Selected Teachings from Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Selected Teachings from Rabbu Gershon Winkler
A RAINBOW OF PERSPECTIVES
ON PERSPECTIVES OF RAINBOWS
They say of the second-century Rabbi Shim bar Yo’chai that “in all of his days, he never saw a rainbow” (Talmud Yerushalmi, Berachot 65a). On the surface, this is a good thing. It is complimentary of the great master, for it demonstrates how truly great he was that in his merit God was never moved, so to speak, to wipe out the world. The absence of a rainbow in his time implied that Bar Yo’chai was so high a being that there was no need to remind anyone about the covenant God made with the earth after the Great Flood of Noah’s era, the symbol of which reminder is none other than the rainbow (Genesis 9:12-16). In fact, if we do see a rainbow, taught the third-century Rabbi Yehoshua ben Ley’vee, we should recite: “Blessing Source are you, O Ado’nai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who remembers the covenant” (Talmud Bav’li, Berachot 59a), and it means the world in that moment had become so corrupt that God was about to delete the whole shebang again, but then remembered the promise to Noah, never again to destroy the earth with a flood (Genesis 9:11).
So, on the one hand, the appearance of a rainbow seems to be not such a good thing. And on the other hand, we are also taught that it is not respectful to glare at a rainbow because the rainbow represents the presence of the She’chee’nah, the earthly manifestation of the feminine “face” of God (Zohar, Vol. 2, folio 66b), as we see in the vision of the prophet Ezekiel: “Like the image of the rainbow that will form in the cloud in the day of the rain, so is the vision of the image of the arcing glow, the image of the likeness of the Glory of God….” (Ezekiel 1:28). Judaism then offers us two seemingly opposing perspectives on the rainbow, a negative one and a positive one.
So is rainbow a good sign? A bad sign? It depends on our perspective, on how we choose to see the rainbow. Do we choose to see the rainbow as the life-affirming presence of the She’chee’nah? Or do we choose to see the rainbow as the life-threatening close-call of the apocalypse?
Have you ever seen a rainbow? Of course. Everyone has. At least once in their lifetime. And in every age, every era, every paradigm. Certainly even the saintly Rabbi Shim’on bar Yo’chai must have at least one time or another seen a rainbow. We all have. But which rainbow? Which perspective of the rainbow? The Judgment quality of the rainbow as a reminder of God’s agreement not to destroy the world? Or the Compassion quality of the rainbow as a reminder of the ever-present doting of the ever-loving She’chee’nah. Rabbi Shim’on never saw the judgment kind of rainbow in his days; he only saw the She’chee’nah kind. After all, it is only in the Zohar, in which most of his mystical teachings occur, that you will find the association of rainbow with She’chee’nah. It seems as if most of us back then presumed the worst at the sight of a rainbow, and only one sage and his school saw the best and the most beautiful when they beheld a rainbow.
But how did Rabbi Shim’on reconcile his perspective of rainbow with its more severe “Reminder of the Covenant” attribute as it is clearly described in the Torah? No problem, wrote the 16th-century Kabbalist, Rabbi Yehduah Loew of Prague. “Everything exists,” he taught, “not so much by virtue of God desiring that it exist, but more so by virtue of God not desiring that it be destroyed.” And that is the message of the rainbow, he writes (Chidushei Agadot, Vol. 1, folio 159, Mesechet Ketuvot). In other words, the rainbow is like God declaring that, “You can’t make things bad enough for me to destroy the world.” That is huge love and grace, and far from the usual interpretation of covenantal judgment. And thus whether you see the rainbow as She’chee’nah, or Covenantal Reminder, seeing it in this perspective you cannot go wrong, and thus Judaism actually does not have two perspectives on rainbow, but one! They are both pretty much the same thing. It’s just a matter of semantics: Divine Grace, or She’chee’nah. And that is the fresh perspective introduced by Rabbi Shim’on bar Yo’chai. And thus, Rabbi Shim’on used the rainbow as a litmus test in determining who was worth discussing Torah with. As we see in the following story:
In the third century, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Ley’vee was doing a shamanic journey thing and in that journey was visited by the spirit of Elijah the Prophet. The two began to discuss issues of Jewish law and practice, and eventually they got into a dispute around some ruling made a century earlier by Rabbi Shim’on bar Yo’chai. Elijah then suggested that Rabbi Yehoshua journey to one of the caves in the Galilean mountains where Rabbi Shim’on used to teach and meditate, for perhaps they could do a ceremony there to invite the spirit of Rabbi Shim’on to join them in their discussion and help set things aright. So Rabbi Yehoshua got up and trekked north to Mount Meron, settled into the cave of the late Rabbi Shim’on, and resumed his visit with Elijah who met him there. The two then performed a ritual that invited the spirit of Rabbi Shim’on, and after a while, they felt his presence.
“The greatest sage of his generation is here with me,” Elijah proclaimed to Rabbi Shim’on. “I introduce to you the venerable Rabbi Yehoshua ben Ley’vee. And he wishes to discuss with the master some matters of ritual law.”
“The greatest of his generation?” Rabbi Shim’on challenged Elijah. “Has he ever seen a rainbow?”
“Yes, I have,” replied Rabbi Yehoshua.
“Then I have nothing to say to you,” said Rabbi Shim’on as he departed and returned to the heavenly realms.
But in fact, the Talmud tells us that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Ley’vee had actually never seen a rainbow in his time (Talmud Bav’li, Ketuvot 77b), implying he was indeed a highly righteous being in whose merit the near-demise of the world was averted, according to the party-line perspective. He only said “Yes” out of humility! Why, then, would Rabbi Shim’on not want to discuss halachah with him? Why did he dismiss him so quickly? (Midrash Bereisheet Rabbah 35:2 and Midrash Tehilim 36:8).
You see, when Rabbi Shim’on asked Rabbi Yehoshua whether he had seen a rainbow in his time, neither response would have helped. Saying “No” would mean Rabbi Yehoshua considered himself a holy man, which was an unholy thing to do, and saying “Yes” would mean Rabbi Yehoshua was not saintly enough that the world would continue to exist by his merit as it did by Rabbi Shim’on’s merit; not great enough for him to be worthy of carrying Divine Grace. So either way, Rabbi Yehoshua was screwed. Remember, it was none other than Rabbi Yehoshua ben Ley’vee who taught: “One who sees a rainbow should fall on their face…and recite ‘Blessing Source are you O God, Who remembers the Covenant,’” referring to the disapproving association of the rainbow, rather than its loving association with the She’chee’nah, and it was this perspective of rainbow upon which he predicated his choice of answer, in which case neither Yes nor No was the answer Rabbi Shim’on would accept from him.
“Did you see a rainbow?” Yes is the wrong answer. No is the wrong answer. The correct answer is: “No, I saw the She’chee’nah !” For She fills our world adorned as myriad varieties of translations of those qualities of God which God chooses in any given moment to reveal of Itself. Abraham knew this long ago. He did not separate his consciousness of God-transcendent from his consciousness of God-immanent. He experienced God in Creation no less than he experienced God in Revelation. While engulfed in the divine presence under the sacred oaks of Mamre, he did not see his redirected attention at the three wayfarers as an interruption of his communion with God but rather as a continuation (Genesis 18:1-2).
Now we can understand the perplexing Mishnah attributed to none other than the very same Rabbi Shim’on bar Yochai: “One who is walking along the way engrossed in Torah and interrupts his study of Torah to proclaim, ‘O, what a beautiful tree!’ ‘O, what a lovely field!’ endangers his soul” (Mishnah, Avot 3:7).
What!? I am worthy of death for interrupting my study of God’s Torah to appreciate the beauty of God’s Creations???!!
Yes. Precisely. The key word in the Mishnah is “interrupts.” If the shifting of my consciousness from Torah to Tree or bunny rabbit is indeed an interruption…then I have severed Creation from Creator, distanced God Imminent from God Transcendent. Sort of like the story of the third-century Rabbah son of Rabbi Hunah who returned home disappointed after trying to study under the great master, Rabbi Chis’da, and vowing never to return. When his father asked him why, he explained that Rabbi Chis’da was not teaching holy matters at all – only trivial matters: “He tells us things like ‘When one goes to the House of the Chair [toilet], one should not strain too much, because the rectum has teeth-like glands [hemorrhoids], and one may endanger oneself by bursting them!’” Said his father: “He is teaching about the workings of God’s Creations, and you call that trivial?!” (Talmud Bav’li, Shabbat 82a).
Postscript: The Talmud (Ketuvot 77b) recounts that when it was time for Rabbi Yehoshua ben Ley’vee to journey to Paradise [he went up alive, but that’s a whole other story], he wandered happily about in his newfound world and grew even more joyful upon discovering the late Rabbi Shim’on bar Yo’chai himself, in person, seated with his disciples and expounding deep mysteries of bechizeverchizeveyond the beyond. Rabbi Yehoshua was elated. Wow! What an experience this would be, he thought, to finally be able to sit at the very feet of the great master in person, in the very same realm as he, and without any séance! In that moment, Elijah the Prophet showed up and began shoving people aside to make room for Rabbi Yehoshua ben Ley’vee as he ushered him toward the front. “Make way for Bar Ley’vee!” Elijah shouted as he nudged Rabbi Yehoshua closer and closer to the front where sat Rabbi Shim’on. “Make way for Bar Ley’vee!”
And finally, there he stood, face to face with the revered master himself.
“You are Bar Ley’vee?” asked Rabbi Shim’on.
“I am indeed,” replied Rabbi Yehoshua.
“Tell me, then…have you ever seen a rainbow?”
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Solomon and the Temple of Doom
Tradition has it that the night following Solomon's completion of the First Temple some 3,000 years ago, he married the daughter of the Pharaoh and threw a huge party for both occasions, the completion of the Temple and his marriage to the princess. The wedding party, the ancients tell us, far outdid the party commemorating the completion of the Temple (Midrash Bamid'bar Rabbah 10:4), and that night the Pharaoh's daughter performed no less than three hundred dances (Midrash Vayik'ra Rabbah 12:6). Tradition also has it that during that same night, the archangel Gav'riel descended from the heavens to the Mediterranean Sea, wielding a gigantic reed with which he stirred the sea until land emerged from below the waters, and this became the very soil upon which Rome would later be built (Talmud Bav'li, Shabbat 56b). For the sea is not a place of human habitation. And yet, from what is antithetical to human habitation, the sea, emerged that which is suitable for human habitation, land, through the stirring of a reed, of a plant that grows out of the soil that is covered by the sea. And not just any land, but land which would one day become the site of the Roman Empire, and ultimately the Holy Roman Empire, an entity that would threaten and raze human habitation in general, and the Jewish peoplehood in particular, more than and longer than any other empire in history (see Maharal in Chidushai Aggadot, Vol. 3 [Sanhedrin], folio 130).
Wow. All that just because of a party.
Some Kabbalistic schools believed that Solomon's purpose in marrying women from all of the surrounding cultures, such as Egypt, was to absorb all of their diverse belief systems into the inner sanctum of sacred Jewish practice and cosmology as a way of honoring all of the diverse manifestations of the One God (e.g., 19th-century Rav Mordechai of Ishbitz in Mei Ha'Shilo'ach, Vol. 1 -- Melachim 1; s.v. veha-melekh). So what was the big deal in Solomon throwing a party for his Egyptian bride, that it would karmically seed an entity so severe that it would later exile and oppress his people for more than seventeen centuries? Was it timing? That his wedding coincided with the celebration of the completion of the Holy Temple? Do we really believe in a God capable of being slighted?
The ancient rabbis taught us the following principle: אין מערבין שמחה בשמחה -- "We do not blend one simcha (celebration) with another simcha" (Talmud Bav'li, Mo'ed Katan 9a). In other words, we do not celebrate two Bar or Bat-Mitzvahs at the same time, or two weddings simultaneously. Simply because it diminishes the fullest possible potential of the joy of each, and actually robs each of feeling truly celebrated in their own right as individuals. (Just like we wouldn't schedule two comedians on the same set at the same time unless, of course, they were a duo, like Abbott and Costello, or the Smothers Brothers.) And this principle of not mixing two celebrations together is derived from -- guess who? Solomon!! -- about whom it is written that he organized the celebration following the completion of the Temple in two segments, as is written: "seven days, seven days, fourteen days" (First Kings 8:65), so as not to mix celebrating the dedication of the Temple with celebrating the festival of Sukkot: "For they celebrated the dedication of the altar for seven days, and the festival [of Sukkot] for seven days" (Second Chronicles 7:9).
Okay. This is getting sticky. On the one hand, it is Solomon himself who taught us not to mix two celebrations together. On the other hand, it is Solomon himself who is alleged to have done just that, by having his wedding party the very night after the completion of the Temple! And as a result, the Angel of Karma, Gav'riel, swoops down with an oversized reed and fashions the foundation for the rise of the very empire that would in the end destroy our land, exile our people, and oppress us relentlessly for more than seventeen centuries!!
Okay. Bear with me.
When Solomon prepared to build the Temple in Jerusalem some 3,000 years ago, he sent a request to the Pharaoh of Egypt that he loan him several of his superior artisans to help construct the Temple over a seven-year period. The Pharaoh, wishing to trick the "Wisest Man in the World", consulted his astrologers and asked them to select those architects whom they predicted would die within the year. This they did, and those were the ones selected by the Pharaoh and sent to Solomon. However, Solomon was not to be outsmarted. When the Pharaoh's artisans arrived, Solomon went into a mystical trance and experienced a vision in which he was informed of their imminent fate. Awaking from the trance, Solomon immediately supplied them with burial shrouds and sent them back to Egypt with a note to the Pharaoh that read something like: "I presume you had run out of shrouds for your dead? Well, here they are, both: your dead and their burial shrouds" (Midrash Bamid'bar Rabbah 19:3).
Seven years later, when the Temple was completed, the Pharaoh tried to trick Solomon again, this time through his daughter, whom Solomon married. During their wedding feast, Solomon, overtaken by wine, fell asleep for the night. When he awoke the following morning, he looked up and saw what appeared to be the dark night sky, speckled with millions of stars, and a glowing moon. So he went back to sleep. This kept on happening for several days - he would wake up, see stars glittering in the night sky, presume it was still night, albeit an exceedingly long one, and then go back to sleep. In the interim, Israel had no king. Or at least not one who was awake. What happened was that the Pharaoh's daughter had cleverly draped a large dark cloth over the window adjoining Solomon's bed, skillfully adorned with images of distant stars against the backdrop of a night sky, so that every time Solomon woke up, he would presume it was still night. The ruse was ultimately sabotaged when his mother, Bathsheba, finally barged into his room and woke him up to the truth behind the illusion.
This is the key word: Illusion. This is the inherent quality of the archetypal entity we refer to in Jewish cosmology as Egypt, or in Hebrew: מצריםMitz'ra'yim, a word that implies "narrowness," or מצרmey'tzar. Narrowness is the very essence of illusion, which is basically about veiling the truth, not necessarily by lying, but rather by narrowing the scope of information, narrowing one's awareness of reality, of perspective, of what actually is. Both, the Pharaoh and his daughter attempted to trick Solomon into thinking that what really wasn't, was. Pharaoh wanted to trick Solomon into thinking he was getting a crew of reliable artisans for his seven-year project when what he was really getting was a crew of artisans destined to die during the first year of that seven-year period. His daughter tried to trick Solomon into thinking that it was still night time when it wasn't. Obviously, she was better at it than her dad, and it worked. Centuries earlier, Egypt had tricked the Hebrew clan of Jacob and his sons into leaving Canaan for the more fertile Egyptian region of Goshen, only to eventually turn their descendants into slaves. The Pharaoh in Moses' time repeatedly leads Moses on to believe that he was going to free the Hebrew slaves when actually he had no such intention. The glory of ancient Egyptian culture with its pompous show of beauty and magnificence was an illusion on a grand scale unequalled in any other culture or empire until the rise of the Roman Empire. Rome would continue this obsession with illusion, showing the world its might and glory on magnanimous scales, and boasting a superior culture, while veiling its spiritual and humanitarian bankruptcy. Eventually, it would morph into the Holy Roman Empire, further expanding the illusion with the promise of salvation and divine grace while forcibly narrowing global perceptions of truth and reality to its own confining agenda of supersessionism, an agenda with which it successfully obliterated and replaced hundreds of indigenous cultures around the world with its own.
And so, like Solomon, many awake each morning only to presume that it is still night time and then they go back to sleep, because each time they open their eyes they behold images of stars glittering against the night sky, unaware that they are looking at illusory images imprinted on synthetic fabric blurring their capacity to perceive the reality of daylight outside their windows.
Solomon's noble act of building the Temple to house the sacred Ark of the Covenant and its holy implements - of constructing the "House of God" - posed no less a threat of pulling the wool over our eyes than the trickery of the Pharaoh and his daughter, or the chicanery of religions bent on sneakily converting us, or the distorted data of venomous blogs and prejudicial media. Because the Temple risked creating the illusion that God was static, that Torah was stagnant, and that the path of Judaism was a narrow one-lane one-way street. The Ark, which represented the covenantal relationship of a people and its God was, after all, constructed in the desert, not in the homeland, and designed explicitly to remain always mobile, always fluid, not entrenched. And while the vision of a "House of God" had already been the dream of our people centuries earlier, the intent was never to confine but to liberate, not to narrow our perspective but to expand it. The initial vision, in fact, was that of the ancestor Ya'akov, whose vision quest took place atop a rock (that is today housed in the "Dome of the Rock" in Jerusalem). And, in his very own words, it was supposed to be the stone itself that would become the "House of God" (Genesis 28:22), not some glorious structure. In fact, that Solomon's Temple was completed around the time of Sukkot - when we construct temporary huts -- seems to have been a loud and clear message reminding us not to fall victim to the illusion of there actually being such a thing as "House of God"; that we can neither package nor define God, and that any sacred space we create for the Divine Presence is but an intention, not an action. After all, the wording is, "And they shall make for me a sanctuary" (Exodus 25:8), not "And they shall turn me into a sanctuary."
The climactic completion of the First Temple during the reign of Solomon was a wedding celebration in itself. The people and the Ark of the Covenant now stood beneath the Temple roof and within its walls as a bride and groom would station themselves within the sacred space of a wedding canopy, a chupah. Solomon choosing to also marry the daughter of the Pharaoh that same evening then seemed like a splendid idea in the sense of it being a symbolic ritual in which the representative of the nation, the king, dramatizes on the physical plane what was happening between the nation and its God on the spiritual plane. We are taught throughout the Kabbalah to do this always, that in all our physical actions we ought to intend the unification of Creator with Creation, Spirit with Matter, Sky with Earth, the Masculine with the Feminine (Zohar, Vol. 2, folio 213b). Solomon then correctly abstained from blending the celebration of the sacred festival of Sukkot with the sacred rites of the wedding of heaven and earth, and saw his own wedding to the Pharaoh's daughter as but a microcosmic mirroring of the macrocosmic wedding of the people with its God - not as a rite separate from that of the dedication of the altar.
This was all good.
Except for one glitch.
Perhaps if he would have scheduled his wedding with the Queen of Sheba that night, it would have been a whole other story. But by marrying the daughter of the Pharaoh that same night, he married into the manipulative forces of illusion, of the narrowing of perspective, which, in turn, by its concurrence with the wedding of the people with its God through the dedication of the Temple, tainted that dedication with those very same energies. Moreover, the wedding party of Solomon and his royal Egyptian bride far outdid the party commemorating the completion of the Temple, the "300 dances" of the Pharaoh's daughter metaphorically alluding to the spiraling intensity of the energies of illusion that Egypt represented. Therefore, from the moment the Temple was completed, its downfall was born. That very night, in other words, Rome and what it would symbolize, was conceived, and the Temple of God became the Temple of Doom.
Now, the word of God through the prophet Amos concerning the messianic future becomes that much more clear: ביום ההוא אקים את סכת דויד הנפלת -- "In that day, I shall raise up the fallen Sukkah [transitory hut] of David" (Amos 9:11) - as opposed to the fallen Temple of Solomon. In the end, even Solomon himself admitted that his own renowned wisdom had succumbed to the powers of "illusion", to רעיון רוח-- "thought made of wind" (Ecclesiastes 1:17).
Even "The Ten Commandments" makes more sense to me now:
I am Adonai your God who took you out of the mindset of narrowed awareness, to which you ended up becoming enslaved.
So, first off, try not to fall prey to the illusion that you can put a face on me, or peg me down by reducing me to any image or concept, and then presume that you can relate to me through any of them.
And don't make use of my name to further such illusions or to propagate any like attempts, such as pretending to others that you and I are on a first-name basis.
Six days during the week you can wallow in your delusions and feel like you are in charge of your destiny and master of your achievements. But on the seventh day, get real, and take some time out to realize that all this didn't spring forth from out of thin air and by some cosmic accident.
Rather, honor the fact that you believe with perfect faith that you were created by your father and your mother, and they by their father and mother, all the way up to the first father and mother who in turn were created by me -- and thereby honor also the fact that the rest of your universe, too, was created.
So don't think yourself as some kind of god with the authority to snuff out the life of another.
Or to use them sexually for your own desires.
Or to take from them what is theirs.
Or to form your own illusory perception of them based on untruths.
Or to lust enviably after those with whom they are partnered, or after what they own.
And I might add, as an eleventh commandment:
Always keep your bedroom window clear of any fabric that might give you the illusion that it's night time when it is day, or day time when it is night.
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Festival of Sevens
What a strange festival, this Shavu'ot שבועות thing coming up next week. Literally, it translates as "Sevens". So, basically, it is a celebration of Sevens. Not one Seven, but a bunch of them.
Yes, we know the significance of the number, "7". We have the seven phases of Creation in the Genesis story, and, of course, the seventh day of the week -- the Shabbat -- and during the seventh year the land rests, and then after seven times seven years we have the Jubilee, and there are seven weeks between Passover and Shavu'ot, which literally translates as "Sevens." So that brings us back to Square One: Why Seven? In other words, what is the significance of this number that there were seven cycles or phases of Creation, or that every seventh day is Shabbat, or that there are seven colors in the rainbow, or that our ancestor Jacob had to work seven years to marry Rachel and then later bows seven times as he makes his way toward his brother Esau during their reunion? And what about the seven years it took Solomon to construct the First Temple, or the seven branches of the ancient Menorah, or the seven blessings we recite at wedding ceremonies; or that our ancestors did their rain dance around the altar with willows seven times during the festival of Sukkot, or that we begin our new year in the seventh month, and that there are seven heavens, seven earths (or underworlds), or that three sevens in a row lands you a jackpot in Reno, or that Pharaoh dreamt of seven skinny cows swallowing seven plump cows? And so on... And of course, let's not forget Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs!
So it turns out that the Hebrew word for Seven, שבע sheva, is an offspring of the Hebrew word שבע sa'vey'a - same spelling, with a change of vowels -- which means Sated, as in Satiated, as in Fullness, as in Satisfied, or Complete (16th-century Rabbi Yehudah Loew of Prague [MaHaRaL] in Derech Chayyim, Chapter 5, folio 274). As in: "And you shall eat and sava'ta שבעת-- be satisfied" (Deuteronomy 8:10). The relationship between Seven and Fullness is clearly marked at the very onset of the Torah narrative in her account of Genesis, where Creation achieves completion only after seven phases of unfolding (Genesis 2:2). It is then that God declares "Enough" (Talmud Bav'li, Chagigah 12a) -- implying a sense of completion, of satisfaction - at least for the time being -- as in: "And Elo'heem looked at all that it had made, and behold it was all very good" (Genesis 1:31). In fact, as the Zohar points out (Tikunei Zohar, folio 104a), seven times does the Torah recount the will of God becoming manifest (ויהי כן "And it was so") in the Creation story (Genesis, Chapter One, verses 3, 7, 9, 11, 15, 24 and 30).
Seven is then more than a number; it represents Fullness, and as such it also implies multiplicity, as in a large number (MaHaRaL in Gevurot Hashem, Chapter 46, folio 184), so that the term Seven Days of Creation can just as easily imply
billions of years, as maintained by the 13th-century Rabbi Yitzchak of Acco (Shoshan Yesod Olam).
Shavu'ot is indeed a festival of Sevens, during which we acknowledge all the ways in which we are שבעsa'vey'a-- full, complete, sated. It isn't that there's not much more than what already makes us happy; it is more about celebrating what is in the moment, as opposed to overlooking it in anticipation of yet more to come. For example: I have a delicious-looking red apple sitting in my fruit basket on the table. It looks just fine. Perfect. Ripe. Complete. But I wonder if it could get just a tad more ripe, more red, more perfect... So I wait. A day, two days, maybe three or four, and lo and behold its color darkens to a deeper red. But of course, as I now bite into it, it has become soft, grainy, starchy, and has lost its crisp, juicy flavor and texture, because I didn't eat it when it was complete enough; I tarried in anticipation of it becoming more than it was in the moment. I didn't know when to declare "Enough." Shavu'ot reminds me to seize the blessings in my life as they come to me, and not to dismiss them as insufficient, and then wait around for perhaps a later model, a better version. The new and improved i-Phone 50 will come one day, but if I wait around for it without partaking of i-Phone 4, for example, I will be without a phone altogether for at least a year.
