A Kaleidoscope of Angels: for parashat Vayeitzei

 

By Stacey Robinson

Put the stone under your head
and rest; don’t be disturbed
by the kaleidoscope of angels
on their merry ride of
up and down,
between heaven and earth
and there and back again.

They may be lost,
those angels, or at least
Stuck, intractable in their
proscribed tracks,
their lesson a cautionary tale
in thinking heaven is up.

Let your stone,
cold and hard,
remind you that
there is no place God is not,
even in that rock,
and all those hard places
that the angels fear to tread.
God cares not for the ladders,
But stands over you,
And waits for you to notice.

Heaven is now,
not where.
This is the entrance.
This is the glory.

 

Not Evening Not Morning

By Student Rabbi Stacey Robinson

It was not evening,

nor night,

not quite –

although the sickle moon,

dusted in orange,

kissed the passing clouds

 

It was not morning,

tho the sun

stained the sky

scarlet,

and shivered there,

on the horizon

that was sea and sky together,

and neither sea

nor sky

alone.

 

And so we prayed,

gathered at the water’s edge,

in the not-evening-

Almost morning.

We opened our lips

on the border

of land that moved

with fluid grace,

next to the dark glass

of an obsidian sea

that rippled with

the laughter of the stars

that skated its smooth surface.

 

And all the Hosts of Heaven

waited in expectant

and shimmering

Glory,

in that not-quite moment,

that sacred place

of not you

and not me;

That place where God lives –

at the very edge

of Heaven

and Earth,

That is the center

And calls to us

With bird song and wind

and the rippling

lightening

obsidian sea.

 

And there the shofar called

A single note,

Stretching out unto

eternity.

 

There was evening.

There was morning.

One day.

 

The Teaching of Pinchas Cannot be Condemned, But ….

By Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer

In last week’s Torah portion, members of the community of Israel profane themselves by engaging in licentious behavior with Moabite women and worshiping the Moabite god. Hashem becomes incensed with Israel and tells Moses to impale the leaders committing these actions.  “The Lord’s wrath may turn away from Israel.” (Numbers 25:4)  Pinchas witnesses an Israelite consorting with a Midianite woman in front of Moses and the Israelite community. Pinchas takes a spear and stabs the guilty Israelite Zimri and the woman Cozbi fatally.

This week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, begins with Hashem saying to Moses, “Pinchas, son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people…I grant him my pact of friendship…It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned action for his God.”  By killing Zimri and Cozbi, Pinchas fulfilled Hashem’s command to Moses. He directed his complete being, body and soul, to maintain the complete integrity of the Jewish people’s commitment to the covenant of God which was clearly articulated at Sinai.

Pinchas publicly challenged the community of Israel and its lack of adherence to the sacred code of the 613 commandments of Torah.  Clearly, the moral code of the New Israelite polity was put to its first public test.  Zimri and Cozbi participated in an irresponsible and despicable return to pre-Sinai morality.  If God was everything, as Aristotle teaches (“thought thinking itself”), then God was subject, predicate and object.  As Torah maintained again and again, there is nothing but God. Therefore, Pinchas’s zealotry was a religious act, determined not only to preserve the crown of God’s glory – the New Covenant of Torah—but it was also a moral act, designed to preserve God Himself.

In commenting on this week’s Torah portion, Levi Yitzhak writes in Kedushat Levi, Pinchas zeh Eliyahu. Pinchas is Elijah [Zohar II, p. 190A) and Elijah lives on forever (Zohar II, p. 197A-B.) How is this so? We must understand that our physical bodies are not deeply connected to Divine service, since the body tends to look out for its own needs.  But, our soul is always attuned to the fear of heaven. The body is unlike the soul.  It is corruptible, it dies. However, if the body could serve God like the soul at all times, no one would die….”

Pinchas accepted that in killing Zimri and Cozbi, his own life was at risk.  He might be killed for stabbing Zimri and Cozbi.  But, Pinchas did not give thought to his own physical needs. He was devoted to serving God, with both body and soul. Pinchas saw his body and soul as one, having no distinction.  And for this zealotry, God rewards him with “a pact of friendship and a pact of priesthood for all time.”

