Friday, July 3, 2020

The Voice of Others

A few poems.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, a nineteenth century Jesuit priest and English poet, writes:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And, for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And through the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
And Denise Levertov, a twentieth century American poet, offers:
Faith’s a tide, it seems, ebbs and flows responsive
to action and inaction.
Remain in stasis, blown sand
stings your face, anemones
shrivel in rock pools now wave renews.
Clean the littered beach, clear
the lines of a forming poem,
the waters flood inward.
Dull stones again fulfill
their glowing destinies, and emptiness
is a cup, and holds
the ocean.
Hafiz, the fourteenth century Persian poet, affirms:
What is the difference
Between your experience of Existence
And that of a saint?

The Saint knows
That the spiritual path
Is a sublime chess game with God

And that the Beloved
Has just made such a Fantastic Move

That the saint is now continually
Tripping over Joy
And bursting out in Laughter
And saying, “I Surrender!”

Whereas, my dear,
I am afraid you still think

You have a thousand serious moves.
And this week, in our Torah, we discover another poem:
How fair are you tents, O Jacob,
Your dwellings, O Israel!
Like palm-groves that stretch out,
Like gardens beside a river,
Like aloes planted by the Lord,
Like cedars beside the water…
They crouch, they lie down like a lion,
Like the king of beasts; who dare rouse them?
Blessed are they who bless you,
Accursed they who curse you! (Numbers 24)
So said Balaam, the foreign prophet sent by Israel’s sworn enemy, the Moabites. King Balak instructs Balaam to curse the Jewish people. Instead the prophet provides us with a prayer.

“Mah tovu ohalecha, Yaakov…” With these words we begin our morning prayers.

So records our Torah.

And so, we are reminded. Torah is about more than just listening to our own voice.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Prophet or Rebel?

The prophets of old shouted and railed against injustices. Few listened. At best they were surrounded by a small number of loyal, disciples. Most ignored their pleas. They turned a deaf ear to their screams. And yet, centuries later, we turn to their words for inspiration.

The prophet Isaiah declares:

Cry with full throat, without restraint;
Raise your voice like a ram’s horn!
Declare to My people their transgression,
To the House of Jacob their sin….
This is the fast I desire:
To unlock the fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.
It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him
And not to ignore your own kin. (Isaiah 58)

And yet, despite the fact that we read these words every Yom Kippur, Isaiah’s shouts and cries remain muted. He was ignored in his own generation. He is still by and large ignored today.

Perhaps it is because communities, and even countries, too easily become unraveled by such screams. Is this why the prophet Jeremiah was jailed? Prophets, with their calls for change and their demands to undo injustices, are threats to the established order. Where they see injustices aplenty, others see an unraveling of what they have come to love and an undoing of the many comforts they now enjoy.

Is it possible that Korah was a prophet? The tradition answers with an emphatic, “No.” Korah, and his followers, question Moses’ leadership. They say, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them and the Lord is in their midst.” (Numbers 16) The Torah judges these words to be the fomenting of rebellion. God sides with Moses. The earth then swallows up Korah and his followers.

I am thinking that there is a very thin line between prophecy and rebellion.

The Talmud counsels: “The world endures on account of people who are able to restrain themselves during a quarrel.” (Babylonian Talmud, Hullin 89a). The prophets quarrel with everything. They see injustices everywhere. The world might not very well endure if we are led by prophets.

Then again, the world might never change, or be made better, if we fail to heed their words.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel opines:

This is our tragedy: the insecurity of faith, the unbearable burden of our commitment…. Our faith is too often tinged with arrogance, self-righteousness. It is even capable of becoming demonic. Even the creeds we proclaim are in danger of becoming idolatry. Our faith is fragile, never immune to error, distortion, or deception. There are no final proofs for the existence of God, Father and Creator of all. There are only witnesses. Supreme among them are the prophets of Israel. Humanity is an unfinished task, and so is religion. The Law, the creed, the teaching and the wisdom are here, yet without the outburst of prophetic demands coming upon us again and again, religion may become fossilized. (“No Religion is an Island”)

We cannot quarrel with everyone and everything. And yet, we must heed the prophetic voice. Some things must change and must not be allowed to endure.

