Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Va'Yakhel - Creating a World

Bezalel was skilled in the combination of the letters by which the heavens and the earth were created.

He could only stand in the shadow

That was his name,

But the silhouette was sacred,

Not in God’s light-it blinds, it kills,

But His shade refreshes creation,

Each day re-moistening

The parchedness of the mouth ,

In the dew of early morning.

At the window I see creation

Ships of white floating

Beneath the translucent blue waters of the sky,

Waters that welcome not fish, but

Angels, and rising wisps of smoke.

Below, branches , bare and brown ,

Bending in the biting breezes of a winter’s

Silvery afternoon.

All I have are words, letters, and

A heart that seeks the right combination

By which to unlock the secrets of the soul,

God’s secrets that await the messianic arrival

Of the right word.

And when a momentary revelation

Crackles in the cortex,

To the thunder of the heart’s sudden thumping,

Like Bezalel, I clamor to combine,

To click one letter to the next,

Like atoms and molecules and cells

Exploding in the space of one’s soul-

And he saw all that he had written and it was…

Was it a creation that was good, but not good enough?

Tov-good, but never tov meod-very good.

We can only stand in God’s shadow, never in Her light,

And so my zeruf otiot- my mingling of metaphors

Can never touch the purity of Bezalel, whose zeruf was zaruf,

A composite of the spotless, a sanctuary untainted by

A mortal’s desperate reach for immortality.

Looking up, the clouds inch away,

Soon to vanish like all things in the sky,

Except for angels,

They have a task to perform,

God needs their praise.

And we must be grateful,

Content that we are a mere hairbreadth lower

Than them.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Ki Tissa - The Perils of Perfectionism

Upon witnessing Israel’s act of idolatry in fashioning the Golden Calf, Moses shatters the tablets he received from God. It was as if he took a piece of God and flung it to the ground. Imagine if you can the drama and power of this response.

Why did this happen? We can only speculate that the most intense of inner reactions led to this overpowering act of invalidation and reversal. Anger, disappointment, betrayal, utter impotence, sheer helplessness all accounted for this most extreme of form of behavior.

The tablets lay strewn about in tiny fragments. They were the letters and words of God; what was to be done with them?

They could have been ground up and scattered upon the people as some act of expiation, similar to the fate of the Golden Calf!

Or as is the custom today in dealing with discarded fragments of sacred writings, burial would reflect a proper way of removing the evidence of such a shameful and tragic experience committed by Israel!

We are told that the fragments were gathered up and placed alongside the newly crafted tablets that rested in the ark in the Holy of Holies. These tainted tablets would forever remind Israel and God of this enormous sin of apostasy. Why not discard them and start fresh with the new tablets?

Rather than a reminder of failure and sin, these broken tablets were designed to help Israel and God be mindful of the inherent imperfection of the human heart, its vulnerability and susceptibility to false expectations of utter security that flow out of fear and find their external concretization in an image, in the fashioning of an idol onto which futile hopes are projected!

Yet, these shattered pieces of life, of human error, of striving that somehow sputtered out of steam, deserve a rightful place in the context of a holy spsace, within the Ark of the Covenant itself. Perhaps it is only the broken heart that understands the precious holiness of life, that can touch some aspect of the divine in the unfolding of all things. Perfection seems to suggest hubris; the need to be perfect represents the absence of one's ability to embrace humility and submit to the overarching grandeur of the universe and its Creator.

Each tablet, the shattered one and the intact one, brings to mind the wonderful typology of Rabbi Soloveitchik 's analysis of the nature of the human being based on the two accounts of human creation in the book of Genesis.( The Man of Faith-Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik) The Rav talks about two parts of the human personality; one, the Adam I dimension “created “in the first chapter of the Bible which speaks to our innate capacity to strive for achievement and success, majestic man who is called upon to have dominion over the world. This type is followed by the emergence of Adam II, created out of dust, asleep, taken from another's rib, whose coming to life is a product of a passive, 'defeated' posture, and whose purpose unfolds and takes hold by way of attachment to relationship and the experience of ultimate dependency. This is the human personality who encounters God out of imperfection, humility and a sense of utter need. All of us are endowed with both capacities, and the balance of the two reflects a wholesome spiritual personality who can live happily and meaningfully. Our lives become holy arks when we can recognize that thse two dimensions are inseparable, and are constantly in an inner state of seeking some equilibrium and balance.

