Thursday, March 16, 2017

A Broken and Whole Heart

Everything is going well for the Israelites. God freed them from slavery in Egypt. God reveals the Torah. God provides them with food to eat (manna) and water to drink. Dayyenu! Moses climbs Sinai in order to commune with God for forty days. He leaves his brother Aaron in charge. You know the story. All hell breaks loose. Those teenagers throw a wild party, building a golden calf, dancing and drinking. They blaspheme God. Let’s go to the videotape.  The narrator intones: “They were as children who lost their faith.”

They lost their way, as youngsters and people often do. All they had to do was say, “Dayyenu.” That would have been enough. Thank you. Instead their first impulse is to do what they saw and learned in Egypt, namely bowing down to idols.

This God idea is a difficult notion to understand and comprehend.

Moses is unforgiving. He becomes enraged. (He has some anger issues.) He smashes the tablets. The leaders, and many of the participants, are killed. God is also quite unforgiving.

Moses returns to the mountain. He quells God’s anger. God instructs Moses, “Carve two tablets of stone like the first, and I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you shattered.” (Exodus 34) These tablets are then placed in the Ark. And what happens to the broken tablets? They too are placed in the Ark. Rabbi Meir teaches that both the broken and the whole tablets are placed in the Ark of the Covenant. (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Batra 14b) This is then carried by the people throughout their wanderings.

Why save the broken tablets? Move on from your mistakes. Forget your transgressions is the counsel we often give and receive. And yet the tradition thinks otherwise.

There is no greater sin than that of the Golden Calf. But why dwell on it? In fact, it is one of the six Torah episodes we are commanded to remember each and every day. The teaching is clear. You are only complete with your flaws. No one is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes. A complete person holds the broken and whole together. That is the message contained in the Ark.

Jewish mystics take this notion even further. A 16th century Kabbalist, Eliyahu de Vidas, teaches:
The Zohar states that the human heart is the Ark. And it is known that in the Ark were stored both the tablets and the broken tablets. Similarly, a person’s heart must be full of Torah. And similarly, a person’s heart must be a broken heart, a beaten heart, so that it can serve as a home for God’s presence. For the divine presence only dwells in broken vessels, which is a broken and beaten heart. And whoever has a heart filled with pride propels God from him, as it says “God detests those of haughty hearts”.
I like this idea. Then again I don’t like it.

I like it because it suggests that brokenness leads to a closeness with the divine. I don’t like it because it implies brokenness leads to greater religiosity.

Who wants to be broken?

Then again there are undoubtedly moments in all of our lives when we feel hurt or broken, when we feel we are guilty of far too many mistakes. It is in those moments when should recall the lessons of the broken tablets.

The shattered tablets were never discarded. It is only taken together with the whole tablets that we are able to approach the divine. 

It is with a simultaneously broken and whole heart that we better approach God.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Vashti and Today's Woman

Purim begins on Saturday evening. It is a holiday marked by frivolity. Among its highlights are drunkenness, and even cross dressing. It is punctuated by laughter. And yet the story on which it is based is characterized by extraordinarily serious themes. The megillah of Esther spins around the question of antisemitism. You know the story.

The evil Haman gains a seat of power next to the King of Persia, Ahasuerus. He clamors for the death of the Jews. His reason is simple, although one might ask, “Are the reasons for antisemitism really understandable and ever simple?” Haman becomes enraged when Mordecai, the Jew, refuses to bow down to him. Meanwhile Mordecai’s cousin Esther, who has hidden her Jewish identity in order to win the king’s favor in a beauty contest, has gained the king’s ear. She is able to persuade Ahasuerus that Haman represents a threat. He allows the Jews to defend themselves and defeat the antisemite—until next time.

Most people read this story and believe Esther is its hero. Perhaps, some see the hero as Mordecai. Clearly both save the Jewish people from an existential threat. They defeat antisemitism. And yet nothing is clear when you examine the story in detail. Much is hidden. Even more is forgotten.

Vashti is also its hero.

Who is Vashti? She is the queen who precedes Esther. Why is she dethroned? She refuses to dance before the king and his drunken friends. Yes, that is the story. The king throws a wild seven day long party. He brags to the assembled men about his wife’s beauty. In order to show off how good looking she is, he commands her to dance in front of her friends wearing (only) her crown. (Go read Esther 1 if you would like to double-check my retelling.) And what does Vashti say, “No!”

What happens next? The guys say, “Hey king, you better get your wife in line! If she is allowed to refuse your command, who knows what will happen next. All the women of Persia will stop listening to their husbands. They might want to start driving. They might want to become doctors, lawyers, CEO's, rabbis or even the president.” (Ok. I added a few lines.) So the king listens to his drunken friends and advisors and throws Vashti out of the palace.