It reminds me of an old Jewish parable:
Once there was a dog who heard that there were two weddings going on, one nearby and one a couple miles away. Salivating at the thought of meat-strewn bones and discarded fat, the dog decided to bee-line it first to the distant reception and then later he would head for the one nearby. His logic was simple and sensible: If he were to gorge himself at the nearby party, by the time he would finish gnawing and only then head all the way out to the distant one, the distant wedding reception would be all done and there would be no leftovers remaining. So, best to go first to the distant one.
Extremely proud of his decision, the dog ran first to the far-away wedding reception -- but alas, it was so far away that by the time he got there, it was over and everything had been cleaned up. Hungry, he dashed back all the way to the "nearby" reception -- but alas, by the time he arrived, it was all over and done, and not a scrap remained. Bottom line, he benefited from neither the one nor the other and ended up with nothing (Sefer Ben Melech V'Ha'Nazir).
In hindsight, of course, had the dog simply focused on eating, and settled for the wedding reception at hand, rather than go for both, he would have had a feast -- perhaps not everything that he wanted, or that was available, but definitely a mouthful. Like the ancient rabbis put it: "Grab for a lot and you come away with nothing at all; grab but for a little, and you will at least come away with something" (Talmud Bav'li, Yoma 80a).
This is why Shavu'ot is also referred to in the Torah as the "Day of the First Fruits" (Numbers 28:26), reminding us to appreciate the first gift that comes our way, rather than let it pass by in the hope that something even better will come along. Indeed it may, but the First Fruit gift is sacred in itself, precious in its own right, and could be the most important corner stone, so to speak, upon which further blessing will become manifest. As King David put it some 3,000 years ago: "The stone which the builders have neglected, ultimately became the chief corner stone" (Psalms 118:22). Or, as the ancient rabbis put it: "Before you implore God for what you need, first thank God for what you have" (Talmud Bav'li, Berachot 30b).
It is no wonder, then, that we have this strange custom on Shavu'ot of specifically feasting on dairy products, foods derived from milk, since milk is the First Gift we experienced when we first arrived on the planet - namely, the milk of our mothers (or in some cases, Similac). Breast milk was all we needed to feel full, to complete our creation, to feel sated and happy. First Gift alone sufficed for us. And so, on Shavu'ot, which reminds us to celebrate Sevens in all of the ways in which we have been Seven'd in our lives, we feast on milk, on First Gift, on what made us feel full and sated when we first arrived, while we thank God for the first fruits blossoming in our orchards -- as is.
When we celebrate Shavu'ot in this very basic, fundamental way, we are more able to celebrate as well its commemoration of the Revelation at Sinai and the beginning of the receiving of the Torah; how as a nation we suckled at God's breast - Mount Sinai - to receive the satiating nourishment of Torah as a very potent form of First Gift. As the eleventh-century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki [Rashi] taught: "It is written, 'Her breasts will satisfy you each time' (Proverbs 15:19)- this means that just like a suckling child will find fresh flavor each time the child nurses at the breast, so, too, will one who pores over the teachings of the Torah" (Rashi on Ecclesiastes 1:9).
The 3,000 of us who then went on to construct the Golden Calf represented those of us who were unsatisfied with what we experienced at Sinai and wanted more and more and more, unable or unwilling to recognize First Gift when they saw it. In essence, they demanded more of God than God had chosen to reveal of itself, akin to relationship partners demanding of one another for more than is comfortable for either to reveal of themselves, or to gift of themselves, ultimately leading to abuse.
On Shavu'ot we declare "Enough." We step back from the urgency of More, and celebrate what Is. We look without judgment and measurement at all that we have striven for and all that we have attained, and celebrate their preciousness, cherish the blessing of it all, and herald them as First Gift. After all, Shavu'ot is the only festival ordained by the Torah that is essentially one day only, not two, not seven, not eight; but one. "And before the One, what can you count?" (Sefer Yetzirah 3:7), for it is about "Enoughing", being sated with one phase at a time, one blessing at a time. And in the merit of our capacity to do this, may we build foundations thereby -- corner stones -- upon which further Divine Blessing may alight if so willed by the one by whose will we exist.
So, Seven. More than a lucky number.
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1. PORK, INCEST, AND MESSIAHS
A Post-Purim Purim Teaching
Listen. At the end of times, when all of Genesis will vanish into the Great Black Hole of Nemesis, when a whole new world is destined to emerge free of strife, absent of evil, and replete with Divine bliss, a lot of things are going to change: pork will be kosher, and what was ritually forbidden will be permitted (Midrash Tehilim 146:4), and all those who were rendered ritually impure will be rendered ritually pure, and all those who had been declared of illegitimate birth will be declared legitimate (Talmud Yerushalmi, Kidushin 41b), and all of the commandments of the Torah will be abolished (Talmud Bav’li, Nidah 61b), and all the holidays will be eliminated -- except for one: Purim (Midrash Mishlei 9:2).
The question arises: why will pork be considered kosher when we won’t be eating meat anymore, and therefore the concept of kosher will be moot altogether? After all, pork becoming kosher is irrelevant in an age when the wolf will lay with the lamb, and the panther will frolic with the goat, and the young lion with the calf, and the bear will graze with the cow, and the lion will nibble on straw like the cattle (Isaiah 11:6-7). If they’re not going to eat flesh anymore, then certainly neither are we, because no one will hurt or kill anymore, and death shall be extinct, altogether (Isaiah 25:8).
Secondly, if all the commandments in the Torah will be abolished, then of course so will all the holy days. Why, then, also state that the holidays will be eliminated? And if the holidays will be eliminated, why are we gonna get stuck with an eternity of Purim?!
The answer goes something like this:
Pork and Purim are both about outside appearances. The reason pig is not kosher has nothing to do with trichinosis or with its filthy, yucky wallowing habits; for that matter, cattle and sheep are no better. It has to do with the fact that they are indeed kosher on the outside, endowed with rabbinically-approved split hooves just like cows and sheep. Problem is, that on the inside they differ from the permissible bovines by the absence of two stomachs; they don’t chew their cud. So, basically, kosher on the outside, treyf (non-kosher) on the inside. We don’t eat them so that we don’t ingest the conduct of “one way in the mouth, one way in the heart” (Talmud Bav’li, Pesachim 118b) – known more popularly as “hypocrisy”, and sometimes “deception.”
Purim, too, is about outside appearances. On the outside everything about the Purim story appears all kosher, the uncanny sequences of coincidental events that lead to the miraculous last-minute rescue of the Jewish people from annihilation by what is so obviously divine intervention. On the inside, however, it’s all treyf. A nice Jewish woman married off to a harsh, idolatrous non-Jewish king; a Jewish leader refusing to pay his respects to the prime minister of his host country, resulting in the threat of genocide against his people. I mean, think about it. Esther becomes queen, in a position to rescue her people from the evil decree that Haman enacted in reaction to Mordechai’s refusal to bow to him. And even though the no-bowing incident and the resulting decree happened after Esther became queen, Mordechai had the chutzpah to suggest to her that her becoming queen was possibly to avert the disaster brought about by his action after she was already the queen! (Esther 4:14). So it’s all wrong on the inside; Kosher on the outside, Treyf on the inside. Like the pig.
In the time to come, however, only Purim will become relevant of all our holidays, and pork will be kosher. Not that we will therefore eat pork, but that it will be kosher; not that we will therefore read the Megillah all day and night, but it will be an eternity of Purim – meaning, it will be revealed to us how all that we judged as wrong and un-kosher and impure and illegitimate, was actually okay, actually congruent with the larger picture of the scheme of things. And all that we had presumed made absolutely no sense whatsoever and/or was void of any meaningfulness will be revealed as the most meaningful and most sensible. Everything will be turned on its head (Esther 9:1). The world as we then will know it will be contrary to the way we know it now (Talmud Bav'li, Pesachim 50a). We can't see it in this moment. Not yet. We are still hoity-toity know-it-alls who render judgments about everything that goes on in the world. We are still in the realm of self-proclaimed “mayvens” who know better than God and who claim to be more compassionate and social actions conscious than God -- even though we're only visitors for the weekend, for a speck of a smidgen of a smidgen of a speck of time against the vast backdrop of billions of years. Yes, in the time to come, beyond the time we know, so much of what we have deemed immoral and for which immorality we have so severely judged others, will be deemed no more immoral than eating a raisin. This is the audacity of Judaism, an ancient tradition of defiance, defiance of the way in which you and I are bred to think of right and wrong.
Are you dizzy yet? Good. Let’s delve a bit deeper, if you dare: Did you know that by Jewish law, a woman can choose to marry her brother or father, and a man his mother or sister, if all parties were at first not Jewish and then later converted into Judaism? The reasoning is quite clear: since conversion nullifies one’s past, and one becomes thereby ritually and spiritually born anew, it nullifies as well one’s kinship with one’s previous relatives. When a non-Jew becomes a Jew, in other words, she or he is no longer related to their original blood relatives in any form or manner, and therefore the taboo of incest is automatically lifted in regards to their previous relatives. The only reason it is forbidden, nonetheless, is because otherwise people outside of Judaism would make a negative judgment about us and proclaim: “See this one? By joining the Jewish people, he went from a higher standard of morality into a lower standard of morality” (Talmud Bav’li, Yevamot 22a; Maimonides in Mishnah Torah, Hilchot Issurei Bi’ah 14:12). People just won’t get it, so we don’t do it.
Now you understand why the Holy Jewish Messiah, who is supposed to usher in the times to come, will be descended not from a holy all-Jewish, highly moral lineage but from a yukky, p’too’ey, immoral union of a daughter with her father, and from a people considered so wicked that they were not permitted to join the Jewish people even as converts! The lineage of David, you see, from whom our Messiah will emerge one day, filters through a non-Jewish Moabite woman, Ruth. The Moabites were forbidden from joining our people because they refused us passage, let alone food and water, when we wandered in the desert (Deuteronomy 23:4). Not only that, but Ruth was a direct descendant of Moab himself, who in turn was born of the incestuous union of Lot and his eldest daughter. It doesn’t get any better when the lineage continues through David who has an affair with Bathsheba during her marriage to Uriah and then sends Uriah to a sure death to avoid scandal after Bathsheba becomes pregnant with David’s child, etc., etc., etc. And of all the children of David’s wives and lovers, through whom does the Messianic lineage continue? Through Solomon, the offspring of David’s union with Bathsheba!! In other words, the one who comes to purify the impure and eradicate wickedness and dissipate immorality will have come from the loins of impurity and wickedness and immorality.
Are you getting the deeper mystery of Gragger Time? Of Purim? Stomping our feet and making noises when we hear the name Haman mentioned during the Megilah reading is indeed fun, and it is also a deliberate, sanctioned irreverent interruption of the ritual reading of a very sacred Scripture, which would otherwise be strictly forbidden, let alone sacrilegious. Moreover, the ancient rabbis taught us, from the loins of Haman, that wicked evil villain who plotted the total annihilation of the Jewish people some 2500 years ago, emerged great rabbis – RABBIS!! – who taught Torah in Israel! (Talmud Bav’li, Sanhedrin 96b). In other words, somewhere along the lines of his lineage some of his descendants converted to Judaism and were reckoned amongst our greatest Torah masters.
RESPONSE These were common practices in Egypt and surrounding
cultures, which aim was not only ritual but more selfishly to keep
property within the family clan (Margaret Murray in The Splendor That
Was Egypt [Hawthorn, NY: 1963], pp. 100-101; and Robert Briffault in The
Mothers [Macmillan, NY:1927] Volume 3, page 17...et al).
I mean, that’s like saying that descendants of Hitler became great Torah sages in Brooklyn! This is how far Judaism will take it. As is written in the Book of Jo’b: “Who can give forth purity from impurity, if not the One?” (Job 14:4).
