Archive for the '5.08 Nitzavim / VaYelech' Category

More the Stranger: Returning to the High Holidays and Sinai

Yesterday I got a very sweet message from a childhood friend who had recently lost his mother. He wrote:

I am writing to let you know that I am thinking about you these High Holidays regarding spending your second High Holidays without your Abba. It is very hard for me to think that this is the first year I don’t get to wish my Ima a Shana Tova. Please know that he was so proud of you, he loved you so much, and you have been and always will be to your parents, an exemplary son! Love you my friend! Happy New Year!

I called him right away. Between the years and miles between us I realized that I just needed to hear his voice and thank him. Today I am allowing his words to sink in and I think about who I am this year as compared to last year.

I was thinking about this when reading  Nitzavim,this week’s Torah portion. There we see the Israelites standing at Sinai. We read:

You are standing today, all of you, before HaShem, your God: your leaders, your tribes, your elders, your officers … for you to enter into a covenant with the Lord, your God … in order to establish you today as a people to God and God will be a Lord to you … and God spoke to you and as God swore to your forefathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. Not with you alone do I forge this covenant and oath but with whoever is here, standing with us today, before the Lord, your God, And with whoever is not here with us today.” (Excerpts from Deuteronomy 29:9-14)

What does the Torah mean by “whoever is not here”? There was clearly an audience to the Torah at Sinai, how could people who are not there connect to the experience. Rashi comments that this means to also include the generations that will exist in the future. Rashi’s comments are based on the Midrash which says:

The souls of all Jews were present at the making of the covenant even before their physical bodies were created. This is why the verse says ‘with us today’ and not ‘standing’ with us today. (Tanchuma, Nitzavim 3)

Thinking about the note from my friend I wanted to offer another reading of what the Torah meant by “whoever is not here”. 

Am I the same person I was last year this time? Last year my father’s passing was all so fresh. Last year was filled with many firsts without him. This year Yizkor will not be a new thing. It is possible that “whoever is not here” is not referring to future generation that have yet to be born, but instead it might be referring to future versions of the people that were actually “standing here today” at Sinai. The covenant was not limited to those people in that state of mind at that moment.

It is quoted in the name of Louis Pasteur, “ No one is more the stranger than himself <sic> at another time”. The nature of the Torah is that we can revisit it throughout our lives. When we learn Torah we continue to evolve in its meaning and demand relevance from revelation. When we return to Sinai we are invited to welcome the inner “stranger” 36 times.

Return and Be Found: Thoughts on Shabbat Shuva

As we journey from the Rosh HaShana to Yom Kippur we stop along the way at Shabbat Shuva. During these Ten Days of Awe we are asked to contemplate Teshuva. On this special Shabbat we might even have some time to contemplate what would it take for us to return. What is special about this time of year. What is special about Shabbat during this time of Teshuva? We learn in the Talmud:

As it is taught in a baraita: All are judged on Rosh HaShana, and their sentence is sealed on Yom Kippur; this is the statement of Rabbi Meir. (Rosh HaShana 16a)

It was reported about the same Rabbi Meir about his teacher Aḥer, Elisha Ben Abuya ,who was an apostate. There we learn:

The Sages taught: There was once an incident involving Aḥer, who was riding on a horse on Shabbat, and Rabbi Meir was walking behind him to learn Torah from him. After a while, Aḥer said to him: Meir, turn back, for I have already estimated and measured according to the steps of my horse that the Shabbat boundary ends here,and you may therefore venture no further. Rabbi Meir said to him: You, too, return to the correct path. He said to him: But have I not already told you that I have already heard behind the dividing curtain: “Return, rebellious children,” apart from Aḥer? ( Chagigah 15a )

It is possible that the exception of Aḥer not being able to return is there to prove the rule that the rest of us are actually invited to return. It is also possible that the Shabbat in reference in the Gemara in Chagigah was Shabbat Shuva. It is possible that for Rabbi Meir on this Shabbat between  Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, even Aḥer’s sentence was not sealed.