“Prophet or rebel?” is the question that continues to haunt us.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Why Juneteenth Matters

What follows is my sermon from Shabbat Services on June 19th.  Join us every Friday evening at 7 pm on Facebook Live. 

David Ben Gurion once said:
Three hundred years ago a ship called the Mayflower set sail to the New World. This was a great event in the history of England. Yet I wonder if there is one Englishman who knows at what time the ship set sail? Do the English know how many people embarked on this voyage? Or what quality of bread did they eat? Yet more than three thousand three hundred years ago, before the Mayflower set sail, the Jews left Egypt. Every Jew in the world, even in America or Soviet Russia knows on exactly what date they left—the fifteenth of the month of Nisan; everyone knows what kind of bread the Jews ate. Even today the Jews worldwide eat matza on the 15th of Nisan. They retell the story of the Exodus and all the troubles Jews have endured since being exiled. They conclude this evening with two statements: This year, slaves. Next year, free men. This year here. Next year in Jerusalem, in Zion, in Eretz Yisrael. That is the nature of the Jews.
Ben Gurion offers a remarkable insight. Our Passover celebrations are about remembering our going free from Egypt. Every symbol on our tables is meant to do one of two things: on the one hand, to recall the pain and suffering of slavery, i.e. eating the haroset and maror or on the other hand, to celebrate the joy of being free, namely drinking four cups of wine and reclining. Why do we observe this holiday? Why do we celebrate Passover, over 3000 years after the event it commemorates? So that we might not only remember our own pain but also so that we might be sensitive to the pain of others. We eat matzah so that we might be better attuned to the suffering not just of Jews but of all people. The Torah makes clear what the symbolic gestures of the Seder imply. “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23). You know what it feels like. That’s the Passover message in a nutshell.

The killing of George Floyd has shaken me. It has awakened in a great many people feelings of empathy, indignation, and despair. We have come to realize we are still not doing better. To be sure I should have been shaken years ago, and even decades ago. And I have spent the past weeks not only reading, and trying to learn more, but also examining my own attitudes and views. A verse in this week’s Torah portion sounds much different than it has in other years. Here is this week’s story that led to this newfound revelation. After returning from scouting the land, ten spies deliver a negative report, and fomented discord among the newly freed Israelites. They say, “We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey… [But] the country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers.” (Numbers 13). My brethren are being devoured. I watched it on CNN. It unfolded right before my eyes.

Van Jones, a commentator who I find intelligent, insightful and who struggles still to work across party lines, remarked that there has always been a tension between the dreams of our nation’s founders and the reality in which they lived and thrived. Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of our Declaration of Independence, is also the man who owned slaves and fathered children with at least one of these slave women. He is the same person who wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

As I look inward, as I search within my soul, as I peer into the nation that has almost exclusively offered my family and me promise and opportunity, these truths no longer appear as self-evident as they once did. I recall the history lessons of my youth. Growing up in St. Louis I remember studying the Civil War. The teacher opined, “The war was really about secession. It was not about slavery.” And I dutifully regurgitated that opinion on my test so that I might be awarded an A. Yesterday it occurred to me—and I mean literally yesterday, because until these past weeks it never even entered my mind to more closely examine that teaching—that this is like saying, “World War II was really about the invasion of Poland. It was not about the Holocaust.” This makes no sense. This makes no sense, most especially to my Jewish ears.

The Nazi’s murderous and antisemitic ideology drove it to savage Europe and slaughter six million of my people. The ideology that Jews were sub-human animated this regime. Likewise, slavery, and the ideology that Black lives are worth less than White lives, that people of color are less than human, that other human beings, who we believe, and our Jewish teachings loudly declare are created in the image of God, can be bought and sold as property, animated the South. For the soldiers of the Confederacy, the ideology of slavery led them to charge into battle. And the fact that we are still arguing about this, and denying this basic fact, and teaching that the Civil War was not really about slavery, is why we find ourselves in our current situation, a situation in which the lives of our fellow Americans who are people of color, can be killed in broad daylight by the very people who are meant to protect us—and I mean protect all of us, that is protect every single American. The safety, rescue and protection that I feel when the police drive by is not what all law-abiding Americans see. Through his tears, Van Jones, exclaimed this moment in which we now find ourselves might be different. He said, “A black man was killed, and people care.” People care. S’lach li. Forgive me for not paying attention when it was Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown or the countless others. Forgive me for turning away and not doing more to fight racism.

