Rosh Hashanah Day One D’var Torah

There’s a beautiful new Mahzor circulating in the world of Conservative Judaism this year, thanks to the passion and scholarship of our own Rabbi Eddie Feld. Looking through it for some insight into today’s Torah portion, I was struck by a quotation from Hayim Nachman Bialik, the great Hebrew poet. “Before God,” Bialik said, “there are languages other than words. These are weeping, laughter, and melody. They are the possessions of all who live. They are manifestations of the very deepest levels of our being.” This statement reminded me of a scientific study I’d read about, suggesting that the words in our minds constitute a kind of flimsy story we tell ourselves, for social reasons or to shelter our psyches, whereas feelings announce who we really are. Feelings speak in the primal terms of survival: lust, love, hatred, tears, and laughter. It occurred to me that in doing tshuva we lower ourselves down into the chamber of these discordant emotions, discovering that atonement is not changing what cannot be changed, but bringing fullness to the internal melody.

The connection between Rosh Hashanah and the saga of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac, which we read today and tomorrow, is not obvious, but the raw emotionality of the parsha is. It hinges, precisely, in two important places, on laughter and tears. (21:6) Vatomer Sarra, tskhok asa li elohim, kol hashomea yitsakhka li. “Sarah said, ‘God has made laughter to me; everyone who hears will laugh to me.” {The translation is deliberately messy—we’ll come back to that.} (21:16} Va-teshev mineged, vateesa et kolah va’tevk. “Sitting at a distance, Hagar burst into tears.”

There is a theory that we read these stories today because they tell about the birth of Isaac, the son through whom Judaism is perpetuated, an appropriate theme for the birthday of the world, which also expresses our hope for the perpetuation of the Jewish people through the cycles of time. What’s interesting, however, is that these stories seem to have less to do with birth itself than they do with weaning. The word ‘weaning’ appears in the text: va-ya’as avraham mishteh gadol b’yom higamel et yitschak. “And Abraham held a great feast on the day that Isaac was higamel—weaned.” But beyond the literal cessation of breastfeeding, these are tales about moments of rupture, crisis, and emergence in parent child relationships—myths that demonstrate how we separate from, while remaining enmeshed in, family emotions.

Tomorrow we will look at the more familiar akedat Yitskhak, the ‘binding of Isaac’, but today we read the similarly harrowing ozvat Yishmael, the ‘abandonment of Ishmael.’ The two stories have a parallel shape: at God’s suggestion or with God’s approval, a child is taken by his parent into the wilderness and exposed to death, only to have life restored to him at the last moment through the intercession of an angel. Today, Ishmael and his mother Hagar are banished from the house of his father Abraham, because Sarah, Abraham’s first wife and now the mother of Isaac, finds their presence distressing. In contrast to Abraham’s seeming calm in leading Isaac to the slaughter in tomorrow’s story, Hagar is evidently distraught to be left with Ishmael at the mercy of the elements. “She wandered about in the wilderness of Be’er Sheva. When the water in the skin was gone, she left the child under one of the bushes and went and sat down at a distance a bowshot away—kimtakhavei keshset—for, she thought, ‘Let me not look on as the child dies.’” And now comes the verse I’ve already cited: “Sitting at a distance, she burst into tears.” Vateesa et kolah vatevk.”

The story has a happy ending—Ishmael survives by the grace of God and gives rise to a great nation in his own right—but this is less interesting to me than contemplating who Ishmael becomes as a result of lying helpless and alone, hearing the faint sound of his mother’s weeping carried by the wind—kimtakhavei keshet—the distance of a bowshot. The Torah doesn’t tell us in so many words, but it does say this: (21:20) “And God was with the boy as he grew up; he dwelt in the wilderness, vayihi roveh kashet—and he became skilled with the bow.” The experience is not erased from his memory. Ishmael grows up imprinted with his mother’s tears, and the painful bowshot distance from himself that they represent. But the wound does not seem to become a scar. Instead, it inspires him to fashion strength for himself as an archer, a skill that bridges his abandonment and insures his survival.

Though shaped by his mother’s tears, Ishmael is not named for them—the name Yishma’el refers to God hearing Hagar’s voice when she was lost in the wilderness at another time—but his half-brother, by contrast, is named for the emotion of his mother. Vatomer Sarra, tskhok asa li elohim, kol hashomea yitsakhk li. This is the confusing verse I cited earlier, it’s meaning dependant on how you translate the Hebrew prepositional phrase ‘li’—‘to me’. The words tskhok and yitsakhak are both related to the name Yitskhak, Isaac. All are grammatical forms of the root tsakhak, meaning ‘laugh’. But what is Sarah saying here? Many of the translations I looked at take the high road: “Sarah said, God has brought laughter to me. Everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.” But it is quite logical, and perhaps even preferable, to translate it another way: “Sarah said, God has made me into a source of laughter—God has made a joke of me. Everyone who hears about this—that I have given birth to a child after my menopause and with my husband well into old age—will laugh at me.”

