Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Shavuot and my late brother Lawrence

Shavuot celebrates revelation, a moment when the hidden becomes disclosed. Sadly, revelation is a painful process. Often, the darkness of death is necessary for the light to be revealed.
My brother's passing,on January 11, 2017, shone a ray of light into his soul and was experienced as a time of revelation of a life that was taken for granted by so many.
What was revealed was that unique quality of heart and soul that is the focus of our attention on this festival as we read the Book of Ruth. Our sages tell us: The Book of Ruth is read on Shavuot to teach us the reward for "Chessed"-compassion, loving-kindness, acceptance and tolerance, goodness and decency, a genuine respect for others. This quality transcends gender; my brother Lawrence live his life in the shadow of Ruth's goodness,with the simplicity and depth of one who loves for its own sake.
I share with you a meditation on the Kaddish in his memory.

Kaddish: Judaism’s Prayer for the Soul
A Personal Meditation                                                                        

 “Kaddish is not so much the praise of God as a prayer for the praise of God” (Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish, p. 28)










In memory of my beloved brother,
Lawrence Howard ( Oct. 11,1936 -Jan.12, 2017)
חנא ליב בן יוסף הכהן ורחל
of blessed memory.







Preface

As a rabbi, the Kaddish has figured prominently in my work. At every worship service, mourners and those commemorating the yahrzeit–anniversary of death–of loved ones would rise and recite its words.
Each funeral and unveiling ritual concluded with Kaddish’s praises rising to the open skies above rows of lonely tombstones.

For a number of years, engaged as I was in exploring the place of gratitude in the spiritual life, I was fascinated by the simplicity of this “prayer” and puzzled by its ostensible contradiction of reciting praise at the time of death. I was on the verge of beginning to record in writing my thoughts and 
ideas on this subject when my brother unexpectedly died. Instead of approaching my investigations through the academic routes of theology and philosophy, I found myself unexplainably caught up in words of personal poetry, responding out of the cold harshness of death from the heart. What emerged was the following meditation.

To introduce this personal response I’ve provided a brief overview of the place of Kaddish in Jewish thinking so as to orient the reader to some of the liturgy referenced in the poetry. I am deeply grateful for the inspired insights of those to whom I refer in the course of this barest of sketches.

This meditation was a source of comfort to me and helped me gain a greater understanding of the human condition. I can only hope that the reader too gains solace and a glimpse of clarity in this time of grief and confusion.

Finally, my brother Lawrence was the sweetest of men; I miss him and pray  that this meditation reach him somehow and fill him with the pride, joy, and love that we shared while he lived.


Introduction:

With the passing of the nearest of kin, the Kaddish is recited in the synagogue, in the company of a minyan, a quorum of 10 adult Jews, at each of the three daily prayer services, shacharit (the morning service), minchah (the afternoon service), and maariv (the evening service). Its duration of recitation is determined by the nature of one’s relationship to the deceased; the child’s commitment for the parent is eleven months minus one day, while for a spouse, sibling, or child, the period of Kaddish recital is thirty days.

Kaddish is integral to the worship service as a prayer that separates the various components of the service and is chanted by the prayer leader. Its popularity is associated with the experience of mourning, bereavement, and memory. Virtually anyone who sustains a loss of a loved one, at some time or another, recites the Kaddish.

The reasons for its hold on the Jewish imagination are many. For some, reciting Kaddish is prompted by a sense of commitment to a pattern of traditional Jewish living. Many others, however, who do not share this type of involvement still feel the need and desire to recite this special prayer. It can represent a way to pay honor to the deceased loved one; it is viewed as something that the deceased would have wished for; perhaps it functions as a means of absolving one’s sense of guilt, an emotion often emerging after death. Myriad reasons may be felt in the privacy of a loved one’s mind and heart.

Curiously, while reserved for times of death, the prayer itself makes not the slightest reference to death or anything associated with this final event of life. Yet, its words are central to the death experience. Why? How is this prayer to be understood? What religious and spiritual purpose does it serve? 

First, it was, and continues to be, seen by many as a powerful instrument by means of which the living can influence the final journey of the deceased’s soul: “The Kaddish is a handclasp between the generations, one that connects two lifetimes...the son’s recitation of kaddish represents a continuation of (the life of the deceased, its ideals, and aspirations)...in the complicated calculus of the spirit, the reverse is possible! The deeds of the child can redeem the life of the parent, even after the parent’s death” (Maurice Lamm, The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, p. 158).

The fundamental and most frequently recorded incident regarding Kaddish is the mystical vision of the great sage Rabbi Akiba. He had a vision of a well-known sinner who had died and was condemned to intolerable punishment. The sinner informed the rabbi in the vision that only if his surviving son would recite Kaddish would he be redeemed. The rabbi proceeded to teach the youngster these prayers. When the youngster recited the Kaddish, he saved his father from perdition (ibid., pp. 160-61).

Furthermore, the Kaddish is not merely based on kinship; “It is based on the son’s righteousness...this appeal is not made in the name of blood, it is made in the name of character...the mourner says: have pity on the soul of this man because he raised a man who stands before you and submits to your authority” (Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish, p. 386). “The Kaddish is not a prayer for the dead; it is an achievement of the dead” (ibid., p. 421).

In contrast to this concept of redeeming the deceased, the mystical and Hassidic traditions see Kaddish as a means of comfort and restoration for God Himself. The Kaddish is not a prayer for the dead, but the Kaddish is a prayer for God: “The Kaddish is a reckoning of God’s loss” (for the exile of the Jewish people from the Land of Israel) (ibid, p. 426).

This concept is further reinforced in the Talmud which tells us, “I heard a divine voice cooing sadly and muttering, ‘Woe is Me that I destroyed my Temple and burned my Sanctuary and exiled my children among the peoples of the world’...the Divine Voice speaks this way three times a day, when Jews come to the houses of worship...and exclaim: ‘May His Name be blessed always and forever’ (in response to the beginning of the Kaddish), God nods His head sadly and says: ‘Happy is the king whose children extol him in his own house! But woe to the father who banished his children and woe to the children who have been banished from their father’s table’” (T.B. Berachot 3:1).

Whatever the understanding of Kaddish’s power over the soul of the deceased and the nature of the Divine, it is unquestionably influential on the soul of the reciter who is still alive.

Saying the Kaddish after something as tragic and sometimes sudden as death speaks volumes about the character and strength of the one reciting the Kaddish; it is an act of defying death and transcending the anguish with the hope and belief in the ultimate realization of God's kingdom on this earth: “Kaddish is not only a statement about the greatness of God but about the greatness of man” (J.B. Soloveichik, Out of the Whirlwind, p. xix).

It is from this perspective that I offer the poetic meditation below. The thrust of the Kaddish’s words is to praise. As the Kaddish is recited we declare God’s praise in virtually every synonym of praise that exists in the Hebrew/Aramaic language. Essentially, Kaddish is composed of stanzas of gratitude.

Kaddish is repetitive, mantra-like, its cadences and rhythms soothe us and offer us solace; its sounds still our frantic fears, the music of its syllables and words soften the harshness of our grief. Repetition’s familiar cadences transforms us. As we recite, even without understanding, we find refuge from the onslaughts of confusion, loss, anger, guilt, and feelings of being abandoned and alone. Its mantric echoes anchor our existence in the midst of turbulent thoughts and emotions. Praising in spite of ourselves somehow eases pain, and slowly opens paths of peace, even of pleasantness: “Souls flutter, wings open, and the heart begins a flight toward healing, for the living and for the dead” (Hyla Shifra Bolsta, The Illuminated Kaddish, p. 21). Kaddish allows us to imbue the atmosphere with vibrations of expansiveness and holiness.



Kaddish (transliteration and translation)

Yit'gadal v'yit'kadash sh'mei raba (Cong: Amein)
May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified (Cong: Amen)

b'al'ma di v'ra khir’utei.
in the world that He created as He willed.

v'yam'likh mal'khutei b'chayeikhon uv'yomeikhon
May He give reign to His kingship in your lifetimes and in your days,

uv'chayei d'khol beit yis'ra'eil
and in the lifetimes of the entire Family of Israel,

ba'agala uviz'man kariv v’im'ru.
swiftly and soon. 

Now say (Mourners and Congregation): 
Amein. Y'hei sh'mei raba m'varakh l'alam ul'al'mei al'maya.
(Amen. May His great Name be blessed forever and ever.)

Yit'barakh v'yish'tabach v'yit'pa'ar v'yit'romam v’yit'nasei,
Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled,

v'yit'hadar v'yit'aleh v'yit'halal sh'mei d'kud'sha
mighty, upraised, and lauded be the Name of the Holy One

Now say (Mourners and Congregation):
b'rikh hu.
blessed is He.

L'eila min kol bir'khata v'shirata
Beyond any blessing and song,

toosh'b'chatah v'nechematah, da'ameeran b'al'mah,

praise and consolation that are uttered in the world. 
 v’eemru.

Now say (Mourners and Congregation): 
Amein
Amen

Y'hei sh'lama raba min sh'maya
May there be abundant peace from Heaven

v'chayim aleinu v'al kol yis'ra'eil v'im'ru
and life upon us and upon all Israel. 

