Posts Tagged ‘Judaism’

Divine joy…

Sunday, April 4th, 2010

Shemini - Divine joy...
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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Contact her at – originals from this series are available.

Shemini: Leviticus 9:1-11:47

"Drink no wine nor strong drink." (Leviticus 10:9)

In this week’s portion, we have the rather disturbing event of the death of Nadab and Abihu, the two sons of Aaron, as they perform a sacrifice using "unfitting fire" which had not been commanded by God. No detail is given about what made the fire "unfitting," or whatever else may have been awry with their actions, but the penalty is swift and severe: "And fire came out from in front of the Lord and consumed them! And they died in front of the Lord." (Lev. 10:2)

What was their transgression? The Sages probed a number of possibilities: perhaps it was the nature of the fire: was it prepared improperly, according to another people’s rituals, thereby making it "unfitting?" Or perhaps the key is in the fact that it had not been "commanded:" an offering that would have been acceptable at a different time, but in this case at the wrong juncture. Others have suggested that it was not according to a prescribed formula (hearkening back to the "unfitting" issue), and thereby forbidden.

These interpretations have one thing in common: sacrifices must be offered in a precisely correct way, at the precisely correct time, in order to be acceptable. They do not allow for the spontaneity of offerings, something we as Jews have managed to embrace over time. So the Sages searched elsewhere for an explanation.

It happens that the next time in Torah that God speaks, it is to forbid the drinking of wine or beer by Aaron and his sons at the Tent of Meeting "so you won’t die" (Lev. 10:8). It is therefore not unreasonable to conclude that Nadab and Abihu’s crime was that they attempted to perform the sacred rituals while drunk. From this reasoning spring many midrashim, most of them railing against the abuses of alcohol. But consider this very different midrash from R. Aha; listen:

R. Aha said: There is a story of a man who kept on selling his household goods and drinking wine with the proceeds. Said his sons: ‘Our father will leave nothing for us.’ So they plied him with drink, and made him drunk, and took him out and placed him in a cemetery. Wine merchants passed the gate of the cemetery, and hearing that a seizure for public service was to take place in the province, they left their loads within the cemetery and went to witness the uproar in the province. The man, waking up from his sleep and seeing a skin bottle above his head, untied it and put it in his mouth. Three days later his sons said: ‘Should we not go to see what father is doing?’ They went and found him with the wine-skin in his mouth. They said: ‘Even here has your Creator not forsaken you. Seeing that He has given you wine, we do not know what we should do to you.’ They made an arrangement amongst themselves that the sons should in turn provide him with drink, one son one day.

Midrash Rabbah – Leviticus XII:1

What are we to learn from this curious midrash? Surely the Sages don’t want us to conclude that rampant, unconstrained drunkenness is a good thing?

The solution, I believe, lies in us looking to wine as the standard metaphor for joy, especially spiritual joy. With this "lens," the lesson shifts somewhat: a joyful encounter with God is more important than possessions, and if we are dedicated to this quest, this invigorated life of the spirit, then even those who place well-intended obstacles in our way can be overcome.

However, we cannot ignore the literal meaning of this midrash: unfettered imbibing in the pleasures of the flesh can lead us to a life where that joy is illusory, surrounded by death and the demise of those who care for us. Which interpretation is correct?

As is the hallmark of our heritage, we must find a way to make them both true: not one or the other, but some creative amalgam of the two. This comes, I believe, from the lesson of balance, and the challenges we face as we try to navigate in the worlds of spirit and substance. We must find the path that leads us to unbounded joy while leaving the wisdom of saying "no" to excesses intact; the path in which the energy of the Spirit moves us through the trials of the material world at just the right pace, neither so quickly that we float above matters of consequence nor so slowly that we sink into the mire.

May we each be blessed with the vision – and the community! – to help us maintain that balance, and the strength to lend a hand to others who occasionally lose theirs.

Healer of the broken heart…

Sunday, March 21st, 2010

Tzav - Healer of the broken heart...
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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Contact her at – originals from this series are available.

