Category Archives: Torah In Our Lives

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.

 

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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.

 

I’m Haunted: We All Should Be

It’s a week since Passover ended. But I remain haunted. Haunted by its message, especially in the light of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day that is coming to its end even as I write this.When it began, I asked, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Looking back, I ask, “What question should we be asking now?

The answer begins with a Holocaust memory: Elie Wiesel’s account of Jews in a concentration camp unable to celebrate Simchat Torah for lack of a Torah scroll with which to dance. One man solves the problem by picking up a child and holding him as he would a scroll. “This will be our Torah!” he announces.

We are not told what happened to that child, but we can guess, and I thought of him while reviewing Dayyenu, that celebration of God’s many mighty acts, each one being Dayyenu(“Enough!”); but it wasn’t enough, not for the concentration-camp children like the one in the story. “Let my people go,” Moses demanded of Pharaoh; and he didn’t. Neither did Hitler.

Originally, Hitler did propose letting Jews go; the problem was, no one would take them. The Final Solution was really the Second Solution – undertaken when the first one, exporting Europe’s Jews, failed. Even after August 1, 1942, when our government learned with certainty that Jewish genocide was in the works, we refused to help. When Sweden offered to admit 20,000 Jewish children if America would feed them, we turned them down.

We were not the only ones. In 1945, a Canadian official was asked how many Jews could be admitted after the war ended. His infamous reply is legendary: “None is too many.”

These facts are representative of a thousand others, well known by now. Jews would become a public charge, people said; the economy couldn’t sustain them. Many of them were criminals. They would make us “vulnerable to enemies,” the State Department argued.

We Jews can properly disagree on many things, but the moral obligation to open our borders to oppressed seekers of asylum is not one of them. When we say, “Never again,” we cannot just mean “Never, just for ourselves”! Yet here we are, closing borders and saying of others what was said of us: they will be a public charge; they are criminals; we’ll be vulnerable to terrorists.

The failed states that created these refugees are not Nazi Germany: I know that. They are not cases of state-sponsored genocide: I know that too. And not all the refugees are alike: some are more threatened than others. But the horrors they do face — starvation, murder, rape, and more — can kill you just the same.

The helpless children among them remind me of another Wiesel account:  of an Auschwitz child publicly hanged but too weightless for the noose to kill him right away. Instead, he dangles in the wind, as if awaiting salvation after all. Refugee children too are “dangling in the wind” while we decide their fate. Is America still “that great strong land of love” (in Langston Hughes’ words) or not?

The Seder question, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” becomes newly macabre when we recall that Wiesel named his Auschwitz testimony “Night.” For would-be immigrants, cruelly and needlessly sent back home to disaster, “this night” is not at all different from all other nights. When mounting darkness occludes all hope, when it chokes off every possibility of deliverance, night is just night.

We Jews (more than most) have known night. We know (better than most) that we should be debating the best possible way to do the right thing. We should not be doing whatever we can to do nothing.

So what question is in order now, one week after Passover and in the flickering twilight of Yom Hashoah? It is this: How can we not remember that as much as Pharaoh wouldn’t let us out, Amalek wouldn’t let us through; and when the Nazis would let us leave, America wouldn’t let us in? Jews, especially, have the obligation to ensure that history does not record our America as another Amalek.

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.

The Plague Zone

“A season of Darkness”: that’s how Charles Dickens describes the reign of terror that gripped revolutionary France under the spell of the guillotine. He might equally have had in mind the plagues that seized Egypt, one after the other. Plagues are nothing, if not death-like in their darkness.

And not just metaphoric darkness either. Abravanel notes that all three plagues in this week’s reading — the last and the worst, compared to which the first seven plagues were child’s play — have darkness in common. The locusts arrived in droves so thick that “the land was in darkness” (10:14). Locusts come and locusts go, however – Egypt had experienced them before. So the next plague upped the ante: just deep darkness; lasting and inexplicable; “thick darkness that can be touched, for three whole days” (10:21-22). Still, no one died from it; people huddled together, holding hands, perhaps, until it was over. The final plague, therefore, added death to darkness: every first-born killed, precisely at midnight.

No one willingly enters a plague zone. Even if you think you are personally exempt from danger, the horror of being there is just too much to bear. That is why, with the locusts about to arrive, Moses had to be “brought,” to Pharaoh (10:8) – he would not come willingly. Blood, frogs, boils and the rest – those he could handle. But not pure darkness, the sun and all the stars in total eclipse. Not that! “Let someone else tell Pharaoh that three stages of increasing darkness are on their way,” Moses must have hoped.

He should have paid closer attention to God’s command: “Come,” not “Go,” to Pharaoh. “We can never distance ourselves from God,” says Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, “When God said ‘Come,’ God meant, ‘Come with Me. I, God, will accompany you.”  God would not send even Moses all alone to announce the plagues of escalating darkness.

