Tag Archives: Torah

Ki Tisa- Trust and Fear

golden calf The relationship between Trust and Fear is very close. They are locked in a dualistic battle for supremacy.

Ki Tisa contains the story of the Golden Calf. Ex 32:1, When the people saw that Moses was late in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron, and they said to him: “Come on! Make us gods that will go before us, because this man Moses, who brought us up from the land of Egypt we don’t know what has become of him.”

 Rashi explains that the people expected Moses to return in 40 days. He was delayed according to Rashi’s reading of the texts by 6 hours. 6 hours delayed after a 40-day encounter with God, and the people rebel. What an extraordinary level of fear that possessed the people to turn against the trust of God and Moses, the covenantal relationship that took the people out of Egypt, crossed the Red Sea and brought them to the moment of revelation, all the Trust undermined by a six-hour delay.

 We learn how difficult trust is to build, how important it is and how quickly it can disappear. We embrace trust as a foundation. We speak of trusting in ourselves so that we can make decisions along our way. We believe trust is the basis for any intimate relationship, that we will be cared for and held securely and safely by another and create a deep meaningful relationship permitting ourselves to be vulnerable because we feel protected. And it is precisely in this place that Fear can exercise its damaging power. In a moment, in a blink of an eye, or in this case six hours, Fear can take all we thought we had and burn it down. Rashi suggests that it is Satan who acts to confound the people. Satan is the fear we each carry inside.

 It is in the realization that we carry Fear as a primal instinct that we can understand its place. Fear resides inside, maybe a protector from an earlier era in human development. It may have helped us survive certain threats, but it shackles us and keeps us down. Only when we consciously use Trust to defeat it, can we overcome Fear and permit ourselves to be vulnerable, creating bonds and relationships with others upon which we can build. However, these two things need to coexist. Fear continues to protect us from threats and tempers Trust. Trust likewise keeps us from becoming paralyzed by Fear. Each is a part of us and we need both to be whole. But when one takes over the other things fall apart.

 Arguably we could say that the people should have trusted in God absolutely.   But we know that for most of us that is not true. God had yet to reveal, that was why they were at Sinai and Moses was the man they followed, making God even further removed. Their trust was tested and the relationships were not strong enough. The fear was able to creep in and crush this new relationship.

 Trust needs to be nurtured and reinforced to withstand the tests fear makes it endure. The story of the Golden Calf is the story of all of us.

Torah and the NFL- Nitzavim and Domestic Violence

This week’s Parasha opens with an extraordinary statement: “Atem nitzavim hayom culchem lifnay Adonai.” (Deut. 29:9) You are all standing here this day before the Eternal your God; the leaders of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel, your young children, your women, and your convert who is within your camp both your woodcutters and your water drawers that you may enter the covenant, the Brit, of the Eternal your God and His oath which the Eternal your God is making with you this day. (Deut. 29:9-11)

Everyone from the highest of stature to the lowliest is included. We each and every one of us are to be included. The statement is actually twofold. It has an element that sometimes we overlook. Usually we focus on how each is obligated to enter into the covenant. But there is a form of reciprocity implied in the Brit. As each of us is obligated to enter into it, then by extension so too is each of us protected by it. No matter what your stature from the lowliest to the highest, we are all sheltered by the very same covenant of laws. No one is above the law and all are subject to the same law.

A nation of laws has been birthed for the first time in human history. This is one of the singularly great gifts of Judaism to humankind. It is the bedrock upon which we have built the United States of America.

And that is precisely why it is so deeply offensive and disturbing to witness the ongoing saga of domestic violence play out within the National Football League and within our culture. The Allstate Foundation and its affiliate, The Purple Purse, a center to combat domestic violence, published that an astounding 1 woman in 4 in this country will report experiencing domestic violence in their lifetimes. 1 in 4. Here in the United States of America. Furthermore, the number of victims that find they are unable to remove themselves from the cycle of violence is equally staggering. And sadly many victims come to believe that the cycle of violence is acceptable or even the norm and then tragically perpetuate the behavior.

 The stories of Ray Rice, the now former running back for the Baltimore Ravens, and Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings continues. Around the country many people are proclaiming that domestic violence simply is not acceptable. The simple truth is: A brute cannot assault a woman; child discipline cannot devolve into battery leaving physical injury. We do not permit domestic violence. Period— End of Story.

 But it is so much easier to turn a blind eye. After all, we are talking about Football. Football is more than a game; Football is our national quasi-religion. Its sacrament is offered by the grand church known as the National Football League in cathedrals around the country and live-cast into our homes.  Almost everyone loves to watch the game on Sunday, and on Monday and on Tuesday and on Wednesday and on Thursday. (If only we could get people to our services so often!). It is quite a spectacle and these players are great athletes.

 Some people ask, can’t we just kick back and enjoy the show? I mean cold cocking your fiancé is not the most admirable thing to do, but come on- have you watched this guy run? Many would rather watch the game rather and turn a blind eye to what happens off the field.

But the answer remains no. When we choose to turn a blind eye, we choose to condone domestic violence. We facilitate and even encourage this behavior because there are no consequences if we turn away. We cannot turn away. We are all responsible for one another.

 As public figures these athletes have a responsibility. And as people who make their money from our participation, we have a responsibility. These competitors embody the celebrity and the financial success that our country glorifies as well as their athleticism, the result of fierce training and discipline. We admire these qualities and aspire to be like those who possess them.

 These people are role models for our kids and for us as well. This is substantiated by the fact that the star performers all have major endorsement contracts to promote everything under the sun- from shoes to hats, to anti-fungal foot powder and almost anything else imaginable. It is only because of their influence on us that they hawk products. So whether or not they aspire to be, they are our role models and the endorsement deals create income streams and a lavish lifestyle.

 What I find distressing however is that the sponsors are reacting faster than the general public. Endorsement contracts are being reviewed and many pulled in response to the culture of unbridled violence that permeates Football. But the fan base, the American “amcha” if you will, remains by in large wildly devoted participants in the spectacle.

 What does it say about us when we encourage or condone or even tolerate this kind of behavior? What are the values that truly matter to us? How do we act as individuals, even when no one else is supposed to be looking? And what do we do in greater society as a whole? If we shirk our responsibilities, we create a culture that accepts and promotes Domestic Violence.

 Our Parasha this week admonishes us that we are united in our obligations. “You stand here today, all of you, before the Eternal your God,” And if we do not adhere to these principles, there will be exile and devastation in the land. Further, it is incumbent upon each of us. Each and every individual is responsible. And this is not an impossible task. “For the mitzvah I command you this day it is not beyond you, nor is it remote from you. “Lo Bashamayim Hi.” It is not in Heaven, it is not across the sea. Rather it is very close to you, in your mouth, in your heart that you may do it.” (Deut. 30:14)

 All of us are called upon to be involved and to require good and decent behavior from ourselves and from others. So much of Torah is given to us for precisely this purpose. This is not some matter of politically correct civility; it is a foundation upon which our society is built.  A free and democratic system cannot tolerate the brute to rule. To borrow from Socrates rebuke of Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic, Justice is not the will of the stronger. The prophetic call to action of Isaiah, which we will read during the High Holidays and which we echo at every prayer service, admonishes us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless and provide for the widow and orphan. Society is strong only when it protects those unable to protect themselves. The seeds of this understanding are to be found here in Parasha Nitzavim.

 We are extraordinary and unique in that we are a nation of laws. This is not only a fundamental value of Judaism, but also a cornerstone of Western Culture and these United States. Without it, the very fabric of our society begins to fray and the domestic peace is threatened. It is both our inheritance and our legacy.

For this covenant extends beyond us to all of “those who are not here with us this day,” (Deut. v14) the future generations, our children and our children’s children.

 We are compelled therefore to demand better. The Eternal explains in Torah “I have set before you life and goodness, and death and evil. I command you to love God, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments.” God admonishes us to live with our eyes wide open.

 For if we do not live respecting the laws of decency and civility a cancer growing inside, threatens our society, one that will eventually kill, or to use the language of Nitzavim, “a root that produces hemlock and wormwood.” (Deut. 19:17)  We can put a stop to it now, by not tolerating such abusive behavior.

