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Friday, December 21, 2012

Beyond Sandy Hook: The Prophetic Call for Unity and Community

This week we wish had never been. We saw America – and humanity - at it's worst and at it's best. We witnessed unspeakable violence against innocent children and adults. Yet, we also heard the stories of the brave teachers who risked and lost their lives saving their students. The stories of 6 yr. olds who grabbed their friends and ran with them to safety, even holding the door for them, while the gunman was still in the building. We read of the neighbor of Sandy Hook Elementary School, who took in the young children he found sitting in his driveway, still dazed and in shock, and cared for them until their parents arrived. And we witnessed the strength of the parents who, in their time of deepest loss, turned not to anger, but instead to love, wanting nothing more than to share who their child was in life, even while mourning their death. These are all humanity, and America, at its best.

But after the carnage was over, we began to hear other examples of the worst. We heard extremist evangelicals pervert the name of God by saying that the massacre was brought about because we had “taken God out of the classroom and public life” or blaming the massacre on the fact that Connecticut had legalized gay marriage. We have turned our backs on God, so they say. And so, their warped prophetic message was nothing more than believing that we reap what we sow. If that truly how God acts, then I don't think I could go on believing or praying. And yet, I do believe in God. And I must. For it is my connection with God, whatever that happens to mean at the moment, that gets me through difficult times. I also pray, and believe in its importance, but not officially sponsored prayer in public venues or schools, but at home or in synagogue with my fellow Jews, or with others. 

Furthermore, it is not true that God abandoned us or the people of Newtown. But God was not in the hand that pulled the trigger. Rather, God was was weeping with the innocents as they died. And God was present in the arms that held the frightened children, comforted bereaved families and in the hearts of all who mourn. God is the source of that which connects all of us and urges us to seek a spiritual unity.

But alas, there was no real unity in our country before this tragedy. We saw that in the rhetoric from all sides in what had to be one of the most contentious and partisan elections in modern history. Yet, when the tragedy struck, that was forgotten. There was a sense of unity in our grief. But now we can already see that unity unraveling. There are still those who claim it was punishment from God. There are others who believe that the correct response to the massacre is to allow more people to carry guns for protection, while other say that we need tighter and stronger gun control laws. The battle is beginning, while many of the dead have yet to be laid to rest and while the nation, if not the world, is still in shock.

All week I have known that I would, indeed I must, speak about this unspeakable tragedy on Shabbat, but how. How do I avoid becoming overly political when I feel so strongly and passionately about the need for stronger gun control, to improve our mental health system and to ease the restrictions that keep out so many people who need help. How do I avoid turning this sermon into a rant or a tirade? How do I find something different to say after a week of being bombarded by articles, news shows, blog posts, etc. from various religious and secular positions who have weighed in on the issues from all sides. How?

First I turned to the parashah/portion from the Torah we're reading this week. Va'yigash is about the tearful reunion between Joseph and his brother, and then the brothers bringing Jacob and his entire camp down to Egypt to live. I couldn't see any way to connect this to this week's tragedy. So then I went to the Haftarah, this portion we chant from the Prophets this weekend. This passage from Chapter 37 of the Book of Ezekiel speaks about God eventually reuniting the two halves of the divided kingdom of the Jewish people – Israel and Judah. In the future, God says, they will dwell together and “I will make a covenant of Shalom with them – it shall be an everlasting covenant with them – I will My Sanctuary among them forever. My Presence shall rest over them; I will be their God and they shall be My people.”

When I read these final verses, it became clear that the prophet was speaking to me, and to all of us. For in the passage Ezekiel is speaking about the once united tribes who were now split into two kingdoms. Today, we may not literally live in a divided country, but all one need do is look at the blue and red maps from the last election, to see that we are indeed a nation divided. During the campaign season, the passion, even hatred, was palpable everywhere. It was as if we were fighting a political, philosophical – and I would say spiritually – civil war. And after the election, with the so-called fiscal cliff looming in the distance, it seemed that the battle continued to rage.

Then Sandy Hook happened, and we stopped for a moment to remember what was truly important. Parents hugged their children a little tighter. People with no connection at all to the the school or the town were weeping as they watched and read about the horror that had occurred there. It was as if for at least that day, or a couple days more, we were one nation in mourning

But now, only one week later, the illusion of unity is dissolving. The battle lines are being drawn for the fight over gun control, though there is no doubt that the battlefield and the rules have changed. A discussion that should be about how to best protect the people of our country is framed by a false dichotomy as being about one party's desire to protect the rights of the people first and the other that wants to control every aspect of our lives. And the discussion about our country's pitiful record on treating and funding the treatment of the mentally ill has not really even begun. But when it does, I have no doubt that there will be those who see the mental health issue as a red herring or an exaggeration or who feel that it's all about freedom and the will to choose. But that debate has not started yet.

And though the blood on the floors and wall of Sandy Hook is still there as a stark reminder of the tragedy, our nation and its leaders are already once again posturing, arguing and blaming one another in terms of proposals for how to avoid the so called fiscal cliff. In other words, after one brief shining moment of unity, the divisions have returned. That is where the Haftarah comes in. For I believe that the Haftarah indeed provides a prophetic vision that can be a spiritual antidote.

I in no way  agree with those who claim that taking God out of the public sphere was the cause of the massacre. However, as much I believe taking organized prayer and religion out of the schools and the government, etc is the right thing to do, I believe that there is something missing in our society and our world. That something is the sense of interconnectedness and unity that I believe is at the heart of what I call God. God is that force which connects us to everything. I call it God, you may call it something else, but I believe it is essential for us to remember that this force does exist, no matter what you choose to call it or how you choose to connect to it. We know that, for so long in America, this sense of connection has been missing. We are a nation of rugged individualist in which the sense of community that once existed has been torn apart as our homes, our town and our families grow further apart. Back in 2000 Robert Putnam, in his book Bowling Alone, discussed how the social compact that once existed had disintegrated. The title was based on the fact that more people were bowling than in the past, but the majority were bowling alone and no longer as part of a team or a league. It was indicative of America, then and now. There may be more of a sense of community in a small town such as Newtown. However, even there, the increasing distance between the houses reflects a desire for a certain amount of distance from others.

In the wake of what happened in that small New England town, I would like to interpret the verses from Ezekiel in a way I believe might help us begin the work of truly healing and reuniting a nation, and as a humanity, if we only listen to the words and take them to heart.

Again, the words of Ezekiel are: “I (God)will make a covenant of Shalom with them – it shall be an everlasting covenant with them … I will place My Sanctuary among them forever. My Presence shall rest over them; I will be their God and they shall be My people.”

Here God is saying that establishing a covenant of Shalom, an abiding peace and wholeness in the nation, involves placing God's Sanctuary, God's dwelling place, in their midst. God's presence shall also rest over them. The relationship between God and people will be an intimate and interdependent one. The people are dependent on God, but God is also dependent upon the people. And this is what we need to help our country heal. We need to remember that there is a power greater than us, here in our midst, which can bring us together in an intimate way, while providing spiritual shelter and comfort.  I don't care if you call it God or the Force or the energy of the world. I call it God, and I believe that God is right here, wherever we are, waiting for us to connect. We don't need to teach religion or pray in the schools in order for this to happen. On the contrary, we should each do this on our own, or in a religious or spiritual community. For our individual spiritual practices, no matter what they may be, are all connecting us to the same Divine Energy in the universe, no matter what we may call it. If we remember this, then we can create a greater sense of community and start to bring healing to our country and our world. One community at a time.

Yes, the so-called fiscal cliff will still be looming, and we will still disagree on how to approach it. Yes, the debate over gun control and mental health issues will continue. However, if we remember that when we connect with each other we are also connecting with the Divine, then we can have the disagreements without feeling the need to demonize the other. Perhaps then, we can once again have passionate debate and disagreements that are still civil and respectful..

So God and prayer have been taken out of our schools?  Just in terms of any organized, school-sponsored activities.  Anyone can pray on their own at any time.  And that's the way it should be. But let us also do what we can to make sure God – or whatever name or word you choose  – is still here in our hearts, connecting us to eacg another, bringing comfort to the grieving and compassion to the downtrodden, bringing happiness and joy wherever, and to whomever, possible. And bringing healing our fractured world.

Let us begin this work now.  We only need to take it one day …. one moment at a time. And let us do this in memory of the victims of last week's shooting, the victims of all violence, terrorism and war, the victims of hatred, prejudice and malice. Let us do it for ourselves and for the generations to come. In that way we can begin to bring to fruition that Brit Shalom, that eternal, everlasting Covenant of Peace and Wholeness, that we all so desperately need.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Parshat Toldot: The Peace of Esau

 This week’s parashah/portion is Toldot (Bereshit/Genesis 25:19 – 28:9). It tells the story of the birth of the twin brothers Jacob and Esau to Isaac and Rebecca.  We know that the descendents of Jacob, whose name is later changed to Israel, who are to become the Jewish people.  And the Torah teaches that Esau’s children are to become the Moabites, one of Israel’s foes during the years of wandering in the desert.

The parashah ends with the story of Jacob stealing his brother's blessing from their blind father Isaac, by pretending to be Esau.  This ruse was masterminded by Rebekah, mother of Esau and Jacob.  Jacob was always her favorite, while Esau (the elder of the two twins who was destined to receive their father's blessing) was Isaac's favorite.

 When Esau discovers that his brother has stolen his blessing (Esau having already given away his birthright earlier in the parasha for a bowl of lentil stew.  But that's another story) he is furious.  He vows to kill his brother should he find him.  But Jacob is already in flight through the desert.

Next week's parashah begins with the famous dream Jacob has of the angels climbing up and own a ladder to heaven.  This takes place on his first night after fleeing Esau. 

I would like to imagine then, what might have happened to Esau on that same night.  And so, this original midrashic story straddles both this week's and next week's parashah.   

The Peace of Esau 

The young man walked as fast as he could along the desert path, surrounded by nothing but sand, stones and sparse brush. As he walked, he could feel the blood pumping, anger pulsing within. Behind him, the setting sun burned bright red. Mingling with the red hair that covered his body and the crimson of the anger in his face it seemed as if he were on fire. And he was.

How could he have done it?” he continually muttered under his breath, “… my own brother.” The anger in his eyes mingled with an intense sadness, the two struggling for domination of his mind and soul. Currently, anger was winning the battle.

And my father …” he thought to himself, “ … how could he not have realized what was happening? Even blind, how could he not have known in his soul that he was being tricked? I expected no better from my mother …… but him!” And so the young man continued walking, almost running, looking all around him for something – someone – who could not be see anywhere. Looking for his brother who, unknown to him, was far away in the opposite direction.

Finally he realized that he had better make camp before the sun set. At that moment he came upon a stream that he had never seen before, even though he thought he knew this part of the desert well. He went to the stream, bent down and splashed its cool water on his burning face. It did nothing to cool his rage. Then he gathered odd bits of wood and brush to make a fire. He sat down upon a large stone and began to arrange the wood, all the while mumbling to himself “when I find him I’ll kill him for what he has taken from me.”

While still muttering to himself he lit the fire and stared into it’s burning flames as they tried to stay alive. Suddenly he noticed a shadow on the ground in front of him. He looked up and saw a strange man standing there, his facial features eclipsed by the sun that was setting directly behind him. Out of the blackness of this sunset shadow the man asked, “Esau, what are you doing?” Esau was stunned, “how did you know my name?” he asked. The man did not respond, but simply continued to speak to him with great intensity and purpose.

Esau. Your anger has cried out to me. I have heard the screams of your desire for vengeance. It is your rage that has brought me here to you.” The man paused and Esau sat in silence not knowing how to respond.

But why are you so enraged? Why is murder the only thought on your mind?” “How could I think of anything else?,” Esau replied, “my very own brother has stolen my birthright along with the blessing from my father! And beyond that, my father, who I thought loved and understood me, allowed himself to be duped by my brother and my mother. Now I am left with nothing except my desire for revenge and justice!”

Justice!” replied the stranger, “true justice does not require the blood of another human being! Especially the justice of the God of your ancestors! The God whose name is shalom/peace. The God who brought me to you at this very moment.”

That God is no longer my god,” replied Esau. “That God has abandoned me. That God, in whom I believed with my whole being, may still be my father’s God, my mother’s God, and my brother’s God. But if that God were my god this would not have happened. I no longer have a God!” With that Esau turned away from the stranger, looked down at the ground and began stoking the flames of the slowly dying fire.

As the sun continued to set behind the stranger he spoke in a voice that filled Esau with fear and awe. “If that is the case, then why am I here? Your voice cried out to the God of your ancestors, for that God is indeed your God. And it is God who has sent me to you to deliver a message.” “But why,” Esau replied, “if God truly cared, would God have allowed any of this to happen?”

Listen closely Esau, for I am here to give you a message from the Divine, but iris a lesson I learned from my experience and my all-too-human heart. I am here to beg you, to plead with you, not to be consumed by the hatred of your brother. You must let go of it in your heart. You must rid yourself of your murderous desire. For hatred destroys compassion and mercy, and it eventually will destroy you.”

Upon hearing these words Esau looked up with fierceness in his eyes that mirrored the hatred in his soul. “How dare you tell me what I must or must not do? You have no idea what I have gone through! You haven’t a clue what it feels like to be a pawn in a game of favorites between your parents and then to think that finally, the fact that you are just a few minutes older will finally pay off because – no matter what –father’s blessing is yours! And then to have all of that taken from you. To see your brother, whom you have tried to love in spite of everything, become the chosen one instead! This is more than anyone can bear!”

The stranger replied with a sense of compassion and love that began to slowly have an affect on Esau’s anger, though he did not know why. “Esau, U know what you are feeling, for I have felt this way as well. I know what it’s like to feel rejected by a parent figure, to feel inferior to your brother and to allow hatred to become so strong, so uncontrollable that it eventually can lead you to murder. Unable to find compassion within or to change the direction of my heart I actually reached out my hand to slay my own brother! That is why God sent me, and why I am begging you not to make the same mistake as I. Do not to doom yourself to a life of endless wandering, loneliness and hopelessness, such as I.”

