Parashat Vayakhel

On June 14, 1954, millions of Americans stumbled over the Pledge of Allegiance. The 1892 original said, “one nation, indivisible.” Now Congress required everyone to pause after “one nation” and insert “under God.”

Recognizing God in 1954 was not just piety; it was also a Cold War response to Godless Communism. Since the Pledge is as close to a public prayer as we are likely to get, we should wonder if prayers, too, can be politically motivated. And indeed they can.

Shabbat candle-lighting, for example, derives from Exodus 35:3: “Light no fire throughout your settlements on Shabbat.” Early in the rabbinic era, this verse prompted vociferous debate. The Sadducees, a party of Scriptural literalists, thought it mandated dousing all fires before Shabbat began. The Pharisees said the ban covered new fires only; fires already lit could continue burning.

The Rabbis inherited the Pharisaic mantle, and assured people that God could never have intended us to keep Shabbat in cold, dark, gloom. Shabbat demanded oneg, joy. The Rabbis, therefore, permitted Jews to light fires in their homes before nightfall on Friday; in fact, they demanded it! And ever since then, Shabbat has featured symbolic candle-lighting.

But Shabbat lights were not yet a mitzvah  – there was no blessing over them. That came only in the 9th century, when a sect called Karaites reasserted Sadducean literalism, and declared the entire rabbinic tradition misguided. In response, the rabbis upped the ante, declaring Shabbat candles a mitzvah and requiring the blessing, “Blessed is God… who commanded us to kindle Shabbat lights.”

A more recent example of politics is Chief Rabbi Herzog’s 1948 prayer for the State of Israel, which called the new state “the first flowering of our redemption.” In time, the phrase came to be seen, by some, as a mandate for the wholesale eviction of Arabs from their land. We now live in a new “post-moral” age, went the reasoning; what was unethical before “the first flowering” is ethical today.

Some new prayer books, therefore, omit the phrase or go out of their way to prevent such a radical reading of it.

What should we think about the politicization of prayer? The answer is, we should welcome it as a sign that we think religion matters. Piety not worth arguing over is not worth taking seriously. Prayer should absolutely address such matters as the nature of Shabbat (in rabbinic times) and the theological standing of Israel (in our own).

We should, therefore, not hesitate to pray for parallel matters of moment in our time. Prayer is not just praise, petition, and thanksgiving addressed to God. It is equally a message to one another, a way we get our own values straight. We pray for things, not just because God might then support them but because we are more likely to.

A couple of months back, for instance, synagogues might have prayed that Marlise Machado Muñoz — the brain-dead women forced to remain on life support against her family’s will – be given death with dignity; or we might pray, this Shabbat, for Congress to be granted the wisdom to raise, not lower, food stamp allowance. Sure, such prayers are controversial, but some things ought to matter enough to warrant praying for them, and any ensuing “debate for the sake of heaven” (machloket l’shem shamayim) would be a welcome break from the saccharine sentiment of prayers that ask only for peace on earth, generally — ho-hum petitions that are virtually meaningless. Such generalities have their place, but some things are actually within our power to bring about, if we care enough to do so. Why not pray for them – an act that just might galvanize us to work for them?

If prayers speak only in platitudes, religion itself becomes platitudinous, a word that the dictionary defines as a polite way of saying, “trite, hackneyed, and banal,” precisely what religion should not become. People who claim to be irreligious may not be against it; they may just think it too dull to matter.

Parashat T’rumah – Rosh Chodesh Adar

Is there anything new under the sun? Ecclesiastes thought not. “One generation goes and another comes, but the earth remains the same forever.” But Ecclesiastes was jaded, cynical, skeptical, and misanthropic to boot.

Judaism, by contrast, insists that the proper answer to, “What’s new?” is not, “Same old, same old,” but, “This morning I awakened to a brand new day.”

It is particularly worth waking up to this Shabbat, because it is also the new moon (Rosh Chodesh). The American calendar ignores the moon, hardly noticing its waxing and waning. Judaism, however, follows it closely, convinced of the fresh beginning that each new month may bring.

On each new moon, medieval Jews in the Land of Israel prayed, “May Elijah the prophet come quickly; may King Messiah sprout up in our days; may joy increase!” They cited Isaiah 65:17, where God promises “a new heaven and earth, when the former things will be forgotten” — a prophecy composed in the wake of the war that brought Babylonian exile. Imagine a beginning so new that the traumatic nightmares of the past can virtually disappear. Nothing new under the sun? Hardly!

That glorious time has yet to arrive, however (there is a reason why we call relief from our worst memories “messianic”). So we settle for a dress rehearsal in the form of the new moon, a time at least to practice putting bitter memories on hold while summoning up the courage to hope for better times ahead. Elijah the prophet may not “come quickly;” the Messiah may not “sprout up in our days”; but “joy may increase.”

Not all months are equal in their capacity to spread such joy, however, because calendars are not empty envelopes of time where one day is as good as the next. Much as we like to imagine (with poet William Ernest Henley) “I am the master of my fate: I am captain of my soul,” our moods, at least, are captive to a calendar that influences the spirit of the moment.

In the American calendar, for example, Thanksgiving feasts are altogether different from July 4th fireworks. Jewish time too varies in perspective. High Holidays bring serious introspection, while Passover demands Seder celebration. The opportunity to find joy as each new month unfolds depends, in part, on which new month it is, and on the feeling-tone that the month in question brings.

This month, fortunately, is Adar, the month of Purim deliverance from Haman, and, therefore, in Jewish lore, a month of inherent joy. Better still, this is a Jewish leap year: a time when we add an entire extra month into the calendar. We could have added any month, but leave it to Jews to choose another Adar: a chance to double our joy! So we get two Adars this year, each one promising relief from oppressive memories and hope for better times.

If you doubt that the flow of calendric time makes a difference, just try ignoring Christmas or pretending January 1 is not the American new year. By contrast, open yourself to the rhythm of Jewish time, and see what happens.

Don’t get me wrong. All mental and physical pain will not magically disappear the minute the new moon appears. The hard truth is we cannot control sickness and misfortune. But we can control some of our reaction to it all, and Rosh Chodesh is the time to reexamine the way we face reality.

This Rosh Chodesh Adar, try saying your own silent prayer for Elijah; for the messiah, even; and certainly for joy. We do not know when the fullness of Isaiah’s promises will be realized. That, says Rashi, is known only to God. The simpler matter of insisting on joy, however, is at least partially dependent on us.

Was last month the worst you ever had? Take heart. Use this Rosh Chodesh Adar to find some unexpected happiness.

Parashat B’shalach

Legal principles sometimes serve as moral axioms. That is why even Jews who are not fully halakhic  should be interested in what halakhah says: as much as Halakhah  is Jewish law, it is also the Jewish way of coding the world, the categories with which Jewish experience describes the human condition.

Take the adage, “Agents are like those who appoint them” (shilucho shel adam k’moto) – the principle that allows our legal appointees to sign contracts on our behalf. The word for agent is from the Hebrew root sh.l.ch, “to send,” making those we appoint our “sendees,” as it were.

Most of us are unlikely to be legal “sendees,” but we are often dispatched for moral ends. The most obvious case is doing someone a favor. If you fail to drop in my elderly parents, even though you said you would, I may not be able to take you to court but I am surely justified in holding you morally culpable.

Things become more serious when God does the sending. The paradigmatic case is the prophets who hesitate at being sent – perhaps because they know the literal meaning of shilucho shel adam k’moto  – not just having legal capacity to represent the people who appoint us, but being just like them (k’moto). Being “ a sendee” of God makes a prophet just like God – doing God’s work, speaking in God’s name, and as much as humanly possible, living a life that reminds people regularly of God’s presence.

Everyday English has no word large enough for such a task. “Appointee” or “agent” is too legally freighted; “sendee” is concocted. Theological vocabulary speaks, therefore, of “calling” – the only word with power enough to make sense of this week’s parashah, named B’shalach because it is about “being sent.”

It begins with Pharaoh sending the Israelites to freedom.  But Pharaoh is doing God’s will, our commentators say, making Israel “sendees” of God, second-hand, and charging them with their Jewish calling: to reach Sinai, receive Torah, occupy sacred space, and build sacred community there. As these inescapable obligations dawn on the people, they even plead, on occasion, to be returned to Egypt, rather than to endure history as God’s agents and have to be just like God.

We, the Israelites’ descendants, resist admitting that we too have a calling, in part because we mistakenly think “being called” is a Christian concept. But the term is found also in secular literature, as when sociologist Max Weber famously applied it to professions – doctors, lawyers and teachers, who might reasonably think they have a higher duty than simply passing through the world without leaving it better off than when they entered it. And Weber got his idea from studying the Hebrew Bible, exactly what the Rabbis did when they ruled shilucho shel adam k’moto.

