Thursday, February 26, 2015

Tetzaveh, Candles and Emotions

Candles are important religious symbols. We kindle Shabbat lights on Friday evening and the multiple wick havdalah candle on Saturday evening. We light candles to mark the beginning of our holidays: on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Pesah and Shavuot. We light the menorah on each of the nights of Hanukkah.

At each of these occasions we sanctify these holy days by reciting a blessing: “Blessed are You Adonai our God Ruler of the universe, who sanctifies us with mitzvot and commands us to kindle the lights of…” We elevate the day, we set it apart and call it holy by the lighting of candles and the reciting of these words. It is possible that our tradition mandated this candle lighting long ago at the approach of evening in order to illuminate the dark night. How else could we continue to enjoy the company of friends on Shabbat evening prior to the development of artificial illumination? And thus it is the blessing that sanctifies the day rather than the candle lighting. And yet the flames captivate us.

In contemporary culture candles enthrall us as well. We light birthday candles and sing “Happy Birthday.” Perhaps some light anniversary candles to celebrate their years together. Or perhaps we light these candles to create a romantic mood. And lest I forget, Long Island has given the Jewish world a new custom: the bar/bat mitzvah candle lighting ceremony. Honored guests are each accorded a candle. The young boy or girl offers rhymed words about his/her relative and then a song is played as the family member comes forward. Finally everyone sings “Happy birthday” as the candles are blown out.

Again candles elevate these occasions. Is it the words we sing or the lighting of candles that affects the mood? Would the words alone be enough? Is the magic of the occasion brought about by the kindling of these lights? Why do candles add holiness? Why do candles sanctify days and help to set them apart?

The Torah begins: “You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly.” (Exodus 27:20)

Perhaps it is because the kindling of a flame is basic and almost primal. This act alone helps to add sacredness to occasions. It hearkens back to the Torah’s words. It is the lighting of the candles rather than the words that affects our emotions.

The Talmud teaches that as the sun set on the sixth day of creation Adam became frightened. So on Saturday evening God gave Adam the gift of fire to dispel his fear and sadness, to illuminate the darkness. God taught humanity how to use fire for noble and sacred purposes. This is why the havdalah blessing is unique among the candle blessings: “Blessed are You Adonai our God Ruler of the universe creator of the lights of fire.”

Most would agree that of all the candles we light none has a greater hold on us than the yahrtzeit candle. This candle burns from sunset to sunset. We light it to sanctify the anniversary of a death. It is a private moment of reflection and contemplation. In the evening when we awake for a light night snack the small flame illuminates the kitchen with its glow. The candle is called in Hebrew a ner neshamah—literally, a soul candle.

Unique among all the candles our tradition prescribes there is no blessing for the yahrtzeit candle. No words are required. Is this to say that all words would prove inadequate? What a remarkable admission. For a tradition built on words, an edifice in which days are ushered in and out by blessings and moments are sanctified by the words “l’hadlik ner,” on this occasion we stand in silence and stare at a flickering candle. The flame is enough--perhaps. It is the light of the soul. The memory continues to burn.

“A candle from God is the soul of a human—ner Adonai nishmat adam.” (Proverbs 20:27)

Crossing the Line

This is a sobering video about the increasing anti-Israel, and antisemitic, incidents at college campuses throughout the country.  Many of my students now confront this at their universities.



Opposing Israel's specific policies or particular actions is not wrong.  Calling the Zionist project, the effort to build up Jewish sovereignty in the ancient land of Israel, racist or immoral is antisemitic.  All peoples, Jews and Palestinians in particular, have the right to self-determination.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Terumah and the Fiery Heart

The Hasidic rabbi, Menahem Mendl of Kotzk was by all accounts a firebrand. He served a community in Poland until 1839 when he retreated from public life and lived in seclusion for the last 20 years of his life. He never published. All that survives of his work is a small collection of sayings. In fact towards the end of his life he burned all of his writings. Everything that he ever wrote was destroyed save what his disciples remembered. He was singularly consumed with devotion to God. He railed against false piety.

This week we read of the details for the construction of the tabernacle, the portable mishkan, around which the ancient Israelites focused their devotion. The Torah declares: “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. Exactly as I show you—the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings—so shall you make it.” (Exodus 25:8-9)

Can any building truly house God?

Can any building other than the original mishkan be perfect? And so we continue struggling, attempting to figure out how best to bring God to earth, how to make God’s presence felt in the here and now. All of Jewish history is in part a record of the attempts to decipher how to build that mishkan again and again, how to recreate that moment of God’s nearness found in the Torah. How do we build a Jewish life out of the fragments of belief that are left to us by our ancestors?

