Category Archives: spirituality

Drained, Disillusioned, and Disenchanted

Watch for piles of synonyms! They usually herald an important cultural phenomenon that we are trying in as many ways as possible to understand.

Take the word “tired” – not just “sleepy,” but “exhausted, weary, fatigued, and fed up”; drained, disillusioned, and disenchanted”; the opposite of “inspired, stimulated, motivated and enthused.” I mean the tiredness that runs us down and wears us out: the soul-sickness of our times.

The Maggid of Dubno (famous for his parables) addressed tiredness while explaining God’s accusation, “You, Israel, grew weary of Me” (Isaiah 43:22). He pictures a noble who regularly buys merchandise from abroad and employs an agent to deliver it. On one occasion, the agent complains about the fee. “Do you have any idea how tiring it was to carry this to you?” he explains.

“Tiring?” the noble fires back. “Impossible! Anything I buy is so beautiful, that just holding it long enough to deliver it has to inspire you. If you found it tiring, you must have picked up the wrong package.” The Maggid was talking about Torah. If we find it tiring, we must be holding the wrong package. Whatever we thought to be Torah must be something else.

His parable applies elsewhere too. This week’s reading, for example, mandates tithing – not just the better-known tithes for the poor and the priests, but the lesser-known one by which the farmer sets aside produce to be consumed on a family pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The Torah considers a case where the farmer thinks the journey will be too hard: it is too far, perhaps, or the farmer has such a bumper crop that the 10% tithe generates too much food to carry.

Citing the Maggid’s parable, Itturei Torah asks, “How can someone find it ‘too hard’ to celebrate a magnificent harvest on a family trip to the holiest spot on earth?”

The analogy is not perfect, however, because journeys cannot be confused one with another – not the way the noble’s agent might have confused parcels. So sixteenth-century Moses Alsheikh adds a related observation. A journey, he says, is always to a particular place, a makom, in Hebrew; and one of the names for God is Hamakom, “The Place.” The point of any worthwhile journey is to get to “the place” in both senses: the physical destination but also the sense that wherever we are heading, God somehow dwells there. What makes the journey “hard” is not the actual travel, so much as it is the suspicion that God is no longer around to be found even when we get there – even in Jerusalem. Why be a pilgrim to the House of God if God isn’t in the house anymore?

Now we see how the Maggid’s parable applies to our current plague of world-weariness. Life is a pilgrimage, after all: from place to place, from stage to stage, from birth to death. If life somehow seems “hard” — if we chronically feel “exhausted, weary, fatigued, and drained” — the problem is not the physical act of getting through the day so much as it is the sense that there is nothing godly about the day we are getting through; that we are just going through the motions; that it makes no difference what we do and doesn’t matter if we do it.

Unless we are still poor enough to be working for bare subsistence, we human beings need purpose. If our daily routine seems hard, we may indeed be like the noble’s agent: we are carrying around the weight of the world but the world we are carrying around is the wrong package. We need to set aside the world where nothing seems to matter; and pick up a world where the beauty of a sunset, a phone call to a friend, and a helping hand to a stranger betray the presence of God and purpose at the end of each day’s pilgrimage.

 

Walking Partners

A friend of mine recently found a “walking partner.” In case you didn’t know it, almost everyone has one these days (a dozen or more websites will connect you with just the right one). Sometimes it’s for running or jogging, but the default term is “walking” partner. Who you walk with matters.

The biblical walking partner of choice is God, ever since “Enoch walked with God” (Genesis 5:24). Enoch’s great grandson, Noah, also walked with God (Genesis 9:1).

Walking with God turns up in our Haftarah where Micah chastises the ruling elite for “hating good, doing evil,” and “detesting justice.” Unscrupulous magnates in business and government, he says, “plan iniquity and design evil on their beds…. When morning dawns, they carry out their schemes because they can — they have the power.”

His oft-cited exhortation is, “Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”

“Act justly” and “love mercy” are commonplace prophetic correctives. Less usual is “walking humbly with God,” which stands out here as a reprise of the theme struck by Enoch and Noah. Franz Rosenzweig considered it a cornerstone of Judaism, because it takes the pronoun “with” — the pronoun of mutuality. If we walk “with” God, then God must walk “with” us.

What a concept: God as our walking partner! Not an equal, mind you; but a partner. A humble walk with God each morning is likely to reinforce “acting justly and loving mercy.”

It all boils down to the company we keep: who our walking partner is.

Precisely that question bedevils the famous seer Balaam, in this week’s Torah portion. King Balak promises him endless wealth if he will only curse Israel. God intervenes, however, and Balaam reports back to Balak that he cannot curse those whom God has blessed.