Still, we are hesitant. Being called is an inconvenient reminder of how wrong we are to imagine that the world exists for us, instead of the other way around; as if the point of life is just happiness, achievement and fun — one l’chayim moment after another. We thank God for keeping us alive to celebrate; not to do our duty. It is daunting to be called to be just like God.

“Being called” can be described in evolutionary terms. We are the sole species able to aspire to behavior that we attribute to the highest power imaginable: God.  We are called to live up to our own highest aspirations: to be “just like God.”

Like the Israelites before us, we too are called to be God’s presence in the world. Our lives are mere cameo appearances in the grand drama of history, but we do get to play a role. And no one else can play it for us, because (here’s another halakhic axiom with moral overtones) ein hashali’ach oseh shali’ach: “an agent cannot appoint another agent.” The calling is ours; no one else’s.

There Really Are Miracles: Hanukah, Parashat Miketz

There really are miracles.

Ask children, too young to look cynically at birthday candles, bubble baths and cushiony piles of autumn leaves; ask adults old enough to appreciate the gift of each unfailing sunrise and another day on earth. I’m not talking about the sun standing still or the Red Sea parting, or even the odd case of spontaneous remission from deathly illness that, admittedly, happens to some people (but not to others). The miracles I look for are not breaks in the natural order; they are simpler things, like human decency where we least expect it and the everyday moments that evoke deep breaths of gratitude just for the privilege of being.

Like beauty, miracles are in the eye of the beholder. For people too jaded to see them, Hanukah supplies a crash course in beholding. We do it through light.

Yes, light: an entity so ordinary that we take it for granted, yet a miracle in and of itself. In a universe of relativity, it is the only constant, moving at 186,287.49 miles per second. It is somehow both a wave and a particle; able to permeate not just air, but water and glass as well. We humans see only a fraction of the total light spectrum, but the part we see refracts gorgeously into the colors of the rainbow. Light heats our homes, warms our hearts, and shines our way forward.

Light runs deep in cultural consciousness. Lord Byron gives us “the light of love, the purity of grace.” Oliver Goldsmith likens light to hope, which “like the gleaming taper’s light,/ Adorns and cheers our way.” Milton called it the “offspring of heav’n first-born.”

It resonates equally through Jewish texts, not just as God’s first act of creation but a metaphor for angels, a gift reserved for the righteous from the moment of creation, and a “new light” that will shine on Zion in messianic times.

I love Hanukah, therefore. Forget the presents, the commercial kitsch and even the Maccabean war that started it all. The Rabbis who compiled our Bible omitted the books that describe the war; a single paragraph about it was added to the Amidah, but only as a footnote to the main story: the miracle of light. To the Gemara’s question, “What is Hanukah,” the Rabbis speak only of light – the wonderful cruse of oil that burned longer than anyone had reason to anticipate. Josephus recalls Hanukah in his day as a torchlight parade to light up the darkness.

Why, then, do we keep Hanukah? Not because we won a war: the Maccabees turned out to be as autocratic a dynasty as any other of the petty tyrannies that characterized antiquity. Hanukah is one thing only: a celebration of light – the light of freedom, the light of wisdom, the light of hope, the light of promise, and the light of joy. Our candles are lit at night, not daytime – so people can see them; and on our window sills, so the light invades the darkened streets and alleys l’farsomei nissa (in the words of the Talmud), “to publicize the miracle.”

How desperately we need reminders of miracles! We just had an election for a government that has increasingly stopped working. The stock market is at record highs, but unemployment won’t go away. We cannot afford the wars that we shouldn’t have been fighting in the first place, but have ample cause to worry about the world we are retreating from. At a time when “a thick gloom fell through the sunshine and darken’d me,” Walt Whitman wondered, “must I indeed learn to chant the cold dirges of the baffled and sullen hymns of defeat?” He might have been speaking for us.

Had Whitman walked past Jewish homes at night, he would have found the insistent Jewish answer in the light of Hanukkah candles. Miracles persist; the light shines even when all looks darkest, and keeps on shining long after we are certain it should have been extinguished.

Parashat Vayera

Ask any artist: it’s all about seeing.

We don’t, that is, just see the world raw. Seeing requires the intentional act of focusing our eyes on one particular part of a larger visual field. At times, something new comes suddenly into view – a rainbow, perhaps. But we frequently see things anew even if they have been there all along – we just never noticed them.

That’s the way it was with the ram that Abraham finally saw and substituted for Isaac. God created it, say the rabbis, at the very dawn of creation, and positioned it just so, for Abraham to see. Why, then, didn’t he see it before tying up Isaac and coming within an inch of killing him?

