BobJonesArticle I was so honored by this article by Rev. Bob Jones, chaplain at Spring Lake Village in Santa Rosa. He gave it as a sermon and it was published in the Sonoma West Times & News.
BobJonesArticle I was so honored by this article by Rev. Bob Jones, chaplain at Spring Lake Village in Santa Rosa. He gave it as a sermon and it was published in the Sonoma West Times & News.
There is a story about a wise, kind, generous man who recognized that his good fortune was a gift from God and so he needed to share it. So much of a mensch was he, that it was decreed in Heaven that his three sons should each be granted a wish of their hearts. Elijah the Prophet was dispatched for the task and gave them what they wished for. But because only the youngest was paying close enough attention to absorb their father’s lessons, only he could hold onto his wish. And so the older children ended up living small, arrogant, petty lives.
This week’s torah portion, Ma’sei – journeys – drives home the same lesson. It opens with what appears to be a dull list of “We journeyed to point A and camped there. Then we left point A, journeyed to Point B, and camped there” – about 40 different times. The recap takes place while we are in the aravah, in the desert of Moab, at the very end of the book of B’midbar (in the Wilderness), the next to last book of the Torah.
As soon as a Torah list starts to make my eyes glaze over, I switch to thinking – there must be more to this than meets my eye. What is the spiritual meaning buried here? I’d like to suggest a couple.
First, Moses tells us that our journeys start in Egypt, on the 15th day of the first month—Nisan, the day after we observed our first Pesach – when we packed our bags, grabbed our matzah and headed to the Red Sea. Egypt in Hebrew is Mitzrayim, the narrow place of constriction and borders. Spiritually, the journey from Mitzrayim is always the journey beyond the borders that limit us, the narrow straits of habit, convention, and fears of the unknown, whatever oppresses us.
As the children of Israel were reminded of going from point Y to point Z, they were standing on the brink of the Promised Land, a land where they could no longer collect manna every morning, their shoes would finally wear out and they would have to fend for themselves in new, untested ways. If ever a group might need encouragement, this would be it. They needed to be reminded of their experiences to move into the unknown.
Second, notice that half of each journey Moses mentioned was about the encampment – the sitting. The journeys in the Torah are rarely – if ever – just about physical place. They are about spiritual journeys. From the moment Abraham answered the call to Lech Lecha – go forth to himself – each journey we have taken has been one toward spiritual growth. And if you don’t stop along the way, when do you assimilate what you learn? If you don’t have a chance to chew over the experience, will you learn from it? This is especially true of our mistakes, missteps, missing the mark. If the children of Israel didn’t take time to learn from all the kvetching, from Korach and Pinchas, the spiritual lessons would have been lost. And if they hadn’t been recorded for us, they would have been lost to us.
Rashi, the great medieval French commentator, explains that the reminders of every stop on the way is much the way a parent reviews with a grown child a long ago trip, reminding her how she responded to the experience as a child. I think it’s more like a parent reminding a child of past achievements – cheering her on – you overcame great obstacles before, and you can do so again. Rashi’s point is to remind us that journeying and camping (and there was much more camping than journeying over the 40 years) was because of God’s great kindness and love for us. We made it through the periods with no food – manna fell! We made it through periods with no water – the well appeared! Have faith, children of Israel, that what you need will come when you need it.
In the 21st century – not so dissimilar to our ancestors in the desert of Moab – some of us have trouble believing that such a simple faith is real. It is only when we look back at how we have grown, how we have achieved, how the love of people around us, how the resources we have mustered – that we can see how far we’ve come.
Masei reminds us to notice the changes, to remember the distance we have come—for many of us both physically and I hope spiritually, and to listen to the lessons of our ancestors. Let us not be like those two older brothers in the story, but like the youngest one: be grateful for what you have, share with others the bounties of your life. And keep a record of what you did.
Summertime and the living is easy? Not so, say the rabbis of old: summertime and we have some accounting to do: the desert is hot, the sands burning our feet as we wander in the wilderness. Our texts and summer holy days shine the spotlight on our history of loss and alienation and offer us a way to live with and grow through them, back to holiness.