This ambivalence should not come as a surprise. We already know that Sarah has a very sophisticated sense of humor, and a complicated relationship to tskhok, to laughter. Hagar’s weeping may well up and overflow as a pure and anguished expression of her spirit, but Sarah’s laughter is more cautious, filtered, multivalent. This is not even the first time she has laughed at, or with, God. Earlier in Genesis, when three mysterious men show up at the door of Abraham’s tent to announce that Isaac will be born, against all odds and laws of human biology, simply as a miraculous sign of her husband’s walk with God, Sarah has a characteristic reaction: vatitskhak sarra b’kirbah—“and Sarah laughed b’kirbah (a word I’ll leave untranslated for a moment) saying: after I have faded, will I have pleasure, and my husband as old as he is?” She laughs b’kirbah—‘within herself’ is one way of translating this—it is something personal and private. Sarah is ashamed when God overhears this private laughter. Sarah is enraged, in today’s parsha, when Ishmael, whom she bitterly resents, appears to partake of it: (21:9-10) “And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian who had been born to Abraham mitsakhek. (clarify) And she said to Abraham: throw them out!”

But we can consider what it means to say that Sarah laughs b’kirbah in another way. There is certainly a bite to Sarah’s laughter, a coloring of irony or sarcasm, which we can imagine she has come by honestly in the course of her strange experience with her husband, the headstrong man of God, living in the wake of his glorious and challenging adventure. But though it may contain bitterness, her laughter seems to form a secret reservoir that has gathered b’kirbah, within her, sustaining her even as her life compresses. I don’t think it’s even all that far-fetched to translate vatitskhak sarra b’kirbah as “And Sarah laughed in her innards—and Sarah laughed in her womb.” The laughter with which she greets the news that after so many withering years she is finally to be granted a child, because now it is part of the divine plan, indicates the stirring of a profound emotional fertility, and if it is God who miraculously places life in her barren womb, it is her own fertile soul that sustains that life, brings it to fruition, and names it Yitskhak, Isaac, laughter.

We have seen the effect of Hagar’s weeping on the development of Ishmael, but what does Sarah’s laughter make of Isaac? We are probably more used to viewing Isaac in relationship to his father Abraham. Modern commentators, noting that Isaac’s narrative is pretty sparse in comparison to those of both Abraham and Isaac’s son Jacob, consider him a kind of stunted patriarch, who may never have fully recovered from the glimpse of mortality and betrayal he saw in his father’s knife. Whether or not this is a valid interpretation of the akedah, it certainly does seem true that Isaac lives a life hemmed in by his father’s mission. He himself never leaves the land of Canaan that was the destination of his father’s bold journey across Mesopotamia. He takes the wife his father gives him. He even pulls off his father’s old shemes—passing off this wife, Rebecca, as his sister to gain preference in the court of Avimelech, the Philistene king.

And yet the Torah tells us, literally, that although Isaac dug no new wells, he was able to find new water in the ones he inherited from Abraham. This also has a figurative truth. I just mentioned the story of Avimelech. Twice in the Abraham narrative, we see him pass Sarah off as his sister to evade what he perceives as a danger, and both times the conclusion to the story comes with the intervention of God. God brings a plague to the court of the Pharoah, or visits Avimelech in a dream. This powerful God is demonstrated as the saving power in Abraham’s life, but when Isaac goes through a similar circumstance, the saving power is something much more intimate and subtle. (26:8) “And it was, after they had been there for many days, that Avimelech looked out of his window, and saw vihinei yitskhak mitsakhek et rivka ishto…Yitskhak was ‘sporting’, as the word is often translated, with his wife”—but the word is mitsakhek—from tsakhak, laughter—without in any way diminishing the erotic force of the term, we could say that Yitskhak was sharing laughter with his wife, sharing joy, and that this manifestation of his own joyful lifeforce has the effect in his experience that the grandiose miracles of God had in the story of his father. It insures his survival.

Isaac may be the quietest, but also the most loving character in the whole Torah. As we will read tomorrow, the first time the word ahava, love, is used in the Torah it is in reference to him. The most purely romantic tableau in the text may be when Isaac is walking across a field at sunset, and looks up to see the caravan of camels coming toward him, bringing Rebecca with them. Following this vision, we read: (24:67) “And Isaac brought her into his mother’s tent, and took Rebecca as his wife, and he loved her, and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.” Having learned from his mother what it means to bring laughter into a circumscribed fate, he is able to move forward after she is gone. As Hagar’s distant tears made her son an archer, so has Sarah’s subtle mirth cultivated in her son the capacity to love deeply.

