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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Parashat Re'eh: Seeing with Sixth Sense

Do we have a sixth sense?

There is a commandment: “Ye shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). But how do we know we are on the right path? Some of us might run through a checklist: “I gave charity; check. I loved my neighbor today; check. I lit Shabbat candles; check.” But for most of us, doing right just feels right — like a satisfying chord of music. Likewise, doing wrong just feels wrong, like hearing a beginner scrape at a violin.
How are we to understand this? That our bodies are attuned to holiness the way the ear is attuned to music? I once overheard a woman say of her favorite synagogue: “It’s the only place where I feel spirituality.” Stranger yet, her friend nodded her head in agreement, “I feel the same way.”

But perhaps the idea is not so strange. We pause when a piano sonata is played beautifully. We can discern when a painting is transformed into a work of art. We can get lost in the petals of a rose or swept up in the majesty of mountains — we admit to an aesthetic sense, a musical sense, a sense of joy or a sense of sorrow.

But might we also have a sacred sense — a sixth sense, if you will — a sense of the holy?

The challenge, though, is not in admitting that we have it; that’s easy. We know when a sermon sets the heart alight. We know when an old synagogue melody stirs the wind in our chest. The true test is tuning it, evolving it, so that we begin to listen for holiness not on the rare occasion but every day amid the mayhem of our lives. This task is far from easy.

Read the rest in this week's Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles: "Seeing with the Sixth Sense"

I hope to see your comments there!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Parshat Eikev: To Walk Humbly Before God



Life is full of movement. We walk here, drive there, and fly our way to a thousand places in between. So what keeps us grounded wherever we go? What keeps us from sliding off the road?

This week’s portion begins: “And it shall come to pass, because (Eikev) you hearken to these laws, keep them, and do them; that the Lord your God shall keep unto you the covenant and the kindness which He swore to your fathers.” (Deut. 7:12)

Many a commentator dwell on the Hebrew word eikev, a most unusual synonym for “because.” They point out that if the same letters were vocalized differently—“aw-keiv”—it would mean “heel.” The 18th century Hassidic Master, Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhensk, suggested that the word alludes to the most basic element of divine service: humility. Just as the entire body is supported by the heel of one’s foot, so too, all of a person’s sacred life is supported by humility. Recognition of one’s limits, from the meekness of the intellect to the body’s fragility, opens the heart to love of God and love of one’s fellow.

Yet humility also has a way of opening the mind, spurring us to go forth and to discover. Our Sages inquire why the Ark of the Covenant was made of acacia-wood instead of silver or gold. The obvious answer is that a wooden Ark is lighter than one made entirely of gold, and therefore, it could be more easily carried by the Israelites as they traveled from place to place. (Hizkuni Ex. 25.10) Yet the Netziv writes that the Ark was made of wood to remind us that the knowledge it contained—the Tablets of the Law—is acquired through humility. (Emek HaDavar on Deut. 10.1) In a similar vein, Rabbi Bachayeh mentions a tradition that all the measurements of the Ark end in halves—2 ½ x 1 ½ x 1 ½ cubits—to remind us that wisdom is acquired when we think of our studies as being partial and incomplete. (Ex. 25.10) When we acknowledge what we lack and do not know, we begin to learn wherever we go.

Last summer, my wife and I drove across country with a great number of belongings stowed in the trunk. As we crossed into New Mexico, we saw some 50 miles ahead, a vast thunderhead lurking in the distance. Shaped like a dark portabella, its canopy stretched across the heavens, while its more narrow central column—absolutely opaque—led straight down to the heart of the earth. As we drew closer, we saw that the highway was heading directly into the storm. My wife insisted that we turn off the road, but there was no place to turn. We had no choice but to continue among a caravan of trucks.

