Monday, September 18, 2017

Grow with the Flow

Is a blessing a curse? What happens to people who are showered with goodness? Are we hard-wired to take things for granted and act out of a finally realized state of entitlement?

In this last week’s parashah (Vayelech), Hashem has Moshe tell the people to write down this song (Ha’azinu, this next week’s parashah) to serve as a warning and testimony regarding the anticipating turning away from G-d which will follow upon Moshe’s passing.  “For I will bring them to the land which I have sworn to their forebears, flowing with milk and honey, and they will eat and become satiated and grow fat and they will turn to other gods and serve them and scorn Me and abrogate My covenant.”

It is tempting to fit this verse into the time-worn theme, expressed at length in the second paragraph of the Shema, and encapsulated by three words from the upcoming parashah: “Jeshurun grew fat and kicked” (Devarim 32:15). Growing fat, satiated, complacent is inextricably bound up with corruption, indulgence, self-importance.

But if that were the message of the verse above, it would have been divided as at first it seems to be:
What Hashem does: For I will bring them to the land which I have sworn to their forebears, flowing with milk and honey
What Israel does: they will eat and become satiated and grow fat and they will turn to other gods and serve them and scorn Me and abrogate My covenant.

Note that the Hebrew seems to emphasize the rejection contained in the parallel:
ארץ זבת חלב     ואכל ושבע ודשן
Three three-letter words encapsulating Hashem’s gift – “flowing with milk and honey” – G-d gives, exudes plenty and sweetness that cannot be contained, is nurturing by nature.
And three three-letter words encapsulating our consumption – “they will eat, and become sated and grow fat” – we take in, engulf, become bloated.

Jeshurun grew fat.

Yet the break in the verse is NOT there, but right before the word(s) “and they turned”. For, the Torah doesn’t use the same term for “grow fat” here as it does in Ha’azinu. There, the word is שמן, the standard word for all things fat. Here, the word is דשן, which, though it is used for “fat”, is also used in contexts of holiness. What remains of the offerings consumed upon the alter is called “deshen”, and in several places, the root is employed in contexts of praise, most notably (to me) in the Song of Shabbat (Tehillim 92:13-15) “A righteous man shall grow like a palm, like a cedar in Lebanon shall he stand tall, planted in Hashem’s house, in the courtyard of our G-d shall they grow, they shall bud and flower in old age, fat (desheinim) and fresh/moist shall they be.”    (see also Tehillim 36:9)


For, it cannot be that it is a law of nature that partaking in the blessing that is this world, this life, this consciousness, this personhood – this taking and consuming of life – only produces cursed results. Rather, WE choose whether we merely grow fat by insisting on incorporating (literally) blessings – שמן  - or we grow fertile – דשן  - by allowing them to pass through and pass on. The attempt to take absolute possession of and to identify entirely with that which is not really ours to begin with – that ITSELF is the turning aside which breaks the verse off from the flow of divine blessing. Rather, let us partake and release, enjoy and thereby enable the Giver to give fully, allowing life to flow throw us, enhance us, and then move on to enrich other realms – let us grow with the flow.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Death De-feeted

Rav Kook speaks of transcending death in a number of places. Several of his teachings are gathered in Orot Hakodesh (pp. 381-384), vol. 2. One piece in particular, also published in Shmoneh Kevatzim (1:486), is an extended treatment, which focuses on freeing oneself from the fear of death. It's an exhiliarating piece, laying out the course of the transition to a point where the scholarly question, "Did Rav Kook believe that death will be defeated, or was he saying that it won't concern us" is left far behind.

Toward the end of this piece, he discusses how humanity will reach that point. He says the necessary preparation cannot be achieved by an individual, but only by a holy people, chosen long ago for this priestly role, so devoted to the transcendent G-d in the entirety of their beings that they are commanded to leave no trace of death on their lived lives, and to remove its terror and psychic impact entirely, opening the path for the founding of a culture which ratifies and rejoices all of life.

