Old, New and Holy

We have come to the end of the Book of Exodus.  The passage of time captivates me more than ever, as I have been captive of its slow passage now for many weeks.  More than focusing on the details of this week’s parshah, I am drawn to the words we recite whenever we finish reading a book of Torah: “Chazak, chazak v’nitchazeik – Be strong, be strong, and together we will be strengthened.”

We are strengthened by keeping the words and teachings of Jewish tradition close to our heart, as an anchor rather than a weight, whether we are inspired by them or whether we struggle with them.  In God’s first words to Joshua after the death of Moses, God says: “This Book of Torah shall not depart from your mouth; you shall meditate upon it day and night” (Joshua 1:8). It is taught that the emphasis, “Sefer haTorah hazeh – literally, ‘this Book of Torah’ means that Joshua was actually holding the Torah at the time. This interpretation has a practical consequence that is seen when the oleh laTorah, the person “called” to bless the Torah, comes to the bimah, that person is supposed to hold the etz chayim, the wooden poles on which the scroll is wrapped, when reciting the blessing.   While there are varied customs among Ashkenazim and Sephardim regarding the conclusion of a book of Torah, there is evidence that in France in the 12th-13th centuries it was customary for the Cantor to say “Chazak”- ‘be strong’ – in a loud voice to each person upon finishing their reading from the Torah. Reading Torah – holding it literally and figuratively, and reading it again and again to learn from it anew each time we return to a passage – this is what brings us strength individually and keeps us strong as a people.

The confluence of the Jewish calendar and my life strikes once again. (Or is it just my ongoing search for meaning and connectedness in the Jewish seasons?)  I have completed my own chapter in the book of the journey of my healing and return to full health.  Chazak.  I am strong, gaining strength. I am returning to some of the things that I used to be able to do, those that have either eluded me or have not been permitted to me for some time now.  Nothing earth-shaking, and yet: turning my head to look at the flowering trees…..looking down to read a book in my lap…..taking a nap lying down on the sofa…..cutting the vegetables from our garden for dinner’s salad…….baking challah.  I feel as if I am doing these typical and everyday things again for the very first time.  Rav Avraham Kook, the first chief rabbi of the Holy Land, before Israel became a state and a deeply spiritual thinker, said the following which resonates with me now: “Hayashan yitchadeish v’hechadash yitkadeish – The old shall become new and the new shall become holy.” While sometimes misused to interpret sticking with old, outdated and sometimes oppressive ways as ways to holiness, I believe that the intention of these words is two-fold: not to discard something merely because it is old, and to understand the potential of renewal and growth in every situation.  My old activities, the straightforward movements that to which I never gave thought, once old-hat, are now renewed to me.  Noticing them, giving them attention with gratitude brings the sacred into these simple activities.

Chazak – in the singular, refers to the individual. When we say it for each new yet familiar thing we do or learn, when we recited it after rereading each book of Torah each year, we become strong. Nitchazeik – in the reflexive plural, it is through community that our own strength is sustained.  For me, the love and help from my family and friends that continue to support me on this journey, for the learning and teaching that I continue to enjoy, for the moments of prayer and awe, communal spirit is how we become nitchazeik – strengthened by one another.

For what will you say chazak this week?  May we continue to draw sustenance in the year to come – from our relationships and from our learning.  Kein y’hi ratzon.

[Pekudei 2014 ]

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My Grandmother’s Candlesticks

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These candlesticks were sent over from family in Hungary around 1930, on the occasion of my grandmother’s engagement to my grandfather.  Beautiful – silver, ornately engraved, with her initials, SW, swirled letters incorporated into the design on the rounded base.  My grandmother gave them to me many years ago, upon the birth of my eldest daughter.  While my grandmother was not really a religious person, she lit Shabbes candles, and was thrilled for me to have her candlesticks to use with my own family.  I still get excited each time they gleam when I finish polishing them, like new, ready for the Shabbat lights.

This week’s retelling in Torah of the completion of the Mishkan (its initial accounting of the building plan occurred just chapters earlier) is no mere listing of a giant building project with all its component parts completed and accounted for. Beginning with a reminder to observe Shabbat (as a covenantal reminder after the Golden Calf incident), it rather recounts a joyous moment when kavanah [intention] was carried through so that the finished product could be sanctified and used for the holy purpose to which it was envisioned, as the people gave the “offering of their hearts to God” (Exodus 35:29).

