Archive for the '5.09 Ha'azinu' Category

Agnostic Gestures: God’s Hidden Hand Motions

In Ha’Azinu, this week’s Torah portion, we learn about God Hiding God’s Self from us in difficult times. There we read:

And God said: ‘I will hide My face from them, I will see what their end shall be; for they are a very contrary generation, children in whom is no faithfulness. ( Deuteronomy 32:20)

In reference to this passage we learn in the Gemara that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hanania was once at the Roman emperor Hadrian‘s court. An unbeliever gestured to Rabbi Yehoshua in sign language that the Jewish people was a people from whom their God had turned God’s face. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hanania gestured in reply that God’s hand was stretched over the Jewish people. AS it says in Isaiah, “And I have covered you in the shadow of My hand.” (Isaiah 51:16 ) Emperor Hadrian asked Rabbi Yehoshua what unbeliever had said. Rabbi Yehoshua told the emperor what unbeliever had said and what Rabbi Yehoshua had replied. They then asked the unbeliever what he had said, and he told them. And then they asked what Rabbi Yehoshua had replied, and the unbeliever did not know. They decreed that a man who does not understand what he is being shown by gesture should hold conversations in signs in front of the emperor, and they led him forth and executed him for his disrespect to the emperor (Chagigah 5 a-b) 

This reminds me of one of my favorite jokes that comes in various forms about the silent debate between the Rabbi and the Pope. One version goes that several centuries ago, the Pope decreed that all the Jews had to convert to Catholicism or leave Italy. There was a huge outcry from the Jewish community, so the Pope offered a deal: he’d have a  religious debate with the leader of the Jewish community. If the Jews
won, they could stay in Italy; if the Pope won, they’d have to convert or leave.

The Jewish people met and picked an aged and wise rabbi to represent them in the debate. However, as the rabbi spoke no Italian, and the Pope spoke no Yiddish, they agreed that it would be a ‘silent’ debate. On the chosen day the Pope and rabbi sat opposite each other. The Pope raised his hand and showed three fingers. The rabbi looked back and raised one finger. Next, the Pope waved his finger around his head. The rabbi pointed to the ground where he sat. The Pope brought out a communion wafer and a chalice of wine. The rabbi pulled out an apple. With that, the Pope stood up and declared himself beaten and said that the rabbi was too clever. The Jews could stay in Italy .

Later the Cardinals met with the Pope and asked him what had happened. The Pope said, “First I held up three fingers to represent the Trinity. He responded by holding up a single finger to remind me there
is still only one God common to both our faiths. Then, I waved my finger around my head to show him that God was all around us. The rabbi responded by pointing to the ground to show that
God was also right here with us. I pulled out the wine and host to show that through the perfect
sacrifice Jesus has atoned for our sins, but the rabbi pulled out an apple to remind me of the original sin. He bested me at every move and I could not continue.”

Meanwhile, the Jewish community gathered to ask the rabbi how he’d won. “I haven’t a clue,” said the rabbi. “First, he told me that we had  three days to get out of Italy, so I gave him the finger. Then he tells me that the whole country would be cleared of Jews but I told him emphatically that we were staying right here.” “And then what?” asked a woman. “Who knows?” said the rabbi. “He took out his lunch, so I took out mine.”

As evident in the both stories, God works in mysterious ways and we can never be sure that we are communicating effectively if we are limited to using gestures. So while it is true that I like many I often experience our age as a time in which God’s face is hidden, I can also say with confidence that I do not understand God’s “gestures”.  Far be it from me to claim to understand these gestures in front of the King. And who knows, maybe God does not want to drive us away, maybe God just wants a break for lunch.

 

 

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Pontification: The Pope and Our Parsha

Pope Francis‘s tour of the United States is all over the news. Even if he does not have any true nation-state power, this Pope has proven that he has tremendous influence as a world leader. As the Pope he is the  head of state and government of the Vatican City, which is an internationally recognized nation-state with an army, but I doubt that the Swiss Guards pose and real threat to anyone. With so many people swooning over him, it seems that they think that he is much more than just another Bono. I was thinking about his beyond rock-star status when reading Ha’Azinu, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

Is this how you repay the Lord, you disgraceful, unwise people?! Is God not your Father, your Master? God has made you and established you. ( Deuteronomy 32:6)

Moshe is warning the people to recognize that God is the true Master and alone is responsible for the people’s existence. On the idea that God established you Rashi comments:

After making you a special nation, God established you upon every kind of firm base and foundation: your priests are from among yourselves; your prophets are from among yourselves, and your kings are from among yourselves. Indeed, you are like a city from which all resources are drawn. — (Sifrei 32:6)

On one level is interesting to imagine the nation a self-sufficient city. On another level it is amazing to see that in the Midrash that Rashi quotes that the greatness of the Jewish people comes from our leadership coming from our own ranks. This idea itself points to Pope Francis’s success.  He is not a rock star because he is on stage or holding his office, rather his greatness comes from his ability to connect authentically with his nation and the world. Pope Francis’s authenticity flows from his being one of the people.

