Parashat Sh’mini: The Holy Power of Hands

I have two tales about hands.

The first concerns the hands of my college president. When we ordain our rabbis and cantors at the Hebrew Union College — an annual event, scheduled this year in just a few weeks’ time — our president lays his hands on each candidate’s head or shoulders.

In theory, the idea goes back to Deuteronomy 34:9, where we hear of Moses laying hands on Joshua, Moses’s successor. In actuality, rabbinic ordination with the laying on of hands is altogether a modern innovation. But never mind. That’s what we do. The idea is sound, the practice unforgettable.

We call it s’michah, a word also used for sacrifices. The priests of old practiced s’michah — laying hands on the sacrifices before offering them to God. Moses tells Aaron, “This is the thing that God commanded you to do, that God’s presence may appear” (Lev.9:6). But the Torah does not say what “thing” Moses has in mind, so Italian commentator Obadiah Sforno (1475-1550) explains, “It is the laying on of hands.” Hand-laying is as central to Temple sacrifice of old as it is to my college’s ordination today: and for the same reason — not that rabbis and cantors are “sacrifices,” God forbid, but because the touch of human hands is how “God’s presence may appear.”

The second tale of hands comes from a sign I saw the other day: “Need a Handyman? Call me!” As someone who fixes nothing without making it worse, I always need people who are “handy.” Yes, “handy”! They too lay hands on things — hands, however, that mysteriously comprehend the inner life of gaskets, cams, cogs, and cranks. They unmake and remake complex machinery — make the old look like new.

By contrast, my college president’s hands — like the hands of the Temple priest — do absolutely nothing. They just sit there, utterly inert, untrained and unmoving. They are mere vessels for the work that God does through them.

Our Yom Kippur liturgy is insistent on that point: “God reaches out a hand” it says. But God has no actual hands, for God has no body at all. When priests or seminary presidents lay on hands, they do so on behalf of God, that God may reach out through them.

So too, Aaron’s descendants, the kohanim of today, reach out hands to offer the priestly benediction. Many people bless their children that way, too — or, nowadays, increasingly, even one another. In all these cases, the “hands” are not what we call “handy.” They are untrained. They accomplish nothing on their own. The people being blessed do not get put together differently; they are exactly the same as they were before. But there is this difference (a big one): they may sense they have been visited, through those outstretched hands, by the hand of God.

God visits the earth through the magic of human touch, as sacred a thing as there is. Like all things holy, it too is open to misuse — as when we warn, “Hands off,” or feel violated when someone touches us against our will. But also like all things holy, nothing bestows the certainty of hope and comfort better than the human touch, properly applied, by those we love: a friend at our bedside, their hand on our own; a soft embrace when words cannot assuage our pain.

On the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo captured the magic of creation by the hint of two hands touching: the hand of God from whom life flows, and the hand of Adam, the first human being to receive God’s life-giving force. We humans, ever after, can do “what God commanded… so that God’s presence may appear.” We too can lay on hands for blessing.

When explanations only make things worse, when words ring hollow, when we have nothing to say, we can reach out, God-like, feeling hope’s promise flow to those in need. God shows up best in the warming touch where two hands meet.

Do Jews Believe In A Soul?

Do Jews believe in a soul?

The answer is, “Yes, yes, yes, and “sort-of.”

The “sort-of” arises within the welter of detail regarding the Levitical sacrifices, a system that allowed for different levels of giving depending on personal financial means. Those unable to afford costly animal sacrifices brought a grain offering. Rashi observes that the person offering it is called a nefesh – a word usually translated as “soul.” He wants to know why here, particularly, the Torah calls a “person” a nefesh.

The answer, he says, is that grain is offered expressly by the poor. Objectively speaking, it may not cost much, but for the poor it is so enormous a sacrifice that God says to those who offer it, “I consider it as if you have offered your very soul.”

So nefesh — literally, just “person” – implies, for Rashi, something more. It bespeaks the moral core of our being: the part that overcomes selfishness; the deeply-rooted sense that we must live up to responsibility, doing what we can, as best we can. We ourselves call such people “good souls.” They come through; you can count on them.

Does nefesh mean “soul” in this case? In a way; metaphorically, at least; “sort-of.”

It is the Zohar that provides us with the “yes, yes, and yes” – three affirmatives corresponding to three different biblical and rabbinic words for “soul,” from which the kabbalists deduce the lesson that the soul has three parts.

The first “yes” affirms the highest part of the soul, the n’shamah what we normally think of as the soul that preexists us and lives on after we die. It is non-material, purely spiritual, so scientific study can neither prove nor disprove it. Brain science may discover the electro-chemistry of how we work, but not of all we are. We sense something more, an inexplicable entity that animates the deepest wellsprings of the “self” we hope to become.

