Numbering Our Days

Math is not my favorite subject. But these days, I am very focused on counting – the number of boxes I need to pack up my books; the number of Bar Mitzvah students I need to schedule; the number of days until we move; the amount of time I need to get through my to-do list.  In the period of our Jewish tradition, we are in the midst of counting the Days of the Omer.  And then, this week in Torah, we begin the Book of Numbers – Bemidbar, which literally means ‘in the desert’; it opens with a census-taking, a counting of the Israelites. I am counting up, counting down, and needing to count on many pieces falling into place in the weeks ahead.

This time of year is especially busy for cantors and rabbis who are getting ready to begin new jobs; I find it personally interesting this year to note that this transition coincides in our Torah cycle with the Israelites sojourn in the wilderness. For myself, I am once again facing that wilderness, that place and time of transition. The last time I faced this (17 years ago), I remember trying to allay the concerns of my young daughters with some Jewish context for our move; I explained that just like the Israelites made it through the wilderness to the Promised Land, so we would, too, with patience and time. Now, with more years behind me and a great deal more life experience, I find myself wondering about the perspective of seeing the wilderness just as ‘something to get through’ in order to get to something better.

I am finding that I need to bring that same perspective to the counting of the Omer. Each night, as I recite the blessing to count the day of the Omer, I remind myself of the spiritual practice connected to the counting of the Omer. Meant to be more than just numbering the day, each day is connected to meditation upon a personal spiritual trait; what I do with each day, step-by-step, daily work built into our tradition to move us spiritually from the enslavement of Pesach to be ready to receive Torah at Shavuot. It is not about what we have to do, but how we have to be. Merely counting is not enough. Psalm 90 reminds us: “Teach us to number our days, so that we may attain a heart of wisdom.” Our counting has to bring us to a place of learning and growth.

As I reflect upon this week’s words of Torah, counting up to Shavuot, counting down to our move across the country, and counting on our family, our friends and our new community that awaits our arrival, my own spiritual work is to remain grounded in the present, striving for the perspective and growth that is embodied in the full measuring of time.

[Bemidbar 2014]


The Path We Walk

I am quite reliant on the navigation system in my car for driving around Los Angeles – I have named her Sylvia – and she gets me from place to place.  Often, as I type in my destination, Sylvia will give me different route options, based on time and traffic.  It is up to me to choose my route, based on what I know about the road conditions and my preference for driving.  There are always consequences and outcomes, for better or worse, with whichever path I choose.

As we read the conclusion of the Book of Leviticus this week, we are confronted with the consequences of our ancient choices as a new nation.  I don’t feel that I am merely explaining away the literal reading of the text, which seems to indicate God as vengeful or puppet-master-like – that is that God responds with human emotion to our deeds, rewarding good and punishing bad.  I don’t believe that it is God that brings this upon us – it is presumptuous and even egotistical to think that God is somehow watching each move that we make and responding to each person’s actions in the world.  This is the God that perhaps made some sense to our ancestors, a God so powerful and strong, that could destroy the most powerful enemy without hesitation, without remorse. But is that really God’s purpose, God’s role in the world?

I say not.  However, when we choose well, we will live well; when we choose poorly, we will bring the difficulties and challenges upon ourselves.  When the Torah says that if we violate the covenant, God will “scorn” us (Leviticus 26:30) it is a statement not about God but about us. It means that our unethical and unspiritual behaviors will come between us and God. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, these actions will “have separated between you and your God” (Isaiah 58:2). The result of that separation will be that we are no longer be connected to the blessings that result from walking the path of “acting justly, loving kindness and walking humbly with God” (Micah 6:8). The quality of our live comes from the path that we walk.  God remains constant and God’s love for us abides; it is we who distance ourselves from God. It is for each of us to choose to act in a way that either connects us to God or that separates us from God.

The iconic Hasidic master, Menachem Mendel Morganstern, the Kotzker Rebbe (late 18th Century), was sitting with some of his younger disciples, studying Talmud. One of the students looked up and said, “With all due respect, Rebbe, we study day in and day out. Yet at times I feel a great despair. Rebbe, where is God?” The Kotzker Rebbe stopped and pondered the student’s question. After a moment, he smiled and said, “God is whenever we let God in.” God is always there, waiting for us with love and acceptance as we choose our path; this Divine presence has the power to heal the soul and to move along our path with us so that we can know that we are not alone.

[Bechukotai 2014]

Proclaim Liberty Throughout The Land

Merriam Webster defines liberty as: ‘the quality or state of being free; the power to do as one pleases; the positive enjoyment of various social, political or economic rights and privileges; the power of choice.’

Growing up in the Northeast, I have a fondness for our country’s early history; it was so easy to visit so many of the sites that held memories and relics of the historic movement of our nation’s founders to embrace a new life based on important principles and ideals.  I loved visiting Philadelphia, and my favorite stop would be at the Liberty Bell.  I remember how proud I was as an eight year-old when I discovered that the powerful quote on the Liberty Bell was from Torah, in this week’s Torah portion: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land, unto all of its inhabitants.” (Leviticus chapter 25, verse 10). One’s liberty cannot infringe on another person’s rights.

Consider the fact that when William Penn created Pennsylvania’s government, he allowed citizens to take part in making laws and gave them the right to choose the religion they wanted.  We need to remain cognizant of the values that Penn was conveying.  The colonists were proud of the religious freedom that Penn granted; it is a hallmark of our nation’s founding must continue to remain a steadfast principle.

Praying is universal; people of all faith traditions pray, in their own ways and words. Our country embraced the notion that liberty is universal, even as it took time and conflict to resolve and embody. Freedom of prayer, in prayer is exactly about the universality of prayer. The Founders of our country were fled their old lives in order to find freedom in prayer.  And our Jewish tradition reminds us over and over again that we are to remember what it was like to be enslaved, exactly so that we will not perpetrate that on anyone else.  How ironic that this week, with these words from Torah in our hearts, the United States Supreme Court upheld the practice of public prayer before local-government meetings, rejecting arguments that overwhelmingly Christian invocations violate the constitutional bar on the establishment of an official religion. The Religious Action Center of the Union for Reform Judaism condemned the ruling:

The Establishment Clause in the First Amendment to the Constitution is meant to guarantee that while we can be a religious country and people, the particulars of each individual belief will not find their way into an individual’s participation in politics and government. By allowing specific religious practices to be infused into the political fabric of our country with the Greece vs. Galloway ruling, under the cover of pursuing ‘religious freedom’, is a destructive interpretation of the Establishment Clause.  The liberty that I believe was intended by the inscription on this iconic symbol of freedom does not state that one person’s pursuit of liberty can be at the expense of another.  Let us continue to work and speak out for a nation that perpetuates a system of religious liberty that has proved to be generally fair and effective, one in which religion and the state flourish best when they are separate, allowing and valuing the religious beliefs of each citizen separate from governance.

[Behar 2014]

Time and Space.

Parshat Emor contains a large proportion of the Torah’s 613 mitzvot [commandments], many of which direct us on how to sanctify time. In it, Leviticus 23 begins: “Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: The Lord’s appointed [holy days] that you shall designate as holy occasions. These are My appointed [holy days].”  From ancient times, we have been instructed to set aside sacred time, to pay attention to times.   It seems that time is always running away from us, or we never have enough of it.  The songwriter, Jonathan Larson, reminds us that our lives are measured in time – 525,600 minutes, each one of them sacred, challenging us to value and pay attention to each one.

The most regular of our sacred times is Shabbat, our weekly exercise to live mindfully in holy time.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes in his profound book, The Sabbath: “It is, indeed, a unique occasion at which the distinguished word kadosh is used for the first time: in the Book of Genesis at the end of the story of creation. How extremely significant is the fact that it is applied to time: ‘And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.’ There is no reference in the record of creation to any object in space that would be endowed with the quality of holiness….. The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation, from the world of creation to the creation of the world.”  Time, rather than space or location, is what is transcendently holy.

Marking the standing sacred moments of Jewish tradition gives a rhythm to our lives.  When I participate in a Pesach Seder, I am connected to the entire Jewish world in that moment across time – in the present with all who are celebrating, with every generation that celebrated Pesach back to the first night back in Egypt, and with every future generation that will ever participate in a Pesach Seder.  This is true for every Jewish festival and sacred moment. Every shofar blast on Rosh Hashanah is an echo of years past and a call into the future. Each Yom Kippur fast links me to my ancestors. Each sukkah that I build connects me back to the generation who lived in the desert for forty years, in sync with every sukkah that is erected around the world.  As we celebrate receiving Torah on Shavuot, we are again at Mount Sinai, just as the midrash that teaches that all souls were present in that ancient moment of revelation; our presence spans generations, enabling it to exist also for generations yet to be.

Living these sacred moments puts me in sync with the larger Jewish community, past, present and future.  It is the rhythm that guides my Jewish life, across all strands of the Jewish people. The big challenge is to embrace that rhythm.  As we live our lives according to numerous calendars that compete for slices of our time: school calendars, work schedules, sports calendars, or family events, I constantly strive to find the integration of all of these strands of time that will weave the tapestry reflecting all of these pieces, bringing the sacred into the everyday.

Our Jewish holy times are phenomenal access points to enter Jewish life and Jewish community, to underscore the sacredness of time. Sharing a Shabbat meal, experiencing its rest and joy, dwelling in a sukkah, singing, discussing and remembering around the Seder table, embracing the sefer Torah in my arms on Shavuot, these are all opportunities to mark and embody sacred time, to live with meaning. As I re-enter work that requires of me to be more bound to carving out the hours of my calendar, I pray that I always live and teach the rhythms of Jewish time and space in a way that will bring harmony and attentiveness to each moment. Shabbat shalom.

[Parashat Emor – 2014]