Monday, April 18, 2011

Achare Mot-Inner Freedom- A Passover message

“You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or the land of Canaan to which I am taking you, nor shall you follow their laws; My rules alone shall you observe and faithfully follow My laws...”(Lev. 18:3-4)

The Sefat Emet raises the following question: “If it refers to the forbidden sexual liaisons that are about to be explicitly listed,why does it make them dependent upon the deeds of Egypt and Canaan? Rather the intent is that all in our deeds we do not things as they are done in Egypt and Canaan.Every deed has an inner and outer side; the inner root of all things is surely in holiness, since it was created for God's glory..that is why the deeds of the nations are referred to as 'statutes.'...they have no relationship to the inner meaning of all things, and cleave only to mere externals”(The Language of Truth, Arthur Green, JPS1998,pp.179-80)

In my thinking, the Sefat Emet is pointing to two different approaches by which life can be seen-from the perspective of the external, the changeable and that which is subject to transient tastes and interests ,and the inner, that dimension of reality that carries with it permanence and solidity no matter what the seasons bring to us. The way of the external-modeled after Egypt and Canaan, suggest the way of narrowness and superficiality, Egypt in Hebrew being read not as mitzrayim-מצרים-but rather as meitzarim-מיצרים- a place of constriction, where one is enslaved to a rigid understanding of things without the fullness and depth arrived at through one's imagination and heart whereby the inner meanings are understood and enjoyed. Canaan too elicits a status of external reality.Historically it has been suggested that Canaanites were itinerant traders, perhaps deriving their function from the word-Na-נע-meaning movement, travelling, wandering.The way of the Cannanite was thus one which demanded constant changeability and transformation to suit new extenal environments.There were no deeply ingrained realities that were fixed in the inner life of its people.For both peoples, image and appearance were all important. Is this not one of the dimensions of idolatry reflected in the significance of idols and external representations?

Is this not an indication of a human tendency to partialize perception, making the partial absolute and thereby losing sight of reality's greater fullness and indeterminacy? Religion's purpose is to widen and deepen our perceptions as broadly as possible to embrace the other under the canopy of kindness and compassion! Our God is the One God of All, not a god whose purview is one partialized realm of natural reality!.Consider today's contemporary western society.All is image, fashion, external perceptions of realities that are more often than not artificial makeovers to create illusion rather than discover truth and authenticity.From the point of view of the Sefat Emet, we are deeply immersed in a world powerfully influenced by “Egypt” and “Canaan!”

Israel cries out for the re-emrgence of the inner world in our lives and the return to the path of authentic self-discovery.

A joyfully grateful Passover.

Grateful for A NJ bus driver

I am blessed with the convenience of having a bus stop alongside my apartment house building. Both departures and arrivals ease my life considerably. As an instructor in a city college, Touro College, the 158 takes me directly to the Port Authority bus terminal in approximately 45 minutes-no GWB hassles, a significant savings in tolls and parking costs, and the added feature of traveling with others from all walks of life.
I am an observer-unlike most others, I cannot read on a bus and do not own an I-POD; while others' eyes slant downward towards a tiny screen or look absentmindedly in the distance as they converse on cell phones, I sit patiently with eyes that wander with curiosity about all that transpires around me. It's a time to think, to allow my mind to wander, even to meditate.
I catch my bus at 3:20 pm, 3 times a week. It happened to have been quite a windy afternoon, not uncommon where I live. In preparation for the bus' arrival, I had several dollar bills in my hands. Suddenly, as the bus approached, I thought that one bill had been carried away by the wind and I began to feverishly search for it. I motioned to the driver to please be patient and not drive away. A few minutes passed; it seemed that the wind had carried the money into oblivion.I looked up and to my surprise and great gratitude was the driver who had descended from the perch of his large steering wheel and joined me in the search for the dollar bill. Finally, not wanting to hold up the bus any longer I gratefully acknowledged the driver's unusual kindness and informed him that to search was of no avail and we could return to the bus.
The dollar bill disappeared but in its place was the priceless experience of an average individual's simple yet extraordinary act of kindness.
Thinking to myself as the bus rolled on, I became acutely aware of how rare it was for most bus drivers to go out of their way in this manner; further, if one thought about it, it should not be a rarity among those who serve the riding public , namely to be a helping hand in all circumstances of passenger difficulty. Most of the drivers I have met have acted courteously and helpfully in virtually all situations. Every now and then we encounter an act beyond the call of duty, one that elicits a special sense of gratitude.I was given that lovely moment of another's care and concern a moment well beyond the value of a lost dollar bill, perhaps more precious than money itself.