Yet, last week’s Torah portion and this week’s portion, are not that clear cut. Of course, we are all God. There is no separation between us and God. There is no empty space in the universe that is devoid of God.  This leads to all kinds of healing.  As I said,  Aristotle’s definition of God as “thought thinking itself” denies that there are some places devoid of God and affirms the Deuteronomic claim that God is everything and everywhere.   I know our Kabbalistic tradition holds Pinchas at the highest level, but I have difficulty championing Pinchas’s zealotry and murder and then God’s particular blessing.  I am puzzled that God can reward someone for the savage murder of two people.

I love God; indeed, God is love. I recognize that Levi Yitzhak’s commentary suggests that the reason Pinchas received this blessing was that he had transcended physical needs and physical concerns, and was completely devoted to God. Does this redeem the terrorist, particularly in our age of “suicide martyrs”?  Levi Yitzhak’s view is profound, but it steps onto a slippery slope. This teaching of Pinchas cannot be condemned, but at the same time, it cannot be applauded. Yes, the Aristotelian teaching that soul and body are one is very important, and is part of our Jewish faith, but each time we learn that soul and body are one, we have to recognize its context. We cannot be so open minded that our brains fall out, and we applaud the suicide martyr.

When we look at this text in our Torah scroll, the letter yud in Pinchas’s name in verse 11 is written smaller than the other letters. This teaches that, when we act with violence, the yud in us (standing for the name of God and for the name “Jew”) is greatly diminished. Let us remember that the Torah is truly the word of God. Frankly, there is no separation between the word and the writer. The Torah is indeed the Lord our God.

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

The Jewish People Have the Ticket

As part of our 25th Anniversary Torah v Talmud debate, Hebrew Seminary Board member Allen Meyer presented the following well received and most enjoyable story about the relevance and longevity of Jewish values, traditions and peoplehood.

Chapter One

Albert Einstein boards a train. It leaves the station. The conductor comes to collect the tickets. He gets to Einstein who looks high and low for it. He looks in his cuffs, in his pockets, his briefcase and even gets up to see if he is sitting on it. The conductor says, “Don’t worry, I know who you are. You are Albert Einstein. I don’t need your tickets. I am sure you have one. You are Albert Einstein, it’s an honor.” The conductor moves on to other passengers. He hears rumbling and looks back. There is Albert Einstein on all fours. Looking under the seat, opening his suitcase which he had taken down from the overhead compartment. The conductor comes back and says, “Mr. Einstein, I told you I know who you are. I don’t need to see your tickets, I am sure you have one.” Einstein replies, “I understand, but I need to know where I’m going!”

The Jewish people have taken many trains. Some to places of wonder, some sadly to places of death. But we have survived because we always have had the ticket. The Torah has been our ticket, our template. It has remained unchanged, undeterred and steadfast. The Jewish people have the ticket.

Chapter Two

Three airplanes are flying east over the Atlantic. The first one lands in Athens. An old man exits and is greeted by an attendant. “What is your name the attendant asks?” “My name is Socrates.” “And what brings you to Athens?” Socrates replies, “What brings me to Athens? This is my city, this is my country.” “Never heard of you.” “Take me to the Acropolis!” The attendant replies, “The Acropolis? For $7 you can see the remnants, I think a tour starts in 45 minutes. Socrates says “Take me to Zeus!” The attendant replies, “We don’t worship at Zeus anymore.” Socrates asks, “What do you worship?” “We have the Greek Orthodox Church.” “What is the Greek Orthodox Church?” “The religion of Greece … (which of course developed centuries after Socrates.)” “Tell me, how is Greek philosophy doing, where do they study my work, the works of Plato and Aristotle?” The attendant replies, “It’s pretty obsolete, maybe a few Professors teach it on one of the Islands. I heard there is a retreat once a year; it’s mostly drinking.” “Do people still fear the Greek Empire?” He replies, “There is no Greek Empire, we are barely a country. People fear if their money will still be available to them in the banks tomorrow.” Socrates asks, “Why aren’t you speaking the language I wrote in; the language of Ancient Greece?” The attendant replies, “We don’t speak that language anymore.” Socrates says, “This is not my Athens, this is not my country. Get me out of here.”

