Thursday, January 28, 2016

Yitro and Rejoicing with God

To know God is to fear God. So the Torah suggests. In this week’s reading we learn that the experience of Sinai is terrifying.

“There was thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled.” (Exodus 19:16)

This is how the Torah describes the revelation at Mount Sinai. In fact the people were so overwhelmed by the experience that they begged Moses to spare them further divine encounters. They pleaded, “Let not God speak to us, lest we die.” (Exodus 20:16)

We ask: if the goal of our tradition is to draw us close to God how do we find encouragement in these words? How can a story filled with fear and dread provide us with inspiration? And so the rabbis reimagined the experience. In their eyes holiness becomes more manageable and God more approachable. To know God is to draw affirmation in the mundane, in the ordinary and everyday. Rabbi Akiva in fact understands Song of Songs, a biblical love song, not as words that describe romantic love between two people but instead as the love between Israel and God.

We are wed to God. We echo such sentiments with the words of Lecha Dodi. We sing: “Come my beloved to meet the bride.” We greet the Sabbath bride. We welcome the divine. For the Kabbalists, who authored this prayer, the experience of God was synonymous with lovemaking. We draw close to God as one draws near a lover. Their literature is filled with eroticism. It is intoxicated with loving God.

We continue to struggle with how to give voice to our encounter with God.

The unparalleled Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, writes:
The precision of pain and the blurriness of joy. I’m thinking
how precise people are when they describe their pain in a doctor’s office.
Even those who haven’t learned to read and write are precise:
“This one’s a throbbing pain, that one’s a wrenching pain,
This one gnaws, that one burns, this is a sharp pain
and that—a dull one. Right here. Precisely here,
yes, yes.” Joy blurs everything. I’ve heard people say
after nights of love and feasting, “It was great,
I was in seventh heaven.” Even the spaceman who floated
in outer space, tethered to a spaceship, could say only, “Great,
wonderful, I have no words.”
The blurriness of joy and the precision of pain—
I want to describe, with a sharp pain’s precision, happiness
and blurry joy. I learned to speak among the pains.
Amichai’s insight is well founded. (And I recall it in part because we remember the Challenger astronauts who thirty years ago gave their lives in pursuit of touching heaven’s joys.) Why is pain and heartache more precise than joy and celebration? Fear of God appears easier to describe than love of God. One misplaced word can give rise to dread.

Fear is a far simpler thing to summon than love. Terror seeps into our hearts. Rejoicing requires courage.

Our senses become confused. We become overwhelmed.

The Torah concurs. It offers these words about Sinai: “All the people saw the thunder and the lightning…” (Exodus 20:15)

You cannot see thunder! The people’s senses are likewise confused and overwhelmed.

We are unable to find the words to describe such an awesome experience. The holy, the overwhelming, the joyous defy description. Perhaps then we must resort to poetry and songs.

How can we find words for our joys? And yet rejoicing must become our foundation. Only simcha can carry us forward. Only rejoicing can banish the trembling.

When we sing, when we dance, and when we celebrate we experience God.

When we rejoice we approach Sinai.

Still we have no words.

“I want to describe, with a sharp pain’s precision, happiness and blurry joy.”

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Beshalach and Walking Away from War

Among my favorite poems is “Eli Eli” by Hannah Senesh:
My God, my God
I pray these things never end
The sand and the sea
The rush of the waters,
The crash of the heavens,
The prayer of man.
Senesh was of course the young Zionist who parachuted behind German lines and made her way into her native Hungary in order to rescue fellow Jews. She was captured and we now know tortured mercilessly. On November 7, 1944 she was executed by a German firing squad.

Her writing and poetry remain. Her words are often added to our Shabbat prayers....

This post continues on The Times of Israel.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Bo, Darkness and Heroes

“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Hold out you your arm toward the sky that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched.’” (Exodus 10:21) The tradition expands our understanding of this plague of darkness. It was so thick and enveloping that the Egyptians could not even see their hands in front of their faces.

This helps to explain why darkness is the ninth plague.

In that darkness the Egyptians were utterly alone. They only had their thoughts. They could see nothing but what could be found in their imaginations. Such ruminations must have given rise to even greater and greater fear. Blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, cattle plague, boils, hail, locusts ran through people’s minds. In their imagination frogs became transformed into crocodiles that devoured children. And locusts became vultures gnawing on the carcasses of dead cattle. Such is the power of the mind.

Such are the dangers of imagination. One would think that this darkness could serve as a moment of introspection, that the designs of the mind might lead the Egyptians to let the Israelites go free. And yet fear becomes an end in itself. It corrupts our dreams. It obscures our vision. We find ourselves alone in the darkness imagining the worst of days.

