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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Right Parashah, wrong week...or is it wrong parashah right week?

I'd like to apologize for posting my commentary on this week's parashah for last Shabbat.  I guess I was celebrating Purim a little early by turning everything around!

Since I already did write on Parshat Tetzaveh, I thought I would share a few mindfulness musings on the fact that this Shabbat is also Shabbat Zakhor, the special Shabbat just before the holiday of Purim, which starts on Saturday at sundown.  On this Shabbat we read a special maftir (final portion read from the Torah) which commands us "Zakhor/Remember what Amalek did to us...."  Read on for more explanantion.

Shabbat Shalom,
Steven

Deuteronomy 25: 17 – 19
“ Remember what Amalek did to you on the way, as you came out from Egypt.  How, he fell upon you on the way and cut off all the weak ones at your rear, when you were exhausted and tired, and he didn’t fear God.  So it shall be, when YHWH, your God, will give you rest from all your enemies all around in the land that YHWH, your God, is giving you as a legacy to take possession of it, you shall wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the skies.  You shall not forget.”

Commentary


Amalek.  The eternal enemy of the Jewish people.  Amalek, ancestor of Haman, the villain of this week’s holiday of Purim.  Amalek, the one who didn’t fear God and so broke all the rules by cutting off and destroying the weak and the old, the feeble and the weary, the stragglers.

Oddly enough, in the first telling of the story of Amalek's attack, which is found in the book of Shemot/Exodus no mention is made of Amalek “cutting off the stragglers.”  Amalek simply attacks Israel, plain and simple. 

It is amazing how memory and perception changes our realities as time passes.

According to the rabbis, one of the lessons of Amalek is to remember that the stragglers were only vulnerable because those in front – the strong and the brave – allowed them to be.  If they had slowed down or joined with the weak and the feeble, they would not have been vulnerable to Amalek’s attack.  As a community, this reminds us of our responsibility to one another.  We must watch out for and protect each other as we travel on our journeys.

However, there is another message embedded in this text that I would like to share with you as a kavvanah (intention) for this Maftir portion.

We read this special Maftir in preparation for Purim.  It reminds us of the fact that Amalek continued to live in the person of Haman, just as our tradition has taught that Amalek continues to live on in every person or nation that has tried to destroy the Jewish people.

However, Amalek also lives within us.  Amalek is the piece within us that tries to separate us from the community, the world and God.  Amalek is the seductive piece that latches on to what we view as our weaknesses.  Amalek knows where we are vulnerable.  It catches us unaware, preys on our vulnerabilities and ensnares us.

In rabbinic language Amalek can be seen as the yetzer ha’ra – the inclination to evil – that dwells within each of us.  In mindfulness language, Amalek is our ego.  It is the part within us that tells us that we must seek pleasure and avoid pain, seek praise and avoid criticism, and so on.  Then it sits back and watches as we eventually begin to suffer, since pleasure will eventually disappear and praise is fleeting.  It waits until suddenly we are left alone and bereft of pleasure.  There is nowhere and no one to turn to.  Then Amalek – the ego – comes in for the kill.  It tries to cut us off from our true source of life, from God, from connection, from the world.

The dual commandment in the Maftir passage is to wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the skies, and to never forget!  This commandment, like life, is a paradox.  George Santayana said that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.  Yet, as Rabbi Alan Lew,  z"l (may his memory be a blessing) taught in response, those who become too attached to the memory of history are unable to let go.  Both remembering and forgetting can cause suffering in excess.  Therefore, perhaps the message of this passage is that we must wipe the memory of what Amalek – what our ego – has done to us in the past.  For that is the past and we can only really live in the present.   