Chapter Three

Another plane lands in Rome. A Statesman exits looking old and disheveled, blood still on his shirt. An attendant greets him and asks what his name is. “My name is Julius Caesar.” “Oh, like the Caesar salad?” Caesar replies angrily, “How is Rome doing? How is the Roman Empire doing?” The attendant laughs and says, “There hasn’t been a Roman Empire in 1,500 years!” “So what is Rome now?” “It is a city; the capital of Italy.” “What is Italy?” “A member of NATO.” “Take me to the Coliseum!” The attendant replies, “For $8 I can show you the remnants. I think a tour starts in 45 minutes.” “Do people still worship Venice?” “No, we have the Vatican.” “What is the Vatican?” “The seed of Catholicism?” What is Catholicism?” “You never heard of Christianity or the Pope?” “No, tell me.” “Well it’s a long story, you see there was this Jewish boy.” “Why aren’t you speaking Latin?” “Who speaks Latin? A few Academics.” “What do you speak?” “We speak Italiano, the language of Italy.” “What is this Italy known for?” “Pizza and Pasta.” Julius Caesar says, “This is not my Rome, get me out of here.”

Chapter Four

A third plane lands at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. An old man comes out and is greeted by an attendant who says two words to him, “Shalom Alechem.” The old man replies, “Alechem Shalom.” The attendant looks at the old man and says, “Ma shimcha, what is your name?” The old man says, “My name is Moshe, and what is your name?” The man replies, “Gam ani Moshe, my name is also Moshe. I come from Russia. Where do you come from?” The old man Moshe replies, “I come from Egypt.” “Really! What brings you here?” The old man Moshe replies, “I come to my homeland.” “Have you been here before?” Moshe answers, “No, but I tried getting here for 40 years, believe me I tried. I tried very hard; it didn’t work out. Trust me, I made a lot of sacrifices for this land. I’m entitled to call Israel my homeland.” The attendant says, Moshe, Welcome to your homeland!” Old man Moshe turns to him and says, “I have an embarrassing question. Socrates and Caesar were in such a rush to find their golden roads in Athens and Rome, I forgot something. Does anyone in this country have what is called a Tallis and Teffilin?” Moshe laughs pointing to his bare arm, “I just finished Shachrit, the morning prayer. Look at the marks on my arm from the Teffilin straps, the box mark on my head. You can borrow mine; they are in my backpack. You see that room there, it a Shul here in the airport. Maybe 200 people are also finishing their prayers. Anyone would lend you their Tallis and Teffilin!” Old man Moshe says, “I have one more favor; I’m starving. I haven’t eaten in a few thousand years. Do they have food here in Israel?” “Food?” the attendant Moshe says. “They don’t stop eating here. In the airport alone there are 90 restaurants.” Old man Moshe says, “You may not understand, I need Kosher. You know from Kosher?” Moshe replies, “Kosher? They have every type of kosher. Glatt Kosher, Semi Glatt, Almost Glatt, Tuesday and Thursday Glatt, Deli Glatt, Dairy Glatt, Jewish style, every type of certificate. OU, KU, Gluten Free Certificate, Free Range Kosher, Grass Fed Kosher, and coming soon Amazon Kosher! They have every type of Kosher. Chinese Kosher, Thai Kosher, French Kosher, Brazilian Kosher, even Subway and McDonald’s Kosher…..no cheeseburger, no cheeseburger……fries!” “WOW!”

Old man Moshe finishes eating and then asks, “So what do they teach in the schools today?” “Come with me, I have a security pass. There is a small school nearby.” They walk across the street and Moshe hears a song. They enter a small classroom and the teacher tells her students to open their Chumash, their Bible, and repeat as one. And old man Moshe hears, “”Va y’dabeir Adonoi el Moshe l’mar.” And G-d spoke to Moses and he said….” And two huge tears fell from the eyes of Moshe Rabbenu.

If Socrates and Caesar land today in Athens and Rome, what will they recognize? Only the geography, if that. But if Moshe Rabbenu lands in Israel what will he find? The same language, the same values, the same heritage, the same traditions, the same G-d, the same Mitzvot, the same Shabbat, the same Yiddishkeit, even the same arguments. The same Rams horn, the same Tallis and Teffilin, the same philosophy, and yes my friends, the same letters, written the same way, with the same spacing on the same parchments forming as it still exists  behind every ark in every Synagogue on this planet, giving we Jews our continuity despite everything. Moshe Rabbenu will find the exact same template which has kept us as a people for centuries…..The Torah. As it says over our ark, Da lifnei mi atah omed. Know before Whom you stand.

Toldot & Thanksgiving

by Alison C. Brown, Executive Director

Fear not, while it currently feels as though some of our world leaders have purposefully severed our ancestral roots, I suspect every generation feels that way.

