The Bible is full of stories of our ancestors encountering God – sometimes in conversation, and sometimes “face to face”; sometimes through grand acts such as revelation or pillars of fire, and sometimes in dreams; and sometimes in prophecy. We learn these stories as children in school and quickly come to accept the magic of them. After all, how are we to understand the nature of the Divine if we cannot understand God in human terms, particularly from a young age? So we have in our tradition a God who speaks, and through that speech the world is created. Through that speech, waters pour from the heavens, flooding and destroying that very creation. Through that speech people are put to the ultimate tests. Through that speech we receive rules, laws, and guidelines to help us live holy lives.
This week in Parashat Vayeitzei we read of a very famous encounter with God. It is so incredible, in fact, that artists from William Blake to Marc Chagall, and songwriters from Huey Lewis and Pete Seeger to Chumbawumba and Rush, have created art and music related to this story, which is comprised of all of ten verses (Gen. 28:10-19). There are so many midrashim and commentaries on this story, but I’d like to highlight something which Rabbi Jonathan Sacks brings to our attention in his volume entitled Covenant and Conversation. It is also something which my childhood rabbi, Rabbi Harold Schulweis, spoke about often as he taught us about the importance of interaction with God and with each other.
Rabbi Sacks writes the following:
So the question for us is, how does this apply to our lives today? God no longer makes grand appearances, nor does God show God’s self, speaking directly with us. We no longer live in a nascent Israelite society which required divine intervention in order to function, nor do we live in a world of prophecy. This reality poses a great challenge, but also offers us a fantastic opportunity.
The challenge is in trying to make sense of the world. How could the same God who split the sea and destroyed creation for its evil allow such atrocities to happen in the world as the Shoah, the genocide in Darfur, or even simply allow innocent children to starve to death around the world? How can that be?! How can God who was willing to save Sodom and Gomorrah for but ten righteous people, and who challenged Jonah to help the Ninevites to repent so God wouldn’t have to ultimately destroy that city, allow regimes of terror and dictatorship thrive in the world? It doesn’t make sense. But then, putting it all on God in Heaven isn’t terribly fair, is it? The Torah teaches us that “…it is not in Heaven…” (Deut. 30:12). The very same verse which the Rabbis of the Talmud used to take ownership of interpreting the Torah is one of the keys to help us understand our opportunity and obligation in facing this great challenge.
The opportunity is a fantastic one. It takes work to really take advantage of it, some of which goes against the grain of our modern society, but then again that is the beauty of a religion which challenges us to think beyond the confines of societal norms. As Rabbi Sacks notes above from Rabbi Horowitz’s commentary on the Jacob’s ladder story, Jacob was able to encounter God because he was able to stop thinking about just himself, thus being fully open to the world around him in its entirety. We live in a society that teaches us to fend for ourselves. We live in a time in which virtually anything can be had instantly—with the tap of a finger we can order any product on Amazon and have it delivered the very same day, or find a variety of answers to any question in the universe without having to open books or speak with other people to research. It’s incredible! And yet at the same time, these most wondrous conveniences which allow us to get so much done in smaller amounts of time, also train us to be more self-centered than perhaps any generation before us. We walk around looking at our screens, or drive through town engrossed in a conversation over Bluetooth, and thus miss out on what is truly beautiful and important in this world. We literally miss out on the opportunity to interact with the divine.
In the first creation narrative, we are taught that God created people in the Divine image. God gave each living creature a soul. That is a radical concept, particularly today. The great philosopher Martin Buber gives us an idea of how to live with this concept in what is perhaps his most famous work, I and Thou. He teaches that there are two main types of relationship: “I-It” and “I-Thou”. An “I-It” relationship is when we interact with a person or object which is separate from ourselves…we merely experience it, and then we move on to the next interaction. I would venture to guess that this is the experience many of us have most often as we go through our day – ordering food at a restaurant, speaking with the bank teller, or even with our neighbors. There is nothing inherently wrong with this type of relationship, but it doesn’t do anything to truly enrich our lives.
“I-Thou” is Buber’s ideal, and this is, I believe, how we come closer to encountering God. “I-Thou” is an interaction or relationship in which the other (or the “Thou”) is not separated by discrete bounds from the “I”. In other words, we allow ourselves to get deep into the interaction. There is nothing utilitarian about the relationship. We recognize the unique value in the other. If we are to define this in Jewish religious terms, we recognize the nitzotz—the sacred Divine spark which resides in every living thing since the time of creation—in the other. In other words, if I know that I am created in the Divine image and I recognize that the salesperson in Nordstrom is also created in that very image, my interaction with that person changes greatly. If I know that is the case, I will stop thinking just about me and recognize that the interaction goes two ways. It is not merely about the salesperson finding the pair of shoes I want in my size in the stockroom; rather it is an opportunity to connect with another person created in the Godly image. And in that interaction, I just might get a little closer to experiencing God.
God doesn’t appear in clouds or in pillars of fire anymore. God doesn’t split seas or stop wars. “It’s not in heaven” anymore. It is here, it is real, and it is ours. When we see the humanity in the other, we encounter God. When we recognize our sacred and moral obligation to stand up in the face of atrocity because another person is suffering, and we step back from our particular needs in order to address that, we encounter God. When we are children and learn the stories of the Torah, it may seem to us that God only appears to specific people at specific moments. But the truth is, we all have the opportunity to encounter the Divine on a very regular basis, just as Jacob did that fateful night in his dream…we just have to seize the opportunity.
The older I get, the more I realize just how quickly time moves forward, seemingly without mercy. It’s hard to believe that just a couple of weeks ago we were celebrating Simchat Torah and now are off and running in the programming year. It’s strange how quickly we (a staff and a community) are able to switch gears and move from one headspace to the next, from the grandeur of the High Holy Days to the excitement of all the wonderful classes and programs which now require our attention. But, as the French say, c’est la vie--such is life!
And it really is that way. This week I celebrated a special birthday. True, any birthday we merit to celebrate is special, but this one has special significance for me. I turned 36, which as many of you know is “double chai.” For most people on the planet, the age of 36 signifies perhaps nothing more than being mathematically closer to 40 than to 30, but for us Jews there is deeper meaning to be found.
Chayim, the Hebrew word for life, is always written in the plural. Even when we will read in the Torah about the “lifetime of Sarah” (Chayei Sarah), we read this in plural form. I find that very interesting, and as one who enjoys playing with language I am drawn to attempt to understand why this might be. After much reflection (Chayei Sarah was my Bar Mitzvah Parasha, and this interesting use of plural about a single woman was one of the first things I noticed. So I suppose one could say I have been pondering this for 23 years!), I have come up with the following.
We all go through many distinct periods in our lives. There are, often, very clear “divisions” in our lives, and frequently these “divisions” are manifest in the way we live — a time we DEFINITELY changed a habit; a time we changed our level of religious observance; a time we changed the way we dress or the music we enjoy; and certainly there are moments in our life cycle such as becoming a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, getting married or divorced, beginning or ending a job, etc., which define these distinct sections.
In my own journey, this year is very significant—I have treated it like a starting-over point in many ways. I have made strong commitments to myself about the way I wish to live. I have adopted (hopefully) healthier habits around eating, I have decided to take up some activities which promote mental, spiritual and physical health, and I have committed to reading more for my own pleasure and personal growth. Oh yes — and in this, my double-chai year, I will begin a very significant new chapter in my life as I marry my incredible life partner, Robyn, who is my greatest support in all of these efforts. I have also committed myself to professional growth, working to grow my skills as a pastor, as a singer, and as a professional.
Like Avram in this week’s Parasha, Lech Lecha, I don’t know where the journey will take me. But I felt an internal alarm wake me up and push me down a path of growth, of new experiences, and to do so with an open mind and an open heart. Avram, like Noah in last week’s Sidra, doesn’t answer God’s call with words. He simply acts. He does as he is told. The biblical narrative doesn’t give us any insight into his thought process, conversations with his wife, or questions to God. In my mind, Avram simply understands that a fantastic opportunity lies ahead and knows that he had best take advantage of it. On his journey we see his growth as a leader, a husband, a father, and a servant of God. He is not perfect, but he does well, and the lessons he teaches us about the journey of life are truly timeless.
I pray that we all take the opportunity throughout our lives to make conscious decisions about beginning new chapters, trying new things, and continuing to grow into our best selves. I pray that we not only seek these opportunities, but recognize them when they come our way. And I pray that with each new chapter of our lives we recommit to our obligations to our faith, to God, and to making the world just a little bit better, Ish K’matnat Yado, each of us according to the unique gifts with which God has endowed us. Time moves mercilessly forward, and yet if we are able to recognize and take advantage of each moment we are gifted, we are sure to live lives of deep meaning and of purpose.
In his Rosh Hashanah Sermon, Rabbi Schwab referenced a book by Professor Deborah Lipstadt, entitled Antisemitism: Here and Now; specifically, the final chapter, “From Oy to Joy.” As I sit at my computer just hours before we will gather for the opening service of Yom Kippur, I cannot think of a more appropriate title for the period of the next five days.
Over the course of the next 25 or so hours, we will once again bring ourselves as close as we can to experiencing our own deaths. We will dress in white, without adornments of jewels and perfume; we will not eat nor drink; we will not bathe in luxurious fashion; and we will literally fall on our faces, begging for God’s kindness, until the shofar sounds at Neilah and we know we can then continue on with the work of a new year.
Immediately after we get home (well, after pausing for a bagel, kugel, other varieties of sweet carbohydrates, and some coffee…), we begin preparations for the next holiday — Sukkot. We all know that Sukkot is the fall harvest festival…a time to connect with nature, to be with family, to eat in the sukkah, and with the seemingly strange custom of shaking some plants and a particular citrus in circles while reciting a b’racha… But Sukkot is so much more than that! Just as Yom Kippur has become, for many of us, the most sacred day of the year, Sukkot is, in the Rabbinic mind, “THE festival” (heh-chag), “THE time of joy!” (z’man simchateinu).
So how are we supposed to switch gears so quickly? How do we confront our own mortality, our misdeeds, our least proud acts? How do we come before the Sovereign of Sovereigns, bowing down to the floor, begging for another chance to do better? How do we do this with our full beings, and then in almost an instant re-approach God with hearts full of joy, in beautifully decorated sukkot, and become our most joyous and festive selves?
I want to propose that there are a number of ideas in each of these two seemingly disparate holy days which connect them very deeply. As I mentioned above, each one of these holidays demands that we experience one extreme or the other of the emotional spectrum — awesome fear on Yom Kippur (mixed, of course, with the joy of knowing at Neilah that we are forgiven), and extreme celebration on Sukkot. We start off the year by exposing ourselves to the highs and lows we will ultimately experience over the course of the year, all the while connecting ourselves more deeply to God, to community and to our families. There is something very poignant about this—it’s almost as if to remind us that to be successful in the work we set out to do over the course of the year, we must not keep to ourselves; we must keep close to God, and we must know that we have supportive and loving community and family to aid us on our journey…and that we must be present for them as well.
Then there is an element of fragility which exists in both holidays as well. On Yom Kippur we examine the frailty of our lives. From our petitions to God to the Yizkor prayers, we cannot help but realize the limits of our own mortality. On Sukkot, of course, we are commanded to spend our meal times, and by some interpretations, even sleep, in the sukkah—a temporary structure which is completely vulnerable to nature, and which could theoretically collapse at any moment. I think that through these two expressions of fragility we can and should be reminded to enjoy and to maximize all of the wonderful things and opportunities which make our lives so rich.
There are a number of other connective themes between these two days, and I would encourage you to think about the holidays themselves and then invite you to share—with each other, and with me—the connections you have been able to draw to create even deeper meaning and celebration over the next couple of weeks.
In the meanwhile, it is my hope that over Yom Kippur you were able to experience moments of personal reflection, that perhaps you left the sanctuary changed or moved, even just a little bit, from how you felt when you entered. It is my prayer that all of your prayers be answered, and that all of our worthy deeds over the course of this year be blessed by the Holy One. May we ultimately find next week that just as we pray for God’s protection on Yom Kippur, we find that protection inside the Sukkat Shalom, the sukkah of peace, and that in that protection we find many things to be joyful about and to celebrate.
