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 ”

 

 

Mindful Remembering

Shelach Lecha

By Student Rabbi Dr. Roberta Glick

The Torah portion this week begins with the story of the spies. It ends with the third paragraph of the Shema, perhaps our most well-known prayer. It is this paragraph I am going to focus on because I believe it frames the essence of Judaism: zakar – mindful remembering. This drash was inspired by several teachers, especially Jordan Bendat-Appell. But first as a lead into the third paragraph, I want to say a few words about the first and second paragraphs.

The first paragraph of the shema speaks to us as individuals. It’s an intimate love story. Abraham Joshua Heschel says words of prayer are a commitment. This paragraph is also an important reminder for right speech and right thought. S’fat Emet (a Hasidic master) says it is written that “we should speak of “them”, and not idle talk. To me this means, we must think and speak of ‘these’ words, words of Torah, words of lovingkindness, gratitude, justice, compassion chesed and emet. And not ‘those’ words, especially today: words of politics, fear, gossip, and intolerance. This is not Torah. I’m trying to stay in a G-d consciousness in a crazy world.

Regarding the second paragraph, as Jonathan Sacks says, it’s about us as a people, accepting the covenant and commandments. And I read it as an awareness that our actions have consequences. “If” we don’t treat each other, and the earth with kindness respect, with words and actions of Torah, “then” indeed the world and all humankind will be destroyed — by us. One of my teachers Norm Fischer says: “the survival of the world depends on how we treat each other,” and I add, the earth.

Now let’s focus on the third paragraph. Why is this one so important: it’s about reminders and memory: zakar.   From Norm Fischer’s book, Training in Compassion, he says that perhaps we are not always as loving and compassionate as we want to be. We are too busy, we are worried about family and health and jobs, and/or anxieties of the real world. We feel overwhelmed at times. He suggests that we have to train our hearts and minds to be more open, more kind, more compassionate, just as we train our bodies at the gym. We can do this by meditation, and other practices, and by right intention, kavanah: mindfulness.

For me, meditation is one of the tools in the tool box of improving my life as a human being. Other tools may include yoga, tai chi, prayer, music, art, and poetry. Each are unique.

Meditation consists of techniques for training your mind, just as you go to the gym to train your body, you train by focusing the mind, calming the mind, mastering your thoughts, creating a sense of spaciousness and expansiveness of mind. These qualities enable you to see more clearly, to be more awake and aware in your present experience, to be able to hold and observe your thoughts and feelings, and opening your heart and mind. These qualities of mind don’t result in your being a ‘great meditator’, but in your being able to respond to, not react to, life and the world as it presents itself with emet and chesed. These qualities result in your responding more rationally, and with more kindness, compassion, connection and gratitude to others and ourselves. Jeff Roth offers a snow globe analogy: when you shake it, you cannot see what is there because of the snow flakes. These are your thoughts flying all over the place. But once they settle you can see more clearly — life as it really is. That’s it. No magic or enlightenment, just practical stuff like being awake in the present moment. “Present moment. Wonderful moment” says Tichct Nhat Hahn a Buddhist master. And it’s Hineni in Judaism. And again, why do we need to train in compassion? Because the survival of the world depends on how we treat each other.

But we constantly need re-minders: to re-center, re-turn, (tsheuvah). In Christianity, there is the cross. In Buddhism, there is the bell and the mantra: “when I hear the sound of the bell, I return to my true self”. In Judaism, some of our reminders are mezuzah (first paragraph) and Tzitzit (third paragraph) of the shema.

Talmud Bavli, Menachot 43b tells us, “Look at it and be aware, and observe them.” Looking leads to awareness, awareness leads to doing. This is the essence of Jewish mindfulness, zakar, memory. Mindful remembering which is the opposite of forgetfulness and we find it in the third paragraph of the Shema, Numbers 15:37-41. As you read it, Focus on the words raitam, zacartam, and asitam: You shall see them, and remember them, and do them. Words, thoughts and actions of Torah: Commandments. All leading to a good life.

Shabbat shalom.