Parashah Toldot is a Jewish narrative about our ancestral roots and serves as another installment in the guide to being fully human. Together with the many Jewish texts redacted and commented upon over the millennia, there is no misconstruing the values that bind us.

Our ancestors live within us. We connect with and build upon the consciousness of previous generations. To borrow an image from science, we need only connect to the stardust of which we are all made. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev taught a general principle that wherever we go, we go to our roots. Pull the camera out to include contemporary times: we may move or change jobs, but our roots accompany us. To access our roots for decision making we need b’hirut hasaichel, clarity of reason. Through prayer, meditation and mindfully being in the present moment we experience an unchanging awareness and clarity of reason that is divine. We can practice and learn to experience rehovot, spaciousness. Rabbi Shefa Gold writes that, “The well of our ancestors becomes a fountain connecting the dark depths of our human story with the wide skies of awareness.”

Not to get off topic, but the Buddhists are right, life is suffering. The human story includes dark depths. Some of them stem from severed roots. We find our way back through the breath and faith. In Psalms 150, verse 6, our ancestors teach, “Let all that breathes praise the Lord. Hallelujah.” Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer adds, “The action of breathing in and breathing out indicates the continuous Presence of God in our life.” In the Jewish narrative darkness is balanced by the light. Hallelujah!

In the ancestral narrative of Toldot, “Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and found there a well of living water.” The well symbolizes, Rabbi Norman Lamm suggests, “the great well of personality and being that beckons us to access what we might learn from its depths.” My well of being is sometimes muddy. I feel weighed down by tons of earth. I have so many things I want to do and need to do. When I move the stone to access the living waters I am distracted by thoughts of list-making and judgement. To escape this suffering of my own making, I must begin my day practicing rehovot, spaciousness. A well of clear living waters can later reveal b’hirut hasaichel if we make time to intentionally be in the present. In the flowing, the breath and the stardust we coexist with our ancestors and the divine.

Our ancestral roots offer fundamental beliefs to guide our behavior. Judaism also invites us to question these beliefs. “Commitment is healthiest when it is not without doubt, but in spite of doubt”, wrote renowned therapist Dr. Rollo May. “To every thesis there is an antithesis, and to this there is a synthesis. Truth is thus a never-dying process.” When we live or legislate with severed roots, truth dies. James Joyce wrote, “Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” In my interpretation, consciousness is forever evolving within each of us and the smithy of my soul coexists with my ancestors and the Divine. Welcome, O life!

In 2017, we encounter the ancestors of Toldot just before Thanksgiving. This American holiday makes me think of the Amidah. During the Amidah, we bow before and after Avot, the blessing of the Patriarchs, and before and after the berachah of Hoda’ah, a prayer of thanksgiving to God. Rav Kook wrote that bowing our head, “signals an attitude of deference and humility.” In bowing, as in breathing, we acknowledge and give thanks to God and our ancestors.

And let us together pray privately:

Talmud Berakhot 17a

By Lawrence Kushner (translator)

May you live to see your world fulfilled,
May your destiny be for worlds still to come,
And may you trust in generations past and yet
to be.
May your heart be filled with intuition
and your words be filled with insight.
May songs of praise ever be upon your tongue
and your vision be on a straight path before you.
May your eyes shine with the light of holy words
and your face reflect the brightness of the heavens.
May your lips speak wisdom
and your fulfillment be in righteousness
even as you ever yearn to hear the words
of the Holy Ancient One of Old.

Rosh Hashana – Taking Root With You!

Sefer Assiyah
The Book of Making

September 2017

Recently, on an extraordinarily mild and sunny day in Chicagoland, I went to a nature center with my son and grandson. We peered and searched through aquariums, terrariums and pools of water — home to local critters. We spent a lot of time with the turtles – who knew they were such adept communicators when stressed out with their roommates?!?!

We also walked the boardwalks and trails strewn with half-eaten acorns. I did not see my grandson’s pockets full of them! Yes, I can pretend minor infractions like ‘don’t pick the wildflowers,’ don’t really count, but we were nearing fall. It was Elul and Rosh Hashanah’s accounting was approaching.

Rosh Hashanah is like an acorn upon the ground. It awaits the coming year in the cycle of life. Its growth depends on rain and microbial rich soil, just as we water our hopes and nurture our souls in anticipation of our dreams establishing roots in the coming year.