Judaism is a religion of deeds—we don’t really care whether you have faith, as long as you behave like a mensch. Every day we are supposed to work on our souls and our relationships. Every day. Some of it is through prayer. Some through reflection or meditation. Some through study. Some, since we are a people of deeds and actions, through how we treat each other. But it is supposed to be an every day thing…
Because the tradition recognizes that sometimes we don’t achieve the “everyday-ness” we have opportunities throughout the year to get back on track. The Torah helps us out on our spiritual and relational journey. Each season and especially each holy day is geared to kickstart us from a different perspective. Each holy day has a specific spiritual task for us, a way to look at how we interact with the holy and how we interact with the world, and each other.
Before the High Holy Days, we have an entire season of preparation—10 weeks, starting on the 17th of Tammuz, (July 19 in 2011), continuing through Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av, which is coming up on the evening of August 8, into Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah.
The sages of old sought to combine the Torah, history and spiritual work into a tightly woven web, entwining the recognition of powerful emotions, experience of catastrophe and coming out of the depths, with comfort and hope for the future.
Because they believed we were responsible for the destruction of the temples, they tied the 17th of Tammuz, the day of the breaching of Jerusalem’s walls in both 586 BCE and 70 CE, with the story of the Golden Calf (if you count 40 days from Shavuot, the day we received the ten commandments, you end up at 17 Tammuz). They tied Tisha B’Av—the day of the destruction of both temples—to the story of the Spies.
Why? In both stories, we acted from our fears, with disastrous results. Our anxiety that Moses was late down the mountain led to the orgy at the foot of a molten calf, and the spies’ fears led them—princes of the people—to compare themselves to grasshoppers who could not face giants, and so sowed doubt into the people.
The connection between giving in to our fears, failing to control them, and the destruction of the temple is profound. If you think the temple represents the axis mundi—that connection between heaven and earth, between ha’av harachamim –the merciful parent—and you, between goodness and chaos… then its loss is overwhelming.
For Tisha B’Av, we read the megillah Eicha, or Lamentations, a powerful cry of five chapters set into a very tight poetic structure: each is in an acrostic form: from alef to tav, Hebrew’s A to Z. When you see that form, you immediately know this is about completeness: the completeness of the destruction, of the pain, of the agony. It is also a “story of the transcendence of catastrophe,” which provided us with the structure to express the primal scream of anguish.
When we observe Tisha B’Av, we look at how we respond to our fears—even the ones, or especially the ones, that are realized. Do we respond by building a Molten Calf or do we respond by holding each other’s hands and planning to move forward together? Tisha B’Av is the lowest point—the hitting bottom, and from there, there is nowhere to go but up. Like the winter solstice, when the days are their darkest, we know that lightness—and hope—are just around the corner.
A friend of mine is the rabbi in Flagstaff, where last summer’s forest fires consumed thousands of acres of old growth. Her congregation, whose homes all survived, are looking outside their windows at their blackened forests in despair. We discussed how redwood forests depend on fire to renew themselves: how after the Mt. Vision fire in Point Reyes almost 20 years ago, the forests experienced a burgeoning of new growth. Tisha B’Av is like that – experiencing the despair of the blackened forest, hopefully ending with the knowledge that our souls, like the trees, can be renewed, if only the circumstances are right.
 Mintz, Alan. Hurban: Responses to Catastrophe in Hebrew Literature. New York: Columbia University Press. 1984, p. x.
There is a famous story about a man asking a rabbi about what is the deal with Talmud – the vast collection of rabbinic discussion and law completed around 600 CE? The rabbi explains that it takes a “certain type of mind” to study talmud – and asks him a few questions to see if he has the “right” type of mind.
Two men come down the same chimney and one comes out clean and one comes out dirty. One of them is going to wash – which one? The clean one or the dirty one?
The man replies, the dirty one. The rabbi says, “Not so fast. The dirty man looks at the clean one and assumes he too is clean, while the clean one looks at the dirty one and assumes he’s dirty.”
The rabbi asks the question: “Two men come down the same chimney, one clean, one dirty. Who washes?”
The man replies “You told me already! The clean man!”
The rabbi replies, “Not so fast. What if there was a mirror at the washbasin? Then the clean one would notice he was clean. So maybe neither of them would wash.”
The rabbi asks, “Two men come down the same chimney…”
The man replies, “Enough already! You’re confusing me!”
The rabbi says, “The important question is ‘How could two men come down the same chimney and one be clean and one dirty?’”
From this, we learn that asking the right questions, and asking more and more questions – that’s what’s important … And this becomes really useful. Especially when we are confronted with Torah portions like this week’s, Pinchas.
In last week’s torah portion, Balak, the Israelites are hanging out around Moab, outside the land of Israel, and too many of the men are whoring with Moabite women, and committing idol worship with the Moabite women’s god. YHWH tells Moses to gather the idol worshippers and have them killed. Moses gives the instruction to his deputies. God sends a plague. Meanwhile, a prince from the tribe of Shimon brings a Midianite princess to his companions, in the sight of Moses and the whole congregation, in front of the holy Tent of Meeting, and there they do things they should not do (their stature in their communities makes it more than an individual sin, but one that affects nations). Everyone else stands there transfixed, until Pinchas, Aaron’s grandson and Moses’ great nephew, a priest, takes a spear and kills the couple, with perfect aim, in the belly—or in some translations, their sex organs. The plague God sent, which killed 24,000, is over.
And thus ended last week’s torah portion. We pick up this week, with the aftermath, in Parashat Pinchas. God tells Moses that it was on account of Pinchas’ action – the stabbing of the couple – that God’s anger receded and God yet again spared us from annihilation. And as a result, he is going to give Pinchas “b’riti shalom” – God’s personal covenant of peace.
Whoa! Wow! What a minute! A covenant of peace for stabbing two people in front the whole community?
What is this about? Is this a good thing? Or is it fanaticism? Or is it obedience to God’s commandments? Is it defense of the community? Or is it vigilantism? And what is the effect of rewarding someone with a covenant of peace for murdering others?
Questioning this story and this result has been going on for millennia. Some commentators believe Pinchas was doing exactly the right thing. And there is a group operating right now called Phineas’ Priesthood (that’s the English for Pinchas) that exists to commit acts of violence against interracial couples, Jews and homosexuals… Is this what happens when we take the bible literally? Or the murder of doctors who perform abortions: is this what happens? And how does that compare to making it impossible for a woman to legally have an abortion by establishing the licensing requirements that have been implemented in Kansas?
The rabbis of the Talmud times were quite upset by this story (200 to 600 years after the common era), and there is evidence that this is why the action – the stabbing – is in a separate portion from the granting of the covenant of peace. They wanted to separate the story from its aftermath, because they could not condone it. They also created a tradition in the scrolls—the first five books of the Hebrew bible are traditionally a scroll on animal skins—to have a broken letter in the Hebrew word for peace – shalom – to signify their perception of the concept of violence begetting peace: a truly broken, bankrupt idea.
Modern commentators, including R. Arthur Waskow, wonder whether what Pinchas did got God’s attention enough to bring God’s wrath to a halt. God recognized that Pinchas was acting like God’s self with the plague and this was not good behavior. So one interpretation – one I am partial to – is that the covenant of peace could be seen as an acknowledgement that violence was NOT the answer, and giving in to rage is not the answer. While everyone else stood transfixed, unable to move, Pinchas made the decision to sacrifice two people to catch God’s attention and prevent the slaughter of thousands more. Is there a time when assassination or sacrificing a few lives is for the sake of the many? I bet several of us could argue this point. [I once saw a production of Julius Caesar, in which the programme asked numerous political leaders this point, with a wide range of responses.] And certainly, the death of Osama bin Laden seems to have been celebrated by many as a good thing – people celebrating wildly in the streets, and even people who object to the lack of due process do not seem to be sorry that he is gone.
This story, like so many others, can strike us on both the collective or political level at the same time it encourages us to look deep within ourselves. What are we, here and now, supposed to make of this portion? I think it has to do with how we handle our anger, and whether we think vigilante-ism is a good idea. While idol worship – think of the modern idols of greed, power, celebrity – is as deplorable as it was in the time of the Torah, what steps are justified to prevent people from worshipping at the foot of Wall Street, or Hollywood or Washington? Do we hold demonstrations, do we march on Washington, do we send letters and emails and petitions, or do we take other actions? Is the kind of murder committed by Pinchas ever acceptable?