But Balak insists and Balaam weakens — the quintessential example of morally good people inveigled into doing wrong by friends in high places.

As Balaam proceeds to his task, however, he leaves Balak behind and walks on alone” (shefi, verse 23:3). That one word shefi is critical.

It occurs only this one time in Torah. Why did Balaam leave the king behind? Why did he seek to be shefi?

Shefi does mean “alone.” So says the Targum and Rashi. The Talmud thinks also that Balaam “limped away” (Sanhedrin 105a) – that is, he went back and forth on the matter (says Itturei Torah) because he was morally torn over what to do. Finally, shefi can mean “heights,” so many translators say he went “to a high place.” All of that together provides the following picture.

The closer Balaam came to doing the wrong thing, the more he vacillated – as we all do when we know we are making a mistake. So he left the king behind and went on alone, hesitantly, in search of an isolated cliff where he might get his moral bearing. “Perhaps God will appear to me,” he says (v. 23:3). God does indeed appear. And Balaam must decide who to make his walking partner: God or King Balak who is awaiting his return.

In the end, Balaam cannot find the courage to abandon Balak. He tries to curse Israel and fails; then slinks back home having done no damage except to his own character.

It all goes back to our walking partners. Most of us resemble Balaam. We like to walk with God, but also with the Balaks whom we know, the people of power and means who massage our egos and our pocketbooks. When tempted, most of us hesitate, going now one way and now another.

Which is why we are supposed to start each day with prayer and study – the Jewish way of walking with God long enough to be sure of saying “No!” to the tantalizing offers of the Balaks who may show up later that day.

Doing the right thing is not easy. It helps to start the day with a walk in the park with God.

 

Moses Goes to Law School

This week, Moses goes to law school. Contending with Pharaoh had been easy – it came with a magic staff and miracles. Even last week’s Ten Commandments were child’s play, compared to this week’s  crash course on bailment, theft, kidnapping, labor law, the indigent, mayhem and murder.

And this was just the first lecture. “This is what God calls freedom?” Moses must have wondered. Lawyers reading this will probably sympathize.

By the reading’s end, God sympathizes also. Moses is invited for a personal tutorial in God’s office on Mt. Sinai. God will personally dictate a set of course notes – to be called “the Torah.”  It will take some 40 days and nights.

But why so long? asks Abravanel. “How long does it take for God to write the Torah? Creating the entire world took only a week!”

Ah, says Sforno. This 40-day stretch was for Moses’s sake, not God’s. New-born babies, he reminds us, are not considered fully alive until they make it through the first 40 days. Faced with this wholly new challenge of mastering Torah, Moses was like a new-born.

So God gave him 40 days to adjust. “Come join me on the mountain,” God said. “I can dictate the details to you in an instant, but you’ll need more time than that — someday, people will call it a ‘time-out.’ Forty days in the rarified air of the mountain will provide a bird’s eye view of it all, the big-picture reason for being, and the confidence to start again.”

I love that idea: Time-out in life for us as well – like in major-league football, where play stops on occasion for teams to catch their breath, restrategize, and reenter the game refreshed and renewed. When living wears us down, we too should get to signal to whoever is running us around at the time, and retire for a while without penalty. As in football, life would stop temporarily, maybe with a commercial in some unknown planet where extraterrestrial beings are watching. Who knows?

When the time-out ends, we would bound back into our work and families, new strategies in place, as if reborn and newly ready to face whatever challenges life throws our way.

As it happens, tradition credits Moses with climbing the mountain not just once, but three times – for the first tablets, then the second ones, and, also, in-between, to plead for Israel after the Golden Calf. Three times, Moses huddles alone with God, to rethink, re-strategize, and (like the new-born baby) reemerge reborn. That’s my plan for us as well. We too should schedule a time-out three times in the course of a normal lifetime: as young adults about launch our independence in the world; in our middle years, our “mid-life crisis,” when what we have been doing may not sustain us through the years ahead; and when we grow old, when a lot of life may still be left and we need “time out” to consider what to do with it.

We may need others as well. I won’t limit it to three, because life regularly throws us curves, erects new challenges, and wears us down. At some point it dawns on us that life’s complexities cannot always be mastered just by trying harder and doing better. The solution, then, must lie in stepping back and looking for some hidden reserve deep down within ourselves — the kind of wisdom that comes only from taking time out to reflect on where we’ve been, and to recalibrate where we still most want to go. We call that “revelation.”

Revelation was not just for Moses atop Mt. Sinai; it is available to us all, atop whatever counts as our own personal mountain. Whenever we feel overwhelmed, we need time out to rediscover the still small voice of God within, the renewed discovery of our own self-worth, and the confidence required to reaffirm our purpose and know again how precious life can be.