The Talmud says, “On Rosh Hashanah, all the inhabitants of the earth stand before God, as it says in the Thirty-third Psalm, ‘[God] fashions their hearts as one, and discerns all their actions together.’” Rosh Hashanah brings the choice of all choices – did I actively choose to learn and grow towards becoming a better person and what will I do with the opportunity to walk the earth in the coming year?

As much as I would like to bask in the sun and hibernate in a womb of soil as the seasons turn, more is expected of me. The gift of consciousness gave me the blessing and the curse of seeking more to life as well as the awareness that there are sacred parameters and goals – i.e. God, as best as we can intuit Her. As Rabbi Alan Lew wrote, “The central imperative of Judaism, I believe, is to recognize and manifest the sacred in everything we do and encounter in the world.” I’ve often wondered how I can live with the grace and confidence of an oak tree, an orchid or a heron. I think this Jewish imperative is the way.

“Ethically speaking, these Days of Awe picture us standing in the full light of God’s scrutiny and wondering if we have remained true to the purpose for which we were created,” writes Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman. “Have we taken proper responsibility for the world, or has our selfishness overcome our altruism?” Looking the other way as one stuffs their pockets full of acorns is a metaphor. Yes, there’s a line between unfaltering, holier than thou rightness and holding life lightly aware of its sacredness. One approach separates us and one embraces us all. On Rosh Hashanah God fashions our hearts as one. This is the world’s birthday. We are Adam Kadmon. We are all one soul and responsible for each other. We are a collective species; a collective holographic universe of Five Worlds.

And what stands between us? Rebbe Shapira writes, “’And I stand between God and you’ (Deuteronomy 5:5.) The Baal Shem Tov explained this to mean that the ‘I’ – the ego, the sense of selfness that we feel and that drives us to seek only our own selfish needs – is what stands between God and one’s true self – the soul. But how do we get past the barrier imposed by the ego-self? Only by mutually nurturing relations with other human beings – you cannot do it by yourself. This is also alluded to in the verse ‘And I stand’ – when I stand by myself, then there is the barrier ‘between God and man.’”

I am a cup in the Friend’s hand.
Look in my eyes. The one who holds me
is none of this, but this that is so filled
with images belongs to that one who is without form….

— Rumi

Just as we can’t picture God, we can’t always picture our best selves, but I believe that I am good, just as you are.

It takes people like you and me,
working to make ourselves kinder and more loving,
to produce positive change in the world.

— Londro Rinzler

 

http://www.wikihow.com/Grow-an-Oak-Tree-from-an-Acorn

L’Shana Tovah!

Alison

Elul – An Interview With Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer

Rabbi Goldhamer can you teach us more about the month of Elul? You have referred to this month as the most powerfully charged spiritual month of the Hebrew calendar.

Elul began on August 23rd this year. The Mishnah B’rura (a “clear” or simple version of the Jewish law book Shulchan Aruck) states that Song of Songs 6:3 is, according to the Rabbis, the most important text to meditate upon in the month of Elul. The first letter of the first four words of this verse spell Elul:

Ani l’dodi v’dodi lialeph-lamed-vuv- lamed

“I am connected to my beloved and my beloved is connected to me.” Elul is the time to nurture this closeness with God so that with faith and love we can immerse ourselves in the Days of Awe.

We can make our own meditation out of this verse. Visualize the letters of Elul aleph-lamed-vuv- lamed, with intention. The Rabbis were inspired by biblical verses in this way and originated their own meditations.

By pointing out the Song of Songs acronym, both the Shulchan Aruck and Mishnah B’rura, teach us that all of our thoughts should be directed to God during the month of Elul. Elul has more theological power than any other month. This is a good time to focus on healing prayers for your family, on what you need to pursue your goals and on what you need to become the better person you wish to be. When you say the silent prayers on Yom Kippur remind God of the prayers you said during Elul – this request is the “closer.”

In your most recent book, Healing With God’s Love, you included a chart that listed the tetragrammaton YHVH permutation for each month. You noted that, “If I am saying a prayer in the month of Elul, for example, I first recite the prayer as written, and then repeat the prayer, this time visualizing the appropriate Hebrew permutation of YHVH for Elul, HHVY, י ו ה ה when I say the word Adonai and so on.”