 We can act and we can have an effect. Truly it is close to us in our hearts and mouths. Nitzavim cautions that if someone thinks that he or she “can have peace even if I follow my heart’s desires,” “The Eternal will not forgive…but rather God’s zeal will fume against that person.” (Deut. 19:18) And so, each of us is obliged and challenged to act.

 It can start with something as simple as not watching the football game, sending an email to a sponsor or to the NFL demanding a change before agreeing to patronize one of the worlds most successful business enterprises, and actively supporting campaigns against domestic violence such as Purple Purse.

 The month of Elul is a time of reflection in preparation for the High Holidays; we look to where we have fallen short and how we might do better in the year to come. This is one place where we can all do better.

 ”Life and Death I have set before you, blessing and curse.” (Deut. 30:15) “Choose Life and live.”(Deut. 30:19)

Shabbat Shalom

A Psalm for Elul- Psalm 27

Tradition asks us to recite Psalm 27 during the month of Elul as we prepare for the High Holidays.

I share the following beautiful translation of the psalm by Rabbi Yael Levy, on Congregation Mishkan Shalom, Philadelphia

 

TO THE BELOVED,

 

THE INFINITE PRESENCE is my light and expanse, whom should I fear?

The Infinite Presence is the strength of my life, what shall I dread?

When forces come close

Seeming to devour me

When narrowness threatens

And opposition attacks

All that is menacing stumbles and falls

 

EVEN AS AN ARMY of mistrust besieges me

My heart does not fear

Even as thoughts and desires rise up against me

I still have trust

 

ONE THING I ASK of the Infinite, One thing I seek

To dwell in the Presence all the days of my life

To awaken to the beauty of each moment as I pass through this world

 

THE INFINITE shelters me as I encounter difficulty and pain

The Infinite holds me close in deep and hidden places

And lifts me high upon a rock. Now I can see through to what is true

And I will offer my gifts of thanks

And I will sing and make music to the Eternal

Please, Infinite One, Listen to my voice, hear my call

 

BE GRACIOUS WITH ME

Answer me

You call to my heart, “Seek my presence”

Your presence I seek

 

Please don’t hide from me

Please don’t let me turn away in anger

I long to serve

You are my help

Do not let me feel abandoned

Do not let me turn away

In You I am safe

For my Mother and father have left me

And it is you who gathers me in

Teach me Your ways. Guide me on the path of integrity

 

THERE IS SO MUCH to lead me astray

Don’t let me give in to all that torments me:

the lies, the illusions, the menacing threats

 

I MUST HAVE FAITH that I can see through all of this

I can see the good, the blessings, the ways of life

 

CULTIVATE HOPE in the Infinite Presence

Let your heart be strong and filled with courage

CULTIVATE HOPE

– Translation by Rabbi Yael Levy

 

 

Ps27

Finding Relevance in Eikev

Robin Williams’ untimely passing touched the hearts of many of us.  He touched our hearts because we had a personal connection.  His gifts of comedy and acting his brilliant artistry found a way into each of us.  And now we lament his passing on a personal level.

My father died about the time that Debbie Friedman passed away. Debbie was an iconic figure. Her passing created a tragic sense of personal loss in the Jewish community.  And as deeply as I cared for Debbie, I was more focused on the loss of my dad.  It was then that I noticed how we routinely find some losses to deeply affect us and others devolve from a human connection to a mere statistic.  

This approach to death is a coping mechanism;  If each death affected us deeply, we would be overwhelmed by the emotions and paralyzed.  The mind and heart do what they need to do in order for us to move on about our lives.  But beneath this, for those who are lost, what do they leave behind?  

This is the question I find myself asking about Moses in the Torah portion Eikev.  Moses is the iconic humble servant.  And yet, in this portion, Moses repeats several times that it was because of what he did that saved the people from oblivion.  Moses’ humility moves to the background as the need to be relevant takes over.  

Might Moses be scared?  He is the last of his generation, the generation that was to completely perish before the people would enter the Promised Land.  Might Moses be scared that he would fade into oblivion, and be a simple footnote to history?  The extraordinary experiences of creating a nation over the past 40 years might be obscured while the people are so focused on moving forward into the promise that the future holds.  

