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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Time to Create Time.....or not

The following is not a commentary on the Torah or other Biblical text.  Rather, it consists of my musings about the nature of time and its role in our lives.
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This past weekend we celebrated the festival of Purim.  Purim celebrates the victory of the Jews over their Persian enemy Haman, viceroy to King Achashverosh.  The story is told in the biblical Book of Esther, because the Jewish Queen Esther is the heroine of the story.

Purim usually occurs in March.  But these year, for the first time I can remember (though my memory is not what it once was) it fell on the evening of the 23rd of February.  This is indeed quite early!  As a matter of fact, all of the holidays for the remainder of 5773 on the Jewish calendar (the end of August) through Hanukkah of 5774 will be “very early” this year. As a matter of fact, for the first time in history (and the last time until about 400 years from now) the first day of Hanukkah will actually fall on Thanksgiving Day!!!! (this fact actually deserves the hyperbole of multiple exclamation points!!!)

The calculations of the lunar/solar Jewish calendar are complicated. But the reason the dates of the holidays on the Gregorian (English) calendar change each year is actually simple to explain. The Jewish months are based on the lunar cycle, each month beginning with the new moon and lasting 28 or 29 days. However, lunar months are shorter than solar months of the Gregorian (secular) calendar, and so one lunar year is approximately 11 days shorter than one solar year. Therefore, without  adjustment the holidays would continue to fall earlier and earlier each year. Eventually, Passover/Pesakh would migrate to the fall, Rosh Hashanah to the spring, and Hanukkah to the summer. This is similar to what happens to Ramadan in the Muslim calendar, which is strictly lunar. However, since the three Pilgrimage festivals (shalosh regalim) of Passover/Pesakh, Sukkot and Shavuot are directly tied to specific seasons and their harvests, this cannot happen.

This is why the ancient rabbis, in their infinite wisdom, created a leap year in which we add an extra month to the calendar. In a leap year you will find two months of Adar, Adar Aleph (1) and Adar Bet (2). As Purim falls in Adar, next year it will be celebrated in Adar Bet, as it is in every leap year. That mean, yes...you guessed it....next year Purim will fall about as late as it can! So too with the remainder of the holidays for the coming year. Then the holidays will once again fall earlier and earlier each year until another leap year occurs and they get pushed back again. The calculations for when a leap year falls are complicated, but within a 19 year cycle there will always be 7 leap years.

However, though it may seem to us that the holidays are falling early or late, they always fall exactly when they are meant to. Purim is on the 14th of Adar, Rosh Hashanah is the first of Tishri and Hanukkah begins on the 25th of Kislev. However, because we follow two calendars there is the illusion that they are falling early or late.

More than 80 years ago Mordechai Kaplan, z”l (may the memory of the righteous be a blessing), the founder of Reconstructionism, wrote that we live in two civilizations; our task is to somehow firmly plant our feet and find balance in both. But today we live in more than two civilizations. It seems that we are always trying to balance our relationships to the different worlds in which we orbit. We do this, in part, by trying to manage time with our calendars, smart phones and daily planners. And yet, no matter what we do or how much we try, time goes on as it was meant to. Well, just as we humans designed it to.

For the concept of time is a construct created by the human mind. The earth was spinning on its axis, the earth was orbiting the sun and the moon was orbiting the earth, just as it is today, long before the first clock or calendar was created. But we humans have long felt a need to understand and control our world. And the creation of time is part of this. The ancients felt the need to divide the days and years into neatly organized equal units. And so they created the 60 second minute, 60 minute hour, 24 hour day and 365 day year. And yet, we know things are not quite that neatly divided. It takes 365.26 days for the earth to orbit the sun. Therefore, we add a day to the calendar every four years to make up the difference. But even then we are behind .01 days! And a day is not really neatly divided into 24 equal parts. And so, in a way, we are perpetually “running behind.” Even though these may seem like minutia, these facts remind us that no matter how much we try to control or manage time we simply can't. It resists our efforts and thwarts us at every turn, even though we believe we can control it because we created it.

The attempt to control time is the cause of so much suffering in our lives. For we can never win. The days pass by, lives begin and end, and we can't do a thing about it. Millenia ago, the author of the biblical book of Kohelet/Ecclesiastes wrote “there is a a time for every purpose under heaven....a time to be born, a time to die...a time to mourn and a time to dance...” But we cannot determine the time for each purpose ahead of time. We don't know if the next moment will be a time to rejoice or a time to mourn, a time to live or a time to die. Perhaps that is why Kohelet also believe that all was vanity or futility. Yet I see this in a more positive light as a call to us to be fully present and rejoice in each moment. Perhaps this is the lesson we can learn from the confusing intricacies of the Jewish calendar. That nothing comes early or late. Everything happens in its time. And that is as it should be.