Sunday, April 17, 2011


Once again the reader is challenged to understand Torah content that is obscure, obsolete and entirely irrelevant to our time.How does one make sense of the ritual involving a metzora-מצורע- one who has contracted an undefined skin disease-some say leprosy-and apply it to the moral issues of today? Clearly, this kind of material demands an imaginative response which was forthcoming by our Sages who understood the afflicted metzora as one who had committed the sin of slander.They based this association on a word play derived from the word-metzora-מצורע.What emerges from this activity is the phrase “motzi shem ra”-מוציא שם רע—one who slanders, literally, one who brings out a bad name.Thus, the Rabbis conclude that this esoteric disease is the result of the abuse of others by way of language or speech.

I would like to extend this “playful” interpretation into a different area of spiritual concern.If we change the vocaliztion of the phrase-motzi shem ra- מוציא שם רע- -we can read the phrase in the following way-motzei sham ra-מוצא שם רע- meaning “finding there the bad.” Instead of shem-name, we can read the consonants as sham-there. Rather than evil in a moralistic way, ra can be understood as that which is negative,undesirable, unpleasant. In other words, the modern metzora is the one who encounters all places and things in life with a perspective that is negative, a view of things as only undesirable, unsatisfactory, problematic . Life for the “metzora”is a source of sorrow and sadness, not a reason for joy and gratitude. To see life through the lens of unrelenting dissatisfaction and suffering is to create a terribly painful situation of social distance, cutting oneself off from the orbit of human interaction and experience. Like the Biblical metzora-”leper”- the contemporary complainer finds himself isolated, even quarantined. Such constant unhappiness and ingratitude also suggests an attitude of thanklessness toward the Source of all creation, finding fault rather than favor with the world around him.

The antidote to such a response is the capacity to discover the good, tov-טוב- and strive to attain an attitude of a motzi sham tov-מוציא שם טוב- of one who sees life as a precious gift and blessing for which to be deeply grateful. It is perhaps with such an approach to life that others will then recognize the reality that the blemishes and lesions of negativity, once a major component of the metzora's identity have disappeared, and what emerges is an identity of self-worth capable of embracing the world and life as one who found a priceless treasure for which to be eternally grateful. Only then can the high priest declare-”You are now reinstated as a member of a holy people and can be once again considered clean and. pure!”

Monday, April 11, 2011

Dayenu - a personal formulation

The following is a personal rendition of Dayenu that I inadvertently omitted from the Gratefulness Haggadah. I think that its simplicity and universality can add to the meaning of your Passover Seders.

If I could only wiggle my toes

And know something that no one else knows,


If I could bend my knees,

And see what everyone else sees,


If I could raise my arm,

Holding back from doing harm,


If I could twiddle my thumb

And scratch my bum


If I could bend the wrist

And my ankle twist,


If I could hear my belly growl

And wipe away a scowl


If I can slide off the bed

And not land on my head


If I can hear birds chirp

and my gut give out a burp


If I have my teeth to brush

And get dressed in a rush


And let’s not forget,

Hands and face that get wet,


I cannot overlook,

How little effort it took

To open my eyes

And for my belly to rise


Heart going pitter patter

It’s not some small matter


Breathing in,

Breathing out,

I can sing

I can shout


Roof over my head,

Simply alive and not dead.


I can do it all and so much more

To be grateful is the door

To our joy , our longevity

Happiness and serenity.

Dayenu-we declare

We thank God for our share.

Hag Sameach-Happy Passover