Now say (Mourners and Congregation):
Amein
Amen

Oseh shalom bim'romav hu ya'aseh shalom
He Who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace,

aleinu v'al kol Yis'ra'eil v'im'ru
upon us and upon all Israel. 

Now say (Mourners and Congregation):
Amein
Amen




MEDITATION

Standing on silent soil
A Canadian wind whipping into faces 
encrusted by frozen tears

belly laughs blown away 
by gusts of time’s passage
words of law, of love, of innocent faith
now muzzled by frost - flaked  mud

blankets of snow
an igloo, a haven from the raw cold
of soggy earth, 
“I lift up my eyes...
from whence cometh my help?”
My help cometh from words ,
ancient and Aramaic,
that melt the world’s vast, cold nothingness
I shiver at the thought of my brother
caged in the coffin so cold-

no woolen blanket or furry coat,
no warmth of  hugging body, 
no loving massage of lifeless limbs

futility of futilities!

only the faint, reluctant  murmuring of 
words streaming into steamy puffs of lung- filtered breath

 winding their way through particles of clay and polished wood 
into the once heaving body of my big brother!

These words - somethingness-Magnified and Sanctified-
will tuck him in for the night of all eternity.


yitgadal:
“ Exalted.”

Oh God ! You have shrunk
like a  baby’s blanket 
 meant to be laundered by mother’s loving  hands, 
flung instead 
into the swirling and crushing waters
of life’s grinding gears,
now tattered like a mourner’s 
shirt, the biting wind lashing at 
 my heart, bare , still  beating,
 not like his, buried below, pounding no more.

You have receded into the  waning rays
of a sun setting to close the week
and a life-

I clutch on to Your fading Presence
but Your Mighty outstretched  Hand 
has lost its grip
and I slide into the abyss of Your
growing smallness

Don’t go! I beg, don’t turn Your back,
the knots of Your Tefilin unraveling,
dragging on the floor of forgetfulness

How can I hold on? 
You dare not abandon me, especially now?

Yitgadal-I shout out Your greatness,
My cry will cross empty spaces of death 
and bring you back,
once again we will breathe the warmth and fulness of life

Yitgadal-with each piercing sound of praise 
You inch Your way back to us
filling the cold void in our hearts 
with intimations of love and kindness,
of hope and meaning,
of a reason to live.

Yitgadal V’yitkadash.

I am afraid now, death fills me with dread,
Does Your Greatness grind  existence into dust,
 too tiny 
to merit Your concern?

Yitgadal-  Don’t let Your greatness go to Your head! 
Is it irreverrence? Insolence? Blasphemy deserving 
of “Old Testament “ death?
Remember Your heart, what
My ancestors said:
 “wherever one encounters Your Greatness,
there he touches Your humility!”
I now know your greatness -You too,
need my words, need my praise

Yitgadal-my greatness is back too

We are friends once again,
We are back, together !



V’Yitkadash:
Sanctified.”

Remove your gloves,
hands reddened by the icy air and
raw water
spilling  from the cup of overflowing, washing away 
traces of ‘ tumah,’ of the defilement of death.
Holiness has taken refuge elsewhere,
escaping the heavy silence of rows of lifeless stones
home is where the heart is, where 
holiness is,  sacredness of food, of family ,of friends,
As burning liquid stings my throat,
 washing  up against my numbness,
holiness  seeps back  into frozen pores.

shiva- people, voices, wailing , laughter, words words words
heard no more from the sweet mouth of my brother
now fill the mind with holiness, God is back,
and we  slowly see the blurry outline
of sparks flickering
 amid the husks of decay and decomposition. 



shmay rabbah:
“ His great Name.”


a Name of infinite names


Almighty                             
Blessed                                Numinous
Compassionate                    One
Eternal                                 Patient
Forgiving                              Queen
Great                                    Redeemer
Holy of holies                       Shepherd
Ineffable                               Transcendent
Just                                       Ultimate
King                                      Venerable
Loving                                   Wondrous
Majestic                                 X-Factor
                     
                   Yearning





etc.etc.etc.etc.etc.




Balma divrah kireutei :
“In the world created by Divine desire.”

Life is good! the words proclaim,
this world, beautiful!  
Can God be mistaken, deliberately deceptive? 
‘and God saw that it was good!’ 
Would He go back on His word?

You wished it and it was so,
This world is Yours,
You dare not ascend into the firmament of other worlds
leaving us behind?

Can  a king be king without subjects?
A shepherd without sheep?
a teacher with no students?
a parent without children? 
a lover with no beloved??

We will show you how to be loyal-
dragging weary bodies to shul,
early  morning behind eyelids still stuck in slumber,
parched throats squeeze out Your Praise

Yitgadal,

and when we lie down,
to vacate the void in darkness
 we still proclaim-yitgadal-
this is Your world,
we inhabit it
Your tenants Thank You!

and when we rise up, 
roused by the soul’s return!



V’yamleech malchootei:
May God’s Sovereignty be restored.”

we had a dream, a dream we shared with You
that he live a few more years
to cuddle grandchildren in a warm Sunday morning bed
to rest palms on pure, soap- fragranced hair
and utter blessings,
to chant each morning Your praises without 
calculation, with the clarity of a guiless heart

into this blankness our yearning yawns into
desperation.




Bagalah u’vizman kariv:
 “ Speedily, soon- PDQ.”

we want You now
Your absence, his, unbearable
layers of patient waiting peeling away
left with no more flesh
only cracked bones of 
the valley of death

with love, there is patience,
with life, endurance of pain
can these bones live?
will I hear his voice 
excitedly rebound off satellite towers
into my heart with the latest news
of life’s ordinary pleasures and gifts?

reality reminds me; there is no resurrection
so let him rest in peace
and expect nothing

yet I hope, I pray, I praise, I demand

‘bagalah’ -make a miracle quickly,
time is running out
the chase leaves me breathless
If not soon, patience will curl its way
into thin air , like the smoke 
of country hearths.


‘bizman kariv’

hold on, Messiah’s steps 
are just around the corner
someday , soon-we’ll be together.


Yehay shmay raba mevorach: 
“ May His  Great Name be Blessed.”

The  congregation responds, 
energy, eternal- community continues
God’s Name shedding light 
on darkness of absence ,
like a Shiva candle whose flame 
sinks into melting wax
casting a flicker when all lights are out 

Has God’s blessing been suspended?
Interrupted in some way?
Is God’s blessing  stoppable? 
Can the world be sustained without 
the energy and blessing from on High?
All bounty and blessing originate with You
flowing  into our lives and the  universe 
as rivers coursing along winding paths of 
mountains and valleys thirsting for 
waters of life and growth. 
unrestrained, uninhibited, unconditional currents
of life-
we search after words and deeds 
that will ease and magnify the Divine flow of life’s energy and 
vitality

we remove roadblocks,
the hurdles of hardened hearts,
of souls steeped in hurt and sorrow,
if only the eye of a needle may
allow the trickle of tenderness
to leap from the breast of the Lover
across the hills of heaven
and skip into the hearts of those beloved
hiding behind the lattices of  loneliness
and longing!



l’olam u’lolmay almayah:
Forever, as long as worlds endure.”

blessing beckons always and everywhere
time and space sparkle with God’s radiance, light
spillimg over the confines of God’s self enclosure
and we below acknowledge, absorbing
myriad flickerings 
of illumination, thus  staying alive
If God is not everywhere, He is nowhere
the whole world is filled with His glory!
Love in a vacuum is not love
love seeks a vessel,
buttercup
butterfly wings
buzzing bee
broken heart
baby’s first breath

forever.





Yitbarach v’yishtabach v’yitpa’ar v’yitromam v’yitnaseh v’yithadar v’yitaleh v’yithalal :
Be blessed, be praised, be embellished, be exalted, be elevated, be splendid, be above -all, be acclaimed. “


octet of adulation,
eight spheres spiraling through the Unity of the All
extraordinary, bursting beyond the ordinary,
span of seven
covenant’s cry of belonging, tiny body bundled in mother’s softness.
body bare, mohel’s cold blade, howling cutting through hovering  clouds of 
Holy Presence.

eight fold exaltation
eighth day of Assembly
we have reached our limit
 depleted of all praise
we assemble, mere traces of Te Deum

as long as we are human
we can still whisper hallelujah




shemei d’kudesha:
“ A Name of utter holiness.”


He hides, intimated only by a Name
by a symbol of letters,
a representation not of images 
but of pictureless codes
to read, recite, repeat, intone and cantillate
to occupy a place of incomparability.

a name that death has tried to vilify-
a name  revered and adored, 
able  to withstand all attempts at desecration and dismissal
and we add the scratchings of our own signatures
to Your Name,
outer walls to halt the slightest breach
of Your sacred integrity,
of Your Holy of Holies.




Brich Hu:
“ Be blessed.”

Echoes of blessing suffice at times
especially in the chorus
of many gathered to praise.