From my family to yours, Hag Sukkot Same’ach
Our lives run on cycles–cycles of all sorts. Some sacred, and some mundane. There are the cyclical ups and downs of life...there are periods of peak and of lesser intensity at work...there are cycles in the development of our children...there are the cycles of nature which we acknowledge at every Maariv service...there are the monthly cycles of the sun and moon, which we celebrate each Rosh Hodesh...there are the cycles of our daily routines…and there are others as well.
I completed a cycle this past Monday evening. In fact, several cycles collided in one evening. Monday afternoon was the last time I recited Kaddish for my grandmother after eleven months of daily recitation. What made the moment especially meaningful is that when I recited the last Kaddish, I was in the home of a bereft family who lost a similarly strong woman—a true matriarch, just like my grandmother—helping them enter shiva just hours after the funeral. My last Kaddish was their first since leaving the cemetery earlier that day. We shared that experience, standing together in sacred time and space. We shared laughter and tears; we shared poems and prayers. We held on to each other for strength, for encouragement, and for the knowledge that we would all be ok.
The beginning of their sh’loshim (the thirty-day period of mourning) will end on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, as the community disperses from shul to a yontev lunch at home. This will not be easy for them. But they have a period of thirty days to prepare themselves for the reality that there will be an empty seat at the Holy Day table this year (a reality which my family will also adjusting to).
Personally, the end of Kaddish for my grandmother begins a period of sh’loshim for me as well – thirty days of reflection and of remembering, which culminates as well on the second day of Rosh Hashanah with the yahrzeit of my grandfather, whom I loved very much. This period will be one, for me, of deep introspection—of recalling lessons learned and memories shared, and of thinking about how I can use these to better myself.
We often speak of the ten days starting on Rosh Hashanah and ending on Yom Kippur as the key period for reflection and calls to action. I would like to propose, however, that just a few days ago we all began a period of sh’loshim—the thirty days leading from Rosh Hodesh Elul to Rosh Hashanah. It is during this time that the shofar calls to us each morning to pause and reflect. It is during this period that we recite Psalm 27 twice daily, reminding us that we have the potential to grow and to improve, and that God is with us as we do so because God wants us to succeed. And it is the time during which, starting in just two weeks, we will recite daily the selichot—the penitential prayers—which both force us to reflect deeply on our deeds, and which recount daily the Thirteen Attributes of God, which we, as creatures made in the Divine image, must emulate (more on that during Selichot).
My prayer for us all this Elul is that we take opportunities to pause and to reflect, to remember and to look ahead. I pray that we may all complete this period of sh’loshim a little more whole, and a whole lot better; and that we will reflect together in just a few more weeks when we gather for the High Holy Day services. May we all be blessed with good health and length of days, and may we be inscribed in the Book of Life for another year—another cycle.
Shavuot is perhaps the least observed of the three Pilgrimage Festivals (regalim). Perhaps it’s because it’s the least understood. Let me share with you a new understanding I experienced just this week.
I spent the beginning of this week in Florida. Robyn and I woke up very early Monday morning to take engagement photos against the beautiful sunrise on the beach. Now, any of you who remember taking professional photographs—for any simcha, or perhaps for professional purposes, or maybe even just family portraits—will, I’m sure, recall that while it’s a beautiful thing to capture special points in our lives, it can become very tiresome pretty quickly (especially before that first cup of coffee!). “A little bit to the left…chin down…lean into him…put your right hand on her left shoulder…pretend you’re smiling…and on the count of three, say…’We’re getting married!’” I must admit, after the first 25 minutes (and still with no coffee), I was ready to crawl back into bed. And then something changed. Robyn looked into my eyes and said something to the effect of, “Can you believe that exactly a year ago yesterday we didn’t know that the other existed, and in just about eight months we’ll be married?”