Shattered fragments are symbolic of the human’s inescapable imperfection and need for faith in a reality that is in a constant state of flux, in a reality that transcends the ostensible and pulsates with the holy beyond the immediacy of human existence and within the very fabric of our recognizable world.

Shabbat Shalom

Tetzaveh - Gratefulness for Light

This past week I received a wonderful gift from a special friend, an extraordinary photographer and poet. It was a book of photographs, a collection of samples of a long and distinguished career as a “humanistic” photographer. Incredibly relevant to this week's Torah reading which opens with the invitation by Moses to the Israelite community to “bring clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly...outside the curtain which is over the Ark of the Pact....”(Exodus 27:20-21), is the title and purpose of this lovely book-”Dipping into the Light. “ The author takes the title from a poem by Mary Oliver,”Winter Hours,” who describes prayer as “ a dipping of oneself toward the light.”

References to light abound in the Bible , from the very first item of creation,”and God said 'Let there be light' “ to the kindling of lamps in the Sanctuary, a place where the divine can dwell within the hearts and souls of the Israelite community. Our tradition drew the parallel between the creation of the world and the the construction of the Sanctuary to suggest that God's creation is in a sense re-enacted through the efforts of Isreal to construct a spiritual home for the divine Presence in the world. Thus, the lighting of the olive oil is a daily act of godly creation. In fact, one can summarize all of spiritual effort as an act of “dipping” oneself toward or into the light.Without the possibility of spiritual and human luminescence in the world, our lives would be engulfed in despair and sorrow. In the words of my friend, Abraham, light “returns daily to reassure us not to despair; we wait in the dark, we wait in faith, and night eventually turns into day.”

What I always find remarkable in my friend's thinking and work is his adamant faith in the beauty and sacredness of all things. Most of us struggle to find goodness in the manifestations of that which we consider evil; yet my friend Abraham recognizes in the photograph and the poem , an expression of ”darkness (which) holds stars in her bossom and is the womb where life and creativity incubate.” To this principle and teaching he has dedicated his life.

I am filled with gratitude for his gift; it is a wonderful Midrash on the Torah reading of this Shabbat. Perhaps as an exercise by which to bring light into each Shabbat, we could ask ourselves and our loved ones- what has brought light into your life this past week?

What are you grateful for, and in articulating a response , we can illuminate our hearts by simply dipping our “toes” into the light.

Shabbat Shalom.


Forty six years ago this Shabbat, as a senior student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I was required to present my "senior sermon" to the faculty and students of this august institution. Needless to say, I was terrified. Sitting in the audience were some of the world -renowned scholars of Judaica at that time-prominently among them were Prof. Louis Finkelstein, Chancellor, Dr.Saul Lieberman, perhaps the most outstanding Talmudic scholar of his time, and the very well-known, Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Not surprisingly, these many years later, I continue to ask the very same question-where can one discover a personal contact with the divine? I have changed considerably since that challenging morning so many years ago; yet, God's presence persists in eluding me, and I doggedly struggle to catch a glimpse, to sense a mere flutter of the godly in the course of my life's swiftly passing moments.

This weeks parsha, Terumah, address this question in a unique way. It contains instruction for the construction of a place in which God's presence can be encountered. "Build for me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them!"

Let me present some of my thoughts in response to this instruction and invitation by the Compassionate One .The story is told of a child in religious school who asked his teacher a question about God that the teacher was unable to answer. He was brought before the principal who patiently inquired of the child what his question was; he answered: “ I asked my teacher –where is God? And he told us that God is everywhere. But I don’t want a God who is everywhere; I want a God who is somewhere!”

In the opinion of many commentators, primarily Nachmanides, the construction of a dwelling place for God is the expression of Israel’s desire to preserve the experience of closeness to and intimacy with God that they experienced at Sinai. The architectural structure of the Sanctuary with its three divisions of space, the outside Court, the Inner Court and the Holy of Holies is reminiscent of Mount Sinai’s three areas of holiness, the foot of the mount, the middle where Aaron and the elders remained and the very top, which encompassed God’s immediate Presence and was accessible only to Moses. Sinai was a one-time moment, one of a peak experience, and shortly thereafter was no more. Israel had a long distance to travel before arriving at the Promised Land. How were they to perpetuate the sense of God’ s Presence as an ongoing reality? The Sanctuary emerges as this spatial attempt to capture the fleetingness of temporal revelation. As God’s voice penetrated the foreboding silence of Sinai, so too was Israel able to concretely connect to a caring God by transporting a Sanctuary along their journey through the endless barrenness of an inhospitable and indifferent wilderness.