To understand all this, we need to understand that Judaism does not believe in a human-like deity, but in a God who sees both sides of everything and who is not influenced by our feeble, mortal, often-twisted sense of what is right and wrong, and of what is moral and immoral. “For my thoughts are not [like] your thoughts,” God reportedly told Isaiah in a rare interview, “and your ways are not [like] my ways…. As the height of the Heavens from the Earth, that is how high my ways are from your ways, and my thoughts from your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9). God sees beyond our finite vision and perspectives and judgments, and recognizes the purity within the impurity, the good within the evil, the light within the darkness, the darkness within the light, the impurity within the purity, the evil within the good, and so on. We look at appearances; God looks at contexts.
We see yukky, p’too’ey, immoral incest in the incident of Lot and his daughters. God sees two women who innocently presume that the entire world has been destroyed after what they witnessed had happened to Sodom and Amorah. God saw two sisters who felt that it was their responsibility to replenish what they thought was a decimated humanity, and so they got their father drunk and had him impregnate them (Genesis 19:31). Because of where their hearts were at, it was not immoral incest in the eyes of God, only in the self-righteous, judgmental eyes of humans. In the eyes of God, the act of Lot’s older daughter setting the example for her younger sister by going at it first (Genesis 19:33) earned her four generations of kings, and eventually Ruth, from whom will emerge the Messiah. And the act of one of her descendants, Balak, King of Moab, made him worthy of the Messianic lineage through Ruth. What did Balak do to merit so holy a lineage on behalf of the Jewish people? On behalf of his sworn enemy? Why from him, and not from any of the other descendants of Lot’s oldest daughter? Because he devotedly and sincerely offered up 42 sacrifices to God in the hope that God would destroy the Jewish people! And for this he was rewarded with becoming the ancestor of Ruth, from whom would come King David, King Solomon, and eventually, one day, the Messiah, who will put an end once and for all to any further attempts or desires to destroy the Jewish people. Why would God reward Balak for making offerings with the hope of destroying us? Because, again, God looked into the heart, not the intent. In Balak’s heart, he was simply acting out of fear, having heard that the Israelites had overcome nations who stood in their path, not realizing that those wars were wars of self-defense inflicted only when we were attacked. Like his ancestress, he made an erroneous assumption about the situation at hand, but his action was pure, albeit naive. And God does not overlook the good, even when it is cloaked in bad (Talmud Bav’li, Ho’rayot 10b-11a).
In fact, Judaism’s answer to how the world became populated out of Adam and Eve when there were no other people around for their sons and daughters to marry, is simple: sisters married brothers (Talmud Bav’li, Sanhedrin 58b). I mean, could God not have created a second couple, so that this would not be necessary? And if we Jews made up this whole mythology of Adam and Eve, could we not have added another couple in the story so there wouldn’t have to be incest in order for the world to become populated?
I can feel it now, in my bones. Some of you are becoming nauseated by all this and are either going to look for a more decent, politically and morally correct religion to convert to, or remove your name from our mailing list, or both. This is fine. It would be for me the fulfillment of my teacher’s admonishment: “If you do not end up alienating some of the people some of the time, then you will not have deserved your ordination!”
And others of you will brave the theological storm of this rich tradition and illuminate your souls with a Truth that will indeed set you free inside and out to think beyond the box. Don’t get me wrong. Incest is not a good thing, especially if it is forced. For that matter, neither is any sexual intimacy if it is forced, including marital (Talmud Bav’li, Eruvin 100b; Maimonides in Mishnah Torah, Hil’chot Issuray Bi’ah 21:12; Shulchan Aruch, Evan Ha’Ezer 25:2-10). Yet, what Cain and Abel did in marrying their sisters, and what Lot’s daughters did in getting their dad to impregnate them, was not wrong. What the Jewish community did 3100 years ago in letting Ruth the Moabite join the Jewish peoplehood was not wrong. What Mordechai did in refusing to bow to Haman, even at the risk of his life and the life of every Jew in the then Persian Empire, was not wrong. Nor was Esther’s union with the king. It was all as perfect as can be.
Now hear this: This entire teaching was inspired by a great sagely woman whose lesson is highlighted in the Talmud. Some of you might remember her as the wife of Rabbi Nachmon bar Yitzchak (3rd century) who flew into a rage and smashed four hundred wine barrels to smithereens (Yalta did) in reaction to a chauvinistic comment made by a colleague of her husband (Talmud Bav’li, Berachot 51b). Others of you might remember her for her less violent outbursts, such as her brazen eye-opening teachings about the paradoxical, multi-dimensional nature of God and Torah.
And I quote – from Talmud Bav’li, Chulin, folio 109b:
Yalta said to [her husband] Rabbi Nachmon [bar Yitzchak], “Let us examine. Everything that the Torah forbids, the Torah also permits, depending on context. The Torah forbids the consumption of blood, but permits the consumption of liver [which is impossible to drain completely of blood]. The Torah considers menstrual blood [which issues from the womb] as ritually impure, but considers birth blood [which too issues from the womb] as ritually pure. The Torah forbids the consumption of the stomach fat of a behey’mah [a ritually pure kosher animal such as a cow or goat] but permits the consumption of the stomach fat of a chayyah [a ritually impure kosher animal such as a deer]. The Torah forbids the flesh of a swine, and in compensation permits the brain of a mullet [which tastes like pork meat]. The Torah forbids us from eating a gey’ruta [a species of marsh bird] but permits us the tongue of the kav’ra [a species of fish whose tongue tastes like the flesh of the forbidden bird]. The Torah forbids a man from marrying the wife of another man, and permits him to marry the divorced wife of another man during the life of her [ex] husband. The Torah forbids a man from marrying the [divorced] wife of his brother, yet he becomes automatically married to his brother’s wife if she is widowed [what is known as levirate marriage, or yee’vum]. The Torah forbids a Jewish man from marrying a woman of the Seven Canaanite Nations, yet he is permitted to marry a ye’faht to’ar [a woman of those very seven nations whom he has captured in battle]. But what would be comparable with the Torah’s prohibition against cooking milk in flesh?” Her husband then called for the butcher, and said: “Inflate an udder and roast it for her” [the udder of a cow has both flesh and milk and was permitted for consumption by some (Talmud Bav’li, Chulin 110a)].
It is nice of Yalta’s husband to order her a roasted udder in response to her riddle, but it is clear that her intent was not to satiate a particular hunger for a permissible dairy and meat dish but to provide us with some prime examples of a very fundamental principle of the Torah, and of Jewish law in general: Context. There is inherently neither Good nor Evil, Kosher nor Treyf, in each their own right. They hinge on Context. Whether they are one or the other is defined not by the action in which they become dramatized or manifested, but by the context in which they occur. Context. Context, context, context.
We will not be eating flesh in the Times to Come, yet it is important to note that pork will be kosher, meaning that the context in which pork was treyf, will be altered so that pork will be kosher. Because there will then be no more “feeling one way, and acting another way.”
We will not be celebrating holidays in the Times to Come, yet it is important to note that Purim will remain, meaning that the context in which we were given the holidays to celebrate will change, and that is what Purim symbolizes: the shifting of context. So Purim will not be celebrated, either. It will just be Purim all the time.
We will not be performing the mitzvot of the Torah in the Times to Come, because the context in which the mitzvot operate and are meaningful will change, and we will not need external rituals to bring us to the experience of connectivity with the Divine for which they were intended since we will then already be connected with the Divine.
What Mordechai did, refusing to honor Haman and thereby endangering his people, was correct within its context. In some other context, it would have been wrong. His people were rapidly assimilating from the recent trauma of having been ousted from their ancestral homeland and forced into exile. The flame of the Jewish soul was slowly flickering to extinction. To set the example of bowing to Haman, whose agenda was transform all to his ways (Esther 3:8), would have been the final blow for us, and we would have ended up in the local museum like myriad other ancient peoples who once existed a long long time ago. His action was no more risqué than that of the 2nd century Rabbi Akiva, who was slowly scraped to death by the Romans for violating Hadrian’s decree against teaching Torah. There was no halachic imperative for Akiva to risk his life like that. But it is about context. Without Torah, the Jewish people would vanish. As Akiva himself put it: “One day, Fox was meandering along the banks of a river when he spotted some fish. Said Fox to the fish: ‘Why don’t you come ashore and I will hide you amongst the rocks so that the fishermen will not find you? You’ll be much safer here.’ Replied the fish: ‘You are supposed to be the wisest of all animals? You are nothing but a fool! Our only source of survival is water, and you’re advising us to come up onto dry land?’ Likewise is Israel’s sole means of survival the Torah” (Midrash Tanchuma, Ki Tavo, Ch. 4).
When Esther became queen, Mordechai sensed the beginnings of divine intervention in the tragedy of assimilation, but at the time did not know exactly what specific role his niece would end up playing to save the Jewish nation from spiritual obliteration. Once it became evident that she wielded the power to rescue the Jewish people from physical annihilation, it was then that he encouraged her with the words: “Who knows if it was for this situation that you achieved the station of royalty?” (Esther 4:14). And in the end, the result was not only the redemption of the people from physical extinction, but also from spiritual extinction as “the Jews accepted it upon themselves and upon their children and observed it” (Esther 9:27). The ancient rabbis tell us that this implied a re-commitment of the people to the study and observance of Torah, a commitment that had gotten lost in the trauma of destruction and exile. “Said Rava (4th century): ‘If they accepted, why also recount that they observed? Obviously, the implication here is that they observed what they had already long ago accepted at Sinai” (Talmud Bav’li, Shabbat 88a).
And as for the Messiah. Of course he has to descend from all that is wrong – albeit, wrong in appearance, correct in context, because that is the very nature of the age the Messiah is supposed to introduce, an age in which everything is seen in context, not in appearances. And that is why we masquerade on Purim, to remember that appearances deceive, and not everything is what it seems all the time; to prepare us for the Eternal Purim, when context overrides appearances. In the meantime, however, Purim in our own lifetime, in the here-and-now, is a friendly reminder to avoid the inclination toward judging the actions of others by how those actions appear to us, seem to us, and instead remember to examine their context as well. Solomon was of the union of David and Bathsheba, but born within a context wholly different from the one in which David had committed his great wrong. Solomon was born after David had confessed his guilt publicly to the people and to God, and transformed himself, altered the context of his relationship with Bathsheba.
Why share all this now? A week after Purim? To drive home the point that Purim is an everyday affair, a daily challenge to all of us to see and experience life and each other above and beyond the ways in which we are accustomed to seeing and experiencing life and each other. We need not wait for the Messiah before establishing Purim as our eternal holiday. After all, Purim is more than a holiday. It is a state of consciousness.
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A Passover Teaching
On Passover, we eat Matzoh. Wow. What a religion. And we read the Maxwell House Coffee Haggadah. And we drink four goblets of wine. And we eat some greens dipped in salt water, and some horseradish root. And chew on a shank bone of sorts, reminiscent of the roasted lamb feast we were instructed to celebrate before we left Egypt some 3,300 years ago. So, Matzah, Greens, Bone, Root, and Wine. And hard-boiled eggs. This is the entire Seder meal. All the other stuff, like tzimmes, matzoh-balls, chicken soup, brisket, etc. have nothing to do with the original Passover rites upon which the Seder is based other than making sure you don't leave the table after choking on the horseradish root and seek conversion to an easier religion.
But there is meaning to the madness, and it has more to do with what we are not supposed to eat during Passover than with what we are supposed to eat during Passover. Because what we are supposed to eat on Passover, is Matzoh. And it is only obligated the first night (Talmud Bav'li, Sukah 46a). The rest of Passover there is no rule that says you have to eat Matzoh. Only, you can't eat bread, or other foods that have undergone the enrichment process of fermentation or leavening. We call these foods cha'metz. And while we are supposed to eat Matzoh at least once on Passover, we can't eat cha'metz all of Passover (Exodus 12:15 and 19). So, obviously one of the key lessons of Passover is encoded more in cha'metz, which is forbidden all seven days of Passover, than in Matzoh, which is only required one day out of the seven days of Passover.
What exactly is cha'metz about?