“Loving God”:The Meaning of the Sh’ma

What Jew doesn’t know the Sh’ma with its following V’ahavta, the command to love God with all our heart, soul, and might. We learn it as children and die with it on our lips. But do we all believe it?

What makes people believe in God to the point of offering God love?

Some people reason their way to God – like Maimonides (1138-1204). Seeing how everything in the universe is dependent on something else, he concluded that there had to be something ultimate and unchanging to support it all. By definition, that was God. Loving God, he thought, followed naturally from observing “the magnificence of all that is,” and “the incomparable and infinite wisdom” of the One who made it.

But reason can also lead away from God, so most God-believers depend on intuition; or, frequently, a “Eureka moment” when God’s reality just, somehow, becomes clear. After the fact, they may argue their case, but belief comes first; reason only justifies it.

Think of the Bible as the record of our ancestors’ Eureka moments. Jacob’s dream of a heavenly ladder convinces him that “God is in this place and I did not know it.” Moses encounters God personally and descends Mt. Sinai to tell his people what he now cannot doubt: Sh’ma yisra’el Adonai eloheinu Adonai echad, “Listen up, Israel: Adonai is our God; Adonai alone; v’ahavta…  “Love God with all your heart, soul and might.”

The Israelites take his word for it, as do we. But their faith lapses on occasion, as does ours. With no Eureka moment of our own, it can be hard to believe with certainty in a personal God.

Philosophers after Maimonides also apply reason – that’s what philosophers do – but they had prior Eureka moments, or at least, intuition. Take Chasdai Crescas (1340-1410), who, even in Spain, encountered Italian humanism and its reassertion of the emotions. The way to God, it followed, was not by Maimonidean logical detachment, but by love. For Maimonides, the command to love God was secondary to the argument for God’s singularity. Crescas reversed the order. Open yourself to God’s love by offering love back, and the Eureka-like certainty of God’s reality will hit home.

Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) too believed, “We know love only when we love and are loved.” He simply “knew” God’s love and could not help but return it.

All three thinkers began with something they experienced as indubitably real: reason (Maimonides) or love (Crescas and Rosenzweig).

We too value reason and love. But we have issues of our own: and with them, an opportunity to think anew about “loving God.”

We are the wealthiest, most accepted, most educated, and most powerful diasporan community in Jewish history. Yet contentment eludes us. We are successful, but is that all there is? We live longer, only to watch family and friends die off, and to know that we too are here today and gone tomorrow. Good health fails; relationships sour; families turn out differently than we imagined; life itself is tenuous. To love any of these above all else is to court eventual disaster. The Sh’ma insists on something beyond it all.

Our era is awash with people looking for that something — in eastern philosophies, Buddhist meditation, deeper yoga. Yet, Judaism already has it, if we take the Sh’ma seriously.

Jewish thought offers many ways to picture the God of the Sh’ma:  a person; a friendly presence; a force for good; and more. But these cannot do God justice, says Maimonides, because God is beyond our imaginative capacity.

The Sh’ma, therefore, refers to none of these pictures in particular. It insists only on something beyond the phenomena that fail: something that is eternal, trustworthy, and good: it names that “God.”

Loving God is a state of mind, a spiritual perspective, whereby we anchor ourselves in “the eternal, trustworthy, and good,” so that when all else fails (as eventually it will), we are not left empty and bereft.

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.

Parashat Nitzavim

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” we say, but we are often wrong. It is self-delusion to suppose that if we always make a sound decision, always expend the extra effort, and always do the right thing, we will equally always figure it all out.

Jewish culture especially glorifies the seductive illusion that everything is possible. Sometimes it works — our grandparents lived adjacent to the Lower East Side’s Eldridge Street synagogue, which we now renovate with donations from Scarsdale and Great Neck. But sometimes it doesn’t.

So the important message of Rosh Hashanah is not what we usually think: not the self-congratulatory celebration of Happy New Year, L’chaim! Shehecheyanu, and all that; but the line from Avinu Malkenu — choneinu va’aneinu ki ein banu ma’asim; “Be gracious to us for we have no deeds of our own” — or, at least, some day we won’t have any. Count on it. The day will come (if it has not come already) when our capacity will seem paltry, given lives that grow older and frailer, and the inevitability of meeting challenges along the way that prove insurmountable.

“On Rosh Hashanah,” we say, “it is written who will live and who will die.” As literal theology, I don’t buy that. But as metaphor for the human condition, nothing could be more graphic. Our fate is often written for us; we don’t always get to write it.

This is not to say that we are helpless, but we do need to replace the neurotic notion that we are completely in charge with the recognition that we are often quite dependent — on the weather; on politics and people; on fate, coincidence and circumstance; on any number of things.