I’m not sure if it was her words or the way she looked at me, but all of a sudden the experience of staring into a blinding light and holding a smile became something incredibly beautiful. It became an opportunity to embrace a person I love and respect deeply, and to recall so many beautiful moments in our shared journey—many happy, and some sad. And in that instant, I became re-engaged in the task at hand, recognizing what we were truly doing on the beach so early in the morning.
I want to propose to you (pun absolutely intended!) that Shavuot is the same sort of reminder, and thus perhaps one of the most important observances on our calendar. The rabbis understand Shavuot as the wedding between G-d and the Jewish People, for tradition holds that on Shavuot we experienced Revelation at Sinai, entering into an eternal covenant with G-d.
Shavuot comes at the end of seven weeks of counting—the period known as the Omer, beginning with the 2nd day of Pesach. During that period of time, very similarly to my schedule earlier in the week, we have some highs, we have some lows, and then there is the seemingly mundane task of counting the day toward the end of the evening ma’ariv service. And yet, when we get through the highs of Yom Ha’atzma’ut, Lag Ba’omer and Yom Yerushalayim—as well as the lows of Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron—we get the gift of a beautiful reminder to look back on our shared history…on the very thing which brought us together—as a community, and as a people in deep and everlasting relationship with G-d.
So on this Shavuot, I offer us all the challenge to make it about more than blintzes. Take a moment and think back. Think back to the stories of the Torah in which we went from tribes of wandering Arameans to a great nation enslaved, from a newly-freed people to a people with a land and a language and traditions…and from individuals walking this earth alone to people in relationship with each other—be it in romantic relationships or relationships with our families, our friends, or our larger communities. Invite people to your table, make Kiddush together, and share those moments which made the year since last Shavuot so meaningful. Share collective memories, reminding us the precious nature of each and every moment that passes. I believe that, in addition to cheesecake and study, these are the most powerful rituals we can observe on this festival of memory.
This week in the Torah we continue reading Acharei Mot, which is the partner parasha with Kedoshim. On its own, the title means “After the Death” and its partner “Holies” or perhaps “Holy Things/People”. But when combined we may consider translating the combined parshiyot as “After the Death of the Holy People”.
The parasha begins with the events following the death of the sons of Aaron, the Kohen Gadol. Aaron is instructed with the rites and rituals necessary to maintain a pure sanctuary for God, which becomes particularly important after his sons, Nadav and Avihu, die by fire after offering a “strange fire”, or an unauthorized sacrifice, before God. These rituals provide opportunity for the High Priest to make expiation – first on behalf of himself and his family, then on behalf of the Kohanim (Priests), and ultimately on behalf of the whole House of Israel.
The Torah then continues to teach about the rules of appropriate sexual relations and the definition of family, and ultimately we land at chapter 19 of Leviticus – the Holiness Code, which is the beginning of parashat Kedoshim. In this section we are instructed to be holy, for God is holy, and are given the ways in which we are to fulfill this great task. Pieces of the Code refer back to the 10 commandments, and others include new important dimensions to living a sanctified life: not placing a stumbling block before the blind; judging fairly without deference to the rich or poor; and perhaps most importantly, not standing idly by the blood of our neighbors.
This past weekend we saw yet another example of the lowest levels we as humans can reach when a gunman entered a Synagogue outside of San Diego, opening fire in a packed sanctuary as a community gathered to celebrate the Festival of Freedom. This is not the first, second, or even third time such a tragedy has occurred in a house of worship in the last six months. You have received the messages from our synagogue community and, I am sure, many local and national Jewish organizations, that we stand by Chabad of Poway, and that we are offering assistance to them even as we work diligently to maintain our own level of security.
So the question becomes what are we to do now? What do we do Acharei Mot Kedoshim, after the death of sacred souls? What do we do after someone brought “strange fire” into a sanctuary? It seems to me that this is one of those times when the Torah becomes so relevant to our lives…so let me suggest that we look to it for the answer.
In the immediate, we must first support a community struck by shock and fear. After all, kol Yisrael arevim zeh la-zeh – all of Israel is responsible for one another. But what do we do beyond the letters of support and the financial assistance to the community, the victims and their families? We must speak up. We must not stand idly by. We must write our politicians and representatives, giving the strong message that guns in the wrong hands are deadly and that this must stop. We must demand that perpetrators of such heinous crimes are held responsible to the full extent of the law. We must demand that our elected leaders act and legislate to the highest moral standard. And, perhaps we should refer them to Leviticus 16 where they will learn about how to make good and maintain a safe, sacred space where we can thrive and where God’s rule may exist, as well as Leviticus 19 where they may be reminded of the human obligation to act in a Godly manner, without exception.
Aleinu…l’takein olam b’malchut Shadai – “It’s up to us…to repair the world in the Kingdom of God.” Let us resolve to do our part to ensure that the day will soon come when our children and our grandchildren can go to shul and not worry…when they can go to school and know that they will come home to their parents at the end of the day…and when we can turn on the morning news and not hear about such tragedies. Let us not stand idly by, and lead the world by example.
Oseh shalom bim’romav, Hu ya’aseh shalom, aleinu v’al kol Yisrael v’al kol yosh’vei teivel…May the One who creates peace in the heavens bring peace to us, to all of Israel, and to all of humanity. Amen.
In 1839, English novelist and playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote, “The pen is mightier than the sword”, in his play “Cardinal Richelieu”. There is so much truth to this. While our bodies miraculously allow us to recover from physical wounds, the aftermath of words, if used improperly, is often more difficult to recover from.
We are currently reading a very interesting section of the Torah, one dealing with properties of purity and impurity; and, one which centers around our mouths – the central entry point of nourishment, and the central point of communication. A couple of weeks ago in parashat Shemini, we dealt with the ideas of kashrut (dietary laws), and now we find ourselves looking at the metzora—the person afflicted with tzara’at (often incorrectly translated as leprosy, this word represents a variety of physical blemishes resulting from negative actions).
The idea of the metzora (the one afflicted with tzara’at) is that they have misused speech. The rabbis connect this word with speech by splitting metzora into two words: motzi ra (one who speaks evil). In other words, one who engages in idle speech or gossip, becomes afflicted with this physical blemish…it’s as if they walk around with the thing they said painted on their forehead. They must leave the camp for a period of minimally one week, and then undergo a series of rituals to eventually be able to rejoin and engage with the community. By being removed from the community, a few things are accomplished. Of course, if the physical ailment is communicable, this prevents contagion. As well, if the root cause of this condition is idle speech, by removing oneself from the community, one has nobody to speak with. This removal, then, ensures that the idle speech will stop. By perpetuating idle speech, one has the power to cause the foundation of community to crumble. When we learn that the Temple was destroyed because of idle speech and senseless hatred, I look at it not as a punishment but as a result. If community were strong, and if members of the community used speech purposefully and thoughtfully to strengthen and build, rather than to destroy (either intentionally or unintentionally), it is likely that perhaps we could have been stronger than the swords which sought to destroy the physical center of our universe.
We are approaching the holiday of Pesach. The seder, the major ritual observance of this holiday, is centered on words. It is centered on asking questions, giving answers, having deep and thoughtful conversation, and of course passing on the tradition to younger generations. In our family, we are challenged to take the ancient story of the Exodus and make it relevant by discussing issues present in our world and how we may participate in working toward a world in which all may enjoy the same sense of freedom as we. One of the founding principles of our great country is the freedom of speech. We can use our speech, individually and certainly collectively, to effect change—for good and for bad. I would then challenge us at our sedarim this year to teach the lesson of the metzora. If we use our speech idly, the negative consequences can be potentially devastating. But if we use our speech for praise, for love, and for speaking out against injustice, we may have immeasurable impact on society.
May we all responsibly enjoy the freedoms provided by our country. May we treasure the freedom which is part of our Jewish narrative. And may we be vigilant to teach our children to use their freedom responsibly, and for perpetuating goodness.
Why a blog?
I will use this space to capture my occasional musings on life, love, music and Torah...as well as post my "Thursday Thoughts" every few weeks, written for my congregation in suburban Chicago...