History and our entire tradition holds Moses up as the great leader and teacher.  We still recall Moshe Rabeinu with awe as we retell the stories of his life inextricably bound to the unfolding of our people’s destiny. But Moses did not know that at the time.  In this, his second discourse, Moses knows the end is drawing near.  In the remaining time left to him, Moses struggles to share the highlights of forging of a rag-tag group of slaves into B’nei Israel, about to enter and conquer the Land.  He can hope that his entire life’s work means something to those he has shepherded.  But it is only his hope that they will remember him, embraced his teachings and teach the generations to come; that they will become the people who God has offered as possible.  Yes Moses, we did hear and we did learn and we are still struggling to achieve the vision set before us.  

For our elders, this might explain the strident moments in your conversations with your children.  For our children, this might offer insight into the motivations of your parents.    Knowing this might help us to better understand the personal connection between parent and child.  We will feel the loss when our parents are gone.  But we can share and appreciate the wisdom of our elders now, while they are present in our lives.

A Quest for Meaning

 In Naso, we are introduced to the Nazir. A Nazir is one who purposefully separates himself or herself of the community by abstaining from certain luxuries or conventions, taking a vow as part of a spiritual search. This is the issue of the individual’s quest for meaning.

 We see the idea of a vow as a chance to be in closer communion with God. It is an extraordinary commitment as the individual, man or woman, commits to refraining from some basic of things. This particular vow seems to contradict the idea that we are in community; the Nazir does things that by their nature separates him/her from societal norms: The Nazir does not drink, does not cut his/her hair, not to be near the dead, even including those for whom even a Kohen would. At the end of the vow’s timeframe, the Nazir brings a sacrifice as a Sin offering and a second as an offering of well-being signaling the vow is now concluded and fulfilled.

 Once the Nazir has made the appropriate sacrifices, Aaron blesses the people with the Priestly blessing. This is as though through the process the Nazir endures in the sacred separating and the sacred re-joining, the whole people become worthy of God’s blessings.

 Like the Nazir we too try to find meaning in our lives. We reflect and act to give life purpose. The path we walk in that process can be difficult and often lonesome. We might find a need to separate ourselves from those we love or things that are familiar in order learn and grapple with the hard questions we confront in our lives. We do things that set us apart, not unlike the Nazir. However, our tradition teaches are not hermits or ascetics.   Parashah Naso teaches that our path needs to lead us back to the community. When we return, we are changed and, we pray, better off for the journey. When we return and again become a participant in our community, we enrich our community as well.

 We see this understanding of the Nazir play itself out all the time in our modern lives as well. Our young people for example, venture out from the family in their quest to find their paths, to challenge the paradigms they have learned in their youth and as they seek wisdom and growth. We call this going off to college. Our children leave us as adolescents and hopefully return as thoughtful young adults. In other even more noble pursuits, many of our best and brightest make a vow in the form of enlisting in the military to serve their country. The ideals they embrace they are willing to defend with their lives.

 We give our young the best we can. And then they leave. We pray that they will be safe on the journey and return to us whole. Then we know that indeed The Eternal has blessed us and protected us and caused The Divine Countenance to shine upon us.

The Give and Take of Torah

Our sages impress on us that Shavuot is the time of the Giving of Torah.  Giving and Receiving are seen as two separate acts.  The Giving is important because it is a one-time event and it is in the Receiving of Torah that we experience ongoing revelation. However, I think it is more complicated than that.  Both the Giving and the Receiving are inextricably bound together, two sides of the same coin. Both come with their own set of expectations and obligations.

Giving

A true gift is given freely and without strings attached.  Like so many of us, I have commented in the aftermath of the giving of a gift, with the gift box open and wrapping paper strewn, that “If you don’t like it, you can always bring it back.”  And that is true.  I do not want a gift to be kept merely to keep from offending me.  But whenever I give a gift, I select it thoughtfully and with care.  I want the gift I am giving to convey the meaning and love with which it was given. And I also want it to be loved and enjoyed.   So I rarely shop for Jewelry for my wife, unless I find something truly extraordinary that I know will fit her aesthetic sense.