Parashah Tzav: Leviticus 6:1-8:36

"And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying: command Aaron and his sons…" (Leviticus 6:1)

This week foreshadows the tragedy of next week: the death of Aaron’s sons who bring "foreign fire" for the sacrifice. The whys and wherefores of that event will be discussed next week, but it helps to know that some of the midrash suggest that their deaths were punishment for an earlier crime, not the foreign fire itself.

Given that interpretation, the two of them must be seen as "flawed." Why then, this week’s midrash wonders, are they told to bring sacrifices? The meaning is very deep; listen:

R. Abba b. Judan said: Whatever the Holy One, blessed be He, declared unfit in the case of an animal, He declared fit in the case of man. In animals he declared unfit the blind, or broken, or maimed, or having a wen, etc. (Lev. 22:22), whereas in man he declared fit ‘A broken and contrite heart.’ R. Alexandri said: If an ordinary person makes use of broken vessels, it is a disgrace for him, but the vessels used by the Holy One, blessed be He, are precisely broken ones, as it is said, The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart (Ps. 34:19); Who heals the broken in heart, etc. (Ps. 147:3); I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit (Isa. 57:15); ‘The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise.’ (Ps. 51:19)

Midrash Rabbah – Leviticus VII:2

Astounding! According to this reading, we are drawn to G!d not in spite of our flaws, but because of them! And we are not drawn to the Eternal One in order to be punished for them, but because the Holy One, Ha Kadosh Baruch Hu, yearns to heal us!

Yes, our brokenness must be accompanied by contrition, but what really is "contrition" other than a sincere desire to heal?

Too often we are tempted to "see" only the terrifying aspect of Justice in the Almighty: even the words are powerful and intimidating. We read about curses and blessings, and focus on the curses; we recall the Hollywood spectacles of cosmic destruction, but forget the "still, small voice" that the prophets hear.

How much we lose, when we do not recognize the yearning of the Eternal One to comfort us, to take our broken, shattered vessels of body and spirit and heal us.

Another midrash from this same verse extends this Eternal Love not only to us, but to our descendants, arguing that no matter how much we are flawed, our descendants bring our names merit, and so for them we should be honored! This is the reverse of the normal argument, which is that we should be spared from our misdeeds because of the covenant with our ancestors; now, we should be honored because of what we have not yet done!

But most importantly, we must remember that we are loved not despite our flaws, but because of them. This is not only the central teaching of these midrashim, but in the deepest sense, it is the subtlest truth about our relationship with the Eternal One. How magnificent is our G!d!


Sunday, March 14th, 2010

Vayikra - Roots...
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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Contact her at – originals from this series are available.

Parashah Vayikral: Leviticus 1:1-5:26

"If any man of you brings an offering to the Lord…" (Leviticus 1:2)

This seems to be a midrash about converts to Judaism, and indeed it has an important message in that matter. I believe we can also take this to a deeper level about spirituality in general. I’ll address both after the midrash; for now, listen:

R. Abbahu opened his discourse with the text, They shall return, dwelling under his shadow (Hosea 14:8). These, he said, are the converts who come and take shelter under the shadow of the Holy One, blessed be He. They shall make corn grow (ib.) means, they become the root just like Israel, even as thou sayest, Corn shall make the young men flourish, and wine the maids (Zech. 9:17). And they shall blossom as the vine (Hosea loc. cit.), even as thou sayest, Thou didst pluck up a vine out of Egypt; Thou didst drive out the nations, and didst plant it (Ps. 80:9).

Another interpretation: They shall make corn grow (Hosea loc. cit.) speaks of Talmud, And they shall blossom as the vine speaks of Aggadah and Halachah (laws). The mention of shall be as the wine of Lebanon suggests: The Holy One, blessed be He, said: ‘The names of converts are as pleasing to Me as the wine of libation which is offered to Me on the altar.’

Midrash Rabbah – Leviticus I:2

Converts to Judaism know a special challenge: having been drawn to this ancient religion, they know the privilege and honor of joining this people. And yet there are many born Jews who have a difficult time accepting the convert, as this midrash alludes. Why else would we need a teaching about how valuable converts are, especially since proselytizing is actively discouraged! This is only one of many instances in midrash, Talmud and halachah (Jewish law) in which the matter of converts is addressed. Indeed, it is forbidden by numerous laws to identify a convert as such, or even speak of their pre-Jewish days!