At that moment Esau looked up at the stranger. The sun had finally set so that he could see his face a little more clearly in the light of the flames. It was worn with years, and yet he still appeared young in some strange way. Esau could see in the man’s eyes a sadness and a tenderness that told him this man was bringing him a truth that he needed to hear. A truth that transcended the hatred he had been feeling.

As the flames grew even brighter, Esau’s eyes were drawn to the man’s forehead, for in the middle there was a mark. As he was attempting to make out if it was a letter or an image of some other kind he suddenly realized who was speaking to him. “You …” he stammered “ you are …” he could not make himself say the name. “Yes,” said the stranger, “I am Cain, son of the first human beings and the first one to murder … my very own flesh and blood! I have been doomed since that day to wander the earth trying to repent for my sin by preventing others from doing the same. And so when your heart cried out in anger and pain, God sent me here to you.”

Esau remained sitting in stunned silence as Cain continued, “The message I have for you is a simple one. If you turn your heart and soul away from your anger and return to your home, then this place on which we stand will be blessed, just as your life will be blessed. This will become a holy place, as you have holiness within you. It will be place of rahamim and shalom, of compassion, peace and tranquility, as will your soul. This place will forever be known as a place where God’s presence dwells. It will also be the place to which you shall return, when the time is right, and reconcile with your brother in peace and in love.

But if you continue to hate – whether or not you find or kill your brother – this place will forever be cursed. It shall be known as a place of death and hatred where nothing shall bloom or grow. It will remain forever as empty and desolate as a heart of hatred and jealousy. The choice is yours, my son. I only pray that you chose the right path and do not do as I did.”

The two men looked into each other’s eyes and each other’s souls. Not another word needed to be spoken. Esau looked down at the flames at his feet he allowed Cain’s words to enter him. He paid attention to the message be sent and he could feel the anger within him beginning to melt.

When he looked up to reply to Cain, he was no longer standing there. Esau arose and looked around. But he knew that he was once again alone. But he then realized something important. Filled with anger and hatred, he had cut himself off from humanity, from family and from God. He had been truly alone. But as the anger subsided he realized that he was not alone. Standing there he could sense his connection to all, to God. He looked at the flames, now beginning to die, he listened to the water flowing and imagined it dousing the flames of hatred in his heart and purifying his soul. For a long time he simply stood there paying attention to these feelings within him. He knew that there was still anger and hurt within him, but he was no longer allowing this to control him. He then lay down on the ground next to the stone where he had been sitting and fell into a deep sleep.

In the morning when he awoke, Esau anointed the stone next to him with the water from the stream and named the place M’kom Shalom - place of peace, in honor of what had occurred. He then returned home to live his life, knowing that one day he would once again stand by that stream, the one that he had never noticed before, and embrace his brother in peace, compassion and love.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Hayei Sarah: The Legacy of Sarah and Rebecca

This week's parashah is Hayyei Sarah (Bereshit/Genesis 23:1-25:18). Though the name of the parashah means "life of Sarah," it actually begins by telling of her death at the age of 127. Our matriarchs,and other women in the Torah, often get forgotten as compared to their husbands and other men. For though many portions are named after a man, this is the only one named after a woman. And if only one woman were to have a parashah named after her, it is quite fitting that it be Sarah. Not only because she was one of the two first monotheists (and proto-Jews), but because looking at the character of Sarah as portrayed both in the Torah and the midrash (rabbinic exegetical tales) it is easy to se that she surely deserves recognition.

Within the Torah, Sarah is a character who is strong, yet flexible. When she thinks that her son Isaac is being threatened by his brother Ishmael (even though this may not have been the case) she immediately protects him by insisting that Abraham cast out Ishmael and his mother Hagar. Though her actions may be viewed by us as harsh and disproportionate to any actual threat, no one can claim that she was being passive.

Yet, the same Sarah, or Sarai, as she was known then, leaves her home and her family with her husband and follows him to an unknown land, guided by an unknown God without ever seeming to question him. This may seem to some the actions of a passive or subservient wife. Yet, the Sages do not view these actions as passive. In fact, the Sages say that Sarah is actually to be more praised than Abraham because he went on the journey having spoken with God and knowing that God was with them. However, Sarah went on this journey because she had unwavering faith in God without ever hearing God's voice directly. We are even told by the Sages that Sarah's prophetic powers were greater than Abraham's because the Ruah Ha'Kodesh (Holy Spirit) rested upon her in a special way, which it did not rest upon Abraham or anyone else. This is symbolized in the midrash which states that the cloud of the Shekhinah (God's Divine Presence) hovered over the entrance to Sarah's tent, just as it was to later hover over the mishkan, the portable Sanctuary where worship took place during the Israelites' years of wandering in the desert. "All the years that Sarah was alive, there was a cloud [of the Shekhinah] at the entrance of her tent ...the doors of the tent stood wide open...there was blessing in the dough of the bread...there was a light burning from one Shabbat eve to the next Shabbat eve" (Midrash Bereshit Rabbah, 60:10).

The midrash continues to tell us that the light went out, the doors closed and the cloud vanished when Sarah died, only to return when (in this week's parashah) Isaac brought his new bride Rebecca into "his mother's tent" where she comforted him following her death.

In this midrash it is clear that Sarah was seen as a paradigm of hospitality, kindness, and blessing; she also had a special connection with the Divine. Our Sages remind us that when the angels/visitors came to Abraham to prophesy of Isaac's birth, Abraham went to Sarah and asked her to prepare the meal, for he knew that it was because of her that the dough was blessed. Though Abraham carried on the conversation with the visitors, it was Sarah's hospitality that provided these divine messengers with sustenance. In the rabbinic mind, Sarah and Abraham's relationship was portrayed as a true partnership in which Sarah. How sad then that for years the Amidah, the central prayer of our daily liturgy, has b by begun by calling on God as simply the God of Abraham (Isaac and Jacob) and only within the last few decades, within more liberal circles, as the God of Abraham and the God of Sarah (Rebecca, Rachel and Leah). For the Sages made it clear that Sarah had a relationship with God separate from that of Abraham and unique in its own way. She was not merely connected to God through her husband.

Sarah's spirit and her strength can serve as a role model for us all, regardless of gender. The fact that the midrash portrays the Divine Presence as returning to Sarah's tent upon Rebecca's entry into the tent also shows us that the lineage and tradition continues. Rebecca is the clear spiritual heir to Sarah's legacy. And so the tradition of the God of Sarah, the God of Rebecca, the God of Rachel and the God of Leah, may indeed be as old as the idea of God as the God of their male partners; it has only taken us this long to acknowledge this fact and rectify the situation. Let us hope that as time goes on more Jews realize this and more congregations outside of Reconstructionist, Reform and some Conservative ones, begin to include their names as well. And if one's traditional practice does not allow for changing the liturgy, perhaps a way could be found in text study and commentary, or in writing kavvanot (introductory or intentional reading) to include the heritage of Sarah and the other matriarchs.

Remembering that God has a unique relationship with the matriarchs as well as the patriarchs is not only about feminism or gender equality, but it is about acknowledging and paying attention to the fact that the God of Abraham and the God of Sarah is within each of us. Rabbinic tradition attributes a specific middah (quality or personality trait) to each of our ancestors. If we stop and pay attention to the voices of all as they speak to us through prayer, meditation, study or living our lives, we discover these voices, these divine/human qualities within ourselves. Without paying attention to both the God of our Matriarchs and the God of our Patriarchs we are all diminished; our task of bringing the Divine into the world is incomplete, just as Abraham's task of welcoming the Divine visitors would have been unfinished if Sarah had not been there to provide for them.

As we remember the life and death of Sarah, as well as the welcoming of Rebecca into her tent in this week's parashah, let us remember this message. Let us reach outward and inward to connect with the God of Abraham and the God of Sarah. One God with many faces who touches each of our lives in a different way in each and every moment, bringing us together as one humanity, one world in the name of the Divine.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Bereshit and Noach: On Wisdom and Rest

Last week we began the annual torah-reading cycle over once again with the reading of Parshat Bereshit – the first chapters of the book of Bereshit/Genesis. This week we continue the narrative with Parshat Noach (Noah), which includes not only the story of Noah and the flood, but also the Tower of Babel.

As many of you are aware that there are certain portions in the Torah that are combined when it is not a leap year in the Jewish calendar and separated in leap years (when an entire extra month is added). Though Bereshit and Noach are not two such portions, I decided to treat them as if they were and see what might happen.

The first thing that struck me was the name of this new double portion – Bereshit Noach. This could be translated as "In the beginning. … rest." This new name fascinated me for many reasons. For in the beginning of the Creation narrative there was chaos and formlessness. This is followed by an almost frenetic six days of creative activity on God's part, separated by what seems like a momentary pause for God to remark "this is good!" before moving on to the next phase of creation. Only after the sixth day, when land animals and human beings are created, does God finally stop to rest and, reviewing all of the Divine work of creation proclaims, "this is VERY good!"

However, the words used to refer to God's rest are not from the same root as the name Noach (which does mean "rest" in other places in the Bible). The verbs used to describe the seventh day are all forms of the word "shavat" (the root of the word Shabbat/Sabbath). Though also translated as rest, this root refer to a cessation of work that only takes place this one time and which is experienced only by God. However, the Jewish people continue each week to attempt to recreate this unique type of rest on Shabbat. Later in the Torah, when we read about Shabbat in the narrative surrounding the Ten Commandments, we are told once again that God "shavat va'yinafash", ceased working and renewed, or more accurately, 're-souled' Godself!

And so how can we understand the name of the newly combined Torah portion, Bereshit-Noach? As human beings, perhaps it is impossible for us to ever reach the level of non-creation and total cessation of work that God was able to experience on that first Shabbat. Rather, we can only achieve the ordinary kind or rest referred to as noach and not the more divine rest of shavat. Yet, we continue to strive for that goal in our actions (or non-actions) on Shabbat and hope and pray for it in the words of our prayers. Still, perhaps there is another way to read this new name that I have conceived.

In various commentaries, the rabbis translated Bereshit as "with reshit" (for the prefix be' can be translated as either in or with). Reshit (from the word for head, or beginning), so said some rabbis and later the kabbalists/mystics is actually hochmah/wisdom. And wisdom is the Torah. In other words, the essence of the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, is wisdom. And the Torah and its wisdom were actually the blueprint for the work of creation. With wisdom/Torah, God created the heavens and the earth. Therefore, Bereshit Noach can mean with wisdom, with Torah, comes noach … rest. In experiencing the connection to the eternal wisdom of the divine that is within ourselves and our world (if we simply take the time to notice it) we can find rest. With Torah – the teachings of our ancestors, as well as our contemporaries and ourselves – we can find tranquility. Yet, this rest is still not the total cessation of acting or thinking, for that is something that is beyond the ability of human beings.

On the contrary, when we connect with the Eternal source of wisdom we often find ourselves in the position of feeling internally like we are anything but restful, for when we access the wisdom of the ages our mind begins to whirl. This is not what I would call restful! Yet, if we take the time to simply be still and simply experience whatever we are feeling, we can eventually experience a kind of stillness and repose, even in the midst of the whirlwind of our mind. In the end, isn't that what Noah did? In the midst of the storms and flood, he was somehow able to maintain a sense of composure as everything around him was destroyed (or so we imagine). Nowhere in the text is there any intimation that Noah's mind or heart are disturbed by the death and destruction around him. One can imagine that somehow he was able to remain at rest in spite of it all.

But wait! Is that what we aspire to? Is it our wish that we learn how to remain restful and content while death, destruction, pain and suffering goon around us? No … and yes. For what we must do in the face of the pain and destruction around us is to pay attention to and even experience that pain, while also learning how to maintain a sense of balance and restfulness. In this way, we connect with the suffering of the world, but we do not allow ourselves to get swallowed up by it. In this way, we can find the rest of Noach, but we do not become inured to the suffering around us. Finding that balance between experiencing the pain and finding tranquility leads us not to apathy or indifference, but rather to a sense of compassion and caring.

According to some commentators, Noah's biggest fault was his apathy and inaction. According to Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, the great Hassidic rebbe, Noah was the kind of tzaddik/righteous person who maintained his righteous behavior in terms of himself and his relationship with God, but NOT in terms of his relationship with others. Levi Yitzhak claimed (based on an earlier Talmudic interpretation) that Noah did nothing to convince other people to become righteous and to serve God. He did nothing to save humanity and the rest of the world, even when he knew that it was to be destroyed. He took care of himself and his family, but he cared for no one else. He lived up to his name in that his self-centered righteous behavior allowed him to be at peace, restful, with himself and God, while the rest of the world sat poised on the brink of destruction.

After the flood, Noah and his family began to rebuild the world, but we sense no remorse on his part that he did nothing to save his fellow human beings. And as we read of the re-population of the earth, we also find the sense of self-centered hubris once again increasing, finally reaching a pinnacle, as it were, in the story of the Tower of Babel. Here the people try to create a tower that will reach – and even exceed - God in the heavens. Yet, one might say this is not self-centeredness. After all, it was a group effort in which all the people were cooperating. But what this story really shows is how being self-centered can eventually beget a kind of communal hubris where people believe they are indeed the center of the universe. It is all about us as humans, not about the other parts of God's creation, such as animals or the environment. And in the end, not even about God.

Human beings believed so much in themselves and their belief that they were indeed the center of the universe, that they believed themselves able to build a structure that would put them on the same level as God, if not higher! Of course, as we know, the tower crumbled when God confounded them by creating different languages, thereby making it impossible for people to communicate. In the end, they learned that ultimately they were not the center of the earth.

The generation of the Tower of Babel found no rest because they were so caught up in their own grandiose sense of self-importance. Noah found rest, but it was a rest that separated him from creation and allowed suffering and destruction continue. Neither of these are examples to which we aspire.

And so where does this leave us? It leaves us back at the first words of the Torah. "Bereshit … with reshit …wisdom, God created the heavens and the earth …" Out of the chaos and formlessness that existed, God's wisdom created the earth. It was wisdom that created light, darkness, life, death, beast, fowl and human. It was wisdom that brought the world into existence and brought God into the world.

It is with hochmah/wisdom that we can create holiness for our world and ourselves and create a sense of noach/rest as well. By simply listening to the voice of God within us all, feeling the breathe of God in our lungs and sensing our connection with all of creation we can begin to feel a sense of peace, rest and repose.
It is from this place that we can achieve a sense of understanding of our place in the world and our purpose in life. It is this understanding that comes from the Eternal source of Wisdom, which enables us to clear our minds so that we can be at rest. It is from that place of restful knowledge and understanding that we are then able to see our world and ourselves more clearly. When we do this,
we, unlike Noah, see more clearly the pain within our lives and our world. We see more clearly what it is that we must do in order to decrease suffering and increase joy for all of humanity.

If Noah had accessed this type of restful knowledge perhaps he would have awoken to the reality and begun to try to help his fellow human beings. If the generation of the Tower of Babel had taken the time off from their work to realize this perhaps they would have ceased their futile efforts, given up their sense of self-aggrandizement and instead worked together to improve the situation on earth for all of God's creatures.

If only …

BereshitNoach .. connecting with the Divine wisdom within our world and within each of us, we have the ability to bring rest to ourselves and to our weary world. We have the ability to end suffering and bring holiness into the world. We have a limitless potential for compassion and joy! All we must do is stop for a moment, pay attention and realize it. That is how it all begins.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Parshat Vayelekh (and Shabbat Shuvah) - Returning to the Mountaintop

This week's parashah/portion is Vayelekh (Devarim/ Deuteronomy 31:1-30). As Moses prepares to die, he continues his oration to the people. In this parashah, he informs them that God has revealed to him that, after his death, the people will go astray, break the covenant that God has made with them and worship alien gods. As consequence, many evils will befall them. But God reveals to Moses that they will realize the error of their ways and proclaim, " 'surely it is because God is not in our midst that this evil has befallen us.' Yet I (God) will keep my countenance hidden on that day, because of all the evil they have done in turning to other gods." (Deut. 31:17-18).

Rabbi Isaac Meir Rothenburg Alter of Ger (1787-1866) commented on this passage, that if a person is aware that something is hidden from him, then the disaster is not so great, for he will follow his yearning, and break down every barrier that exists in order to discover what is hidden. However, tragedy occurs someone is unaware that there is something more concealed within that which is hidden, and therefore they have no desire to seek it out.

It would seem from the Torah text that the people will become aware of God's hiddeness. They will therefore seek God out in the time when they are to experience the greatest punishment and darkest despair. In many ways, this is the essence of teshuvah, return or repentance, which is the main focus of these ten days beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur.

This Shabbat, which falls in the midst of those ten days, is called Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of Return. On this day, we are meant not only to rest, as we do every Shabbat, but also to continue our focus teshuvah, returning to God and to our truest self as the main task at hand.

Keeping this in mind, I found myself having a different reaction to both the Torah text cited above and to the commentary. For in reading the text, I found its essence not merely to be the idea of God being hidden, which is certainly frightening on its own, but that the hiding was a consequence of the people's actions.

I don't see this hiding as a "punishment" from an external force, in the classical sense, but simply a result of the people going astray. The text seems to be saying that when we forsake the Divine, then it is as if we turn our backs on God. God is therefore hidden to us. Our actions are not merely the reason for the punishment, they actually are the punishment itself. For our actions will cause us believe that "everything bad is befalling us because God is no longer in our midst. " For in turning our backs on God we become unable to metaphorically see God's face (experience God's presence in our world). It is as if God is hidden from us, when reality it is that we have turned away from God. We become devoid of any sense or experience of divinity in the world. We believe that God has abandoned us and that we are utterly alone.

This sense of being alone can beget depression, despair, apathy, and a sense that our lives and existence is meaningless. If we remain in this state, we are bound to continue in the downward spiral and act in ways that are increasingly antithetical to what God wants of us. In this way we not only continue to turn our backs on God, but we move further and further away from Divinity. We do this by distancing ourselves from other people and our connection to the world.

When we do this we then fulfill the most dire of the prophecies in this parashah and find ourselves at the bottom of an extremely steep slope of despair and hopelessness. From that place, where it is almost impossible to feel the light and warmth of God's presence, let alone imagine that it even exists, we believe even more strongly that we are there because God has abandoned us. We are unable to realize that God is merely hidden from our view because we turned our back on God in the first place.

Yet, if we had simply turned around near the beginning of our downward journey, we would have been able to realize that God was there waiting all along. If we had realized that God was "hidden" from us because of our own action, or inaction, then we would have been able to use all of our effort to break down the barriers between us and God so that we could discover God's hidden face.

However, once we get to the bottom of the ravine, simply turning around will not help. Even our greatest efforts might not be able to break down the barriers or help us climb back up the slope. Mere teshuvah, in its simplest sense, will not be enough to pull us out. But, if this is so, then how do we rise again so that we can stand on the top of the mountain in the presence of the Divine together with all of humanity and all of creation?

The answer to this query is deceptively simple, yet it requires courage, faith and trust - three qualities that we often lack when in a state of such utter despair. For the answer lies in relationship and community. The answer lies in the willingness to allow others to reach down into the abyss and help pull us out. This process begins with simply allowing one to hear the voice of God in the voice of others. This requires silence and a kind of deep hearing with our soul. When in a place of despair, it requires paying attention to the negative
voices in our minds and then allowing them to fade. Then we can begin to hear the distant call of God in the voice of family, friends and loved ones.
Hearing these voices in our stillness, we slowly begin to allow them to penetrate us even just a little bit, until finally, we turn around and see a hand reaching for us, which has been there all along. We feel the darkness in which we have been living. We feel its coldness, we smell its bitterness, we taste its darkness and we realize that we are ready to make climb upward toward the light with the help of others.

Eventually we reach the top where we can feel the light of God and see the divine countenance in the faces of those who helped lift us up to this place. That is the beauty of the communal teshuvah that we perform together on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. That is why we are meant to do this difficult work in community, and not merely alone. Finding that community is not always easy, but when one does find it the change can be profound. It is also the beauty of being part of a community, as society and a world, where there exists a social compact to remind us that we are meant to be there to help one another.

On this Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it is time to look around us and see where we are. Are we at the top of the hill, the bottom of the pit, somewhere in between, or perhaps in both places simultaneously? If you are at the bottom of the pit, then allow yourself to know it, even though it may be painful. Honor the place where you are. Take the time to experience wherever you are at this moment before you turn to take the next step on your journey. Then from your silence and your stillness, listen to the voice of God and look for God's countenance - for it is never more than just a 180 degree turn away – in the faces and voices of those around us. Then you can continue your journey of Teshuvah.

If you are already at the top of the hill (or somewhere on the slope, as is usually the case), look down at those to whom we can reach out and help. And if different pieces of you seem to be located in different place, acknowledge the complexity of life and do all of the above! It's easier – and more difficult – than it may seem.

I wish you all g'mar hatimah tovah - may you be sealed for goodness in the Book of Life. And may we each work with everyone to see that this is true for us all.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Parshat Ki Tavo: Neither an Oppressor nor a Wanderer Be

This week's parashah/portion is Ki Tavo (Devarim/ Deuteronomy 26:1 -29:8). The opening lines describe the ritual that the people are meant to enact when they enter the Promised Land and bring their first fruits of their harvest as an offering of thanks to God.

When the people bring the basket of first fruits to the priest we read: "And the priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down in front of the altar of YHWH, your God. And you shall answer and say in front of YHWH, your God:   My father was a wandering Aramean, so he went down to Egypt and resided there with few persons and became a large, powerful and numerous nation there. And the Egyptians oppressed us and degraded us and imposed hard work on us. And we cried out to YHWH ... And YHWH brought us out from Egypt ... to this place and gave us this land ... and now, here, I've brought the first of the fruit of the land that you've given me, YHWH." (26:4 - 10) .

The phrase used to begin this ancient ritual, Arami oved avi , is subject to numerous translations and interpretations. Rashi, in the 11th century France understood it as “an Aramean sought to destroy my father”, referring here to Jacob's uncle Laban. In the 12th century, Rashi's grandson, Rashbam, understood it as “my father was a wandering Aramean,” which became the standard translation in many languages.  Rashbam believed the verse referred to Abraham, who was born and raised in Aram.

So which is correct?  Perhaps both.  For perhaps the essence of the text is that this mysterious Aramean is both our wandering ancestors and the one who oppressed him. So too we are each at times wandering aimlessly, at times we are oppressed and at times we are the oppressor.  And in many of these instances, we are actually all three simultaneously, for we are oppressing ourselves. Our action, or inaction, can oppress us. They can cause us to get stuck where we are. To not move ahead. To not see where we are meant to go. As both oppressor and oppressed, our actions have consequences for ourselves and for others with whom we are in contact, as well as for our society and our world.

Whatever the translation, the Torah clearly felt this was an essential ritual. It's performance was to be required for all when the people were in the land. It was the way that they would thank God for the first fruits of their harvest. If they didn't perform the ritual using the exact Hebrew formula as written in the Torah, it would be as if they were still food from God's earth. Reciting this historical passage was a way of connecting and identifying with our ancestors and our history in a very powerful manner. Yet, there were those who were less educated and illiterate who could not recite the passage as written. And so,we read in the Mishnah (first post-biblical law codes) that if the person bringing for their offering could not read the Hebrew, they were allowed to have a prompter. However, it eventually became clear that those unable to recite the Hebrew on their own were not bringing their offerings at all, because they were embarrassed to use a prompter. Therefore, the rabbis ruled that all people would have a prompter, thereby not embarrassing those who were less knowledgeable. This story really struck me and actually I found a connection between it and the original text.

For the rabbis were faced with quite a dilemma. The ritual was to be performed exactly as written in the Torah. But those who were less well educated could not participate. And so they developed what seemed like a reasonable compromise. Those unable to recite on their own could use a prompter. But what the rabbis forgot was the effect that having a prompter would have on the sense of kavod/honor of those who needed to use one. And so, those people would rather forgo the ritual of thanking God, rather than embarrass themselves.

When the rabbis realized this, they knew that another decision had to be made. They could end the need for the ritual totally, which would be against the Torah. They could tell those who were less educated that they could not participate, which them would force them to defy Torah law or they could translate the ritual from Hebrew to Aramaic, the language of the day. But that too would defy the law, as they would not be reciting the text as written. But what they did was find a brilliant solution that retained the law as written, but also maintained the dignity and honor of all the community. They required that everyone use a prompter. That way, no one would know who was educated and who was not.

In the terminology used in the passage itself, the rabbis had a choice to let those less well educated become “wanderers”, unable to bring their fruits to the Temple and thereby separated from the community. Unable to recite the ritual, they would be forced to wander in a spiritual no man's land, eating the fruit of God's earth without being able to properly acknowledge God. Following this approach, the rabbis would also be oppressors, they could force people to either do it “the right way” or no way. Period. No questions asked. But instead they found a middle ground. And this middle ground was not rooted in wandering or in oppression, but it was rooted in honor, kindness and compassion – kavod, hesed and rahamim.

The rabbis did the same thing when they created a chamber in the Bet Ha'Mikdash/Holy Temple where people were to go either to give tzedakah/charity or to take from tzedakah for themselves. The door to the chamber was closed, so no one would know who was entering the chamber to give and who to take. No one was left to wander without money or food because they were ashamed to enter the chamber. And no one felt oppressed by being force to be seen taken money, nor did anyone need to oppress others by forcing them to be in that situation.

And all of this was rooted in respect, kindness and compassion. Perhaps the foremost of these was compassion – rahamim. For compassion means “to be with the pain of others” and rahamim, comes from the same root as the word rehem/womb. Rahamim reminds us that we are all intimately connected to one another, we are all a part of one another, just as the fetus growing in the womb is a part of its mother. We are all connected. We are all one. That is the root of compassion.

Without becoming political in any way, I believe that this teaching is something we should all consider in this election year. For as we prepare to determine the direction our country will take for the next four years, and as our brothers and sisters in Israel continually try to determine the direction they take, let us remember that ultimately we must be guided by kavod, hesed and rahamim. Respect, kindness and compassion. We must be guided by the knowledge that we are all one within God, we are all connected to each other and to everyone and everything in the universe.

We are all indeed our brothers' and sisters' keepers. But to what degree? Whatever choices we make, let us remember that we must not create a country that oppresses others through rules and laws, even when they might be well intentioned and meant to help others. Nor can we let our fellow human beings become aimless wanderers, trying to find their way by themselves. There must be a balance. There must be a way. And that way must be guided by respect for each individual – no matter how much we might disagree, kindness towards all of God's creation – human or not, and compassion for all of humanity and for our world. For we are all one. If we use these three principles to guide us, then we will continue to build a nation and a world where no one wanders helpless and alone and no one oppresses or dictates to others. That is the world I believe to be envisioned in our Torah. And it is the world in which I hope we shall live soon an in our own time.


Friday, August 17, 2012

Parshat Re'eh and Rosh Hodesh Elul: Living Between Blessing and Curse

This week's parashah/portion, Re'eh (Devarim/ Deuteronomy 11:26 - 16:17), is a continuation of Moses's speech to the people before ascending Mt. Nebo to die. In this portion he warns the people that they face the choice between a life of blessings and a life of curses. He also urges them to follow God's commandments once they settle in the land.

One of the most fascinating passages of the parashah is when Moses describes the ritual that the people are to enact upon entering the Promised Land. The people are to stand between Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, both of which are on the "other side" of the Jordan. A series of curses are then to be pronounced from Mount Ebal and a series of blessings from Mount Gerizim. The blessings represent what will happen if they follow God's mitzvot/commandments and the curses, what will follow if they turn away from "the path that I enjoin upon you and follow other gods."

This powerful ritual is followed immediately by the commandment for the people to utterly and completely destroy all the sites at which the other nations worshipped their gods in the land of Canaan and a warning that they are not to worship God in a like manner, but to "look only to the site that YHWH your God will choose" as the proper place for worship.

In reading this passage, I was struck by the fact that the words 'blessing' and 'curse' are in the singular. For some reason I always think of them as being in the plural form, since Moses is speaking to all of the people. In addition, I had forgotten that the two mountains were on the "other side" of the Jordan, and not in the land of Canaan. Finally, I was struck by the emphasis on not following the wrong path, but instead following the path that is "enjoined" upon them.

When I imagine this scenario I can see the mountain of blessing and the mountain of curse looming ahead in the distance, and yet they are also inside each of us. We each have the power to bring blessing or curse upon ourselves through the choices we make and the actions we take. The fact that blessing and curse are singular can serve to remind us that, even though the "rewards and punishments" that we may receive as consequences for our actions may each seem unique and different, they are actually each a different manifestation of the one blessing and the one curse that actually exist.

The blessing, as I see it, is simply the ability to accept life as it is and to follow the path "enjoined" upon us by God. The curse is to always believe that there is another, better path to seek out. Seeking this elusive, and false, path leads us to ignore "proper path." It is also the root of suffering for so many.

The metaphor for this 'improper' path is “following other gods." In my mind, this represents any path that leads us away from the One God, and from the Oneness of the Universe. According to many traditions, including Judaism, the proper path is the middle way or the golden mean. Following or clinging to a path that veers off in the extreme is dangerous and can bring 'the curse' upon us. Walking the middle way, as both Maimonides and the Buddha have taught, is the way that we are meant to walk. The beauty of this is that the middle path is where we are at this moment if we only pay attention and look within and around us.

This concept is symbolized most vividly by the traversing of the two mountains described in our text. These mountains, simultaneously within us and outside of us, represent the extremes that we are to avoid. For even the mountain of blessing can lead us on the wrong path if we follow it to the extreme. That is why the Israelites are commanded to stand at each mountain - first pronouncing the blessing at Gerizim and then the curse at Ebal. Only then can they continue on the path that goes between the mountains to the Promised Land.

The fact that the mountains are not in Canaan itself, but on the "other side" of the Jordan also struck me because the Aramaic words for "other side," Sitra Achra, is how the kabbalists/mystics refer to the source of evil in the world. It is an extension of Gevurah, the Divine attribute of strength, judgment and limitation. When this attribute is allowed to go to its extreme it gets out of control and that is where evil, in the form of tyranny and oppression, is to be found. It is not separate from God, but rather the "Other Side" of God, as it were.  For if all is One, then nothing is truly separate.

The mountains are on the "other side" because they are not only part of us, but they also represent the dangers that lurk within and around us when we veer from the middle path and when we go to extremes. When we allow this to happen, what may just have been a temporary sense of 'blessing' or 'curse', 'reward' or 'punishment', 'happiness' or 'sadness' becomes an all consuming force that can engulf us and prevent us from living a life.

The mountains are meant to be kept on the other side. We may visit them momentarily on the way to our own individual 'Promised Land' - the life that we are to live - but we must not linger, lest we allow ourselves to go astray. Yet they are always there in the distance serving as a focal point and reminding us of the possibility and the danger of lingering too long at either place, of veering too far in either direction, so that we leave the path that leads us to ourselves and to the Divine within. 

This Shabbat is also Rosh Hodesh Elul, the celebration of the new Hebrew month of Elul.  This is the last month before Rosh Hashanah/the New Year.  It is meant to be a month of introspection, renewal and return.  It prepares us for the intense work of teshuvah/repentance that is the essence of the 10 days from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur.

Interestingly, Elul is immediately proceeded by the month of Av. This is a month mostly dedicated to mourning and lamentation.  For tradition tells us that on the Ninth Day of Av/Tisha B'Av, both Holy Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed.  The first by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the second by the Romans in 70 CE.  And so, as Av ends we are thrust immediately into the early phase of the teshuvah/repentance process.  

The ancient rabbis taught that the Hebrew letters of the word Elul were an acronym for the verse from the biblical book of Shir ha'Shirim/ Song of Songs "Ani L'dodi V'dodi Li, I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine".  And so the month of introspection is meant to remind us that we are God's beloved and God is ours.  It is from this place of relational and covenantal love that we are meant to approach the Yamim Nora'im/Days of Awe (Rosh Ha'Shanah through Yom Kippur).

However, this Shabbat is actually not the first day of the month of Elul.  Rather, it is the 30th day of the  month of Av.  For Elul is one of the months with a two day Rosh Hodesh/New Moon celebration, and the first day of this celebration is the last day of Av.  So in fact, on this Shabbat we are both in the month of mourning and destruction and the month that begins the process of rebirth and renewal.  In short, we are living simultaneously in the realms of blessing and curse.  

The rabbis saw the destruction of the Second Temple as a punishment (read: curse) from God for the senseless, baseless hatred that ran rampant through the people of Jerusalem, causing them to be at war with each other. Therefore, Av represents the punishment and curse brought about by sinat hinam/baseless hatred, whereas Elul represents ahavat hinam, unconditional love brought about by a relationship with the Divine.  The former is brought about by human beings forgetting the Oneness of the Universe that we call God and separating themselves from one another.  The latter is brought about by remembering and maintaining a relationship with God through maintaining through love and relationship with humanity and all of creation. 

And so, as we enter this Shabbat/Rosh Hodesh Elul, let us remember that both blessing and the curse, love and hatred, are both present within and around us.  They are both in our hearts and in the places we might consider to be 'the other side,' those we are in danger of viewing as other.  Let us do our best this day, every day and every moment, to embrace love and reject hatred. Let us remember the One that is all of creation  and reject the illusion of the many and otherness which separates and divides the world. In that way, we will be ready to enter our Promised Land, the place of wholeness, peace, joy and love, which our world is meant to be.

Shabbat Shalom and Hodesh Tov (a good month)

Friday, July 20, 2012

Parshat Matot-Ma'asei: Maintaining Balance Between Us and the World

This week we finish reading the book of Bemidbar/Numbers with the double parashah/portion of Matot-Ma'asei.At the beginning of Chapter 32, in Parshat Matot, the people are encamped on the east side of the Jordan river preparing to enter and conquer the Promised Land of Canaan. The tribes of Reuben and the Gad, who owned a great many flocks and cattle, noticed that the lands where they were encamped were perfect for raising both. And so the leaders of Reuben and Gad came to Moses, Eleazar the priest and the chieftains of the community asking if they could settle on these lands rather than within the Promised Land.

Moses replies to them in anger. He reminds them that 40 years earlier the 10 “evil spies” gave a negative report on the land of Canaan and, because the people believed them, they were forced to wander until that generation died off. “And now,” he says, “ you, a breed of sinful men, have replaced your fathers, to add still further to God's wrath against Israel! If you turn away from God and God abandons the people once more in the wilderness, you will bring calamity upon the people!”

Then the leaders of Reuben and Gad explained that they would first build “sheepfolds for our flocks and towns for our children” and then they would go to battle with the other tribes to conquer the land. Only after the conquer was complete would they return to the land East of the Jordan River.

Upon hearing this, Moses agrees that if they actually do as they say and do not abandon the other tribes, but fight as shock troops in the battle then all will be well. But if they do not then they will have turned their backs on God. He then concludes “Build towns for your children and sheepfolds for your flocks, but do what you have promised.” The tribal leaders reply: “Your servants will do as my lord commands. Our children,our wives, our flocks, and all our other livestock will stay behind......while your servants cross over at the insistence of YHWH to engage in battle.”

Later in Parshat Ma'asei, the entire journey from Egypt until their arrival at the Jordan river is recounted in excruciating detail. Then God tells Moses that each tribe is to take a portion of their land and create towns for the Levites, the priestly tribe. Since their duty is to care for the mishkan / Tabernacle, they are not to be given land as are the other tribes. But the donated land will include both cities in which they shall live and pastures for the Levites' cattle and flocks.

Finally, God commands Moses that, once in the land, they are to create six arei miklat – cities of refuge. These cities shall be used as a refuge for those who have committed a murder unintentionally. For according to law, the go'el dam – or blood avenger – the closest family member of the one who was killed is required to seek the life of the murderer, even when the murder is accidental. However, if the murderer lives in an ir miklat / city of refuge– the avenger may not touch them.

At first blush, these three passages seem to have nothing in common. And yet, as often is the case, the Torah is more than meets the eye. Can anyone here see a common thread? Yes, the common thread is land. And land is central in so many ways to the Torah, ancient Israelite religion and later Judaism. It is also central to the American national mythology. 

Just recently we celebrated what would have been Woody Guthrie's 100th birthday. In his music he told us “this land is your land, this land is my land.” All of the land belongs to all of the people. And he poetically describes the various borders and boundaries. In this week's parashah, God tells Moses what the boundaries are to be of the Promised Land. A land that is also to belong to all of the people, though it is to be apportioned appropriately. And yet, we know from our tradition, as expressed best in the Psalms, la'donai ha'aretz um'loah. Tevel v'yoshvei vah. The land and all that fills it is God's. The earth and all its inhabitants.” We are landlords and tenants on the land. God is the ultimate owner. And it is not only the earth that is God's, but all that fills it and all who inhabit it. Keep that in mind as we review the texts I cited a few minutes ago.

The Torah tells us repeatedly, that the land of Canaan is holy. It is, pardon the expression, the holy grail at the end of this long journey. It is because of the holiness of the land, as well as his belief that the Gadites and Reubenites were shirking their responsibilities, that Moses at first berates the leaders for wanting to settle on the East side of the Jordan. For it was the 10 spies' fear of entering the land that resulted in the 40 years of wandering in the desert. Now he is concerned that the new generation is going to repeat their ancestors' mistakes with dire consequences. But the tribes promise to help conquer the land assuages Moses. However, it is the use of the land and its connection to the people that is also of importance in this narrative.

Judaism has always taught that the holiness of the people is above the holiness of the land. But in this case, according to one rabbinic interpretation, it appears that the Gadites have their priorities all wrong. For they tell Moses that they will build “sheepfolds for their flocks and towns for their children.” Midrash Rabbah (a collection of ancient rabbinic commentaries) states that the fact that they put their flocks before their children angered Moses. So that when he finally does give permission, he intentionally reversed the order, putting the children first. According to this commentary, the tribal leaders pick up on this and realize the errors of their thinking. And so they reply, “Our children,our wives, our flocks, and all our other livestock will stay behind......”

Yes, the land and all that is in it is God's. Is holy. But it is the sanctity and importance of the people who will live on the land that are of utmost importance. So too with the conquer of the land. It is essential that all the tribes participate in it's conquer, because it will be a home all of them after years of slavery and then wandering. But once in the land, the priests need a place to live. They have no property of their own, perhaps to avoid them becoming wealthy, corrupt land owners as had happened to the priest of ancient Egypt. But whatever the reason, the important thing is that each tribe must give of their own land so that the Levites, those responsible for the holiness and the ritual life of the nation, will have a place to dwell. Again, land serves the needs and the holiness of the people, and not the other way around. But in the end, it all serves God.

The third passage, concerning the building of cities of refuge, is in some way the key to the whole issue of the relationship between the land and the people. For it is based on the belief that there is no monetary or other equivalent to the taking of a human life. But precisely because the Torah values human life so greatly. Earlier in the parashah we learn how difficult it is to convict someone of first degree murder. There must be two witnesses who actually see the act and the murder must have been warned by them before the murder took place. The rabbis later expanded these laws so that it was almost impossible to convict someone. But even when the murder is accidental, the go'el dam, blood avenger, must seek out the murderer. This is based on the notion that when blood that is spilled (as well as adultery, idolatry and various “unethical” acts are committed) it pollutes the land in a spiritual sense; and if the land gets too polluted it will literally spit out its inhabitants. We read of this time and again in the books of the Prophets.

In other words, there is a delicate balance maintained between the God's people and God's land and blood must avenge blood. However, in terms of an accidental murder, the cities of refuge saved the murderer from potential death. So even though there is not a blood for blood balancing of the scales, there is a spiritual balancing through the legal process and through the creation of these cities. As long as the murderer remains in the cities of refuge, then the Divine balance is still maintained. Again, the land, which is God's, is there to serve the holiness of God's creature - humanity, and not the reverse. And the key to everything is maintaining balance.

In a surface reading it may seem as if the land is simply there to meet the people's needs. That it is there to provide for them, whether it be pastures, a home or shelter. But since the land and the people belong to God, then this is not really true. It is all about God and about holiness. When Moses is berating the tribal leaders for wanting to live in the land on the other side of the Jordan, he invokes the name of God 6 times! For he knows that if they are making an affront to anyone, it is to God, not Moses or the people.

The Levites are also charged with serving God in a specific way, and in return, God sees to it that they are provide land – which really belongs to God and not to the tribes – on which to live. And finally, the balance of God's justice and compassion shine through in the creation of the cities of refuge,insuring that they do not become a murderous and vindictive society. All of these texts point to the holiness of the people, the role of the land in supporting them, and the fact that this is all a part of God's order.

But what does all of this say to us today? What lesson can we learn? I believe that there are many. Most simply, we are reminded of the interdependent holiness of the land and the people. Yes, in these examples, the land serves the people's needs, but only within the context of maintaining a holy, just and balanced society. This does not mean that human beings are free to do whatever we want with the land (and you can apply this to so many issues today). For we must always think about how we are interconnected and how land, people, animals, and everything that fills the land are all a part of God. In other words, adonai ehad. God is one. All that fills the universe is one with God. If we remember this, then it is a little easier for us to remember to treat human beings, animals and our world with compassion and care. And each of the events we have discussed can teach us something different about this.

The first can remind us that no matter where we are, holiness can be found if we care for one another. If we pay attention. If we keep our priorities straight and if we work together for the good of our community and of our world.

The second reminds us that bringing holiness and godliness into our world is a responsibility that we all share. Just as the tribes each gave up land to support the Levites. So too, each of us gives or sacrifices a piece of ourselves to support the creation of holiness, goodness, compassion and justice in our world.

And finally, we must maintain balance balance between justice and mercy, rigid boundaries and flexibility, between strength and compassion. If we do this then we shall leave peacefully with the land and the land shall live peacefully with us. Is this a simple task? No. It is one with which we have and continued to struggle. But if we pay attention and remember some of the lessons of this parashah, it is one which we can accomplish one day, one moment at a time. Shabbat Shalom.

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