It's about forgetting. Bread makes you forget the wheat it once was, and the earth from which it emerged. Having undergone numerous phases of evolution from wheat to grain to dough to bread, the final product looks nothing like its root self, its original form and substance, and has morphed into a substance so far removed from its essence that its essence is all but forgotten. Likewise with many forms of leavened or fermented products. But we pick on bread and the like since it is considered - or once was considered - "the staff of life." And Passover is about restoring awareness of our root self, our essential self, the realization of which finally moved our ancestors to cry out in pain over their enslavement after having been enslaved for 210 years! To quote Tevye of Fiddler on the Roof fame: "They are so happy, they don't know how miserable they are." Sometimes we are so thickly tangled in the outer trimmings of our lives, the relentless barrage of external stimuli, demands and challenges that we "forget" our essential selves, the root purpose or meaning of being alive. And so, along comes Passover to remind us seven days a year to make it a practice every day of the year of trimming away the excess fluff that numbs us or blinds us or distracts us from the essence of our lives. We eat bread minus the fluff, reducing it to its most base ingredients: flour and water. We eat the lamb down to the bone, down to the essence, leaving nothing left over (Exodus 12:10), as symbolized by the shank bone on the Seder Plate. We eat the horseradish root to awaken within us our own root selves and the root selves of others, reminding ourselves of their essence, the core parts of them that we have forgotten over the course of the year, swept under the rugs of daily routine and humdrum and stress and struggle and judgment. And the egg, too, helps to bring us back a little to our mortal selves, evolved from the stubborn, albeit successful pursuit of a microscopic sperm after a reluctant egg. And the greens, to remind us how all the texture, color and fragrance of the earth's vegetation are but the earth's décor, her adornments, her external expression, not her essential self. Her essential self is best dramatized by the barren desert into which we journeyed following our first Passover Seder three millennia ago, having prepared ourselves with foods that are all about reminding us not to forget. Not to forget Essence.
Worn down to our core by years of oppressive slavery, we finally encountered our self-truth, our "I Am", our worthiness as humans and the stark contrast of our subjection to others. It was only then that we cried out, and only then that God -- seeing that we were finally ready -- set the stage for our liberation. No wonder, when Moses asked God, "What will I tell them if they ask me what your name is," that God's response was: "Tell them 'I Am sent me'" (Exodus 3:14) - for that was the password, the name or attribute of the divine that the people would respond to in their new paradigm of Root Awareness.
And, of course, wine. Four cups of it. Because wine gently brings you back to your core self, absent all of your hoity-toity external masks and inhibitions. As the ancient rabbis put it: "When wine goes in, secrets come out" (Talmud Bav'li, Eruvin 65a).
Passover, then, is a holiday dedicated to not forgetting, to remembering who we are deep deep down at our core, and seeing one another in that way not only looking at each other's outer trimmings and appearances. We should have learned this already from the previous holiday of Purim, not to judge people or situations by outward their appearances, by what or how
This is also why we Jews do not eat the sciatic nerve of even the most kosher of animals. Because our ancestor Jacob was afflicted on that very spot, his sciatica, by the angel with whom he wrestled the night before his encounter with his brother Esau (Genesis 32:26) whom he had fled in fear for his life for more than two decades. You see, the sciatica is called na'sheh in Hebrew. Na'sheh, the Zohar reminds us, is related to the name of the fifth underworld, Ne'shee'yah, whose attribute is about "forgetfulness (Hashmatot HaZohar, folio 253b). And that is exactly the term Joseph uses when he names his firstborn Menasheh, "For God has nee'sha'nee -- caused me to forget -- all of my strivings" (Genesis 41:51).
When we walk, we walk by the support of the na'sheh, the sciatic nerve, the place of "forgetfulness". Why is it the place of "forgetfulness"? Because, when we adopt a specific pattern in our life walk, we adopt a corresponding stride and walk in forgetfulness of what was. Jacob had developed a specific pattern in his life walk that was a stride based on denial of the unresolved conflict between himself and his brother. When the angel struck his sciatic nerve, his na'sheh, Jacob was in that moment struck in his forgetfulness place, thus thrown off his pattern, derailed from the stride of denial that had served his life walk until then, and made to remember his core self and his core connection with his twin. And as a result, his walk now became
different than before, and he "limped" (Genesis 32:32), meaning he did not walk again as he had before, and was blessed with a new name that honored his newfound power and paradigm: Yisra'el - "For you grappled with both, God (through the angel) and men (your essential self and all the inner demons and shadows you concocted in your paranoia), and you succeeded" (Genesis 32:29).
And so we do not eat the na'sheh nerve, because we do not wish to ingest that which causes us to forget what is core.
Passover is about that. It is about removing the impeding factors that block us from remembering what is important, what is our priority, what is basic, and so we strip the layers of cha'metz, of the otherwise kosher but often excess fluff that separates us from what is core and basic and elemental, so that we might remember what we have forgotten about ourselves, about others, about life, and about our earth.
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3. LOVE, FRUSTRATION, AND BARLEY:
IMPORTANT LESSONS BEHIND THE “O’MER” RITUAL
The seven-week period between Passover and Shavu’ot, is known as Sefirat Ha’Omer, or “the counting of the Omer,” reminiscent of the ancient 49-day ritual of the barley offering we once practiced as we counted the days between the onset of Spring and the advent of Summer -- between the holiday of Passover and the festival of Shavuot (Leviticus 23:11) -- between the time we wiggled our way out of the chains of bondage in Egypt to the time we received the Torah in what is now Saudi Arabia. O’mer means sheaf, as in a sheaf of barley, the first growth of Spring.
What exactly was the ritual of the sheaf offering? They would reap the first Spring growth of barley and gather the sheaves in baskets that they would then bring to the Temple Court. There they would singe the barley in such a way that the fire would reach all the grains. Then the smoking barley was spread across the floor of the Temple Court to be cooled off by the wind. Once the grasses were cooled, they would grind the barley so that the grain was separated from the husks. From the grain, they would then measure a tenth of an ephah of flour (approximately 35 liters) which was in turn sifted through thirteen filters before it was finally offered up on the altar (Talmud Bavli, Pesachim 10b).
What is the ritual of the barley offering? One waves the barley shoots in its season, first forward, then back, to ward off severe winds; then toward the sky, and then toward the earth to ward off severe rains. Others add: First inward and outward to the One to whom belongs all of the universe, then upward and downward to the One to whom belongs both the Upper Realms and the Lower Realms. Rabbi Shimon bar Lakish remarked: “Let not the ritual of the O’mer be a light thing in your eyes, for it is through this ritual that God promotes harmony between a man and a woman” (Midrash Pesikta D’Rav Kahana 8:5 [Pis'ka Chet, Ha'Omer, para. 11]).
Fascinating. Lift up a handful of barley and wave it forward and backward, then up and down, and not only will you ward off severe winds and rains, but you will also improve your relationship with your partner. Wow. What a religion.
And of all things: Barley! You’d think, maybe a pomegranate, or a handful of chocolate-covered peanuts. But barley? What is this obsession with barley? Forty-nine days of barley is enough to ward off anything, including an appetite for barley.
Listen to this one: “If one dreams of barley, it is a sign that one’s sins have been forgiven. Rabbi Zeyra longed so much to leave Babylon and relocate to the Land of Israel, but he refrained from doing so until he dreamed of barley” (Talmud Bavli, Berachot 57a). And finally: “When the jar is empty of barley, conflict comes knocking on your door” (Talmud Bavli, Baba Metzia 59a).
So, here is the deeper understanding about barley.
Barley represents First Love. When Jeremiah the Prophet interviewed God on an ancient rendition of “In-Treatment”, he asked what it was that touched God the most about God’s relationship with the Jews. The reply: “I remember the love of your youth, our first date, when we first fell in love, when you threw all caution to the wind and followed me into the wilderness, into a place of no promise, no potential, no seed. [I remember when your love was unconditional, hinging on nothing but the purity of what you felt for me and I for you. When there was nothing between us but innocent trust]” (Jeremiah 2:2). Jeremiah jotted some notes on the clipboard and then inquired: “You mention all this ‘innocent love’ you felt from us and toward us. What do you mean by this?” God took in a deep breath and let out a Tsunami that wiped out four hotels in the Caribbean, and said: “The best way I can put it, is that it was like a First Love, a Genesis, absent anything that ever was. Sort of like the first growth of Spring, the first yield of the earth in Spring: so precious, so magical, so marvelous, that if anyone were to interfere with it -- pow! To the moon!!” (Jeremiah 2:3).
These two passages in the sacred writ of the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah says it all. The first yield of the earth is like the first love you’ve ever experienced. Not your first boyfriend or girlfriend, not your first romance, but your first love, meaning the first time you actually felt like, wow! — this is the real thing, and nothing can be more real.
Barley. Your first date. Your first love. The first move of earth in her romance with sky, responding to the rains of winter, reaching for the sky in total faith, in total innocence and trust, after which all else follows suit and emerges. Barley dared to venture forth out of the earth of winter. And seeing that barley took a chance of emerging into the unknown, grass followed, then wheat, then oats, then alfalfa, then little budding leaves peered hesitatingly from the tips of twigs, saw that it was okay to take a chance and respond to the call of sky, to the impregnation of rain, to the love of Creator for Creation. And every single day, every single phase of that season of new beginnings, of fresh unfolding of Spring, we celebrated at the Temple Court with sheaves of barley, offerings of First Love. And we sent her message outward to the world, inward to our selves, up toward the heavens, down toward the earth, shoo’ing away any harsh winds or rains that would come between us, that would try to stunt the magical emergence of fresh love, of renewed creation. And then we went home to our partners and didn’t see them the same old way we had gotten used to seeing them. We saw them anew and remembered the love of our youth, our first love that we felt with them. And we built on that, every day, counting each phase of its unfolding for seven weeks until we could feel ourselves standing at the foot of Mount Sinai marrying our earthly love to our spiritual love, our earthly partnership to our heavenly partnership. And yes, of course your sins are forgotten when you dream of barley, because you have become so completely transformed, you have emerged from the constraints of Egypt, the constraints of Winter, and there is nowhere else to go now but toward full blooming and total blossoming. And if you have been hesitating to leave Babylon for Israel, the barley in your dream shook you out of your stupor and moved you out of the hardened wood of twig into the soft, lush, color and fragrance of leaf.
Sift your barley thoroughly. Thirteen times at least. Thirteen, corresponding to the thirteen attributes of God’s compassion, the compassion that created this life to begin with -- your life. As is written at the very beginning of the Book of Genesis (my translation): “In First Gift, emerging from within Primordial Thought, the nameless unknowable mystery manifested of itself Many Forces who then created the fire-waters (sky) and the coalescence (earth).”
After all, Creation was the First Gift. And still is. And to remind us of this, we celebrate with the first gift of Spring: Barley.
But remember: Never ever let your barley run out. Ever.
Spring is a season when we actually experience visually, audibly,aromatically, sensually, the gradual unfolding, the gradual stage-by-stage evolution of potential to fruition as dramatized by what we glibly refer to as “Nature.”
With the annual changes in the seasons of various plants of the earth and their time of fruition, there is born also changes in the soul of all creatures. Thus, living creatures born in one particular year are not akin to living creatures born in a different year. (12th-century Rabbi Avraham ibn Daud on Sefer Yetsirah, 3:4)
And so, during this period, from the onset of Spring to the onset of Summer, it is ancient Jewish tradition to ritually count each day, to ritually pay attention to and appreciate the magic of each phase of this wondrous unfolding that is happening outside our windows and inside our hearts. The lesson around the rite of “the Counting of the O’mer” is that the struggles we engage in the course of reaching for our dreams and hopes are worthy of acknowledgment no less than the actual, eventual realization of those dreams and hopes. For without the one there is not the other. Too often we focus exclusively on the objectives, reacting to the failure of its immediacy with frustration and impatience. One wonders if the apple seed, too, experiences this frustration and sense of dashed hopes as it grows first into a wooden stick that in no way resembles the apple it was promised it would become.
The course of our journey frequently does not so much as hint to the successful fruition of our intent. More often than not, the way to what we desire is riddled with every conceivable indication that what we want is not what we will get. The period between the advent of Spring and that of Summer -- between the genesis of primal budding and the genesis of full blossoming, between Passover and Shavuot -- is therefore a sacred period during which we can learn patience as well as faith in the process. And lest we forget this lesson in trust, the Hebrew ancestors would during this period of unfolding bring daily offerings of barley, a produce that was already actualized at the beginning of Spring, to remind the people that the end result of their endeavors is already available, concealed within the mystery of the process yet in motion.
We need to remember to stay attuned to the changes of our seasons, and to internalize their vital life lessons. Ritually or not, we need to count each day and make each day count; each moment. For every single phase of our budding in life is precious, is an achievement all in itself, whether we find ourselves in the phase of the seed, the root, the trunk, the branch, the twig, or the leaf. While the apple may be more celebrated than its earlier phase as leaf or twig or branch, the ritual of counting each day during the interval between spring and summer reminds us that every stage that led from seed to apple deserves acknowledgment as well.
