stress that grips us, and confront our fears that often come out in April 1st gags, then we have a chance to clean out our spiritual hametz before we start in on cleaning out the actual hametz on the shelf.

Which of the 4 Seder Children Am I?

The fifth question for this year’s Seder is…
Which of the four children am I?

Am I the wise child – ready to learn more about how we observe the holiday?

Am I the wicked child – asking everyone else about why they observe Passover & leaving myself out?

Am I the simple child – really asking a simple question, a straightforward question?

Am I the child who does not know how to ask – ready to listen?

There is, as it happens, a fifth child, the one who is not even at the Seder table – the question there is for us, how do we bring her back to the table?

We are all a mixture of the 4, but if we were forced, compelled tonight to choose one, which would we be?

As we get ready for Passover, this exercise can help us make a spiritual preparation for the holiday, a way of taking stock of who we are, where we are, as we look forward to the renewal and hope that comes with Passover and spring.

Am I the chacham, the wise child?  Am I in a place of asking thorough and critical questions, of unpacking issues and ideas to find out how they work, do not work, where they come from, how they were inspired and to where do they lead?

Am I the rasha, wicked child – And I believe here the translation is flawed.  There is no wickedness in what this child says.  There is only a perception that this child appears to say that Passover has no relevance to her.  But, in fact, this child may be the one who is asking the key question – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argues this point in his wonderful Haggadah, the rasha, he argues, comes from a place in Jewish history, after the destruction of the 2nd Temple by Rome, when our ancestors were concerned that our people would drift away to the Roman side.  While the Rabbis did adopt elements of Roman law and culture into our tradition, there was a fear that our people would be tempted by all that Rome had to offer, some of which was not in keeping with our cherished values. 

The real question then the rasha is asking, the so-called wicked child, is a question to all us grown ups who are modeling and teaching our children and students – the question is what does Judaism mean to us?  Do our actions show that our Judaism matters to us? 

The wicked child should rather be called the child who is confused, interested, inquisitive – and this is the kind we really want and need at the Seder table, at every table.

Or, are we the simple?  Maybe at this point we want clarity and simplicity.  We don’t need right now to delve deeper, just to know a reassuring message.  Perhaps we don’t have the energy right now for more, due to our circumstances.

Or, finally, are we the ones who do not know the question to ask?  I’ve always believed that in studying our Judaism, the questions are better than the answers.  Our goal is to sharpen the questions we ask because solid answers are often elusive.  Good questions, though, sustain our focus and interest and spark discussion so that we can learn from each other.

As we edge closer to Passover, which begins Monday evening April 10th, let’s each of us see which child of the 4 (or 5) that we are, and think about how we can bring the fullness of that persona to the Seder, to the holiday, and to celebrate who we are and where we are in life.  Our tradition, after all, instructs us to teach each child, each person, ba’asher hu sham, where he is, where she is, right now, in this moment, not to teach the idealized person we hope to be, but who we are right now.