I think of this when I visit a dying patient. We picture plagues as mass diseases, spreading person to person, home to home. But terminal illness is equally a plague for the person suffering it. It too spreads, limb by limb, organ by organ. It may start with the metastatic proliferation of murderous cells that consume the body like locusts devouring a landscape. Then comes darkness of despair so thick it can be touched; and, finally, death at what may as well be midnight.

It is a terrible thing to watch someone die. “The mind withdraws,” says Louise Harmon, in her Fragments on the Death Watch. “There is a turning in toward the self, a curvature of the spine that directs the remaining life force toward the center. The knees are tucked up under the body. The arms are folded like a praying mantis, a caricature of moot supplication, and the petition is for safety.”

As I say, no one willingly enters a plague zone – because no sane person wants to watch this happen. So when disease approaches hopelessness, and the hospital room becomes a virtual plague zone, people invent reasons not to visit. As the plague advances, loneliness sets in: no one to talk to, even as we lose the light to see them by.

But precisely when final darkness looms, the dying need our visits most, and not just to talk banalities. We come at such a time to share the darkness, not turn on lights. It can be a horrible ordeal to sit, and wait, and do nothing more than lend a loving presence through the moments leading up to midnight. But it can be strangely satisfying too, if we remember that the commandment is “Come,” not “Go.”  “Come with Me,” says God, “I will sit there with you.”

The Talmud locates God’s comforting presence alongside the patient’s head. Visitors too report sensing that presence at times, especially when death finally arrives. And why not? God never dispatches us all alone to endure the darkness.

The Family Business

“So what do you do?” That’s the question we most frequently ask upon meeting someone new.

A version projected onto medieval times has a builder reply, “See that cathedral? I build the story 60 feet up; my father built the one below it, and his father built the one below that. My son will build it higher still, as will his son after him.”

Talk about going into the family business!

We Jews, however, build no such multi-generational cathedrals; our equivalent is a generational chain of blessing, an idea with which the Book of Genesis ends.

The scene is Jacob on his death bed, blessing his children. “This,” says the Torah, “is what their father said.” But why call Jacob “their father” rather than “Jacob,” his name? Because, says Genesis Rabbah (100:12), these future progenitors of Israel will receive blessing from many generations of parents, not just from Jacob. “Where one generation ends, the next one begins.”

Blessing began with Abraham and Sarah, then continued with Isaac and Rebekah, and kept going all the way to Moses. The Haftarah extends the chain still further, by picturing King David dying and adjuring Solomon to “keep God’s charge” just as he, David, had done.

Generational continuity is a way to solve a perennially difficult passage in the history of biblical interpretation: Ramban’s insistence that beyond being the story of what has already happened, Genesis is a prophetic premonition of what was yet to be. The plain sense of Ramban’s claim has prompted endless futile efforts to find a code by which chance combinations of biblical letters might somehow reveal the future.

As a confirmed medieval mystic, Ramban may indeed have believed that, but equally, he may have meant something more intellectually acceptable. Genesis is not just stories about particular individuals, he realized; it provides patterns that recur through time: sibling rivalry, for example; and (our case here) the parental insistence on blessing. Every parental generation is heir to the cumulative blessing of its past; and then passes that on enhanced by its own contribution to posterity. Each successive generation thus inherits a compound set of blessings: what its immediate parents were able to fashion, and what parental generations over the centuries managed to pass along earlier.

We have here an early Jewish affirmation of a doctrine that captured western thought only with the Enlightenment: the idea of progress. Most ancient peoples saw history as an endless and repetitive cycle. Not so Israel, said Mircea Eliade, the professor who founded History of Religion as a discipline. Israel adopted a linear view of history, a developmental line by which every generation can build on the accomplishment of those who came before. We are not just doomed to repeat what others have done. We can all accomplish together what no single generation can bring about alone.

To be sure, some parental generations bequeath the opposite: not blessings but curses. Hence our prayer on holidays, livrachah v’lo liklalah: “May we know blessing, not curse.” Every generation must struggle with the legacy it leaves behind. Are we adding to the blessing or detracting from it? Yet Jews insist that over time, blessing will prove victorious. History is cumulative and the good will win the day. “On that day, God shall be One and God’s name shall be One” (Zechariah 14:9 and the end of Alenu).

Our insistence on progress derives from our reading of Genesis. Each generation inherits the legacy of blessings left by those who came before, and then strives to add its own set of blessings onto that.  Not for nothing did we choose Hatikvah(“The Hope”) as Israel’s national anthem. We are a people of hope and of promise.

“So what do you do?”

The next time people ask you that, tell them, “See this thing called history? I inherit the blessings of my predecessors and I add my blessings to theirs; my children and my children’s children will do likewise. I am a Jew. I believe in progress.

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.