And yet there is a real value that the convert brings: other experiences, other contexts, other perspectives, all of which are somehow "digested" into klal Yisrael – the Jewish people. It is this "foreign fertilizer" which, in the proper proportion, allows the religion to flourish. For Judaism, like any other religion, cannot survive if it becomes stagnant or too insular. Yet it must, especially in light of its small numbers, be careful about change. What a paradox!

So yes, it is the role of the convert to become one with the people and help it to grow like corn – tall and strong. Simultaneously, the convert must be invisible, indistinguishable from other Jews – become part of the root itself, knowing he or she is as sweet to G!d as wine.

Now, onto the deeper issue. Traditionally, "Jews by Choice" are seen as Jewish neshamot – souls – that happen to have been born (or reborn) into non-Jewish bodies. At a first glance, this view could be seen as even more insular: "Converts were never really not Jewish, so we don’t allow any outsiders in at all." Nothing could be further from the truth.

What this view acknowledges is the deep, visceral pull that our spiritual selves feel towards Ein Sof – That which is without limit or definition. Whatever religious or spiritual practice one has, once you have felt that tug, it is hard to ignore it.

And it is a tug that pulls you in a particular direction, even though the path or process is often unclear. Usually, the path has familiar elements to it, but inevitably our journey will require something new from us: some fundamental change.

This view – that converts are Jewish souls, no matter what their physical lineage – acknowledges the strength of that pull, and how it must uproot one from one’s "comfort zone." How important is this pull?

Consider that the Messiah is taught will be a descendant of Ruth’s – a convert! And that Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest Talmudic scholars, was also a convert!

The point is that the power of this pull to the Eternal One is formidable, if we give ourselves to it. It will change our lives, and, G!d-willing, make us a force for good in this world – no matter what our path.


Sunday, January 3rd, 2010

Shmot - Miracles

Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
Visit her gallery
Contact her at – originals from this series are available.

"And the more they degraded [Israel], the more it increased, and the more it expanded…" (Parasha Sh’mot; Exodus 1:12)

According to Rabbi Akiba, Israel was redeemed from Egypt on account of its righteous women. What did they do? Read this sweetly fantastic tale:

When the women went to draw water, God deposited small fishes in their pitchers, with the result that they found them half filled with water and half with fishes. These they brought to their husbands, and then put on two pots, one for hot water and one for fish, and they used to feed them, wash them, anoint them and give them to drink, and cohabited with them between the mounds in the field. And as soon as they became pregnant, they went back to their homes; and when the time of their giving birth was due, they went into the field and gave birth under the apple tree. God then sent an angel from on high to cleanse and beautify the newborns like a midwife. As soon as the Egyptians perceived them, they sought to slay them, but a miracle occurred and they were swallowed into the ground. They then brought oxen and plowed upon their backs. But after the Egyptians departed, they burst forth and came out of the ground as the grass of the field. And as soon as they grew up, they came in herds to their respective homes.

Midrash Rabbah – Exodus I:12

What is the dilemma that drives this midrash? It lies deep beneath the surface, based on the faulty assumption that if something bad happens, it is a punishment for something we did wrong. Following this logic, if we were in Egypt for something we did wrong, how did we merit redemption – release from bondage?

The sages – in this case, Rabbi Akiva – take a deceptively radical position: it was the merit of the women that redeemed us. How so? By standing up to Pharaoh’s genocidal decrees, despite the apparent impossibility of individual women overcoming the force of Egypt.

Once they embarked on their course, filled with holy chutzpah and determination, then the miracles began: fish created to feed the men; angels as midwives, babies popping from beneath the earth in a mystical fecundity.

Did they pray to G!d for these miracles? No, they acted first, and then G!d intervened. This was the promise we made at Sinai: na-aseh v’nishma – we will do, and we will hear (Exodus 24:7).

Keep the sweetly fantastic images of this midrash in your mind as you face the challenges the world places before you. In so doing, remember that G!d will bless us with strength when we rise up to greet those challenges. And some of that strength may manifest itself in the most unlikely ways!


Sunday, December 13th, 2009

Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
Visit her gallery
Contact her at – originals from this series are available.