We are living within such a plague. Unlike the plague that befell the Egyptians our darkness is instead blackened by the 24 hour news cycle, the endless stream of information, and misinformation provided by the Internet, and our ceaseless notifications popping up on our iPhones’ screens. We think that we are more connected. We believe that we are more informed. Instead we become likewise plagued by darkness. It is a darkness filled with alerts and notifications.

Fear obscures our view, it envelopes and shrouds. The incessant barrage of information darkens our vision. We see disease where in truth there is health. We see hail where there are bright, sunny skies. Our imagination gets the better of us.

We find it increasingly difficult to distinguish between an ordinary frog and dangerous, vicious beasts. Can we see through this darkness and discover friends among those who are unlike ourselves? Can we see beyond our fears, and beyond this modern plague, and distinguish between those who are truly bent on doing us harm from those who are given toward companionship? We appear unable to see the hands, right before our eyes, reaching out to others in friendship. We imagine that more and more hands stab at us in this darkness.

The rabbis ask: Who is a hero? They answer: It is the person who masters his or her evil inclination. Can we summon such heroism? Can we master this inclination?

How is it that those we often call heroes are those who steadfastly hold on to their dreams and ideals even when imprisoned and surrounded by darkness? Natan Sharansky, who was imprisoned in the Soviet Gulag for almost ten years, carried with him a small book of psalms. He held fast to the verse from Psalm 23: I will fear no evil. Even though surrounded by torturers and likewise alone with his imagination he chose instead to fixate on his dreams. He remained singularly focused on his wish to make aliya to Israel. How did he summon the courage to look beyond the tortures and see only a dream, a vision?

We, who in contrast live in relative comfort, become instead intoxicated by our imaginations of terror and evil, we become tortured by the threats leveled against us. The dangers are real. And yet they grow even larger in our minds. They grow more menacing in our imaginations. We who are unaccustomed to living with such fears allow terror to rule our lives rather than dreams.

We find ourselves in darkness. We find ourselves alone. We can see little else but our nightmares. We imagine the worst about others.

The rabbis advocated for a heroism of the ordinary and everyday. They were concerned about the inner. They wrote about the dangers of our intentions. They counseled: master the imagination.

And I continue to believe what I have often taught. In this age of terrorism it really does amount to such a heroism of the everyday. It is about subduing our fears and affirming the ordinary.

David Bowie sings: “We can be heroes, just for one day. We can be us, just for one day.”

The Torah offers: “People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was; but all the Israelites enjoyed light…” (Exodus 10:23)

I remain partial to Peter Gabriel’s version of David Bowie’s classic:

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Vaera and God's Many Names

This week’s Torah portion, Vaera, opens with the words: “God spoke to Moses and said to him, ‘I am Adonai. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name Y-H-V-H…” (Exodus 6)

To Moses God offers this personal name of YHVH. We, however, no longer know how to pronounce this name and so we say, Adonai, my Lord. This name is related to the name revealed at the burning bush. When Moses asks, “When I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?’” God responds, Eyeh Asher Eyeh, meaning “I will be what I will be.” (Exodus 3) YHVH is thus a form of the verb, “to be.” What a mysterious, and wonderful, name. The name of God means: God is.

As a consequence the Jewish tradition has many names for God. A casual search of the prayerbook yields well over 50 different names. Here are a few: the Teacher, the Holy One Blessed be He, the Place, Builder of Jerusalem, the Healer, God of Thanks, Lord of Wonders, our Father our King (Avinu Malkeinu), Rock of Israel and Lord of Peace.

We call God by many different names. We find God through these many names. The Psalmist declares:
The heavens declare God’s glory
the sky proclaims His handiwork.
Day to day makes utterance,
night to night speaks out
There is no utterance,
there are no words… (Psalm 19)
Language is merely scratching the surface. Our words are only glimmers of the divine. Reaching out to God is not a perfect science. Even our prayers are mere attempts. Our most carefully constructed sentences and most heartfelt songs can only, at best, extend upward.

One of my favorite poets, Denise Levertov, concurs: 
Lord, I curl in Thy grey
gossamer hammock
that swings by one
elastic thread to thin
twigs that could, that should
break but don’t.
I do nothing, I give You
nothing. Yet You hold me
minute by minute
from falling.
Lord, You provide.
We stretch and weave words as if they are hammock strung between two branches. Hammocks can be comfortable and relaxing when they envelope us, as we sit in the summer shade, yet unsteady when our weight is shifted ever so slightly.

Words are both flimsy and secure. Our tradition therefore offers us many different names, many different paths to reach our God. None of them are perfect. None of them are the final answer. Indeed the rabbis declare that there are 70 different facets of the Torah. There is never one Jewish answer! There is no one answer when it comes to interpreting Torah and even when it comes to naming God.

We find God through many names and many different places. May this coming Shabbat be indeed a Sabbath of peace, quiet and relaxation. May it be a day when we hear at least one of God’s names emerge from our lips.