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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Better Late Than Never - Poetic Musings on the Beginning of the Book of Numbers/Be'Midbar

The name of this past week's parashah/portion, as well as the fourth book of the Torah, which began with this reading, is Be'midbar (Be’midbar /Numbers 1:1 - 4:20).  The name means "in the wilderness" and it can be found in the book of .

One ancient rabbinic commentary points out that if we change one vowel in the name of the parasha, the word במדבר be’midbar, in the wilderness, it then becomes be'midabeיr, with one who is speaking.

This is somewhat ironic, as the wilderness is usually associated with silence and solitude. However, we can imagine that the wilderness of Sinai and its surroundings must have been anything but silent, with the multitude of Israelites and others wandering through it for 40 years.

Yet, we all know that even in the midst of a chaos and cacophony one can experience silence.  It is just as true that one can experience unceasing noise in one's mind and soul while walking seemingly in solitude and silence. What determines the silence or the solitude is not one’s physical surroundings, but rather one’s inner spiritual state.

However, the English name of the book is Numbers.  This refers to the census of adult Israelite men found at the beginning of the parashah.  Judaism has long recognized the danger in reducing human beings to mere numbers,  and so has always had an aversion to counting people. 

One point about this census that has intrigued commentators for years is the fact that the individual numbers never seem to add up to the total that is found in the parashah.
Furthermore, in his commentary on the parashah the early Hassidic Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev comments on the fact that the Levites are counted in a census separate from the other 11 tribes of Israel. The Levites, who serve in the Sanctuary/Mishkan, and will later serve in the Temple, have a special status. In his commentary, Levi Yitzhak reminds us that the separate census also reminds us that both Israel and Levi are within each of us. This is a concept that resonated with me as I wrote this poem about the dangers of counting, even though it’s something with which we and our society seem obsessed!.

These two poems use these two different readings and interpretations of the portion to explore possible meanings of these opening words of the book of Numbers/Be'midbar.

i.  wilderness of silence and speech

the wilderness is silent     still    serene
filled only with sounds of nature
wind rustling     sand blowing   animal footfalls    howls in the night
whispering the truth
a whole civilization lives  within this wild place
humans may go there to be at peace       alone   so we think
but this is  fantasy      ideal not real

in truth the wilderness   is filled with people
it is wild with sound    with speech    with dissent
with screams   with tears    with laughter
with joyous shouts     with words of love    with speech
it has never been silent        for 40 years
give or take    give and take
we take what we are given
        give back what has been taken
a life in the wilderness  alive with the sounds
the speech  the words   creating and destroying
people      life     worlds       filling the silence
this is a wild place of words     cries of revolt  and dissent
a place which swallows up rebels
in which critical words   turn a sister’s skin to white
where a chorus of complaints   fills us to bursting
words of mistrust   set us wandering
and still   words   soothe    praise     comfort
after  the death of sons    sister   brother
the loss of so many

words can also decree the death of a dream
the death of a leader     the birth of a new people

still I wish words would cease
filling the wilderness      swirling through my mind
emptying me of the ability   to be still   silent  alone
at one   with you 
I want a wilderness   without speech   without words
void of damnation and praise      love and hate     comfort  and  distress

I do not want   I do not need     words 
only true silence    peace     clarity 

I need a sanctuary    not a wild place
a place  where I can hear  only you  within me
in the stillness       I am able to hear the silent sounds
the whispers of the spirit   hovering around    dwelling within   us all

this is what I long for     what we all need
unfortunately    most do not know
for they cannot hear   the whisper of your voice
they can only hear    their own words
constant cacophony  striving for everything
sound and fury achieving nothing

only in subtle stillness can we find   everything    the all of the universe
only in nothingness    can we find the truth    of existence
that all is one

in this moment I wish we would all stop talking
         exile words from our lips    allowing us to return home
to the silent land    the true wilderness of the soul
where it all began  where it all continues
where we are   here   now
in present  in the moment   alone together  with you

ii. the counting

we are all here waiting     to be counted
        though most of us still do not understand why
when   the counting it is finished, it still makes no sense

numbers never really add up        as we think they will

especially with people
as we live our lives each moment

each of us is remembered        each of us is forgotten.
still       we continue to count      each day.

should we take a recount      or is once enough
after all      people are not simply numbers

to be counted     played with    manipulated
making  them say         what we want 

pretending they can tell us the truth.

