Friday, March 27, 2015

Freedom to Serve

This week’s Torah portion is Va’eira, which means and He appeared. It begins with a repetition of God’s name, yud, hei, vav, hei. God then makes five magnificent promises to Moses, that we will be taken out of Egypt and given our own land. Moses doubts that he will be able to influence Pharaoh but God sends him with Aaron to begin the cycle of the ten plagues. Seven plagues occur in this portion. There is a well-known phrase that appears six times in the Torah, “Send out my people that they may serve me.” Sometimes it is translated, “Let my people go, that they may bring offerings.” (Ex. 7:16, 26; 8:16; 9:1, 13; 10:3) It’s important to realize that we were not just being let go. We were being freed for something: for service.

The Etz Chayim commentary also stresses this. The power struggle between Pharaoh and God was about who we would serve. It is said in the text that God would harden Pharaoh’s heart, but in the first few interactions, the Torah reports that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. How did he do this? By not being willing to cede any of his power. We know that God met power with power: Pharaoh’s use of his power came back at him like a boomerang, to mix cultural references. Moses knew that he himself had no power, and he became God’s servant. This is what God intended for the Israelites: to become God’s servants rather than Pharaoh’s, but Pharaoh believed we should serve him. By beginning the portion with God’s name, which means Being, Existence, God introduces to Moses only, and through him to us, the idea of universal moral law. God tells Moses to say, “Send out the people that they may serve me”; but perhaps we should read this, “Send out the people that they may serve me,” and not you. God wants Pharaoh, Moses, the Egyptians, and the Israelites all to realize that God is not only a higher and more powerful power, but that God is natural law and moral law. God is gravity, in the physical realm, and also goodness and freedom in the moral realm.

Pharaoh does not seem to grasp the principle of moral cause and effect, which the Torah teaches us near the end of Leviticus, where it says, “the same shall be done to you.” (Levit. 26:16) The Israelites’ God was such a threat to Egypt because God’s presence meant the end of the Absolute Monarchy and also a threat to immoral authority. We know that there are no chiefs in Judaism, only the rank and file. There are no rulers in Judaism, only servants. Had Pharaoh ceded his power to God, he would have become just another servant, a king no more.

An interesting detail is that Pharaoh asks Moses to speak to God for him. Pharaoh can’t have an honest relationship with God because Pharaoh is playing chess with power, manipulating and twisting the truth. He doesn’t understand the power he is trying to wield. God doesn’t want us freed in order to win. God wants our service to change the world.

Moses asks Pharaoh to let us go that we may bring offerings, only that doesn’t happen. We are the offerings; it is ourselves that God desires, for what Abraham Joshua Heschl called, moral grandeur and spiritual audacity. When Heschl walked with Martin Luther King and stood by him, they, and so many others, stood for God’s higher authority. In ancient Egypt it was a very special time in history, when God made plans to introduce the understanding of natural law and moral truth: that human power has limits because it must serve that which is greater than itself. If it benefits only a few, it is false, If it benefits the whole, it comes from the Divine.

When we exploit people and try to keep them down, taking away rights and opportunities, we use power dishonestly, twisting the truth. When we promote each other’s welfare, freedom, and prosperity, taking their plight as our own, we do God's work. May we serve the greater good as did Dr. King and those who he inspired to go with him. May we keep in mind that we are here for service: for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity, to make this world a better place. Each of us has a role to play in the unfolding of goodness, in ourselves and in the world. May those who have served before us be our examples and may we work with God’s power in the universe, and not against it.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Becoming Fully Human

This week’s Torah portion is the beginning of the Book of Exodus, called Shemot, which means, names. It tells of the first instance of Anti-Semitism, of our persecution and enslavement in Egypt, of the birth of Moses, God’s call to Moses to take the Israelites out of Egypt, and Moses’ first encounters with Pharaoh. This week we also heard about the terrorist attack in France, in which 12 people were killed, not as an act of violence to avenge a murder, but for an insult: the ridiculing of Islam and the prophet Mohammed. A sentence in this week’s Torah portion comes to mind: Why do you strike your fellow?