There is more, empty spaces, lifeless
awaiting the blessing of blessing, the breath 
of ‘Magnify and Sanctify’
back to the beginning
opening words already forgotten
reclaim them to fill
the measure of God’s fullness

and now there were ten, we add the beginning
to create a new beginning, genesis all over again
the tools of construction are ten in number,
even God needed ten pronouncements to complete His work-
yet unfinished
the soul yearns for its nurturance
and Sinai’s dosage of healing medicine administered
as ten-commandments, pronouncements,
words, a Decalogue.

The soul seeks higher heights!
commandments  can curtail, constrict
how can we soar into vast stretches of mystery
and wonder, to touch the hem of God’s resplendent robes?

L’aylah-higher to ten emanations
sefirot of of the finest spirit,
planets of possibility,

so we laud tenfold
breaking new paths
to Shechina’s Presence



l’ayla min kol birchata v’shirata tushbechata v’nechematah:
“ Beyond all blessing, song, praise and consolation uttered by  the human tongue.”

beyond all spheres of human blessing
there is a place, perhaps it is placeless
beyond description or conception
Is that the Ein Sof?

 God out of reach, out of earshot,
 blessings and praises swallowed up 
 in stretches of distant emptiness 
tips of fingers straining to touch faint footsteps
met instead with cold nothingness, tingling in space

beyond consolation-God too, a mourner

even God’s desire for comfort transcends all tears and words,
all cries and human compassion

He too, Alone above, as we await in vain the sigh of solace, 
all alone below.


We imagine the unimaginable, a God as distant as 
a twinkling star
to wish upon, knowing all wishes vanish as wisps of smoke
into the reaches of earth’s skies.

Why praise, why bless, why sing, why boadcast the tremors of a broken heart? 

Futility of Futilities!  without beginning, without end, timeless blackness,
absolute oneness, all mystery, the Ein Sof stifles all sound, all breath, 
wimper, scream, whisper.

Is it not cruel  to command acclamation in every conceivable synonymn, until words, language and human utterance mock us in their impotence?

God needs not praise-do we need to praise?

Should we not halt now, simply aware of God’s beyondness and leave it at that?
No need to go on-we slump into defeated silence.





V’imru Amen:
 “All say Amen.”

we accept the truth of life, of Kaddish’s perspective
toward praising as survival,
“ hearts through shadow and mist say good-bye, let go the strings, and say Amen.”
yet praise falls short
l’ayla-beyond, over the edge


I’ve  been stopped in my tracks
 by Kaddish’s unforgiving,
inescapable  truth 
how to  give voice to words that lie buried below, 
submerged , companions  of utter quiet.
Still, I persist in praising, though consonants  and vowels
tumble  over the edge of nowhere, an empty abyss? 
we  have reached the end of the line.
 if not praise, then what?
we shiver in the cold uncertainty of the next moment,
lips frozen by futility.




Y’hey:
Let there be.
Beyond all praise 
There is only being
the ‘isness’ of life 
peaceful and whole-shalom
the current, energy and soul
of all there is.





Sh’lama raba min shemaya
V’Hayim  Alaynu v’al kol Yisrael:
“ May abundant  heavenly peace, wholeness and life suffuse our lives.”

At the crossroads,
no signs, no paths, no maps, no guide
Too pooped to praise, heart hallelujah hollow,
Mind meandering in space,
Abandoned to mere imagination,
a reverie of peace.





Oseh shalom bimromav
hu yaaseh shalom,
alaynu v’al kol Yisrael(v’chol yoshvei tevel)
v’eemroo Amen:

“ May the One whose uppermost realms 
are fashioned with peace,
bestow peace below-a gift to Israel and 
the entire human community.
Amen. “

Are not the heavens beyond hearing
hushed but for angelic sounds,
at night, sounds of praise
in the morning, silence,
a space for those below to praise .
night has come, the light of life
dimming over the horizon
until its final gasping rays 
retire for eternity.
Is shalom soundless?
then we have death!
Bring down the shalom of 
“pamalya shel maalah”-the family of angels
who know no rivalry, no contradiction, no weariness
only song, praise and love.
Make it possible, we pray,
so that hearts heal with words of the kaddish, 
words of praise and gratitude, no matter what!
and with praise, the rays of each day’s dawn
will unveil the promise of tomorrow.






Bibliography

1.Bolsta, Hyla Shifra,The Illuminated Kaddish, Ktav Publishing House, 2012.

2.Lamm, Maurice,The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning,Jonathan David Publishers, 1969.

3.Soloveitchik, J.B.,Out of the Whirlwind, Ktav Publishing House, 2003.

4.Wieseltier, Leon, Kaddish, Vintage, 2000.





Personal Thoughts:

























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?