"And we told him… and it came to pass: as he interpreted to us, so it was." (Gen. 41:13)

As we continue the Joseph saga, Joseph’s powers to interpret dreams are revealed to Pharaoh, ultimately gaining Joseph his freedom.

The Sages wondered – as do so many of us! – what are dreams? Do they tell the future? Can they be interpreted? Should they be interpreted?

And more: what was Joseph’s power with dreams? Was it merely to interpret, as he claimed? Or is there a deeper matter at hand? Listen:

A certain woman went to R. Eliezer and said to him: ‘I saw in a dream how that the loft of the upper story of my house was split open.’ ‘You will conceive a son,’ he told her. She went away and it happened even so. Again she dreamed the same and came and told it to R. Eliezer, who gave her the same interpretation, and it happened even so. She dreamed this a third time and repaired to him but did not find him, so she told his disciples, ‘I saw in a dream that the loft of the upper story of my house was split open.’ ‘You will bury your husband,’ they told her, and this did happen. R. Eliezer, hearing a cry of wailing, asked what was amiss, whereupon they related to him what had occurred. ‘You have killed the man,’ he upbraided them; it is written, And it came to pass: as he interpreted to us, so it was.

R. Johanan said: All dreams are dependent on the interpretation given to them (save a dream about wine).

Midrash Rabbah – Genesis LXXXVI:5

What a radical proposition: that our interpretation of a dream makes that interpretation real! Frightening in the way it is told in the midrash above, but – is it really so radical?

At one level, this is a clear and powerful reminder of the power of expectations. When we encounter the unexpected, the murky, the uncertain, our expectations dramatically color what we perceive. Is it an opportunity or a threat? Are people smiling for us or at us? Should we go in to that meeting prepared for conflict or collaboration?

The power of our expectations is so great that they literally change our reality: our pulse races or slows, our muscles tighten or relax, and we send the myriad of signals to those around us about what is “really” happening. And in so doing, our expectations become real.

We can, of course, go at least one level deeper: our words are real – in Hebrew, d’var means both a word and a thing. And our words have real power over others – especially when we are in a position of authority, as were the Hasids above.

Remember, with our words we create and destroy worlds: use them carefully, thoughtfully, kindly, and sweetly.

And in so doing, bring myriads of blessings upon us and all those around us.

Angelic Luggage?

Sunday, November 29th, 2009

Welcome to the second week of my new collaboration with Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher.

Some of you have asked about the possibility of obtaining the original artwork she creates. For this collaboration, the size of most drawings is 24 X 18 inches; the medium is pastel and india ink.

M’ Shoshana would be happy to entertain discussions for the original artwork; copies, however, are difficult and won’t be offered. Just send her an email and I’m sure you will have a rewarding exchange!

As for this week’s midrash: it visits a familiar event from what I hope is a different perspective. Let me know your thoughts, and I will share some of them in our next email!

The Crossing

Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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"And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day." (Gen. 32:25)

In this week’s portion, Vayishlach, we find the encounter that leads Jacob to be renamed as Israel – G!d wrestler. Of course, the Hebrew is sufficiently ambiguous that who Jacob encounters is left open for a rich assemblage of midrash. Was it G!d? An angel? Jacob’s Yeitzer Ra? Oh, what a delicious feast!

While the "big question" in this passage is "with whom did Jacob wrestle?" there is also the question of location: it seems as if Jacob is going back and forth from one side of the river to the other. What is going on here? Here’s one midrash that tells an unexpected story, and teaches a lesson that seems timely:

Once R. Hiyya the Elder and R. Simeon b. Rabbi were trading in silks at Tyre. After they had left the town, they said: "Let us go and emulate the example of our ancestors; let us see if we have left anything behind." They went back and found a bale of silk. On being asked whence they had learned to do this they replied: "From the Patriarch Jacob, who likewise went back."

The Rabbis said: He appeared to him in the guise of a brigand: each had flocks and each had camels, and he proposed to him: "Do you take mine across and I will take yours – let us help each other." The angel then transported Jacob’s in the twinkling of an eye, whereas Jacob took some across, returned, and found more, took those across, returned, and found more, and so on.