There are two stages to the actual building of the Mishkan.  First, we are told four times in these chapters that the entire people had to participate, to be so moved to bring and donate materials.  Well, the Israelites brought so much ‘stuff’ that Moses had to put a stop to their donations!  Perhaps they were just ready to clear out the clutter of their tents!  Seriously, most cultures are enamored with ‘stuff’ – we can touch it, hoard it, sell it, buy it, trade it; stuff reminds us of where we have been, brings good memories and tough ones; objects and possessions can be very useful items, simply clutter, or potentially dangerous.  Baruch Spinoza, a Jewish philosopher, teaches that things are not ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in and of themselves.  Based on the Talmudic comment: “With earrings they sinned and with earrings they were restored to God’s favor”: the same jewels can be used for lowly or exalted purposes. Possessions have no intrinsic moral value. Indeed, whether they are good or bad depends solely on the way we use them. They are the stuff of both idols and sanctuaries.

The second stage of building involves artistry and skill, also indicated at four different times in the verses; for that, artisans are appointed, under the direction of Betzalel.  It wasn’t sufficient that everyone brought or gave what they could for the building of the Mishkan; it was crucial that the project had a beauty that would enhance and evince the deeper meaning of the construction.  The ancient principle of Hiddur Mitzvah is literally the enhancement of carrying out mitzvot using beautiful and adorned objects to bring greater meaning to the ritual.  I think that this is further demonstrated in the connection of root letters between Art – in Hebrew, Omanut אמנ-ו-ת    and Faith – in Hebrew, Emunah אמ-ו-נ-ה. Even in Kabbalistic tradition, Tiferet – Splendor (the 6th sefirah) is at the center of the Divine Emanations of creation.  Art enhances faith, beauty brings out wonder; this spurs faith in a Creator of Beauty and of the inspiration in humankind to continue to create things of beauty which add meaning and depth to our lives.  This artistic building endeavor here in Torah is a spiritual counterbalance to the building of the Golden Calf, which arose out of the spiritual struggle and despair of a people who feared they were abandoned.

Maimonides, in the work known as The Eight Chapters (the introduction to his commentary on Pirkei Avot) speaks about the healing power of beauty and its importance in counteracting depression: “One who suffers from melancholia may dispel it by listening to singing and all kinds of instrumental music, by strolling through beautiful gardens and splendid buildings, by gazing upon beautiful pictures and other things enliven the mind and dissipate gloomy moods.” (ch.5) In short, as we read this week in Torah, art is restorative to the soul.

So each week as my family and I welcome Shabbat lighting candles held in my grandmother’s candlesticks, I smile knowing that my grandmother is still with me, and faith and tradition are once again woven together through splendor.

Anger Management

I am struck by God’s anger in this week’s Torah portion.  On the one hand, the people have already been difficult to deal with since Egypt – complaining, doubting, and whining.  It is enough to make anyone lose patience.  But this is God we are talking about.  It sounds like a soap opera. I hear, ‘Moses, you know those people, your people [Exodus 32:7] that you forced Me to rescue? Well, I have just had it with their attitude.’ The text continues, with God saying: “Now, let My anger blaze forth against them, that I may destroy them, and make of you [Moses] a great nation.” [Exodus 32:10].

Wow.  Of course, that isn’t what ensues.  Moses intervenes, pleading with God on behalf of the people.  He doesn’t extol their virtues, however, which would be disingenuous, and frankly unlikely to be convincing.  He appeals to God’s sense of right, to God’s promise of redemption, to Adonai’s powerful presence perceived by all the nations.  It is with God’s image that Moses is concerned – what will nations think of God if the Holy One was to act in this way?   And so, God relents, renouncing the punishment declared for God’s people [Exodus 32:14].

It is really hard to turn back and halt the runaway train of a declaration made in anger.   Like God, al achat kamah vachama, [how much more do] we need someone who is going to call us out when we are angry or upset, to help us see the bigger picture and guide us back onto an even keel?  Time That time for breathing and reflection is so important.  When we are on a tear, we need time to stop and reconsider. When we are angry, the affective part of our brain takes over, running us down an irrational path.  We say things we don’t mean and lose perspective.  Here, God models for us this stepping back.  In chapter 34 of this portion, the 13 Attributes of God, the very words that God taught Moses for the people to use whenever they needed to beg for divine compassion, follow these outbursts (the apostasy of the Israelites and the wrath of God – both a loss of grounding and faith), in order to remind us of the qualities of the Holy One of Blessing, and therefore the model of character after which we should strive.  In verse 6, one of God’s attributes is being ‘slow to anger’ – Erech apayim – literally, long-suffering.  If we are created in the image of God, and God is slow to anger, then we, too, should strive to be slow to anger. This quality in fact gives us human beings the time to repent when we have stumbled.