This should have been shabbat m’var’khim, the Shabbat immediately preceding the new month, when we pause in our morning prayers to invoke blessing on the month ahead. But the new year is an exception to the rule. Rosh Hashanah is indeed a Rosh Chodesh, a new month, but Jewish tradition dispenses with the normal blessing then because (says the Baal Shem Tov), “In the month that starts the new year, it is God who says the requisite blessing. Only by virtue of that divine act, may we bless the other months that follow.”

The recognition that we are unempowered, on our own, to invoke blessing for the coming year underscores the message that we cannot go endlessly through life bestowing unlimited blessing on everything and everyone. We will get tired, we will sometimes fail, we will need help. Some people learn this the hard way: millions of Americans who are in twelve-step recovery programs, admitting they have to “let go and let God”; and millions more who would do anything to cure a child of leukemia, bring back a teenage runaway, save a marriage, find a job. They do what they can; it is sometimes not enough.

The real heroes of the world are not the people who claw their way to the top as if immune to limitations. Forget Time Magazine’s annual story on the “Person of the Year.” Take the pictures of the rich and the beautiful that fill the New York Times’ style sections and wrap your garbage with them. Life isn’t like that.

The people I nominate for men and women of the year are the ordinary souls who muster the courage to go on, day after day, week after week, knowing they cannot solve life’s worst problems, but committed nonetheless to solving what they can and living with what they cannot. They, and we, will find comfort in a prayer with which Yom Kippur ends: precisely because we are dependent, “God reaches out a hand” to us. We are not alone in our shortcomings; some invisible force sustains us; and throughout the year-long silence following the echoes of Yom Kippur’s final t’kiyah g’dolah shofar-blast, that hand will be there for all who seek it.

Parashat B’chukotai

This final week of Leviticus is called “The Sabbath of Blessing” – a euphemistic reference to the content of the Torah portion, the curses said to await Israel if it fails to keep God’s commandments. The logic is as simple as it is unpalatable: God controls history and punishes us for noncompliance with God’s will.

Over the years, this thinking has been applied wholesale to Jewish tragedy — whether the destruction of the Temple in antiquity or the Holocaust of our own time, Jewish suffering is explained as divine punishment for sin.

I can think of few ideas as pernicious as this one. It is morally reprehensible to blame the Holocaust’s victims for their own agony. And what kind of God would mete out such punishment anyway? Finally, the notion that God determines history runs counter to everything we know about both God and history. Imagining God as a puppet-master manipulating the Romans or the Nazis is a profanation of the very word “God.”

The euphemism “Sabbath of Blessing” is not the only way we mitigate the pain of this parashah. Customarily, we read its curses quietly and rapidly, to get them over with quickly. Some people even leave the synagogue so as not to hear them.

The normal explanation for this behavior is the belief that by minimizing attention to the curses we prevent their coming true. But just the opposite conclusion ought to follow, the Chatam Sofer says. If we take the warnings seriously, they should be recited especially loudly and clearly, to make everyone hear them and heed them!

Yet we continue to read the curses sotto voce anyway. And I think we should, not because we superstitiously believe we thereby avoid their consequences, but because the very idea of God bringing curses upon us is so reprehensible that we slur over the verses that purport to say it. It is an embarrassment to God to imagine that God tweaks history to kill Jews – or anyone else, for that matter. No wonder we prefer downplaying the reading as much as possible.

The clear and evident point of the curses is to instill fear of God, an obvious consequence of hearing them read, if you believe they describe reality. If we no longer think that way, however, we need to redefine what we mean by “fear of God.” Here we can turn to Nehemia Polen’s discussion of Esh Kodesh, the sermons of Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the rebbe of the Warsaw ghetto.

Shapira saw first-hand the tortures endured under the Nazis; fear of punishment was all around him all the time; yet he hardly preached associating God with the Nazis! Having to face up to the theology that assumed the hand of God in history, he concluded that “fear of divine punishment,” is just a lower understanding of a loftier goal: attaining the awe that comes from comprehending “God’s grandeur.”

The curses of our parashah came from a time when imagining God as a micromanager of history was the best way to enforce the lesson of a God far enough beyond our ken to evoke awe. In our time, we have other ways to imagine that. How about the sheer force of numbers: our own earth that goes back 4,000,000,000 years; or the solar system that is 14,000,000,000 years old!

The awesome recognition of a God beyond ourselves is especially necessary today, given the possibility that we are likely, otherwise, to imagine we are God – and to do whatever we want, even to the point of destroying the world we live in.

So we should happily hear the curses muttered through at breakneck speed this year, not because they otherwise might come to pass, but to remind us that God does not actually manage history at all — in which case it must be true that we do. And we had better take that responsibility seriously before there is no history left to manage.