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Open Letter to My Students in an Age of Pandemic: “Black Swans, Black Holes, and Why We Matter”

We are in the midst of a situation that Jewish tradition captures nicely as “ones.” Even though the transliteration looks like WUNS, it is, of course, pronounced OH-ness: a general term implying “force” – as being forced into a situation against our will. Most appallingly, the term denotes rape. Less appallingly, it is used legally to characterize a certain degree of liability. Suppose I let you use my home while I go on vacation. If you enjoy a candlelight dinner but accidentally set the house on fire, you are responsible. If a lightning bolt out of the blue burns down the house while you are out buying the candles, you are not. The cause of the latter misfortune is said to be ones: force majeure (in legalese), “an act of God” (the insurance companies say). The proper pronunciation is apt: OH-ness, as in “OMG: OH My God, how did this happen?”

Another term for the pandemic is “black swan,” a metaphor used humorously as early as 1694, when an anonymous work with the lengthy title, Ladies Dictionary, Being a General Entertainment for the Fair Sex : a Work Never before Attempted in the English Language gave as its example, “Husbands without faults (if such black Swans there be).” More seriously, it is used by economists to denote a totally unpredictable event that all the computer-generated algorithms in the world could not have foreseen. Black swans suck the stock market downward into dizzying depths – making financial black swans like the astrophysicist’s black holes: regions of space that absorb all light, leaving ever-growing blobs in space of deep dense darkness. That’s us, in the middle of the covid crisis: a black swan (Oh God, how did this happen?) and a black hole (so much darkness, when there used to be light).

Even black holes generate wisdom, however: in our case, how everything  leads to everything else. When we close schools, children stay home; if children stay home, parents miss work to care for them; if they are poor, their income disappears. Alternatively, major league baseball can’t start on time, so the soft market of ushers, vendors, ticket sellers, kiosks, restaurants and bars close down, maybe go out of business altogether. You get the idea. “The head bone’s connected to the neck bone; the neck bone’s connected to the shoulder bone” and so on. Ezekiel got it right.

We Jews say kol yisrael arevim zeh vazeh, “All Jews are responsible for one another.” Actually, the humanity worldwide is responsible for one another. We are all intertwined, we children of Adam and Eve. Why did the Torah teach about Adam and Eve? In order to assign all humanity a single set of parents, the Rabbis say. We are all family, it turns out. One of the reasons I chose to be specifically a Reform Jew was my admiration for classical Reform rabbis who insisted on this radical universalism. As the corona virus spreads, I pray for everyone (not just Jews), especially those who live on the margins of society and get routinely dropped off the real-life society page — left behind as historical footnotes that had to fend for themselves.

We also fear for ourselves, of course – at least, older people like me do. Early on, doctors warned me to avoid the gym, get groceries delivered, cut my own hair, attend no meetings – and I am one of the healthy ones. A woman I know is sick, maybe in the early stages of dying. Quite naturally, she asked to see her grandchildren. Should her daughter, the kids’ mother, take the kids to see her? What if their parting gift to their grandmother turns out to be the virus which assures (if not also hastens) her demise?

“Family systems” we call it. “Do not separate from the community,” Hillel reminded us. We do have a special connection to our own family, but we are increasingly a single “family system,” a single community, from which we could not fully separate even if we wanted to!

So much for the macrocosm., How about the microcosm – you personally, I mean? Personally, how are each of you doing? Black swans do more than drive the stock market downward. They fray our emotions, uproot our certainties, drive our state of mind downward into ever deeper eddies of vertigo. Acrophobia is “fear of heights”; aquaphobia, “fear of water”; agoraphobia, “fear of open spaces”; and now, we have, ones-ophobia, “fear of black swans,” of things spinning out of control — the discovery that we are not actually in charge down here – in a word, ones.

Tradition lists a very specific case of ones, however. The state of being affected by ones is the Hebrew passive-participle form, anus. When Jacob is forced by the famine to go down to Egypt where Joseph guarantees food, he is said to be anus al pi hadibbur. “forced by the word of God.” It is as if, sometimes, the hand of God can be found even in a black swan – an “act of God,” in a sense, after all.

I do not mean to say that God causes suffering so that we can benefit in the end, or even that we may learn something useful as a consequence. God just doesn’t work that way. But for those of us who will gratefully ride this swan to its bitter end, without ourselves or those we love getting hurt; for those of us who, thankfully, do not lose a job or have to wonder where the next month’s rent will come from; for you, my rabbinic and cantorial students, you who are charged with learning Torah not just from texts on parchment and paper but also from the vagaries of real life – you will that the dibbur, the voice of God, can speak to us in the depths of swirling vertigo no less than on the peak of Mt. Sinai.