He closes with his usually triumphant lift, so I'll translate: "We are called to this, for this do we battle, and all the fallings/fallings-short which we have fallen will not detach our feet from this supernal goal, uplifted in our souls, to which we will surely come to, through all the steps and all the tangled paths, yet we will surely come to this freedom for the sake of which, behold, we are alive"

There's an allusion here which might be missed, but which is incredibly powerful. What is intimated by the use of the image "not detach our feet"? In Yehoshua, chapters 3 and 4, the people cross the Jordan. How do they get across? Yehoshua splits the Jordan. But not by a "heavenly" miracle, as Moshe split the Red Sea. Rather, by a "human" miracle. As per Hashem's command, Yehoshua has the priests carry the Holy Ark to the river. When their feet touch the river edge, its full, seasonal waters recede up and down the river course. The people cross, stones are taken and placed from and in the river to serve as testament, and when all is done, we read (Yehoshua 4:18): "As soon as the priests who bore the Ark of the LORD’s Covenant came up out of the Jordan, and the feet of the priests detached (from the riverbed) onto the dry ground, the waters of the Jordan resumed their course, flowing over its entire bed as before.".

Crossing the river is a symbol in many cultures of the transition from life to death. The passage is unsafe, you need someone to take you across to the promised land which lies beyond, different, better, eternal. But the raging waters and the terrors they evoke are ultimately illusory, since beneath them is the same land, firm if well-washed, we walk now. Being cares not for what we term life or death, nor does consciousness, emergent from body and soul but ultimately of a different dimension. The awareness, the deep awareness of this, the living of a life infused with this joyous truth, and devoted beyond self, is priestly service in its fullest, constantly in contact with the bedrock below and yet never attributing to it the ultimacy which the yearning for transencence itself manifests. As long as this priestly people keeps its feet on the ground yet bears aloft the Ark of Bonding Presence, no river of death separates life from life. Let all peoples flow forward, for together we are all that true, everflowing river, while we remain standing firm, nullifyiing by our devotion to the truth of oneness that ultimate idolatry, the torrential fear of death. And when at last we step out of the river bed, all will be that well-watered prommised land of being, joy and love.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

The Emergence of Hillel

A thought, may it be a merit for the memory of R. Sholom Brodt, z"l:
A pair of parallel famous stories regarding Hillel the Elder are related in Vayikra Rabba (Parashat Behar), the first of which is much better known than the second.
“A lovingkind man benefits his life/soul …” (Mishlei 11:17) - this refers to Hillel the Elder, for when he took leave of his students, he would walk along with them. They asked him, “our master, to where are you going?”. “To do a mitzvah”, he responded. “What mitzvah might that be?”, they asked. “To bathe in the bathhouse”, he replied. “Is that a mitzvah?”, they challenged. “If regarding the (idolatrous) statue of the king which they place in theatres and circuses – the one who is appointed to care for them washes them and scrubs them and they pay him a salary and, further, his status is elevated amongst those close to the king, then I, who was created in the image and likeness, as it is written, “for in the image of G-d did He create man” (Bereshit 9:6) , how much the more so!
Another interpretation: “A lovingkind man benefits his life/soul …” (Mishlei 11:17) - this refers to Hillel the Elder, for when he took leave of his students, he would walk along with them. They asked him, “our master, to where are you going?”. “To do a mitzvah”, he responded. “What mitzvah might that be?”, they asked. “To do a kindness for a guest at my house”, he replied. “Every day you have a guest at your house?”, they challenged. “And that poor soul inside the body, is it not a mere guest, here today yet tomorrow, no longer here!
The question I want to ask is: Where is Hillel? Where is he who asked (no translation does it justice), “If I am not for myself, who will be for me, and if I am only for myself, what am I”? Where is the one who cryptically says, “If I am here, everything is here, and if I am not here, who is here?”
Hillel is rightly famous for his deeply resonant, highly allusive and suggestive gems, but this pair confounds and confuses. Hillel speaks of himself as exterior to both body and soul. But are we not comprised of both, which, according to our teachings (with apologies to Kabalistic teachings made especially well-known by Chassidut), are created by G-d? Now, we would normally assume that a tzaddik such as Hillel would associate more immediately with his soul over his body. Yet the stories are perfectly parallel, and in both, Hillel treats body and soul alike, as equals, as the objects of a mitzvah performed by… who, precisely?
Precisely. It would seem that Hillel is an “emergent phenomenon” (see below), revealed by the interaction and mutual engagement of body and soul. We are not TRULY our souls, nor are we REALLY only our bodies, but… something less. Less, in the sense of a still, small voice that hears itself hearing, and speaks itself speaking, and, by being neither body nor soul, is beyond both. And since we are, as Hillel reminds us, created in the image of Hashem, could it be that it’s precisely in the interaction of opposites, of others with others, where that “emergent property” (for expression’s sake, and may I not be understood to be reductionist, as my intent is exactly the opposite) we call the Presence of the Divine, Shechina, is to be found?
Shlomo once said, “G-d is in the in-between”. He may well have said it many times, but I know he said it once, because I heard him say it, looking at me. So, here’s looking at you, even now, Rav Sholom.