150 years later, after the Emancipation Proclamation, there are still far too many remnants of the racist ideology that almost destroyed our nation and threatens to rip us apart once again. Things must change. And they must change now. No more statues venerating Confederate leaders. No more Confederate flags symbolizing what was supposed to be a defeated ideology. No more military bases named for Confederate generals. Sure, study their tactics in War Colleges and offer praise for their strategies if warranted, but their names do not below in the public squares of a nation that wants to truly live up to its founding dream that all are created equal.

Second, mark today, this day of Juneteenth on your calendars. Mark it as we do Passover. Remember that on this day, on June 19, 1865, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the last remaining slaves were delivered the news that they were free. Allow that lesson, a lesson that I was never taught in all my required American history classes, to sink in. People endured more years of slavery because it took that long for the news to reach Galveston, Texas and the far reaches of the Confederacy. Juneteenth represents the very idea we celebrate on Passover and the very best dreams of this country’s founders. This is not a rewriting of history. It is instead a correcting of how we teach history. This day must come to mark an honest accounting of our nation’s struggle to square its sometimes-tortured realities with its loftiest dreams and visions of itself. Only an honest accounting, and forthright reckoning, will do.

And finally, commit to learning more about the pain and suffering of our fellow Americans. When I speak about antisemitism in general, and the Holocaust in particular, and most especially to non-Jewish groups I ask two things of my listeners: 1) that they acknowledge historical truths, namely the countless antisemitic persecutions our people have endured and regarding the Holocaust, the Nazis’ systematic determination to exterminate our people, and 2) that they understand our pain. #1 must come before #2. I never really expect that they will understand what it really feels like to stand in my shoes, that they might feel this history as I feel it and as a Jew feels it. That would be unrealistic, and even illogical.

And so, I have resolved. I am not going to ask one of my few Black friends (and that small number should in itself stand as an embarrassment and indictment) to explain his or her pain to me. I worry that may only do more to assuage my guilt than to rectify our problems. What then are we going to do in this moment? I can tell you what I am going to do first. And you are welcome to join me. I am going to redo my homework from those high school years. I am going to relearn my history. I am going to read more and learn more. Watch the documentary “13th” with me. It is eye opening. Join me for a discussion of this movie. Bring your middle schoolers and high schoolers to the discussion. Email me if you are interested in joining me on this journey.

The healing begins with a renewed call to learning and listening. The repair could very well start by adding one more holiday to our calendar. Think of all that began not only with our going out from Egypt but with our sustained, and stubborn, remembrance of that historical moment at our Passover Seders. Our fellow Americans may be uplifted by such a day just as we continue to be uplifted, every year on the 15th of Nisan. It is long past time that the pain of our fellow Americans becomes our pain. We know all too well the feelings of the stranger. And no one should be made to feel like a stranger ever again.

Friday, June 19, 2020

We Are Only as Small as We Think We Are

There are days when everything appears as giants. And every problem appears insurmountable.

How will we ever overcome this pandemic? Or its consequent economic downturn? Will life ever return to what it was once like? How will we eradicate racism from our country, from American culture and its institutions? What more can we do to uplift the lives, and livelihoods, of our fellow Americans who are Black?

The questions appear enormous. The problems feel like foreboding giants.

When the spies returned from scouting the land of Israel, they offered this report: “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are giants… and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” (Numbers 13)

Why did they see themselves as small grasshoppers? Perhaps it was because they were beaten down by this new experience of wandering in the wilderness? Then again perhaps it was because they still saw themselves as slaves. After hundreds of years of slavery, they could not imagine they would be able to overcome their enemies and achieve any measure of success.