But on a more personal level, in our own lives, how do we handle our anger, our disappointment, our frustration? Do we attack the people who we think are acting wrong? Do we yell at our children or our partners or our friends when we think they are wrong? Do we take matters into our own hands, convinced of our righteousness? Do we find better ways to try to make change? Do we sit frozen, unable to move, do we strike or do we figure out a peaceful way to get someone’s attention and get them to stop? Are we gentle or are we harsh? Which works better?
I’m sure we all have our answers, and they may change depending on the circumstances, or our mood, or the work we do on ourselves. While I sometimes feel justified in the moment to express my anger, generally upon reflection, I find that Pinchas’ way should never be my way – either in the grander ways of the world, or in the more intimate relationships with loved ones. I believe my work is to view Pinchas’ actions as a call to restraint for myself. To find better, more peaceful ways to express my outrage, my anger, my disappointment.
May we all take this story of Pinchas to reflect on the questions – what works better for ourselves? How does our behavior harm or nurture our relationships? What would our covenant of peace look like?
Our sages imagined a whole cycle of sacred time to prepare our souls for the High Holy Days. It starts on the 17th of Tammuz, the Tzom (Fast) of Tammuz, which is July 19 this year. It encompasses the low point of Tisha B’Av, the 9th day of the Jewish month of Av, the day that commemorates tragedy upon genocide upon misfortune, letting us practice the pain of loss.
This summer series will explore Jewish sacred time in the summer and how to use it and other traditional Jewish spiritual practices, such as Mussar (the 1,000 year old spiritual practice of spiritual accounting), to be the person you want to be. Using texts and discussion, we will explore what the rabbis had in mind and what it can mean for us today.
The next class is August 4 at 7 pm, and others will occur every other Thursday (7/21, 8/4, 8/18, 9/1 and 9/15), from 7 – 8:30 pm.
The class will be at 1429 Butterfield Road, San Anselmo. Please call for directions (or use mapquest or your GPS).
Cost: $18 per class. Come to all, or drop in to one or two.
Week One (July 21): The Jewish Sacred Calendar in the Summer: What were the rabbis thinking?
Week Two: (August 4): What does Tisha B’Av have to say to me? J Introduction to Mussar Practice. Text study from the Talmud and Tanakh.
Week Three (August 18): Getting ready for Elul: How can I use this month to prepare my soul? Let’s practice some Mussar.
Week Four (September 1): In the midst of Elul: What do I still have to do to be ready?
Week Five (September 15): Final touches for this year: How do we keep up the work? Getting ready for Selichot.
Call or email if you have questions. 415.721.7096. email@example.com.
I recently read an ad online for a training workshop titled, “How to deliver bad news.” What a great idea! I know of too many times when someone needed to share such news, but could not quite find the right time. So the person anxiously waits, and waits, and when what appears to be the slightest opening, they seize it, give the news and walk away, relieved, only to find out later, what worked for them did not work at all for the person receiving the news. As one who has been on the receiving end myself, I know how challenging this can be, both to absorb the information and to accept how the news was delivered.
And so I believe it is with God and Moses in this week’s Torah portion, Hukkat, deep into Bemidbar (In the Wilderness, or Numbers, the fourth of the Five Books of Moses). Moses’ and Aaron’s sister, Miriam, dies, and the people bury her, and then they cry for thirst. They do not just cry, they surround the grieving brothers and demand relief. It is an ugly time in the wilderness, with no one at their best: the grumbling mob, Moses, or even the Holy One. Moses has to be in a state of mourning for Miriam, and then the people come to him with one more complaint, one that reflects their own grief at the loss of her leadership and presence. Yes, they are thirsty, but surely the thirst cannot be only physical. She–who the midrash tells us was responsible for the well of pure water that followed them throughout their wanderings–must have provided them spiritual sustenance as well.
So, the people, and especially the brothers are grieving, but do not know how to treat each other well. How very painful these scenes are to read: we know so many people whose families wander lost in the wilderness of grief, and turn on rather than to each other. Traditional Jewish rituals around death and dying offer us specific guidelines to offer help, rather than harm at these vulnerable moments.
But it is God’s role that is the most perplexing, I find. Moses, in his own state of grief, confronted by an angry mob, acts out and does not follow precise instructions–and for this, God tells him he will not be allowed to enter the Promised Land? Much commentary has been written on the topic, because it is such a mystery. And this is why I wonder: was this God’s “slight opening” to tell Moses, the faithful servant, that it was never to be that he would enter the land? Is it possible that his life’s task was to deliver us to the border, and turn the reins over to Joshua? Would Joshua have been able to take up the mantle of leadership with Moses next to him as the emeritus leader? It is not the crowd-pleasing ending to the story, but it is a realistic one.
Maybe the text is telling us that while Moses was likely considering his own mortality after his sister’s death, God thought this was the opportune moment to deliver the news. Maybe we are witnessing an example of the difficulty of sharing the truly painful parts of life. Even the Holy One could not find a graceful way to break the news. May we, as we study Hukkat, consider the loving care required when sharing the pain of life. And may we, on the receiving end, gain compassion for the one who is trying. Let the training begin!
This will be the final class in the series. We will be studying the prayers we pray after the Torah is put away, or after tachanun. (Although we may spend a couple of minutes on tachanun itself…) Please join us.
Title: Lunch, Learn, Pray: Concluding Prayers
Location: Congregation Shomrei Torah, 2600 Bennett Valley Road, Santa Rosa
Start Time: 12:00
End Time: 13:00
When I was a girl growing up in Queens, in NY, my mother often took my two sisters and me to Broadway musicals: we saw Fiddler, Man of La Mancha, 1776, revivals of Annie Get Your Gun, with Ethel Merman, and South Pacific, and many more. All the women dancers were small, petite, capable of being lifted easily by the male dancers. When I was a teen, my sister took me for the first time to see the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, where I was astonished and amazed by Judith Jamison, the larger than life – or at least larger than any woman dancer – I had ever seen. She was noted for power, grace, regal bearing and emotional interpretation. But how did someone of her exceptional size – she reached at 5’10” – make it to the dance stage in the first place? Her parents sent her to ballet lessons when she was 6, to help imbue her already noticeable height with grace… She was already a giant among grasshoppers, who believed in herself enough to develop her technique and let the music flow through her, so that she could reach the heights of an art form usually reserved for the petite body.
Grasshoppers and giants: those images come from this week’s torah portion: Shelakh Lecha – the fourth portion of the fourth book of the torah, Bemidbar, or Numbers. God tells Moses Shelakh Lecha – send for yourself… men to scout the land I have promised to give you. It is a story of such profound heart ache, such terror, such bad behavior and such heroes. It is such a modern story, and such an ancient one…
The leaders of each tribe, brave men and true, are given six specific tasks by Moses:
It was a military, strategic task, to do the planning they needed to claim their inheritance…
So off they went to explore the land, returning 40 days later. Here’s what they reported to Moses, Aaron, and the whole community, as they showed them the fruit of the land. (Num. 13:26)
Note that they spoke to the entire people, rather than just to Moses and Aaron…
“We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit.
So far, so good…
However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the Anakites there. Amalekites dwell in the Negev region; Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites inhabit the hill country; and Canaanites dwell by the Sea and along the Jordan.” (Num. 13:27-29)
It all sounds like the instructions Moses gave them. Is the country good or bad? Are the cities fortified? What kinds of people? What’s the problem?
In Hebrew, after they show the giant grapes, the next word is efes… However… Did you notice it? That one little word. It means so much. Efes is often used to say, “it will all come to naught.” The land may flow with milk and honey, efes – it will all come to naught—because of the Anakites and Amalekites and the giants… we seemed like grasshoppers ourselves and so we must have seemed to them… (Num. 13:33)
You can almost hear it as a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you see yourself as small and weak, it is entirely possible that others will as well—and treat you accordingly. Ibn Ezra, the 12th century Spanish commentator, noted that this whole scene was another episode of us not being ready to rid ourselves of the slave mentality, the ability to embrace the opportunity for change and growth.
The rabbis associate this story with the disastrous day of Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av, the day that witnessed the destruction of both the first and second temples as well as a number of other collective Jewish disasters. We read the Book of Lamentations – or Eicha, in Hebrew. We fast. We mourn… We experience the pain of loss. And this torah portion is associated with all that?
10 of the 12 scouts, excepting Caleb and Joshua, came back with a report that sent us, the children of Israel, into yet another dither of hysteria: better we should return to familiar slavery, or die in the wilderness than face a beautiful land where we would be seen as the small, scared, insecure people we were…
Our leadership failed us that day, and we became a frightened horde who threatened to pelt Caleb and Joshua with stones rather than listen to their message of hope. And this became the archetype for every disaster that struck us until the Holocaust.
How did this happen? What was so terrible?
One of my teachers explains that the tragedy of this story is in the nature of the sin we committed that day. Our leaders – with a tiny word – efes – however —allowed their own anxiety in the face of insecurity to overwhelm all that had been given to them already. And we – the people of Israel, we ran amok again, just as we had at the Golden Calf. One way of looking at sin – a word laden with heavy connotations, one that could be explored at length, another time – is that it is the actions that stem, unmediated, from our fears and anxieties. Of course we will be scared when faced with giants, or the sea before us and our enemies behind us, or when we are asked to do something far outside our comfort zone, that asks us to stretch, maybe too far… But how do we deal with that anxiety? Have you ever lost it at someone you love because of your own fears? Of course, many of us have… and it’s that sort of behavior that the torah so often shows us is both the norm and something we can struggle with, to learn to be better people…
It is what we do with our fears and anxiety that is a key to Jewish spirituality. The tradition offers us better ways of looking at our behavior, different models for handling the stress, and for looking at ourselves honestly and realistically – to assess with open eyes whether we really are grasshoppers, or whether we are projecting our fears onto others.
Joshua and Caleb were able to be visionaries, while their compatriots, fellow communal leaders, could not harness their imaginations to see a world in which the miracles they had already lived through could continue: as a friend of mine wrote, they revisioned the possible into the impossible because of their fears. Joshua and Caleb were able to rise above their slave mentality to picture themselves – and the rest of the children of Israel – living in the land of milk and honey. While they might have seen themselves as grasshoppers, they did not assume that others did, nor did they imagine grasshoppers as helpless creatures without a friend in the world. They took stock of their situation, and with faith in the Holy One, each other and themselves, knew that the children of Israel could achieve what had been promised them. Just as Judith Jamison was not cowed by the normal expectations of the dance world and honed her craft despite her unusual frame, so did Caleb and Joshua trust their circumstances.
Redemption is found when we can see ourselves realistically and recognize we are made b’tzelem elohim – in the divine image, born with the divine spark; sometimes we might be grasshoppers, but we can defeat giants. I pray that we all explore the ways we see ourselves as grasshoppers, and begin to transform that view to one of strength, and value, ready to meet the challenges of our own lives.
At ordination, one of my sister ordinees noted that the primary question she is asked is why did she become a rabbi… it is a frequent question for me too. My stock answer is sisterhood and my daughter’s beautiful soul. But how is also an important question: 140 flights to and from LA on Southwest, the flexibility of the people i work for, and especially from my family. And Rabbi Stacy Friedman also deserves credit – when I met with her about 7 years ago about becoming a rabbi, she did not laugh at the idea and she pointed me in the direction of the Academy for Jewish Religion CA, the transdenominational seminary that nourished my heart, soul and mind for the past five years. She understood that, despite my commitment to Reform Judaism, Hebrew Union College would not be able to meet my family’s individual needs, while it turned out that AJR (AJR) used great flexibility to do exactly that. My family also exhibited remarkable flexibility to allow me to leave for 2-3 days a week, 35 weeks a year for 4 years. R. Stacy also told me at the end of my first year in seminary that she was already planning tonight’s service, exhibiting complete faith in me. For this, I am grateful.
The journey took a circuitous path… I was president of Sisterhood back in 1994, when I attended my first Women of Reform Judaism/URJ biennial (URJ was still UAHC back then!): where I had my first experience of praying with 4,000 committed Jews, saw Debbie Friedman for the first time and feasted from a smorgasbord of learning opportunities. I was completely hooked. Whatever I had to do to have access to that kind of spiritual experience – I would do. Be sisterhood president? No problem. Create programs, with all the messy details? Of course. Serve on the temple board? Well, if I have to. Because the learning wasn’t just book knowledge – the texts illuminated the challenges of my life. And each time I studied was an incredible high.
An example: for a sisterhood retreat, no one wanted to chant torah, so I decided it was time to learn. (My bat mitzvah, at age 12, comprised 1 verse of haftarah…) Cantor David Margules burned a CD, and with the text and his voice on my computer, I learned the first five verses of Genesis. As I sat in my office, tears streamed down my face as I dove into the river of all the Jews through the millennia who had learned these same verses. I remember Sam pleading with me to “turn that racket off!” until he saw the tears…
And working with as part of the High Holy Day Sanctuary Service leadership all those years allowed me to partner with this deeply spiritual and creative group of people and gave me the confidence to imagine I could DO this, lead people to a spiritual place. And you don’t have to be a rabbi to do these things.
But I personally wanted more. Yearned for more. Craved more. And the path opened up to me. And I have learned so much, been excited so often by our tradition.
For example, I learned that virtually every time I read a torah portion, I rediscover that I love that portion – there is so much in it! And so it is with this torah portion, Be’ha’alotecha – the 3rd parasha in Bemidbar or Numbers, the fourth book of Torah…
First let me detour to give you one definition of Jewish spirituality: it is the effort to strengthen our neshamas – our souls – against the yetzer hara… the inclination toward evil. And so, one way to look at Judaism is as a set of spiritual disciplines.
And this week’s torah portion offers several clear hints about why this must be so: “And the people took to complaining bitterly before God.” We complained about everything – we didn’t like the manna (even though it tasted like rich cream – or in the midrash, whatever we wanted) – we wanted meat (even though we had all our livestock with us)… even Moses (whom God tells us is a very humble man, the most humble of men…) became overwhelmed: he tells God that he can’t handle the unruly mass of us and if God doesn’t do something – well, kill me now! And then just a little later, we stumble upon Miriam and Aaron speaking against their baby brother, and for this, Miriam (alone) is stricken with the white disease and must spend a week outside the camp, for which Moses utters the immortal words – El Na Refa Na La – Please God heal her.
When left to our natural devices, it seems our souls could benefit from a little discipline, no?
So the Jewish spiritual disciplines:
Moadim – our sacred calendar
Mussar – the discipline of self-reflection
Tefilah – prayer
And Torah… I’m going to talk about the first two tonight.
Moadim: each holiday has its own spiritual task – spiritual tasks that truly we are supposed to work on every day, but sometimes we don’t actually get around to it, and so we have a holy day to reflect on that spiritual work… For instance, Shavuot, which just passed on Wednesday, is the holy day the rabbis calculated was the day we received the Torah… And our spiritual task? To figure out if and how each of us can be present to the divine presence and translate that into something usable to reach our best selves.
Mussar: The 1,000 year old spiritual path of transformative practices based on insights and teachings found in Jewish texts. And yet, Mussar is not an intellectual exercise; indeed Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, the Ramchal, who lived in 18th Century Italy, wrote that his text, The Path of the Just, didn’t teach anything innovative: any thinking person already knew what he had to say: they just didn’t employ it. The goal is to transform personality or human nature itself in the service of reaching an essential human value: service and responsibility for other human beings. ‘Mussar’ means instruction, correction, accepting reproof of a moral/ethical nature. It is entirely about doing the spiritual work to be able to be healthy in ourselves and in our relationships, to connect to the best parts of ourselves… And it requires work. And offers real benefits…
Moses, we learn this week, was the most humble, anav, of people: from this we learn that humility is not about being meek, mild, self-effacing, but about having an accurate measure of ourselves – taking up the right amount of space. For example, most women take up too little space in our own lives and we all know people who take up a lot of space.
There is a story of the Chofetz Chayim, a 19th and 20th century Polish rebbe who had a tremendous impact on the Jewish world. When asked how he had achieved this success, the Chofetz Chaim answered, “I set out to try to change the world, but I failed. So I decided to scale back my efforts and only try to influence the Jewish community of Poland, but I failed there, too. So I targeted the community in my hometown of Radin, but achieved no greater success. Then I gave all my effort to changing my own family, and failed at that as well. Finally, I decided to change myself, and that’s how I had such an impact on the Jewish world.”
Jewish spiritual disciplines offer us a way to deal with the behaviors that we have shown since at least biblical times: who among us hasn’t been jealous of our siblings or has not complained about something? These disciplines require our whole being – heart, mind, body, soul. You don’t have to become a rabbi to experience the joy of all these connections and the depth of learning that can change your life. You just need to show up with all of your being. It’ll be worth it…
Title: Leading Kabbalat Shabbat services
Location: Congregation Beth Sholom, Napa
Link out: Click here
Start Time: 07:00
End Time: 08:30