 

37 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: לזוַיֹּ֥אמֶר יְהֹוָ֖ה אֶל־משֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר:
38 Speak to the children of Israel and you shall say to them that they shall make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations, and they shall affix a thread of sky blue [wool] on the fringe of each corner. לחדַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ וְאָֽמַרְתָּ֣ אֲלֵהֶ֔ם וְעָשׂ֨וּ לָהֶ֥ם צִיצִ֛ת עַל־כַּנְפֵ֥י בִגְדֵיהֶ֖ם לְדֹֽרֹתָ֑ם וְנָֽתְנ֛וּ עַל־צִיצִ֥ת הַכָּנָ֖ף פְּתִ֥יל תְּכֵֽלֶת:
that they shall make for themselves fringes: Heb. צִיצִת, [so named] because of the threads suspended from it, as in,“he took me by a lock of (בְּצִיצִת) my hair (lit., by the fringes of my head)” (Ezek. 8:3) (Men. 42a). Another interpretation: [It is called] צִיצִת because of the [command], “you shall see it” (verse 39), as in,“peering (מֵצִיץ) from the lattices” (Song 2:9). ועשו להם ציצת: על שם הפתילים התלוים בה, כמו (יחזקאל ח, ג) ויקחני בציצית ראשי. דבר אחר ציצית על שם וראיתם אותו, כמו (שה”ש ב, ט) מציץ מן החרכים:
blue: The green-blue dye obtained from the chillazon [See Aruch Hashalem under חִלָּזוֹן, Yehudah Feliks, Nature & Man in the Bible (New York: Soncino Press, 1981, pp. 18-20]. תכלת: צבע ירוק של חלזון:
39This shall be fringes for you, and when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord to perform them, and you shall not wander after your hearts and after your eyes after which you are going astray. לטוְהָיָ֣ה לָכֶם֘ לְצִיצִת֒ וּרְאִיתֶ֣ם אֹת֗וֹ וּזְכַרְתֶּם֙ אֶת־כָּל־מִצְוֹ֣ת יְהֹוָ֔ה וַֽעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָ֑ם וְלֹֽא־תָת֜וּרוּ אַֽחֲרֵ֤י לְבַבְכֶם֙ וְאַֽחֲרֵ֣י עֵֽינֵיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־אַתֶּ֥ם זֹנִ֖ים אַֽחֲרֵיהֶֽם:
you will remember all the commandments of the Lord: because the numerical value of the word צִיצִית is six hundred (צ = 90, י = 10, צ = 90, י = 10, ת = 400). [Add to this the] eight threads and five knots, and we have [a total of] six hundred and thirteen [the number of commandments in the Torah]. – [Num. Rabbah 18:21] וזכרתם את כל מצות ה’: שמנין גימטריא של ציצית שש מאות, ושמונה חוטים וחמשה קשרים הרי תרי”ג:
and you shall not wander after your hearts: Heb. וְלֹא תָתוּרוּ, like“from scouting (מִּתּוּר) the Land” (13:25). The heart and eyes are the spies for the body. They are its agents for sinning: the eye sees, the heart covets and the body commits the transgression. – [Mid. Tanchuma 15] ולא תתורו אחרי לבבכם: כמו (לעיל יג כה) מתור הארץ. הלב והעינים הם מרגלים לגוף ומסרסרים לו את העבירות, העין רואה והלב חומד והגוף עושה את העבירות:
40So that you shall remember and perform all My commandments and you shall be holy to your God. מלְמַ֣עַן תִּזְכְּר֔וּ וַֽעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֶת־כָּל־מִצְו‍ֹתָ֑י וִֽהְיִיתֶ֥ם קְדשִׁ֖ים לֵאלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם:
41I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt to be your God; I am the Lord, your God. מאאֲנִ֞י יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֗ם אֲשֶׁ֨ר הוֹצֵ֤אתִי אֶתְכֶם֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם לִֽהְי֥וֹת לָכֶ֖ם לֵֽאלֹהִ֑ים אֲנִ֖י יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם:
I am the Lord: Faithful to pay reward. — [Sifrei Shelach 75] אני ה’: נאמן לשלם שכר:
your God: Faithful to exact punishment. — [Sifrei Shelach 75] אלהיכם: נאמן ליפרע:
Who took you out: I redeemed you on condition you accept My decrees upon yourselves. – [Sifrei Shelach 73] אשר הוצאתי אתכם: על מנת כן פדיתי אתכם שתקבלו עליכם גזרותי:
I am the Lord, your God: Why is this repeated? So that the Israelites should not say, “Why did the Omnipresent say this? Was it not so that we should perform [the commandments] and receive reward? We will not perform [them] and not receive reward!” [Therefore, God says,] “I am your King, even against your will.” Similarly, it says, “[As I live, says the Lord God,] surely with a strong hand…will I reign over you” (Ezek. 20:33). Another interpretation: Why is the exodus from Egypt mentioned? It was I who distinguished between the drop [of sperm] of a firstborn and of that which was not of a firstborn. So in future will I distinguish and punish those who attach indigo-dyed [fringes, which is extracted from a vegetable] to their garments, claiming that it is sky-blue [dye extracted from the chillazon]. – [B.M. 61b] From the commentary of R. Moshe Hadarshan [the preacher] I transcribed [the following:] Why is the passage of the wood gatherer juxtaposed with the passage addressing idolatry? To inform [you] that one who desecrates the Sabbath is regarded as one who worships idols, for it [namely the Sabbath] too [just like the prohibition against idolatry] is as important as [the sum of] all the commandments. So Scripture says in Ezra (Neh. 9:13-14, which is strictly part of Ezra. See Rashi on Neh. 1:1), “You descended upon Mount Sinai… and you gave Your people the Law and the commandments (sic). And Your holy Sabbath You made known to them.” Likewise, the passage of fringes; why is it juxtaposed with these two [passages]? Since it too is equally important as [the sum of] all the commandments, as it states, “and perform all My commandments.” אני ה’ אלהיכם: עוד למה נאמר, כדי שלא יאמרו ישראל מפני מה אמר המקום, לא שנעשה ונטול שכר, אנו לא עושים ולא נוטלים שכר, על כרחכם אני מלככם. וכן הוא אומר (יחזקאל כ, לג) אם לא ביד חזקה וגו’ אמלוך עליכם. דבר אחר למה נאמר יציאת מצרים, אני הוא שהבחנתי במצרים בין טפה של בכור לשאינה של בכור, אני הוא עתיד להבחין ולהפרע מן התולה קלא אילן בבגדו ואומר תכלת הוא. ומיסודו של רבי משה הדרשן העתקתי למה נסמכה פרשת מקושש לפרשת עבודה זרה, לומר שהמחלל את השבת כעובד עבודה זרה, שאף היא שקולה ככל המצות, וכן הוא אומר בעזרא (נחמי’ ט, יג – טו) ועל הר סיני ירדת ותתן לעמך תורה ומצות ואת שבת קדשך הודעת להם, ואף פרשת ציצית לכך נסמכה לאלו לפי שאף היא שקולה כנגד כל המצות, שנאמר ועשיתם את כל מצותי:
on the corners of their garments: Corresponding to [the verse said in connection with the exodus from Egypt]“I carried you on the wings (כַּנְפֵי) of eagles” (Exod. 19:4). On the four corners, but not on a garment of three or five [corners]. [This] corresponds to the four expressions of redemption that were said in Egypt:“I will take you out…I will save you…I will redeem you…I will take you” (Exod. 6:6-7). – [Mid. Aggadah] על כנפי בגדיהם: כנגד (שמות יט, ד) ואשא אתכם על כנפי נשרים. על ארבע כנפות ולא בעלת שלש ולא בעלת חמש, כנגד ארבע לשונות של גאולה שנאמר במצרים (שמות ו, ו – ז) והוצאתי והצלתי וגאלתי ולקחתי:
a thread of sky-blue [wool]: Heb. פְּתִיל תְּכֵלֶת, so called because of the bereavement [suffered by the Egyptians] over the loss of their firstborn. The Aramaic translation of שִׁכּוּל, bereavement, is תִּכְלָא [a word similar to תְּכֵלֶת]. Moreover, the plague struck them at night, and the color of תְּכֵלֶת is similar to the color of the sky, which blackens at dusk; its eight threads symbolize the eight days that Israel waited from when they left Egypt until they sang the song at the [Red] Sea. – [Mid. Aggadah] פתיל תכלת: על שם שכול בכורות. תרגומו של שכול תכלא. ומכתם היתה בלילה וכן צבע התכלת דומה לצבע רקיע המשחיר לעת ערב. ושמונה חוטים שבה, כנגד שמונה ימים ששהו ישראל משיצאו ממצרים עד שאמרו שירה על הים:

 

The Earth As Sanctuary

From the Pen of Executive Director Alison C. Brown

Parsha Tezaveh discusses the materials and steps necessary to perform service to God in the Sanctuary. As a metaphor, “Achieving any form of spiritual growth requires sustained effort and daily rituals.” [1] We call this avodah, service. Our intentional efforts and rituals create a space, a groove, carved into our life through practice that allows a flow of ideals into actions.

Just as water naturally flows to join its watershed, so too practiced meditation and prayer flows through our thoughtscape along God created paths of peace and purpose. Perhaps these paths run parallel to biological paths of self-preservation and bias, but meditation, prayer and ritual creates neuropathways that we can utilize to do our avodah, our service. These paths of compassion lead to doing right by others and doing right by creation. The earth is our sanctuary and so many of our mitzvoth recognize that with rituals of appreciation.

Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch writes of Exodus 28:33:

“The numerous seeds inside pomegranates symbolize a life full of active duties, which are the fruit that ripen in the field of earthly life. The diversity of the duties corresponds to the diversity of life itself, and all of man’s various traits and qualities have a role to play in the fulfillment and realization of all these duties.” [2]

Our duties are as numerous as the diversity of life itself and it is life itself that we seem to take for granted. Since Tu B’Shevat, I’ve been worried that our duty to the earth will be neglected under the stress of all else that is at stake these 2017 legislative sessions. However when I recently visited my twin daughters at college in Iowa, I found front page headlines that usurped all other news and called dramatic attention to the fundamental need for reducing nitrate levels in our surface waters.

The article included a stunning photograph of the Atlantic Watershed as it flows pollution-laden into the already oxygen-deprived Gulf of Mexico.   The report read, “Momentum for improving the quality of Iowa’s degraded water peaked Nov. 8, when 74 percent of Linn County voters approved a $40 million conservation bond.” [3]  Caring for the earth is on the radar in Iowa because the voters understand how interconnected we are to the environment.

Consider utilizing your meditation and prayer flowing neuropathways to brainstorm and advocate with your legislators and friends about environmental concerns in your state. A number of agencies and hard-won regulations are on the line as you read this. The earth is our sanctuary and she needs you to nurture and protect her life-giving, God given flow.

Under the Wings of the Divine Presence

From the Pen of Executive Director Alison C. Brown

We read in Midrash Tanchuma Yitro, “However, Yitro heard and was rewarded.  He had been a priest of idolatry, yet he came and attached himself to Moshe, and entered beneath the wings of the Divine Presence.”

The cozy, safe, loving image of v’nichnas tachat canfei HaShechina, entering beneath the wings of the Shechina, invites me to eschew the earthy pleasures and distractions that, by all indications, I so worship.  Netflix for example.  My life was crazy, as most everyone’s was, from this past November until the first week of January.  Afterwards, I settled in.  My house was warm. I had a list of television series touted by my friends.  I escaped into Netflix as often as I could.  I forgot those pesky New Year’s resolutions, forgot the books I was so excited to read, and forgot that when the house was quiet I could meditate myself v’nichnas tachat canfei HaShechina.

Netflix certainly offers opportunities for growth.  I’ve learned addiction to prescription drugs can ruin your life.  I’ve learned that English midwives are dedicated, adorable game changers.  I’ve learned that a pretty Italian seamstress can make a clever spy.  And now, I am SO rested.

I am ready to ascend the mountain again.  I have texts to study and people to befriend.  I want to be aware and motivated by God, the Source of All who creates me anew every moment.  I want to turn off the t.v. and walk past all the other so accessible idols that beckon me – including the lovely cellophane wrapped brownie cookies that caused me pause at the grocery store.  In every moment I am face to face with God.  Al panai, before me, interpreted in the Mekhita de Rabbi Ishmael as a reference to both time and place.  We are always in God’s presence, we all stand at Sinai.  And, on occasion we need refueling.