There is a famous story about the Hasidic Reb Zushe, who told his followers that when he went to Olam Haba, the next world, he would have no problem answering the question: “Why weren’t you more like Abraham, Moses, or King David?” “What kind of a question is that?” he would say. “How can you expect to make something so grand out of the material I’m made out of?” “But,” he said, “if they ask me, ‘Reb Zushe, why weren’t you more like Reb Zushe?’ then I’ll know I’m in trouble.” We do not do tshuva, we do not atone, by becoming what we are not and could never be. Instead, we investigate the laughter, weeping and melody that Bialik said were “manifestations of the deepest levels” of who we are—the language through which we truly address the ground of our being—and hope, if not for radical change, than for the sensation of fullness; to pass, like our ancestors, through the births and weanings of our lives, as archers and lovers. Lowering ourselves down into the chaos of this primal music, we listen for that rare occurence—the lev shalem: the momentary stillness of the completed heart.

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Zeek issue about Reconstructionism

Zeek, an excellent, relatively new journal of cutting edge Jewish art and ideas, has devoted its latest print issue to the place of Reconstructionist ideology in the context of ‘post-denominationalism’. The edition is guest edited by Rabbi Jacob Staub, one of my professors at RRC, and it features essays from a number of contemporary Reconstructionist-ordained rabbis. It includes my own piece “Reconstructing Yiddishkeit”, about reaching for Jewish authenticity and community in a fragmented age.

I have a copy in my office, if you want to come take a look, but also please consider subscribing to this really interesting magazine:

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D’var Torah–Nitzavim/Vayelekh 9/4/10

In the divrei Torah I’ve been offering since I arrived, we’ve been looking at the conjunction of the month of Elul and the haftorot of consolation—the month of the Hebrew calendar during which we warm up for the experience of tshuva, repentence/returning, and the special readings from the Prophet Isaiah that we use for seven weeks following the holiday of Tisha b’Av, to help us cope with the historical catastrophe that we revisit at the height of the summer every year—the destruction of the Temple. I’ve been interpreting the weekly Torah portions in this context, trying to pull out a sense of what it means to atone in the consciousness of a catastrophe—how it might inspire us to perceive what is sacred with a distinct urgency or acuity, how it might challenge or intensify our sense of justice.

I want to begin this week by taking a closer look at the centerpiece of this catastrohpe we’ve been talking about—the Temple. From the Tanakh, we learn that there were two Temples, one built by Solomon, and the other begun in the restoration following the Babylonian exile, and that the instinct to create a sacred space of this kind goes all the way back to Mount Sinai. God told Moses that the people could not linger forever at the base of the mountain where they had been privledged to hear the voice of God, in all its terrible beauty, piercing through the fabric of the mundane. But the remedy for this unfortunate departure was to build a portable sanctuary, the Mishkan, that would take the revelation of Sinai and make it portable; transform the spontaneous experience that occurred on top of a mysterious mountain in the wilderness into a cultural performance, invoking the presence of the divine through special words, clothing, sights, smells, and ceremonies, performed by priests and mediated through the powerful figure of Moses. When the Hebrews finally settled in the Promised Land, they transposed this travelling roadshow into a fixed monument: the Jerusalem Temple. This was for our ancestors what the Greeks called the omphalos—the navel or center of the world; the focal point of their expectations; the anchor of their spiritual existence.

Rabbinic writing contains many laments over the loss of the Temple, giving us a sense of how their world fell apart after it was destroyed in the Roman conquest of Judea. They tell us that the rains no longer fell as graciously as they used to when the Temple was standing. They talk about ruins haunted by shades and wild animals. They imagine God godself sitting up late into the night, keeping a vigil, moaning, “Why did I destroy my house and banish my children?” They invoke the famous words of the book of Lamentations–Hashivenu adonai eleycha v’nashuva, hadesh yamenu k’kadem—not as a purely spiritual metaphor, but as a statement of a physical reality: we had this great place, where we stood in the presence of the divine, and now it’s gone. We want tshuva—we want to return to it. We want it made chadash—we want it renewed.

But our Torah portion today opens with a striking contrast to this specter of exile, loss, and alienation. Nearing the end of his final address to the people, while they stand on the far side of the Jordan, Moses says: atem nitzavim hayom kulkhem lifnei adonai eloheychem—”You are standing today before the Lord your God.” Rather than standing over the ruins of a demolished sanctuary, in galus, in exile from what they held most dear, the Jews of Moses’s moment are nitzavim, standing right where they should be, before the Lord their God. This parsha is actually full of well-known phrases speaking to the nearness of God—the radical accesibility of the right and holy: lo bashamayim hi…It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 13 Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 14 No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart…”

But we should bear in mind that we’re reading a double porton today, not just Nitzavim by itself. The names of double-portions are functional labels, two different titles stuck together with a hyphen, but this method of naming often seems to render an evocative phrase that we can read like inkblots or Zen riddles. Earlier in the year, we read acharei mot-kedoshim “After the death…Holy”; another is called Bahar-Bekhukotai “On the mountain…within my laws.” (To be fair, there is one in Leviticus called “Tazria-Metzora”, which translated roughly as “Leprosy-Discharge”…) The name of today’s double portion does seem to suggest something important: Nitzavim—you are standing, you are here now, you are in the presence—is coupled with the portion “Va-yelekh”—and he went. Contemplating the experience of nitzavim, of standing in the presence of God, we are confronted abruptly with va-yelekh a verb of departure; reminded that the only constant is change, that peaks are followed by valleys, or crashes—depending on how softly you come down. Nitzavim—you are standing in the presence; va-yelekh—you must inevitably leave the presence.

I’ll admit that the first thing this made me think of was my wedding day. We got married on a mountain, not Sinai but one of the beautiful tree-covered ridges of the Great Smokey Mountains, outside of Gatlinburg. We spent the shabbos weekend welcoming loved one after loved one to our holy convocation, praying, eating, laughing, making music, frantically taking care of last minute details. We were married on a warm sunny day, blessed and serendaded under the huppah by family and friends. We danced well into the night, and the party drew to a close with a group of our friends holding hands and swaying around us in a circle as we held each other close and moved to a slow and mellow song. And then, in the morning (the afternoon, maybe?), we woke up and everyone was gone. It reminded me of the Irish tales I’ve heard about men who dance with the fairyfolk by the fullmoon and wake in the morning to find themseles face down in the dew. We emptied the balloons out of the car, wiped off the shaving cream, and began slowly making our way up north. We spent a night and day in Asheville, North Carolina, and wondered why nobody in the restaurants dropped everything to sing for us, or demanded that we kiss. By the end of the week, I was back at work, preparing to officiate the funeral of the mother of one of my congregants. Nitzavim-va-yelekh. You are standing in the presence, and then it is gone.

The va-yelekh of this second parsha, however, is not a general, abstract statement. This “and he went” has a very specific and familiar subject. Va-yelekh moshe—and Moses went–va-yidaber et had’varim ha’eleh el kol yisrael– and spoke these words to all of Israel–va-yomer aleyhem ben-me’ah v’esrim anokhi hayom v’lo okhal od l’tseit v’la’vo v’adonai amar eylai lo ta’avor et hayarden ha’zeh—and he said to them: “I am 120 years old today and I cannot go out and come in anymore, and God has said to me: you will not cross this Jordan.” Moses himself is accutely aware of his va-yelekh–that he is going, that, at the end of his life and mission, he is falling away from the presence. What is interesting, as we read further, is that his concern seems less with his own fate (although we get the sense he isn’t exactly happy about it) as with the issue of what will happen to the people when he is gone. Just as the mishkan, and later the Temple, were meant to serve as cultural representations of the transcendant experience at Mount Sinai, so too is Moses a kind of bridge or linking figure between the people and their highest selves. He is the one who stood panim-el-panim with God, face-to-face, mediating the terrifying voice. And now, as he feels himself fading, he is worried what will happen to the people without his own presence as an emissary and a goad. Maybe this explains the urgency of the statement that begins our first parsha today: atem nitzavim hayom kulkhem lifnei adonai eloheychem. Look, he says, your are standing in the presence of God this very day. Even without the lightening and thunder of Sinai, the pomp and circumstance of the ruined Temple, the bliss of a wedding day, there is a way you can still taste it, or, at least, contantly remind yourselves that the potential for such elevation exists in your lives, and despite the flow of circumstances, the waxing and waning of enthusiasms, you may find yourselves able to turn and return to it.

The real question is: how? How can you sew the legacy of remarkable moments into the fabric of your daily experience. How can you make sure that your intimation of the deepest or highest that life has to offer continues to command your attention, even as time washes on. Moses has two answers. Preparing to relinquish his authority to Joshua, he does two interesting things: 31:9—va’yikhtov Moshe et haTorah ha’zot va’yitnenah lakohanim—And Moses wrote down his Torah, and he gave it to the priests. And then in 31:22—va’yikhtov moshe et hashirah ha’zot ba’yom ha’hu vyilmideha et b’nai yisrael—and Moses wrote down on that day the song that God had taught him to sing, and he taught it to the Children of Israel. He teaches us here that it is the stories that we tell, and the songs that we sing, fashioned in response to our most important experiences or handed down to us by tradition, that will remind us of what it means to stand in the presence, to be nitzavim, even as we are va-yelekh, going on our way.

I want to close by illustrating this point with another story—and I’ll tell the short version. It was recently retold to me by an old friend of the family, and it had to do with being wheeled through the corridors of a hospital on his way to emergency heart surgery, not knowing, in the words of the unetanah tokef prayer that we will recite in only a few days, if he would live or die. In the midst of his own existential turmoil, and in the bustling hallway, he suddenly saw an orthodox woman, sitting on a bench, holding a siddur, a prayerbook. He asked her to say a blessing for him, and she stood over him, while the ordelies waited, and recited the 23rd psalm. He was filled with a sense of calm that he carried with him into the operating room. I don’t think he was suggesting that the words had some kind of supernatural effect on him. The way he described it was to say, “I never quite understood why we say that we ‘practice’ Judaim. It struck me as a funny word to use, ‘practice’. But now I understood: we practice, because every once in a while we actaully need to be able to do it.” This song he had been singing for a long time by rote, this psalm which may have initially been composed in response to a moment of intense emotion, now reopened a refuge for him, a sanctuary of peace and presence. It was certainly a modest sanctuary, in comparison to the glory of the Temple, as it has been described to us. But we should remember that Moses, when he was going away and reminding us that we are nitzavim hayom—standing this day in the presence of the holy—stressed that this holiness was not to be found in heaven or across the sea. “No,” he said. “It is very near to you. It is in your mouth. It is in your heart.”