As we read in this Haftarah from this week:

Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God; for you have stumbled in your iniquity. Take with you words, and return to the Lord; say to God: ‘Forgive all iniquity, and accept that which is good; so will we render for bullocks the offering of our lips. Asshur shall not save us; we will not ride upon horses; neither will we call any more the work of our hands our gods; for in You the fatherless finds mercy.'( Hosea 14:2-4)

In this holy period of the Ten Days God and humanity are both asked to be vulnerable and accessible. On Shabbat we achieve deeper level of having time to actually be available. This is a special Shabbat during which we are all invited back.

This reminds me of one of my favorite Hassidic stories.  The story goes that a Rebbe is walking and sees a little boy standing by a wall crying. The Rebbe asks the boy why he is crying. The boy replies that he was playing Hide and Seek with his friends and he thinks that his friends forgot about him. At this point the Rebbe starts crying and the boys asks him why the Rebbe is crying. The Rebbe responds, ” Now I understand how God feels “.

Image result for hide and seek

It seems for that on Shabbat Shuva we are invited to end the game of Hide and Seek. Humanity and God allow each other to return and be found.

Standing There Today

Recently I have been thinking about the lines between performers and audience. Specifically I was thinking about this when reading  Nitzavim,this week’s Torah portion. There we see the Israelites standing at Sinai. We read:

You are standing today, all of you, before Hashem, your God: your leaders, your tribes, your elders, your officers … for you to enter into a covenant with the Lord, your God … in order to establish you today as a people to God and God will be a Lord to you … and God spoke to you and as God swore to your forefathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. Not with you alone do I forge this covenant and oath but with whoever is here, standing with us today, before the Lord, your God, And with whoever is not here with us today.” (Excerpts from Deuteronomy 29:9-14)

What does the Torah mean “whoever is not here’? There was clearly an audience to the Torah at Sinai, how could people who are not there connect to the experience. Rashi comments that this means to also include the generations that will exist in the future. Rashi’s comments are based on the Midrash which says:

The souls of all Jews were present at the making of the covenant even before their physical bodies were created. This is why the verse says ‘with us today’ and not ‘standing’ with us today. (Tanchuma, Nitzavim 3)

Even if we accept that all of our souls were brought to Sinai and that in some way our souls accepted God’s Torah as binding upon us, how could that acceptance and oath be valid? We certainly have no recollection of ever being present at Sinai and making an oath. So, how are we to understand the Midrash and the Rashi who claim that all of the generations were at Sinai, accepted the Torah, and that it is a binding agreement?

This question gets spelled out graphically in the Gemara in Shabbat. There we learn:

“And they stood under the mount” ( Exodus 19:17)  Rabbi Abdimi ben Hama ben Hasa said: This [literal reading ‘under’] teaches that the Holy One, blessed be God, overturned the mountain upon them like an [inverted] cask, and said to them,’If you accept the Torah, all is well; if not, there shall be your burial.’ Rabbi Aha ben Jacob observed: This furnishes a strong protest against the Torah [It provides a legitamate excuse for non-observance, since it was forcibly imposed in the first place.] Said Raba, Yet even so, they re-accepted it in the days of Ahashverosh [the King from the Purim story in the book of Esther] , for it is written, “[the Jews] confirmed, and took upon them [etc.]”( Esther 9:27) [i.e.,] they confirmed what they had accepted long before. ( Shabbat 88a)

The Gemara reframes the acceptance of the additional commandments instituted around the holiday of Purim to be an acceptance of the entirety of the Torah. This is interesting in many ways. The part that interests me today is how it shifts their role. In the Revelation story, God is on stage and we are the audience. In the story of Purim we are not even sure if there is a divine audience, but we are clearly on stage. At Sinai we were the consumers of Torah and then on  Purim we become producers. When Jews choose to participate in Jewish life, we too becomes producers and enjoin ourselves to divine act of revelation. In this way we are really standing there today.