We need entertainment too.  Movies, music, dancing, and yes t.v.  But I also want to grow into some version of my best self.  I am reading Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari.  He explains that large scale human cooperation is based on myth.  Change the myth, tell a different story and you can make large scale change.  While I’m open to all stories, I most appreciate the Jewish story.  I like having the opportunity to partner with a divine source who inspires me to think and do from Mochin de Gadlut – from a Greater Mind.  The change I want to see, that I want to be, is a world where problems contain within themselves a myriad of solutions.  Acting on them however, entails getting off the couch.

Zoning out with idols is easy.  Rabbi Arthur Green says that living a meaningful life requires creativity and moral action.  He learned this from our story.  This is why Yitro said, Exodus 18:11, “Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods.”

Medicine for the Soul and Body

By Hebrew Seminary President Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer

Our God has many names. In his great philo-mystical text, Otzrot Chaim, Rabbi Chaim Vital writes that there arose “a desire” within the center point of the Ayn Sof. This desire of the Ayn Sof was that He wanted to be called by “His Names.” As Rabbi Vital says, “How can God be called “The Merciful” if He has no one to whom He can show mercy?” This is so with all the other names by which the Creator is known. And so, Rabbi Vital maintains that the purpose of creation was for God to bring into actuality the names that only potentially existed in the Ohr Pashut of the Ayn Sof.

With this in mind, we gain a deeper insight into the opening verses of this week’s Torah portion Va’era, especially Chapter 6:2, “And God spoke to Moses and said, “I am YHVH. Now I have appeared to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob [by the name] El Shaddai, but by my name YHVH, I was not known to them.”  Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polennoye, in his famous Hasidic text Toledot Yaakov Yosef, writes in his commentary to Va’era, “I heard from my teacher [Baal Shem Tov} that the tzaddikim are emissaries of the Matrona [the Matrona is a kabbalistic name for the Shechinah, the Feminine Presence of God].  Because of their own lack, whether of food or clothing, the tzaddikim recognize that there is a corresponding lack above.  They pray for this lack above to be rectified.  They do not pray for their own benefit.”

The Toledot Yaakov Yosef maintains here that human needs are projected onto the Shechinah, and thus prayer is not self-serving, but for the purpose of removing the Shechinah’s need or suffering.

We also learn in Talmud Sanhedrin 46a, when a man suffers punishment, the Shechinah responds, “My head hurts, my hand hurts.” The man will then pray to alleviate the Shechinah’s suffering, thereby banishing his own suffering.

Kabbalah teaches that there is a direct correspondence between the Shechinah and the community of Israel.

The name Shechinah is derived from the Hebrew root “SHACHAN” which means “to dwell.”  Through history, the Shechinah became the wandering Divine Presence.  She resided in the tent in pre-temple times, in a dwelling that was not permanent, but temporary and ready to move. After our temple was destroyed in 586 BCE, the Shechinah meant the dwelling and immanent Presence of God.

Philosophically, the Divine Presence which informs all things is a light and an energy flow vitalizing and sustaining everything. The Shechinah is a Divine Presence, unifying everything. We, the community of Israel, know this Feminine Presence by dwelling in Her. In meditative prayer, we pray and do kavvanot or meditations, to dwell in Her Presence. The Shechinah is the aspect of God that is intimately connected with the souls of the community of Israel.  All Jewish souls are bound together as one single being.

Much of the work I do is meeting with members of my congregation and praying with them for healing.  I do this regularly many times every day, with individual families, who have been hurt by disease.  I often work closely with their physicians, combining Kabbalistic modalities with biological treatments that are managed by their doctors.

You see, when someone is ill, she or he feels a tremendous sadness or even depression. This causes the person who is suffering disease to feel alone, separated, and even in exile, like the Shechinah, who is said to  be dala va-anya, “needy and poor.”  But just as the Shechinah is the community of Israel, every member of my congregation, indeed every Jew, is intimately connected to every other soul of Israel. We are one. We all dwell in the Shechinah.

I share with my parishioners how the Shechinah suffers, together with those who experiences a certain disease.  When we focus on how the Shechinah suffers together with us, when we identify our pain with Hers, we are no longer alone. When, through mystical meditations, my parishioner becomes aware of the Oneness of everything, the Oneness of the Ayn Sof, he or she begins true healing, true physical healing.

When we see not only ourselves suffering, but when we see all those who suffer a dreadful disease as one collective group, and we pray for the well-being of others who are hit with this disease, and do kavvanot or meditations, that are taught by the great Jewish Kabbalists.  I have seen people with terrible diseases begin physical healing. When we pray this way, we are also praying for the Shechinah, because we are intimately connected with Her.  And so, in our healing prayers, we ask Hashem to heal us “for Your sake.” We pray for the Shechinah. In this way, we become a vessel drawing in Divine Light and Healing, for ourselves and others. Not only does good health and prosperity inspire us to discover divinity, but suffering also helps us greatly in finding God and in achieving healing.

Clearly, healing does not instantly come about when we recognize all of this. But when we understand these insights, by the Toledot Yaakov Yosef, and apply specific spiritual exercises related to these insights, on a regular and daily basis, we can see great healing take place.  I have seen this with the members of my congregation. When we learn to pray “for Your sake,” amazing results take place.

Naturally, this involves regular daily prayer and meditations and the great input from contemporary medicine—but the results are phenomenal. The opening verses of this week’s Torah portion are medicine for the soul and body. All truths are found in this remarkable book, the Torah that God has given us. He truly is a loving, caring compassionate healing God. Amen.

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

Turns of Fate

From the Pen of Executive Director Alison C. Brown

The Joseph story with its many turns of fate is compelling on many levels.  The events of his life speak to us of the vicissitudes of mind, body, and spirit that we all experience.  I too have found myself at the bottom of a pit hollowed out by the loss of a loved one.  While we all intellectually understand the bittersweet nature of human existence, when there is seemingly no way out and the bitter becomes caustic it’s impossible to make sense of it.

Work as we may to focus on the sweet gifts of life, the daily news tosses us time and time again into more pits: a toddler is gunned down, terror is orchestrated in Paris, our kinsmen stabbed in Israel.  I close my eyes and find footing in the Shema.  Connecting with the One I hear myself asking, “help me keep the faith in me and in You”, You who are the One and Whole of everything and everyone.  Shaleim, whole, comes from the Hebrew root as shalom, peace.  When we are of the Whole we find peace.  Help me keep faith in my being a part of the Whole, a resourceful, loving part of the Whole — a kind and justice-seeking part of God.  Help me help.

In Gen. 37:13 Israel tells Joseph to check on his brother’s welfare.  Joseph says “hinneni”.  Rashi, who earlier interpreted hinneni to mean, “I am here, at your service,” tells us that Joseph’s hinneni includes humility as well as readiness.  Cast into one of life’s pits are we humbly ready to do whatever needs doing?  To climb out of the pit, to do what needs doing takes faith.  We need faith in our self that we will find the courage, the stamina to move through the bitter times in life.  We, like Joseph, are sometimes part of plot we don’t understand yet with intent we can play our part in support of the Whole.

My Shema moments remind me to get out of my own head, to be in communication with all of creation, all of the worlds, beyond space and time.  To move beyond what seems to be going right or wrong, easy or difficult for me.  When tested, Joseph finds his inner strength.  We too can find ours, but we have to listen.  A moment of Hitbodedut (meditation), a Shema moment, or walking in a forest preserve allows us to climb out of the pit and with humility meet the task we have been given.  Every story has elements of choice.  May we make our choices from makom shalom, from a place of peace, a place of the Whole.

Va-neitzei, and We Left

On November 8th, we left home base as we each knew it. We left with a variety of feelings as Republicans and Democrats, just as Jacob left all that he knew in Be’er Sheva. Jacob was on the border of his future, just as we are today, fearfully or gleefully. Jacob was accompanied by angels. We are bombarded by social media and newscasts (they are, by the way distinct, if not mutually exclusive, sources of information) that agitates some and overwhelms others.