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Selichot Poem

I was asked to post the name of the poem that I read as part of the Selichot program that took place at the JCA this past Saturday night. It was:

“The Bratslaver to his Scribe,” by Yankev Glatshteyn (aka Jacob Glatstein)

I read part three. The translation is by Leonard Wolf. The whole thing can be found bilingually in this collection:

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D’var Torah on Parashat Shoftim, delivered on 8/14/10

Last week I talked a little about how there were two elements really providing the texture to this time period in the Jewish calendar. The first is that we have now entered the month of Elul, in which we begin to prepare ourselves for the Tshuva, the repentence or returning, of the High Holidays. The other is that we are still in the period of Haftorot of consolation that lead us out of the holiday of Tisha b’Av—this week we read the fourth of them. I talked a little bit last week about how these two elements might be intertwined—about what it might mean to seek atonement after an experience or with a premonition, of catastrophe—how it might provide an extra measure of urgency.

It occurs to me now that this can mean two things: for some people, knowing that life has a certain sense of inevitable tragedy just by its very nature—that life is suffering, as the JuBus might tell us—gives us the incentive to live each moment to the fullest, and atonement may mean a realization of mortality—a numbering of our days that gives us hearts of wisdom—to discern and cleave to what is most signifcant.

But for others, atonement in the awareness of catastrophe has meant an anxiety to make sure you are free of sin so that nothing terrible happens to you—because events are just God’s way of letting you know who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.

This idea certainly seems to have held sway in the minds of our ancestors, at least if we judge by the records they left us. The increasing weight and intensity of Elul comes about because you know you are getting closer and closer to the period of judgement—when God will sit upon the throne of judgement and decide, primarily based on your deeds and the force of your repentence, what your fate may be over the coming year. Just as in ancient times God decided that the Temple, the kingdom of Judah, the city of Jerusalm, merited obliteration, and then, eventually, consolation.

Atonement, as Jewish tradition has long understood it, relates directly to two of the most significant aspects of the divine: justice and mercy; din and rachamim—the quality that holds us to a strict accounting of our deeds, and the quality that understands we are impossibly flawed, and so cuts us a little slack. One Jewish creation myth teaches that a world grounded solely in justice could never last—it would be like a failed planet in the pathway of an exploding star. The world is only sustained by the admixture of mercy with justice—of rachamim—wombness—divine compassion, which is all that keeps God from obliterating creatures as sinful as we are.

The sefirotic system of the kabbalah developed this into the concept of hesed and gevurah. Hesed is the unfettered flow of positive energy, good vibes, mercy, love, rainbows, and little puppy dogs. Gevurah, on the other hand, is the force that restricts, that sets limits, that makes the painful cut. We are taught that hesed is like the tent of Abraham, open on all four sides to receive visitors from any direction, and gevurah is Abraham’s knife, held over the bound and prone body of his son. But there is an important difference between chesed and gevurah, and din and rachamim—din and rachamaim are moral judgements, are expressions of a sense of justice that probes and determines our merits and demerits, whether we are bad or good. Hesed and gevurah seem more like mythic attempts to grasp an impersonal cosmic reality, a universe made of a substance that seems to be constantly making and umaking itself, flowing out and contracting, dancing creation and collapse. We can appreciate this reality in meditation, understanding, as Marge Piercy writes, that our bodies are “that momentary kibbutz/ of elements that have belonged to frog and polar/ bear, corn and oak tree, volcano and glacier.” We may learn from this slippery vision of the cosmos what balance is, but it seems to have less to tell us about justice, about what is right and wrong. In fact, a vision of nature as it is, at worst cruelly implacable and at best benignly indifferent—may lead us to say with the Talmudic heretic Elisha Ben Abuya—leyt din v’leit dayan—there is no justice and there is no judge. It may confound our attempts to establish any sense of justice at all.

But that’s what this week’s parsha, Shoftim, quite clearly attempts to do—understanding all the while what a difficult project, for a number of reasons, this is. Shoftim v’shotrim titeyn-likha b’khol sh’arekha, it begins, v’shiftu et ha’am mishpat tzedek. “You shall appoint judges and officers at all your gates…and they shall judge the people justly, with a righteous judgement.” Immediately, the text moves to charge these officials with the proper execution of their duty: lo tatEH mishpat lo takir panim v’lo tikakh shokhed… “Do not incline your judgment unduly in someone’s favor, do not recognize faces, and do not take bribes, because bribes blind the eyes of the wise and confound the words of the righteous.” Then as a seal it offers us this famous phrase: tzedek tzedek tirdof l’ma’an tikhye… ” Justice, justice you shall pursue, so that you may live and inherit the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”

The whole parsha can be read as a kind of essay on what it means to be a rodef tzedek—how a mishpat tzedek, a righteous judgment, can be established in such a slippery world. The last image is a kind of existential rumination on what to do in a case when concrete justice can’t be established at all: a murdered corpse is found in a wasteland, outside the borders of any town, and no evidence can be found to establish guilt. The elders of the nearest town engage in a sacrificial ceremony which, if it does not actually determine who is responsible, alleviates the anxiety of an unsolved crime. Justice, here, appears to be a very imperfect human pact against the backdrop of an unknowable world—against the backdrop of the impersonal cosmic rhythm of hesed and gevura—its basically the best that we can do in the face of very unstable circumstances.