Similarly, I believe the Gift of Torah is given with a similar intention.  It is given as an extraordinary expression of love that God has for his people.  And, if you will permit the anthropomorphism, I cannot help but think the Almighty would be crestfallen if we asked whether the receipt was still in the box somewhere.  Torah was not given just as a something for us to have.  It is to be a prized possession.  It is the greatest gift of all, short of life itself arguably.  There is an expectation and hope that we will embrace it fully and use it to guide our lives.

 Matan Torateinu, the Giving of our Torah, is more than something given in love.  This extraordinary act of Giving requires an equally extraordinary act of Receiving.  Sadly Torah can be rejected and “returned” as it were. It can be ignored, or possibly worse, misused as a means to exert power or personal gain at the expense of others.  All of us are diminished when one rejects Torah. Instead we hope to we turn it and turn it delving into its beauty and depth, revealing wisdom and ways for us to make meaning both in our relationship with God and in our relationships with each other.

Receiving

The Receiving of a gift is another matter.  I recall my mom teaching me as a boy, that it was proper to receive gifts with graciousness and gratitude.  The value of a gift lies in the intention with which it was given, not the price paid.  So understanding how a gift is given is very important to the receiver.  But what we actually do with the gift is up to us.

We determine how a gift is to be used.  A gift can be placed on a shelf.  It can be an object to be admired and appreciated.  But without interaction, it often does little more than collect dust.  Our willingness to engage it will determine how much it will mean to us.  But we must decide how to do this.  Even when the giver advises us how to use our gift, it is ultimately up to us.

And certainly when we do interact with it, the way we do it is also under our control, even when the gift is Torah.  We can return to it regularly or sporadically, we can be ready to engage fully or we could be more nonchalant, ready to pick up where we left off or to start afresh, we can be literal or figurative in interpretation.   We can plumb its depth and seek ways that it speaks to us and guides us.  It is said that when a piece of art or great literature leaves its creator, it becomes that which the recipient decides it will become.  All the more so Torah; for Torah is the supreme such work and yet still can only have as much meaning as we are willing to impart to it.

 I recall a Midrash spinning a story about the moment the people received Torah.  God lifts the mountain and suspends it over B’nei Yisrael by a thread.  The people are told they have a choice to accept or reject Torah.  But if they reject Torah, God will let go.  I actually prefer to understand the story another way.  The gift of Torah is the thread itself.  The world, as the mountain, can be harsh and cruel and the weight of the world can be crushing.  Torah gives us the ability to live under the reality that is our world and keep it from destroying us, instead giving us the opportunity for a full and meaningful existence.  Torah is the ultimate lifeline.

 In this case, both the receiving and the giving are dynamic.  We are always in the process of receiving, and arguably God is also always in the process of giving.  The Torah writ large is a living work, continuing to expand and evolve.  Both giver and receiver are actively involved in the process.  Both are intimately involved in the give and take.

 So how do we do justice to the gift of Torah?

For one thing, it is to embrace it with vigor to engage it and find how it speaks to us in ways that can affect our lives.  How do we grapple and test and probe with a sense of reverence and gratitude that comes from knowing Torah is given in love and the giver hopes that this priceless gift will be used for all its worth.

Pesach- A Message of Freedom

Soon we will gather around the Seder table and recall our redemption from the suffering of slavery we endured in Egypt.   We ask “Why is this night different from others?” This is a particularly profound question for us in this place and time.

 We enjoy many blessings.  We have prosperity and education; we can live our lives as we choose.   We are free.  But there are many who are not.  What does our freedom mean when there are so many, Jew and non-Jew, who still suffer?

 Our tradition teaches us that we are not truly free until all are free.  The oppression of slavery comes in many forms including physical, spiritual, and economic. It comes from a sense of hopelessness, the despair that arises when people believe that things cannot get better, that there is only suffering.  We are exhorted to help those in need and those who are oppressed to break the shackles that bind them.

 We are not truly free until all are free. God’s promise to us is not fulfilled until we deliver on our part of the bargain using our blessings to help others.   As we share our prayer “Next Year in Jerusalem,” let us commit to doing our part to help others also reach that profound and great place.