in reality     numbers mean nothing

numbers are not alive         they are not the truth.
people mean something         for we are alive

we are each individuals   adding up to the ultimate number      one.
as we count each person the sum remains the same
for there is no     me     you      him      her       them
there is only one.

hearing the result of the census      the people cry out in protest

each tribe claiming their truth        that there are more
more dan         more simeon        more judah.

not realizing           all of these numbers mean nothing
they are truly in the wilderness 

the obsession with numbers only serves to confound
leading the people away from the truth      of one
more or less          these  are terms our ego creates from the need to compare

they serve only to separate us     to fracture        the reality    the unity.
wandering in this desert of numbers      comparisons     counting

they can only see what their hearts desire
they need to believe            they are more       others are less.

suddenly the levites cries out     stop      we are being ignored    
we don't count      we are not part of the whole      of the people
while the  other tribes still cry out in protest

wondering why    they are counted as less
why the levites are counted as more      special    separate     unique    holy

if they would all stop     for a moment
they would realize  the truth
this counting is foolishness      stupidity     futility
they would recognize     that we all count      because none of us counts.

our egos are  trying to deceive us   drawing us away
from the only one that does count

even today      we continue the counting      our ancestors' folly
we obsess about who is in     who is out      who is for       who against
who remains    who is banished           who matters    who does not

who counts       who does not

this obsession is the root of so much  suffering
israel     the ordinary ones       want to be counted as levites      the holy   special   unique
not realizing that both are within each of us

we are all holy and ordinary      sacred and profane
for these are mere words     our own creations
which    like counting       serve only to separate.

if we could stop counting and comparing      even for a moment
perhaps the struggling   and suffering   would end

God does not want us to count or compare
for God is the one      everything and nothing     as  are we all
for we are one with God.

counting causes the divisions which lead so many

to kill     to conquer     to destroy God's world and to separate the one.
letting go of the counting     
leads to knowing     sensing     caring     believing      loving     caring
leading us to celebrate all of  life      helping us realize      we all belong
God is one       we are     one        

the number without end       without borders     without separation,
leading us away from the wilderness of suffering     to our true home
a place of love      compassion     caring.
this is the only reality       this is the only truth       that counts

some day       hopefully soon       we will all remember this

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Splitting the Sea......Musings on Same Sex Marriage in Pennsylvania and Beyond

Today Pennsylvania, the state in which I now live and in which I was born and raised, made same-sex marriage legal.   I am thrilled beyond words about this, even though I realize it is only one important issue facing the LGBT community (bullying and teen homelessness is at the top of the list, in my opinion) it is still an important victory.  

I am not thrilled because same sex relationships need to be recognized or validated by the straight community or the state.   We already know that these relationships are real and valid.  However, having state recognition allows same-sex couples to become legally married and receive the numerous benefits afforded straight married couples by the state. The most important one is probably spousal rights in the hospital, etc.

Though marriage is only one model of relationship, it is the only one that needs state recognition (even though I think it should be a spiritual/religious ritual and not a state one.  But that's a discussion for another time).  And so the fact that now a full on half of the 50 states either recognize same-sex marriage or it has been recognized, but is awaiting court challenges, is important not only for LGBT citizens of Pennsylvania, but for all LGBT people and all Americans.  For the more acceptance and equality spreads, the better it is for our society as a whole.

Many others have written eloquent and scholarly works showing how Jewish tradition supports not only the full inclusion of LGBT Jews and same sex marriage, but which have supported the ordination of LGBT rabbis in all non-Orthodox movements of Judaism.  And mindfulness teachings, regardless of the tradition in which they're found, are based on being aware of each moment and being non-judgmental.  We are reminded that nothing is permanent.  Everything changes from moment to moment, day to day, year to year, and so on.  And this includes laws which at one time people thought were permanent and perhaps even divinely inspired, even if they are discriminatory and promoted inequality.  

Within the mindfulness world view not only is everything impermanent, but everything is interconnected.  We are all part of the One of the universe.  I choose, along with other people of faith, to call this Oneness God. But others might call it something else.  But we are all saying the same thing.  The universe and all of humanity is one.  In truth there is no "us" or "them." These are concepts human beings have created to separate.  We instead need to focus on Oneness and trying moment by moment to connect with everyone and everything.  So of course, advancing the cause of equality for any group would be part of this endeavor. 