William Shakespeare knew this when he wrote Macbeth's words (uttered following the death of Lady Macbeth) “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day today....and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death.” He realized that the attempt to control life and time was a foolish endeavor. However, the ending of his soliloquy   “it (life) is a told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” is what we must try to avoid. Even when we face death, pain or tragedy we must try our best to create meaning in our lives. The best way to do this is by living in the present, allowing each moment to unfold, taking it as it comes, and trying our best to rejoice when we can, and mourn when we must, and then move on to the next moment. Doing this, we can create a life, moment by moment, that is still will have its ups and downs, but which ultimately will be the opposite of the pessimistic views of Macbeth and Kohelet. For we can create a life, full of joy and meaning.  We can live a life which reminds us that we are created in God's image, and that we can can make a difference and bring healing to the world, even though ultimately we cannot control the world or control time.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Parshat Terumah: How to Open the Door and Let God In

This week's Torah parasha/portion is Terumah (Shemot/Exodus 25:1 - 27:19).  In it, God begins instructing Moshe on how to construct the Mikdash (Tabernacle), or portable desert sanctuary.  A key concept can be found in the beginning of the parashah when God says to Moshe, "And let them make Me a sanctuary/holy place that I may dwell among them" (25:8).  The Hebrew word for "I may dwell" is the single word v'shakhanti.  The root of this word is the same as for the word Mishkan, the other name used in the Torah for the Tabernacle. 

It appears from this verse that the Mikdash/Mishkan is to be built so that God can dwell in the presence of the people.  Yet isn't God to be found everywhere?  Nahum Sarna, in the JPS Torah commentary, points out that the verb sh-kh-n connotes a temporary, nomadic dwelling, not a permanent home.  In other words, as we find later in the Torah, God dwells periodically in the Mikdash/Mishkan.  When God does not dwell there, it is a sign that it is time to pack up the structure and the entire camp and begin traveling again. 

Another key word in this verse is b'tocham.  Translated as "among them," it can also mean "within them."  Many commentators notice this and focus on what it means for God to dwell 'within' the people.  As Aviva Zornberg points out in her commentary, the word does not translate as "among the nation [as a whole]," but rather, "within [each of] them" [i.e., the people].  The Mishkan/Mikdash is meant to represent the fact that God will be able to dwell within and among each individual.  Siftei Chachamim, a later medieval commentary on Rashi (who wrote in 12th century France), states that the Mikdash is meant to be a "house in which there is a midst."  Alternatively, as Zornberg states it, "a hollow core where God may dwell."  In other words, the Mishkan is an empty space awaiting God's presence.  Zornberg discusses at length the tension and contradiction of the concept that God is everywhere and yet can dwell within one specific space.  The image of the empty place within and God outside waiting to be allowed in is echoed in much of the language of the Biblical book Shir ha'Shirim/ Song of Songs, where the lover (God) is portrayed as waiting outside the door for the beloved (Israel) to let God in. 

Furthermore, Zornberg discusses the paradox that it is the very absence of God that fuels the longing for God.  This longing causes us to be truly awake and aware of God's presence.  She writes, "To be awake, pulses beating, is to be aware of distance, difference, to yearn to open [to God] at the right moment.  That is, God cannot be inside if He (sic) is not outside, if the heart cannot imagine its emptiness."  She compares this to the work of Gaston Bachelard who, in speaking about the paradoxical relationship of warmth to cold writes, "we feel warm because it is cold out-of-doors" and who also conclude the paragraph with the words, "Indeed, everything comes alive when contradictions accumulate."

When I read this verse, I stopped in my tracks.  All at once, the image of God waiting to come inside struck me in a way that it had not before.  For years, I had heard and used the classic Hassidic quote "God dwells where we let God in" and yet for the first time I began to get a sense of what that might mean for me and for us.  I also began to understand the contradiction that is at the heart of this quote. 

The idea that each of us is a Mikdash "a hollow structure with the potential for housing holiness"is a powerful one.  Yet, it is up to us to allow the space to be filled with holiness.  However, it is only the acknowledging and being mindful of the emptiness within us that allows us to sense the presence of God outside of us.  Without this sense of God without we cannot experience God within.  That is the paradox.  That is the contradiction that fuels our desire for God. 