But most of the parsha is not as concerned with this high-minded philosophical idea as it is with the practical problems of setting up standards of justice and human beings to execute this justice. The standards themselves are not as much of a problem—the Torah rests on a sure sense of the authority of God as a law giver. The problem is that we need to rely on other people to implement these laws—and these people take bribes, and recognize faces, are blinded and have their words confounded by corporate influence. They lose the scent of the righteous judgment they should be pursuing. Sitting in judgment becomes an exercise in the use of power for personal gain. This same parsha actually talks about what it would mean to establish a king in Israel, an ultimate human repository of justice and power in the community, and does its best to ensure that the king never feels himself to be above the law. V’haya kishivto al kisei mamlakhtu, it says. “When he sits upon the seat of his sovreignty, he must write out a copy of this Torah, and it should be with him, and he should read it all the days of his life, so that he might learn…”

There’s a third problem—beyond the elusiveness of justice in the natural world, and the corruptibility of justice in human affairs, and that’s that sometimes the concept of what is just can begin to feel so repressive that it becomes unbearable. This is a topic of conversation among liberal clergy—the fact that most people who come to our synagogues don’t want to be told what to do, and that we’re not even sure ourselves what we would tell them if they did. We enter into religious community nowadays, it seems, for expansiveness—for rachamim and hesed, rather than din and gevurah. And why not? Restricttive religious law as a force has been remarkably destructive of the human psyche, in many times and places, leading to unnecessary enmities, to a shame in the inherent sexuality of our bodies, or to the wholesale exclusion of undesireable populations. And what isn’t outright offensive can often seem outdated, ungrounded in any holistic form of life, irrelevant.

And yet without some sense of what is right, the spiritual life flounders—there is no tshuvah, no return, unless you have a sense of what you are trying to get back to—unless you have some inkling of how to purify your sacred place so that you can commune with the most high. Spiritual crisis, more often than not, is not so much about losing your way, as it is about no longer being sure of what you were trying to reach along that way in the first place. Elsewhere in the Torah, reeling from the trauma of the Golden Calf, Moses has such a crisis, and he says to God, “Look, you have told me to elevate these people, but you have not told me by what power I am to do so. Show it to me, show me your true ways, show me what is right and just, show me your face so that I can know you.” This is the famous story where God answers by saying, “I cannot show you my face, because no one can see me full on and live, but if you brace yourself I will show you some trace of what I am.”

This story forms the kernel of a powerful teaching about justice in our world, by the French Jewish philosopher Emanuel Levinas, made popular recently in the Musar teaching of Rabbi Ira Stone. Levinas suggested that what we lack, in comparison perhaps to our ancestors, is a sense of commandedness—a firm sense of mitzvot that guide our lives and form the bedrock of our values, and this is not because we are sinners who have fallen short but because, like Moses, God does not show us God’s face, and we are left in confusion and corruption. But, he continues, also like Moses we may be privledged to see some trace of the divine—something that will give us a basic sense of justice, of oblilgation, of something we should live up to. Where, he asks, did God leave the evidence of God’s presence? In the light that streamed from Moses face when he came down from the mountain—this was the evidence that God had been there. The trace of God, the beginning of justice, din or gevurah, of the sense that you have some cause to channel and restrict yourself, something to live up to, something you can sin against, can be seen when you look into another human face.

Justice is elusive. If it were obvious we wouldn’t have to pursue it—the text would use some other verb beside rodef. Maybe the only thing we can be sure of is that we begin to return to it, we begin our tshuva, by looking at each other.

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D’var Torah–Parashat Re’eh 8/7/10

I’ll be using this space to make my Divrei Torah available after they’ve been delivered at the JCA. I hope these written out versions make sense—sometimes I just make a note or two to myself on the page, and improvise while I’m speaking. Whenever possible, I will clean things up for ‘publication’…

Parashat Re’eh [Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17]
          I’ll have a chance to offer three teachings between now and the start of the High Holidays, and I’ve decided to link them thematically around the time of the Jewish year in which we happen to currently find ourselves, so I want to devote a little time in this morning’s teaching to saying a few words about what this special time period is.