This is one of the strongest ways to connect with God. The Hebrew letters are not symbols. When you visualize the tetragrammaton and the corresponding permutations you are seeing the face of God. Permutations are like the different faces of us throughout the day, just as our face changes, God’s face changes. When we do the permutation for Elul we are connecting with God face to face.

You also wrote, “We need to turn from preoccupation with the self to an embracing of the Whole. We need to be aware that we are all connected not only to one another, but to God. We need to be aware of our own Divinity.” How might we do this during the soul searching month of Elul?

Today we seem to see everything as separate, for example, some identify as white supremacists and some as neo-Nazis. We separate ourselves, just as others separate from us.  We see good people separating themselves from their neighbors. Some parents say, don’t play with the neighbors two houses to the left of us but, to the right of us are children of a professor and you should play with them. It is made very clear in our Hebrew books that you are who you hate. When parents teach separation, their children grow to dislike their neighbors and you are that neighbor! Rabbi Akiva said, why do we love our neighbor as our self, because we are our neighbor. We are not only one with God but we are one with our neighbors.

In the news today we are “good” and “you” are bad.  We can’t live life that way. We are One with everyone — with God and with the angels. We are not separate.

The commentary to every Biblical text that references hate or separation is “We are One” and “you are who you hate.” Sefer Sha’arei Kedushah, The Gates of Holiness by Rabbi Chaim Vital, says this throughout the text.

There is one Whole in the world and when we recognize that, there will be no war. It takes time to get there and we may not feel we are One with everyone. Intellectually I know I am one with the Palestinians and the neo-Nazis but it takes time, practice and meditation to feel we are One.

This is what all the Kabbalistic texts teach us. When God created the world He created a Whole but he embraced separation — He made the heavens and earth, day and night. God recognized it would be easier for people to live with separations. How could Adam say ‘I am like Eve’ when she looks so different from him? The same with day and night, they look so different.  That’s why we study the commentaries and Kabbalistic texts. They take the Torah and the Talmud and show how we can go from the world of separation to the world of Whole — It takes meditation and study. We have to work toward Wholeness, it doesn’t come automatically. I know it is hard. It takes practice.

We human beings graduate from separation to Wholeness through meditation. Think on “you are who you hate.” For Elul, meditate on it.

Summer Movies and Prophecy

After not seeing any movies all spring, my husband and I have been to four movies in as many weeks. What a treat! Tucked within the barrage of predominately action, adventure and horror previews is a trailer for Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” sequel. While he would eschew the comparison, I thought of former Vice President Gore’s perseverance when I read this week’s Haftarah from Jeremiah. The prophet Jeremiah warned and prophesized that riches and power have no real value. He reminded the people that God, “brought you into a land of plentiful fields, to eat its fruit and goodness; but when you entered, you defiled My land, and made my heritage abhorrent….” (Jeremiah 2:7)

You know where I am going with this. I could say nonjudgmentally and with compassion that it is right to make money through whatever means you have the opportunity to do so. At the same time, I could compassionately say it is also right to resist your local government agency’s inclination to sell public land to a developer. But this reminds me of philosopher Ken Wilber’s discussion about “idiot compassion.” This sounds harsh I know and it certainly is right and important to listen to both sides of a disagreement. In Jeremiah’s time the opposing positions were God’s ways vs. idolatry. In our time the positions are enabling (through ordinances, legislation and executive order) individuals to make money at the expense of our natural resources vs. an economy driven by environmental sustainability. It is not compassionate, and therefore not right, to dump toxic particulates into our drinking water.

The people did not listen to Jeremiah. Both Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple were destroyed. Our Torah offers paths to redemption we might be mindful of today. The law of Bal Tashhit, when taking a city in times of war you may eat from, but not destroy, trees. This Jewish law illustrates that the world has social utility. The world feeds, clothes and shelters us. The world does not exist for private gain, the world is held in common for all of us. “The pious will not suffer the loss of a single seed in the world, whereas the wicked rejoice at the destruction of the world,” (Sefer Ha-hinnukh, The Book of Education.)

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch commenting on Leviticus 25:34 writes: “Precisely because it [the city with its open spaces] has been given to them for all the generations, no generation is permitted to change it as it sees fit. The present generation is not the sole ruler over it, but the future generations are equal in their rights, and each is required to bequeath it to future generations in the same state in which they received it.”

