Monday, March 6, 2017

Gratitude, Giving and God.



“Tell the Israelite people to bring me gifts- ‘tremuah’ (Heb.)-you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart moves him.” ( Exodus 25:2)

“And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” (Exodus 25:8)


After Sinai, the one-time revelation of God to all of Israel, the Torah makes it clear that in order to preserve the sense of God’s presence over time, there is a need for a tangible structure that will represent and hearken back to that dramatic and extraordinary event at Sinai. Sanctuary becomes the extension of Sinai; as was the case at Sinai, the sanctuary becomes the space of God’s indwelling among mortals.
The question is raised: Does God need a particular physical place in which to dwell? Obviously, the answer is no. When the text points out that the the divine presence inhabit the people -”that  I may dwell among them”- it becomes apparent that God seeks not a material structure in which to make known His presence; rather it is within the people themselves that He wishes to find a place of dwelling.

How are we to understand the concept that God is found among and within us?
I believe that the opening verse provides us an insight into the means by which humans may experience the divine. 
The basic materials of God’s home -gold, silver, wood, spices, oil, linens and yarns, are all acquired by way of the peoples’ gifts. This act of giving originates in the willingness of the human heart. The phrase-”yidvehnu libo”-his heart moves him, or as Rashi interprets, with  a “ratzon tov”-a willingness that is good, generous and grateful.

The act of giving may be derived from a variety of sources. Often we give when it is necessary, we feel obligated or an authority requires our act of giving. At other times we give when it is to our benefit. Many claim that “giving is receiving,” it is satisfying to give.  Society is governed by the law of reciprocity-give and take is the process by which a group of individuals can survivie and thrive.

But the wellspring of giving in the above text is located in the heart’s capacity to give spontaneously, naturally, out of a sense of intrinsic generosity. What accounts for such giving? A  soft and sensitive heart, a spiritual responsiveness to life’s blessing, a deep sense of gratitude yearning to find an outlet in sharing with the world.

The opening verse appears to contain a phrase that is redundanGratitude, Giving and God

“Tell the Israelite people to bring me gifts- ‘tremuah’ (Heb.)-you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart moves him.” ( Exodus 25:2)

“And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” (Exodus 25:8)


After Sinai, the one-time revelation of God to all of Israel, the Torah makes it clear that in order to preserve the sense of God’s presence over time, there is a need for a tangible structure that will represent and hearken back to that dramatic and extraordinary event at Sinai. Sanctuary becomes the extension of Sinai; as was the case at Sinai, the sanctuary becomes the space of God’s indwelling among mortals.
The question is raised: Does God need a particular physical place in which to dwell? Obviously, the answer is no. When the text points out that the the divine presence inhabit the people -”that  I may dwell among them”- it becomes apparent that God seeks not a material structure in which to make known His presence; rather it is within the people themselves that He wishes to find a place of dwelling.

How are we to understand the concept that God is found among and within us?
I believe that the opening verse provides us an insight into the means by which humans may experience the divine. 
The basic materials of God’s home -gold, silver, wood, spices, oil, linens and yarns, are all acquired by way of the peoples’ gifts. This act of giving originates in the willingness of the human heart. The phrase-”yidvehnu libo”-his heart moves him, or as Rashi interprets, with  a “ratzon tov”-a willingness that is good, generous and grateful.

The act of giving may be derived from a variety of sources. Often we give when it is necessary, we feel obligated or an authority requires our act of giving. At other times we give when it is to our benefit. Many claim that “giving is receiving,” it is satisfying to give.  Society is governed by the law of reciprocity-give and take is the process by which a group of individuals can survivie and thrive.

But the wellspring of giving in the above text is located in the heart’s capacity to give spontaneously, naturally, out of a sense of intrinsic generosity. What accounts for such giving? A  soft and sensitive heart, a spiritual responsiveness to life’s blessing, a deep sense of gratitude yearning to find an outlet in sharing with the world.

The opening verse appears to contain a phrase that is redundan t.If the Hebrew is translated literally,we read: “Tell the Israelite people to take for me a gift from anyone who so wishes; you shall take My gift.” The final phrase -You shall take My gift- seems unnecessary, a phrase that is repetitive. But upon closer examination another reading emerges that highlights the spiritual singularity of the text.
“You shall take My gift” points to a gift that is godly! What transforms giving into a an act of godliness is when its intent and desire is to give from the heart of acknowledging that all comes from God and a gift is the result of God’s beneficence and goodness. When we give in this way, we are doing God’s will, which is to bless and give to the world. Thus our ‘terumah,’ our ‘raised up’ gift elevates our own souls to connect with the  soul of the divine.