This important lesson behind the Counting of the O’mer, is alluded to by the popular song in the Hagadah: Dayenu. In Dayenu, we sing about how every phase of the exodus -- from bondage to freedom to survival in the desert to the revelation at Sinai to arrival in the ancestral homeland -- each and every phase of it is sacred and a finale in its own right, not only because it built upon some earlier miracle or became the prelude to an even bigger miracle, but in its own right, independent of any other phase in the process.
How often do we whiz right by the stages and phases involved in achieving our goals, stepping on them and squashing them into insignificance, sometimes even disdain, sometimes frustration, our focus exclusively set upon the goal, the objective, the finish. And so our tradition teaches us to stop in the middle of the process, of the evolution, to recognize and acknowledge the miracle of the moment, because this very precious moment -- even though it appears at this time in disarray, like rubble at a construction site -- is nonetheless an essential piece to the final achievement that we so look forward to.
The fact is, that in our lifetime we are never guaranteed we will live long enough to finish what we want to accomplish. No guarantee. What we are guaranteed, however, is that we will live long enough to try, to begin the process. Like Rabbi Ben Hae-Hae taught in the first century B.C.E. -- "In accordance with the intensity of the effort is the intensity of the reward" (Mishnah, Avot 5:22), meaning that holiness is not defined solely in the quality of final accomplishment; it is defined no less within the small, often frustrating phases that lead to the accomplishment. Judaism never emphasized achievement, only effort. God meets Moses not in Jerusalem at a stadium but in the wilderness of Mid'yan in a thorny bush. God gives us the Torah not in some lofty synagogue in the Promised Land, but in the Desert of Sinai, in no-man's-land, on some obscure mountain, miles and miles from the Promised Land. God says to Moses: "The place where you are standing is holy" (Exodus 3:5) -- right there, right now, not any special shrine or auspicious moment, but right now and right where you are in your process.
Spring time, more than any other season is ripe for this learning, because in Spring we watch with great anxiety the gradual budding of leaves, the gradual unfolding of flowers, the gradual emergence from the earth of all that had vanished from sight in Winter. After the final harvest of Sukot we were left with no promise, no indication, of anything ever growing back again to sustain us next Spring. And now, with Pesach, the beginning of Spring, we look forward to the blossoming time of Shavu'ot. How? By removing our focus on the end, on the blooming period, the achievement time, and focusing instead on the miracle and gift of each moment of every day of our personal unfolding as we approach Matan Torah time, and of the gradual yield of the earth as we approach Blossoming time. We thank God for every phase of every bud on every twig, for every phase of every tomato slowly making its way out of the earth toward one day nurturing us and meeting us in all its glory in a juicy pizza. We take this time to uplift ourselves from feeling frustrated in our own processes, frustrated that we haven't achieved yet, reminding ourselves instead how it isn't about achievement, it is about the effort, the process, the journey, the phases along the way.
In our own times, reminiscent of this ancient rite, we recite daily the following, customarily done at sundown, but if one forgets, one may recite it the following day. And it is also okay to just say, in any language: “Today is the __day of the O’mer” without the traditional blessing prayer (Maimonides in Mishnah Torah, Hilchot Temidin U’Musafin, 7:25). The counting begins sundown on the second night of Passover.
Baruch atah a’donai elo’hay’noo meh’lehch ha’o’lam ah’sher keed’sha’noo beh’meetz’vo’tahv veh’tzee’vah’noo ahl se’firaht ha’o’mer – ha’yo’m yo’m ____[day number]__ la’o’mer.
Blessing Source are You, A’donai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who connects us to the holy through sacred instructions, and instructed us in the ritual of the Counting of the O’mer. Today is the ___day of the O’mer
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4. SHAVU'OT: THE HIDDEN LESSON OF
THE MOST ANTICLIMACTIC DIVINE REVELATION
Shavu'ot. Wow. What a festival, celebrating the summer solstice according to the Hebraic calendar reckoning. Which is lunar. Hmmmm. Typical of us. Shavu'ot celebrates the advent of the blossoming season, the season of the pinnacle of process, the climax of evolution, the ripening of fruition.
Historically, it celebrates all of the above as it occurred to the Jewish peoplehood, ripened at Sinai, pinnacled through the collective vision quest at the foot of this ancient mountain the locals called the Mountain of Elo'heem. There it happened: the simultaneous revelatory experience of our ancestors en-masse, all at once. Everyone saw, heard, felt the same thing. An awesome encounter so powerful we died again and again and again for our tenacious belief in its reality.
So what happened during that amazingly incredible revelatory experience when the greatest and most elusive mystery of all mysteries, God, actually communicated to us openly, directly?
Nothing to speak of, really.
Ten commandments. Ten boring, superflous, unoriginal life instructions. The rest of the Torah of Moses is replete with original, inspiring, mind-blowing instructions about how to live on this planet, how to live on the land, with plants, with stones, with animals, even with the most difficult-to-live-with creature of all: fellow humans. Yet, this miracle of all miracles that wecommemorate on Shavu'ot, this collective revelation at Mount Sinai some 3300 years ago, was as unoriginal and as ho-hum as it could get.
I remember it clearly, standing at the foot of Mount Sinai as the resonance of God vibrated within me, and how sorely disappointed it left me. For three days I prepared myself for this momentous occasion, this once-in-a-lifetime event; in fact, this once-in-human-history event, magnitude-wise. I had spent days cleansing myself, clearing my head, washing my sun-scorched garments, and hardly slept at night in anticipation of this huge huge happening.
And then it happened. And all I got was this anticlimactic verbiage, this cosmic rhetoric about not murdering, not stealing, not cheating, not this, not that, not making images, resting on the Sabbath...I mean, stuff that I'd already heard a gazillion times before and would hear repeatedly in the years to come as we marched through the desert toward Cana'an. For this I waited so anxiously? For this I readied myself all these days and nights? So that God could tell me real-time what I already knew? I had
expected something mind-blowing, something earth-shaking! Not a bunch of simple rules that would in the ensuing months be recounted in far more eloquent and articulate lingo by Moses!
Fuming, I waited until the revelation was over and then went stomping over to this elder woman, Miriam, Moses' sister. They always told us to seek her out if we had any questions about anything. She was sitting outside the Tent of Meeting, putting the finishing touches on one of her drums. She barely looked up at me as I knelt in front of her and poured out my disappointment. When I'd finished she didn't bat an eyelash and kept right on working.
"You want mystery," she said, in her whispery voice. "You wanted to hear God explain the meaning of life, or why the innocent suffer, or why the wicked prosper, or why there is pain, or why this or that? You were expecting to hear some awe-inspiring message the likes of which would never be heard again, the likes of which would turn the world upside down and inside out? I understand your disappointment, Gershon, but God is not as interested in high-falutin' hocus-pocus mystery knowledge; God is more concerned that we don't go around knocking each other off, taking what isn't ours, spreading slander about someone, presuming we know enough about God to forge images of God, and other such acts of disrespect and unconscious behavior. You want to explore the meaning of life? You want to achieve Nirvana? Go attend some self-discovery seminar, or read some bestselling paperback on how to attain enlightenment in six easy steps. You want to explore the will of God? Be ready for some seemingly
mundane stuff about wholesome, conscientious relating with your ox or donkey, with your laborer, your housekeeper, your children, your partner. That's what God wanted to talk about directly, and chose to do it in a direct open major revelation so as to draw your attention to what is really important, not what you surmise is important; to get the point across loud and clear that the theme of this life is Relationship: relationship with self, other, earth, and with the mystery from which all emanates."
She turned to me, her elder eyes piercing through to the depth of my soul until I got it.
Miriam was right. What value was there in knowing the mysteries of life if one had yet not mastered living it?
Every Shavu'ot I recall my encounter, with God at the Mountain of Sinai; with Miriam at the Tent of Meeting. Every Shavu'ot I feel myself ripen, so much so that I trust enough to release my desperate grip on the Tree of Knowledge, and allow myself to fall onto the earth.
May we all ripen, let go, and drop on Newton's head.
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5. AS THE WORLD CHURNS
Scientists have recently discovered that the earth is constantly turning, spinning, whirling, orbiting, revolving. It must be dizzying for its creatures to be spinning all the time, shaken, moved, stunned, stirred, whisked and roused. Yet, if the earth were to remain still if even for a moment, we would all go kaput, nothing would live, nothing would exist, and all would simply dissipate in moments. But now you can better understand why the world is in such upheaval all the time. If it is not one thing, it’s another, but something is always happening, whether a fatal flood in Bulgaria or a popular uprising in Egypt, not to mention the tragic goings-on right here at home in the good old USA daily, hourly, minute by minute in one city or another. Of course, there is turmoil and disruption everywhere and every second…it is the dizzying effect of a planet in constant spin!
There. I have finally figured it out. Narrowed it down. So it is puzzling to me why everyone is so upset and anxious about what is happening down in Egypt land when far worse things are occurring daily everywhere else all the time, like human trafficking, parents murdering their children, women being raped, kids being kidnapped, people being blown up by radical elements of fellow countrymen, as in Iraq, for example, and so much else that has been going on moment to moment for eons without our batting an eyelash. But now, suddenly, we are holding prayer meetings, writing prolific essays and blogs and editorials focusing on the political turmoil in Egypt. The media is salivating with gusto over having something sensational (a/k/a newsworthy) to spotlight every five minutes with repetitious videos and stills showing the same demonstrators doing the same things, running hither and thither, bleeding now and then, holding up banners, etc. etc. etc. And bloggers are burning up their keyboards with opinions about whether this is good or bad for Israel, for the Middle-East, for the U.S., for Moishe Pipick, etc. etc. etc. blablablablabla…
It blows my mind. It is beyond my comprehension.
You know, back in my old yeshiva days, when I was a holy young man studying Torah day and night and in between, and even in my sleep, my elder rebbe, Rav Eliezer Benseon, he would lean his aging body forward against the tall wooden stand that cradled his aging Talmud, his forehead resting in the palm of his right hand, right elbow resting on the stand, left hand caressing the fading, browning folios of the wisdom of the sages, while chanting their Aramaic verbiage…Meanwhile, outside, mobile loudspeakers were bellowing out frantic announcements of pending war!!
It was June, 1967. Israel was being attacked by seven Arab countries. And we were trying to understand the similarities between moving a bench along the earth on the Sabbath versus plowing the earth on the Sabbath, and how the same law applied because “p’seek reyshe v’lo yamut ?” – “Can you cut off a head without causing death?” (Talmud Bav’li, Shabbat 75a). In other words, plowing is not permitted on the Sabbath. But what if you need to move a heavy chair or bench that is sitting on the ground outside, to make room for Shabbat guests, for example, and by so doing, you will inevitably end up cutting into the earth, like plowing. So, do we say it is permitted anyway because your intent is not to plow but to move furniture? But if so, we can argue that it is akin to cutting off a head even though your intent is not to kill!
See? For just one half a minute or less, your mind was directed away from the uprising in Egypt and focused on a Talmudic discussion, attention to minute, silly little details of Torah law. And so was I, back then, in June of 1967, barely tuned into the frantic warnings bellowing outside the yeshiva walls, and more focused on the whispery, throaty voice of the elder rebbe as he slowly read from the pages of the Talmud. He would of course eventually get us into the shelters, but not just yet. More painful than death itself would be not knowing the Talmud’s resolution of this argument. We had to complete it, air strikes and artillery fire notwithstanding. Our yeshiva, by the way, was located on Rechov Shmuel HaNavi, (The Street of Samuel the Prophet), then smack across the street from the flimsy barbed wire that separated Israel from the Jordanians who were now firing at us.
The world is spinning. The Torah is not. It is centered. It remains steadfast and firmly grounded. Nothing can touch it. It has been the mystique of the survival of our people against all odds for as long as we have had her with us. Empires have come and gone, massacred us, conquered us, displaced us, exiled us…all to no avail. Because, we always took her along with us wherever we went. Even the silliest-sounding discussions of Torah law or lore has proven far more potent a source of our survival and empowerment than any other historical or psychological factor. I remember this 70-year-old guy who used to frequent Rav Eliezer's discourses at the yeshiva. He would sit there glowing in bliss, smiling, loving every minute of it, cherishing every word, his arthritic left middle finger diligently following every Aramaic word being read, his quivering lips mouthing each and every syllable. To my shock, I eventually found out during a casual conversation with him, that he was a sworn atheist. He didn't believe in God, or in religion, or in anything. But he loved the Torah. He had been in the camps during the Holocaust, seen his family wiped out, fought in Israel's War of Independence and during the Sinai campaign in '56, and all the little wars against terrorists in between. Yet, nothing kept him alive more than the Torah of the God that he didn't believe in, the Torah he so loved. I could not understand his thinking, so I asked him to help me understand how he could so love Torah and not believe in God. This is what he said:
"My mother died a long time ago. But her letters to me while she was alive, they remain precious. I read them even now when I am seventy. Likewise, for me, God died in the camps. But his letters to me while he was alive remain precious. I read them even now when I am seventy."
Wow. What could I say? I was but seventeen at the time. Young, naïve, idealistic… Then these words spilled out of my lips in a near-whisper: "Yes, but if you are still alive, then so is God." He looked at me in silence for what seemed to be a long period of time, then finished his tea and left. I never saw him again.
Until August of 1973.
In August of 1973, I returned to Jerusalem to visit family and friends, and to spend some learning time with my teachers, Rav Eliezer Benseon and Rav Yosef Ratzabi. As Rav Eliezer opened the door to me, he was shaking the hand of an earlier visitor preparing to leave, a very distinguished looking elderly gentleman with a long white beard and a huge colorful yarmulka. The man turned to me, paused, then embraced me, thanked me, and left. I had no clue who he was or why he thanked me until Rav Eliezer told me that it was the man who thought that God had died in the camps. "You said something to him," Rav Eliezer reminded me, "that changed his life."
So, in the end, can you move the bench in your backyard on the Sabbath, or is it like cutting off a head without intending to kill in the process? I mean, sometimes we feel like doing that to some people. "I will have your head for this!" is an age-old declaration that may not necessarily imply any intent to kill. Or: "I wish I had a head like yours" and the like. Or, "I sure would like to get ahead." Etc.
You know, it reminds me of this discussion in the Talmud about whether we should plow our fields altogether. If we are going to have to work all the time, when will we have time or energy to study Torah? That is the question they raised in the second century. So, Rabbi Yishmael said, "Working to make a living is itself also part of the Torah way." Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said: "If you immerse yourself in the will of God, you won't have to work; others will do the work for you." The Talmud's conclusion: "Many tried Rabbi Shimon's way and failed; many tried Rabbi Yishmael's way, and succeeded" (Talmud Bav'li, Berachot 35b).
Good. But what about the bench and plow question? Is it like cutting off a head without intending death, or not?
"No. Because in a situation where a soul is involved, it is very easy to obliterate [to kill someone even unintentionally], whereas in plowing [intentional or not], there are so many additional things needed and so many other factors involved, for it to actually take effect" (Talmud Bav'li, Shabbat 75a).
Very important. Taking a soul is far simpler an act than to plant a seed. Don't forget this. This is the whole meaning of the lesson. This is the entire message of the Torah. Your soul, your very being, is extremely fragile. Take very very good care of it (Deuteronomy 4:15 and Joshua 23:11). Don't let them take your soul. It's too easy. Stay centered. Don't get sidetracked and sidewinded and spun into the dizzying spin of the world around you. God is not dead. It is we who are dead. God is very much alive, and so are you, and so is our Torah. Don't leave home without it. The world doesn't need you. You need you. Let the universe work out its own problems while your fingers do the walking through the yellowing pages of the Tenakh, the Talmud, the Midrash, the Kabbalah, the Aggadata, and the Halachah. As for the world, wisely did Solomon say that "All rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is never filled by them, for they return to where the rivers begin to run all over again…What was, will be again; and what is happening, will happen again; and there really isn't anything new under the sun. It will often be said, ‘Behold a new thing!' – but it has already been in worlds long before ours…Whatever once was, now is again; and what is destined to be, has already been before" (Kohelet 1:7-10 and 3:15).
Should we care? Of course. Care, pray, be concerned. But don't lose your head over any of it. Instead of sticking out your middle finger at the incompetent driver you just passed on the road, use it as a pointer along the folios of the Talmud.
Okay. Done. Now go blog about Egypt or turn on CNN.
If you still can.
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6. HOME-BREWN ARMAGGEDON
Armaggedon is a household word these days, borrowed (of course) from the ancient Hebrew prophecies around the end of days. In the Hebrew vernacular, the event is described as a great battle between the forces of Go'g and the Land of Israel (Ezekiel, chapters 38 and 39). We know very little about who this Go'g of Ma'Go'g is. The Torah mentions Ma'go'g as one of the sons of Ye'feht. Ye'feht was one of the three sons of No'ach. The 11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (RASHI) wrote that it refers to Persia and Media, that both will overtake Babylon (Iraq) and together form a coalition that will overrun Israel in a final, climactic battle that will bring on the end of times and usher in the global redemption sponsored by God Itself (Rashi on Talmud Bav'li, Sanhedrin 98b).
So basically, almost everyone knows that Armaggedon, or the battle of Go'g and Ma'Go'g against Israel, is the great Big Bang in reverse that so many traditions prophesized.
But we are a people who simply sit back and wait. We wait for the Messiah, we wait for the end of times, we wait and wait and go on with life while others expend enormous energy and time and paperbacks trying to predict exactly when all of this will occur.
So what do we Jews and other folks do with these ancient Hebraic notions in the meantime? Is there some kind of lesson we can withdraw from the wisdom bank even though it would be an early withdrawal?
Yes. Listen to this. The second-century Rabbi Shim'on bar Yo'chai once said: "Far more severe are your troubles at home than the apocalyptic battle of Go'g and Ma'go'g" (Talmud Bav'li, B'rachot 7b).
Wow. Is this not true? The pain that we experience when we are hurt by our loved ones is far more excruciating than the severe doomsday tragedies predicted at the end of times. If a stranger hurts us with a hurtful word, an emotional assault, it stabs us in one or two chambers of our hearts. If a family member or relationship partner says something to hurt us or acts hurtfully toward us, it shatters the entire heart, then spills into the gut, then drains the brain and wa-la! your entire day or week is ruined. This same ancient sage repeats his teaching in different words elsewhere: "'Far more severe are oppressive words than oppressive business dealings.' Rabbi El'azar explains, 'For one hurts your money, the other hurts your body'" (Talmud Bav'li, Baba Mezia 58b).
It is interesting to note that the earlier sages of the Mishnah offer a whole other lesser example of "oppressive words" than we might imagine. "What is oppressive words? If you say to the merchant 'What is the cost of such-and-such?' and you have no interest in buying it in the first place. Or you say to one who has repented of their wrongness 'Remember when you did such-and-such?'" (Mishnah, Baba Mezia 4:10).
So it's not just about calling names or shouting epithets in a moment of anger. It's also about jabbing, saying something you know will trigger hurt, what we call these days "passive-aggressive" behavior. The words are innocent, but the intent is not, and the intent wins over. If your spouse or partner has worked at rectifying what he or she did wrong to you, don't jab them with painful reminders of what happened.
The lesson is clear. Don't worry so much about the apocalyptic battle of Armaggedon. Worry more about the far more severe battle in your own home, in your most intimate relationship. Worry less about what's not working at your job, and worry more about what's not working in your home. Go out there and protest for peace all you want, but know that it won't accomplish anything solid if there is unresolved conflict smoldering back home. Take care of that first, then worry about the end of times.
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7. Dial 2012 and Hang Up
There is a lot of hullabaloo going on about the pending ending of the world, something about the expiration date being around 2012. My sense is that the world ended a long time ago. We're just remnants sailing merrily along, enjoying what we can of what was left, as best as we can. Or as the second-century Rabbi Abba Areykha put it: "All speculated times for the End of Days have already come and went. So there is nothing left for us to do but better ourselves and engage in deeds of love and kindness" (Talmud Bav'li, Sanhedrin 97b).
The ancient mystics of the Jewish tradition often referred to the end of times as occurring in the very moment that you are reading this. When they asked Rabbi Eliezer the Great (first century) for some final words of wisdom before he passed on, he said: "Turn your life around before the moment of your death." His disciples looked at one another in puzzlement, and finally one of them asked: "But master, does anyone know the precise moment of their death?" The elder replied: "Exactly! Therefore turn your life around every moment!" (Talmud Bav'li, Shabbat 153a). Life is not about settling down. Life is about being on the move in every moment, seeing each moment as a rich opportunity for the deepest realization, as it may be our last. It may be our 2012. Eat your dinner like it may be your last, bite into that juicy apple as if it were 2012. Love your partner, your children, your spouse, your parent, as if it were your last moment with them.
Of course, this is unrealistic. We'd all be put away and drugged. I mean, you have to have some relaxation time, some down time, some not moving time, at least an hour or two to simply take everything and everyone for granted. Give me a break. Especially in our own times when we have cable. We can take this to the extreme and squander our savings on a final meal, for example, and throw all caution to the wind and not worry about cholesterol, saturated fats, calories, etc. We could wear out our children with too many "I love you's" and hover over our loved ones like pesky gnats, giving them no space.
Every moment can indeed be our last. And it could also be our first. Our Genesis. The ancient rabbis taught that there are four phases of Creation, four layers of each our life unfolding, based on Genesis 1:2 – Chaos, Emptiness, Darkness, and Light. Each represents a particular quality of what Creator has chosen to reveal of Itself to us mere mortals. So we experience God sometimes from a place of chaos, sometimes when we are empty and at our wit's end, sometimes when we're in the dark and don't know what to do, and sometimes from a place of clarity replete with vision and hope. All of these phases are sacred, each of them vital rungs on the ladder that reaches from the earth to the heavens, from the realm of Creation to that of Creator. Each of them is a major opportunity for major growth, both spiritual and emotional.
But, life is a Merry-Go-Round, run by a patient, compassionate operator who gives us ample time for letting things go and ample time for jumping at an opportunity. Life is a gamble. We can and do take risks every moment, the chance that that very same moment and its accompanying opportunities, will or will not come our way ever again. "Turn your life around before the moment of your death" the elder rabbi admonished us. Meaning, don't get obsessive-compulsive about it, but don't get complacent about it either. See in each of the four phases of your unfolding an opportunity being gifted to you, yours for the taking in that very moment, or on a gracious layaway plan for when you're good and ready. But don't take too long. "The work is not upon you to finish," taught the second-century Rabbi Tar'fon, "but neither are you exempt from trying" (Mishnah, Avot 2:16).
Genesis is not about something that happened billions of years ago. Genesis, the mystics reminded us, is something that is happening now. Right now. And God's question to us is still ringing in our carbon-dated, fossilized ears: "Where are you?"
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8. ACADEMIC NONSENSE, SCIENCE, AND TORAH
It was recently brought to my attention that a respected so-called Old Testament scholar and author in the Netherlands made an earth-shattering discovery that she presented at Radboud University in The Netherlands. Wow. What a discovery. She claims that the first sentence in the Book of Genesis "In the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth" is not a true translation of the Hebrew. (No kidding! We don't translate it that way, either!) Rather, she has done some "fresh textual analysis" that suggests that the great book never intended to imply that God created the world. Actually, she says, the Earth was already in place when God made humans and animals. Someone else must have created the universe itself long before God came on the scene and added a couple of people and animals and a shrub or two. She derives all this from her analysis of the etymology of the Hebraic word "bara", customarily translated as "created." It doesn't really say that, she claims. "Bara" she insists, means to "spatially separate", and if you read the first line of Genesis with that translation, she posits, you will realize that God only spatially separated the heavens and the earth, which in turn implies that the heavens and the earth were already extant and that God only added a few features to what was already there as opposed to having created the universe from scratch, ex-nihilo (The Telegraph [UK], October 8, 2009).
Mind-blowing. I have been up all night trying to understand her theory and how it proves anything but the sad state of academia. Scholars who have no idea of the vernacular or intention of our Torah have for centuries been drawing theories about its content and have had the audacity as well to present their "findings" at international scholarly conferences. Perhaps I might compose a definitive critique of the science of Neuropsychology since I am totally unlearned in that field, and present it to some Conference on Psychiatry in Vladivostok. Not being a historian, I might also write a thesis about American History, that George Washington is a myth invented in the early 20th century to boost patriotism in anticipation of the Spanish American War. Or that Theodore Roosevelt was really Captain Kangaroo (similar mustache).
Even though there is some truth to the professor's "discovery" that "bara" means a lot more than "created", it certainly is not anything new to those of us who have a knowledge of Hebraic and Aramaic etymology and who have studied the classical commentaries on the Torah writ by ancient and early-medieval rabbis. More importantly, however, it proves nothing about her cartoon theory. Add an "r" (or the Hebrew letter resh), and you will indeed have the Hebrew word for spatially separated, or sifted, or discerned, or clarified: "ba'rar." Regrettably, "bara" is not "barar." Even scientifically and etymologically and academically. But that is beside the point.
In the Kabbalistic teachings, the unknowable, unpeggable, un-namable mystery behind the origin of existence, which we glibly refer to as "God", created space first, within which to create matter, thus spatially separating creation from itself, so to speak. As the ancient Kabbalists put it: "Were God to fill the universe, the universe could not exist; and were God to not fill the universe, the universe could not exist. The space of the universe is thus both filled with God and void of God, in the sense that it is just sufficiently void of God in order to enable the possibility of existence, and just sufficiently filled with God in order to enable existence altogether. Thus is God at the same time hidden and revealed, hidden and revealed" (Zohar, Vol. 1, folio 39b). "Behold the Sacred Ancient One, they wrote, "the mystery of all mysteries, is separate from everything and yet at the same time not separated from anything, for all is joined within God and God is joined within all. For God is everything, the Ancient of all Ancients and the most hidden of all that is hidden; who is without shape and yet with shape -- with shape in order to sustain the universe, and without shape because God Itself is not subject to the Realm of Existence, having created existence, to begin with" (Zohar, Vol. 3, folio 228a).
It is sad that so-called professors of the so-called Old Testament continue to present our rich and ancient Torah as some kind of naïve, literal writ, which then places Torah in direct conflict with Science. And many of our people consequently become confounded, not knowing which to subscribe to, Torah or Science. To them I say: theories such as that of the professor are laughable to both Science and Torah alike. It is a shame she didn't bother consulting with the People of the Book regarding the Book of the People.
There is no conflict between science and Torah. Nowhere does the Torah imply the universe was created in six days as we know it. After all, we measure time by our spin around the sun, and the sun does not appear on the scene until the fourth "day"! The thirteenth-century kabbalist, Rabbi Yitzchak of Acco theorized the age of the universe to be around 14 billion years old! (in his work Shoshan Yesod Olam). This was written into our tradition eight centuries before modern science arrived at a similar estimate! The ancient rabbis describe the universe as originating with God's Light, which condensed to form matter (Zohar, Vol. 1, folio 30b and Vol. 2, folios 75b-76a; Midrash B'reisheet Rabbah 3:1). Or as Einstein would put it millennia later: E=MC2.
Lucy and the recently discovered earlier human ancestor are wondrous discoveries. But do you not also see how each discovery claims to be the earliest until another is discovered, and then another? And often these discoveries are rebuffed by further investigation, but the public is not informed of such. In the early 1900's, for example, museums around the globe took turns boasting an exhibition of a stooped, ape-like man, dubbed the Neanderthal Man, I think, with the claim that the missing link in the evolution of humans from apes had finally been discovered. And as we know, this stooped, ape-like man was etched in stone in all of our school textbooks to this day. Soon after, another fossil was discovered, labeled Proconsul Africanus, and was immediately heralded by scientists as the progenitor of both apes and humans, and immediately entered into school textbooks as well. But to the dismay of both scientists and textbook publishers, in 1958 the Congress of Zoology in London declared that (1) the stooped ape-like man was really nothing more than the remains of a modern-type fellow affected by age and arthritis, and (2) the intriguing fossil Proconsul Africanus proved to be that of an ordinary ape! (Time Magazine, July 28, 1958). Have the textbooks been revised to reflect these and other such shifts in scientific discoveries? Of course not.
Yet, unbeknownst to most of us, the ancient Jewish mystical tradition reminds us that the Genesis story of our Torah is not meant to necessarily imply the beginning of all beginnings but rather the beginning of this world as we know it, of humans as we know them, and so on, and that there was an earlier series of universes, of earths, of people and creatures unknown to us today -- except perhaps from fossils. We call this the Torah of Shemitto't -- the cycles of times preceding those of Adam and Eve. According to many of the early Jewish mystics, there were full pre-Adamic human civilizations that had arisen long before homo sapiens walked the earth, and that they were eventually destroyed. As the third-century Rabbi Avahu taught: "God created worlds and destroyed them, created them and destroyed them, until this one came into being" (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah 3:14). The Talmud alludes to 974 generations that existed prior to Adam and Eve (Talmud Bav'li, Chagigah 13b).
Science and Judaism are not in conflict. Science and Torah are more in cahoots with one another than you might think. It is Scientism that clashes with the notion of God and spirituality, not Science.
"I think that part of the answer is that scientists cannot bear the thought of a natural phenomenon that cannot be explained, even with unlimited time and money," wrote scientist Dr. Robert Jastrow, who once served as the Director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Activities. "There is a kind of religion in science...This religious faith of the scientist is violated by the discovery that the world had a beginning under the conditions in which the known laws of physics are not valid, and as a product of forces or circumstances we cannot discover. When that happens, the scientist has lost control. If he really examined the implications, he would be traumatized. As usual, when faced with trauma, the mind reacts by ignoring the implications..." In conclusion, he writes: "For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries" ( New York Times Magazine, June 25, 1978).
Perhaps the 12th-century Rabbi Moshe ibn Maimon (Maimonides) said it best: "The primary source of confusion in our search for the meaning of the universe as a whole, or even of its parts, is rooted in our mistaken assumption that all of existence is for our sake alone. For, if we examine our universe objectively, we will discover how very small a part of it we really are. The truth is, that all of humankind and all the species of life-forms on our earth are as nothing against the backdrop of vast ever-continuing cosmic existence" (Mo'rah Nevuchim [Guide to the Perplexed], 3:12).
Einstein once summed it up this way: "The most beautiful and most profound emotion one can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the source of all true science" (quoted in Newsweek, July 23, 1979).
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9. EVERY MOMENT IS ETERNAL…
Every moment is eternal, wrote the eighteenth-century great great grandson of the famous Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Nachmon of Breslav. It is actually an ancient teaching of our people, and a challenging one. On the one hand, that sounds real sweet. Every moment is eternal in the sense that in that very moment we can begin anew, alter our fate, our destiny, with one swoop of a choice, an in-the-moment decision. On the other hand, I have bills to pay, and they won't go away regardless of my life choices. And if it don't look like what I am vying for is gonna happen, I'm gonna slip-slide back into the arena of hopelessness and throw up my arms and give up and sulk and cuss, and... Every moment is eternal, though. Meaning, that even though much of my life is out of my control, I can still focus on the moment and make that moment special, sacred, larger-than-life, severing the experience of it from the ongoing saga of my life-problems. Legend has it that when Caesar Adrianus Pluribus was en-route to do battle against some dissenters, he noticed an elderly Jew busily planting a fig tree. He halted his horse and asked the elder his age. "I am 100 years old," the man replied. "Well, then why do you bother planting?" asked Adrianus. After all, the Roman leader laughed, the old man would never live long enough to see his sapling grow and bear fruit! So why bother? The elder replied that if he doesn't live another couple of years to see it bear fruit, at least his children and grandchildren would (Midrash Tanchuma, Kedoshim, Ch. 8). This story is about focusing in on the gift of the moment without being distracted by the down-side of our assumptions of the future, or the "result." We see this in an earlier teaching, in the ancient writ of the Hebrew prophet Yirmiyahu, where in his prophecy around the Babylonian exile of the Jews, he quotes God as saying: "Thus says God to the entire community I have exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon, 'Build homes there, and settle in them, and plant gardens, and continue perpetuating families, children, etc. and seek the peace of the city I have exiled you to...'" (Jeremiah 29:4-7). In other words, even though the future now looked bleak, exile, the destruction of the Jewish commonwealth, subjection to another culture, etc., our ancestors were implored to not allow the seeming forecast to dampen the gift of their moment, and were instead encouraged to make the best of the moment, build homes in the exile, marry, start families, plant gardens, orchards, not get caught up in what might be or in what might have been, but in what is; to seek out the gift of the moment and then seize it. May we all learn to do that. ###
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10. Why God Created Humans
God created humans because we are entertaining. All else is nice, sweet, cute, impressive, awesome, jaw-dropping, beyond beyond beyond…but predictable, repetitious, instinctive, expected, humdrum, and monotonous. Humans, however, are exciting, unpredictable, original, creative, impulsive, crazy, thrilling, and stimulating – for better, or for worse. The lion sings only about lions. The giraffe only tells stories about giraffes, and the mosquito is only interested in painting mosquitoes. Humans, on the other hand, unify all of creation by singing about all of it, drawing pictures and carving images of all of it, and telling stories about all of it, and thanking God for the wonder of all of it.
The 18th-century Maggid of Mezeritch, Rav Dov Ber, likens it to a king who was in possession of a rare bird that was capable of speaking. Every time the bird would talk, the king would go wild with delirious elation, a joy he could never experience around his own family, because they talked all the time, and it was in their nature to talk. But this special bird…well, birds chirp, they don't talk, and this bird, wow, when it actually spoke, it was marvelous, wondrous, mind-blowing, and cheered the king to no end. Likewise, the Maggid teaches us, the angels are always singing to God, and so are the animals and the trees, and the stones and the planets. But when a human sings to God – wow!! What joy it brings God, because humans are otherwise so entrenched in their own little worlds that there is little or no room at all for God to even drop by, let alone actually sing or talk to God in a direct, personal way. When we do…wow! -- the heavens shake, the earth trembles, and all of Creation stops in mid-song to try and figure out what is so earth-shattering about our song (Torat HaMaggid, Sefer Vayikra [toward the end]). Little do they realize that it's not about the songs we sing to God, but that we sing them to begin with; it is not about the words we speak to God, but that we speak to God at all.
This is very much like the teachings around the so-called Ten Commandments (actually Ten "Sayings", or "Speakings", in the original Hebrew). On the surface it would seem that there wasn't anything so amazing about any of them that would make them worthy of so magnanimous and momentous a Divine Revelation to an entire people, let alone a movie. Actually, they are mediocre at best, and quite dull and un-original compared to so many much more original lessons strewn across the length and breadth of our Torah. So, obviously it was not the content of the Decalogue that was worth sneezing at. It was the event. Not what God spoke, but that God spoke.
That God spoke directly to the people, is a far more spectacular event than what God said, or what the people heard. For the Jewish people, the significance lay in the encounter itself, not in its reading or its interpretation.
They once asked Rabbi Elimelech of Liszensk (18th century) why his brother, Rabbi Zusia of Hanipol, never ever quoted a single teaching of his master Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezeritsch. Rabbi Elimelech explained: "Indeed, my brother Zusia attended virtually every discourse of the great master. However, no sooner would the master begin with a quote from the Torah that started with ‘And God spoke…' than Zusia would leap out of his chair dancing and screaming ecstatically 'And God spoke!! And God spoke!! And God spoke!!' and of course they had to carry him out of the study hall and so he never actually got to hear anything the master taught."
The event at Sinai was so powerful, the ancient rabbis tell us, that the souls of the people left their bodies almost instantly upon hearing the "voice" of God, and all they actually heard was the first word: ah'no'chee, "I am" (Talmud Bav'li, Shabbat 88b, as is written in Song of Songs 5:6 -- "My soul left me when he spoke"). Like Rabbi Zusia, what more would one hope to experience? Any ensuing revelation stands moot in relationship to the real-time in-the-moment encounter with the mystery of all mysteries, the root cause of all causes. "I am" is enough. The rest of what the Word of God wishes to elaborate becomes in that instance completely superfluous against the backdrop of the experience with the encounter.
This, the Maggid teaches, is the same on the other end of the ladder that reaches from the earth to the heavens, where God becomes ecstatic, so to speak, whenever we initiate the reaching out, the connecting. Saying Hello to God in synagogue and temple is nice, but it's predictable. It's like sending someone their annual birthday card. It's chirping. It's not like the rare bird surprising the king by speaking. Saying Hello to God outside the context of ritual and fixed prayer, on the other hand, is like sending an unanticipated surprise package, coming home one night with a bouquet of flowers when it isn't your anniversary, or when you're living alone!
When we do this, for ourselves, for others, for Creator, we in those moments fulfill a very elemental purpose of our existence as Humans. Otherwise, we may just as well have been created as sparrows.
Tweet, tweet, tweet. Chirp, chirp, chirp.
Not that there is anything belittling about being sparrows. But too often we forget the greatness of being humans.
Burp. Hic. Achoooo!
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