          In about four days, we will begin the month of Elul, the last month of the Hebrew calendar, which is known for being a time when we begin to think about tshuva—repentence returning, the work of the high holidays. We begin to blow the shofar at morning services, and we add Psalm 27 to the daily liturgy, which forms the refrain between now and Hoshana Raba. So it’s a time when a young man’s heart turns to tshuva.
          There’s something else going on now, too, in a mixture of the holiday cycle and the reading cycle. It all has to do with the haftarah and the holiday of Tisha b’Av—the holiday of destruction, the height or depth of brokenness. We lead into it with a series of punishing messages from the prophets Jeremiah and Isiaiah, as if we too were on the verge of a calamity hearing and ignoring the voices of the prophets of doom. And then after Tisha b’Av we hear the nekhemta, the seven haftorot from the later chapters of the book of Isaiah that speak of a consolation following tragedy, and lead us almost all the way up to the High Holidays. (Today we’re on the third of these.)
          When we combine these two things—Elul and the period of nekhemta (the haftorot of consolation)—we get a new feeling for the texture of these August days. We turn toward the High Holidays, toward tshuva, while still feeling the reverberation of a trauma (the destruction of the Temple)—with the kind of mentality that comes from having lived through a destruction—with some comfort, but perhaps also with a kind of wariness, glad to be alive but with a loss of innocence—life contains this darkness,too—maybe even with a changed perception of the future. We know, now, from experience, that it is not limitless—that bodies and civilizations are vulnerable, cycles of rise and fall invevitable; that time is incalculably precious, becaues it passes. We may have a new appreciation for the phrase of Pslam 90, which is also one of the leitmotifs of the High Holidays: “Teach us to number our days so that we might acquire hearts of wisdom.” We may discover an intense desire to be oriented toward a perception of what is most sacred in our lives.
          Our Torah portion today, Re’eh, begins with a statement about orienting ourselves toward what is sacred, and also with two very strong verbs of perception: Re’eh, “Behold, see”, says Moshe (Moses), speaking in God’s first person, anokhi noten leefneykhem hayom bracha ooklalh. “I am setting before you this day a blessing and a curse.” Et ha-brakha asher teeshmioo el mitzvot adonai eloheykhem asher anokhi mitzveh etchem hayom. “The blessing if you obey” literally hear, shomea, “the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you this day,” vihaklala im lo teeshmioo, “and the curse if you will not obey”, again, literally, shomea, hear.
          So this verse offer us a kind of choice—what the Torah will later describe as the choice between life and death—choosing to live sacredly, here described as living accoding to the commandments of the Lord your God, or choosing to reject this orientation. And it does so couched in the language of seeing and hearing—ro’eh and shomea. I want to explore this in a little more detail.
          Re’eh is a command: behold! Look! Hearing such a strong commanding verb at the start of the passage, we might respond by saying: “Look at what? What are we supposed to be looking at?” “I set before you a blessing and a curse.” How are we supposed to look at that? It may just be a rhetorical flourish, a call to attention, but there’s also a way in which the Torah presents these blessings and curses as something very visual—something that can be seen—as it continues to articulate them. In chapter 29 of Dvarim, for instance, we find the nature of these blessings and curses filled in in great, and sometimes excruciating details, inviting us to see what they mean.
          “Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Blessed shall you be when you come in and when you go out. The Lord will cause the enemies that rise up against you to be smitten before you; they shall come out against you in one way, and will flee before you in seven ways.”
          And on the other hand: “Cursed shall be the fruit of your body and the fruit of your land…the Lord shall make the pestilence cleave to you, smite you with consumption and with fever…you will grope at noonday as the blind gropes in darkness…you shall be mad for the sight of your eyes which you will see.”
          Here we find the exhoration of the start of the parsha developed into a series of images, a list of things we can actually see in our mind’s eye. But they are visual in another sense, too: these blessings and curses, these images of abundance and lack, of success, sickness, and despair are the obervable texture of earthly lives: they are the natural texture of life that we cannot help but see simply by being human and having eyes. But this passage does something else: it takes reality and makes it into theology. You want to know why you see a world of such variety, of exultation and pain? It’s all because of the favor and displeasure of God. You are blessed when you do right, and if you are cursed it’s because you didn’t.
          There’s a way in which these words take on a new and scary resonance in our age of ecological devastation and resource depletion—in which we feel a somewhat justifiable sense of guilt for the things we see, or cannot bring ourselves to look at, going on around us, and that’s a good subject for another time. What I want to bring out in this parsha today is the more basic way that the Torah seems to propose an answer to the “mystery of suffering”, by saying that when things go wrong in our lives, it is an indication that we are not right with God. This may be a pattern of explanation that many here have rejected, but it is still plenty active in our culture, and its undeniable presence in our sacred texts often proves to be a stumbling block for people looking to them for solace in times of trouble. Traditionally, the may form a kind of savage comfort, an abhorrent kind of certainty. The place of the Holy is to judge us by its merits, and castiagte us so that we walk the right path. Tshuva is walking the correct path so that we don’t get punished. We see the trials of the world as a direct consquence of how we behave.