The n’shamah is that “something more,” an invitation to realize the Godlike embrace of morality, creativity, artistry and truth. Being unexplainable scientifically, it appears within us as a mysterious gift from without. Hence the idea of a n’shamah as “heaven-sent”: a glimpse of transcendence; purpose beyond our admittedly paltry – and, conceivably, petty — personal lives, dwarfed as they are by the infinitude of the universe. When the rest of us dies – body, brain, and all – the soul part called n’shamah is what we say lives on.

The second “yes” denotes the second part of the soul, the ru’ach. If the n’shamah is wholly other, utterly ethereal and divine, the part of God that reaches down and pulls us up to greater moral, artistic, and intellectual stature, the ru’ach is the part of human nature that reaches up receptively to embrace the wonder it all.

Even people who disbelieve in the eternality of a separate and non-material n’shamah can appreciate the potential for nobility that lies miraculously within them. In Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, the brilliant but dissolute Sydney Carton sacrifices himself on the guillotine to save somebody else. When he famously declares, “It is a far far better thing that I do than I have ever done,” he is (Jews would say) acknowledging the upward aspiration of his ru’ach.

The final “yes” returns to the nefesh, the part of the soul that is actually embodied. Even our bodies are sacred, Judaism says. Torture, enslavement, corporal punishment – we know these to be wrong, because human beings are more than conglomerations of bodily organs to be owned, used or abused. They are, simultaneously a nefesh – neither the n’shamah that is given from on high nor the ru’ach that reaches up from within, but our very earthly selves that must live with the financial loss engendered by the sacrifices we make.

This nefesh is Rashi’s “sort of.” But it is also a “yes,” because the earthly experience of loss comes with the satisfaction of reaching higher. And that is the nefesh talking.

The Shape of Time

Before cell phones, we bought paper calendars – things you hung on a wall or put in your pocket or pocketbook. They gave us pictures of time.

No one knows what time actually is, after all. Time is something we live through, grow older in, but what is it?

Our calendars tell us, through the tacit decisions behind their organization.

That annual calendar you bought, for example, was organized in double-page spreads, called weeks. Each double page had seven days. The pages were blank but for the dates and days – and numbers down one side corresponding to hours.

The whole point of this calendar was to fill in as many lines as you could with appointments, as if life were a game in which the person who dies with the most appointments wins.

This “for-appointments-only” calendar derives from our implicit understanding of time as a commodity that can be “saved,” “lost,” “spent,” or “wasted.” By this secular calculus, “wasting time” is a sin for which we get chastised, because
“Time is money.”

Money, however, is fungible – funds set aside for one purpose are interchangeable with funds set aside for another. So too is time, according to this model. Every day, every hour, is the same as any other. Time is empty, just an arbitrary number on the left side of the calendar page, demanding an appointment to give it value.

Not so the Jewish calendar, which you don’t have to buy because funeral homes and kosher butchers give them out for free. While secular calendars come empty, Jewish calendars come loaded: a changeable time of sunset (for lighting candles); names for each week (drawn from the weekly Torah reading) and a plethora of days that come colored to show their importance. They are most certainly not all alike.

The most usual colored day is Shabbat, the only day in the week with a name. the others, “Day One” “Day Two” and so on (in Hebrew), are just numbered upward to lead to Shabbat. The point of this calendar is not to list appointments (for which there is no room anyway) but to get to the colored days when appointments are actually prohibited!

The Jewish calendar divides the secular from the sacred; and reminds us that the fullness of life requires them both.

Most interesting is another colored day, that occurs each month: Rosh Chodesh, “the new moon.” When it falls mid-week, Rosh Chodesh is easily passed over. This week, however, the new month (of Shevat) coincides with Shabbat, allowing us to stop and give Rosh Chodesh its due.

Unlike those pocket secular calendars that are divided by weeks, Jewish calendars display whole months: each page begins with a Rosh Chodesh. Secular months are arbitrary, unattached to actual lunar phases. Jewish months are really lunar. New moons matter.

Jewish law considers them half-holy days, not altogether days of rest (like Shabbat). But Talmudic tradition in the Land of Israel recognized that women (whose monthly cycle roughly mirrors the cosmic one) could properly refrain from work then, if they liked. And all Jews there thought enough of Rosh Chodesh to provide it with its own evening Kiddush. These are home observances, not public ones, and I wish we still had them.