How do we construct a sanctuary in which the divine dwells?
When our lives reflect the capacity to give from the generosity and gratitude of our hearts. In this way, God dwells in all of us.

t.If the Hebrew is translated literally,we read: “Tell the Israelite people to take for me a gift from anyone who so wishes; you shall take My gift.” The final phrase -You shall take My gift- seems unnecessary, a phrase that is repetitive. But upon closer examination another reading emerges that highlights the spiritual singularity of the text.
“You shall take My gift” points to a gift that is godly! What transforms giving into a an act of godliness is when its intent and desire is to give from the heart of acknowledging that all comes from God and a gift is the result of God’s beneficence and goodness. When we give in this way, we are doing God’s will, which is to bless and give to the world. Thus our ‘terumah,’ our ‘raised up’ gift elevates our own souls to connect with the  soul of the divine.

How do we construct a sanctuary in which the divine dwells?
When our lives reflect the capacity to give from the generosity and gratitude of our hearts. In this way, God dwells in all of us.


Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A New anagrammatic association for Hannukkah

Hannukah is a playful holiday . While the game of dreidel has become an integral part of its experience  as a playful activity, the occasion has also  elicited a wide array of imaginative word associations that lend broader meanings and interpretations to understanding the holiday’s essential significance.

Examples abound. The word for the heroes of Hannukah,” Maccabbee,” represent an acrostic of the well-known biblical phrase-”Who can be compared to You among the mighty” / “מי כמוכה באלים יהוה” (Exodus 15:11) .The first letters of this phrase form the Hebrew spelling for Maccabbee-: מכבי.

The name of the holiday itself- “Hannukah”(“-חנוכה-”) has been understood as containing two words indicating the date of the event-חנו/”they camped” -on כ”ה-the 25th of the month (Kislev).

Even the number of days of the holiday-eight(-שמונה- ) has had its letters  rearranged to spell other words(-נשמה-) or soul; or a word contained in the Hebrew word for eight spells “ שמן “-(oil), the very substance of the Hannukah narrative.

Perhaps the most popular letters of Hannukkah are those inscribed on the four sides of the dreidel-נ-(nun); ג-(gimel); ה-(hay); ש-(shin). These letters constitute  the beginnings of the phrase “-נס גדול היה שם-” [“ A great miracle happened there (Israel).” ] Furthermore,each letter is the first of yiddish words that indicate the result of each spin of the dreidel. Depending on which side of the dreidel appears when the spinning ends, the participant takes the entire ante-(gimel for “ganz”-all), or nothing, ( nun for “nicht”),or half (hay,”halb”, or add to the ante (shin for “shtel”), put in.

It occurred to me that these letters can spell out a very suggestive word that may bespeak a particular  dimension of the miraculous in Hannukkah and in life in general.
This word ” נגש”, meaning  “to approach, to draw close, to step forward, even to confront,” brings to mind salient instances of our ancestors’ posture  of courage vis a vis God Himself or in the presence of daunting authority  in moments of crisis. Abraham , we are told, stepped forward to argue with God on behalf of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gemorrah (Genesis 18: 23). Moses demonstrates boldness as he approaches the thick cloud where God is while the people remain at a distance out of fear. (Exodus 20:18) Curiously, the portion of the Torah read the shabbat after Hannukah begins with the word ”-ויגש-” (“and he drew near”)-referring to Judah’s daring confrontation of Joseph, still disguised as the vizier of Egypt, in order to rescue his brothers from imprisonment, even death.

Thus, the notion of the heroic emerges from the playfulness of Hannukah’s special vocabulary. Indeed, it becomes evident that the essential miracle of Hannukah is reflected in the heroism of the Maccabees, the few against the many, those armed not with the state of the art weaponry of war but with the commitment to a spiritual ideal of one’s right to independence of worship and belief and the exercise of those beliefs in the context of freedom and  human dignity.

There remains one more letter to those on each side of the dreidel-that is the letter “ ה”-” hay. “ It is common knowledge that this letter when accented is an abbreviation for the Name of the Divine.Thus, it elicits associations to the holy, the godly ,that which transcends our more limited perception of reality’s totality.

 One could deduce from the above interpretation that the recognition and awareness of the divine can inspire a spiritual stepping forward and resolute response to the challenges of life in spite of the obstacles necessary to overcome. Perhaps the very willingness to confront life boldly is, in itself, a reaching out to the divine,to the miraculous, to the glowing light of the Hannukah menorah.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Succot-The Season of Rejoicing:
How do we experience joy?