At the threshold between his past and future, Jacob fell asleep. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that the angels found Jacob, “sleeping in the very place that was meant to awaken within him a higher awareness of his mission…” As you recall, Jacob’s social reality was very complicated. It feels to me as though our social reality is at best very complicated. There is no sleeping for any of us right now. As Jim Kenney, Executive Director of Common Ground in Deerfield, Illinois writes, “The time of evolutionary crossing – and choice – has, for better and for worse, arrived. Chaotic change and vanishing certainties have produced identity crises and challenges to existing power structures. Various forms of extremism, pseudo-populism, neo-nationalism, and demagoguery are clearly emerging. And, to be sure, they will make the crossing even more turbulent.”

Rebbe Nachman reminds us that we have the spiritual task of interacting with this world as potential possibilities that make up a whole. The whole precedes and contains all possibilities. The whole is God. Today we stand at a place that requires a higher awareness of our mission. Our mission is to participate in the writing of a new American story. Like the Rabbis of the Mishnaic period, we need to anchor our new story in the old one. For 240 years, we Americans have agreed, for example, that all our countryman have the right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. We all champion this story. In the telling of this our colonial story, our countryman were motivated by a myriad of blended needs, hopes and dreams.

Our new 21st century story continues to be about your family, my family and the blended breath of all American families. The blend of narrations is perhaps broader today and more faceted. This broader blend of needs, hopes and dreams brings with it greater innovation, greater strength and awareness. We live in a world where the “butterfly effect” is a harder truth than its lovely image suggests. If I only look out for myself, or my people, it will effect how the world (and indeed the earth) supports and welcomes me.

Following Jacob’s spiritual encounter bamakom, “he lifted up his feet” (Gen. 29:1). Rav Hirsch wrote, “Instead of saying ‘And he left’, it now says ‘Ya’akov lifted up his feet.’ A person is not led by his feet, the body does not lift the spirit; rather, the person lifts up his feet, the living soul in the person lifts and bears his body. With such an attitude, Ya’akov goes forth to meet his future.” So too, we go forth to meet our future, knowing that we are at an evolutionary crossing. Together, today we lift up our feet.

 

Toldot – Hunger and Desire

From the Pen of Hebrew Seminary President Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer

I am currently supporting a number of people with my Rabbi’s Discretionary Fund.  I thank God that I have this fund so that I might be in a position to help people overcome their hunger pangs. I am just an instrument delivering generous gifts that people give to my fund. And in this year’s economy, we need to help one another.

And yet, in my mission, helping families overcome their awkward situation in life, I am faced with a conundrum. Because I see that at times, being hungry is helpful.  How is being hungry helpful?   In this week’s Torah portion, Toldot is not focused on actual hunger, but on the daily feelings of desire and extreme desire that bring us to a lot of pain and suffering.  In Toldot, Esau experiences not actual hunger, but a deep feeling of craving that seems to bring him a lot of pain and suffering.  Esau experiences a type of hunger that causes him quite a bit of suffering and one day, as he comes home from walking in the fields, he insists that his brother Jacob give him porridge to mitigate his tremendous feeling of hunger. Esau is so hungry that he accepts Jacob’s exchange of a third rate meal in exchange for his birthright.  In Genesis 25:32, Esau exclaims, “I am about to die.  So, why do I need this birthright?”

It wasn’t that Esau faced death.  I am confident that he had eaten the day before.  But Esau felt what many of us feel. Esau felt what so many people who visit me in my office feel – a deep emptiness, a void at the center of their being, a hunger that all the porridge in the world can’t fill. Esau feels a terrible sense of loneliness. I see this, and pray with people who experience this. People who have lost a child or a spouse or a best friend. This can be so painful. Each one of us knows someone who has suffered such a loss.  Rather than steal his birthright, each one of us should try to be an empath, to understand and relate to this person. This is why it is so important for us to feel hunger.  You know what it is to have lost someone very important to you. Visualize that feeling. Don’t bury this hunger that you once experienced in your life—but bring it to the forefront and stay hungry for a short while.  Remember what it felt like to be alone.  I know how loneliness feels.  I was 35 years old, and I was all alone. I didn’t even have a small cat. And so, I prayed to God for a wife. And within half an hour, I met the perfect woman.

