Against a Literal Theology: A Sermon on Parashat Ekev

August 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

Mosaic of the 12 Tribes of Israel. From Givat ...

Mosaic of the 12 Tribes of Israel. From Givat Mordechai synagogue wall in Jerusalem. Top row, right to left: Reuben, Judah, Dan, Asher Middle: Simeon, Issachar, Naphtali, Joseph Bottom: Levi, Zebulun, Gad, Benjamin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)The rabbis tell a story:

The rabbis tell a story:

There are two competing inclinations: the yetzer ha-tov, which is the good inclination, and the yetzer ha-rav, which is the bad inclination. Eager to rid the world of sin, the rabbis once laid in wait for the evil inclination and captured it. “What should we do with it?” they wondered, for it was not possible to kill it entirely. They decided to put it in an iron box and seal it. The next day it was discovered that no business plans had been made, no houses had been built, and no eggs had been laid. Realizing that they needed all of these things for the world to continue, they let the bad inclination out of its box, but put out its eyes, so that the good might win at least sometimes.

I have always loved this tale: it rightfully implies that there are some positive dividends from the urge to act badly.

But why is it that they name these three things as the consequences of capturing our evil inclination?

  • For example: why do they find that no new businesses have been started? It turns out that our potentially destructive urge to acquire more and more things can be channeled positively into taking appropriate business risks, and building new and better things.
  • And houses? Why were no new houses built? It turns out that our prideful desire to be noticed and considered important and special can also be channeled into building something bigger and grander, an edifice that will last for generations.
  • And, finally, why eggs? To put it delicately: some of our fiercest appetites are what allow us to persist as a species. We choose the object of our affection; if we choose well, we are able to create an intense and lasting bond that carries us well into our senior years.

That is to say, we come into this world naked with our hands clenched, wanting more than we could ever possibly grasp. We are driven by an inclination that can lead us far astray, well beyond our moorings; but that same drive can spur us to build ever greater things with each generation.

This week’s Torah portion reminds us to be careful of this drive. As it says: ‘beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God — who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage…” We can be blinded by our desires and our own self-esteem.

And the passage continues, naming the trials that the Israelites have faced: the great and terrible wilderness with its seraph serpents and scorpions, a parched land with no water in it…” They have indeed been through a lot.

This passage also specifies God’s role in their journey: God was the one “who brought forth water for you from the flinty rock; who fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your fathers had never known, in order to test you by hardships only to benefit you in the end…”

Therefore, the passage admonishes, you should not say to yourself, “’My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.’ Remember that it is the Lord your God who gives you the power to get wealth, in fulfillment of the covenant that He made on oath with your fathers, as is still the case.”[1]

This particular passage says a lot in a small number of lines, so I wanted to pull it apart and analyze a few pieces in order to understand some of its implications.

The first idea here presented here is that God is in charge: all that happens to the Israelites happens because it is part of God’s great plan.

But does God really have a plan for us? Are the good and bad things that happen part of a larger scheme, with reasons that we do not comprehend? We could ask of God here why the Israelites must be enslaved in the first place, why the Egyptians had to chase them, why so many had to die in the process of obtaining freedom. These questions become very difficult; how is it possible to reconcile the idea that God is in charge of these things when so many things are difficult at best, and genuinely painful at their worst. What kind of God-concept is that?

The second point is that God tests the Israelites through hardships.

There is a midrash, part of the early rabbinic literature, that demonstrates this point through a series of three parables:

Said Rabbi Jonathan: The potter does not test faulty jars which are likely to break at the first tap. What sort of jars does he test? Good ones which will not break after many taps. So too the Holy One blessed be He does not test the wicked but only the righteous as it is stated in Psalm 11: “The Lord tests the righteous.” Said Rabbi Jose ben Hanina: The flax dealer improves his flax by beating it, but if his flax is poor he knows that it will split before he has even time to beat it once. Said Rabbi Eleazar: It might be compared to a householder who has two cows, one a hardy beast, the other a feeble one. On which one does he place the yoke? Surely on the hardy one!” [2]

This particular Midrash is discussing the case of Abraham and the test he is given when asked to sacrifice his son Isaac. But why should God need to test Abraham? How could it be that God does not already know all God needs to know about Abraham’s character? And how could a loving and good God demand such a grisly test?

The third concept is that all the good that we have comes not through our own efforts but through the power given to us by God.

In commenting on this week’s portion, for example, the Or Ha-Hayyim writes: “Man has to realize that all his good fortune comes from God. This realization will continually arouse him to acknowledge His Creator and His providence. The first trick practiced by the evil inclination is to make man forget this…”[3]

In fact, the greatest sin in the Hasidic mystical tradition within Judaism is to say “my power and the might of my hand has brought me all of this…”

But, of course, if all good things come from God, would that not also imply that all bad things do as well?

So what are we to make of all of this? It is a difficult passage theologically. Do we want to take it to mean that we should attribute everything to God, and that we should accept both the bad and the good as a test of our character?

Rather than thinking of this passage in literal terms – that is to say, rather than assuming that this passage is trying to communicate something about the nature of God, we should derive a different lesson.

In my view, it is not to be read as a description of how God relates to the world. In that regard, in fact, I agree with Maimonides: the less that you try to describe God and God’s relation to the world, the better. Because in trying to define God you limit God.[4] It is like creating a box and then asking God to step inside. God transcends all description, all language, well beyond the boxed definitions we might offer.

Rather, I would take it to be an instruction as to what kind of mindset is best for approaching these questions.

Should we assume that God has no relation to the world? No, this passage is telling us that we are not set adrift in space on this large warm rock. There is purpose and meaning in our lives, even if we cannot readily discern them at times.

Should we assume that the things that happen are specifically tests from God? Assuming that God knows all, then these tests might be considered (at least in some contexts) as little more than torture. Why ask Abraham to sacrifice his son? Why allow the Israelites to be enslaved, or to wander in the desert? What is the point of all of this suffering?

Rather, I would suggest that by framing our own individual trials as a test, we gain the ability to be more objective about the situation.

That is to say, instead of wallowing in ‘why me?’ we can choose to use each experience as an opportunity to build character and endurance, to learn how to bear difficulties without collapsing under their weight.

I do not want to make light of real suffering: many of us have encountered genuine sorrow in our lives: the loss of someone we deeply unreservedly love; the sudden blow to our health, the intrusion of poverty or divorce into our previously charmed life. It can be, at times, entirely too much to bear.

But we do bear it; we do find strength within that is greater than we had ever known. And that is the sense of the test: it is not some satanic force intent in determining our outer limits, as is suggested in the book of Job.

It is, instead, somehow a partnership, a discovery that even in that darkest moment you are not alone. It might be found in prayer, it might be found in community, it might be found in the sheer white-knuckle orneriness of ‘I. Will. Not. Give. Up.’ But the strength is there, like an underground spring.

And finally, I think that we should recognize that there is so much beyond our own power that allows us to achieve what we are able to achieve.

There was a quote attributed to Elizabeth Warren that made the rounds on the Internet; she was saying in response to the folks who argue for an Ayn Rand type of individualism that no one builds a business or a venture entirely alone; we each are dependent upon the silent infrastructure around us. In the case of the businesses, she was pointing out that businesses use the roads that we all pay to create, and employ the citizens that we pay to educate, and that they make use of laws and social systems that we all help enforce in order to be successful.

But even beyond the question of have and have not – even for those of us who have never been able to buy orange juice without checking our bank balance first – we are each dependent upon a larger system that allows us to persist. The environment and our own human structure, our boundless curiosity and our supple intellect together provide the framework within which we are able to accomplish what set out to accomplish. And all of that has its origin in God.

What we are seeking to do in this season leading to the High Holidays is reaffirm that God is the author of the world, its judge and its guarantor. Everything that we need has been provided for us, in one way or another, if we are but able to claim it.

We need to have humility, the genuine kind, that allows room for the awareness that there is so much that we take for granted, so much that is truly wonderful, so much for which we ought to be truly thankful.

It is in that humility that we will gather in a little more than five weeks to acclaim God as our King, God as the sovereign lord of all that lives and all that will ever be. We are acknowledging the wonderful debt that we incur just by savoring this most wonderful, awful life.

So let me be among the first to say it to you: may God inscribe you for good this year in the Book of Life, and for many years to come.

[1] This is the JPS translation.

[2] As translated in Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Devarim.

[3] As translated in Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Devarim. 

[4] See, for example, Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, I:57.

Copyright 2012 Kari Hofmaister Tuling

Opening your heart to prayer

August 5, 2012 § Leave a comment

The man before me is a professor of Jewish studies at a major university; he is scooping out bites of ice cream between his words.  Despite his studied indifference, he is more than casually interested in the conversation.  We are at a reception at the college and he knows that I am a Reform rabbi and is hoping to bring some clarity to an issue that has nagged at him.

“The other day I went to a bar mitzvah at a Reform congregation,” he says to me, “and it had all these guests and the kid’s friends from the soccer team, and all the usual trappings.  But I’d have to say that it was a very alienating experience for me.”