As human beings, we cannot but help feel lonely, empty, isolated and depressed at various times in our lives.  Rather than focusing on the emptiness and wallowing in sorrow or fear "as many of us are wont to do "this paradigm allows us to shift our focus.  Instead of focusing simply (is anything about this simple?) on the emptiness inside and filling ourselves with pity we can instead allow the feeling of emptiness to call us to recognize what it is that is causing us to feel empty.  For just as the cold outside allows us to feel warm inside, so to warmth outside allows us to feel the cold inside.  Similarly, the warmth of the Divine Presence that is all around us is what allows/causes us to feel the cold emptiness within.  Just as feeling cold is the impetus for us to light a fire or turn up the heat, so the feeling of emptiness is the impetus for us to turn to God and open the door to let God in. 

The more we recognize the paradoxes and contradictions within us the more we can acknowledge the feelings within that cause discomfort, pain or suffering.  The more we acknowledge those feelings the more opportunity there is to recognize the opposite feelings that exist outside of our home/body.  If we recognize this we are not only providing ourselves with an opportunity to let the Divine enter our hearts and our lives, but we are also denying the ego its hold over us.  For in reality, single-minded focus on our internal struggles and emptiness is merely another form of ego-centeredness.  Even focusing on feelings of insecurity or lack of self-esteem is a form of ego-centrism for it keeps us focused on ourselves and prevents us from being mindful of God's presence around us.  It keeps us from acknowledging the contradictions that then drives us to take action.  Merely focusing inward on oneself allows us to delude ourselves into imagining that there is an internal consistency, even if that consistency is a feeling of emptiness or pain.  And that consistency breeds stasis and resolution instead of passion, desire and revolution. 

It is inviting and allowing God's presence to enter us and take its place within our own Mikdash/Mishkan that gives us the potential to go outside of our egos and ourselves and connect with others and the world around us.  Doing this does not mean that the pain, sadness, or other difficulties in our lives will miraculously disappear.  However, the miracle that occurs when we allow the Divine into ourselves is that we can then begin to turn outward in order to connect with others so that we can give each other the strength to face the difficulties in our lives. 

The contradictions and paradoxes of our lives are the matter that fuels the fires of passion and that lead us to Divine action and human interaction.  Without them, we run the risk of being stagnant, ego-centered beings.  Without them, our internal Mikdash is simply an empty space of unfulfilled potential.  To live one's life that way is to waste what we have been given by God.  To live one's life that way is to choose a living death over living life, selfishness over connection and emptiness over holiness.  To live one's life that way is to turn away God at the door and to waste the precious gift that has been given to each of us and to not know what it means to have the Divine dwelling in our midst.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Parshat Yitro: Taking the Journey (originally published January 2011)

The week's parashah is Yitro (Shemot/Exodus 18:1-20:23). It begins,  "And Yitro (Jethro), father-in-law of Moses, heard all that God had done to Moses and to Israel his people, that God had taken Israel out of Egypt." The parashah then continues with Yitro's advice to Moses that he not take on the duty of judging the people's grievances alone, but appoint judges to help him. Finally, it  reaches a climax with the central event of our religious mythology, the giving of the law/Torah at Sinai. It is at Sinai that the ragtag bunch of former slaves finally covenant themselves to God as a people. At Sinai the nation/people of Israel is born.

Whether or not one believes in Sinai as an historical event, does not concern me. For what matters is not the historical veracity of the narrative, but rather, the "Truth" within; the spiritual message that it is meant to teach. I believe that the ancient rabbis too cared more about the inner truth than the factual nature of the narrative.  For in one prominent rabbinic  reading of the text, the Sages stated that Yitro actually came to see Moses AFTER the giving of the law at Sinai, even though the text states that he arrived before the sacred event. The rabbis permit themselves this license based on the rabbinic exegetical principle that "there is no early or late in the Torah." Standard chronology does not affect sacred text.  Time can be suspended – or reversed – by the interpreter if need be. The Torah is not bound by time, but is, in effect, beyond it.

And so our Sages wrote that when Yitro "heard all that God had done to Moses and his people" the text is speaking not only about the exodus from Egypt, but the events at Sinai as well. In 12th century France the great commentator Rashi  also wrote that Yitro journeyed "…out to the wilderness, a place of emptiness, in order to hear words of
Torah.  In her book on Exodus, "The Particulars of Rapture," Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg posits that, upon hearing of the giving of Torah at Sinai, Yitro left his material life and all of his world behind.  He gave up the glory of the priesthood (he was a priest of Midian) and emptied himself  of ego so that he could then hear the words of Torah.

But how could he hear the words? Had not the Torah already been given? Obviously, he must have heard them from Moses. However, the truth of the matter is that all of the people heard God's word only through Moses.  Though God initially began to speak to all the people people, we read in the narrative that it was too much for them to bear.  And so, they told Moses to go up the mountain, receive the word of God and bring it back to them. Since they knew that Moses was a true prophet to whom God spoke, they also knew they could trust what he would relate to them.

Yitro too relied on the words of his son-in-law in order to understand what God spoke. In the parashah Yitro states "Now I know that God is greater than all the gods" (18:11).  Rashi interprets this to mean that Yitro had experienced the worship of all gods of the world, but that he came to realize [upon hearing of what happened at Sinai] that our God was THE God. In discussing the idea that Moses relayed all that had happened at Sinai Rashi also states "…Moses narrated …everything that God had done in order to attract his [Yitro's] heart, to bring him close to the Torah."

Furthermore, the commentaries speak of Yitro's connection to his past and being caught between a desire to embrace God and fear based on his past identity and experience (something which I don't have time to discuss in this brief commentary).  Yet, the Sages still believed that Yitro was "converted" by hearing all that God had done. However, Zornberg reminds her readers that this occurred even though he had not personally experienced the giving of Torah at Sinai (Zornberg, pp. 253-254).  Even so,  Yitro is brought close to God by hearing Moses tell him the redemption/ revelation narrative of the exodus from Egypt and the giving of Torah. Though still reticent because of his connection to his Midianite past, Yitro eventually embraces God and God's word. His acceptance of the words of Torah heals his soul and removes from him any sense of fear or trepidation .
However, perhaps the central point of this commentary is revealed in Zornberg's reminder towards the end of her commentary that Yitro had "…already made all the necessary spiritual movements away from civilization and into the wilderness, as soon as he heard of the Exodus. Moses' narrative works not to bring near one who was far, but to bring near one who has already come close."

Zornberg writes eloquently of how Moses's speech "…engages with the ambivalences, the attraction and the repulsion, of one who, against all odds, approaches Sinai…" and that the "therapeutic" quality of Moses's words recounting all that had happened addresses "a real trauma, a wound inflicted, in a sense by the very encounter with God."
This verse spoke to me on a deep level. For I believe Zornberg is saying that Moses's retelling of the narrative becomes therapeutic, healing speech because it acknowledges the intensity as well as the traumatic nature of the human-Divine encounter. Simultaneously, it also helps Yitro become aware of its beauty and the reality of what it means to approach Sinai.

Moses knows that Yitro is both attracted (out of love, rooted in the present) and repulsed (out of fear, rooted in his past) by Sinai, and so Moses acknowledges this dichotomy. This then allows Yitro to embrace the entire experience, and ultimately God.

We are all aware that God and Judaism (indeed, all religions) have the ability to attract and repel, often simultaneously. We want to find God, we want to connect to community, and yet we are often repelled by the memories, often painful, of our childhood traumas related to this desire. Perhaps it was a rabbi who bored us to tears every Shabbat, who ignored the children or who chastised people harshly for not coming to services.  Perhaps it was an overly strict or an ineffective religious schoolteacher.  Or perhaps it was experiencing Judaism in one's family as boring, judgmental, superfluous or even (especially for women) oppressive. 

Many of us may have experienced these traumas in the past and yet, the fact that you are reading this commentary means that you have chosen to connect in some way to the tradition. Somehow, the attraction overcame the repulsion; the love overcame the fear or anger. Remember, Rashi said that Moses was able to reach Yitro only because Yitro had already prepared himself spiritually. He could be reached and healed by Moses's words because he was not so far away as he might have otherwise been. He had a desire to be close to God and to be part of the new people, and so he had begun his approach to both. That is why Moses was able to bring him all the way to Sinai even thoughhe had not witnessed it first hand.

This is true for so many of us who consider ourselves on some level to be seekers, but are uncertain exactly how to reach our final destination (or where it is or what it looks like). But if those of us who have begun the journey listen carefully to the words of Torah as filtered through contemporary teachers, whether rabbis, professionals or simply other Jews, as well through our community, then we empower ourselves to continue the journey. If we seek meaning that speaks to us wherever we may be at that moment, then we can be brought the rest of the way in love.  Then together with one another, we can experience the beauty of Jewish community as well as the spirit of the Divine in our lives.

For those who do not believe that they have begun the journey, just stop for a moment and look where you are. You are on the journey with each step you take, no matter how small it might seem. Don't worry about how long it will take. Just pay attention to where you are now and then take the next tiny step. Join with the rest of us as we walk from slavery to Sinai and beyond, over and over again. We are together, yet separate, on this sacred journey. That is what it means to be part of a Jewish community. That is what it means to stand together at Sinai.

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