Suddenly, rain, as thick as a cornfield, struck our car. I did my best to remain behind an 18-wheeler that managed to break through the torrent of water. For the next hour, the truck was the only thing I could see. As water began to pool on the highway, I thanked the Lord that my small car was weighted with several hundred pounds of belongings. The tires—the heels of our car—remained rooted to the ground; they did not slide or skid.

So little holds us here, and when we realize that, we begin to understand the measure of much greater things.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Parashat V'etchanan: Remembering Our Soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq


I gave a sermon last Shabbat on the importance of remembering our soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq and how their sacrifices embody what it means to love "with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might." (Deuteronomy 6:5) Please keep our soldiers in your prayers till, with God's help, they return home.

Remembering Our Soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq
Last Saturday, a military helicopter was shot down over Afghanistan. 30 U.S. service members were killed from the Army and Navy. On Sunday, the papers reported that it was the largest single-day loss of life since hostilities began in Afghanistan nearly ten years ago. Many reporters mentioned that 17 Navy Seals were aboard, but none, they assured us, were involved in the raid on bin Laden’s compound three months before. If anyone wondered why this was relevant, or how this fact could in any way lessen the tragedy, no explanation was forthcoming. But then, Monday arrived. The morning bell tolled on Wall Street. Our media went back to talking about things like credit ratings, unemployment, and the declining market. The soldiers had been quickly forgotten.

In this week’s portion, V’etchanan, there is a recurring theme woven through the Parashah. The theme is ‘devotion to God’. The Parashah begins with Moses’ supplication to the Almighty, “I beseeched the Lord at that time…” (Deuteronomy 3:23). It ends with a warning “not to go astray”. (Deut. 7:4,11) Along the way, we have further warnings, “not to test the Lord” (6:16); “not to forget the Lord” (6:12). We have reminders “to fear God…and to serve Him.” (6:13) We have the oft-quoted phrase, “do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord” (6:18); as well the expression that’s become a bumper sticker in Israel. “There is none besides Him.” אֵין עוֹד, מִלְּבַדּוֹ (4:35)

And yet there is more. There is the repetition of the Ten Commandments. I am the Lord your God…you shall no other gods besides me. (5:6,7) More significantly, there is the articulation of what has become the central credo of the Jewish people: the Shema Yisrael prayer and the first paragraph of the Shema: “And you shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and all your might.” (6:4,5) וְאָהַבְתָּ, אֵת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשְׁךָ, וּבְכָל-מְאֹדֶךָ

So the question is: why must this message be repeated again and again? For other commandments in the Torah, it suffices to tell us once or twice, sometimes even three times—like the commandment not to cook milk and meat together— why must we be told a dozen times: ‘fear the Lord,’ ‘serve the Lord,’ ‘cling to God,’ ‘love God’…? We get it.

The Italian commentator, R. Ovadiah Sforno makes an observation on verse in shema: וְדִבַּרְתָּ בָּם, בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ בְּבֵיתֶךָ וּבְלֶכְתְּךָ בַדֶּרֶךְ, וּבְשָׁכְבְּךָ וּבְקוּמֶךָ. “…You shall speak of them when sitting in your house, and when walking by the way; when you lie down (at night), and when you rise up (in the morning). (6:7) The Sforno comments: “Through this repetition, you’ll always remember them.” כִּי בְּזאת הַהַתְמָדָה תִּזְכְּרֵם תָּמִיד

Put simply: That which is repeated constantly, we remember, that which is not repeated constantly, we forget. Even something as important as God, we’d forget unless devotion was shown and articulated daily. Thus we are compelled to think of God each time we walk through a doorway and see a mezuzah; each time we eat a sandwich; before sleeping; upon arising.