Our efforts are imperfect. Our sanctuaries inadequate.

Rabbi Menahem Mendl of Kotzk asks about this week’s verses: why does the Torah say that God will dwell among them and not that God will dwell in the sanctuary. He answers his own question: “It says ‘among them’ and not ‘among it,’ to teach you that each person must build the sanctuary in his own heart; then God will dwell among them.”

The trappings and beauty of our sanctuaries pale in comparison to the heart. That is where true piety can be found. We do not require buildings. We do not need sanctuaries. And if we are to take Menahem Mendl’s life as an example, we do not even require books.

We only require a true and devoted heart.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Mishpatim, Prayer Breakfasts and Moral Clarity

Mahatma Ghandi famously said: “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”

Ghandi’s life was of course the living embodiment of the pacifist tradition. He preached against taking up arms and called others to turn away from seeking the revenge that the Torah’s words imply. Ghandi, and the vast majority of commentators, however misunderstand the Bible’s intent.

This week’s portion states: “But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” (Exodus 21:23)

Scholars suggest that an eye for an eye is a poetic way of expressing the idea, also enshrined in American law, that the punishment must fit the crime....

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Yitro and Calming Smiles

The Torah recounts the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai:
All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance. (Exodus 20:15)
The Talmud reimagines:
When Moses ascended to heaven to receive the Torah he found the Holy One sitting and fashioning crowns upon certain letters. Moses said to God: "Master of the world, who requires you to do this?" God replied: "There is a person who will come to be after many generations, called Akiva ben Yosef; he will one day expound heaps upon heaps of laws from each and every crown." Moses said before God: "Master of the world, show him to me." God replied: "Turn around." He turned around and found himself behind the eighth row in the Talmudic academy—behind the regular students arranged in order of excellence in the first seven rows. Moses did not understand the discussion and was dazed. When Rabbi Akiva came to a certain point, his students asked him "How do you know this?" Akiva replied, "This is a law given to Moses from Sinai." Then Moses was calmed. But Moses turned back and stepped before the Holy One and said: "Master of the world, You have such a person, yet You give the Torah through me?" God replied: "Be still, that is how it entered my mind." (Babylonian Talmud, Menahot 29b)
Here the Rabbis appear to admit that although their project is interpretive it is in truth innovative. They seem aware of the fact that they are creating something so new that even Moses would be unable to understand it. He would be relegated to the back row of the class.

Sometimes the distance between generations is so great that one generation struggles to understand the other.

And yet a thread connects the two. Both share a belief. They hold on to the faith that even such apparently unrecognizable innovations were given on Mount Sinai. When God handed the written Torah to Moses God also revealed the oral Torah, the method by which we would continue to interpret its written words.

We weave new interpretations.

Would my grandparents understand my children’s Jewish lives? Would they find comfort in today’s prayers and songs? Would they approve of such new interpretations as Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu or Debbie Friedman’s Mi Shebeirach: “Bless those in need of healing with r’fuah sh’leimah, the renewal of body, the renewal of spirit, and let us say, Amen”? Would their hearts only be stilled when my daughter would declare: “I am named for my father’s grandfather and my mother’s grandfather.” Then they might be calmed. The thread becomes revealed. Their hearts would exult. And their minds might declare, “Look at her smile. Look at her sing.”

The exultation is found in singing. We draw comfort in a smile.

The story unfolds. Moses is not satisfied. Perhaps he asks too many questions.
Then Moses said: "Master of the world, you have shown me Akiva’s Torah, now show me his reward." God said: "Turn around." He turned around and saw Akiva's flesh being weighed in a butcher shop.
Their earlier admission turns horrifying. History reminds us that the greatest rabbi, the most masterful interpreter of Torah, is murdered by the Romans. As we recount on Yom Kippur afternoon, Rabbi Akiva is martyred because of his devotion to Torah and his support for the Bar Kochba rebellion.

We discover hidden warnings within the Talmud’s story. If you believe that a life devoted to Torah, a life committed to Jewish observance, guarantees a life of ease and the blessing of 120 healthy years, then beware. Take care against such seductions. Even the individual who Moses himself admits was the most deserving of receiving the Torah suffers a cruel and torturous end. Torah can add meaning to our lives. It does not promise longevity.

Still Moses will not relent with his questions.
Moses exclaimed: ‘’Master of the world, such Torah and such a reward?" God replied: "Be still, that is how it entered my mind."
The thread continues.

Emily Dickinson writes:
They might not need me—yet they might—
I’ll let my Heart be just in sight—
A smile so small as mine might be
Precisely their necessity—
The questions daze. The smile stills.

And we continue to weave the imagined thread that extends to Sinai.

…Be still, that is how it entered my mind....