One of the popular rabbinic interpretations of the lulav and etrog is the imaginative understanding that compares each of the four species-palm branch, myrtle branch, willow and citron to essential parts of the human anatomy.  “.......the spine of the palm branch can be compared to the spine of one’s back; the myrtle leaf is analogous to  the human eye; the willow brings to mind the shape of the human mouth and  the etrog reminds us of the human heart........”(Leviticus Rabbah 30;14)
Clearly the Rabbis sought ways by which to infuse the ritual with homiletic significance and thus the above interpretation was taught as an explanation of the  verse in Psalms-”All my limbs will declare who is like You, O Lord” (Psalms 35;10)

Perhaps too what lingered beneath the Midrashic ‘humanization’ of elements in nature was the mystical awareness of the unity that underlies all things rendering the human and the ostensibly inert dimensions of nature integral parts of the Unity and Wholeness of all of God’s creation.

Whatever the understanding, I would like to extend the  way of seeing the lulav and etrog as it pertains to the human heart. The Etrog is viewed by the tradition as symbolizing the heart. By exercising a semantic split between the two syllables of the word LULAV : LU-LAV, לו-לב, we can define these syllables as two separate words-לו, meaning “if only,” and לב-”lev,” which is translated as heart. Thus, the taking of the lulav carries with it the hope that the heart is  that part of the human anatomy and psychology that can be  recruited on Succot to experience the essential sentiment of the season, namely joy, or better yet, grateful joy.

Returning to the etrog, traditionally compared to the human heart, if we rearrange the final two  letters of the Hebrew word -אתרג -we construct a new word with a powerful new possibility for the experience of Succot. The word is אתגר, challenge.
One can then argue that indeed the spiritual challenge of Succot is to marshall the heart in the service of the  divine. In fact, the opening  or softening of the heart is regarding by Hassidim, meditators and mystics alike, as the spiritual means by which to gain access to the dimension of the divine. The Bible itself perceives  the heart as the seat of human consciousness and awareness by which we experience the full richness and illumination of the presence of the holy in life. 


The heart is the locus of human joy and the space from which we experience the joy and simcha of gratitude and thanksgiving on Succot and any other day of the year.
Simcha as joyful gratitude-An essential religious sentiment

A little less than 60 years ago I was invited to deliver a sermon in the synagogue of my youth on the Sabbath of the intermediate days of Succot. I was a student at Yeshiva University, and had decided that my life’s goal was to become a rabbi. I was deeply honored by the invitation, excited but very anxious. Not only would the rabbi be present but family and many friends of my childhood and youth as well. 
I can clearly recall the sermon’s theme-the meaning of the “ joy of the mitzvah” in Judaism.  It was based on a Talmudic passage : “The Divine Presence ( Shechinah) rests neither in the midst of sadness, nor in the midst of idleness, nor in the midst of frivolity, nor in the midst of levity, nor in the midst of chitchat, nor in the midst of inane talk, but only in the midst of the  joy in performing a mitzvah.” (Shabbat 30b)

 Thinking  back I’m amused by my naive,  idealistic ardor  which led to  a strident castigation of those who observe Judaism only at certain  times, and not in a consistent manner. For example, sadness-death and misfortune; will elicit a religious response; or celebrating a connection to Judaism exclusively at moments of  levity and frivolity-Bar Mitzvahs etc. I devoted little attention to the climactic phrase of the passage-simcha shel mitzvah-the rejoicing of or in the performance of the mitzvah. It was easier to be critical than to offer a meaningful way to appropriate Judaism or a religious way of life.

On the surface the meaning of this phrase-simcha shel mitzvah- suggests  the essentiality of joy when engaged in performing religious acts.The question naturally arises: What is the nature of this joy, of “simchah?” Does joy not contain elements of delight, pleasure, gaiety even levity? After all, the Hebrew word for levity or laughter  is ‘sechok,’ and it is referred to positively in the Talmudic section mentioned above quoting Kohelet-Ecclesiastes: “ I said of laughter it is to be praised!”(Chpt.2, 2) While joy in itself is commendable while  performing a mitzvah, is it humanly possible to feel so under all circumstances of religious activity?  After all, there are times of sadness and struggle, sickness and hardship, that make it impossible for any empathic person to rejoice! Can we discover joy in any and all mitzvoth?
I believe we can if we understand the notion of ‘simchah’ in a uniquely Jewish way. The emphasis on rejoicing on the festivals, especially the occasions of pilgrimage  which celebrate harvest and the receiving of God’s gifts , can only be grasped if we consider gratitude as the core sentiment contained in the rejoicing experience. In other words, rejoicing in the holy act embraces  feeling grateful for the opportunity, privilege and gift associated with the performance of the noble deed. Not a few  view religious responsibilities as burdensome; it is not uncommon for many to complain about the arduousness of the regimen of mitzvot in Judaism. 
The festival of Succot, a season of rejoicing lends itself easily and seamlessly to the experience of joy-when we are surrounded with bounty, relieved of worry that there wont be enough to eat during the rainy winter months and make a journey to Jerusalem without the usual challenges of work, surrounded by family and the beauty of nature in the forms of a succah and the lulav and etrog-gratitude flows smoothly in our hearts and we rejoice thankfully.
Succot is the Season of our Rejoicing precisely because it attempts to elevate natural joy and celebration to a level of greater spirituality, one that evokes consciousness of a Source of All life,resulting in an attitude of gratitude and thanksgiving.
Thus, the unique and specific occasion of Succot can irrigate our souls to rejoice in the performance of the “good deed” any time of the year. In the midst of this kind of ‘simcha,’ rejoicing, there is space in our hearts open and receptive  to receive the Divine Presence.



Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Post Rosh Hashanah thoughts on the Shofar


I am always amazed at the spiritual power and depth of the Hebrew language. It is no accident that it has traditionally been referred to as the Holy Tongue. Not only is Hebrew the original language of the Holy Bible, and as such the quality of holiness is attributed to it, but often one discovers worlds of meaning embedded in one word, especially when the letters of that word are rearranged to spell new words with meanings and associations that are quite revealing.


“Shofar” (“שפר”) is such a word. Its sounding on Rosh Hashanah is the pre–eminent requirement and ritual of the celebration. Evocative with many historical allusions and references to future hopes and expectations, the word itself is rich in semantic connections that elicit fruitful lessons and messages.


The rabbis of our tradition have recognized several homiletic meanings. The word “shapeir” containing the same three consonants of shofar–ש (sh), פ (p), ר (r)–in the same order of consonants but different vocalization, is translated as “to improve” or “to better”. Thus, the shofar becomes an instrument for the improvement of one’s spiritual and Jewish life.


Closely associated with this meaning is that of “shefer” (“שפר”) meaning “beautiful, decorative, and attractive”. (“אמרי שפר” / “words of beauty” from Genesis 49:21)


As we engage in some rearrangement of the letters, the results continue to be quite surprising and illuminating.


Taking the last letter of shofar (“ר” or “r”) and placing it at the head of the word, we come to the word “reshef” (“רשף”) which means “spark, ember, or ray of light”. Curiously, the same word can mean “destruction, loss, or plague” (Deut. 32:24). Is the implication of these meanings that sparks, the initiating elements of fire, are both constructive and destructive elements? Can the shofar herald not only the arrival of redemption and freedom but can announce as well times of warning, peril, and loss?


To continue the process of rearrangement the word “shofar” embraces two suggestions that are remarkably suggestive of spiritual approaches that can be quite rewarding.
Moving the middle consonant to the beginning of the word we create another word, “pesher” (“פשר”), defined as “melting, softening, compromising, a solution to a problem, lukewarm”. Perhaps the aim of the shofar is to melt the hardness of our hearts and positions and create the possibility of give-and-take, even compromise, that will bring about a solution to so many human problems in the form of reconciliation.


Finally, with the middle letter occupying the beginning of the word and the last shifted to the middle we form the word “peresh” (“פרש”) meaning “clarification, clarity, explanation” or “spread, stretch, scatter”, or “to separate, set aside, withdraw, retire”.
Is not the dynamic of separation and withdrawal not a necessary element in the process of reaching out and stretching oneself to others and to the world? As the popular dictum of Hillel expresses: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for  myself, what am I?”A clarification of one’s identity embraces the dual dynamic of self-concern with the capacity to spread oneself outward in such a way as to share with the  community and world that which has been our individual blessings.

"Poreis"-פרש-spread over-brings to mind the evening prayer in which we pray for a canopy of peace to be spread over us during the night. Moreover, we refer to the canopy as that of a sukkah, a sukkah of peace. As we are currently in the midst of the Succot festival, the echos of the shofar resonate with the hope for peace in the darkness of today's world.


One word, three letters, in their fluid and dynamic rearrangements, they carry to our consciousness meanings of much significance. Is it any wonder that the Hebrew language is the language of the Divine?

Wednesday, September 21, 2016