          But it’s important to point out this is not the only path provided by the Tanakh. I think first of all of the book of Job, which seems designed for almost no other reason than to say that bad things happen to good people for inexplicable reasons, and that God is experienced in the midst of suffering not as the righteous cause of that suffering, but as a kind of astounding mystery. And then there’s the story of Elijah. He goes right from the moment of triupmh over the idolators of Ba’al—seeing the power of God rewarding the righteous and punishing the wicked—to a moment of despair in the wilderness, when, later on, so many righteous prophets have been killed. His certainty in the justice of the world is profoundly shaken, and he wants to die. In confrontation with naked reality, he has lost his vision of God. But here God is described as intervening, sending an angel to feed and comfort Elijah, to restore him, and to lead him up to a cave on the top of a mountain. “And Elijah stood upon the mountain, before the Lord, and behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces, but God was not in the wind; and after the wind and earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake, and after the earthquake a fire, but God was not in the fire, and after the fire a still, small voice, and when Elijah heard it he wrapped his face in a mantel and went out of the cave, and God said unto him: lekh, shuv l’darkeKHA. “Go, Elijah. Return.”
          How is Elijah comforted? How is his faith restored? Through a shift from the eye to the ear, from seeing to hearing, from roeh to shomea. God is not seen in wind, earthquake, or fire. God is the still, small voicein which Elijah hears the call to return from the wilderness of his despair. Will you get up, will you go on, will you respond, will you return…?
          The S’fat Emet, a 19th century Hasidic master, said the reward of the religious life is the ability to hear God’s voice amidst the confusion of the world. In fact, if we look to traditional sources, we find hearing again and again emphasized over sight as the metaphoric sense of spiritual intuition. The core statement of daily prayer is not Re’eh, but Sh’ma Yisrael, Hear, oh Israel. Our ancestors at Sinai did not say, “Na’aseh v’nireh”, we shall do and we shall see—but Na’aseh vi’nishmah—we will do and we will hear. Vision is actually the subject of a great deal of admonishment: we read in the second paragraph after the shma: v’lo taturu acharei eynechem—you must not be lead astray by your eyes. The greatest of all possible sins is idol worship, the worship of images, whether a block of wood or a simplistic theological interpretation of the observable world. Hearing, on the other hand, is not a means of explaining the world, but a manner of responding to it, or deriving sustenance within it. We are revived by our ability to hear the holiness resounding in the world, and joining in the sounding of this voice through our own acts of comfoting and celebration, righteous action and deeds of loving kindness. As we read in today’s haftarah of consolation, in a passage that conflates bodily and spiritual needs: hoi, kol tsameh lichu l’mayim—all you who are thirsty come for water, and then: hatu ozneykhem oolichu eylay, shimu ootkhi nafshekhem—incline your ear and come to me. Hear, and give life to your souls.
          I actually want to give the last word here to one of my former congregants in New York, Jerry Kisslinger, who, in a statement he delivered at Kol Nidre last year, reflected on the loses his family had sustained over the past year. It is a better articulation of what I’ve been trying to say than anything I could come up with, so I’ll close with his words:
          “We have these year-end awards at work drawn on paper plates,” he said “and knowing all my family had been dealing with a very kind colleague at work made up a paper plate award. It calls me a Pillar of Strength. And this felt good at first– a new name, a new story, and a heroic one at that. And then I realized how false it all felt.
          What made me so uncomfortable? First of all, there’s nothing heroic about calamity. If an asteroid falls on your house it doesn’t make you a hero. Second, it was just our turn. It happens to everyone, and it’s no badge of honor. But beyond that, the strength that I have that all of us have in these situations seems to me to be very UNPILLARLIKE (to create a word).
          Pillars are hard, they’re proud, they are rigid, they crack, they fall and turn to dust. Attending to my family calls for a different kind of strength, more like—and stick with me— an underwater plant on the coral reef, a fern, or a sponge—porous, bending, fluid, and yet tough and tenacious in staying anchored as the waters heave.
          As we mark our new year, I find myself choosing between these two kinds of strength, for me embodied in two kinds of prayer: Kaddish and the Sh’ma. I am comforted by both –
          But I think Kaddish is more like the pillar. The language, the rhythm, the content, is hard and angular—kaddish evokes fearsome strength, God’s strength. And it evokes death. And It carried me through the early weeks after my father died.
          It’s the Sh’ma that really speaks to me now, 9 months out. If the name kaddish sounds like stone sh’ma sounds like wind. It’s about speaking and hearing. It evokes all the people Israel. It speaks of unity. It breathes. It lives.
          And here’s the wisdom it suggests.
[Sh’ma. Hear. Listen.] Life is interconnected. Cling tenaciously to what matters. Take nothing for granted. Anchor yourself in the strength of others. Join in and connect—the Lord is One. And breathe, breathe deeply.”

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Welcome to the blog of the rabbi of the Jewish Community of Amherst. Please stay tuned to this space for excerpts from my weekly divrei Torah, commentary on contemporary Jewish and world events, and other thoughts.

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