Indeed, if you were to see Pope Frances the blessing you would say is:

Blessed are You, HaShem, our God, King of the universe, Who has given of God’s glory to human beings.

As we learn in our Torah portion, the true glory comes from God. The true lesson in that the people who claim to represent God job is to truly represent their people and reflect that glory away from themselves, maybe even to God. If the Pope did not pursue this he would just be another guy with a Kippah going around New York City trying to do good and impress his mother.

Shut Up: An Accomplished TED New Year

At this time of year I imagine that I am in good company with many of you who are also struggling with your  New Year’s resolutions. I like many of you fall into the trap of sharing my aspirations for the coming year with other people. While you think it might create a sense of accountability, in reality telling people what you want to accomplish gives you the reward as if you already did the hard work. It seem to be counter-intuitive, but according to Derek Sivers,”Repeated psychology tests have proven that telling someone your goal makes it less likely to happen.” It is a wonderful and short TED talk. Take a look:

It seems if we want to accomplish all that we want to do in this coming year, we might be best served by shutting up.

This seems particularly poignant with Haazinu, this week’s Torah portion. Here we read the Song of Moses in which we learn of the indictment of the Israelites’ sins, the prophecy of their punishment, and the promise of God’s ultimate redemption of them. At the start of our portion we read, ” Give ear, you heavens, and I will speak; and let the earth hear the words of my mouth.” ( Deuteronomy 32:1). And near the end of the Torah portion we read, ”  And when Moses made an end of speaking all these words to all Israel,  he said unto them: ‘Set your heart unto all the words wherewith I testify against you this day; that you may charge your children there with to observe to do all the words of this law.( Deuteronomy 32:45-46)Like Sivers teaches, if we want set our hearts “to observe to do all the words of this law” we need to shut up. We need to do less talking and more listening.  But, is it possible that all of our listened, praying, and saying that we did on Yom Kippur itself will get in the way of our accomplishments this coming year? Who am I to say?

Falling into Success

Blog Imagine of Lincoln

Lost job in 1832.
Defeated for state legislature in 1832.
Failed in business in 1833.
Elected to state legislature in 1834.
Sweetheart died in 1835.
Had nervous breakdown in 1836.
Defeated for Speaker in 1838.
Defeated for nomination for Congress in 1843.
Elected to Congress in 1846.
Lost renomination in 1848.
Rejected for land officer in 1849.
Defeated for U.S. Senate in 1854.
Defeated for nomination for Vice President in 1856.
Again defeated for U.S. Senate in 1858.
Elected President in 1860.

–         Abraham Lincoln

The difference between failing and falling is getting back up. It is clear that Lincoln had many set backs, but that did not dissuade him from seeking the highest position of power. Despite all of these failures, he is seen by most as a tremendous success.

This seems to be in counter distinction to the person of Moses. He successfully liberated his people from slavery in Egypt, received the Torah at Sinai, and led his people on a 40-year journey through the desert. Yet, despite his impressive resume it seems that Moses failed to accomplish his ultimate mission of bringing the people into the Promised Land. As we read in this week’s portion, HaAzinu, Moses will not get to lead the people into the land of Israel, because he trespassed against God among the Children of Israel at the waters of Meribat-Kadesh( Deuteronomy 32:51).

If I were Lincoln, I cannot imagine not having grown averse to taking risks after having failed so many times. So too, amidst all the success of Moses, he could have stopped and become complacent and declared himself a success long before he would have been confronted by failure. While both of them were very accomplished, looking at Lincoln and Moses side by side I have to ask are we more afraid of failing or of actually succeeding?

On Yom Kippur we will spend a lot of time thinking about our failures, but I think we should allow ourselves to be challenged by Moses’s drive to success after succeeding.  I think this challenge is captured in the poem by Marianne Williamson, “Our Greatest Fear”:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant,
gorgeous, handsome, talented and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking
so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine, as children do.
We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us.
It is not just in some; it is in everyone.
And, as we let our own light shine, we consciously give
other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our fear,
our presence automatically liberates others.

Both Lincoln and Moses liberated us from slavery. While some of us need to learn from Lincoln how to recover from failure, it would serve us all well to emulate Moses and push ourselves even higher. Yes continuing to push ourselves to the limit will necessarily mean ultimately falling short, but that is hardly failure.  As we start this New Year, it is important to not just focus on our failures. We should all take a moment and set a mission for the coming year.  Having a clear vision of what success looks like makes all of the challenges and distractions along the way seem less relevant. I am sure that we will not succeed at everything, but with some determination we might just fall into success.


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