“Why was that?” I asked him.

“It seemed spiritually dead to me.  I didn’t like the prayerbook and the whole thing seemed like it was a performance.  Why is that?”

I took a swallow of ice cream to give myself a moment to think.

“You’re a member of a regular prayer group, right?”


“So you know from your own experience that the people who are there to pray create a kind of positive energy.”


“And people who are there to just to watch the prayers – they’re negative energy – right?”


“Well, if the positive energy is outnumbered and surrounded by the negative energy, there’s not a whole lot that you can do.

“It’s not the prayerbook’s fault,” I told him, “nor is it the rabbi’s fault, nor is it the bar mitzvah kid’s fault – rather, you need to have an excess of positive energy in the room in order for prayer to be meaningful.  If the majority of people are there to be entertained, real prayer cannot take place.

“You can ‘save’ that kind of situation, but only if you find some way to bring the observers in, so that they feel they have a genuine connection to what is going on.  In the context of a bar mitzvah, the best approach is to tap into the love and concern they have for the child standing before them.

“But if they are there to measure his performance, well, then, there’s nothing you can do.”

It seems odd, of course, to be speaking in terms of positive and negative energy, as if the activity in this room creates its own kind of current that might somehow be sensed by the persons seated here.  The interesting thing, however, is that our tradition does speak in such terms.

That is to say, our tradition argues that there is a world of the spirit that announces itself to us, which makes us cry at weddings and baby namings, which brings up that feeling that our little heart would just overflow.  It is the source of our strength, and the tap root of our existence.  It is the energy that animates our prayers.

Its most common name in Hebrew is shefa, but it goes by many others as well – it denotes the indwelling presence of God.

Prayer is more than a meditative device for the purposes of achieving inner serenity.  Prayer is also more than just emotion.  According to Abraham Joshua Heschel, prayer specifically invokes God’s presence.  As Heschel writes,“feeling becomes prayer in the moment in which we forget ourselves and become aware of God.”  The very mark of prayer is this experience of self-surrender.

What we are seeking in prayer is to let go of our self-concern so as to be able to view the world from God’s perspective.  Then we are able to put our own cares aside for a moment and recognize how our own selfishness might cause us to act in ways contrary to the will of God.  We are able to engage in self-criticism, to mend our ways and take up God’s aims.

Prayer, however, is not an intellectual act; we are not affirming a philosophical God-concept nor are we reviewing the rules of ethical living.  Rather, as Heschel writes, “the purpose of prayer is to be brought to His attention, to be listened to, to be understood by Him; not to know Him, but to be known to Him.”

If we let God’s will take over, if we truly view the world from God’s perspective, then we cannot walk past people who are starving without taking action.  We cannot allow the kind of imbalances we see in this country between rich and poor.  And we cannot allow discrimination, fanaticism, or hatred to rule our decisions.  It is in the prayerful encounter with God that righteousness is born.

The urgency of this task explains why we need the community to stand and pray next to us: the surest way to let go of our self concern, to stop striving long enough to hear that still small voice within, is to pray in the context of a community – to participate in that electric feeling of communal prayer.  It is so much easier – and so much more effective – when you don’t have to try to do it all alone.

Which brings us back to our professor, and his prayer.  The gathering that came to watch the bar mitzvah that morning was a group of disinterested strangers, evaluating the performance of a thirteen-year-old reciting long passages of Hebrew.  What he was seeking, however, was a community of prayer.

But how is that kind of community created?  What should you do if you would like to become part of a community of prayer?  Three things:

First is the regular cultivation of the habit of prayer.  A friend once confided in me that he stopped going to services on any kind of regular basis because he felt alienated from God, and alienated from prayer.  And in the course of that long conversation, one of the things I told him was this: you are not going to move past this point if you are elsewhere while your community is engaged in prayer.  Go and be silent if you must – eventually your soul will catch up to what your body is doing.  If what you are seeking is closeness to God, then seek closeness to your community first.

Second is the recognition that prayer does not require perfection.  It is not a problem if you’re not the best at meditation, or your Hebrew is nonexistent, or you sing off-key.  What is needed is that you are here, truly here, in this moment, now.  Not at work, not reviewing your to-do list, not in the midst of an old argument replayed once more in your head.  Just try to be truly here.

Third is the openness to the transformative power of prayer.  It is not something that happens right away, but rather by degrees, in small amounts.  Just like dancing, there will come a point when you stop counting time and just do.  And when an entire community engages in that dance – that moment is electric.  It is in that moment that you will know in the very center of your soul that you’re not alone.

Copyright 2012 Kari Hofmaister Tuling

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