Midrash Rabbah – Genesis LXXVII:24

Sometimes the simplest of stories contain deep lessons. On its surface, this is a very simple tale, one with a bit of humor: Jacob and an angel agree to help carry their belongings across the river for each other. The angel does it with a wink; poor Jacob has to keep going back and forth, back and forth: it seems like a never-ending task! And what kind of baggage would an angel have, anyway? How much could it weigh? Why would it take so long?

The answer is, as is so often the case, to stand the story on its head, or at least our assumptions about it. Jacob’s baggage – our baggage, our burdens, the cares of this world – are as light and easily dispensed with in the world of the Spirit as can be. What does the angel carry from that world? Blessings and more blessings, in abundant, never-ending supply. As long as we keep returning, there will be more – just like the rabbis’ silks. All that is required is that we act in partnership with G!d, not expecting G!d to do everything for us, nor to deny the assistance that G!d can give. When we are partners, not only are our burdens lightened, but the whole journey is sweeter.

May this week bring you many journeys to, with and for the world of Spirit!

The River of Shabbas

Sunday, November 22nd, 2009

With this week’s post, you are receiving the benefit of my new collaboration with a dear colleague: Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, PhD, of Brooklyn, NY. M’ Shoshannah is, as you will readily recognize, an accomplished artist with a high neshamah. She is originally from Denmark, and her work receives international acclaim.

It is our intent to coordinate our work so that most weeks you will see her artistic interpretation of the midrash I am presenting.

Naturally, I would encourage you to contact her or visit her online catalog. I am pleased to say that I have a beautiful piece of hers adorning my study, where I reflect on it constantly as I am studying and writing!

Now, onto the midrash…

The Sambatyon River

Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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In this week’s portion, Vayeitze, there is a word that gives our Sages pause. Well, more than one word, of course! But the one that gives rise to this particular midrash is from the verse Genesis 30:24:

"And she called his name Joseph, saying: ‘G!d add to me another son.’" (Gen. 30:24)

This is Rachel speaking, and the troubling word is "another:" Joseph is her first born, in what way is he "another?"

The simple answer would be that the offspring of her maid Bilhah and Jacob were "hers," but only in a legal sense. So what do the Sages do? They begin by saying that “another” refers to a different exile from that of other tribes. What, you ask, was there more than one exile for the twelve tribes? Listen:

R. Judah b. R. Simon said: The tribes of Judah and Benjamin were not exiled to the same place as were the other ten tribes. The ten tribes were exiled beyond the River Sambatyon, whereas the tribes of Judah and Benjamin are dispersed in all countries.

Midrash Rabbah – Genesis XXX:24

Here’s where we enter another world. The Sambatyon is a legendary river, the name being a version of something like "shabbatian," or having to do with Shabbat. It is said to run with tremendous force the whole week, carrying along stones and earth, making it impossible to cross, and then resting on Shabbat.

There are many stories about the Sambatyon; one of my favorites is recounted as The Eternal Light in Howard Schwartz’s collection, "Elijah’s Violin." The constant feature of these stories is that one or more of the tribes of Israel is surrounded by this river and therefore unable to return to the Promised Land (as they won’t travel, of course, on Shabbas). In Schwartz’s story, one intrepid troupe makes it into and out of this special land by means of a tunnel beneath the river, which collapses before it can be used by the lost tribe.

So, beyond being a story bordering on fantasy, what does this river hold for us in spiritual terms?

To me, it holds a conundrum, a paradox regarding observance. On the one hand, the tribe awaits the return to the Promised Land, which will be part of the coming of Moshiach, may it be soon and in our day! And yet, what holds them back, and presumably the End of Days? Their observance of Shabbat! But shouldn’t their observance hasten that time, not defer it?

Ah, here for me is the secret: so long as we are performing a mitzvah for a benefit, we have missed the point of the mitzvah. On Shabbat, they are in Shabbat already – the taste of the World to Come that is given to us every week! In that moment, that time, there is no future destination, only the Eternal Now.

The most we can do is to live our lives fully Jewishly, by whatever definition of "Jewishly" holds for us. Then we and those around us will be blessed with everything we can be, in its proper time and season.