Moses asked this in a famous incident the Torah describes this way: “…Moses grew up and went out to his brethren and saw their burdens; and he saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man, of his brethren. He turned this way and that and saw that there was no man, so he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. He went out the next day and behold, two Hebrew men were striving. He said to the wicked one, why do you strike your fellow? He replied who made you a man, a ruler, and a judge over us…” (Gen. 2:11-14) Moses, out of compassion for a fellow Israelite, kills an Egyptian taskmaster, who is beating a Hebrew man. The next day, Moses tries to break up a fight between two Israelite men. The question he asks, Why do you strike your fellow? is actually a cosmic question for us. Why do we kill each other? Why are we killing our fellows, our neighbors, the ones who are of ourselves and part of ourselves? The ones who are us?

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch comments on, “Who put you as a man, a ruler and a judge over us.” He says “These words reveal even at this early stage of our history, a trait that characterizes us to this day, one that lies at the root of all our flaws and our virtues as a nation. 600,000 men, or perhaps I should say, 6 million people, cannot muster the courage to defend their children against the minions of one non-Jewish tyrant; but not one of them will accept the authority of a fellow Jew…Of what intractable stuff must we have been then, before we entered the training course.” God, in the Torah, calls us stiff-necked five times. But is this just a Jewish trait, or is this the way we humans are?

Our personal egos are fragile and because of that, we puff them up and also make them rather rigid, disguising our soft, vulnerable inner core, making a shield to protect us from the world. This protection works against us, cutting us off from others. It disguises our negative qualities and lets us pretend to be better than we are.

Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk in a commentary on Shemot, said, “Man’s essential function is to uproot our negative character traits: hate jealously, vanity, lust, envy, and greed. These flaws must be rectified in order that we can rise to great spiritual heights with devekut, cleaving to God, may God be blessed.” (P. 117) We are presented with acts of terrorism which we think are something new: Radical Islam, but is it truly new? Isn’t it hate, jealousy, vanity, lust, envy, greed, and puffed up & rigid ego disguising our inadequacies? The list of flaws was written in the 19th Century, and words like them have been written thousands of years ago.

When we are stiff-necked we are fooling ourselves into believing that we are better than we really are, that we are living up to our professed values and ideals. An examination of our ability to project onto others reveals that we criticize in others what we can’t live within ourselves. Attacking the other then, is a judgment against ourselves. This portion begins by naming Jacob, the person who grew the most of anyone in the Torah, becoming Israel, the one who struggles with God, but also with himself, with his negative qualities. The problems of our society are within us. We can be truth tellers to ourselves, as well as in the greater human community. We can expose, as I like to say, the wolf in grandma’s new dress. We can acknowledge how thin is the veneer of civilization and how far we have to go to be the people we ourselves can look up to.

How far do we have to go to be able to respect ourselves? Moses’ question, why do your strike your fellow? can be answered by the statement: because we are ignorant of our oneness; because we still can’t be the people we want to be; because we still exhibit far too much hatred, jealousy, vanity, lust envy, greed and way too much ego; because we are not yet fully human. Moses asked his question in an attempt to draw out compassion from two people who had forgotten it. That is Moses’ name: drawing out. We can see ourselves in the two Israelites who Moses addressed, but also in Moses. The retort of the Israelite, “Who made you a man, a judge over us,” is another cosmic question. We are made human by the Divine; we are connected, and we are vulnerable and deeply afraid of showing it. But with compassion for others, acceptance of ourselves, and a little more truth, we can move away from needing such great defenses that we will even kill each other to feel better. We can become fully human, a man, a person who stands for truth, compassion, and justice.


Friday, March 6, 2015

Unifying All the Parts of Ourselves

This week’s Torah portion is Vayechi, which means, and he lived. Jacob and his family are living in Egypt. He is nearly blind and near death. He calls his son Joseph to ask him to bury him in Canaan, in Eretz Israel. He then adopts Joseph’s sons, Menashe and Ephraim, adding them to the tribes of Israel, and blesses them. Later, on his deathbed, he assembles his family and chooses a leader, and then dies. At the end of the portion, Joseph, having assured his brothers of his complete forgiveness, also dies.

The Torah tells us that something strange occurred when Jacob blessed his grandsons. It says, “Joseph took the two of them, Ephraim with his right hand to Israel’s left and Menashe with his left hand to Israel’s right and he drew close to him But Israel extended his right hand and laid it on Ephraim’s head, though he was the younger and his left hand on Menashe’s head. He moved his hands with intelligence for Menashe was the firstborn. ” (Gen. 48:13-14) Joseph objects but Jacob makes a prediction that Ephraim will become greater than Menashe. Then he blesses the boys, “by you shall Israel bless, saying, May God make you like Ephraim and like Menashe.” (48:20)

There is a long tradition in Judaism that the right hand symbolizes the yetzer hatov, the good impulse, and the left hand symbolizes the yetzer hara.{And we found out a few years ago when we took a trip to the Metropolitan Museum, that this episode of Jacob blessing his grandsons was portrayed in a renaissance tapestry as a symbol of the cross!} In the Talmud the “rabbis taught, always let the left hand thrust away and the right hand draw near.”(Sotah 47a) We can see that there was a deep chasm between the right and left, the good and evil impulses, at the time of the Talmud. However in the Torah, in Deuteronomy, there is another tradition: “Serve God with all your hearts.” The Chassidic masters aligned themselves with the principle of unifying the two parts of ourselves.

Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk wrote, “Ideally, we must serve God with both inclinations.”(P140) My teacher, Rabbi Gelberman, who came out of the Chasidic Satmar lineage taught that if you cut off the evil inclination, “you end up with a one-armed man.”(Personal communication) Rabbi Gelberman had a PhD in psychology. He was a therapist as well as a rabbi. Surely he had read the teachings of Carl Jung, who dreamed about a figure he called the Shadow, describing the Shadow as, “the dark side of his being.” (P. 235, Memories, Dreams and Reflections) Jung came to believe in the necessity of the unification of the conscious and unconscious, as well as the good self and the shadow self; that there is energy in the shadow which is creative and also necessary for our growth; and that the solution to the conflict between these opposites “is felt as grace.” How does this relate to Menashe and Ephraim?

Jung’s teaching about grace is echoed by Rabbi Gunther Plaut, who wrote that, “Every blessing bestowed by a person is at the core a prayer, since it asks God to help accomplish what the person by oneself cannot. (P. 305). This acknowledges God’s presence in every human interaction. Jung felt the goodness and rightness of that harmony which is representative of God’s Oneness. This relates in another way as well. The Rebbe of Zolitz (Soul of the Torah, P. 78) said that “Jacob noticed that although he promised the younger one greatness, Ephraim did not become arrogant and Menashe did not become jealous.” There is a long tradition that Menashe and Ephraim were the first Jewish brothers who got along well, which explains why they so deserved the blessing that all children become like them.

This also teaches us a more modern approach, a more psychological approach to working with ourselves to move forward in this New Year. First, we can look for and seek out parts of ourselves that we are ashamed of and don’t really approve of; parts we may have locked away, not wanting to deal with them; parts that we hope won’t pop out unexpectedly. We can work toward accepting those parts of us that are less than charming, and even love them. Then we can use the energy and creativity in those shadow parts of ourselves, harmonizing our acceptable and less acceptable selves to make inner peace, as it is said in the Song of Songs, let his left hand be under my head and his right hand embrace me. (SOS 2:6 & 8:3)

If we think about it, this inner conflict is also a metaphor for the parts of the human family we don’t find acceptable, and who we have to accept and love before the Messianic age of peace can arrive. Unless we become whole and at peace with ourselves, inwardly and outwardly, there is no grace, no blessing. Another detail: when Jacob stretched his right hand over to Ephraim and his left to Menashe, the left hand was on top! When we can be as happy and proud of all our energies, then we will be complete, whole, and capable of great goodness, even holiness. In this New Year, may we come to gently harmonize and accept our total selves: loving each part of us, integrating all parts into a contented whole, so that we may serve life: humanity and God, with all our energies, all our hearts.

Friday, February 27, 2015

No One Is Alone

This week’s Torah portion is Vayigash, which means, and he approached. Judah, Jacob’s fourth son, approaches Joseph, Viceroy of Egypt, who is really his brother, to plead for their youngest brother, Benjamin; and to ask to be enslaved in place of Benjamin. Benjamin has been wrongly accused of stealing Joseph’s silver cup. When Joseph learns that his brothers love and support Benjamin, Joseph reveals his identity to them and forgives them. He then arranges to bring his father and his brothers’ families to Egypt so that they will be sustained during the continuing famine.

The first three words of this portion are: “Vayigash eilav Yehudah, and Judah approached him.” Later in the portion there are the words: “For it was for life that Elohim, or God, sent me ahead of you.” It is a curious attribute of Hebrew that the word eilav, has an unpronounced yud before the last letter. It is also a curiosity that one of the words we use for God, Elohim, is plural. In Hebrew, the yud toward the end of a word tells us that it is plural. Very few people speak or write about this. And in fact, the plural of Elohim, which literally means Gods, is a bit of an embarrassment in Judaism.

We don’t know why the Torah uses a plural term for God. Perhaps the Torah is making a very important point with these plural words. If God includes everything, then reminding us of God’s plurality: of the many, many of us people existing within God, is very important. So, too, with the word eilav, him or, of him, or to him. This plural quality of the word means that no person is alone. No person is even a singular. God is always present: in every interaction, in every person; and one person represents us all, and is part of us all. And perhaps this is why the speech of Judah to Joseph is considered one of the most beautiful in the Torah: Judah is making a human connection to Joseph which expresses the great truth that we are part of each other. This is also why Joseph’s forgiveness of his brothers feels so right: because it expresses that same truth, that we are one, and one within God.

The Berdichever Rebbe commented on another verse, “If your youngest brother does not come down with you, you will not see my face again.” He said, “if you are not concerned with your brother, who is not on your level or status,” meaning those who are poor, “then you will not see my face again. This means that when we forget that we are connected to others and to God, by treating others as if they don’t matter, as if they are not as important as ourselves, we distance ourselves from the Divine Presence; but when we make human connections, it feels so right, because it is true, and we mint love and goodness in the world.

The S’fat Emet wrote about the meaning of this Oneness. He said, “The meaning of One is that there is nothing except God…God is the All…Even though we are incapable of understanding this properly, we still need to have faith in it. This faith will lead us to Truth.” Later, he says, commenting on Rabbi Isaac Luria’s teaching that God is within us, “You should have faith that you have within yourself the soul of the Living God…When you negate yourself before this Divine Life-point, wanting to know the Truth, it will be revealed to you.”

If the reasoning seems circular, perhaps it is. Knowledge leads to faith. Faith in our knowledge leads to Truth, which in turn, leads back to Faith and to knowledge; and it all leads to a deep natural knowing that the human connections we forge reveal our own God-nature and God’s goodness.

Joseph and Judah were remarkable people: Judah for his amazing growth as a person, his willingness to sacrifice himself to be enslaved instead of Benjamin, and his faith in himself to forge a vital human connection to this Vice Pharaoh of Egypt. Joseph, too, for his growth as a person, his forgiveness, and his ability to be touched by Judah and form a human connection to him. They expressed the deep truth of our connection to each other. May we realize the God nature within us, and form those vital human connections which lead right back to Divinity.

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Education of a Son

This week’s Torah portion is Vayetze, which means, and he went. Jacob, who had tricked his Father and stolen Esau’s blessing is travelling to Haran, sent away by his parents to avoid Esau’s rage and to find a wife with his Uncle Laban. He dreams of a ladder reaching to heaven with angels ascending and descending on it. God promises to be with him and return him to the land of Canaan, informing him that it will be given it to him and his descendants. He arrives at Haran, sees Rachel, and fall in love with her immediately. He is welcomed with open arms by her Father, Laban, who says to him, “Nevertheless, you are my bone and flesh.” (Gen. 29:14)

It seems like a puzzling statement, as if Laban is not happy to see him, until we consider the last visit of Jacob’s family to Haran. When Abraham sent his servant to find a wife for Isaac, he sent camels, servants, gold jewelry, and presents for Laban’s family and the new bride. Jacob arrives with only his own two feet; and Laban puts him right to work. Jacob asks to marry Rachel and agrees to work for seven years as the bride price, which was customary in those days. This turn of events is very interesting if we consider Jacob’s Father Isaac’s words to him in the previous portion.

Isaac has just been tricked by Jacob and his own wife, Rebecca, into giving the blessing of the firstborn to Jacob, when it was intended for Isaac. Isaac seems to forgive Jacob, sending him off with a blessing, instructing him to go to Laban and find a wife there. Isaac says, “May El Shaddai bless you, make you fruitful, and make you numerous, and may you be a congregation of peoples. May God grant you the blessing of Abraham, to you and to your offspring with you, that you may possess the land of your sojourns which God gave to Abraham. (Gen. 28:3-4) Apparently, Isaac has forgiven Jacob, but the old man has yet some tricks up his sleeve.

He seemingly goes with the flow, accepting what has been done to him with grace and no bitterness, not bearing a grudge and not taking revenge, which is a teaching for us. Allowing and accepting what is happening is great wisdom. And in addition, Isaac possesses even a deeper wisdom, sending Jacob off to learn the hard lessons of real life, similarly to what God did for Cain, after Cain killed Abel; sending him off to learn and grow. Isaac, who had his very difficult and life changing experience when Abraham nearly sacrificed him, in which he came face to face with God’s Presence, is preparing his son without anger, hatred, or resentment added. And this is where another teaching lies. We are all in Life University, God’s sacred University, undergoing trials and triumphs to teach us and to elevate us. We have some elective courses in this University, but also, some difficult courses are required. Our task is to allow and accept what happens, doing our best to find a way to learn and elevate ourselves as we study, as we live life.

Many people underestimate Isaac. Here, he knows just what Jacob needs in life. He sees Jacob for who he is: someone who is not above lying and scheming, yet he loves him and wants the very best for him. Acceptance plus love are two powerful allies. The first makes our lives so much less stressful. It is a product of faith and trust. The second, love, enriches us and all life immeasurably. May these allies: acceptance and love, guide us, that we, like Isaac, may attain what Moses called, a heart of wisdom.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Scarcity and Blessings

This week’s Torah portion is Toldot, which means generations. It tells of the birth of the twins, Esau and Jacob to their parents, Rebecca and Isaac. Jacob persuades Esau to sell him his birthright, the right of inheritance of the firstborn. There is also a section about Isaac’s servants re-digging the wells of his father, Abraham, and of making peace with the local chieftain; and then there is the well-known story of how Rebecca and Jacob trick Isaac into giving Jacob the blessing of the firstborn, after which Jacob has to leave home to escape his brother’s anger.

It is interesting that there is so much conflict in this portion, and that it seems to revolve around food; and interesting coincidence that we read this portion before Thanksgiving. To obtain food when he is hungry and exhausted, Esau sells his birthright of the firstborn. Later, Isaac asks Esau to make him a meal of the game he will catch, after which Isaac will give Esau a blessing. Love and food seem to get all mixed up in this portion. In some families, like Jacob and Esau’s family, there is seemingly not enough love to go around. Esau’s heart rending cry, “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?...Is there only one blessing? Bless me too, Father!” (Gen. 27:36, 38) touches us deeply.

The orientation of scarcity in life is something that, spiritually speaking, is really not true. The more we love, the more we mint the spiritual currency of the world, and the more love there is. This is true for most physical things as well. Even money flows according to our deeds and to Divine law. A scarcity of love, of blessing in Isaac & Rebecca’s family, comes because of favoritism, judging and controlling, which we also engage in concerning family members. The family is where we are known at our best and at our worst, and where we think we know each other. But are we really good judges of each other; and are we here to judge?

Our task on earth is really not to judge or control, but to accept and help each other. This is the essence of what a family is all about. When we can accept each other with all our faults and strengths, and actually love each other, scarcity disappears. Lovers happily share even a small bed. And the Torah teaches us in the book of Numbers, at the end of Chukat, that when we cooperate, there is more for everyone.

In the Middle East, the center of religion, sadly, none of the leaders seems to have read this in the Holy Books. At the end of this portion, both Jacob and Esau receive a blessing. The Chassidic master, the Vorker Rebbe taught, “No matter what one’s station, one can obtain a blessing.” (Soul of the Torah, P. 43) At this holiday time, may we accept, help, and not judge each other. May we express our love and thereby, receive many, many blessings.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Are Neanderthals in the Torah?

Re: NY Times Article:
Skull Fossil Offers New Clues On Human Journey From Africa 1/29/15

As a former biologist and current rabbi, I had been teaching my bar and bat mitzvah students the possibility of interbreeding among humans and Neanderthals for a number of years, based on Genesis: 6: 1-4, when the research confirming the percentage of Neanderthal DNA in human populations became public a few years ago. This latest find, in addition to prior articles, shows that the early sections of Genesis contain fascinating clues about scientific truths, if we are curious and know how to interpret them. My students were amazed that what I had been teaching them as a possibility was actually true.