In the third volume of his work, Gesher HaChaim, Rabbi Tuchazinski tells a very striking story that illustrates the capacity of humans to ignore and to forget. In 1918, a friend of his, a doctor, had returned from the War, settling again in Jerusalem. This doctor had ‘taken in part in some of the fiercest battles of World War I. He had lain in the trenches and saw many soldiers fall about him.’ Hearing this, R. Tuchazinski asked him: ‘What were you thinking as you lay in those trenches and those bullets flew overhead?’ The doctor responded that ‘the first time, he was so fearful he recited Vidui—confession—he was sure the end was near. The second time, somewhat less fearfully, he managed to throw himself in a trench. But by the third and fourth times, even though more casualties were falling than before, his fear had subsided, and he was able to survey the surrounding scene and fulfill his duties as a doctor.’

Such is the force of human nature…after a while, one can learn to ignore the savagery of war… after a while, one can learn to ignore the Creator of the Universe. It’s for this reason that we need constant reminders and refrains: Cling to God, Love God, Worship God, Keep God’s Commandments…

It should not surprise us that 30 soldiers can get killed, and within a day or two, they are quickly forgotten. We are nowhere near the front. We experience little of its savagery or violence. This war in Afghanistan has dragged on for nine years. And these soldiers are not the first to fall in combat. More than 1500 have died in Afghanistan; More than 4500 in Iraq—we’ve seen a lot of names added to the list. Names like Officer Louis J. Langlais, 44, of Santa Barbara, Calif., or Sgt. Andrew W. Harvell, 26, of Long Beach, Calif…

The irony of it is…if you want an example of what it means to love something “with all your heart, and all your soul, and all you might.” בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשְׁךָ וּבְכָל-מְאֹדֶךָ …Look no further than these soldiers. For love of country, they leave their jobs, they leave their families. They go a year or more without seeing spouses or children. They think of us constantly. How often do we think of them?

I want to end by mentioning a discussion in the Talmud that is based on the beginning of this morning’s portion. The question is asked how long should one pause between back-to-back prayer services—say the end shacharit—and the beginning of musaf? (Berachoth 30b)The answer offered: ‘One should pause long enough to enter a plea-ful frame of mind, based on the verse: I beseeched God... V’etchananon el Hashem. (Deuteronomy 3:23). Because at its heart that’s what prayer is about—beseeching God—asking for his intercession in our daily lives.

The Talmud Yerushalmi adds: How long should this take, minimally? Kedei Hiluch Dalet Amot. “The amount of time it takes to walk four cubits”—in other words, a few seconds.

If I can make a suggestion, the next time one reads or hears a piece of news about the fighting in Afghanistan or Iraq, take a moment or two to pause…long enough, at least, for a sense of supplication—a sense of pleading—to fill the heart; long enough, to ask God silently to intercede on behalf of our soldiers, to protect them from harm. It might be helpful to think of the verse: בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשְׁךָ וּבְכָל-מְאֹדֶךָ To reflect on what it means to sacrifice “with all your heart, all your soul, all your might.”

And perhaps if we do this each time we read the news, in the morning and at night…we’ll do something to make sure that these soldiers are not forgotten. In Sforno’s words: “Through repetition, you’ll remember them always.” הַהַתְמָדָה תִּזְכְּרֵם תָּמִיד כִּי בְּזאת Always.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Parashat V'etchanan: The Trip Home from Wall Street


We saw the thunder, heard the lightning. Though the sky was black like pitch, Mount Sinai was ablaze with “a fire that reached to the heart of heaven.” (Deut. 4:11) From amidst the fire, a voice thundered: I am the Lord your God who brought you forth from Egypt... (Deut. 5:6) And we trembled with awe and fright.

Less remembered than the voice that shook the winds and stirred the earth is the smaller voice that followed. After the ecstasy of Revelation, God instructed Moses: “Go tell the people: ‘return to your tents.’” (Deut 5:27) In other words: ‘Go home. Go back to your family and spouse—return to life as usual.’ (Cf. HaEmek Davar; Torah Temima)

Across one’s life, there are moments of great elation and moments of great sorrow. There is ecstasy and agony, deep loss and heartfelt gain. Yet most of life is not lived at one extreme or the other. We do not vacillate between weddings and funerals, between the aloneness of the Ninth of Av and the transcendence of the Day of Atonement. We live in the in-between, in that space far from the edges, among bills and groceries, dinner and work—we live at home in our tents.

This past week, some of us may have caught images of ashen-faced stockbrokers as they exited their Wall Street offices and made their way toward the trains. A trillion dollars in U.S. capital vanished in an afternoon, three trillion in two weeks. (Bloomberg) The news reinforced what we already know. Unemployment numbers are miserable. We know many who struggle—we know ourselves to struggle. When the Standard & Poor downgraded the U.S. credit rating, they articulated what most of us felt. The government has no great plan to fix our economy. They barely managed to agree on a lukewarm plan to curtail this nation’s debt. We are on our own.

Yet, even when there is little one can do, there is usually a place where one can go. One can board a train like those stockbrokers, or take a bus, or a car. From there, we might ascend from a valley or descend from a mountain, but always we find our way to the plains...where we have made our homes...where we have pitched our tents.

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, August 5, 2011

Parashat Devarim: "These are the Words..."


"These are the words that Moses spoke unto all Israel on the other side of the Jordan, in the Wilderness, in Arevah, opposite Suf, between Paran and Tophel, and Lavan, and Hazeroth, and Di-Zahav.” -Deut. 1:1

In the 1960’s, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel would read galleys of his books to those who attended his 7:30am lectures at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Heschel was an exquisite writer, undoubtedly. Moreover, Heschel’s involvement in civil rights, the Vietnam War, and Vatican II certainly made him an exciting personality. Yet, as this Rabbi (with his Old World accent) intoned chapter after chapter from his latest work, it was not uncommon for many of his students to drift asleep.

This week we begin the book of Deuteronomy—the last of the Five Books of Moses. There is a tradition that Moses taught the entire book of Deuteronomy on a single day—namely, the day of his death. This view may have been popularized by an early Medieval Jewish sect, the Karaites. (See Ibn Ezra 1:2) But for whatever reason, the tradition caught on. A thousand years later, I was taught as much in day-school.

As endearing as the legend is, it contains not a few problems. The Book of Deuteronomy comprises over a hundred laws—seventy of which appear nowhere else in the Torah. It would be hard to imagine Moses reading these laws straight through, word for word, out of a scroll.  How did he keep everyone’s attention? What if a hand shot up with a query? Did the entire congregation stop for discussion?

The 19th century commentator, the Netziv, presents a novel alternative to this quandary. He suggests that after Israel’s successful conquests along the Plains of Moab, the Children of Israel no longer camped altogether as they had done throughout their journeys in the Wilderness. Instead, they began to spread out over many miles and settle these newly conquered areas. Thus it was necessary for Moses to travel from place to place and deliver his words on many occasions. “He gathered the people once in the Wilderness, once in Arevah, once opposite Suf, once between Paran and Tophel, once in Lavan, once in Hazeroth, and once in Di-Zahav.” Moreover, at each gathering “he would speak of a different subject from this book.”(Ha’Emek Davar - Deut. 1:1)

Moses was aware that the mind can only absorb so much, so he taught accordingly, one portion of the book at a time. He also knew there is nothing like personal attention. Despite his age and the respect owed to him, the congregation did not travel to Moses, rather he went forth to each congregation. It might have sufficed to send forth copies of Deuteronomy to outlying communities, but Moses made it so his words would be heard directly from his lips.

 Each passing day, we hear less and less from people’s lips, and more and more from recordings and copies. We receive bulk mail, mass bulletins, countless evites and invitations via the internet or post. We watch recorded broadcasts and programs on the web or on television. We choose the phone over the meeting, and then choose email over the phone.  

It is rather fitting to consider the behavior of Moses—Moses who traveled to each camp, who spoke his last words face-to-face with each group, who may have also repeated himself a few times, just so others could hear that “these are the words” uttered from his lips. 

Shabbat Shalom!