However, we must never forget that Amalek is still with us.  In this way, if we live mindfully, we will recognize when Amalek is showing its face.  We will recognize when our ego is playing its tricks on us, trying to seduce us and waiting to pounce on us and separate us from God and the world.  When we recognize this, how do we respond?  We respond by doing exactly what we are commanded to do on Purim – the day when communally we remember the downfall of Amalek's evil descendant Haman.  We laugh in Amalek’s face.  We celebrate the joy and absurdity of life.  We recognize that the present moment is a gift from God that is meant to be celebrated.  We smile and look Amalek in the eye, offer him a sip of schnapps, rejoice and wait for him to leave!  That is the surest way to remember – to acknowledge – his presence without allowing him to have power over the moment or over who we are.  This way you can remain connected to God, and to the moment in joy.

May we all remember to have a restful Shabbat and a joyous Purim!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Beyond the Ego: a Commentary on Parshat Tetzaveh

This week’s parashah is Tetzaveh (Shemot/Exodus 27:20-30:10). The parashah begins with God commanding Moses “And as for you, you shall instruct the Israelites to bring you pure olive oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling the Eternal Lamp (v. 20).” At first glance it does not appear that there is anything unusual or extraordinary about this verse. God is simply giving Moses another instruction concerning the Mishkan (Tabernacle), just as God instructed him in the last parashah on how he was to build it. However, it is precisely because God’s instructions to Moses had been at the center of the preceding narrative that commentators have questioned why the verse begins "and as for you, you shall command" rather than simply "command" or "you shall command." After all, “and as for you” would seem to imply that the previous verses had been addressed or referred to someone else.

In her exploration of this strange wording Aviva Zornberg points out that there are two other instances where God’s instructions begin “and as for you.” These other commands are “bring forth your brother Aaron, with his sons, from among the Israelites to serve me as priests (28:1)” and “speak[ing] to all who are wise of heart … to make Aaron’s vestments for consecrating him to serve Me as priest (28:3).” In all of these cases, preparing the oil for the Menorah, bring Aaron and his sons forward to be made priests, and instructing others how to make the priestly vestment, God is instructing Moses concerning aspects of the priesthood, the realm that is to be his brother’s and not his.

In a midrash we read that during each of the seven days when Moses was at the burning bush he pleaded with God to send someone else. In the end of the midrash, God informs Moses that, because of his unwillingness to take on the mantle of leadership during those seven days, he will not be permitted to ascend to the priesthood. Rather, it will be Aaron and his descendants who are to become the priests. However, God tells Moses, during the seven days when the mishkan is to be dedicated, Moses will be allowed to perform the priestly functions. After that, they belong to Aaron and his sons.

Moses’s reaction to what some might perceive as a punishment is to rejoice over the good fortune of his elder brother Aaron. After all, we read in another midrash, one reason why Moses was reluctant to take on the leadership role was his fear that Aaron would be jealous that his younger brother was to become the leader of the people. However, God informs him that Aaron will rejoice at Moses’s return and upon hearing that he is to lead the mission to Pharaoh. This is exactly what Aaron does and for that he is rewarded by God: let “that same heart that rejoiced in the greatness of his brother [have] precious stones (the priestly breastplate) set upon it.”

Aaron rejoices at God’s choice of Moses as leader and Moses rejoices at the choice of Aaron as High Priest. Nevertheless, according to yet another midrash, after Moses is given the instructions on how to build the mishkan he tells God that he is ready and able to serve as priest. How can this be so if had not only been informed at the burning bush that Aaron was to serve
as priest, but he had actually rejoiced over hearing this news?

Zornberg likens this phenomenon to the Freudian theory that our memories are often forgotten so that we can then proceed in the “remaking of something [that] to all intents and purposes never existed; [for] memory is [in part] a way of inventing the past.” (Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture, p. 360). We all know of times in our lives when we “conveniently” forget something and then are stunned when we later “discover” it. Still, when Moses “learns” that Aaron is to become priest and that he is to be “demoted” to the status of a 'mere' Levite (as will his sons) he does not react negatively. Rather, he rejoices, just as Aaron rejoiced in Moses’ choice earlier on.

The choice of Aaron, the elder brother, as priest now means that the rejection of the elder in favor of the younger that runs through the entire book of Bereshit/Genesis has been “set right.” Moses, the younger, may indeed be the leader, but his sons will not inherit his position, and they are all but forgotten in our narrative and our tradition. It is Aaron, the elder, who is given the religious leadership position that will then be inherited by his descendants.

The rejection of Moses and his sons and the reversal of the ancient patterns could easily have been viewed by Moses with anger or disdain. And yet it was not. The relationship between Moses and Aaron is one that involves both loss and gain for each, as well as the altruistic love of
each brother for the other that is symbolized by their reactions when the other is chosen.

In the Torah we are told that Moses’ primary attributes were that of greatness and humility. In reality it is his humility that is at the heart of his greatness. Though Aaron is appointed High Priest, Moses’s humility allows him to rejoice, much as his humility caused him to reject God’s initial call for fear that Aaron would be hurt. This is the meaning underlying the seemingly innocuous “and as for you” that begins the command for Moses to prepare the oil, decorate the courtyard of the mishkan and instruct others to prepare Aaron’s garments. In this way the
“and as for you” is not viewed as further punishment for Moses’ initial reticence (i.e., “And as for you… if you’re going to hesitate to follow my orders I going to take away the priesthood!) Instead, it becomes an acknowledgement of Moses’ humility and his ability to rejoice for his
brother (i.e., “And as for you … you have shown your greatness through your humility and your concern for your brother, and so you shall have the pleasure of preparing all that he needs to begin his priestly service”)

However, there is a danger in humility as well. This danger is that humility itself has the potential to become as much a tool of the ego’s machinations as does hubris. For if the ego is that within us that tries to convince us that everything is about “me” and keeping “me” in
control, then even humility can serve the ego’s purpose. For if one makes too much of one’s humility the result could be that others will then begin to focus on and praise him/her for that humility. Moreover, since the ego seeks praise, comfort, security and dominance, the ego can easily learn that it can catch as many – if not more – flies with the sweetness of humility than it can with the bitterness of hubris.

However, Moses does not seem to get caught up in this ego’s game in this parashah or in it’s various midrashic interpretations. So perhaps we need to think of this verse not so much in terms of humility, but as evidence that Moses, as well as Aaron, was able to see the reality of the “big picture” at that moment.

At first when God chose Moses, he fought against the reality of the moment and what God was showing him. For seven days, an entire period of creation, his ego struggled with God. Perhaps it was ego in the guise of humility saying “I’m not worthy” and looking for the strokes it might get from God: “of course you’re worthy,” “you’re the best man around,” “you’re going to be an amazing leader!” On the other hand, perhaps it was the ego’s desire for comfort, stasis and
certainty telling Moses “don’t do it! You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into! Just keep moving in the other direction!”

Whatever the tactics of the ego, it did not succeed during this seven-day period of creation of Moses as leader at the Burning Bush. Rather, it seems clear that Moses was able to drop the stories of which the ego was trying to convince him and focus on the reality of the moment.
Moses was able to rid himself of his ego and it’s messages. He was able instead to see and hear the reality of what God was saying to him. At that moment, God let him know his role, as well as that of his brother. In addition, from this broadened perspective he was able to accept both his and his brother’s role with joy.

Therefore, “and as for you, you shall command” can be interpreted as God saying, “I am
commanding you, Moses, to do this. I am not speaking to your ego; I am not speaking to your brother. I am speaking to you directly. We are here face-to-face. There is nothing between
us.” So, it is from this place of egoless connection with the Divine that Moses is able to continue his journey as a leader meant to bring all the people to understand that ultimately there is nothing between us and God, for all is God and God is all.

This is something that we all need to remember in those moments when our ego gets in the way or when we separate ourselves from others and from God. Letting go of the ego and its stories, we can each feel commanded by the voice of God within to be present in the moment and to prepare ourselves for the next step of our journey together.

Shabbat Shalom,

Steven

Friday, February 5, 2010

Parshat Yitro: The Voices of the Women at Sinai

This week's parashah (portion) is Yitro (Shemot/Exodus 18:1-20:23). It begins with the return of Yitro/Jethro, described in the text as "Moses' father-in-law" and not as Zipporah's father). He comes to Moses with his wife Zipporah and their sons. Upon arriving, the two men embrace. But we read of no reunion between Moses and Zipporah.

Later, after Yitro advises Moses on how to better govern the people by choosing able and honest men to help him, the people arrive at Mount Sinai and prepare to receive the word of God. Then, in one of the Torah's most dramatic of moments, God speaks the Ten Commandments (literally, the 'ten utterances') from the mountain. But before God speaks to the people, God instructs Moses on how the people must prepare themselves for revelation:


And God said to Moses, “Go to the people and warn them to stay pure today and tomorrow. Let them wash their clothes. Let them be ready for the third day; for on the third day the Eternal will come down, in the sight of all the people, on Mount Sinai "

Moses came down from the Mountain to the people and warned the people to stay pure and he said to the people, “Be ready for the third day; Do not go near a woman.”


From the ‘non-reunion’ of Moses and Tzipporah through these verses and beyond, women are either forgotten or excluded from the entire narrative. Throughout the past decades many writers, mostly women, have added the voices of the women back to the story. As a man who considers himself to be a feminist, I would like to add my voice to those who have attempted to rediscover women’s voices in the text. I cannot presume to know how a woman might have felt being excluded from the community. It is true that as a Jew and as a gay man I know what it feels like to be excluded. However, as a man, and particularly a white man, I am still part of the oppressive pseudo-majority, regardless of my own personal beliefs. So I believe it is my duty to try my best to do discover the women's voices within me as my own kind of tikun/repair to the brokenness that we have created.


Shabbat Shalom,

Steven


The Words of the Women at Sinai

Dedicated to Judith Plaskow, Merle Feld, R. Jill Hammer, R. Ruth Sohn, R. Elyse Goldstein, R. Sue Levi Elwell and so many others who have given voice to the women of the Torah. May we all, men and women alike, continue to discover the voices of those who have been forgotten, oppressed and marginalized within our tradition - as well as other traditions - throughout history and until this day. Only then can we truly say that God will be One and God's name One for us all.


I am Zipporah

I am my beloved's

My beloved is mine

No

I was my father's

I am now my husband's

No one is mine

I do not exist

Alone

Joyous reunion

I am not there

The men embrace

Father-in-law to Son-in-law

Ignoring the essential ingredient

Catalyst

Of their relationship

Without daughterwife

They are nothing

But two strangers

They do not care

Alone

Together

With each other

I am indispensable dispensable

I am only the mother of boys

Who will grow

To be

Like them

Perhaps


I am Miriam

I am a prophetess

A visionary

It says so in the Torah

Yet

You must not come near

I am impure

I am polluting

I am powerful

Do not come near

Do not touch me

Do not touch my fruit

Lest your spirit die

Leaving you

Unable to receive

Revelation

Redemption

Divinity


We are women

Fit

For giving birth

Raising sons

Saving brothers from death

Able

To lead the women in song

Not

To lead us all to freedom


We remain behind

With the children

The others

Standing

in the margins

Watching

the men

Waiting

To clean up


We are sisters

Standing

At Sinai

Hearing

God's voice

Together

Separate


We call to you

The men

We challenge you

To come near

To embrace us


Then

We can

Listen

Hear

The Divine voice

Together


Prepare for the third day

Do not go near a woman


Those words

Not from God

From Moses

We do not

Hear them

We do not

Recognize them

They have

No power

Unless we will it


Listen

to us

Listen

to God

Pay Attention

We cry out

To them

In vain


They do not hear

Us

They only hear

Him

and him


Again

We join together

As One

As sisters

As always

Far from the noise

The thunder

The lightning

Clear of all

The smoke

The men


Yet

We can hear

The small voice

The True Voice

From behind the clouds

Within us

The voice

They will never hear

Unless they listen

With their hearts

Not their ears

With Love

Not fear

Embracing

Not trembling


So much we can teach them

If they would only listen

Let us in

Perhaps some day

Then

We will all receive

Redemption

As

One

Forever standing

Together

At Sinai


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