Divine Your Words

By Alison C. Brown

This week we begin to read the first and only book of the Chumash that it is written in first person. Moses had so surrendered his ego to the Divine that his words were also God’s words, explain the commentators of this week’s parsha Devarim.

“Moses’ utter identification with the divine wisdom empowers our own lesser souls, each of which possesses ‘a spark of the soul of Moses,’ to do the same (albeit on a lesser level): to create of ‘our own words’ receptacles for the divine wisdom,” writes Rabbi Yanki Tauber.

This interpretation strengthens the possibility that we might make our thoughts worthy to ascend the Four Worlds to God, as Kabbalists assert they do. At the meta-level, what we think matters, what we think empowers our lesser souls and the world of which we are one with, not separate from. Our words represent our thoughts and our soul. Words carry more long-lasting, impactful weight than a 140-character tweet might indicate. Ours words are our personal ambassador, just as Moses was God’s earthly ambassador.

“We understand the Hebrew Language to be very sacred,” writes Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer. “According to Jewish tradition, inherent in each letter are electric-like forces that God uses to create the Universe. ‘For when the world was created, it was the supernal letters that brought into being all the works of the lower world, after their own pattern….Jewish tradition maintains that God continually creates day and night.”

“The laws of language are identical to the laws of the universe,” Rabbi Goldhamer adds. The door to my office is made up of the Hebrew letters dalet-lamed-tav. When I touch my door, I am touching the Hebrew letters dalet-lamed-tav. This imagery resonates for me, especially as it compares to what we know from science. “Push your finger down on the table top and it feels solid. But no solids are ever contacted, not for an instant. Rather, the outmost atoms of your skin are surrounded by negatively charged electrons, and these are repelled by the similar electrons in the table. The sense of solidity is illusory; you feel only repulsive electrical fields. Fields. Energies. Nothing solid, ever,” Robert Lanza, MD, teaches in Beyond Biocentrism.

Words, made of letters, have the weight of energy and their energetic motion continues beyond the brain or two in their path. Words create. Moses knew this. He knew that he needed to relay God’s guidance to emphasize that a  Jewish path leads to the marvels of a Promised Land.

An Invisible Bee

Look how desire has changed in you,
how light and colorless it is,
with the world growing new marvels
because of your changing.

Your soul has become an invisible bee.
We don’t see it working,
but there’s the full honeycomb.
– Rumi

 

Human desire, as referred to in Pirkey Avot 1:4, is above all the desire for lifelong learning and growth asserts Rabbi Reuven. Your soul, sparked by the Divine, is an invisible bee. You experience and witness the material world and with a searching desire become aware that you are part of an Divine energy field. Energies are exchanged. When your thoughts and words are light and colorless, ie. kind, your soul becomes one with the energies of others. God creates the world’s marvels anew each day with the Hebrew letters and, Rabbi Goldhamer writes, the 22 Hebrew letters “are codes that allow us to connect the divine principle within us to the divine principle outside of us.” Moses shares this code with us in Deuteronomy. Reading Torah will change you.

This Is What Made Moses Great

by Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer

This week’s Torah portion, Hukkat, is always very traumatic for me.  First, we have the death of the great prophetess Miriam, which is described in one sentence, “…and Miriam died there, and was buried there. And there was no water for the congregation…”(Numbers 20:1-2)  Later in the same chapter we experience the death of Aaron, “…and Aaron died there in the top of the mount…and when all the congregations saw that Aaron was dead, they wept for Aaron thirty days, even all the house of Israel.” (20:28-29)

But, the most difficult part of this Torah portion for me to understand is that, in this same chapter, God tells Moses that he will not live to bring the people Israel into the Promised Land.  After Miriam’s death, the people complain that there is no water to drink – the well has dried up.  So, God tells Moses “Take the rod, …and speak ye unto the rock before their eyes, that it give forth its water; ….And Moses lifted up his hand and smote the rock with his rod twice; and water came forth abundantly…. And the Lord said unto Moses and Aaron: ‘because ye believed not in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.’”(20:8-12)

Why should Moses be denied entrance into the land of Israel because he struck the rock,  instead of speaking to the rock?    Most times I see Hashem as a compassionate being, but at other times, I see God as someone who has no patience for the greatest of all the prophets.

Why is my favorite prophet Moses, “our teacher,” lifted up on God’s highest mountain (Numbers 12), yet when Moses asks Hashem to transform him into a bird so that he can fly over Israel, or into a soldier just so he can allow his boots to feel the mud of Jerusalem, why does God say “no.”  This is the same God, whom King David describes in Psalm 145 as, “slow to anger and of great mercy.”

Imagine being so close to your goal—having led the Jewish people through the desert for 40 years, only to be told that you will not be allowed to cross the finish line, into the Promised Land.  When Moses strikes the rock, he has just suffered the loss of his sister Miriam.  Is he not allowed to feel grief? Is he not allowed to sit shiva for his sister? Is he not allowed to misunderstand God’s direction? Why does God have no patience for his circumstances?

These are the questions I wrestle with every time I read this Torah portion.  And every year, as I study this, I feel frustration for the fate of Moses.  But, perhaps it is because Moses is such a great leader that he has to die outside the Promised Land.  Now, it is up to the rest of the “team,” led by Joshua, to enter Israel.  God and Moses both know that it is time for the people to accept responsibility for themselves.  They are no longer slaves, following directions – but they are free men and women, who will have to build this new land, which has been promised to them.  It is time for the next generation to take charge.

I find solace in knowing that, while Moses is not allowed into Israel, he goes to a much better place – he is drawn next to the bosom of the Lord.  The death of Moses, a true tzaddik, is a terribly sad time, but, it is also a time of rebirth, an illumination of life.  When a child is born in this world, she departs from the world of souls. When a tzaddik dies, he undergoes the reverse – he departs from this world and returns to the other world.  And, perhaps the actions that happen in this week’s Torah portion, have to happen, so that the next generation is empowered to assume new leadership roles, with Joshua at the helm.

The Midrash frequently mentions that the death of a tzaddik atones for the sins of a generation and of the whole world (Exodus Rabba 35:4), because the greater the individual who is taken from the world, the more significant the changes generated by the transition are. Hence, when Moses leaves this world, the void that is created changes the nature of the world forever.  Perhaps Moses has to die, so that this new generation can get a clean slate.

Moses will always be remembered not as an angel, but as a man of flesh and blood who God remembered, not as the Messiah, but as a man, who loved the Lord with all his heart and soul and might. And yet, he was not afraid to challenge the greatness of God when he felt he had to .This is what made Moses great.

Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer is senior rabbi of Congregation Bene Shalom, Skokie, and president and professor of Jewish Mysticism at Hebrew Seminary, Skokie.

“Why did God create man?” “Because he wanted to hear a good story!”

We met with Hebrew Seminary alumni and faculty member Rabbi Shari Chen to share her passion for the stories of the Bible, as so beautifully manifest in her 2005 thesis for rabbinic ordination on the Midrashim of Our Mothers.  This is the second half of that interview.

You conclude each of your thesis chapters on the different women in Genesis with your own midrash exemplifying their faith.  How did you go about this and is the retelling of midrashim part of our Jewish tradition?

Our Talmud teaches that, Torah m’daberet b’lashon adam – Torah speaks in the language of man. There is no greater way to relate to the Torah than through midrashim.  It is asked, “Why did God create man?”  “Because he wanted to hear a good story!”  God wants us to create new midrashim to share his words with new generations in a contemporary language that they can relate to.  It was my hope in creating these new midrashim that I would be able to inspire young women to want to learn Torah and to learn more about the women we came from.  My midrashim of Eve Naamah (Noah’s wife), Eidit and our matriarchs, all based on Judaic sources, not only brings them to life but illustrates the often unsung goodness within each of them.

This summer we read the Torah portion Chukat in which Miriam dies.  Rabbi Shefa Gold, renown for her teaching of sacred, Hebrew chants, writes, “Miriam had a way with water.  She could touch the depths with her song and call forth spiritual nourishment.  No matter how difficult the journey, Miriam’s dance would bring ease and beauty to the process itself.  She carried with her the feminine wisdom that could not be written down.  Upon her death we are given a spiritual challenge: to reclaim the source of her wisdom, to discover the song in our voice and the dance in our step.”  Is there an ancient or modern midrash that can help us with this spiritual challenge?

Midrash tells us that after pharaoh’s decree that every Hebrew newborn son be cast into the Nile, it is said that Yochevet and Amram, Moses’ parents, separated so that they wouldn’t conceive any more children.  Miriam goes to her father and convinces him that he shouldn’t do what pharaoh wants, stop bearing Hebrew children.   Because of Miriam’s wisdom, Yochevet and Amram reunite and Moses is born.

Miriam’s great spiritual wisdom is also clearly illustrated in a midrash relating to the crossing of the Red Sea.  It is said that when the waters first split, the men began to argue about which tribe should have the honor of going first into the sea.  While the men are arguing, Miriam instructs the women to all take hands and enter the sea together and the sea splits into twelve distinct paths.  This is an example of how not one of us is any better than any other and that God wants us to join together to celebrate as one people, equal in the eyes of God.

When you counsel congregants, how do you use Torah text and in what ways have you found the texts to be helpful?

I often use midrashic text and stories to help congregants.  There’s a beautiful midrashic story about seeking the perfect object that will bring the wealthiest, most content person to tears, and yet brings gladness to the ones who are suffering the most.  The object, which is found after much effort, is a ring with four simple words engraved within it, “this too shall pass”.  I feel that all of us need to remember this truth at some point in our life.  When we are going through hard times there are many different midrashim that can offer us hope.  For thousands of years we have sought answers to the greatest question: why?  Why must we suffer?  Why is life sometimes so difficult?  Our inspiring and cherished midrashim help us to understand that we are not alone and that we, like our ancestors, will not only survive but we will endure guided by love and by faith.

What Midrashim collections can you recommend for us?

Robert Alter, Genesis: Translation and Commentary

Chaim and Rabinitsky Bialik, Sefer Ha’agadah: The Legends that are in the Talmud and Midrash (HEBREW)

Gerald Friedlander, Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer

Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of Their Stories

Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of Jews

Jill Hammer, Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women

Moses and Miriam’s Friendship of Trust

Our sidra this week is Chukat which includes the mysterious telling of Moses emotionally striking the rock in the wilderness of Zin to bring forth much needed water for the people of Israel (Num. 20:10-11). For this, Moses was not allowed to enter the land of Canaan.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks observes this is the first trial that Moses had to face as a leader without his sister Miriam who had recently passed away. Rabbi Sacks explains that the early life of Moses suggests that Miriam was Moses’ trusted friend and confidante. “Maimonides calls it the ‘friendship of trust’ (chaver habitachon) and describes it as having someone in whom ‘you have absolute trust and with whom you are completely open and unguarded.’” Even Moses needed a human friend that he could trust.

My fellow student Tirtzah says this is also what we need to help heal our world today. My heart has been aching since the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the Dallas policemen Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens. I asked Tirtzah what can we do? She told me of her Englewood neighbors and their ‘network of trust’. These eight households began neighbor-by-neighbor to be open, unguarded and authentic with each other. Leaders such as Moses and neighbors such as you and I need friends and family we can trust.

This is one thing we can do. Give those we meet reason to trust us. Be a kind listener. Be a trusted problem-solver. Talk openly about your fears and sanctify the gift of each day by being kind.

Here is another thing we can do. Jewish law influenced Roman law, English law, and our own Declaration of Independence and Constitution. The Men of the Great Assembly said, “”Be deliberate in judgement,’ because there is no greater act of loving-kindness than saving the oppressed (from those who would wrong them) by rendering fair judgement.” (Kehati on Pirkei Avot, Chapter 1, Mishnah 2.)

In the words of contemporary author George Saunders, “… to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality – your soul, if you will – is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespear’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret, luminous place. Believe that it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.”