These words are why the Israelites must now wander for forty years. God determines that only a generation born in freedom can build a nation of its own.

Still I wonder. How did they know how they appeared to others? And this is perhaps the ten spies’ most worrisome, and even insidious, claim. They had such poor self-esteem and self-worth that they imagined everyone saw themselves as small as they saw themselves.

In the end, it’s one thing to see mounting problems as gigantic. It’s an added thing to see ourselves as too small, or too unprepared, or even too unwilling, to tackle these immense challenges. It’s an unforgivable thing entirely to imagine that others, in particular our enemies, whether they be viruses or other nations, see us as tiny grasshoppers who can be smashed underfoot.

We can overcome whatever we believe ourselves able to overcome! Much of our challenges can be overcome by faith, by faith in God and belief in our abilities to surmount any and all difficulties.

When King David was just a boy the Israelites’ enemy were the mighty Philistines. They were led by the giant Goliath. Every soldier was afraid to go into battle against Goliath. Even King Saul was frightened. But David was unafraid. Even though he was just a small boy he ventured out into the open field without any armor. He brought only a slingshot. And the legend was born. David killed Goliath, striking him with a small stone between the eyes.

David had faith. He had confidence. He did not seem himself as a small boy despite the fact that every other soldier was taller, and stronger, than him.

There really is only one question. Are we going to be the like the ten spies? Or are we instead going to be like Joshua and Caleb, the two spies who believed that despite immense odds the Israelites would succeed? Joshua and Caleb recognized the realities and threats, but they still had faith their people could succeed. They did not view themselves as small. Are we likewise going to be as confident as David or as cowering as the rest of the Israelite soldiers? Even the best armor, and greatest military might, cannot overcome challenges if people don’t believe they can be overcome.

Of course, it is not a matter of turning on and off a switch. It is not as stark as the stories suggest.

There will be moments in the coming weeks, months and years when we will feel like the ten spies, when we will see ourselves as small as grasshoppers unable to overcome any challenges. And there will be other moments when we will discover the confidence of Joshua and Caleb and the faith of King David, and n we will see ourselves as mighty and able to overcome even the most gigantic challenges.

My prayer is simple. I pray that these latter moments will be more numerous than the former.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

No More Complaining

This week we read a litany of complaints. There is the complaint about Moses’ leadership: “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has God not spoken through us as well?” (Numbers 12) and the complaint about the food in the wilderness. Listen to the Israelites: “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat for free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look at.” (Numbers 11)

But the manna is not meant to be looked at. It is instead meant for eating. It provides ample sustenance. Instead the Israelites just stare at it. The Hebrew implies, “There is nothing but this manna before our eyes.” I wonder. Is it the lack of variety that leads to the Israelites’ complaints? “Really, pasta again tonight!?”

Or is it instead that in Egypt the food was provided for them? Even though they were slaves, the food was free. What a bitter irony these words offer. The Israelites may not have paid for their food, or even worked to prepare it, but they toiled day and night, and lived (and died) according to their taskmasters’ yes or no. It was not really free. They paid for it with their lives. And yet, the newly free Israelites, remain dissatisfied and complaining.

Then again free people do a lot of complaining about food. “I want some of those delicious shitake mushrooms! I want my blackberries. I want, I want, I want…”. How often I have complained during these past few months about the food that was now unavailable at the store? I should not have said, “There is nothing but this…to look at,” and instead offered, “Thank God there is food enough to eat.” Isn’t that the not so hidden message of manna?

Sustenance is not about the food, but instead about the state in which we enjoy it. Think of our Jewish mourning rituals. The first thing a mourner is supposed to do after returning from the cemetery, and after washing their hands, is to eat. The foods prescribed for this meal of consolation (seudat havraah) are hard boiled eggs in Ashkenazi circles and lentils in Sephardic homes. Both foods symbolize life. This is not of course what mourners feel like doing. In fact, the impulse is to do the opposite.

Denial, or fasting, seem more emotionally appropriate. They are more in keeping with the state of a mourner’s feelings. And yet Judaism commands the mourner, “Eat.” It is not a feast of course; it is instead meant as manna. It is intended as sustenance. Even though devastated by grief, the mourner has to go on living. They are sustained not by memories.

Now, they feast on stories. They eat to live.

Their sustenance is found instead in these words of remembrance.

Monday, June 8, 2020

Maybe We Are All Racists

I recall some years ago, when I happened to be in the traffic court of a beautiful Long Island hamlet (we will leave unsaid why I was there) and I remember looking around and noticing something very distinct. The vast majority of those joining me on that day were not White, but Black and Latino. And on that day, and in that moment, I said nothing about this glaring disparity and galling incongruity. In fact, I said to myself, “I guess they are really bad drivers.” This memory has been running through my mind as I begin to take in the protests precipitated by the killing of George Floyd z”l.

Black men and boys are two and a half times more likely to die during a police encounter than their white counterparts. Individuals from minority communities are also far more likely to be stopped by police. In addition, those stops are more apt to result in frisks, searches, and arrests. Ninety percent of those in New York City’s local jails are people of color.

This is not so much an indictment of the police. It is instead an indictment of every one of us. Police, and policing, are a reflection of the communities they serve. Ask yourself these questions....

Friday, May 29, 2020

Renewing and Reinterpreting Torah

People often think that the Torah provides an exact guide for leading a Jewish life. This is simply not the case. They say as well, “Herein one finds the 613 mitzvot—commandments.” Again, although these mitzvot are derived from the five books of Moses, namely Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, they are not arranged there in numerical fashion. Long ago the rabbis said there were 613 commandments, but it was not clear how they derived this number. It was not until the medieval period that commentators started enumerating this list.

And here is another surprise. Each of these commentators’ lists are organized in different manners. The details are not exactly the same. It’s not that there is debate over whether or not Shabbat observance is a mitzvah, it is instead how many commandments are contained therein or what number it occupies the list. Does one begin the list with the first chapter of Genesis: “Be fruitful and multiply” or instead with the first positive commandment: “Believe in God?” We are dependent on a body of interpretation, and generations of interpreters, in order to give us the detailed instructions, and laws, that we call Judaism.

The Torah does not describe Jewish observance and belief. It is instead the groundwork upon which we build, and continue to construct, our tradition. We are not fundamentalists. We do not point to the Torah, or the Hebrew Bible, for that matter, and say, “This is exactly how we should do things.” Otherwise, to cite one obvious example, we would be sacrificing animals rather than reciting the Shema and Amidah.

What makes us Jews more than anything else is Talmud Torah, the study of Torah. We pore over the Torah’s words in order to glimpse what God wants of us. We gain mere glimmers. These truths are refracted through millennia of interpretations. The glasses through which we look are those of preceding generations of interpreters. We continue to interpret in our own day. We look through these glasses not at them.

On this holiday of Shavuot, we renew our commitment to Torah. It’s not so much the book but the study of Torah that makes us Jews and continues to give us Judaism. And that more than anything else is what we celebrate on this holiday. If we are not sitting around the table—even if this year, it is a virtual table—and debating the Torah’s verses and words we are not renewing our Jewish faith.

Rabbi Yehoshua, a great sage, once said: “There cannot be a beit midrash (study hall) without a hiddush (novel idea).” (Babylonian Talmud, Hagigah 3a).

Our holy task is to study and forever come up with new and innovative ideas. These only emerge when we go over the Torah’s words—together.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Counting Each and Every Person

We begin studying the fourth book of the Torah this week. We open to the first chapter of Numbers and read: “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral homes…”. Later the Torah reports the census’ tally. 603,550 Israelites.

That is an extraordinary number. The tradition recognizes the magnitude of seeing so many Jews in one place and so prescribes a blessing for those who might be privileged to witness the sight of 600,000 or more Jews. We say, “Blessed are You Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, knower of secrets (chacham harazeem).”

It is a curious blessing. Why not say words that acknowledge the magnitude of the sight or the vastness of the number? Instead the tradition appears to point us away from the crowd, the mass of people, and instead towards the individual. The Talmud concurs. “Why do we say this particular blessing? It is because God sees a whole nation whose minds are unlike each other and whose faces are unlike each other and God knows what is in each of their hearts.”

It is as if to say, “Look away from the crowd. Think instead about what resides in each and every individual heart.”

According to another tradition there are the same number of 603,500 letters in a Torah scroll. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, an eighteenth-century Hasidic master, comments: “Just as the absence of one letter renders a Torah unfit for use, so too the loss of even one Jew prevents the Jewish people from fulfilling its mission.”

Each and every one of us matters. Every individual counts.

Just as the Torah’s individual letters are beautifully calligraphed and the pieces of parchment stitched together, so too we are bound to one another.

We may be unique individuals, with different thoughts and aspirations, but we need each other. Whatever secrets we might hold in our hearts, we are bound to one another.

There should be no secret in that truth.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Study Is Its Own Reward

The rabbis argued that Torah study is its own reward. They famously said that Talmud Torah, the study of Torah, is equal to such lofty commandments as honoring one’s parents, engaging in deeds of lovingkindness, arriving early for study, extending hospitality to guests, visiting the sick, dancing with wedding couples, accompanying the dead for burial, being devoted in prayer and making peace between neighbors. (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 127a)

Why would study be of equal merit to the difficult task of visiting the sick or the uplifting duty of dancing with wedding couples? Some have suggested that it is because study leads to action. I remain skeptical that this is always the case. Study can offer its own promise. Study can provide a measure of comfort. To be honest, during these past few months, I have discovered new meaning in this practice.

Part of the meaning is uncovered in the fact that we have now succeeded in making Torah study a regular habit. Every Tuesday at 1 pm we gather to study and discuss the weekly Torah portion. Some join us every week. Others join us on occasion. Never before have we been able to sustain this regular practice. And while I am certainly not grateful that it took our present worrisome circumstances to provide this opportunity, I am thankful that this has once again become part of my weekly routine.

There is comfort in this rhythm. There is solace in reading aloud the verses of our holy writ. It’s not that we uncover answers to our many questions. In fact, more often than not we discover even more questions. Oftentimes they remain unresolved. And yet there is comfort to be gained in the practice. There is elucidation to be found in our discussions.

It is only when sitting across from others, even on Zoom, that we find new meanings in these ancient words. And so, this week I discovered something that had remained hidden. The portion begins, “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce…” (Leviticus 26:3). The Hebrew, however, does not state “follow” but instead “walk.”

One has to get up and walk. To follow suggests that God is leading us forward. To walk implies the choice is more in our hands. It is up to us to get up and go. It is our decision what we do or do not do. The Torah continues. If we walk after God’s laws, then we will receive many blessings. The rains will fall in their proper seasons and our crops will be plentiful. We will be protected from enemies and will only know peace. The list continues. If we observe the commandments, then only good will befall us.

Questions remain. There are plenty of people who do plenty of good who do not receive these promised rewards. Many, if not all of us, can cite a multitude of examples that would illustrate the injustices we see and the incompatibility of the Torah’s promise with everyday realities. The exactness of this chapter’s formula is not what we observe in the real world.

The concluding promise offers that God will be by our side as long as we observe these commandments. “I will establish My abode in your midst, and I will not spurn you. I will be ever present in your midst: I will be your God, and you shall be My people.” (Leviticus 26:11) Once again the translation is more of an interpretation than exacting rendition. The Hebrew again uses the word “walk.” It should not read “I will be ever present in your midst” but instead “I will walk among you.”

Thus, the notion of walking serves as bookends. It is as if to say, “If we walk then God walks.” And I believe this translation might soften the apparent harshness of the Torah’s if-then formula.

Questions of course remain. Injustices abound. I take comfort in my study and the occasional discoveries it offers. If we walk, then God walks. Perhaps all I need to do, all I have to do, is just get up and walk.

And then perhaps God might walk. Or at the very least it might appear that God walks—among us.

Study is indeed its own reward.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

New Meanings in Old Stories

Lag B’Omer is a mysterious holiday. It occurs this coming Tuesday. Its meaning, and origins, are curious. Its name is clear enough. It is the thirty-third day of the Omer. The Omer is the period in which we count seven weeks from Passover to Shavuot. The Torah relates: “And from the day on which you bring the sheaf (omer) of elevation offering—the day after the sabbath—you shall count off seven weeks.” (Leviticus 23)

The rabbis make clear what the Torah leaves obscure. We count the days from Passover to Shavuot. We connect these two ancient agricultural festivals when our ancestors moved from Passover’s harvest of barley to Shavuot’s of wheat. We bind the freedom celebrated on Passover with the Torah given on Shavuot. Freedom must be bound to commitment.

Long ago, our people worried about the impending harvest and asked, “Would the wheat crop be bountiful?” This led to the Omer gaining semi-mourning status in which wedding celebrations, for example, are forbidden. These restrictions are lifted on Lag B’Omer.

The rabbis again elaborate. (Those rabbis can really tell some stories.) In the days of Rabbi Akiva a plague decimated his followers, killing thousands of the famed rabbi’s students. But then, on Lag B’Omer, the plague mysteriously ebbed. The sick recovered and regained their strength. People left their homes. They congregated once again in large groups. (That would be my rabbinic tale. I pray. May it be so! May it come to pass in our own day!) And thus, Lag B’Omer became a day of celebration in which these prohibitions are lifted.

The rabbis continue spinning their tales. Lag B’Omer, they teach, is the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, a contemporary of Akiva, who was spared the plague and even the destruction that the Romans meted out after the failed Bar Kokhba rebellion. It is possible that the plague was a rabbinic euphemism for this rebellion and the destruction that followed.

According to tradition, Shimon bar Yohai, is the author of the Zohar, the central text of Jewish mysticism. On Lag B’Omer people flock to his grave. They exclaim that he is a light that continues to illuminate our paths. They dance around giant bonfires. They cut children’s hair for the first time because this too is forbidden during the Omer.

But Rabbi Shimon was a strange, and mercurial, figure. Because he defied the Romans, teaching Torah, even after they mercilessly defeated the Jews, he was sentenced to death. He, and his son, managed to escape and hide in a cave. And there they hid, sustained by a miraculous carob tree and well, for twelve years. They continued their study of Torah while in hiding. Sustained only by water and carobs, he and his son studied day and night.

When Shimon and his son Elazar finally emerged from the cave, he became enraged that people were going about their business and not devoting themselves to studying Torah. How could they be doing mundane things like plowing and sowing? The Talmud reports: “Every place that Rabbi Shimon and his son Rabbi Elazar directed their eyes was immediately burned.” God then chastised them, “Did you emerge from the cave in order to destroy My world? Return to your cave.” And so, they returned to the cave for another year. This time Rabbi Shimon emerged a changed man. “Everywhere that Rabbi Elazar would strike, Rabbi Shimon would heal.” (Babylonia Talmud, Shabbat 33b)

“What a bizarre story!” I exclaim every year when I reread it around this holiday of Lag B’Omer. And yet this year it is taking on new meaning. Our tradition’s stories and texts appear different in the shadow of Covid-19. That is of course one of the wonders of tradition. If we hold on to its tales long enough, they speak to us in new, and different, ways. Perhaps they lead us out of our current despair. And so, while I do not very much like carobs, my home has become my cave. And your home has become your cave. There we are banished to its comforts. I am trapped within its walls, and although more often than not feasting on home cooked meals, Shimon’s fears, and even at times his scorn, of the outside world have become my own.

Perhaps that person, standing next to me in the vegetable aisle, is a danger to me.

Perhaps I could inadvertently, and unknowingly, infect someone.

The Talmud warns. The retreat to the inner world offers a tempting allure. It can make us hate what lies outside our doors. I remind myself. I did not choose to retreat. I do so for the sake of others. This cave is likewise imposed.

And I must too stay long enough to bring healing.

For now, I hold on to the stories. I hold on to the legends. I pour over their words. The ancient tradition offers new meaning and unexpected sustenance.

The light will one day emerge.