The Talmud teaches about angry responses in Pirkei Avot 5:11 – “There are four types of temperaments.  One who is easily angered and easily appeased – his virtue cancels his flaw. One whom it is difficult to anger and difficult to appease – his flaw cancels his virtue.  One whom it is difficult to anger and is easily appeased, is a chasid [pious]. One who is easily angered and is difficult to appease, is wicked.

What makes you angry? What calms you down? There is an assumption in this passage that everyone loses his or her temper and becomes angry on occasion. It is the degree to which one is able to control one’s temper that makes all the difference. For me, my anger is usually aroused by circumstances beyond my control, things that somehow seem to be controlling me.  I don’t think I am alone in this, and it is ironic and universal how experiencing loss of control is about our own perception and experience, more than actual circumstance.  Buddhist tradition says: “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” It makes me think of the midrash about Moses as a child: he unknowingly picks up the hot coals thinking they were shiny gems, put them to his lips to play, and ends up with a permanent speech impairment.  Being drawn to the coals is so tempting!

Rather than enduring the searing pain that comes with being angry, this Shabbat I pray notice those impulses to grasp at the seductive coals of anger, recognizing them for what they are and leave them to smolder in the fire where they belong.

[Ki Tissa 2014]

Don’t Let The Light Go Out

I am thinking a lot about the qualities of light this week. 

God told Israel: “KEEP A LIGHT ALWAYS BURNING FOR ME.” (Exodus 27:20).

It seems like a straightforward instruction, right?  ‘Always’ – in Hebrew, tamid.  Yet, it could also mean continuously or regularly.  Moreover, what is the nature of the light to be lit?  Is there a particular way or time that we are supposed to do? And why is it needed?

12th Century Torah commentator Rashi reads this literally to suggest this is a light to be kindled regularly each evening, an understanding supported by the grammar and trope of the text.  But that doesn’t hold up for us as well, who are removed from the sacrificial cult of the ancient Temple.  While today we understand this phrase as an ‘eternal light’ – ner tamid – (supported by Nachmanides), the light cannot miraculously stay lit on its own; it must be tended to.

A Midrash: Once there were two friends.  One could see with his eyes.  One was blind, and had to see in other ways.  Walking together, the seeing man walked the blind man home.  When they got to the house, the seeing man asked his blind friend, “Please turn on the lights for me.”  This confused the blind man.  The seeing man’s explanation for his request: “I wanted to relieve you from any obligation to me for having accompanied you home on the road.’ (Numbers Rabbah 15:5).  Meaning, God doesn’t need us to light a light in order to see.  God wants us to do this for us, to understand that we have to do something to be in relationship with God, because we need it.

What is this light for which God asks? In the Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 22b, we learn that light is a symbol of God’s Presence: “During the entire forty years that the Israelites travelled in the wilderness, they travelled only by God’s light! It is a testimony to humankind that the Divine Presence rests in Israel.” Light here is a metaphor for the Divine, for understanding, for ‘enlightenment’. The Zohar [the foundational work of Jewish mysticism] goes further, to teach that Ner [light] is acronym for n’shamah [soul] + ruach [spirit]; that is, soul plus spirit is light itself.  And in the Book of Proverbs (20:27 –note the significance that it is the inverse number of our Torah verse!) we read, “Ner Adonai nishmat adam”: ‘The light of God is the soul of the human being.’ Tending to this light perpetually becomes then a beautiful image for our actions to become the pathways for God’s presence.  We become ‘transmitters of light’ – partners with God in the world. 

So what is needed to keep the light burning?  ‘Pure oil from olives, crushed for the light’ (Exodus 27:20).  The olive, one of the seven species singled out by Torah as an exemplar of the bounty of the Promised Land, i<  The olive, one of the seven species singled out by Torah as an exemplar of the bounty of the Promised Land,  points for God’s that part of ourselves that thrives on struggle, which revels in it. Just like an olive, say our sages, which yields its oil only when pressed, so, too, do we often yield what is best in us only when pressed.  That is, sometimes the things that crush us or knock us down are exactly the things that can lift us up.

It is only in contrast to darkness that light can truly shine.  Life’s daily challenges are the fuel which gives rise to clear, brilliant illumination.  Let these words of Torah inspire us to tend to this perpetual light – tending to our relationship with God – let us not be dragged into the darkness, but rather keep the light of faith, justice and love burning brightly.

[Tetzaveh 2014]