Of course, this blog is meant to consist of commentaries on sacred texts (mostly Torah - Five Books of Moses - and Psalms) from a mindful Jewish perspective.  Usually these commentaries are based on the weekly Torah portion read in synagogues on Shabbat.  But obviously this post is a little different.  In trying to decide exactly what I wanted to say and how I might connect it to Torah I realized that I didn't need to write anything new.  I just needed to edit and reprint a d'var Torah/commentary that I wrote in 2005 on the occasion of the first anniversary of when Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same sex marriage.  Though this is going to make this post quite lengthy, it just seemed like the most appropriate thing to do.

Other than making some grammatical changes (it's amazing how many typos one can miss!) this is exactly as it was published (and delivered in synagogue) in 2005.  In reading this I realized just how far we have come since then.  As I wrote above, the work of helping everyone recgnize the truth that all human beings are equal  is nowhere near complete.  But progress has been made and we must keep working to see that this continues.  Reading my words of 9 years ago I can't wait to see what the next 9 years will hold for our country and our world.

L'shalom u'verakha - with Peace and Blessing,

Steve Nathan


 D'var Torah/Commentary on Parshat Beshallakh and the Splitting of the Sea from 2004

This week's parashah is Beshallakh (Exodus/Shemot 13:17 - 17:16).  This parashah contains the splitting and crossing of the Sea of Reeds (or Red Sea, if you prefer the older translations). Most of us are familiar with this event from Bible stories we have read or movies we have seen, and yet there is much more contained within this story than meets the eye.

At first glance, it is a story of God redeeming God's people through the performance of a miracle. But, it is also a story of a clearly masculine warrior God fighting a battle to rescue His people.  In Shirat ha'Yamthe Song of the Sea, sung by the Israelites after crossing the sea, God is called Ish Milkhamah/Man of War. However, in the original narrative the role of the people is clearly secondary to that of God, though there is some human involvement in the miracle. For when Moses is praying to God for deliverance at the shore of the sea God responds, "Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. And you [Moses] lift up your rod and hold out your arm over the sea and split it, so that the Israelites may march into the sea on dry ground." In other words, "Moses, if you want me to help the people you need to take some action as well!"

 In midrash (rabbinic lore), the ancient rabbis wrote that the sea splits because one man, Nachshon ben Aminadav, actually walks into the sea first rather than waiting around for God. His faith (or perhaps sense of futility) leads him to take action into his own hands. Only then does the sea split. In this version it would seem clear that without human action, miracles cannot take place. A kabbalist/mystic might say that our actions affect the Divine realms, whereas a a classical Reconstructionist might state that a miracle happens when human beings tap in to "the power that makes for salvation” (Mordecai Kaplan’s definition of God). However one chooses to frame it, miracles still require a degree of divine-human interaction. More than that, I would propose that the human action is of primary importance. For the Divine cannot enter our life and our world if we do not act first, nor is there a reason for God to enter our life if we do not first make it known that we have some desire for this to occur .

The image of the splitting and crossing of the Sea is a powerful one that contains a multitude of truths within it. For each of us faces seas that we must cross in our lives. We each face obstacles that seem insurmountable, often at the same time as we sense enemies breathing down our back, just as did the Egyptian army when the Israelites were at the Sea. Yet, we realize that we must either cross the sea or perish. In order to do so we must take the first step. We must leap into the sea as did Nachshon or we must raise our arms and stretch forth our staff, like Moses, showing the strength within us, in order to split the sea. 

 The Hebrew phrase for the splitting of the sea is k'’riyah. This same word also refers to the act of tearing a garment, or a ribbon, upon the death of an immediate family member. That tearing is meant to represent the tear in the fabric in our lives that can never be completely repaired when a loved one dies.  The 'splitting' of the sea is also a tearing. It is the tearing apart of the laws of nature, a radical action which reminds us that what we assume to be an unchanging part of the natural order of the world can indeed be torn asunder. One could call this a paradigm shift, but 'shift' is not radical enough. For what the Torah describes as the sea splits open is a total obliteration of the old paradigm. And what we witness after the Israelites have crossed and when the sea closes in on the Egyptians is the establishment of a new paradigm. Just as the tear in the fabric of our lives can never totally be repaired after a loss, so too the tear in the sea is always there. On the surface, the sea may look the same as before, but we know that beneath the surface it is not the same. If we look closely and pay attention we can actually see the almost imperceptible traces of the place where the waters were torn apart and the natural order of things was turned upside down. When we look at the sea before us it reminds us not only of our redemption, but of the role we played in that redemption and how our world and our lives had to be torn apart in order to be redeemed. We know that when we look at the surface of the sea that the Egyptian dead lie beneath its surface. Awareness of this fact brings to mind the constricting and limiting forces in our lives that needed to die in order to bring about our redemption. We must mourn the loss of these forces, just as a midrash teaches that God mourned the death of the Egyptians, for these forces too were a part of us.

The act of tearing apart, crossing the sea, returning the sea to its new form and mourning the death of those parts of us that must die is a powerful metaphor on both an individual and a communal level. We all can name examples of sea crossings that we have experienced, witnessed or heard tell of. A year ago, just prior to the reading of this portion of the Torah, our country and our society witnessed a sea being torn in two when the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that gay and lesbian couples deserve the right to marry just as do heterosexual couples in our society. In making this ruling the justices of the Supreme Court were the human change agents in the divine-human partnership that allowed the sea to split wide open. 

Of course, I am not so naive as to believe that the crossing if finished and that the sea has closed up and redemption is complete. I am well aware that the crossing will be a long and probably difficult one. There will indeed be many dead left on the floor of the sea after it closes. Just in this past year we have seen challenges to the law in Massachusetts and numerous state laws prohibiting marriage for same-sex couples passed in our country under the guise of “defending marriage.” However, I also am still confidant that the redemption will occur and that the crossing will be successful, no matter how long it takes. The new millennium is now more than five years old and paradigms are being torn apart and reconstructed all around us. We must choose, as did the Massachusetts court, what role we will play in the splitting apart of the old paradigms and the creation of new ones. In addition, we must remember that each moment provides the opportunity for the sea to be torn apart. At times it takes great human effort, as in the Massachusetts case. At other times it seems to happen on its own. In either case we need to watch and pay attention so that we do not miss the splitting. For just as quickly as the sea splits it can close up again.  And if we did not pay attention enough to see it split we will never know that it did.

We often spend much of our lives experiencing it as consecutive moments of stasis trying to avoid change – and the pain it often brings. Perhaps we believe that if we do not pay attention the sea will never split and everything will be as it "always" has been. Perhaps we are simply so caught up in the minutia of our lives that our oblivion unintentionally takes over because of our lack of attention to what is really happening. No matter the reason, ignoring the changes that take place in our lives and our world does not prevent them from occurring. Lives change, the world changes, seas get torn apart every moment. Noticing this can cause uncertainty or pain, but ignoring or trying to avoid this reality is what will eventually cause true suffering for us.

In Shirat ha'Yam, the Song of the Sea, there is a verse which later became part of Jewish daily liturgy, mi khamokhah ba'elim adonai. "Who is like you God among the divine beings; Who is like You, majestic in holiness, Awesome in splendor, working wonders!" We usually translate this as a declarative statement or a rhetorical question, but I would like to suggest that it is a question, beyond rhetoric, that cries out for answer. The answer to this question answer is simply ... us!

It is the human being, who is created in God's image, according to Genesis. And we are just slightly 'lower than the angels’ according to Psalm 8. We are indeed like God, though we are not God. We have the godlike ability to tear apart the seas which can prevent us from becoming what we can become.  We can split open the waters that repress and enslave ourselves and others.  We are living up to our potential as human beings containing within us a spark of divinity. WE also have the godly ability to see with our eyes and our soul when seas part and to respond accordingly. We, along with God, have the ability and the responsibility to be holy, to act in awesome ways, to work wonders in our world and to simply pay attention to and recognize all that is happening around and within us at every moment.

May we each face our seas, individually and communally, with faith, even in the midst of fear. May we pay attention to the changes happening in each moment and continue to praise creation even as it constantly changes and shifts around and beneath us. May we also do the work necessary to tear apart paradigms that prevent redemption and freedom and that block compassion and love from entering our world. In that way we, together with God, we can create a world filled with love and compassion for all human beings. Doing so, we can face the uncertainty of each moment together, at one with God, as we change the world, and watch it change. By paying attention we can marvel at the world and our lives as they are at this moment, knowing that they will never be this way again.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Parshat Behukotai: Walking with the God Within

Dear Hevre/community,

I know I have been absent since Rosh Hashanah, but now I hope to get back to writing commentaries and other musings on a more frequent (hopefully weekly) basis.

