Thursday, May 29, 2014

Naso, Buildings and Dreaming Big

There is a Jewish tradition that God never finished the creation of the world, leaving it purposefully incomplete. God allowed for human beings to continue the creation process, to use their hands, and their efforts, to complete the work of creation.

The Midrash teaches: “A philosopher asks Rabbi Hoshaya, ‘If circumcision is so precious, why was Adam not born circumcised?’ Rabbi Hoshaya responds, ‘Whatever was created in the first six days of creation requires further preparation, e.g. mustard needs sweetening…wheat needs grinding, and so too man needs to be finished.’” (Genesis Rabbah 11:6) We are partners in creation.

We read in this week’s portion that the Israelites completed the building of the Tabernacle. “On the day that Moses finished setting up the Tabernacle, he anointed and consecrated it and all its furnishings, as well as the altar and its utensils.” (Numbers 7) As in the creation story, the Hebrew suggests that the work continues, that it remains, like the world at large, a work in progress. We still continue to finish the Tabernacle, the mishkan.

For the ancient Israelites this truth was apparent. They understood that despite Moses’ dedication ceremony, the Tabernacle was temporary and impermanent. The mishkan was the portable Tabernacle that they carried with them throughout their wanderings in the wilderness. The Israelites would pack up the mishkan and its furnishings and move from one destination to the next. For our ancestors the Tabernacle was the symbol of God’s presence in their midst. It gave them the confidence that God accompanied them throughout their journeys.

They continued to move, stage by stage. And they continued to finish the building, and perfect creation, while believing that God remained in their midst. One of the many lessons of the Torah is that the journey is what is defining not the destination. Otherwise the Torah would not have five books, but six and conclude with the Book of Joshua in which we conquer the land of Israel and establish there our homeland. Instead the Torah concludes in what is today modern day Jordan, looking at the dream off in the distance. And then we return to reading the creation story.

The purpose is the journey. The sanctuaries and buildings we build are but tools.

Too often these buildings and their furnishings become identified with the synagogue rather than the people they serve. This week we learn that community is never completed. We are reminded that we are forever wandering.

While I recognize that the journey can sometimes be frustrating, (“Rabbi, when are we going to have a building of our own?”) we too continue to journey and are forever completing. And while a building is now within reach, and even closer at hand, there is a certain power to holding dreams off in the distance. There is a strength and resolve that is gained, imagination and vision that is clarified, when we continue to reach for something.

Part of what the Torah teaches is that there is a spirit of the wilderness, of wandering that sustains the Jewish people. It is a feeling that we are creating something new and different. It is a passion that this journey has meaning and that the dream, however distant it might sometimes appear, is worth the challenges of the midbar, the wilderness. It is these aspirations that continue to give life to our people. And it is this same spirit that has sustained our congregation for nearly twenty years.

Some people look at our congregation and say, “When are you guys ever going to have a building?” But that is not what I see. I look at our congregation and say, “We are better without a building than most synagogues are with a building.” I believe it is because we continue to reach for dreams, that we, more than most of our contemporaries, have imbibed this spirit of wandering that is our biblical legacy.

Soon we will have a building. “Halleluyah! Praise God in God’s sanctuary.” (Psalm 150) We must then recall that this moment is not the realization of a dream, but the beginning of another journey and a new task of completing the work. We must then strive even harder to hold fast to our aspirations, to cling to this spirit of wandering. The building will not sustain us. Such sustenance can only come from our hearts.

The process continues of perfecting our world, of bettering our community, of striving to bring God’s presence to our world. The building will most certainly aid us in these goals, but it is not the dream. Those must be held off in the distance.

The wandering continues. Even the building continues. The world requires more work.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Bamidbar, Wandering and the Book

What is the most important book of the Torah? Is it Genesis in which the world was created and Abraham first communes with God? Is it instead Exodus when God liberates the Jewish people from Egypt and reveals the Torah on Mount Sinai? Perhaps one could argue it is Leviticus in which a myriad of ritual laws are revealed, for example the basis for Jewish prayers, as well as the all important ethical commandments, in particular “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Then again one could argue it is the concluding book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, in which the most of the commandments are elucidated and we near the realization of entering the Promised Land.

One can of course make a compelling argument for each of these books. I would like instead to entertain the idea that it is the fourth book of the Torah, Numbers, which we begin reading on this Shabbat. In this book, called in Hebrew Bamidbar—in the wilderness—we become a people. In this book we become destined to forever wander, we continue journeying from Sinai to that distant, far off promise. The book is filled with disappointments, rebellions and complaining. More than any other book Numbers speaks in a realistic tone, offering appraisals of what journeys are often made.

It is a remarkable statement about our Jewish faith that our central text contains such a book. Here is but a taste of what we are to read here: “And then the Israelites wept and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt…’” (Numbers 11) The people complain and complain. “Daddy, when are we going to get there?” Our leader Moses loses his patience as well. He screams, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you from this rock?” (Numbers 20) God becomes incensed with the people. Relationships are tested. There are moments when the journey appears to be nearing its demise.

And yet we continue to wander. The wilderness, the midbar, the desert is where we become a people. There, in wandering and challenge we are defined.

Edmond Jabes, the 20th century French Jewish author who fled his native Egypt during the 1956 Suez Crisis, writes: “With exemplary regularity the Jew chooses to set out for the desert, to go toward a renewed word that has become his origin…. A wandering word is the word of God. It has for echo the word of a wandering people. No oasis for it, no shadow, no peace. Only the immense, thirsty desert, on the book of this thirst, the devastating fire of this fire reducing all books to ashes at the threshold of the obsessive, illegible Book bequeathed to us.”