In our Shacharit service, each morning, we pray, “V’ani T’filati lecha YHVH, et ratzon.  As for me, my prayer is for You, my dear God. May it be for you a time of desire.”

I felt a deep emptiness, a place where no love could reach me. I reached out to God and instead of porridge, I found Peggy 35 years ago, and we are married happily to this day.

Godcidences & Giving

November 29th is Giving Tuesday, a worldwide holiday that encourages giving back to our communities.  With one voice, non-profits reach out on Giving Tuesday to ask for our time, skills, and dollars to make a difference in other people’s lives.  Giving back to the community is a long-standing Jewish tradition.  Isaiah 32:17 says, “and the work of tzedakah shall bring peace.”

I asked Hebrew Seminary professor, Rabbi Daniel Vaisrub, to share a “Giving Tuesday” teaching with us.  Rabbi Vaisrub agrees that Tzedakah speaks to something greater. 

My favorite teaching on the obligation to support people in our community comes from Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Book of Agriculture, Rules of Gifts to the Poor 10:1:

“We are obligated to be careful with regard to the commandment of tzedaqah to a greater extent than all [other] positive commandments, because tzedaqah is an identifying mark for a righteous person, a descendant of Abraham, our patriarch, as [Genesis 18:19] states: “I have known him, because he commands his children… to perform tzedaqah.”

“The throne of Israel will not be established, nor will the true faith stand except through tzedaqah, as [Isaiah 54:14] states: “You shall be established through righteousness [tzedaqah].”

“And Israel will be redeemed solely through tzedaqah, as [ibid. 1:27] states: “Zion will be redeemed through judgment and those who return to her through charity [tzedaqah].”

Note how Maimonides enumerates [and thus connects] four seemingly disconnected ideas, all through tzedaqah:
1. Personal righteousness
2. Proper governance / political stability
3. True faith proper religious belief
4. National redemption

In this rule, Maimonides is NOT merely teaching us why tzedaqah is important: any one of the reasons he enumerates would more than suffice, so why waste ink and parchment?

Rather, Maimonides teaches us how tzedaqah binds these different aspects of people’s lives together: the personal, the social, the religious, and ultimately the redemptive. In a particular way, acts of tzedaqah, which encompass justice and kindness, create individuals, and communities, and religious movements, and ultimately a nation, capable of actualizing human potential. Tzedaqah is thus the glue that ultimately binds people together, which speaks to its power to transform the world, micro and macro, physical and spiritual.

Rabbi Dr. Goldhamer wants to add that it is a Godcidence that we celebrate Giving Tuesday, during the same week that we read Parshat Toldot, the scriptural reading for this week.  The essence of this parasha is good and evil. Jacob represents good and his twin brother Esau represents evil.  I believe this simplistic understanding misses the point. What is evil?  In Kabbalah, evil is selfishness.  We are all concerned about our own welfare. We are all concerned about how to improve our own lives. We all do things to benefit ourselves. This is considered evil in Kabbalah.

Everyone is created with a desire to receive for oneself alone. There is a difference between receiving for yourself and receiving in order to share. The second form of receiving is considered good in KabbalahKabbalah comes from the root word meaning “to receive.” But Hashem wants us to receive in order to share and do tzedakah. And so, our Kabbalistic tradition teaches us to receive in order to share.

Nothing is wrong with accumulating millions of dollars and becoming wealthy. As a matter of fact, it’s a good thing to accumulate wealth–but we need to accumulate so that we can share what we accumulate. This is the essence of the teaching of this week’s parasha.  We need to receive in order to share.  When we receive and we do tzedakah, we are doing a high mitzvah in Judaism.  This is the essence of this week’s teaching of Toldot and Giving Tuesday.

For Giving Tuesday, Hebrew Seminary is asking that you donate food and/or funds to  Congregation Bene Shalom’s The Brian Glassenberg Food Pantry at Congregation Bene Shalom, 4435 W. Oakton Street Skokie, IL 60076 or call 847/ 677- 3330.