Category Archives: spirituality

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.

Parashat K’doshim: Individual and Societal Holiness

“Holiness,” says Malbim (Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Weiser, 1809-1879, Russia), “is separating ourselves from materiality,and elevating ourselves to spiritual and divine concerns that transcend matters of the flesh.” By that standard, this week’s commandment to “be holy” seems an impossible task. So Malbim modifies his stand: “There are various degrees of the holy,” he concludes, ranging from curbing our appetite for forbidden pleasures to becoming immune to sensory pleasures altogether. But even so, one wonders: is total asceticism the ideal?

Jewish tradition does know isolated instances of ascetic behavior, but total self-abnegation seems foreign to Jews. So Malbim has a much grander message in mind, as we see from his following comment, an analogy between individuals and the world they inhabit.

He calls the individual and society, respectively, the “small world” and the “large world” of God’s creation (what we would call “microcosm” and “macrocosm”). They mirror each other, he maintains, in that they are both composed of body, mind, and soul. The purpose of controlling one’s individual urges is not to become an ascetic, but to effect a parallel change in the “large world,” the social order in which we dwell.

The three domains of body, mind, and soul, he thinks, constitute a sort of zero-sum game – diminish one, and the other two expand to fill the vacuum. So when individuals shrink their material appetites, the realms of mind and spirit automatically get bigger. Since microcosm and macrocosm are interdependent, contracting our personal appetite for physical pleasures produces a parallel contraction throughout society as a whole. As individuals become more mind and soul centered, so too does society.

From a scientific point of view, there is much wrong with this analysis. In Malbim’s understanding, the connection between individual and society is automatic – a kind of metaphysical law built into the universal order of things. But take away the metaphysics, and Malbim is on to something. As every social psychologist knows, individual and society are indeed mutually interdependent; if cultures are materialistic, their citizens are equally so, and vice versa. We take our individual cues from the culture in which we are raised.

But individuals are not, on that account, mere lemmings destined to follow their cultural ideals into the sea, if need be. We hold people morally responsible for resisting cultural norms that go astray: we believe in the individual’s right to protest; we think cultures should be called to account by individuals who believe their society has taken them too far.

Malbim is not arguing for selfless asceticism, therefore. His target is materialism so rampant that it crushes the other two realms of mind and spirit. What makes us distinctively human, he contends, is not our bodily appetites, after all – since other species share them with us; it is our mental and spiritual capacities that give us the right to the label “human.” When the “large world” of society becomes overly materialistic, only “the small world” of individuals can right the balance.

The commandment to be holy is thus no call for otherworldly monasticism. It is the commitment to cultivate mind and spirit. By mind, we mean a life of learning and of thoughtfulness. By spirit, we mean the values we associate with God, who is, after all, the ultimate standard of holiness: such things as compassion and kindness; justice and nobility.

Although he wrote well over a century ago, Malbim’s analysis could well have been an op ed column in today’s newspaper. Our American culture is indeed materially driven to the point of eclipsing the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake or goodness as an end in itself. The command “to be holy” is not a call to renounce all sensual pleasure. It is a request to balance it with the higher virtues of mind and spirit – starting with the “small world” of each and every person, the only way for the “large world,” the social order itself, to change.

 

Parashat Tzav: Middle Age

Israeli writer Amos Oz was taken with the famous introductory sentence to Dante’s Inferno: “Midway in life’s journey I strayed from the straight road ….” Oz loved the first four words, “Midway in life’s journey,” because, he says, that is when so many stories actually begin: in the middle years of life, that is, what we call “middle-age,” a time for building families and careers, independence at its finest.

It is also, however, a time of life we dread. Partly, we fear the loss of dying youth, with old age increasingly coming into view. Partly too, our middle-age years are not all tales of vigor, self-indulgence, and success. They are equally the need to care for others, while no one cares for us. Our parents begin to age and need us more and more; simultaneously, the dependency period of our children seems to stretch out longer and longer, so that we constantly care for them. Welcome to the sandwich generation.

The sandwich generation brings to mind the middle, or “sandwich,” book of Torah, Leviticus. Map the Torah cycle onto the life cycle, and Leviticus becomes our middle-age, the afternoon of our lives, no longer the morning of our youth, but not yet the evening of old age.

The entirety of Leviticus is about life’s middle-aged afternoons, a theme that arises when we combine its first two readings, Vayikra and Tzav . Vayikra began last week with the words, “God called Moses and said….” From the apparent redundancy of the word “called,” the Rabbis deduced that God first addressed Moses by name, the way we speak personally to someone we love before getting to the business at hand. Middle-age, they concluded, is saturated with God’s very special love.

The Rabbis extended that lesson to this week’s reading too, by insisting that God’s act of commanding comes with parallel love. This week’s instruction, Tzav (“command” the priests), they say, represents “special urging,” because what they are commanded to do is to sacrifice, and sacrificing is hard.

There you have it, middle age in a nutshell: the time of life when, at last, we achieve personal, financial, and psychological independence; but the time also when we are asked to sacrifice that independence for aging parents, on one hand, and not-yet fully-grown children, on the other; and to do so at God’s special urging, and a sign of God’s great love.

We are like Moses, who is, himself, entering life’s afternoon as Leviticus begins: no more heady stuff like a burning bush, confrontations with Pharaoh, and Sinai. The middle-aged Moses hears only God’s commanding voice to sacrifice; and the rabbinic point is that God’s love continues even then.

Life’s middle-aged afternoons are like that: no more annual birthday parties, trips to the zoo, parents who cuddle us, and surprise presents from grandparents. Instead, we get the daily commands of Tzav , “special urging,” to go about the unflashy business of sacrificing for the growing numbers of people who depend on us.

Yet that too is a gift. We may even be awestruck by life’s chain of giving and receiving. In the childhood of life, we receive; in the nighttime of old age, we receive again; and in life’s afternoon, we get the gift of giving.

We appreciate the gift especially, if it is taken from us, as it is with many, whose middle-age years are prematurely marred with the lasting trauma of being hit by a car or felled by chronic illness. Such unfortunates may still have some afternoon left in them – it is not as if they have absolutely nothing left to give. But giving is hard when early dusk settles over an afternoon that ought to have lasted longer than it did. For others, of course, it lasts a long time. Who knows?

Life’s afternoon may not be all it’s cracked up to be, but being asked to sacrifice and being able to do it is indeed a gift of love. Enjoy it as long as you have it.

 

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.