Posts Tagged 'Theology'



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?

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.

 

John 6:13

It is hard to watch a sporting event let a lone walk down the street without seeing signs reading “John 3:6“.  So what does it say? The New Testament reads:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.— John 3:16

It  has been called the most famous Bible verse and the Gospel in a nutshell. Seeing that I am an observant Jew, that is a nut I just cannot crack. While a historical Jesus may or may not have existed, I am not sure how good of a religious leader he was and he was surely no Son of God. Despite being so famous, it was never covered in any of Biblical studies classes in Rabbinical school. I am stuck thinking about Re’eh, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

2 If there arise in your midst a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams–and he give you a sign or a wonder, 3 and the sign or the wonder come to pass, whereof he spoke to you–saying: ‘Let us go after other gods, which you have not known, and let us serve them’; 4 you shall not listen to the words of that prophet, or to that dreamer of dreams; for the Lord your God puts you to proof, to know whether you do love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. 5 After the Lord your God shall you walk, and you shall fear God, and God’s commandments shall you keep, and to God’s voice you shall hearken, and God you shall serve, and to God shall you cleave. 6 And that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams, shall be put to death; because he has spoken perversion against the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed you out of the house of bondage, to draw you aside out of the way which the Lord your God commanded you to walk in. So shall you put away the evil from your midst.  (Deuteronomy 13:2-6)

Clearly for us Jews, there is no idea of agency. We do not need any intermediary between us and God. We are not called by John 3:16, but rather the Torah 613. And I know this will not make me popular but this Jesus guy would probably have fallen into this false prophet category.

I believe on free speech and on one level I can acknowledge that it is lovely that people want to share their faith with me. But on another level I have to admit that I am a little put off by all of the John 3:16 signage. How would those people feel if I showed up at sporting events with signs reading  “Deut 13:6”?  I am not about to do that, but if one of you reading this makes a shirt, please send me one.

Closer to Revelation

This week we start reading Veyikra, the book of Leviticus. It is choked full of rules regarding sacrifices. You could understand why it seemed strange to learn the Midrash when it said:

Rav Assi said that young children began their Torah studies with Leviticus and not with Genesis because young children are pure, and the sacrifices explained in Leviticus are pure, so the pure studied the pure. (Leviticus Rabbah 7:3.)

I understand why people might think that the story of Genesis is too nuanced to be a young child’s initiation to learning. But, just because we are not starting off with the Garden of Eden does not mean that we should start off with all of the blood and gore and guts of Leviticus.

The word “korban” (sacrifice) derives from the word that means “that which is brought close.” Bringing a korban was not just the process of giving something up to the Tabernacle or Temple, but the process of becoming closer.  Maybe this is what we need to be teaching out children.

Education is not about the blood of the sacrifices or for that matter any of the data. It is about relationships and making those connections. Education is not just about knowledge; it is about wisdom.

As the Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig said, “it is learning in reverse order, a learning that no longer starts from the Torah and leads into life but the other way around: from life…back to the Torah.” Revelation is not limited to something that might or might not have happened long ago at Sinai, but it is something that is happening in the learning experience itself today.   So too korbanot, this drawing near, is not limited to the sacrifices, but needs to be about making connections. Now more than ever relevance is a prerequisite to revelation.

– This blog post is written in honor of the wedding of Daniel Infeld and Rachel Ross

Count On It

In Lech Lecha, this week’s Torah portion, we see Avraham come into his own as a (or even the) person of faith. There we read:

5 And God brought him out, and said: ‘Look now toward heaven, and count the stars, if you are able to count them’; and God said unto him: ‘So shall be your seed.’  6 And he believed in the Lord; and God counted it to him for righteousness.  (Genesis 15:5-6)

While it is hard to see in modern city living, we have all been out in nature and looked up and saw the majestic night sky. We have all been humbled by the image of the vast universe with it countless stars.

Similarly, Avram was  brought out of the tent to count the stars. What made him think, feel, or believe that he could count these stars? Even today with all of our amazing technology this is still not possible. Clearly Avram was a man of faith. For most of my life I assumed that his emunah was tremendous and frankly out of reach. How could I ever achieve that level of faith?