We are slaves to “top-down” influences as neuropsychiatrist as Dan Siegel explains, “that is to say we have a sensation but the response is set up by earlier experience and embedded beliefs about right and wrong, good and bad.  These top-down influences have had huge survival value in our evolutionary history in that they enable the brain to make rapid assessments and carry out efficient information processing to then initiate behaviors that enable the organism to survive.” Siegel refers here to foraging for food and evading predators. The times we experience today are culturally driven and contemporary culture dictates top-down that we buy into the consumer culture and not to worry that very few are really benefiting from the wanton destruction to our environment.

Last night we had 5-7 inches of rain in many of Lake County’s suburban towns. People were stranded inside and outside their homes and it continued to rain all day today. Ask your insurance agent if their pricing has factored in climate science findings. They do, and this industry is all about risk assessment and capital accumulation. Capital accumulation and honoring the environment are not mutually exclusive.

Einstein wrote, “A human being is part of the whole, called by us ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of consciousness…. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Let me leave you with a chant from Rabbi Shefa Gold that will remind you, “As we delight in the garden of this moment, let us attune to the Source of its vitality and beauty.”

V’nahar yotzei mei’Eden, l’hashkot et hagan.

A river comes forth from Eden to water the garden. (Genesis 2:10)

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.

Korach’s and the Country’s Accounting

Korach, Numbers 16:01-18:32

In contemporary commentary, Korach is sometimes described as a demagogue. Just as often, Talmud Brachot 58a is quoted: “Just as the faces of people do not exactly resemble one another, so too their opinions do not exactly resemble one another.” In our time, just about everyone, leaders on both sides of the aisle included, can be accused of responding with demagoguery. In our time, Brachot 58a can serve as a mantra to remind us that we do perhaps live in only one of multiple universes, i.e. the world does not revolve around us. Life includes infinite possibilities, an opinion that I endlessly repeat. Possibility is my working definition of God too. This definition excludes nothing and is itself nothing – Ayn Sof, the One without End.

Yet, just because all is possible doesn’t mean we don’t need to do heshbon ha-nefesh, an accounting of the soul. All of the characters of our parsha this week surely weighed and measured their motives, at least after they responded if not before. Acting from possibility also allows us to, after an accounting of the soul, to apologize and try to make right our careless words and actions. “To me they’re not even people,” illustrates the level of political discourse and conflict in America’s book of life today.

Another useful mantra comes from Nachmanides, “Get into the habit of always speaking calmly to everyone. This will prevent you from anger…[then]…Once you have distanced yourself from anger, the quality of humility will enter your heart.” By mantra I mean, phrases repeated over and over like a chant, as it occurs to you, throughout your day. You breathe and imbibe these inspirational words of your choosing and they become who you are. Humility rarely leads one to demean or exclude others. Our choices wire our brain to repeat that choice. Choose from life’s possibilities with humility. Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz writes, “A mitzvah does not exist in a vacumn…but rather, brings other mitzvot in its wake,”

“CS Lewis rightly defined humility not as thinking less of yourself but as thinking of yourself less,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reminds us. “[Great leaders] are motivated by ideals, not by personal ambition….in Judaism, to lead is to serve. Those who serve do not lift themselves high. They lift other people high.” Those I consider leaders, among them Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer of course, are servant leaders by speaking from and role-modeling the possibility and importance of being our best self. We read Torah to learn how to be our best self, we practice heshbon ha-nefesh (perhaps as a nightly journaling routine) to move toward our best self, and we think of ourself less often as an act of anavah, humble modesty.

Being our best self isn’t easy to be sure. We have to love and be compassionate with ourselves as psychologists have discovered, integrated into modern therapies and augmented with meditations and mantras. Rabbi Jill Zimmerman notes, “Every time our heart opens and we then reach out to another human being, blessing flows from us.  We desperately need as much blessing as all of us can conjure up — not only for others, but for our own bruised souls.” Rabbi Zimmerman has created a Jewish version of the Buddhist Metta practice of loving kindness that I was taught by Sharon Salzburg and will now practice in the language of my people. Key this mantra into a note on your phone and repeat whenever you get the chance. As the Rabbi says, “Start with 5 minutes a day.  Start with yourself.

In Hebrew, we might say something like this [an example of openness and humility!]:

May I feel safe (b’tachon) בטחון

May I feel content (see’pook) סיפוק

May I feel strong (oz) עוז

May I feel peace (shalom) שלום ”