 

Showing Up as a Prosumers: Standing at Sinai and the Foo Fighters

Recently I have had a number of conversations with people about the aesthetic involved in crafting a wedding. It is noteworthy that in most weddings the committed couple is very much ushered through the event. It often feels that the couple is on stage performing the ritual with the help of a mesader kedushin and we their friends and family are their audience. In many ways it seems that Temple Grandin was the architect of the ritual ensuring that the couple go straight through the experience getting hitched without a hitch.

My suggestion is to ritualized a moment during the ceremony where the tables are turned and the people who come are on stage and the couple is the audience. Surely the guests did not just show up to see the new couple they also came to be seen. There are a number of ways to do this, but this is no doubt a holy moment and a great use of time. If done well every can truly be present at this meaningful moment of creating community, and that moment will last forever.

This idea of showing up and blurring the line between performer and audience was beautifully explored at a now famous Foo Fighters concert. While the design of a concern is that there is a small group performing and a mass of people in the audience. At this concert there were 1000 musicians all playing the Learn to Fly at the same time.  Check out the video:

You can see in their participation the joy of really showing up and being seen. They are true prosumers of culture making something excellent for the sheer love of it. At the end of the video the organizer said it best that the true audience of this 1000 person rock band was actually just the 5 band members of the Food Fighters.

I was thinking about the porous lines between the performers and the audience this week when reading  Parshat Nitzavim,this week’s Torah portion. There we see the Israelites standing at Sinai. We read:

You are standing today, all of you, before Hashem, your God: your leaders, your tribes, your elders, your officers … for you to enter into a covenant with Hashem, your God … in order to establish you today as a people to God and God will be a Lord to you … and God spoke to you and as God swore to your forefathers, to Avraham, to Yitzhak, and to Yaakov. NOT WITH YOU ALONE do I forge this covenant and oath but with whoever is here, standing with us today, before Hashem, your God, AND WITH WHOEVER IS NOT HERE WITH US TODAY.” (Excerpts from Deuteronomy 29:9-14)

On this  ‘WHOEVER IS NOT HERE‘ Rashi comments that this means to also include the generations that will exist in the future. Rashi’s comments are based on the Midrash which says:

The souls of all Jews were present at the making of the covenant even before their physical bodies were created. This is why the verse says ‘with us today’ and not ‘standing’ with us today. (Tanchuma, Nitzavim 3)

What does it mean that we were all there? I hope that we were not just on stage getting married. I like to think that the revelation at Sinai we allowed God to show up, be “seen”,  and be part of the experience. In my mind Sinai was millions of us musicians rocking out “Learn to Fly”.

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova

– For another piece on prosumers check out Tail of Two Jewries: Some Innovative Lessons From Chris Anderson and Jewish Summer Camp

Getting Past the “How” of Torah: For the Love of Learning

In Nitzavim VaYelech, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the reception of the Torah. There we read:

For this commandment which I command you this day, it is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say: ‘Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say: ‘Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?’ (Deuteronomy 30:11–13)

Learning should be hard, but not to hard and definitely not out of reach. Here we see learning Torah depicted as some elaborate scavenger hunt. What zeal would we bring to trying to learn Torah if it was in fact hidden in the heaven or on the other side of the ocean?

I was thinking of this when I saw this article on dangerous journeys to school around the world. Here are two pertinent images:

Not in Heaven:

children-going-to-school-around-the-world-25

Beyond the Sea:

children-going-to-school-around-the-world-42

It is inspiring to look at the rest of the images. In the world there are so many barriers to education, but as you can see there is still a hunger to learn and grow.

In our community there are many efforts to make Torah more accessible, but still people feel alienated. What are we missing? Perhaps we have made Torah too accessible? We have lost our zeal. Would we try harder if it was in heaven or across the sea? But I do not think that is all of it.