Later in the same chapter we learn about the Covenant Between The Parts. It is dramatic scene in which Avram sacrifices a number of animals, we are told of a covenant between God and the decedents of Avram, and a flame comes down and goes in between the parts. There we read:

12 And it came to pass, that, when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Avram; and, a dread, even a great darkness, fell upon him. 13 And God said to Avram: ‘Know of a surety that your seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; 14 and also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge; and afterward shall they come out with great substance. 15 But you shall go to their fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And in the fourth generation they shall come back from there; for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet full.’ 17 And it came to pass, that, when the sun went down, and there was thick darkness, behold a smoking furnace, and a flaming torch that passed between these pieces. (Genesis 15:12-17)

This darkness clearly sets up the theatrical moment for the fire passing between the parts. It also has profound implications as for the nature of faith.

If  the sun goes down during the Covenant Between the Parts, it implies that it was up for Avram’s moment of faith. What if was not our image of the starry night? What might it have meant for Avram to be lead out of his tent in the middle of the day to look up to the sky and count the stars in heaven?

I might not believe that I could count the stars in the universe, but I do believe that the stars will be out tonight. I do have faith that certain things exist even when I do not see them. Maybe God is just asking Avram (and us for that matter) to believe in God even when we cannot see God.  Faith need not be infinitely complex.  We can trust and believe with our eyes wide open. Maybe faith can be this simple without being simplistic. This is a faith that is within reach and one you can count on in our modern lives.

Get the Message

There are a lot of familiar parts to VaEtchanan, this week’s Torah portion. First of all we see the rehashing of the 10 Commandments and then of course we have the Shma.There is the Shma we read:

4 Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6 And these words, which I command you this day, shall be upon your heart; 7 and you shall teach them diligently unto your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up. (Deuteronomy 6: 4-7)

There is a huge amount one can say on this short section which has become the central credo of the Jewish People. Today I want to focus in on a small section. What does it mean when it says,  ” which I command you this day”? About this Rashi explains:

They should not be in your eyes like an old edict to which a person does not attach importance, but rather , like a new one, towards which everybody runs. This notion of an old edict denotes an order of the king which comes in writing.  ( Rashi on Deuteronomy 4:6)

In simple terms, Rashi is saying that we are commanded to keep the words of Torah relevant to our lives. But how?

It is hard to imagine Jewish life without Rashi. Similarly it is hard to  imagine contemporary Jewish life without Franz Kafka. In many ways Kafka’s An Imperial Message is a super-commentary to Rashi’s comment here. Kafka’s parable reads:

The Emperor—so they say—has sent a message, directly from his death bed, to you alone, his pathetic subject, a tiny shadow which has taken refuge at the furthest distance from the imperial sun. He ordered the herald to kneel down beside his bed and whispered the message in his ear. He thought it was so important that he had the herald speak it back to him. He confirmed the accuracy of verbal message by nodding his head. And in front of the entire crowd of those witnessing his death—all the obstructing walls have been broken down, and all the great ones of his empire are standing in a circle on the broad and high soaring flights of stairs—in front of all of them he dispatched his herald. The messenger started off at once, a powerful, tireless man. Sticking one arm out and then another, he makes his way through the crowd. If he runs into resistance, he points to his breast where there is a sign of the sun. So he moves forwards easily, unlike anyone else. But the crowd is so huge; its dwelling places are infinite. If there were an open field, how he would fly along, and soon you would hear the marvelous pounding of his fist on your door. But instead of that, how futile are all his efforts. He is still forcing his way through the private rooms of the innermost palace. Never will he win his way through. And if he did manage that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to fight his way down the steps, and, if he managed to do that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to stride through the courtyards, and after the courtyards through the second palace encircling the first, and, then again, through stairs and courtyards, and then, once again, a palace, and so on for thousands of years. And if he finally burst through the outermost door—but that can never, never happen—the royal capital city, the center of the world, is still there in front of him, piled high and full of sediment. No one pushes his way through here, certainly not someone with a message from a dead man. But you sit at your window and dream of that message when evening comes.– Translation by Ian Johnston

It is said that Rav Nachman and Kafka were cut of the same cloth. Rav Nachman was a believer and for Kafka the King is dead.  It is a struggle in the modern era to imagine that were were handed anything other then an “old edict”.  If we seek meaning in our Jewish lives we need to hear the message and transform ourselves, our life styles, and our homes. I do not believe that Judaism will last if we are just sitting at home waiting by the window. That Judaism is never going to be relevant.