Acknowledging the newness of every moon and month reminds us of the grand possibility of starting our own lives over again. We regularly associate that message with Rosh Hashanah, but Rosh Hashanah is just one new moon of many. Every new moon invites us to turn over a new page in the calendar, the point being that we can simultaneously turn over a new page in our lives.

I love Rosh Hashanah’s message of life renewed. But some months are so bad, I’d rather not wait a whole year for Rosh Hashanah to return. And our calendar says I don’t have to. I just watch for the next new moon, bid the awful month past a happy “Good riddance,” and start my life all over again.

Good God! In God’s Good Time

While awaiting his moment of truth with Esau, Jacob recollects God’s assurance, “I [God] will be good (eitiv) to you.” A few sentences later, he repeats that promise more emphatically. “I will surely be good (eitev heitiv) to you,” he remembers God saying. But what exactly is “God’s goodness”? The Rabbis’ answer is surprising.

It surfaces in the Birkat Hamazon (Grace after Meals), a string of four benedictions, the first three of which thank God for feeding all creation, rebuilding Jerusalem, and providing the Land of Israel. These date from the first or second century C.E., when much of creation was starving, Jerusalem had been destroyed, and our Land was under Roman occupation. What could the Rabbis have been thinking when, after every meal, they thanked God for doing what God had clearly not yet done?

The answer comes in the fourth benediction, called “The One who is good and who does good” (Hatov v’hameitiv). It dates to about the same time, and comes with a story from the Bar Kokhba revolt (132-135 CE) that was viciously suppressed and punished by the emperor Hadrian.

As the Talmud tells the tale, Hadrian prohibited the burial of Jews who had died in the uprising. When his successor finally permitted it, the blessing “Who is good and who does good” was composed. “‘Who is good’– because God kept their bodies from putrefying; ‘Who does good’ — because God eventually arranged for their burial.”

At stake is the classic Jewish belief in resurrection. We often hear that Judaism is a religion for “this world,” not the next one, but actually, the Rabbis insisted also on some sort of life after death – including bodily resurrection, but also a time to come and a messianic era. Interpreted broadly, “God’s goodness” is the guarantee that life does not stop when we breathe our last. Nor is the world doomed to remain as it is now. In ways we cannot imagine, both the world and we continue in a better time to come.

Elsewhere, the Rabbis consider blessings for good and bad tidings. For bad news, we say Baruch dayan ha’emet (“Blessed is the Judge of truth”) — the blessing used now when mourners’ rip their clothes (or a black ribbon) before a funeral. So bad news is an announcement of someone’s death. For good news, we say none other than Barukh hatov v’hameitiv (“Blessed is the One who is good and who does good”) – just the opposite, an affirmation that the bad news of death is not the end of the story. There is, as they say, a better world a-comin’.

So the fourth benediction in the Birkat Hamazon promises a messianic future.

Now we understand why the Rabbis had the temerity to say the first three benedictions also: true, in their day, not all the world was being fed, nor was Jerusalem rebuilt or the Land of Israel free. But they believed these things would come about, all in God’s good time.

What we need desperately is a renewed sense of “God’s good time.”         Children cannot imagine beyond tomorrow. Why do adults refuse to see beyond the grave? And why do we cut off the world’s potential at the myopic purview of our own personal stories? The human species is some 2 ½ million years old; our historical memory goes back only 4,000 years. What if we are only half way through the human saga, or not even that far along the way? God’s good time indeed!

And improvements in human history mount more rapidly as the tale continues. Only a hundred years ago, people in even the most advanced countries died from simple infections, cholera epidemics, and scarlet fever.

So I believe in progress, albeit slowly, haltingly, and with interruptions along the way. I believe in a messianic era, a world to come, and even life after death. On my good days, that may not matter much. On my bad days, that keeps me going.

The Eliezer Prize

Last week, Jews around the world read about Eliezer, but I am not through with him yet. I have a fondness for this sacred servant, whose single task of finding Rebekah secures the Jewish future. As Sforno remarks, “When one generation dies, another has already been set in place to succeed it.” To “succeed” means both “to achieve or to accomplish” and “to take the place of those who came before us.” The proper measure of both, succession and success, is transgenerational, and Eliezer stands for continuity.

The midrash couples Eliezer with Sarah too, not just Abraham, because Rebekah is Sarah’s successor as much as she is Isaac’s wife. Sarah introduced the ideal of opening her tent doors to strangers, for instance. When she died, says the midrash, the doors swung shut, until Rebekah opened them again, making hospitality a lasting family tradition. The point is, even the greatest life can be eclipsed overnight, if all that was great about it is not lavishly extended in the next generation. Success dies without succession.

Eliezer is described as ne’eman, “faithful,” a quality the Rabbis link with God, ha’el hane’eman, as we say in the blessing over the Haftarah, “the faithful God”; or, El melekh ne’eman (“God, faithful ruler”), in the phrase that introduces the private recitation of the Sh’ma. Ne’emanut, “faithfulness” is God’s quality of remaining true to a promise or task through time. Eliezer too knows that his service transcends just this single charge from his master Abraham; it reverberates over the long haul, serving the larger Jewish project that Abraham has begun.

God too works across the generations, directing human destiny along a road that no single generation can traverse all by itself. Sarah is gone, but history provides Rebekah; and Eliezer, a hero of no particular proportion, is charged with the small but vital mission of helping history happen.

Ne’emanut (“faithfulness” over time) describes the implicit Jewish insistence that we count in the long run, because we are part of a long run in which to count. Despair is the fear that we are random cogs in a purposeless machine of eternity, rather than incognito Eliezers whose tiny acts of faithfulness are the hand of God in history.

We need, then, to overcome the self-centered pretense that it is a single person’s life span alone that counts. We are all links in a divine chain of being, without even knowing the identity of all the other links. They may be our parents or children, but they may equally be people we have never met or heard of, but who occupy our tent the way Rebekah occupied Sarah’s.

Every year about now, the names of Nobel Prize recipients are announced: for chemistry, literature, and so forth. And I wonder…

What if we could add a Jewish Nobel Prize? What would it be? Prizes for peace or medicine are obvious candidates, but they already exist. How about prizes for justice and compassion? Yes, they would be proper Jewish categories: one for each of God’s primary attributes, celebrating the achievements of men and women who best emulate God.

But the story of Eliezer suggests another one: a prize for ne’emanut, for faithfulness in the larger scheme we call history. My Jewish prize for ne’emanut would go to people who best epitomize God’s faithful commitment to a future that transcends individual lives.

I might even call it the Eliezer Prize and award it to us all. For we may not all be Abrahams, Sarahs, Rebekahs and Isaacs. But we are all Eliezers, charged with tiny chores that matter in a longer run than we will ever know. We can be faithful as God is faithful, day in and day out, but precisely on that account, we can guarantee succession for all that matters, and success in the end for the causes we hold dearest.

Humanity: A Moral Category, Not an Anthropological One

The story of Noah reminds us of how far humanity has come from the days when we were crawly creatures emerging from the water; and how easy it is to slip back once again to where it all began. Noah’s generation does just that. It is evil incarnate. Subhuman-like, it saturates the earth with violence. So it is left to sink into the mud, as the flood returns the world to its own primeval origins.

Critics who demand that the narrative of the flood be literally true miss the point. The Bible captures eternal truths less through history than through stories, and this story’s message is the need to persevere in our evolutionary climb to moral maturity. At one extreme (still a whole book away) there is Sinai, the symbolic pinnacle of our moral climb upward. At the other, there is Noah’s generation, dragging the world down to disaster; and in between, there is Noah, who is everyman and everywoman: mostly moral, but hardly a saint; and precariously afloat in an ark, just a fraction short of going under.

Noah personifies the human struggle to resist the undertow of evil lest a single generation wash out every trace of the human climb from mud to mountain peak, and millions of years of steady evolution count for nothing.

At the end of the story, Noah dispatches a dove (in Hebrew, a yonah) to find land. The dove is symbolic, for birds fly; they are not dragged down; they herald hope beyond the visible horizon; they remind us, the ordinary Noahs of the world, that we need not sink back into the sea.

The same symbolism recurs later in a human being, the prophet Yonah — Jonah, in English.

Jonah is Noah revisited. He too inhabits a storm-tossed ship that threatens to spill its human cargo into nothingness. He too faces evil: the Ninevites. But he too is only human, hesitant to fulfil his moral promise, to the point of being swallowed by a fish that drags him ever lower into the very depths of the sea whence humankind first evolved. As if replicating human evolution, the fish spits him onto dry land insisting that he fulfill his human mission. “Humanity” is a moral category, not just an anthropological one. If we lose our moral center we lose being human.

Yonah the bird, and Yonah the man are metaphors also, the Rabbis say, for Israel, who is charged with the struggle to retain that moral center. The case of the prophet is explicit: when the sailors ask after his identity, Jonah says, Ivri anokhi, “I am a Hebrew” (Jonah 1:9). As for Noah’s dove, the Tosafot tell us, “The dove is Israel,” and for proof, direct us to Song of Songs 2:14: “My dove, in the crags of the rocks.”

The dove in Song of Songs, they say, is Israel, waiting in the rocks of the mountains to hear God’s voice: mountains, mind you, the metaphoric moral peak that humans who have evolved from the slime must climb. Noah’s dove, the idealized Israel in metaphoric form, flies off in search of an echo of God, a rumor that evil can be overcome and that life persists beyond it.

Jews divide the Bible into three constituent sections: Torah, Nevi’im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings). All three units remind us of the centrality of the yonah, the dove of moral hope. The story of Noah is in Torah, Jonah is a prophet, and the Song of Songs comes from the Writings. Once upon a time, the Jewish People left Egypt for Sinai and became a yonah, a dove perched high in the mountain crags to hear God’s moral voice. Sometimes (like Jonah the prophet) we evade our charge, and relapse into the primal waters where we began. But sometimes too, we manage to be Noah’s yonah, the dove that strives to fly higher, there to confirm the news of a better moral day.

 

 

A Realist’s View of Heaven; or Just, “Heaven, Really!”

The universe, we like to imagine, encompasses two categories of reality: the heavenly and the earthly. We know what the earthly is – science has been studying it for centuries. But what, exactly, is the heavenly? The usual explanations are often unenlightening – they just replace one problematic word (heavenly) with others (divine, Godly, spiritual, and so on), leaving us pretty much where we started: wondering if “heavenly” is anything real altogether — anything more, that is, than a wishful figure of speech.

The medieval commentator Ibn Ezra objects to this evasion of clarity. In the portion of Torah called Ha’azinu (Deuteronomy 32) — which Jews read in synagogue this coming week — for example, Moses calls on heaven and earth as witnesses (v. 32:1), and Ibn Ezra disparages interpretations that identify “the heavenly” as angels, or even rain. Yes, the angels must live in heaven and yes, rain comes from on high, but neither term tells us anything about heaven itself. “Actually,” he concludes, “heaven and earth” denote the two categories of “everything that has permanent existence.”

Let’s start there: we have two categories of existence that are permanent: the heavenly and the earthly. What can we add, without lapsing into dubious metaphysics?

The earthly is familiar to us. Over four centuries of scientific analysis has built up massive sets of laws describing it. Unfortunately, these laws are stunningly amoral – they explain the phenomena of nature, but without regard for good and bad, right and wrong. Philosopher John Stuart Mill captured the problem by observing: “Nature impales men… burns them to death… starves them with hunger, freezes them with cold…. A single hurricane destroys the hopes of a season…. All this Nature does with the most supercilious disregard both of mercy and of justice.”

So religion adds a category: the heavenly, something equally real, albeit not amenable to scientific measurement. We should not think of “the heavenly” as a separate realm, however, some actual space somewhere or other. It is just another perspective on the same phenomena that we study with science. It too looks at nature but from the perspective of human empathy, and the consequent demand for mercy and justice.

The earthly perspective of science provides an unsympathetic calculus of how the universe works: how hurricanes happen, for example. The heavenly perspective of empathy evaluates the way that universe affects the lives of those who live in it: not the science of how hurricanes happen, but sympathy for the way a hurricane devastates this ruined farmer or that grieving mother whose child was crushed under a falling tree. “Science and the earthly” measure truth; “empathy and the heavenly” allocate kindness.

The two perspectives coalesce in our concept of life. From a scientific perspective, the various forms of life come and go; Darwinian selection favors continuity of the species, but cares not one whit about any given instance of it. By analogy, sociology or economics, say, can rightly be called “sciences” insofar as they study the laws by which human organizations and the economy operate – without, however, any necessary sympathy for the poor, the sick, and the victimized in the systems that they study. When economists or urban planners actually decide to address these unfortunates, they adopt the perspective of the heavenly.

Thank God for the heavenly perspective that supplements scientific knowledge with kindness. But thank God for scientific understanding too – without it we wouldn’t know how to alleviate the misery that empathy uncovers.

Scholars tell us that the last three portions of the Torah (Deuteronomy 31-34, that is) follow from the portion before them, Nitsavim (Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20), which Jews read in synagogue just two weeks ago (and which Reform Jews read on Yom Kippur as well). There, Moses also summons heaven and earth (v. 30:19), this time to witness the claim that we are given life and death, and the insistence that we choose life. But who wouldn’t choose life? Why remind us about the obvious?

The point must be that in choosing life, we risk choosing only one of the two perspectives on it. We actually need both: the scientific laws on how life works, and the empathic kindness toward the way those laws impact the less fortunate among us.

Quite rightly, Moses calls both heaven and earth as witnesses to history. Either one alone, science without empathy or empathy without science, will ruin us.