Like the rest of the world, I too read the mainstream media to get the news. But those sources alone can cripple us. They only exacerbate the feeling of helplessness, endlessly reiterating the inevitable constriction of the social noose around our lives. In such an environment, it is our job to tune into another source of wisdom, the one that will never make the papers, the wisdom of Jewish tradition that becomes ever more necessary when all else fails.

Highest on my “alternative-wisdom” list are basic values like truth, kindness, decency, and love, that we used to think were as American as apple pie, until we discovered that the apples in the pie were increasingly rotten.  We need to say out loud, over and over, to everyone who will listen, that truth is not relative, expedient, alternative and fabricated; that ethical and scientific certainties are not just so much quicksand. We need to blow the whistle on a national ethos and rhetoric that has swamped kindness under a tsunami of cruelty and meanness. We need to combat the situation  where no one even expects decency anymore, least of all from those we elect, those with power; where, everywhere we look, love of others has come to mean others “who are like us,” just our own tribe.

The very heart of the monster is indeed tribalism, even as the very heart of the pandemic is the obvious demonstration that pathogens have no tribal map to instruct them where to go and who to spare: they are “equal opportunity deployers”; they spread their poison indiscriminately. Yes, there are enemies in the world; there is actual evil, God help us. But an enemy of Jews is an enemy to us all; evil toward others is evil toward Jews, sooner or later. America cannot stand alone: it too needs allies, friends, more outstretched hands – like the hand of God: Atah noten yad laposhim  we say in that final moment of truth that arrives as each year’s Yom Kippur at N’ilah. Poshim, mind you, “sinners” – all the more so, the good guys. But sinners can be good guys just as good guys can be sinners. In viral crises, we no longer get to hold people’s hands; we can all be good guys, Godly even, if we reach across the mandated 6-foot personal boundary as God does: mutually extending hands to one and all.

For in the end, we are all merely mortal. We will never know it all. We are not in charge down here. We should not be surprised by surprises. But equally, we should not despair, for modern Judaism, anyway — Zionists who founded Israel, and, once again (for me, anyway) my Reform forebears who charged into the morass of medieval Jewish prejudice and did away with it – yes, modern Judaism, anyway, has taught us that we are actors in history, not just passive recipient sufferers of the random black swans that interrupt the way we thought the world worked.

I believe with all my heart that the uniquely placed “we” who is ourselves — we cantors and rabbis, that is – are not powerless. We have been charged with the task of reminding people that God breathed a soul into us all. As the rest of the world falls apart, as even our very bodies are at risk, we at least have the certainty of our God-given souls, the part of us that rallies to provide truth, kindness, decency and love; the part of us that is buried so deep within that it can reach nowhere else but out, out into the world where we are all children of the single God, in need of one another more than ever.

Take your enforced time at home not just for zoom calls; use it to rediscover your soul. When you’ve had enough of the saturating sadness that makes the daily headlines, just stop reading it. Replace it briefly with the prayer book or with Psalms, to find some single line of eternity that you never knew was there — sometimes, even, something familiar that had its eternity tarnished but that now leaps off the page with new-found urgency, fairly shouting at you, “Don’t you see? This is really true! It really matters! It can sustain you.” Sing it, if you can; melodies sink deeper, faster, into our being. Share it on those zoom calls before and after meetings. Be grateful for the opportunity to be a rabbi or cantor whose expertise is the eternal verities that we call Godly, and the human soul that intuits them.

 

Missing Our Mothers

Reading the stories of Genesis can make us miss our mothers – mothers who cradle us, cuddle us, and cry for us.

I exclude Sarah, who hardly even talks to Isaac. Rebecca ranks higher, however, loving Jacob enough to pass him off to Isaac as her first-born and then assuaging Jacob’s guilt over the deceit by assuring him (27:13), “Your curse be on me. Just do as I say.”

Imagine, then, Jacob’s shock when he hears of Rebecca’s death, miles away, and many years past the time he last laid eyes on her. Yet her death is never mentioned in Torah! We are to infer it, says the midrash, from a laconic reference (35:8) to the death of Rebecca’s nurse, Deborah. “Why record the demise of this practically unknown woman?”  commentators ask, if not to allude to a parallel death in Jacob’s life, his mother’s, too painful for Torah to acknowledge directly.

Esau’s version of his mother runs much differently, of course, so my personal award for motherhood goes to Rachel. Her mothering, alas, ends tragically and prematurely. Her first son, Joseph, is enslaved by brothers who manufacture reports of his death. When, later, she bears Benjamin, she dies in childbirth. Plagued by infertility, Rachel has just two sons: one who disappears and one she never knows.

Jacob buries her on the spot and marks her resting place for all time (35:20).

What Rachel lacked in life she gets in death, however, for tradition makes us all the children of Rachel, our quintessential mother. Jeremiah (31:15) enlarges the love unspent on Joseph and Benjamin to include the exiles who will pass her grave on their way to Babylonian captivity. “A cry is heard in Ramah — Rachel weeping for her children,” he insists. She awaits their return we are told; and there she remains, crying for us as well, for we too are in a kind of exile.

Our exile is from the world we once knew as certain, safe and sound: an innocent America, unquestionably on the side of right; where we went to school, worked hard, settled down, and got ahead. We lived close to family; knew our neighbors names; got the same nightly TV news; trusted the government. We were optimistic.

The reality was seamier, we now know: fears of nuclear attack, racist and gender bias, and widespread sexual abuse that no one acknowledged. We can’t go home again to those times and shouldn’t really want to. But languishing in today’s realities can prove unsettling: knowing more about the world in real time can rob us of the certainty of even wanting to call this world “home.”

We work longer but are no happier. We have fewer long-term hopes and less certainty about them. The newer generations seem less likely to remain Jewish, join synagogues, and care about Israel. The earth itself is endangered; and we cannot manage to save it.

We are, as it were, in virtual exile from a world that seems less and less to be our own. Whereas once we thought expansively, now we hunker down in self-defense against hackers, bots, and trolls that feed us lies and know our every move. It would be nice to have a mother’s embrace, guaranteeing that all will turn out right.

As an exile in a world that puts up endless walls and warnings, I increasingly listen for Rachel. She reminds me of another motherly presence that knows my anxiety: the Shechinah, the side of God, the Talmud says, that accompanies us into exile. Together, they give me hope. Exile is not forever, they say; tomorrow is a new day; so is the day thereafter. When despair threatens, I sense Rachel’s tears from Ramah, but I hear also the promise that she will wait for my return, into a world of renewed promise and passion. I believe the day will dawn when Rachel welcomes me back home.

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.

 

Grasshoppers or Giants?

Seeing isn’t always believing — or, at least, it shouldn’t be. Take the well-known optical illusion that displays two parallel lines of equal length with arrows at their ends. The line with the arrows pointing outward inevitably looks shorter than the identical line with arrows pointing inward.

More serious are the chasms of belief that divide democracies, including our own. People don’t just have differing solutions to the same set of problems. They see different sets of problems — because how we see the world depends on prior mental framing: a combination of rational thought, emotional conditioning, and whatever else goes into the complex part of us that we call “mind.”

Take the reconnaissance team dispatched by Moses to scout the Land of Israel. The scouts report back in a panic: “We saw giants there,” and by comparison, “We saw ourselves as grasshoppers.” Why did they see the ordinary men and women there as “giants”?

The answer comes via a commentary by Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel [Wisser] — better known (for obvious reasons) by his acronym MaLBYM (spelled, Malbim, 1809-1879). The “scout story” is followed, the Malbim notes, with the commandment to look at then fringes on a tallit (the tsitsit) to remember God’s commandments, “lest you follow your heart and your eyes in lustful urge.” The Hebrew word for “follow” (tur) is the same as the verb “to scout.” The tallit warning  therefore, says, in effect, that “focusing on the tsitsit may prevent your ‘following’ your heart and eyes the way the ‘scouts’ did.”

What, then, did the scouts do wrong?

The Malbim answers the question by observing that “heart” is the biblical term for “mind”; “eyes” are just raw sensual urges. The Torah puts “heart” before “eyes,” because “the eyes follow the mind” — it is the mind’s prior depiction that determines what the eyes choose to see. When we embezzle funds or engage in illicit sexual entanglement, for example, it is not because our eyes just naturally lead us there. If the mind already instructs us against such things, the eyes will not “see” those options.

We now understand that the scouts were misled by their minds, not their eyes. God had no need for scouts, Rashi observes. Israel was destined for victory no matter what. Moses dispatched the scouts, therefore, to find out what the Israelites thought, not what they saw. Their “minds,” he discovered, had yet to take seriously the reality of God. So their “eyes” saw defeat, not victory. They could equally well have concluded, “Sure, we were grasshopper-like compared to them, but knowing God is on our side, we saw ourselves as bigger than they were!”

As a country, we face this issue every day. If we believe in an utterly amoral universe, terrorism may be “seen” as an unbeatable network of fanatics. But if we decide in advance that we are in the right – that God is on our side, that is — we need not look like grasshoppers compared to giants. In our personal lives too, through disappointment and even despair, whether we prevail is a matter of mind, not just sight. What the world is like does matter; we cannot choose to “see” whatever we like. But what our eyes see is never more than external impressions; only reason, commitment, passion and faith can tell us what the impressions add up to.

Fringes are just fringes, if you are not ready to see them as tsitsit, reminders of God. Canaanites were just Canaanites, until the scouts decided to see them as giants. Poverty, child abuse, racism, gun violence – these are serious problems in America. Take a look: you cannot miss them. Whether we are helpless grasshoppers at their mercy or giants able to conquer them is a matter of mind. If our collective mind wills it; we can do it.

Grasshoppers or giants?Despair or hope? Fear or resolve? Only the mind can tell the eyes which one of these it ought to see.

Dust and Ashes Transcending Time and Space

The first human beings, says Midrash Rabbah, transcended space and time: they stretched from one end of the universe to the other; and they saw through time, from beginning to end. Their home, the Garden of Eden, adds Etz Yosef, was not just a corner of creation; creation was a corner of the Garden!

But we were expelled from Eden to become like every other creature; remembering, however, what it once was like to be not just “dust and ashes” but actually “like the angels” (Ps. 8:6).

It’s the dust and ashes part that occupies some commentators to the Levitical reading on the ritual status of a birthing mother. Bypassing discussion of the birth process itself, they question the wisdom of producing another human being who inevitably falls short of angelic greatness.

But they quickly balance this jaundiced view of human nature. The Chatam Sofer concedes that we are “dust and ashes,” but adds the dimension of distinctive human morality. Our own evildoing is what reduces us to lower-order creatures who merely crawl in the dirt without ever imagining a sky, much less a heaven. Righteousness, by contrast, elevates us to be angelic.

Other commentators agree, but wonder, nonetheless, about the miracle of human imagination. How can “dust and ashes” even picture a mythic time when we transcended time and space?

The usual metaphysical answer comes from Redak (David Kimchi, 1160-1235): only humans have a soul, he says; our bodies are earthly; the soul naturally aspires to what the body cannot attain. The 18th-century Metzudat David echoes the philosophical Enlightenment when he credits the distinctively human capacity for speech and reason.

I find the first explanation limited. Citing our soul as the root of human aspiration does not explain that aspiration; it merely names it. The question still stands. How is it that human beings, “just dust and ashes” really, still manage to “dream big”?

The second explanation at least explains the phenomenon. Credit human reason! It’s painfully elitist, however – reminiscent of Plato’s philosopher kings who soar above the masses because they alone perceive heavenly truths. Maimonides would have agreed, but if we simply reasoned our way to kindness, wouldn’t the smartest people always be the kindest? With that critique in mind, Judaism prefers the Chatam Sofer’s answer: imagination too is best explainable by human kindness, which is innate within us.

Yes: innate. Both reason and kindness must be innate. It is not just reason that stretches our imagination heavenward; kindness too demands an imaginative leap to human betterness.

Here is the flip side of the troubling notion that giving birth to another human being just adds more dust and ashes to the world. Equally, it produces the potential for more kindness.

The idea that kindness is simply part of who we are appears in an early interpretation of Job 10:12, carried in the 13th-century source Tzedah Laderekh. Meditating on his coming into being as an embryo, Job tells God, “You clothed me with skin and flesh. You wove me with bones and sinews, bestowed on me life and kindness.”

The interpretation reads “life [chaim] and kindness [chesed]” as if they are proper names of angels (Chaim and Chesed) dispatched to nurture the embryo into wholeness. We may be dust and ashes, but we are also like the angels — two angels in particular, named Life and Kindness: they are ingrained in us at birth, no less than “skin and flesh… bones and sinews.” Instead of the doctrine of “original sin,” Judaism gives us “original kindness.”

We are born as a very peculiar sort of dust and ashes: we are dust and ashes animated by life and by kindness, kindness that outlives the dust and ashes part, and actually does allow us to transcend time and space, just the way we used to.

Eating In

Who cares about sacrifices!” people often complain, when they get to Leviticus. “Wake me when Leviticus ends.” But the sacrificial system is less about sacrifices than about who gets to eat them — and that is plenty interesting!

Of the three major types of sacrifice, only the first (the olah) was wholly a sacrifice, if by that you mean an animal slaughtered and offered up entirely to God.

The second (the minchah) was a grain offering, mostly fried on the altar as a sacred meal for the priests — payment-in-kind for their work on behalf of the people.

The last, and most interesting, was the zevach sh’lamim, usually translated “a sacrifice” (zevach) “of peace” (sh’lamim) — like shalom, but also irenicusand pacificusin the old Greek (Septuagint) and Latin (Vulgate) Bibles. Part of this sacrifice was sent off to God in smoke, but most of it was eaten by the priests and the people doing the offering.

Put all this together and you get ancient biblical wisdom on eating. We nowadays know enough to focus properly on “what” we eat; but the rules of sacrifice remind us to attend as well to “where” we eat, “how” we eat, and “with whom” we do the eating.

Start with the “where”. A straight line leads from the Temple cult to a synagogue Kiddushor oneg Shabbat:  all examples of eating as a sacred event in a sacred place. Synagogue meals expand the elemental sense of family beyond the accident of blood ties alone; they connect us with relative strangers in an effort to construct a story of shared identity, and destiny.

Our homes too are sacred: there too, we invite guests who attend as family around the intimate act of sharing food.

Restaurants are generally not sacred. By all means treat yourself to eating out, but not at the expense of meals eaten “in” — in synagogue and home with people you might never otherwise get to know.

As for the “how,” sacred meals are not swallowed on the run. They feature conversation, affability, nicely set tables, putting our best selves forward, and time allotted also to ritual, prayer and song. When we are done, an afterglow assures us that we have somehow experienced a deeper faith in friendship; a certain sense of how good it is to be alive; and a demonstration of what a life well led is all about.

Finally, the most important question: with whom do we choose to eat? Here, the third sacrifice, the zevach sh’lamim, becomes all-important. Targum Onkelos, a particularly ancient source for understanding Torah, generally translates the Hebrew into straightforward Aramaic: olah becomesalata; minchah becomes minchata.Yet sh’lamim becomes kudshaya, like the Hebrew kodesh, “holy.”

Jewish tradition usually considers the first two sacrifices (olahand minchah) holier than the third (zevach sh’lamim) because the third one could be enjoyed by ordinary Israelites, not just God and the priests. Onkelos defies that interpretation. For him, the zevach sh’lamim (the kudshaya) is the holiest one of all – for the very same reason. The midrash explains that with the sh’lamim, God, the priests, and ordinary Israelites are at one with one another.

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.

I Am Retiring: Because Why? What I Really Do

[From my retirement talk, delivered at a testimonial dinner, October 24, 2018]

I am retiring after 45 years of teaching at the Hebrew Union College , not because I do not love the College but because I believe that God isn’t finished with me yet. I believe I have another chapter, but I won’t know what it is until I turn the page. I think of it as applying for residency in the post-graduate School of Deuteronomy. I have been unable to ascertain in advance how long the program lasts, but its curriculum involves projects that I alone can do and that might make a difference to others: like traveling to help synagogues, taking alumni calls, and writing a book or two or more, of course. I want more time with Gayle. Mostly, however, I will prepare for my final exam, by reviewing my life as Moses did, that I may become my very best self before God, and die knowing that I have loved my family and friends, that I was faithful to the work God set me here to do, and that I pass it down to some Joshuas to carry on where I left off.

As I leave the College, I can reveal a secret that I have carefully kept from everyone: what I have been doing at HUC all these years. My job, you see (teaching and such) is not what I do; it is just how I do it.

What I do, I hope, is practice kindness: Helping students, counseling alumni, responding to phone calls, righting wrongs (when I can), watching for unhappy people to whom I can lend an ear or a hand — I am proudest of things like that. They do not get in the way of my work; they aremy work.

Beyond that, what I do most and best, I think, is think! Rabbi Gunther Plaut, of blessed memory, recalled moving to a synagogue and instructing his assistant to inform early morning callers, “The rabbi cannot speak right now; he is busy thinking.” The rabbis and cantors here will have a pretty good idea of how that went over. When congregants professed outrage, he had his assistant say, “The rabbi is in conference.” People understood that.

As you saw from the video, I have done a great many things, but I have studiously avoided being “in conference.” I luxuriate instead in being paid to think!  “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it,” our Rabbis said of Torah. I do that; I write a regular newspaper column on the parashat hashavu’a; and then put it in my newly-conceived and barely-born-blog. But I like Galileo’s defense (before the Church that condemned his scientific observations) to the effect that the universe is actually God’s second book; how can we notstudy it? I have made a point of turning and turning both of God’s books, Torah and the universe, both Jewish and general knowledge, which I take as mutually complementary.

“You’re no rabbi,” an illustrious rabbi once complained, “You’re a philosopher or an anthropologist.” More embarrassing still, I once had rabbis condemn me for wasting my time with cantors and even cavorting too closely with Christians. I plead guilty, your honor, on all counts. “Open our eyes that we may see and welcome all truth, whether shining from the annals of ancient revelations or reaching us through the seers of our own time,” the old Union Prayer Bookadvised — I love that line!

It took many paths of truth to learn that actual prayertexts(their origins and history) are relatively inconsequential, compared with how we pray them: all the world’s a stage, but especially when poetry, drama, space and music magically explode in worship. I hope the College continues my life’s work of moving the study of liturgy forward into worship, without which liturgy is like reading descriptions of Van Gogh but never seeing his sunflowers. I take pride in teaching the generation who has revolutionized Reform worship — a revolution still continuing. So many of my students, now our teachers, yours and mine, are revitalizing prayer in synagogue after synagogue. They and what they are achieving is my legacy. They and it exist because the College let me think.

“Think big,” I tell my students, or, preferably, “Think bigly” – they remember it better that way. At creation’s first unfolding, God said, “Let there be light” not “Let there be a bagel.” To be human is to think like God, to think bigly, not bagelly.

But God did not just think the world into being; God spoke it, and ever since, we Jews have marveled at the miracle of human speech. Plants, the Rabbis say, are tsame’ach  — they grow; animals, a step up, are chai, “they live.” But humans are like God: we m’daber, we speak. Philosopher Richard Rorty says, “We make progress not by arguing better but by speaking differently.” So I tell students, “Speak differently and think bigly.”

I think bigly a lot about the human condition, our penchant to love, to work, to laugh, to matter; and to be eulogized at the end, for a life worth remembering. I define religion as the practice of speaking in a register that does justice to the human condition— most compellingly through prayer, the ritual artistry that delivers its lessons in exclamation marks, not just commas and periods. Ritual is the wrapping for ideas that would otherwise be unbelievable, unthinkable, unsayable.

A small-town synagogue president once attended a biennial in Canada and was carried away by 5,000 Jews all praying together. When border guards  asked what he had to declare, he said, “I declare the glory of God!” I tell the story not because I think you should try it out when you next encounter immigration, but to show you one way to think about prayer: it is a people’s reservoir of the most important things we can say.

So I model the way we allmight talk differently, moving synagogue board conversations (for instance) from the banal to the beautiful, the prosaic to the profound. I do not know exactly who God is, but I invoke God regularly, because at the very least, the word “God” is my placeholder for the best I can imagine, the best that life can offer. Thanks to Gayle’s gift for gardening, our once barren backyard bursts each year into a riot of flowers, a chance not just to think “How lovely!” – that’s thinking bagelly; but to think bigly, and to say, “Barukh atah  Adonai  shekakhah lo ba’olamo–“Blessed is God for a world such as this.” I teach students to end meetings with prayers, not just “Thanks for coming.”

Since words are holy, I call Judaism a conversation, a conversation that does justice to the human condition: our loves and laughter, our problems and promise. It is a conversation that occurs through music and the arts as well; it is inherently elevating and compelling. All may join in it, Jews by birth and Jews by choice, and anyone else at all, who happily locate themselves in a Jewish orbit.

That’s what I do. I speak differently, think bigly, and deepen the Jewish conversation to appreciate the human condition. None of that is my official job description, but I have stayed at the College, not move somewhere else, because the College let me do it. The Hebrew Union College is not just a school; it can be the cutting edge of what will save us.

It is, moreover, Reform. I applaud all denominations – I have taught or received honorary degrees from them all; through the Wexner Foundation, in particular, I have taught Jews of every stamp and conviction all across this continent.  But as much as we need strong Jewish addresses throughout the spectrum of Jewish life, ReformJudaism is myaddress, and Hebrew Union College is the hearth and heart of that address, my home.

The College took a chance on me, a kid from the boonies of Canada, who showed up knowing how to daven, but not much more. At my admissions interview I was asked to adjudge the impact of the Baal Shem Tov on Franz Kafka — Can you imagine? I had barely heard of either one (was it maybe Baal shem Kavka and Franz Tov???). But someone at the table said, “You love people; and you are willing to think; we can teach you the rest.” The College took me in and made me what I am; and then encouraged me to make myself, that I would later help make others – some of those others being some of you, who have gathered here tonight. But the maker has himself been made by those whom he was making — whatever I have given you, you have given me more; I can never adequately thank you all for coming.

Barukh atah Adonai, Blessed is God for life and its promise; for family and friends, for students and teachers, for thinking and speaking a world into being; for speech and song, for warmth and love, for hope and comfort, and for gratitude. Barukh atah Adonai, Blessed is God indeed, shekakhah lo ba’olamo,for a world such as this.

 

 

 

The Secret Well Greeted By Silence

Hidden away in this week’s reading is a single tiny verse with implications that should take our breath away. During Abraham’s day, we are told, “the Canaanites were thenin the land” (Genesis 12:6). But the Torah is said to have been composed by Moses, and when Moses died, they were still in the land. The verse must, therefore, have been composed by an author living after Moses died.

Abraham Ibn Ezra (1091/2-1167), who gives us this insight, calls it a sod, a “secret” and cautions, “The wise will keep silent.”

Ibn Ezra’s caution is usually explained by assuming he was wary of openly questioning Moses’s authorship of Torah. But Ibn Ezra doesn’t sound afraid. He repeats his discovery regarding several other verses, including Deuteronomy 34:1, where he identifies the other author as Joshua, an opinion he got from the Talmud itself (Menachot 30a). To be sure, questioning the Genesis verse went one step farther, but why assume, gratuitously, that Ibn Ezra was afraid to go there? Maybe he was not just playing it safe when he said the wise would greet his sod with “silence.”

In the context of Torah,sodis no ordinary “secret.” It is an advanced, even esoteric, interpretation of the text. In time, it came to denote meanings that are specifically “mystical,” but in the 12thcentury, it more likely meant “profound” – the description of an insight so penetrating, that it takes the breath away. Fools who rush to judgement might indeed charge Ibn Ezra with heresy, but as to the wise, his bold interpretation would simply stop them in their tracks, inducing “silence” (as he says) to allow its full significance to sink in.

Ibn Ezra’s breakthrough would someday change the very way we think about God, revelation, and religious truth itself, because in retrospect, we can see that it anticipated the scientific study of the Bible: a method that revealed even Torah as a composite document repeatedly edited over the course of centuries. Its authors are legion.

Some people still worry that if the Torah was written by human beings over time, it cannot be sacred. But the exact opposite is the case. The miracle of Torah is not dependent on God’s speaking it into being once and for all time at Sinai. It is that the Jewish People, in covenant with God, has consistently been discerning divine purpose, generation after generation; that generations of such discernment were somehow edited into what we call “The Torah”; and that generations thereafter have been reading and interpreting that very same Torah ever since.

Rather than destroy religious sensibility, Ibn Ezra’s modest beginning only enhances it. God did not just speak at Sinai. God, we say, is melekh ha’olam, and olam means not just “universe” but “infinity,” making God not just “ruler of the universe” (our usual translation) but “ruler of time and space”!  God addresses us always and everywhere.

The very essence of rabbinic Judaism is the conviction that through Torah, God speaks to every generation anew. That is why we have columns such as this, why rabbis sermonize, why we study sacred texts not just for what the original author intended, but for what the Talmud later thought, what centuries of commentators intuited even after that, and what our own sages discover today.

The Rabbis also insisted that God is revealed in day-to-day encounters that set us wondering why we are here and what counts as a life well led. We find God similarly in mathematics and science, the ways through which the world works. Judaism provides blessings to greet the intricacies of nature, no less than for religious commandments.

Ibn Ezra was discussing more than a single verse here and there. He was unveiling the reality of a divine mind that cannot be limited to a one-off revelation at Sinai. To be fully human is to uncover one divine secret after another, and to have our breath taken away by the incredible mystery of it all.