ויקרא רבה (וילנא) פרשת בהר
ג ד"א וכי ימוך הה"ד (שם /משלי/ יא) גומל נפשו איש חסד זה הלל הזקן שבשעה שהיה נפטר מתלמידיו היה מהלך והולך עמם אמרו לו תלמידיו ר' להיכן אתה הולך אמר להם לעשות מצוה אמרו לו וכי מה מצוה זו אמר להן לרחוץ בבית המרחץ אמרו לו וכי זו מצוה היא אמר להם הן מה אם איקונין של מלכים שמעמידים אותו בבתי טרטיאות ובבתי קרקסיאות מי שנתמנה עליהם הוא מורקן ושוטפן והן מעלין לו מזונות ולא עוד אלא שהוא מתגדל עם גדולי מלכות אני שנבראתי בצלם ובדמות דכתיב (בראשית ט) כי בצלם אלהים עשה את האדם עאכ"ו ד"א גומל נפשו איש חסד זה הלל הזקן שבשעה שהיה נפטר מתלמידיו היה מהלך והולך עמם אמרו לו תלמידיו ר' להיכן אתה הולך אמר להם לגמול חסד עם הדין אכסניא בגו ביתא אמרו לו כל יום אית לך אכסניא אמר להם והדין נפשא עלובתה לאו אכסניא הוא בגו גופא יומא דין היא הכא למחר לית היא הכא, ד"א גומל נפשו איש חסד (משלי יא) ועוכר שארו אכזרי א"ר אלכסנדרי זה שמגעת לו שמחה ואינו מדביק את קרוביו עמו משום עניות א"ר נחמן כתיב (דברים טו) כי בגלל הדבר הזה גלגל הוא שחוזר בעולם לפיכך משה מזהיר את ישראל וכי ימוך אחיך

