Monday, September 18, 2017

Grateful for Rosh Hashanah as a festival of Freedom

Commonly, the Festival of Freedom in Jewish life is Passover! Yet,I maintain, that freedom is at the heart of Rosh Ha shanah as well.
 How do we arrive at this conclusion ? After all, Rosh Hashanah is referred to by tradition as the Season of soul- searching and the sounding of Teruah, the shofar?

Moreover,while each of the pilgrimage festivals  on the Jewish calendar is multidimensional in its meaning and the Exodus enters into the rationale for these holy events, Rosh Hashanah is not included as a time during which we recall the Exodus.
However, the Talmud asks what does Rosh Hashanah commemorate and we are provided with several answers, one of which strongly suggests the idea of freedom. 
“Rabbi Eliezer said: in Tishrei-the month of Rosh Hashanah, the world was created.”(Talmud Rosh Hashanah 10b) Ostensibly, this interpretation is wholly logical with the idea of the creation of the world and Rosh Hashanah as signifying the birthday of the world. As such, some liberal congregations select as the Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah the creation story-Genesis,Chapter 1. Yet, most other congregations, and the tradition indicates a very different Torah reading, Genesisi 21 :1-34. Why?

This segment tells the story of the birth of a child ,Isaac, the son of Sarahand Abraham.
But more than that, it continues to narrate the expulsion of the concubine Hagar with her  son and her son’s near death in the wilderness, and the eventual appearance of God’s angel to rescue her and her child, Ishmael. God hears the voice of   Hagar, the Egyptian concubine, and assures her through a messenger, that she too will give birth to a great nation.
How are we to understand this selection in relation to Rosh Hashanah’s meaning?
To answer, consider another statement in the Talmud that conveys a different rationale for Rosh Hashanah’s meaning.
“On Rosh Hashanah, Joseph went forth from prison.”( Ibid 11b).
In other words, this festival marks an event of freedom from imprisonment of some kind. In Joseph’s case, prison was literal and he found himself in such a situation by being falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife of sexual advances.
In Hagar’s case, she is the victim of both her ethnic and social status and her gender as a woman. Sarah and Abraham can do with her what they wish. Therefore, at the insistence of Sarah, echoed by God Himself, Abraham expels Hagar from his household. Hagar as concubine and Egyptian was a prisoner of the social mores of that time-an underdog, a slave with no rights and no power of self-assertion.
Being a woman,furthermore, only exacerbated her condition of utter vulnerability, bringing her to the edge of the abyss together with her child,the essence of her womanhood and personhood.
The story ,however, takes a turn toward the divine and miraculous as intervention from above announces a new reality in the spiritual evolution of humanity, namely the capacity to be free, to transcend social, gender and political status and survive successfully as human beings with god-given rights of being loved and cared for.Thus the message of freedom on Rosh Hashanah that determined the selection of this particular story as a Torah reading on Rosh Hashanah.

We are grateful for the multiple richness of this festival especially for the gift of personal freedom rooted in our identity as God’s children.Happy New Year,

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Grateful for Time-The gift of a New Year

A man was leisurely looking up at the clouds and identifying various shapes. This led him to talk to God.
“God,” he said, “how long is a million years?”
God answered,”In my frame of reference, it’s about a minute.”
The man asked again,”God, how much is a million dollars?”
God answered, “ To Me,it’s a penny.”
The man then asked,  “God, may I have a penny?”
God replied, “In a minute!”

With the beginning of a New Year our attention is focused sharply on the passing of time. To quote Richard Dawkins-”Time is pretty mysterious stuff-almost as elusive and hard to pin down as conscious awareness.”(Science in the Soul-p.329)
Objectively the notion of time’s passage is determined by astronomy-the rotation of the earth around the moon and the sun. The measurement of time is humanly constructed. The experience of time is highly subjective. If one is sitting ‘shiva” the mourning period ,time is agonizingly slow.If one is in the midst of a joyous celebration, time flies.

Every day each one of us is given the identical amount of a fresh supply of time-this day of 24 hours of 60 minutes each is our gift of life,

Rosh Hashanah is a new beginning,a time for a revisit of the notion of time and its value to us.

In Judaism, time is of the essence. As Heschel wrote so magnificently in his book on the Sabbath, Judaism is a religion of time, aiming at the sanctification of time.
How do we sanctify time?

We are provided with holy days- Shabbat, festivals in each season.But what does the word holiness or sanctity mean? Many are the interpretations.
Holy is godly , something set apart from the ordinary and considered uniquely special. 
May I suggest  a formulaic interpretation that may help us sanctify time-our lives-in the New Year.
 I see holiness as containing three component parts, each one beginning with the letter “A.”

Like the triple A batteries, holiness allows us to reinvigorate  and energize our spirits and souls so as to live life to the fullest and not waste or kill or avoid the time that is given us.

Each day, by dint of our awareness, we can arrive at a fullness of being alive which not only brings joy and fulfillment to us, but  with alertness brings hope and love to others.

No matter how ordinary our days-rising in the morning, preparing ourselves for the day, having our meals, working, interacting with others-all represent opportunities for greater awareness and alertness to make our experience of daily living alive and sanctified, an expression of feeling the divine in our lives.

As the Psalmist said: “Teach us to number our days so that we nay attain a heart of wisdom.” 

May we al be blessed in the New Year with hearts filled with the wisdom of the divine, the wisdom of being fully alive. 

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Grateful for the challenge of Yom Kippur-

Fasting or Responding-

“אך בעשור לחדש השביעי יום הכפורים הוא......ועניתם את נפשותיכם”
“Mark, the tenth day of this seventh month, is the Day of shall practise self-denial (you shall fast)”  (Leviticus 23:27)

I don’t like to fast. I would think that few do. I get grouchy and feel agitated in the course of the day , and rather than focusing on prayer I confess that the grumbling in my belly occupies too much of my attention. I wonder why the Torah legislated fasting as a means of atonement? There are of course not a few interpretations.To fast is to deprive yourself as punishment for your sins; you are detached from bodily needs and emerge more connected to your spiritual dimension as a human being;you can more fully devote yourself to prayer without the distractions of having to prepare food and engage in its consumption.
While I do fast and will continue to do so-it’s an integral part of Jewish tradition and practice-I continue to explore for newer meanings associated with the Hebrew root word  for self-denial- “ענה.”

The meaning of this word can also be -”to answer, to respond.”
While grammatically the Hebrew verse is not constructed to be translated as “ you shall respond in  or with your beings, souls,” I take the Midrashic liberty which is widely used in the Hassidic tradition to discover suggestions of other meanings, in spite of incorrect grammatical considerations.

Thus, “ ועניתם את נפשותיכם” could be translated as  “You shall respond with your being and soul.”

Yom Kippur is a challenge, a question, an invitation.In the Garden of Eden God asked Adam -”איכה”-”Where are you?” Yom Kippur is a moment of being asked by the Divine-where are we? What is the nature of our spiritual and moral lives? Are we living up to the full integrity of who we are and could be?
It is no accident that the prophetic voice recited on Yom Kippur asks the following rhetorical question?
“Is such a fast I desire? (‘Because you fast in strife and contention,and you strike with a wicked fist!’).....No! this is the fast I desire-to unlock the fetters of let the oppressed go is to share your bread with the hungry and to take the wretched into your home; when you see the naked to clothe him, and not ignore your own kin.”( Isaiah 58: 4-7)

The prophet does not eliminate the practice of fasting; he transcends it to a realm that highlights the spiritual challenge not only of Yom Kippur but of every day of our lives.
How responsive are we to the pain and needs of others? How open are we to the beauty and fullness of the world that summons our thanks and gratitude? How willing are we to not only engage in ritual but to translate feeling and intention into deed and response to change the world in some small way?

On Yom Kippur we are called upon by Divine wisdom to respond-to rise to levels of the angelic so that “your light will burst forth like the dawn and your healing will will spring up instantly.”(Isaiah 57 :8)

Imagine the following: Each Yom Kippur, the Jewish people, all who fast, contribute the cost of their daily meals to the hungry of the world. Assuming there are approximately 10 million Jews who fast out of a total population of 14 and 1/2 million world population of Jews and that the cost of 3 meals a day is equivalent to $50.00, conceivably the Jewish people as an act of moral response and the sanctification of the Divine Name,  could contribute to the the poor and wretched of this planet a sum of $500 million -1/2 a billion dollars!!  Imagine the impact upon the hungry, the Jewish people and the world at large.

Grateful for  the capacity to transcend the legal and reach the realm of  the indeterminate  goodness and justice

“ Be sure to keep the commandments, decrees, and laws that the Lord your God has enjoined upon you;
Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord....”(Deut.6:17-18)
“ועשית  הישר והטוב בעיני ה”  (דברים ו,יח)

These verses were read in the synagogue on Saturday, August 5, Shabbat Nachamu.
It may be asked: Why are these words added? After all, the reader has been instructed by the previous passage and indeed by many other passages ,of God’s requirement of goodness and fairness as contained in the mitzvot-the ordinances enjoined by the Divine? Is not observance of the mitzvot not sufficient?
A plausible answer is that this is a summary statement that defines the commandments as just and right,and thus is not superfluous. 

Upon closer exploration both of the verses in “V’Etchanan,” last week”s portion, and the opening verse of the parshah known as “Eikev,” this weeks segment,  the addition of these five Hebrew words provides a significant insight into the desired practise and fulfillment of Jewish spiritual behavior. 

With the opening words of this week’s Torah portion,”Eikev,” we encounter a word-”eikev” whose definition carries a mutidimentional meaning . “And if -‘eikev’-you obey these rules...the Lord will  favor and bless you.” (Deut.7:12-13)
The word ‘eikev’ is correctly translated as ‘in the heels of-the word means heel!’ (Consider Jacob’s name,Ya’akov, derived from the fact that he held on to his twin brother’s heel to prevent him from emerging from the womb first and gain the special status of first born-Genesis 25:26)
The Torah established the principle of reward for good behavior, and punishment for behavior that is unacceptable.This asserion emphasizes the individual’s 
unique identity as a responsible and free-choosing human being whose humanity, some would say, divinity, rests in this dimension of freedom and responsibility.

What’s curious about the word ‘eikev,’ however, is that it contains a very different definition as well,namely, ‘crooked,’ ‘devious,’ ‘deceptive,’ ‘ insincere.’
( see Genesis 27:36, where Esau, having been deceived by his brother and cheated out of his birthright  cries out in pain that his brother has supplanted him twice to wrest the birthright from him!)
How does the notion of crookedness or insincerity fit into our statement of ‘in the heels of ‘ or ‘as a consequence of’ our obedience or disobedience, we will  be either blessed or cursed!

At this point the reference to doing what is ‘fair and just in God’s sight’ is critical for a fuller understanding of Judaism’s  standard of moral behavior. This phrase is inexact, unlike legal prescriptions that are usually concrete and objectively understandable. After all,what does it mean exactly to be fair and right in God’s eyes?

I would like to suggest that what is signaled  in the use of ‘eikev’and the additional words referring to just and good behavior is the risk of doing things crookedly, in spite of devoted loyalty to the Law, without the ability to relate to  life with fairness and goodness . It is not difficult to imagine the observance of the mitzvah as disconnected from its intentioality, a rote like and mechanical relationship  rooted in the need to perform the deed out of fear or the need for some structure which provides security in one’s psychological life. Thus these few extra words emphasizing doing the fair and the good in God’s sight suggests the need to examine one’s heart and feelings ,to invest not only logical thought to the intricacies of the Law, but to explore the stirrings of the heart and soul with an eye that is focussed inwards.The Torah’s insistence on the inner world, the world of feeling, intention,sincerity and honesty,imagination and poetry, conscience, our sense of humanity, all of which is beyond tangible description is fundamental to the achievement of the more complete  moral and compassionate life.

By making us of the term ‘eikev,’ the Author indirectly touches on the ‘unconscious’ and elicits an association to the more primitive part of our inner life,one that is based on reward and punishment, ‘the crooked,’rather than on the recognition of doing the fair and good in the eyes of God,  acting because something is intrinsicaaly right and good. Eikev declares that we are blessed with the capacity to go beyond the observable and measurable, the legal, and touch the divinity in our souls through the posture of fairness, rightness and love.Let us not ignore this gift.

Grateful for the way of Divine Wisdom

Every now and then a word of Scripture leaps out at you and somehow captures a total way of thinking.Such a word is found in the Torah reading of this past week -Deuteronomy 12:8 and 13:19. 
‘לא תעשון ככל אשר אנחנו עושים פה היום איש כל הישר בעיניו ‘
You shall not act at all as we now act here, every man as he pleases( what he considers right)

 כי תשמע בקול ה’ אלהיך לשמור  את כל מצוותיו אשר אנכי מצוך היום לעשות הישר בעיני ה’ אלהיך
For you will be heeding the Lord your God, obeying all His commandments that I enjoin them upon you this day, doing what is right in the sight of the Lord your God.

The word that is pivotal to this gratefulness word of Torah is “ישר” -”straight”-”right”-”fair.”

The Torah makes use of this word in two opposing and conflicting moral situations and postures.In the first, Deuteronomy 12:8, it highlights the inclination of the individual to do as he/she pleases, what she or he considers right and proper according to the standards that are meaningful only to himself/herself. One’s beliefs, actions and words are entirely individualistic, the sole arbiter of the moral stance is oneself.This is regarded by the Torah as problematic, dangerous and a violation of the principles of the Divine that should govern our lives.

Doing what is “ישר” in God’s sight is the desirable and divine obligation associated with one’s spiritual fulfillment and completion. Deuteronomy 13:19 unequivocally asserts this rightness as the ultimate standard for human activity and interaction.

Today we find ourselves enmeshed in a world dictated by leaders doing what is right in their own eyes,without any awareness of the divine wisdom that should influence and guide human behavior. Power, political expediency,financial profit, jingoism, psychological self-aggrandizement and excessive narcissism define the rightness of words, actions and policies. It is my sight that counts; egotism reigns supreme! Divine wisdom , that which is right in the sight of God, that which demands equality of opportunity, fairness and justice for all, a sense of compassion for the disadvantaged and vulnerable segments of our country and humanity everywhere, goodness and kindness toward all sentient beings, seeing the entire human community as children of God,  has taken a back seat or secondary role, if not totally vanished from the sight of American political leadership.

Religion’s demand is the perspective of God- Unity, wholeness, love; man’s view is what is right in ‘my sight’-narrow, fragmented, adversarial.

How dramatically relevant and imperative is the Torah’s message today, as growing numbers of citizens anticipate chaos and uncertainty for lack of a moral compass that can guide this nation and the world through the difficult times facing our fragile planet in the precarious future ahead.

Deuteronomy’s ancient insights inspire us today; may they find their way into the hearts and minds of our leadership and those who are more apt to follow their own misguided sense of what is right only in their own eyes.The time is ripe for a serious consideration of the perspective and wisdom of the divine source of all things.