The building of the sanctuary was an expression of Israel’s desire for a God who is somewhere, a divine reality that can be recognized and incorporated into their lives anywhere and everywhere, whether in the wilderness, the Holy Land or dispersed to all four corners of the earth. It is this search for God, for the sacred, that is the overriding challenge of the Jewish people.

Moreover, the opening verses of the parasha suggest the initial possibility of God awareness in their own midst.

The act of giving-emulating God as the Ultimate Giver of All-in a way that reflects a generous and open heart-yidvenu libo- is the starting point of the quest for God. Not philosophical speculation or even a leap of faith; rather the leap of love and giving, the taking unto oneself in order to give for a purpose that transcends one’s egoic constraints and limitations. Some read the opening words -vayikchu li-take for Me-as “Take Me”- in other words, when one gives -whether gold, silver or bronze-as

long as it is raised up as an offering of an open and giving heart, steps are taken on the journey toward a God who is somewhere, with the eventuality that indeed God will dwell in their midst.

God can be perceived in many places; in Nature, in the Mitzvah,in the myriad moments of wonder that touch our lives. To gain entry to this dimension of the godly, perhaps the first step is to construct in our hearts a sanctuary, a space, even a tiny opening, which is loving and compassionate. Through this opening, we will, perhaps find a fleeting moment of divinity and wonder.

Shabbat Shalom

Poetry Inspired By the Talmud


From which point in time does one recite the Shema-Hear O Isreal-God is One-You shall love the Lord…in the evening?

1. When priests eat their terumah-gifts

2. From the time of the appearance of the stars-

3. From the time the poor man eats his bread with salt.

Darkness descends

I cannot see,

I grope for a way to go

Not to stumble and fall,

Not to encounter the bogie –man of my fears,

As long as there is light

There is no fear.

We say words,

torches in the night,

divine letters dancing along the corridor of night,

eyes filled with the flame’s glow,

and from the eye to the heart in a skip and a jump,

the beating is silenced by the sacred word.

Shema –Hear, listen, not to your fear,

Pay no attention to the despair of the night,

You have words , words that transport to realms of calm.

As long as we give the terumah, the tithe of elevation,

The twinkle of stars stands firm and true

And even the poor man can enjoy his bread and salt,

bringing his sacrifice,

Embraced by the Oneness of the universe,

a Oneness orbiting the circle of love.

God's Prayer

If prayer is possibility,

The potential of pregnant prospects,

What can God, always and real, pray for?

I am what I am-not as yet to be,

If so, why pray?

Or I will be what I will be,

And if I pray, I shall be what I wish to be-

I groan under the burden of My Power,

I cry out for relief, the ease that comes with imperfection

Omnipotence offers little hope,

Just disappointment, unmet expectation.

And so I pray:

May it be My will

That My mercy,

Suppress My anger…

Ah this is My God-

The God who prays for His own forgiveness,

Whose compassion trumps all attributes-

I can now hope

To transform my rage

Into a flowering of love,

Taking the thorns of hostility

And shaping their sharpness into petals of gentle roses.

Imitatio dei! Emulate God,

Take His image into your soul

Look mercifully upon your anger

and in this mindful caress of your fury

the heart will open its iron gates and let

the light of mercy shine in

All Godly groaning will be silenced

And the universe will echo the divine sigh

of Self- redemption.

A God That Roars

A mother dove looks for her nest,

Asking where, ku? Where, ku?

Where the lion lies down

Where any man or woman goes to cry.


The night sky drapes the earth with silence.

Mortal man sleeps as if in death,

A graveyard hush hovers over the deep.

Above, in heaven’s realms,

Infinity’s blackness is riddled

By a roar, like that of a lion, the king of beasts,

Bursting through branches of wooded forests.

It is the roar of God,

The King of Kings,

Sitting on His throne , raising His majestic roar above

The muffled and mournful moaning of a broken heart,

“Woe to the children , on account of whose sins I destroyed my House…”

Below there is silence, His children hear not a single

Syllable of rageful pain. God roars alone.

A ruin, a place of hidden dangers, real and imagined,

A rabbi there dares to pray-it is Jerusalem after all, a place of

Sacred security.

As he prays a divine voice is heard-“Woe to the children on account of whose sins I destroyed My house…”

Not a roar reserved for the angels of silent Emptiness

But a cooing like a dove, gentle and sweet, soothing the breast of a shattered people in ruins.

In the desolation of my heart, give me, I pray, a God who coos,

And keep the God who roars far away from us.