Ki Tavo: bringing our wisdom from our past into our future

Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8

This week, we are presented with a long list of blessings and a longer listing of curses, and I was intrigued by this verse towards the end of the parasha: 

In the morning you shall say, “if only it were evening!” and in the evening you shall say,”if only it were morning!”- because of what your heart shall dread and your eyes shall see. (Deut.28:27)

In this text we hear the lament about both the future and the past. The Targum Yerushalmi understands  the Hebrew as the lament for the future. But the text can be rendered as if it were looking into the past: In the Talmud (B. Sotah 49a) it is read: If only it were (still yesterday) evening.”  By this rendering, we now hear a wish for a return to the past. “While we do not know how things will be, we know what they were in the past.” (R. Gunther Plaut)

During this time when we are approaching the Holy Days, we are continually invited to visit our past year and engage in the act of t’shuvah, which literally means, returning.  This process has two parts: to return to the errors that we made, accept that we failed at living our best practices, and seeking forgiveness from those we have harmed.

The second step is to t’shuv ourselves,  to re- turn ourselves back to living according to our highest principles (middot) and values. By making this effort, we fine-tune our inner voice that helps us to be sensitive to the impact of how we are in the world, to where we can cause harm and where we can raise the holy sparks of a generous and compassionate way of being.

Our text implicitly  asks, How do we meet the future? By the dual  practices of seeking forgiveness for the past and gratitude for the next chance to act wisely.  We ask, what do you want to bring with you from this past year’s experience into the new year? What did you learn from those moments when it didn’t go as well as it might have?

Equally as important to consider is, how do you treat yourself for having failed? Does the lament of our verse cement you into the harsh tochecha/rebuke that is actually an indulgence of mooring ourselves in remorse? Or does it ask you to look both to the past and move into this next year, strengthened by what you have learned?

And so the journey of these weeks continues.....

second chances and YOU

Numbers 8:1-12:16

What happens if I miss my chance to connect?
In this week’s parasha we witness a beautiful quality of the Jewish tradition. Instructed to bring a Passover offering on the new moon, a problem arises for those who were unable to bring their offerings. 

“But there were some men who were tamai/unclean by reason of a corpse, and could not offer the Passover offering that day.”(Number. 9:6) They ask, just because we have been in contact with a corpse, why keep us from the ritual of making the offering? Moses has no answer for this, and asks GD what to do.  The response shows the expansiveness of possibilities when we raise an objection.
Gd answers that not only can they make the offering a month later, but expands to the consideration of those  who were on a long journey and nowhere near the Tabernacle.  This model holds for us that when asked a specific question, we are encouraged that our answers widen the field and include more situations that might need the ‘compassionate judge’ perspective.  We are invited to ask, who else might need flexibility in perspective?
Our tradition is grounded in the premise that we are curious beings, always ready with the next question. We as a people place more weight on the next question rather than be satisfied with a previous answer.  We are the ‘what if?’ people, which keeps our minds open to heretofore unknown possibilities. After all, it is the ‘one who does not know enough to ask’ at the Passover seder that opens up the conversation about the liberation story of Exodus.
To hear a question that points out a lack of justice to an individual or to a group of people, and to have that question point the way to an even greater, more general principle of justice, is the way that we bring holiness into our world. May we never cease feeding our curious minds, and never fear asking the next question.  It could just lead to liberation!
--- Rabbi Jan

Last week, we took a look at the first word in the 'access code' of making a blessing: Baruch.  This week, I want to look at the second word, Ata.  Translated as 'You", there is a deeply embedded theology in this simple word.  

What does a blessing want of us? How does it feel to call out to someone if they are either very far away, or are way above our 'station' in life? Are we even sure that the distant one can discern what we are calling out?

The radical theology of the word, atah/you, is intended to create an intimacy with the Other. In the words of the philosopher Martin Buber, we create a blessing as an I-Thou experience, not an I-It.  A blessing is intended to close the distance between two beings, to create an opportunity to allow our hearts to vocalize into words in order to profoundly share  connection. We are hindered as English speakers in  that we have only one form of the word, you, which is neither formal or endearing. Other languages make this distinction, but not so Hebrew.  There is only you, at once imminent and transcendent. 

Yet we are struck with the duality of prayer: one prays to [another]. If we dig a bit more deeply, we can change that experience to, one prays with [another].How does using the direct, intimate word, You, help us to bridge that duality?

Rabbi Marcia Prager, in her wonderful book, The Path of Blessing, writes:

"...I know that beyond separateness lies another reality; only the language of relationship can take me there. And so I call out to the Other and enter into a covenant of mutuality.  I make a commitment to be present to that relationship".

This is the core of prayer, and the language which our tradition uses is profoundly disruptive. We embrace the immediacy of the other, be it human, earthly, or otherwise, by using a word that brings us closer together. 
---  Rabbi Jan

Sex and the Torah: Mishpatim 2018

Exodus 21:1-24:18

What happens when the Torah speaks in a different language than we do? I’m not referring to the Hebrew in which the text is written. Rather, I’m referring to the part of our sacred tale that, mamash/really, doesn’t seem to apply to our lives in this day and age. And what does this have to do with sex?

Having just left the ecstatic experience at Mount Sinai, our text plunges us into the cold water of problematic matters of relationship: we learn rules (mishpatim) that address the relationships between the most earthly parts of our lives: between a slave and a master.  Or a father and daughter. Or oxen who gore and thieves who steal. Or someone who kills another human, either by accident or by stealth.  With 53 separate mitzvoth listed, this is such a descent into the minutiae from the heights of the theophany at Sinai!

One idea stands out for me this week: that of the role of sexual pleasure and the expectation that it is the obligation of a husband (in this hetero orientation of Torah) not just to  ‘go through the motions’ but to deeply focus on the pleasure of his partner.  We can easily expand this obligation to each of the partners, in that no one person in a relationship, hetero or otherwise,  should be treated as a sexual object.  Torah expects that we honor an obligation to our lover to pay attention to his/her pleasure and not just our own.  

We can deepen this by asking, if I am expected to approach a lover with the highest regard for their pleasure, how do I expand this into a general principle by which I aspire to live? Let us consider the concept of ‘generosity of spirit’. Generosity is, at first, a leaving off of self-centered identity and opening our hearts and minds and spirits to the needs of others.  But it doesn’t fulfill its potential unless that awareness includes the impulse to share, staying open to the reality that if I horde, I lose.

Clichés are clichés because they’re true: love isn’t love until you give it away.  More deeply, generosity of spirit asks that we become the conduit through which the shefa/the flow of the deep interconnectedness is brought into my relationships with all of Creation. 

Of course, we cannot assume that we know what another might need, hence the invitation to ask! But let us listen to what Torah is asking of us: to keeping ourselves obligated to consider what another might need. What do our friends and families need? what does the natural world need? and can we apply the same generosity to our own needs? It is when we raise the plain meaning of the  text of Torah to a higher (or deeper) analysis, and not  limit ourselves to being literal, that is when we bring the language of Torah alive and make it ring for ourselves today. 
---- Rabbi Jan

Murmuring and social change

Murmuring and Social Change
 Exodus 13:17-17:16
Shabbat Shira/The Shabbas of Song

This is a momentous week in the Israelite journey: escaping Egypt, they race to the water’s edge, only to be caught between the sea and the approaching Egyptian army. This is the final birthing-push across living waters, when a new people will be born.  Heroically, GD instructs Moses to hold his staff over the waters, and, well, you know the rest.

Once on the other side, the Egyptians drowned and their corpses piled on the shore, the Israelites immediately begin to complain.

And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the waters of Marah, for they were bitter; therefore its name was called Marah. And the people murmured against Moses, saying, What shall we drink? (Ex. 15:23-24)

Biblical commentary often focuses on this eruption of complaint and lament, so soon after liberation. But I want to zero in on the word used, murmer. It is from a reflexive form of the verb, meaning that they got themselves murmuring: a quiet, private mumbling that slowly grew into a groundswell of protest.

If we stick with the complexity of this word, murmur, some deep Torah is found. When does a murmur become a protest?   Are the voices being furtively generated in insolence and a lack of gratitude? Are they the beginnings of a people beginning to awaken to their new situation? This week the people, for the first time perhaps, looked around  and noticed not just a lack of water or meat, but that there was no apparent system that would sustain them. Beginning in the intimate voice of a murmur, their voices pile up, rising to a pitch that brings to awareness their anger, fears and frustration first to themselves, then to each other, and then to their leader, who brings the concern to the god, and their needs are answered. What begins in quiet can end up being quite loud. 

A murmur is subtle, a voice that barely crosses the line between thought and speech; it onomatopoetically hums its way to awareness. Once shared, with oneself as well as with others, it is not long before a murmur becomes a murmuration, a flock of birds that forms itself into a force of nature in its beauty and organized chaos. For the recently enslaved, it is  an almost indiscernible process of what is hinted at internally, breaking through an oppressed and constricted mentality to erupt out and through the voice of a people. 

This past week, we witnessed the 2nd annual women’s march; interestingly, “I can’t keep silent” remains the anthem. We are witnessing the emergence of a human murmuration, of  articulated speech that awakens those who have been keeping their lament at the level of murmuring, of muttering.  The emergence feels chaotic, with no apparent leader, yet the murmuration has left the ground and is swooping its way through increasing awareness and ‘getting woke’. With that awakening, that quickening (if we are to use the vocabulary of the birthing process), the lament that was held quiet, private, has broken through to flight. May it continue to do so.

Rabbi Jan

The Rape of Dinah

It is impossible not to pay attention to the story in this week's parasha about the rape of Dinah, the only daughter of Jacob who is mentioned. The text is clear that Shechem, a son of the Hivite tribe, sees Dinah, takes her and 'lays with her by force'. Such an offense, in the biblical world, brought guilt on his tribe, and it was customary at that time (and still, today) that the violation of a virgin was to be avenged.  The story presented here is gruesome and deeply disturbing: Dinah's brothers use guile to slaughter Shechem and all the males of his village.  It's an awful read, and one which our tradition tries to ameliorate with convoluted interpretations.  But, sometimes, we just have to confront the story and call it out for being an abomination. 

What is deeply concerning is that Dinah's father, the patriarch Jacob, says nothing when he learns about the rape.  The text says that he 'kept silent until his sons came home [from being out in the field] (Genesis 34:5). He says nothing. Nothing. And when the dastardly deed is done, and his sons have committed a mass slaughter, his only response to them has to do with how he will now be considered in the eyes of the other tribes. In other words, he is more concerned with his reputation for the slaughter rather than the act itself (not to mention that he becomes wealthier by the deed, as the sons bring back the women and children as slaves. ugh). 

We are all deeply immersed in the endless revelations about sexual harassment in every aspect of society. It is safe to assert that every single woman (and some men) on this planet is part of #metoo. And it is the silence around the assaults that is the most disruptive.  Saying nothing, even when knowing that an attack has occurred, pours hot sauce on the wound. Saying nothing keeps men who are moved to say something, silent. Saying nothing keeps us women bound into layers and layers of internal dialogue, trying to dismantle the grip in which harassment holds us.

Jacob, despite his designation as one the patriarchs of the Jewish people, is a scoundrel, and every year, I am deeply disturbed by his status. Some of his sons continue in his vein; others are able escape the family inclination to deceive in order to achieve.  

So why study this? Precisely because it sickens us and presents us with a mirror of our own times. Precisely so that we can be frightened by what vengeful men who have weapons and a feeling of superiority can do in the name of 'justice'. So that we become highly sensitized to the outrage in order that we can do the opposite of the story: to insist that this narrative becomes something of the past, and work together, men and women, to make sure that rape and the revenge that follows, is a thing of the past. What will this require? Wrestling until we defeat the scourge.  May it be so. 

Elul: first week

The first faint sliver of the new moon is about to become visible, and it is an auspicious ‘moonth’ that is upon us: The month is called Elul, is the month before Rosh Hashanah, and is a time of sacred study and reflection. Each weekday, following morning services, we blow the shofar, and hear the ram's horn call out to us, in its primal abrupt manner, “Wake Up!"

As many of you probably know, the word Elul is an acronym, (spelled alef-lamed-vav-lamed), standing for Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li, "I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” from the text of the Song of Songs.  Why would this month have that name, and why from that text?  One answer is that, as we begin to sift this past year through the lens of self-critique, we want that sifting to occur within a loving, compassionate relationship, and not one that is punitive and scolding. The Song of Songs is a celebration of a loving, lusty relationship between grown-ups.  It is characterized by a yearning to see the beloved’s face, and to feel the closeness that is possible between people, or, as the Rabbis understood it, between Gd and the Jewish people. Thus, while we are charged during Elul with relentless self-examination, it occurs within a relationship that is thoroughly grounded in compassion and a desire to return to a life that is unencumbered by callous and witless behavior.

I find that we are all accustomed, from a very young age, to begin new things in the fall: school, jobs, or merely that our outdoor chores shift from planting to harvest (and lots of garden cleanup!).  How wonderful it is that we are given an opportunity, through the work that is available to us during the month of Elul, to ‘change the spark plugs’ in our spiritual and ethical selves.  To arrive at the Rosh Hashanah services without doing some of this preparation  can render that experience rather hollow and unconnected to our deeper selves.  

And what is our work?  Identifying and reconnecting to the standards by which we yearn to live; thoughtful consideration of how we have strayed from that path; and planting the seeds for our spiritual and behavioral renewal. This is the essence of the High Holiday season.   When one genuinely grows, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz teaches, one’s personal truth must surpass all one’s previous truths so that, by comparison, they are truths no longer.  Teshuva  (from the Hebrew word, to return) demands that we pursue our individual truth at all times.  Our goal is to always aim for greater heights of awareness that must be manifested in our actions, and to be constantly struggling and striving to do and be better.  It is not enough to just be.

I look forward to this journey that we’ll take together over the next 4 weeks, when the new moon of Tishrey will appear in the sky. As we gather for  Rosh Hashanah, we’ll meet in the natural beauty of Rock Point, made holy by our presence and our commitment to our teshuva. If I can answer any questions you might have, about the holidays, other things Jewish, or for support in your inner work, please contact me by phone or email.
Rabbi Jan