Wandering is the first, most important book that we write. Struggle and challenge is what makes us whole. It is what makes us one.

We turn again to the pages of the wilderness, of the verses of Bamidbar.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Behukkotai and Walking Tall

Why is it that religiosity is defined as sitting in services and reciting the prayers authored millennia ago?

The Torah suggests a different ideal. “If you walk after My laws, and keep My commandments and do them, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit….” (Leviticus 26:3-4)

The ideal is not then the recitation of prayers but walking. Our forefathers Abraham and Isaac are in fact praised not for their prayers but for walking with God: “The God in whose ways my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked…” (Genesis 48:15)

Judaism is a religion of action, of movement. We follow a path. In fact the Hebrew word for Jewish law, halachah, comes from the word to walk. We are to walk; we are to do. Sitting and talking, even praying and singing, are not the ideals, but rather participating, engaging and moving. We are identified by our doing; we are judged by walking the path. Proper intent and feelings are secondary. Doing is primary.

The prayer that is the hallmark of the bar or bat mitzvah, an aliya, is named as well by its movement. We ascend to the bima. And then after reciting these blessings for Torah what words are offered to the participant? Yashar koach. May you continue to have the strength to stand upright. There is a path to follow. Walking defines.

One more example. At the conclusion of shiva one is supposed to leave the house and go for a walk. We are counseled to take these first, tentative steps. We don’t wait until the feelings motivate us to re-enter the world at large. First we walk. First we step outside. Eventually feelings might follow. Our souls are restored. The Jewish contention, found in this week’s portion, is that we find healing by taking these first hesitant steps.

Recently I went for a walk. I looked up through the cold but gentle drizzle at a limb torn from a tree by a winter storm. I realized that the tree continues to reach for the heavens. Its leaves now begin to open up to the spring air. The edges of green unfurl. I wondered, will it be bruised again by another storm? And yet the tree appears to grow more sturdy. Its trunk widens each and every year.

The broken branch remains forever.

And I continue on my walk.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Behar, Everest and Vistas

It is curious that the laws dealing with the land, namely the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, are introduced by the words. “The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai…” (Leviticus 25)   Why does the Torah emphasize “on Mount Sinai”?

Why emphasize that these particular laws were given on Sinai? The commentaries offer different explanations. One suggests that because in the moment that the Torah was given, when the Jewish people stood as one, at Mount Sinai, no one owned any land. The laws that follow deal with a visionary system in which we are required to allow the land to rest on the seventh year and on the fiftieth year for all debts to be forgiven. Such demands necessitate ownership. The Torah therefore emphasizes that at one point we were without land and owned nothing.

Another commentator suggests: “Just as Sinai was the smallest of the mountains but the words spoken there changed the word, so the people Israel, among the smallest of the nations, presents a vision of social justice that has the power to change the world.” (Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary) The tradition makes much of the fact that Mount Sinai was an ordinary and perhaps even insignificant mountain. It was however transformed into holy ground by the most extraordinary of circumstances.

Still I wonder what is about mountains that so captures our imaginations? Why do so many for example attempt to scale Everest’s heights? Why do people wish to conquer taller and taller mountains? Such attempts too often end in tragedy. Any trail that leads through a “death zone” should offer hint enough that tragedy can strike and that the greater the heights the more extraordinary the risk. Recently thirteen Sherpas lost their lives. These remarkable individuals were aiding others so that they could in turn claim, “I summited Everest.” And yet I remain transfixed by this tragedy.

Once I spent a week hiking through the Sinai desert. We were led through that wilderness by Bedouin guides. Eventually we ascended what local Arab tradition deemed Jabal Mousa, the Mount of Moses. We were told that this was Mount Sinai. It was a rather nondescript mountain. Still the climb was thrilling. The summit however was anticlimactic. Atop the mountain we could purchase sodas from Egyptian vendors. They apparently made their way to the mountain’s top each and every morning in order to sell sodas to thirsty foreigners.

And then and there I realized that mountains might better left to the eye and the imagination. In fact Jewish tradition does not ascribe Jabal Musa as Mount Sinai. It refuses to name which mountain is in fact Sinai. One could say this is because we can no longer determine which mountain it in fact is. Then again sometimes not knowing is better than knowing. Mountains are better left to eye. And mountain tops are better left to the imagination. It is better to look up at their majesty and from that view to allow the imagination to foster inspiration.

I lift up my eyes to the mountains; from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth….” (Psalm 121)

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Yom Haatzmaut, Arguments and Celebrations

Recently Secretary of State John Kerry created an uproar when he spoke about the dangers of Israel’s continued rule over the West Bank and the potential of it becoming an apartheid state. While I bristled at his words, I recall the words of then Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who said in 2010. “As long as in this territory west of the Jordan River there is only one political entity called Israel it is going to be either non-Jewish, or non-democratic. If this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state.” Or perhaps the Torah is more compelling: “There shall be one law for the citizen and for the stranger who dwells among you.” (Exodus 12:49) The word apartheid is of course charged and the Secretary of State should be far more diplomatic in his choice of laden words, yet the dangers facing Israel are real and the worries are great.

Israel was founded as both a democratic and Jewish state. In order to continue to affirm both of these principles it must, for its own sake, end its rule over Palestinians living in the West Bank. That it has tried countless times, and as even President Bill Clinton revealed, offered Palestinians control over the precious Temple Mount, is beside the point. I recognize that Palestinian and Arab leaders bear more responsibility than Israeli leaders for pushing away the hand of peace. Still Israel will be unable to hold on to its two founding principles the longer this situation continues.

It would have been better if it was an Israeli leader who reminded us of this truth, or perhaps a Jewish leader, but here again the debate narrows....

This article continues on The Times of Israel Ops & Blogs.