I am starting with an edited/slightly rewritten version of a d'var torah/commentary which I wrote a few years back.
I hope you find it meaningful.

Shabbat Shalom,
This week's parashah/portion is Behukotai (Vayikra /  Leviticus 26:3-27:34). This is the final parashah in the book of Vayikra, and in it God tells Moses to say to the people that if they "walk with my statutes and observe my mitzvot/commandments," all will go well for them. However, if they do not, the heavens and earth will dry up and tragedy will befall them. The parashah then describes exactly what this punishment will entail.

Personally, I have never liked "reward and punishment theology," nor do I take it literally. But taken as a metaphor there is always a lesson to be learned.

At the start of the parashah, Moses is told that if the people walk with God, then "I (God) will walk about in your midst hithalkhti b'tokh'khem)."  The simple interpretation of the  word b'tokh'khem is "in the midst of the people."  However, rabbinic commentators often interpreted it as meaning "within each individual." So if we walk in God's statutes, then God will be within each of us wherever we go.

When God begins to talk about the consequences for not "walking with God," the phrasing used is somewhat unusual.  In his translation which Everett Fox translates the statement as "if you walk with me in opposition, then I will walk with you in opposition".  And this warning is found three times in the parashah, and each time God talks about the people walking "in opposition with" the threatened punishments  become more severe. Yet, in the end, in spite of these warnings, threats, and accusations, neither the people nor God abandon each the other. In the end they are still portrayed as walking with one another, even if (at times) they are in opposition. 

It is almost as if God is saying, in spite of all the threats, "no matter how much you may seem to reject me, you can never get rid of me." But beyond that, the text is also saying that no matter how much we might seem to act in ways that are  in opposition to God's desires, God is still with us. However, in these times, one might say that God is walking with us, accompanying us, but God is not not walking b'tokh/within us.

It is as if God becomes a shadow, or even an adversary, but one who is prepared at any moment to become our support and comfort, if we so choose.  God is an adversary there to challenge and confront us, not to beat us down and defeat us. In this paradigm, it is our actions, our opposition, which prevents God from being within us.  And it is our actions which will allow God to be within us once again. As the  Hassidic rabbi Menakhem Mendel of Kotzk said, "God dwells where we let God in." But in this interpretation we can also say that when we don't let God in, God is still walking beside us ready to come in when we decide to open the door.

For each person "letting God in," means something different. To me it means allowing the divine energy, that in our universe which is the source of our ability to bring peace, love, compassion and goodness into the world to flow through us. 

When we open ourselves to the divine energy, which is also that which connects us to everything and everyone else, it is as if our world is flourishing and abundant.  But when we walk in opposition to God, when we don't follow the path that brings holiness into our lives and the world, it is the opposite.  When we shut ourselves off from the divine, then we shut ourselves off from others and from all that is good in the word.  Then it is indeed as if the threats mentioned in the parashah come to fruition.  It is as if the heavens and earth have closed themselves off from us and we are living in a world that is arid, parched, suffocating and lacking in beauty.  But the spiritual steps we must take in order to bring back beauty and abundance are much simpler than one might imagine. And they are different for each of us and at different points in our lives

Moment by moment we must each pay attention and determine what "letting God in" means to us and what we are doing that may be preventing God from dwelling within us. In this way, we can make our lives and our world better by walking with the God within us and infusing all that we do with the oneness and holiness of divinity.  But the choice is ours.                                                                      

The other day on Facebook (of all places!) I saw a humorous post.  It simply said "When one door closes, another one opens......or you can simply open the door that closed.  That's how doors work!" Though I laughed at this, I actually think there is an important message her which work in terms of my theology.  For, in the context of this commentary, we must remember that when a door closes, it is often our own actions (our ego, stubbornness, resentment, fear, etc.) which close the door.  

If God is on the other side of the door we have two choices.  As the originally saying goes, we can wait around for another door (or a window, as is found in some versions) to miraculously appear, or we can take the first step and reach for the knob to open open the door ourselves.  In doing so, we know that God, the source of goodness and compassion which connects us to the world, is waiting on the other side.  God is waiting for us to take the first step and open the door we shut so we can we can walk through.  Then God can once again be within us, banishing the ego it's negativity, and giving us the ability to love, to be compassionate towards all of creation and work to make the world a better place.

Shabbat Shalom.

Shabbat Shalom.

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