But then our drunken, and irredeemably sexist, king becomes lonely. “Throw a beauty pageant and find a new wife,” advise his friends. And who shows up at the beauty pageant? Esther. She parades herself in front of the king. She does exactly what Vashti refuses to do. She demeans herself in order to become queen. And herein lies the disturbing, and often hidden, irony of the Purim story. Her debasement leads to our salvation. The woman who uses her beauty, and hides her Jewish identity, is the one who achieves power and saves the day. It is Esther who rewrites history. But at what personal cost?

I have often wondered what happens to Vashti.

We don’t hear from her again. I would like to. These days I long for Vashti. She is the model to which we aspire. She chooses justice over power. She is true to herself. She is loyal to the women of the kingdom. No woman should be asked to do what she is asked to do, or for that matter what Esther in fact does, at her cousin’s bidding.

And yet we don’t speak about this. Vashti remains the forgotten hero of our Purim story. Her truth is glossed over. It is banished from the headlines.

I would like to rediscover her truth. I would like to find Vashti—once again.

Turn back to the opening chapter. Reread the book. Look with new eyes.

These days I could really use Vashti’s truth.

Despite all its frivolity, there remain troubling and serious questions hidden within Purim’s story.

Regardless I am going to join in the laughter. History is so cruel. Politics are so serious. Sometimes the only medicine is the prescription Purim offers.

Laughter!

Thursday, March 2, 2017

God is Everywhere and Anywhere

Written in Hebrew above our congregation’s ark are the words from this week’s portion: “Make for Me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them.” (Exodus 25) While I was obviously not present when the sanctuary was built I imagine this verse was selected because it is located within the detailed instructions for building the tabernacle, the mishkan.

Soon after leaving Egypt and the revelation at Mount Sinai, God instructs the Israelites to build this mishkan. This tabernacle was intended to accompany the Israelites throughout their wanderings in the wilderness. It was not found in a fixed location but instead was carried with the people. While the mishkan was extravagantly detailed (it had a lot of gold!) its single most important quality was that it was portable.

Throughout the Torah no place was more holy than another. We no longer even know, for example, where Mount Sinai is located. Revelation was about the gift of Torah not the mountain on which it was given. Holiness was connected with wherever the tabernacle rested. And the greatest of all sanctity was attached to our dream. We dreamed of touching the land of Israel. It is interesting and important to recognize that for the ancient Israelites the holiness of place was attached to a dream not in fact to a location they experienced.

Our identity is fashioned in no particular place but is instead founded on a dream.

It was only after the entering into the land and then some 300 years later in the age of the kings that the centrality of Jerusalem gains prominence. It was during the reign of King Solomon, David’s son, that the first Temple was built. Its dedication is described in this week’s Haftarah. There we discover echoes of the verse inscribed above our Ark: “Then the word of the Lord came to Solomon: ‘With regard to this House you are building—if you follow My laws and observe My rules and faithfully keep My commandments… I will dwell among the children of Israel, and I will never forsake My people Israel.’” (I Kings 6)

Whereas in the Torah God’s presence was dependent on movement (we had to schlep the mishkan from place to place), in Solomon’s day it becomes dependent on our actions and behaviors. Once the place becomes fixed it is our movement between right and wrong that controls God’s presence. And then the Temple is destroyed, and soon rebuilt, and again destroyed. We are exiled from the land of our dreams. We are banished from the city of Jerusalem.

We return to the wandering. Building on Solomon’s understanding, the rabbis teach that God’s presence can be anywhere and everywhere. We take up—again—the Torah’s wandering narrative. No place is more holy than another. What matters is not where we meet, but when. What matters is that we hold the book in our hand. What matters is that we continue to learn from this Torah. Abraham Joshua Heschel writes that we sanctify time, not place. We elevate the Sabbath day over all other days of the week.

In our own day people too often associate synagogues, and the values they are intended to teach and the people who see it as their spiritual centers, with the buildings that house their activities. But Jewish devotion is not about the sanctuaries in which we gather. Jewish commitment moves with us. Jewish devotion must accompany us. It is dependent on the choices we make between right and wrong. It is attached to following God’s demands.

Too often we also confuse our presence with God’s presence. Our synagogues are about discovering God’s presence in our midst. It is not about us. It is about God.

When looking at the verse inscribed above our Ark we might come to believe that God is only here in this sanctuary, and not as well in our homes, our businesses, and in nature. Why can’t you sense God’s presence on the ocean’s shore? Why can’t God become more visible when you reach out to someone who is sick, or another who is hungry and homeless, or another who is in desperate need of comfort and consolation? Those are just as much Jewish commitments, as the prayers we recite in our sanctuaries.

If God’s presence only stays in the sanctuary, if the Torah remains some scroll we only study in our synagogues, then the notion that God can be anywhere and everywhere is lost, then the command that God should be everywhere and anywhere is lost.

God’s presence must be taken with us wherever we travel. It is not located, and fixed, in one place. It is instead something carried. It is something we must carry.

And it is something that carries us—on our journeys and wanderings.