He just never looked. He was too intent on the sacrifice to notice. Only after the angel stayed his hand, did he look up and see. But even so, it was only secondarily that he saw the ram, say the Tosafot. What he saw first was God, hovering behind the angel’s staying hand.

This idea emerges from a close reading of vayisa avraham et einav, “Abraham lifted up his eyes.” The first three Hebrew words end in letters that spell emet, “truth,” and Truth, say the Tosafot, is another name for God. No less than the ram, God too was there all the time. Only when Abraham looked could he see “the truth,” which is to say, God.

When we speak of “seeing a truth,” however, we mean it metaphorically. Nobody “sees” truth itself; we see it in something else: an algebraic equation, perhaps, or a work of art that reaches profundity. What, then, did Abraham literally see, that so strikingly gave him the truth?

Picture the scene. Abraham leans over his son, about to drive the knife home, when the angel diverts his attention, and he “lifts his eyes and sees.” Follow the image. Where does a father look at such a time, if not into the eyes of the son he is about to lose? Abraham’s truth was revealed in the eyes of Isaac.

So the angel jolts Abraham into realizing that it is his son whom he is about to sacrifice; he thereupon looks into the eyes of Isaac, who stares back at him. Until now, they have treated each other merely as a mutual means to an end – the way to fulfill God’s command. But now, with the sacrifice suspended, they actually see each other for who they really are. The moment of truth arrives at the miracle of meeting which the Hebrew perfectly describes as panim el panim, “face to face.”

Only humans communicate face to face, says philosopher Roger Scruton. Animals look at each other, but not into each other. It is in each other’s eyes that we humans find the frightening vacancy of evasion, the meaningful glance of understanding, or the certain sign of love. If we try to dissemble, it is our faces that give us away: the way we blush, for example, or tear up against our will.

“To this day,” says the biblical author, the place where Abraham and Isaac finally see each other is called Adonai Yeira’eh,God is seen.” And lest we think that the revelatory moment of true relationship comes only once in human history, the Torah provides it again when Jacob and Esau reconcile: “Seeing your face,” says Jacob, “is like seeing the face of God” (Gen. 33:10).

It’s all about seeing: stopping the task at hand and seeing into each other’s eyes. It’s easy to hate collectivities of people, hold prejudices against whole groups, ignore the poverty of faceless nameless others, or even sacrifice individual people whose eyes we carefully avoid. But look into the eyes of a single person who is temporarily at our mercy, and we cannot fail to see the truth: the presence of God right there in the other person’s face.

Parashat Ki Teitsei

The weekly Haftarah is usually related to the Torah portion that it follows, but this week’s Haftarah, Isaiah 54: 1-10, seems different. It is the fifth of seven readings that began after Tisha B’av, as part of a rising crescendo of faith in a better time to come – not a bad lesson these days, with renewed reminders of global warming, genocide in Darfur, and the bankruptcy of American cities.

Instead of Isaiah, Jews once upon a time read Zechariah 9, an even more explicit promise of hope, because of its express guarantee of a messiah who will save us from the terrors of history. Zechariah 9:9 contains the familiar picture of the messiah on a white donkey, an image borrowed by the Gospel of Matthew, who has Jesus ride a donkey for his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Perhaps, say scholars, it was precisely the Christian use of this verse that prompted the Rabbis to replace the Zechariah reading with the Isaiah passage that we now have.

Well, perhaps. But is that really the way things work? When Christians borrow a Jewish image or idiom, do we Jews abandon it?

I doubt it: For one thing, the image of a messiah riding a donkey shows up in medieval Haggadah illustrations, so we never gave up the image entirely. For another, there is the motsi – the blessing we say over bread. The Talmud interprets “bread” here messianically – the bread God will provide in time to come. Similarly, in the birkat hamazon, the grace after meals, where we praise God for feeding the whole world, it is not that God already does so, but that someday, we trust, God will. Christian theology co-opted the messianic symbolism of bread too: among other things, the Lord’s Prayer requests, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Echoing the Rabbis, Church Fathers call that “the bread of the Kingdom-come,” not the ordinary stuff we hold in our hands or put in our stomachs. Bread also became the central substance of the Eucharist, the ritual that most defines classical Christian faith. Jews didn’t stop saying the motsi or the birkat hamazon on that account.

But wait. Didn’t we drop their messianic meaning?

You might think so, because of how few Jews know what that meaning is. Our ignorance, however, is no reaction to Christianity. It is part of the mistaken notion that no self-respecting modern Jew can entertain matters of religious belief — the very promises that make religion worthwhile in the first place. Most Jews who recite mealtime prayers do so purely out of habit, sometimes mindlessly mumbling through them; others, seeing no point in them, let them lapse – why not, if they have no transcendent significance.

We hardly need to worry about fighting Christian interpretation, which, in any event, is usually just our own, transferred to a Christian context. Our problem today is the ease with which we have settled for practice without meaning — the way we have given up intimations of transcendence.

The seven Haftarah readings of which this week’s passage is the fifth culminates in the promise of Rosh Hashanah: the hope that God’s purposes will someday be realized worldwide – that’s what the shofar is supposed to herald. In this week’s reading, God assures us, “My love will never leave you. My covenant of peace shall never be removed.”

Should we just mumble this through, the way we do the motsi? Or are we willing to consider the possibility that we are born into a world where love can dominate, where we are in covenant with the divine, and where evil and want just might slowly but inexorably be expunged from human experience?

I have trouble believing these things every hour of every day. Who doesn’t? But the Haftarah, the motsi and the birkat hamazon are prayers. Prayer is precisely the medium that punctuates the humdrum and the harrowing with the poetry of possibility.

Ritual is the regularized affirmation of order that matters; Inherited rituals are reminders of the shapes other people saw. Our ancestors saw patterns we should not want to do without. Even the lowly motsi should be a metaphoric means of dreaming in league with God.

Parashat Ekev

The good news is our parashah’s promise, “If you obey these rules… God will love and bless you.” The bad news is that “these rules” include the commandment to destroy the Canaanites “showing them no pity.” Does God really revel in the wholesale destruction of others?

“Yes,” say biblical literalists, “If the Bible says it, it must be so; the Bible is inerrant.” But the Bible is quite “errant,” since as much as it is God talking, it is also us hearing, and the people who wrote it down many centuries ago couldn’t hear more than their age allowed. The point of ongoing Jewish commentary is to help later ages hear better – and our commentators disassociate “these rules” from their original military context, insisting, that what God really wants is love.

The Malbim quotes Maimonides (Rambam) who differentiates two kinds of love. Love of God, as commanded in the Sh’ma (“You shall love Adonai your God”) is exemplified with mitzvot that have no earthly use, like putting a m’zuzah on our door. True, a m’zuzah may benefit us – reminding us, perhaps, of the sanctity of home — but we affix it just because God commands it: as when a loving parent says, “Do me a favor,” and we just do it. This love, says Rambam, gains us nothing here on earth. We are rewarded in the world to come.

The second kind of love is what human beings owe each other. Not all that long ago, it was the norm for people in power to enslave or even slaughter others without compunction. Maimonides reminds us that God rejected that behavior, by expressly prohibiting murder, rape, and even just ripping off an anonymous customer who wanders into our store. God rewards this love also in the world to come, but unlike the m’zuzah kind of mitzvah, showing love to human beings benefits us in the here and now, with a just and safe society.

So some mitzvot show love of God; others, love of neighbor. Neighborly love gets subdivided into prohibitions that entail physical pain (torture) or death (murder); and those that entail only monetary damages (cheating customers). In the evolutionary scheme of things, the first category enters our awareness sooner than the second. When word reached us recently of slave-like conditions in Chinese labor camps that make goods bound for America, we recoiled. Ongoing persecution in North Africa led this year to a reaffirmation of the1993 UN Convention Against Torture. Increasingly, that is to say, countries of conscience recognize slavery, torture, and murder as inhuman.

The evils of financial sin, by contrast, have barely dented our awareness. Now that we know how Chinese workers are being brutalized, will we protest their conditions by boycotting their goods? Hardly. Other than degree, there is no difference between an average citizen saving money by buying merchandise made by slaves, and an unscrupulous business ripping off billions from the public. Both are instances of economic evil.

How fascinating, then, to find Rashi calling economic moral prohibitions, “light commandments that we walk all over,” because compared to murder and mayhem, they seem miniscule.

The literal reading of Torah to allow mass murder and torture was put to rest with rabbinic interpretation centuries ago. But we still “walk all over” the prohibition against immoral commerce. And the two are related: if it cuts consumer prices and raises corporate earnings, even “ordinary” torture in China will start looking not so bad.

Turning a blind eye to economic moral shortcuts contaminates society until no society is left. Relaxing our fight on the moral frontier of finance threatens the moral heartland with erosion.