We need to re-imagine ourselves as divine partners bringing the message out to the world.  It is living the life of the messenger and raising our children to be messengers after us that the Torah is alive and is not just an old edict. In my moments of doubt I often think about this message that I have been schlepping around this whole time. Who wants to be just a postal worker? But, the message is not for me.  We are couriers of a love letter spending our days looking for the home of the lover.  This letter might bring love and comfort to the intended recipient. For that person I feel an urgency, how ever futile it might be, to get the message there. That is my daily duty. Who am I not do my job?

Preparing for Revelation

It has been too long since I have had a chance to write. It seems that there is no time to get everything done. I especially feel this way today. As I am quickly preparing for Shavuot I am also lamenting that I was not able to be at my son’s Siddur ceremony today at school. I realize that for me this year these two events are connected. My son’s  receiving his first prayer-book is parallel to our collective receiving the Torah.

As we prepare for revelation I look at my children and I look at myself. As a parent, I am often torn between cherishing the few moments with my children at their current stage of life, while simultaneously being consumed by my curiosity to know the people they will become. I see parts of my wife and myself in each of them which teaches me about myself. I also marvel  at the parts that are truly unique to the people they are becoming.

Traditionally we stay up Erev Shavuot for the Tikkun to fix having fallen a sleep at Sinai. For me this year I feel like I need to go to sleep early.  I realize that to be the parent that I aspire to be I need more sleep. I am sure that I will not be present and I will not help reveal the best in my children if I stay up all night. I realize that there is a Torah from Sinai and another Torah that is to be revealed through parenting. I can only hope to  present and not sleep through the revelations manifest in their growing up.

In the Details

From reading the Torah it seems that the foundation of Jewish living is the fact that God freed us from slavery in Egypt. It is clear that Egypt was not the end of our slavery. While it is clear that there is still slavery, the end of it is never the goal. And this is not just for the poor. All of us transition from being the slaves of Pharoah to the slaves of God. What kind of freedom is that?

In Behukotai, this week’s Torah portion, we read;

I am the Lord your God, who brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, that you should not be their bondmen; and I have broken the pegs of your yoke, and made you go upright. ( Leviticus 26:13)

The image of this yoke is compelling. The slave like the ox is just schlepping along carrying the weight of his owner’s burden. While God removes that yoke, it seems like a temporary respite from God’s yoke which we are still schlepping along. But when you go back to this passage we read that God just removed the peg that held it all together. The yoke did not change from, God just removed the lynch pins. The divine is truly in the details. There is a world of difference between having to do something and wanting to do something.

The lynch pin of religion is belief. Without it we are  still just schlepping along. We have to acknowledge that religion cannot claim credit for transforming the world. God did not destroy the yoke, just make it lose enough to transfer masters. For better and for worse religion might just be holding it all together. In this sense maybe the ” devil” is in the details.

Revealing Food and Clothes

On the heels of last week’s Torah portion in which Jacob steals the birthright and the blessing from his brother Esav, this week’s Torah portion begins with Jacob running away from Esav. Just before Jacob leaves the land of Canaan he makes a vow to God, saying:

If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and clothing to wear,  so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then shall the Lord be my God (Genesis 28:20-21)

His vow seems to be theologically charged with the possibility that God’s existence is contingent on God providing for Jacob. Some of the words in the vow seem to be superfluous. Of course food is to be eaten and clothing is to be worn, why does Jacob ask for “bread to eat, and clothing to wear”? It was Jacob himself who used food to get the birthright from Esav and food and clothing to deceive his father and get the blessing. How can Jacob ever look at food and clothing the same way again?

Even though it seems that the deception changed Jacob as a person, it never made him suspect that people would try to deceive him the same way in the future. Sure enough in this week’s Torah portion Jacob gets hoodwinked into marrying a cloaked Leah instead of his beloved Rachel. He then gets deceived by his sons who bring their father Joseph’s clothes with blood on them to support their claim that their brother Joseph was killed. Finally, Jacob will send his sons down to Egypt to get food and there they will all get deceived by Joseph. Ironically, despite Jacob’s claim that food and clothing should be used for their normal use, his life is marked by their use for deception.

If we look at the vow that Jacob makes, in this light, we see that the words are not superfluous and he really wanted God to let him forget the sins of his youth. Surely Jacob’s teshuvah, return, is a lifetime in the making. As we read in Hallel, “The rock that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone” (Psalm 118:22). We can try to run from our past, but one way or another it will catch up with us. Just as in Jacob’s vow, the true revelation of God is contingent upon the true revelation of self.


Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 204 other followers

Archive By Topic


%d bloggers like this: