Tag Archives: God

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.

Donkeys, Tongs, and the Coming of the Messiah

The talking donkey most familiar to Americans these days is the cartoon character “Donkey” from the hit movie Shrek (2001). But Donkey’s predecessor, Francis the talking mule, debuted in a 1946 World War II novel, and then seven follow-up films in the 1950s; and the unbeatable original is a whole lot older still — Balaam’s donkey of Numbers 22.

All three donkeys are noticeably smarter than the people who own them, and maybe that’s the point. A donkey is a jackass, after all, the archetypically stupid beast of burden; granting them intelligence is a favorite artistic strategy

The Rabbis, who think Balaam’s donkey was real, trace its origin to creation itself, when God fashioned a variety of things that history would someday require but put them aside until they were needed. One such item was Balaam’s donkey. Another was the first set of tongs

Yes, tongs!

A quintessential breakthrough in human material culture is metallurgy: first iron, and then the process of heating it above 800 degrees centigrade to “steel” it for tasks where ordinary iron breaks. But to manipulate iron, you need tongs, and in order to make the tongs, you first need other tongs! It follows, then, that alongside Balaam’s donkey, God must also have fashioned a set of primeval tongs, which humans eventually discovered and used to make all the other tongs.

Long before metallurgy, there was fire itself, of course, so another rabbinic tale traces that also to God. This story accents Adam, the human being who discovered it; celebrated its heat and light; thanked God for it; and used it ever after

To tongs and fire as benchmarks in human progress, we should add writing, the means of transmitting knowledge through the generations. Rabbinic tradition ascribes the discovery of writing to Enoch, a descendent of Adam. Legend pictures God allowing Enoch to live among the angels, so that he might attain their mastery of the natural universe, and write it down for humans to learn

The important lesson here is that all these tales picture God as welcoming human discovery — unlike Zeus of Greek mythology, from whom Prometheus, like some primeval industrial spy, has to steal these very secrets (metallurgy, fire and script) and give them to mortals: an act for which he is punished by being shackled to a crag, where every day, an eagle rips open his flesh to devour his liver. The God of the Rabbis, by contrast, willingly creates everything we need – writing, fire, tongs, and even (for a single cameo appearance) a talking donkey: and then glories in our discovering them.

Civilization requires regularized breakthrough inventions, but do we invent them despite creation or does the very plan of creation favor our inventiveness? Judaism’s answer is the latter: the cosmos and we are in sync. God welcomes curiosity. God wants us to uncover the world’s secrets

Judaism views the universe as massive beyond imagination, but created with order and logic – just awaiting human discovery. To be a Jew is to value the art of exploring the unknown. Adam stops to investigate fire; Enoch writes notes on what the angels know; some unknown blacksmith figured out how to use tongs; and Balaam marvels at, and listens to, a talking jackass.

God supplies the world with whatever we might need; we dedicate ourselves to finding it. That, the Rabbis say, is what God wants: we are in league with God in manufacturing progress.

Progress is slow, however, measured only in eons, so we must commit ourselves to this business called life, for the long haul. Only eventually will we, conceivably, discover miraculous solutions for such problems as intractable disease, endemic poverty, ecological disaster and war.

We call that eventuality the messianic age, which tradition describes as a messiah arriving on yet one more donkey. That too, perhaps, is a holdover from creation, deposited in the wings of history and awaiting its turn on the world stage. Stay tuned. Who knows

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 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.

Parashat Vayera

Ask any artist: it’s all about seeing.

We don’t, that is, just see the world raw. Seeing requires the intentional act of focusing our eyes on one particular part of a larger visual field. At times, something new comes suddenly into view – a rainbow, perhaps. But we frequently see things anew even if they have been there all along – we just never noticed them.

That’s the way it was with the ram that Abraham finally saw and substituted for Isaac. God created it, say the rabbis, at the very dawn of creation, and positioned it just so, for Abraham to see. Why, then, didn’t he see it before tying up Isaac and coming within an inch of killing him?

He just never looked. He was too intent on the sacrifice to notice. Only after the angel stayed his hand, did he look up and see. But even so, it was only secondarily that he saw the ram, say the Tosafot. What he saw first was God, hovering behind the angel’s staying hand.

This idea emerges from a close reading of vayisa avraham et einav, “Abraham lifted up his eyes.” The first three Hebrew words end in letters that spell emet, “truth,” and Truth, say the Tosafot, is another name for God. No less than the ram, God too was there all the time. Only when Abraham looked could he see “the truth,” which is to say, God.

When we speak of “seeing a truth,” however, we mean it metaphorically. Nobody “sees” truth itself; we see it in something else: an algebraic equation, perhaps, or a work of art that reaches profundity. What, then, did Abraham literally see, that so strikingly gave him the truth?

Picture the scene. Abraham leans over his son, about to drive the knife home, when the angel diverts his attention, and he “lifts his eyes and sees.” Follow the image. Where does a father look at such a time, if not into the eyes of the son he is about to lose? Abraham’s truth was revealed in the eyes of Isaac.

So the angel jolts Abraham into realizing that it is his son whom he is about to sacrifice; he thereupon looks into the eyes of Isaac, who stares back at him. Until now, they have treated each other merely as a mutual means to an end – the way to fulfill God’s command. But now, with the sacrifice suspended, they actually see each other for who they really are. The moment of truth arrives at the miracle of meeting which the Hebrew perfectly describes as panim el panim, “face to face.”

Only humans communicate face to face, says philosopher Roger Scruton. Animals look at each other, but not into each other. It is in each other’s eyes that we humans find the frightening vacancy of evasion, the meaningful glance of understanding, or the certain sign of love. If we try to dissemble, it is our faces that give us away: the way we blush, for example, or tear up against our will.

“To this day,” says the biblical author, the place where Abraham and Isaac finally see each other is called Adonai Yeira’eh,God is seen.” And lest we think that the revelatory moment of true relationship comes only once in human history, the Torah provides it again when Jacob and Esau reconcile: “Seeing your face,” says Jacob, “is like seeing the face of God” (Gen. 33:10).

It’s all about seeing: stopping the task at hand and seeing into each other’s eyes. It’s easy to hate collectivities of people, hold prejudices against whole groups, ignore the poverty of faceless nameless others, or even sacrifice individual people whose eyes we carefully avoid. But look into the eyes of a single person who is temporarily at our mercy, and we cannot fail to see the truth: the presence of God right there in the other person’s face.

Tazri’a-M’tsora

Medically speaking, the biblical disease that is usually translated as “leprosy” (tsara’at) has nothing to do with slander (motsi shem ra). But our pre-scientific rabbinic ancestors connected the two as if they did. Tsara’at for them was like advanced and untreatable cancer for us. They deliberately associated the gravest threat to bodily health with character damage caused by the misuse of language, as if to say they were equivalent.

That decision should take our breath away. Our culture cares relatively little about damage we do through verbal abuse. Beyond taking adequate care to avoid lawsuits, we engage rather freely in speaking loosely of others.

Jewish law, by contrast, is nothing short of obsessive on the subject. It delineates three kinds of verbal abuse and insists that we cease and desist from each and every one: 1. We are forbidden to invent or pass on lies about people (motsi shem ra). 2. We may not even speak negatively about them regarding things that happen to be true (lashon hara)! 3. And even idle gossip (r’chilut) is forbidden, since gossip thrives on the objectionable, if not the downright sordid.

Clear distinctions among the three categories emerge only in the Middle Ages, where, for instance, the two great legalists Maimonides and Nachmanides argue whether lashon hara is its own classification or just a particularly heinous case of r’chilut. Until then, rabbinic writing frequently lumps them all together as just plain scurrilous talk, which insidiously eats away at a person’s good name and thereby causes injury. The Talmud goes so far as to say that “speaking lashon hara is like denying the existence of God.”

This, mind you, is for lashon hara — speaking evil of others, even if the charges are true! Why is even this lesser offense equivalent to, of all things, apostasy — pretty much the worst crime against God that the Jewish imagination can muster?

Our commentators are of no single opinion on the subject. One prominent example (attributed to Maimonides himself, among others) provides the slippery slope scenario. If we get used to speaking negatively about our own ordinary friends and acquaintances, it is only a matter of time until we do so even of people in authority, including those whose wisdom and way of life testify of God’s existence. We would thereby end up implicitly casting doubt on the most obvious human exemplars of God’s reality.

A better answer, I think, comes from a teaching attributed to the Chafetz Chaim, who is said to have cautioned against speaking lashon hara even of oneself. Discussion of lashon hara usually assumes that the prohibition is rooted in the damage that it causes. But what damage do we cause ourselves by owning up to our own negative character traits? Doesn’t Judaism demand we do just that? We call it t’shuvah (“repentance”)!

The Chafetz Chaim is, no doubt, thinking of people who go beyond proper <i.t'shuvah — people, that is, who habitually run themselves down. It is this constant negativity toward oneself that is forbidden — because being overly self-critical is a slight on God, the Creator who made us.

At stake is what we call religious anthropology, our doctrine of human nature. Judaism insists on seeing something divine in each and every one of us. In 1994, a singing group, “The Halo Benders,” released an album entitled, “God Don’t Make No Junk” — a title that has inspired hundreds of T-shirts, bumper stickers, web-site postings, and other forms of subtle protest against a society that teaches us that we are, overall, wanting.

We can understand the Chafetz Chaim as emphasizing the much earlier and specifically Jewish version of “God don’t make no junk.” It’s one thing to take honest stock of who we are; it’s quite another to run ourselves down all the time (even if the charges are mostly true) without simultaneously appreciating what is good, decent and even godly within us. The self-directed lashon hara of speaking overly negatively about ourselves ignores the reality of God that forms the essence of every living soul.

The implicit denial of God’s presence in any human being, even ourselves, is indeed the subtlest of apostasies. And it is a sin.