We fail because we have not done a good job expressing the “why”? Yes I am Hassid of Simon Sinek.  And if you have not seen this TED talk please stop everything and watch it now.

Why is learning valuable? I have my thoughts on this, but for now I just want to put the question out there. In Sinek’s words,

People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And if you talk about what you believe, you will attract those who believe what you believe.

As we prepare for the High Holidays it is interesting to think about your own “why”. And once we figure out our “why” it will not matter if learning Torah is in heaven or across the sea, that is just a “how”.

Our Real Center

In Netzavim Vayeilech, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the commandment of Hakel, the ingathering. Once every 7 years, the entire nation would gather in the Tabernacle and alter in the Temple in a reenactment of the giving of the Torah. This national expression of devotion served as an essential reminder that Torah was at the center of their national experience. Thousands of years later, I believe that it is still critical to maintain Torah at the center of our national consciousness. But what is the Torah that keeps us unified, without subjugating us to one notion or another of uniformity? It is often helpful to explore the intellectual limits of Judaism in an effort to deduce the center. Like the Jewish people the meaning of the Torah is wandering throughout history. I doubt that this will be something that I will be to resolve in this lifetime let alone a short blog post.

It might helping thinking about this question in the context of other aspects of Hakel itselfWhile, they came every 7 years to hear the Torah being read we do not know how well they listened. All we know is that they were asked to show up and they did. While, we in Western thinking often disappear into the world of our heads, we should not forget the importance of being together physically in one place even or especially when we do not agree with each other.

We recently just finished summer camp and next week we will all be together for Rosh HaShanah. It is truly amazing getting together with so many people with whom you have a connection in one place. There is a certain excitement that cannot not be discounted. While, this is amazing we cannot forget the importance of having one place for the Jewish people all the world over.  In the words of Ahad Ha-am, Israel is our “spiritual center” for a cultural and spiritual revival of the Jewish people. While it is important for us all to be grappling with the same Torah, we cannot undervalue the importance of having a geographic epicenter for our people. With things looming in Syria it is impossible for our thoughts not being with our Jewish family in Israel during this time of Year. May we all be in-gathered and inscribed together in the Book of Life.

Just A Game

I wanted to share with you (again) one of my favorite stories said in the name of Maggid of Mezritch.  Once a Rebbe was walking and he saw a young boy crying sitting behind a wall. The Rebbe asked the boy why he was crying. The boy responded that he was playing hide and seek with his friends. The Rebbe said, ” But, that seems like a fun game. Why are you crying?” The boy explained that he was crying because he thought that his friends forgot about him. And hearing  this the Rebbe started crying. They boy asked the Rebbe why he was crying.  The Rebbe responded, ” Now I know how God feels”.

This week, in Vayehlech, this  week’s Torah portion,we read:

17 Then My anger shall be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them, and I will hide My face from them, and they shall be devoured, and many evils and troubles shall come upon them; so that they will say in that day: Are not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us? 18 And I will surely hide My face in that day for all the evil which they shall have wrought, in that they are turned unto other gods. ( Deuteronomy 31:17-18)

This is the Bible’s play at theodicy. God is not responsible for bad things happening, he is hiding his face in history as a response to our bad deeds. It is our fault for God being absent. But I think it is more constructive to understand this idea in the context of the Maggid’s storyof a God who is playing hide and seek? Like the Rebbe I am sad to realize how many have given up on the game. God must be lonely. More than sadness thinking about this today makes be feel terrified. I am terrified  by those who forgot it was a game. There is a troubling rise of militant fundamentalism ( in all religions) who are so committed to their ideology that they cannot enjoy the playful nature of living in a world with doubt and wonder. And even worse, they have grown callous to seeing the pain of others. It is disheartening to see that we are living in a world that is painfully divided. Personally I am not invested in your finding God or proving to you that God cannot be found.  I am invested in realizing that the game is worth playing. If for no other reason than in the process of playing we might learn how to play together nicely.

 


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