The Standing of Stand-out and Stand-in

There has been much written about why the particular sets of tribes are stationed on Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Eival for the blessings and curses. None of the approaches suggested have been generally accepted. Here's my take.
I assume that the selection must be fairly straightforward and comprehensible based only on the preceding narrative in the Torah. What we find here is that all the tribes assigned to the blessing are "l'chatchila" sons (exception noted and explained below). That is, they are not sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, who were born only due to attempts to manipulate "fate" on the part of Rachel and Leah. They also are not sons of the second round of Leah's childbearing, initiated by the mandrakes. Shim'on, Levi, Yehudah, Yosef and Binyamin are all conceived in accordance with Hashem's will (and thus, blessing), without any manipulation. Believing that you can tamper with Hashem's will borders on idolatry (we won't get into the question of prayer here).
But, according to this explanation, Reuven should have been there, too. That would meet the implicit requirement for six and six. Yet we see that Reuven is with the tribes assigned to the curse, and, in his place, Issachar is with the tribes of blessing. Doesn't this demonstrate that my explanation is faulty?
No, and here's why: Reuven is the symbol of problematic manipulation par excellence. He attempts to manipulate his brothers into releasing Yosef (he doesn't tell them that this is what he's planning when he says, "throw him into the pit"), he issues the extravagantly outrageous offer to his father, "you can kill my two son's (Ya'acov's GRANDSONS!) if I don't bring Binaymin back", he finds the magical mandrakes and brings them to his mother, Leah, and, most critically, he lays with his mother's competing maidservant-wife, Bilhah (according to Chazal, he rearranged the beds), to avenge his mother's dishonor. Especially in light of the content of the curses, "cursed is the one who lies with his mother-in-law", there is no way Reuven can be included in the blessing group. Literally, he has lost his standing.
So, instead, a stand-in, Yisschar, the first-born of the second round, and the one whose birth, ironically, was enabled by Reuven's magical mandrakes, takes his place.
All blessings are straight from Hashem, all curses are distortions, rebounds, and ricochets. And yet, the Midrash tells us that Reuven is the master of Teshuvah, thus his descendant, Hoshea, is the one who so prominently exhorts Yisrael at this time of the year, "Return, O Israel, all the way to Hashem, your G-d, for you have stumbled in your sin".
We've only stumbled, we can get up, we can turn curses into blessings, we can become the whole implied when six tribes unite with six tribes, and the Kohanim in their midst add one, thirteen in all, who is like you, Israel, one people upon the land?

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Breath the Air

Bava Batra 158b
A house falls upon a mother and son, rachmana litzlan, the woman’s heirs claim, “he died first, then she died, so we inherit her property”; the man/boy’s heirs claim, “she died first, then he died, so we inherit her property”. Although in previous similar cases (a man and his son, a husband and wife) Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed as to who gets the property, with Beit Shammai ruling that the groups of heirs split it, and Beit Hillel ruling that the property remains in the presumptive possession of whoever's hands it was in previously – HERE, the anonymous first opinion of the Mishnah claims that Beit Hillel concedes to Beit Shammai’s position. Rabbi Akiva, however, says that, no, also here, Beit Hillel disputed with Beit Shammai and maintained their position. Ben Azzai observes to Rabbi Akiva “we are dismayed over the previous disputes, and you come to foment dispute where there is (a report of) agreement?
The Gemara then takes up Rabbi Akiva’s position and asked, “in the presumptive possession of whom?”. Rabbi Ila says, of the mother; Rabbi Zeira says, of the son. When Rabbi Zeira came up to the Land of Israel, he took up Rabbi Ila’s position. He said, this shows that the air of the Land of Israel makes one wise!”
What does that wisdom consist of? The Rashbam, whose commentary “takes Rashi’s place” in Bava Batra, explains, “since I’ve come to the Land of Israel, I’ve set my mind upon leaving my original position and determining the truth of matters”.
This is SUCH a powerful piece. Notice how many layers of dispute precede Rabbi Zeira. The two contesting parties (who have no proof of their claims), Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, Tana Kama and Rabbi Akiva, and finally, Rabbi Ila and Rabbi Zeira.
What Rabbi Zeira left behind upon coming to the Land of Israel is the necessity to establish one’s being against a hostile world by asserting and arguing for one’s positions as though one’s life depended upon being right. But, upon ASCENDING to the Land of Israel, he made a concerted effort to stop doing that, to leaving behind the whole notion of establishing one’s position, a fortified, entrenched position, an initial position which, born of one’s own insights and ingenuity, just MUST be right because it is a product of one OWN, and therefore, a veritable homunculus of one very self.
In the Land of Israel, one is part of something much larger, literally, a member of the tribe (or “a tribe”, as the gemara goes on to point out) one need not be right to be, worthy is indelibly present as part of the vital, eternal people upon the land, and therefore, one is freed (or must free oneself, if habituated otherwise) to seek, find and acknowledge truth, G-d seal, wherever it is to be found.
Oh, the great Rabbi Zeira (whose name means “small”)! Oh, the wondrous air of the land! Where do we find such people, where do we breathe such air today?

Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Mechitza on the Mizbeach


Usually, the division of the aliyot in a parashah, while driven by a number of factors, is decided by where it ends. There is a fairly iron-clad principle to end an Aliyah on a positive note, and not on a negative note. This week’s parashah gives us plenty of opportunities to do so, since many of the sub-sections end on a positive note.

That being the case, one would think that the fifth aliyah would encompass all of the sin-offerings (Chatat), covered in Vaykra, chapter 4, while the sixth aliyah would open with the beginning chapter 5, which deals with the guilt-offerings (Asham). But, instead, the fifth aliyah ends with 4:26, leaving two last Chattat offerings to be read with the Asham offerings. Why?
Here’s an idea: all the animals offered in the fifth aliyah as it stands are males, and all the animals offered in the sixth aliyah are females.

On the fifth and sixth days of creation, animals and humans - male and female - were created. When they sinned so egregiously that a flood was brought to cleanse the earth of the stain of their sins, both (some) humans and animals rode out the atoning, purifying procedure in the ark, separated by gender. As Rashi explains: when they entered the ark, men and women were listed separately, indicating that they refrained from relations; when they left, they left as couples, indicating the resumption of relations.

Sacrificial offerings may seem to us as mere rituals, but to our forebears, they were highly charged moments of drama, filled with life and death, punishment and its expiation both hovering above the heads of the trembling, anticipating people. Sin was palpable, and it was not a time for even the suggestion of something which might arouse the incessant depredations and suave persuasions of the Yetzer HaRa.


Therefore, I suggest, we recreate a bit of this drama by breaking the Torah reading where we do. May this reenactment have the desired effect of bringing us ever closer to Hashem such that we truly need neither Chattat nor Asham but rather the offerings of joy and exultation of Oneness emerging from the altar in the inner chambers of our hearts.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Uprooting a Pernicious Ayin and Restoring a Precious Honor


During Havdalah each week, we recite a verse taken from the Megillah:
“Layhudim hayta orah v’simchah v’sason vicar”.  ליהודים היתה אורה ושמחה וששון ויקר  

Many, perhaps most, people mispronounce the last word. While it should be “vee-kar”   ויקר-“and honor”, usually people say “v’eekar” ועיקר. It’s a case of substituting a more familiar word for a less familiar one. People know the word עיקר, “root” or “main principle”, and are not familiar with the word יקר, taken here from the Aramaic cognate of the Hebrew כבוד, or “honor”.

“Honor” as a meaning of both כבוד  and יקר is derivative of their primary meaning – weight, heaviness, substantiality. Now, in the Megillah, both the word כבוד  and the word יקר are used. But whereas the former is used only in connection with money and material wealth, the latter is reserved for honor emanated upon one by the king. Our honor as Jews is derived from the notion that our very existence points toward the King of Kings, and, in fact, in the gemara, all four words of the verse above are interpreted to refer to Mitzvot which express that relationship:  אורה - Torah, שמחה - holidays, ששון - circumcision and יקר  - tefillin.

We are not “the main principle”, we are not “rooted” in and of ourselves. Any honor we as Jews might be due is derived from being a people that stands for and points toward Hashem in how we lead our individual and, especially, our collective lives. In that sense, we can aspire to be “G-d’s vicar” (pun intended, of course), in the sense of “a nations of priests”.

So let’s uproot that guttural, all-too-substantial (for this context) Ayin and glide into the precious honor of pointing beyond ourselves through our acts: Vee-kar.