Posts Tagged ‘Judaism’

And the king will yearn…

Sunday, October 25th, 2009

“And G!d said to Avram: ‘Go, you, from your land…'” (Gen. 12:1)

R. Yitzhak opened with: Listen, princess, and look, incline your ear, and forget your people, and your father’s house. (Ps. 45:11)

R. Yitzhak said: This may be compared to one who was passing from place to place and saw a fortress doleket (“burning” or “illuminated”). He said, ‘Will you say this fortress has no governor?’ The master of the fortress peeped out at him. He said to him, ‘I am the master of the fortress.’ Thus, because our father Avraham would say, ‘Will you say this world has no governor?’ the Holy One, Blessed be He, peeped out at him and said to him, ‘I am the Master of the world.’

And let the king yearn for your beauty – to beautify you in the world – for he is your master, and bow down to him (Ps. 45:12), that is, ‘And G!d said to Avram…’

Midrash Rabbah – Genesis XXXIX:1

This is a very deep midrash, and I owe the best of these insights to my Rebbe, M’ Yitzhak Buxbaum, who inspired us in a class that delved deeply into this text. I must also recommend Simi Peters’ excellent text, Learning to Read Midrash, which was our source during these classes.

As usual, the first question to ask is, “What is the question?” In this case, the question is, “Why Avram? What did he do to merit this amazing blessing and progeny?” This midrash is one of several that attempt to provide an answer; amongst them, this is the most mystical.

The surface meaning is simple, and enticing. It suggests that Avram was able to look at the world around us and recognize that it must have a Creator; having such an insight (presumably at a time when others did not) was the basis for Avram’s being chosen. Oh, but let’s go deeper!

The mashal – the analogy used to teach the lesson in this parable – is that of a fortress doleket, a term normally understood to mean “burning.” So at this level, Avram perceives not only the world and knows it must have a Creator, but also that the world is burning: i.e., in peril. What is that peril? Perhaps that the “fortress” appears to be unattended. “Never fear,” calls out the governor as the traveler’s worry mounts, “I am here.” So the Creator not only was known to Avram intellectually, but responded directly to Avram’s yearning for the repair of the world.

Now, deeper still.

The fortress may not be on fire – in danger – but may, on the contrary, be illuminated: engulfed in the bright light of the Divine! Now, the traveler’s recognition and searching is not out of fear, but out of recognition that the whole of Creation is suffused with the radiance of G!d! And of course, at that recognition, G!d doesn’t just appear to Avram, but “peeps out:” playfully, mischievously, lovingly!

And yet, deeper still.

The “sandwich” of verses from the Song of Songs (known as the petihta) invites us further in. Recall that the Song of Songs is understood to be a love song between G!d and Israel. In these verses, they highlight the yearning of the G!d for us, rather than the other way around. The “daughter” is being encouraged to leave her house, her people, and succumb to the king’s yearnings – just as Avram was asked to leave his home, his land, his people. In this setting, it is not that G!d chooses Avram in some form of contest or test, but because G!d loves him – and us! – so much that the Holy One, Blessed be He, is drawn out from behind the Curtain to peep out at us and say – here I am! Hineini! Come, and let Me love you!

May we all be blessed with knowing the Eternal’s yearning for us…

Will You remember me?

Sunday, October 18th, 2009

“And G!d remembered Noach, and every living thing, and all the cattle that were with him in the ark.” (Gen. 8:1)

The first, and obvious, question is: How is it that G!d should have to remember us? Does this imply that, Heaven forbid, G!d forgets us? While they wrestle with that elsewhere, the sages were not happy with such an implication. Instead, in the prelude to this story, they suggest that when G!d’s attention is turned to us, it is full of tenderness and compassion. But then R. Joshua takes it a step further:

R. Joshua interpreted in R. Levi’s name: The Lord is good to all, and He inspires mankind with His spirit of compassion. In the days of R. Tanhuma, Israel had need of a fast because of drought, so they went to him and requested: ‘Master, proclaim a fast.’ He proclaimed a fast, for one day, then a second day, and then a third, yet no rain fell. Thereupon he ascended the pulpit and preached to them, saying: ‘My children! Be filled with compassion for each other, and then the Holy One, blessed be He, will be filled with compassion for you.’ Now while they were distributing relief to the poor they saw a man give money to his divorced wife, whereupon they went to R. Tanhuma and exclaimed, ‘Why do we sit here while such misdeeds are perpetrated!’ ‘What then have you seen?’ he inquired. ‘We saw So-and-so give his divorced wife money.’ He summoned him and asked him, ‘Why did you give money to your divorced wife?’ ‘I saw her in great distress,’ replied he, ‘and was filled with compassion for her.’ Upon this R. Tanhuma turned his face upward and exclaimed: ‘Sovereign of the Universe! This man, upon whom this woman has no claim for sustenance, yet saw her in distress and was filled with pity for her. Seeing then that of Thee it is written, The Lord is full of compassion and gracious  (Ps. CIII, 8), while we are Thy children, the children of Thy beloved ones, the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, how much the more shouldst Thou be filled with compassion for us!’ Immediately the rain descended and the world enjoyed relief.

Midrash Rabbah – Genesis XXXIII:3

So, what is this with the divorced man and his ex-wife? The Rabbi had told everyone to show compassion, and everyone had gone off to feed the poor – wasn’t that sufficient? And why was the man hauled before the rabbi for such a simple act?

I will briefly guess at the answer to the second question before I offer my thoughts on the first. Clearly, this was an action to be frowned upon; perhaps people suspected him of illicit intent, or of demeaning a current wife of his.

More importantly, it was something he was not obligated to do – unlike feeding the poor, which we are all obligated to do. So what distinguishes his act is that he stepped beyond the boundary of necessary and went to extraordinary.

Such, it seems to me, is the nature of G!d’s compassion for us: it extends beyond what is necessary and into the extraordinary. And yet, there are those who are in desperate need of such Divine tenderness, such Divine compassion. Where is G!’d’s attention?

R. Joshua’s compelling lesson is that we must be – in fact, we are! – the vehicle for that Divine tenderness, that mercy, that compassion. It comes into the world when we bring it here, when we make it manifest.

May the tender rain of Divine compassion fall upon the entire world, and may we find the strength between and among us to bring it here.

The Flavors of Faith

Saturday, October 10th, 2009

I believe that religions are like cuisines: they are sets of recipes for developing our relationship with God. The rituals, practices, scriptures, theologies – every element of each religion – is a component of a particular cuisine, something that gives it its unique style or flavor.

Like cuisines, no religion is better than any other, but each of us tends to prefer one or two. As for me, I believe we learn more about our own religion when we learn about others, just as I can appreciate one style of barbeque better when I have tasted many varieties.

Does one need a religion to have a spiritual experience? No, but eating is much more interesting with a cuisine in mind: it gives you ideas of new things to try, as well as tried-and-true comfort foods. Cuisines also help us avoid the tasteless "gruel" that can come from combining components willy-nilly in a single pot.

For me, Judaism is my religious "cuisine," so much so that I have become a Maggid: an ordained spiritual storyteller and preacher. As a Maggid I use stories to inspire people to experience a joyful, vital relationship with God and each other, and to continue the work of creation in partnership with the Divine.

So what are the elements of my Jewish "cuisine?" They can be heard in the stories I tell: a certain wry, clever humor, a dedication to making this world a better place, and a recognition of the importance of distinctions between people, rather than making everyone the same. You will find angels, dancing, flights of the soul and the ecstasy of prayer in my cuisine, but most of all you will find the notion that as a Jew I am called to wrestle with God – literally! – in my daily life. "For every two Jews there are three opinions" is not just humorous – it is at the heart of the Jewish experience.

In terms of distinctions, a lot of wrestling effort goes into managing boundaries: between day and night, holy and mundane, the Sabbath and the rest of the week, and so on. For me, one of the more unfortunate phrases is "Judeo-Christian," as that erases an important boundary between two vital and vibrant – and very different! – religions. It’s like saying that Taco Bell serves authentically Mexican food: you can see the cuisine’s roots, but there’s no real Mexican flavor to the decidedly American offering that chain offers.

For me, an important part of my Jewish cuisine is "tikkun olam," which means to heal, repair, and embellish the world. Confronted by a world in which so many are treated unjustly, where so many go without sufficient food, clothing or shelter, one is drawn to ask, "How can there be all this suffering in a God-created universe?" My Jewish answer is drawn from our Talmud: "It is not your responsibility to finish the job, but neither are you free to refrain from beginning it." In other words, don’t ask what God is doing, but get started on the work yourself! In this way, I believe we become God’s partners, bringing justice and mercy to a world in such need of both.

It is a big job, to be sure – beyond any one person’s ability to finish. Which brings me back to stories: stories are the best vehicle I know to inspire others to lead a holy, joyful, meaningful life filled with hope and purpose. The right story, told in the right way at the right moment, can be the vehicle through which God re-enters our lives and supports us as we support others, brings us joy as we bring joy to others, and helps fulfill the never-ending work of Creation.

Originally published on 10/10/09 in the Syracuse Post Standard as part of their "What I Believe" series.

What makes this a holiday?

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009

What makes this a special day? And what can we learn from the single midrash contained in Midrash Rabbah about it? Glad you asked!

“On the eighth day you shall have a convocation, no task of work shall you do” (Num. 29:35)

First, a little context: in the description of each of the seven preceding days, the number of bulls to be sacrificed is reduced each day from thirteen to seven. On the eighth day, however, the number drops to one. Noting a difference, the sages wondered about what made the eighth day unusual. Earlier in this midrash, in establishes that the “convocation” is a “festive season,” and hence the midrash that follows.

A heathen addressed a question to R. Akiba. He said to him: ‘Why do you celebrate festive seasons? Did not the Holy One, blessed be He, say to you: Your new moons and your appointed seasons My soul hateth’ (Isa. 1:14)? Said R. Akiba to him: ‘If He had stated, “My new moons and My appointed seasons My soul hateth” you might have spoken as you did. But He only said, “Your new moons and your appointed seasons”!’ That was in reference to those festive seasons which Jeroboam ordained (see I Kings 12:32-33). Our festive seasons, however, will never be abolished, neither will the New Moons. Why? Because they belong to the Holy One, blessed be He; as it says, These are the appointed seasons of the Lord (Lev. 23:4, and similarly Lev. 23:2 and Lev. 23:44). Consequently they will never be abolished, and of them it says, They are established for ever and ever, they are done in truth and uprightness (Ps. 111:8).

Midrash Rabbah – Numbers XXI:25

On the surface, we have one of those quibbles between literalists that seems to be of minimal merit: finding contradictions, gaps, and just plain unintelligible passages within the Bible is like shooting fish in the barrel – if we’re only reading at the surface. Even Akiba’s response seems more like Shammai – don’t bother me with such trivia! Here’s the plain solution – than Hillel.

At a deeper level, though, what distinguishes G!d’s festivals from ours, given that they are all found in the Bible? The answer comes, I believe, from Isaiah, but more from Chapter 58 than Chapter 1. What Isaiah speaks to there is how we transform a day that should be holy into something mundane, or more properly, something profane. By not honoring the spirit of the day, by executing the form without the substance, we cast off the chance for an encounter with G!d and instead engage in meaningless bobbing and weaving, “bowing (our) head(s) like a reed.”

When we swallow the letter of the law without the Spirit, it’s like we’re drinking ink, not the honey we have been taught to see the letters as written with. When we take the holiness out of holidays, we end up with just more days.

Thankfully, the holidays will never be lost to us. We must only embrace them for what they are: G!d’s gift of an opportunity to celebrate and remember our partnership, our covenant, our embrace with the Eternal.

May your eighth day – and all that precede and follow it! – be blessed with the sheltering embrace of the Shekhina.

Can you hear me now?

Monday, September 21st, 2009

“Give ear, O you heavens, and I will speak; and hear, O earth, the words of my mouth!” (Deut. 32:1)

Here is Moshe, standing on the brink of the Promised Land, about to give voice to his last words. Can you imagine the intensity, the heartbreak, the hope for his “flock” he must have felt? So why, then, does he address these final words to both the heavens and the earth? Wouldn’t the children of Israel have been his “audience?” Or, why not just the heavens, for isn’t that where the Holy One resides? And why the earth, isn’t that what he has been relegated to? Funny you should ask – the Sages did too! In fact, this is just one of nine explanations in this single midrash!

Listen:

Why unto the heavens and the earth? Because they are the witnesses of Israel, for it is written, I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day (Deut. IV, 26). This can be compared to the son of a king over whom his father appointed two guardians. Whenever his father adorned him with any crown, he did so only through the agency of both of them, so on the day of his marriage he appointed them as witnesses between himself and his father. Similarly, all the miracles which God wrought for Israel, He performed through the agency of heaven and earth; so when Israel were about to enter Palestine, they sang a song through the agency of them both, because they serve as witnesses between Him and them.

Midrash Rabbah – Deuteronomy X:4

Behind this simple explanation, as always, there is something deeper, and very, very sweet. At the surface, it seems as though Moshe is addressing both the heavens and the earth since they are equal partners in the witnessing of all of Israel’s history. Both G!d and humanity, it seems to be saying, are witnesses to our actions – so bear that in mind with the decisions you make!

But read it again, look more deeply. These are not just witnesses to history and behavior, but witnesses for a wedding: an essential ingredient for a marriage to take place. The others?

  • The Ketubah, or contract
  • The Kiddushin, or betrothal
  • The ring
  • The Nisuin, or cohabitation

What we are given, here, is the final act of the wedding of G!d and Israel! The Ketubah was given at Sinai as the Ten Devarim. So was the betrothal: the spoken commitment by both the Holy One and the people. The ring? The land of milk and honey, about to be received. And the cohabitation? It is about to take place, as the people of Israel enter the Promised Land!

So here is Moshe, father of the bride as it were, giving away his offspring to a marriage he know will be rocky – and yet will endure.

And here are we, milennia later, making good on the mutual promise.

Which makes me wonder: what exactly is the gift for the 5,770th anniversary?

May these Days of Awe fill you with promise, inspire you to complete turnings where necessary, and bring blessings to you and yours!

New Year’s Laughter!

Sunday, September 13th, 2009
The year’s weekly cycle of Torah portions gets a bit confuzzled during the Days of Awe. We skip over, slide back, and do all sorts of things to make the readings coincide with the season.  With Rosh Hashanah falling on Shabbat this year, our weekly reading coincides with the holiday’s reading: Genesis 21:1-34 and Numbers 29:1-6.
Let’s have a look at what Divine inspired laughter can induce!
“Laughter has G!d made me;  whoever hears will laugh with me.” (Gen. 21:6)
Here is the context: Sarah has almost impossibly (inconceivably?!) given birth to Yitzhak, whose name means laughter. The text reads in typical Biblical ambiguity that “whoever hears will laugh with / at me.” If you heard that someone of Sarah’s age had just given birth, which would you do? Would you be joyful for them? Or would you laugh at the challenge of raising a newborn? Here’s what the sages suggest:
R. Berekiah, R. Judah b. R. Simon, and R. Hanan in the name of R. Samuel b. R. Isaac said: If Reuben has cause to rejoice, what does it matter to Simeon? Similarly, if Sarah was remembered, what did it matter to others? But when the matriarch Sarah was remembered [gave birth], many other barren women were remembered with her; many deaf gained their hearing; many blind had their eyes opened, many insane became sane. For ‘making’ [HATH MADE] is mentioned here, and also elsewhere, viz. And he made a release to the provinces (Est. II, 18). As the making mentioned there means that a gift was granted to the world, so the making mentioned here means that a gift was granted to the world.  R. Levi said: She increased the light of the luminaries: ‘making’ is mentioned here, viz. GOD HATH MADE FOR ME, while elsewhere it says, And God made the two lights (Gen. I, 16).
Midrash Rabbah – Genesis LIII:8
What does all this mean, in literal terms? What is the p’shat?  Simply, that the event of Yitzhak’s birth – or more precisely, Sarah’s joy around it! – made other barren women fertile, allowed the deaf to hear, the blind to see, and the insane to become sane. Moreover, even the sun, moon, and stars shone more brightly!
Do you believe in such miracles? Can joy really change the fate of others, especially fate that is described as unchangeable? Here is at least one way in which I believe such miracles take place:
Have you, or someone you loved or were close to, ever been pregnant? Remember how, during those days, there seemed to be pregnant women everywhere? Surely your pregnancy didn’t cause the pregnancy of others, but equally certainly it altered your perception of the world in dramatic fashion. Laugh, and the world laughs with you.
Of course, the opposite is true. We may not be able to conceive on demand, or shed the burdens that life places on us with a simple smile. But we can change how we approach them, and I can tell you – from direct personal experience – that that makes all the difference in the world.
Literally.
May you each be blessed with a sweet and prosperous New Year, and inscribed in the Book of Life for good!

The year’s weekly cycle of Torah portions gets a bit confuzzled during the Days of Awe. We skip over, slide back, and do all sorts of things to make the readings coincide with the season.  With Rosh Hashanah falling on Shabbat this year, our weekly reading coincides with the holiday’s reading: Genesis 21:1-34 and Numbers 29:1-6

Let’s have a look at what Divine inspired laughter can induce!

“Laughter has G!d made me;  whoever hears will laugh with me.” (Gen. 21:6)

Here is the context: Sarah has almost impossibly (inconceivably?!) given birth to Yitzhak, whose name means laughter. The text reads in typical Biblical ambiguity that “whoever hears will laugh with / at me.” If you heard that someone of Sarah’s age had just given birth, which would you do? Would you be joyful for them? Or would you laugh at the challenge of raising a newborn? Here’s what the sages suggest:

R. Berekiah, R. Judah b. R. Simon, and R. Hanan in the name of R. Samuel b. R. Isaac said: If Reuben has cause to rejoice, what does it matter to Simeon? Similarly, if Sarah was remembered, what did it matter to others? But when the matriarch Sarah was remembered [gave birth], many other barren women were remembered with her; many deaf gained their hearing; many blind had their eyes opened, many insane became sane. For ‘making’ [HATH MADE] is mentioned here, and also elsewhere, viz. And he made a release to the provinces (Est. II, 18). As the making mentioned there means that a gift was granted to the world, so the making mentioned here means that a gift was granted to the world.  R. Levi said: She increased the light of the luminaries: ‘making’ is mentioned here, viz. GOD HATH MADE FOR ME, while elsewhere it says, And God made the two lights (Gen. I, 16).

Midrash Rabbah – Genesis LIII:8

What does all this mean, in literal terms? What is the p’shat? Simply, that the event of Yitzhak’s birth – or more precisely, Sarah’s joy around it! – made other barren women fertile, allowed the deaf to hear, the blind to see, and the insane to become sane. Moreover, even the sun, moon, and stars shone more brightly!

Do you believe in such miracles? Can joy really change the fate of others, especially fate that is described as unchangeable? Here is at least one way in which I believe such miracles take place:

Have you, or someone you loved or were close to, ever been pregnant? Remember how, during those days, there seemed to be pregnant women everywhere? Surely your pregnancy didn’t cause the pregnancy of others, but equally certainly it altered your perception of the world in dramatic fashion. Laugh, and the world laughs with you.

Of course, the opposite is true. We may not be able to conceive on demand, or shed the burdens that life places on us with a simple smile. But we can change how we approach them, and I can tell you – from direct personal experience – that that makes all the difference in the world.

Literally.

May you each be blessed with a sweet and prosperous New Year, and inscribed in the Book of Life for good!

Here’s Looking at You!

Sunday, August 16th, 2009

The Sages liked to promote a peaceful resolution of conflict, whenever possible. This peace, they knew, had to begin in the home: “shalom bayit.” So even when it was time to teach about the peace between nations, they would turn it to the need for peace between husband and wife.


“When you approach a town to do battle with it, you shall call to it for peace.” (Deut. 20:10)

This week’s portion, Shoftim, is the basis for one of the more compelling images to call for peace. Even so, there are deeper levels available to us from this “rich” tale…

The sages call to us: “Come and see how great is the power of peace!” There was a woman who was a disciple of Rabbi Meir, listening to his lessons on Sabbath evenings. One time she stayed very late, and her husband was angry at how long she had been away. “I swear that I won’t let you back in this house until you go and spit in his face!” What could she do? He was a great sage, and yet she yearned for her husband. For three weeks, she could not return home.

Then Elijah, of blessed memory, appeared to R. Meir and told him what had happened. The next time the woman came to listen, he called out, “Is there any woman here who knows the charm for a sore eye?” The woman, understanding his meaning, rose and spit in his eye; “Do it seven times!” he enjoined her. When she finished, he said, “Go back and be reconciled with your husband: tell him he asked you to spit in my face once, and you did it seven times!”

See how great is the power of peace.

Midrash Rabbah – Deut. V:15

At the simplest level we must ask ourselves: what are we willing to do to promote peace? How far will we go to help another, someone we barely know? Few of us would ever measure up to R. Meir’s performance. And yet, is he without blame?

The complete midrash speaks of the woman being absent until the Shabbat candles had gone out. Remember, the duty of every couple on Shabbat is to make love – and here she is, “studying” with the Rabbi! Even if their relationship was as physically distant as some of the other tellings make it sound, did not Meir have a responsibility not to interfere in her marital relationship? Is he not guilty of some form of seduction?

And to go deeper still: which is more important – the love of study, or loving another? How wonderful that a midrash can speak to us at so many levels through one “simple” story!