Noah, the raven, and the dove
October 20, 2017 § 3 Comments
Midrash is a kind of story-telling, created by the ancient rabbis, to fill in the gaps in the Biblical narrative. These stories are sometimes wildly inventive; the rabbis make use of the oddities in the Hebrew grammar, transforming them into hooks for nuanced theological points. The midrashic literature is a form of serious play, something like a jazz riff.
There are several different kinds of Midrashim (= plural of Midrash); the best known are those that use a metaphor to explain the Biblical story. One of the most famous formulas is to say “this is like a king who had a son…” or “this is like a king who had a daughter…” – in these stories, God is the king and the son or daughter is the people Israel.
My favorite kind of Midrash, however, are those that involve lengthy conversations between characters in a given Biblical narrative, such as this interchange between Noah and the raven:
““And he [Noah] sent forth a raven, and it went forth to and fro” (Gen. 8:7). It to-and-fro’ed, argued with him, saying: of all the cattle, beasts, and fowl you have here, you send none but me! Noah replied: What need has the world of you? You are fit neither for food nor as an offering.” 
The idea here is that the raven is treated badly by Noah and God, for it has no way to become sanctified; it is an unclean animal that cannot be sacrificed on the altar. The reason for the prohibition of sacrificing the raven has to do with the fact that it is a scavenger. The Midrash continues:
“Then, said Resh Lakish, the raven gave Noah an irrefutable retort: Your Lord hates me and you hate me. Your Lord showed His hatred of me by ordering that seven pair of the clean fowl be taken into the ark, but only two pair of the unclean. And you hate me, seeing that spare the species of which there are only two pair, you send me. Should the prince of heat or the prince of cold smite me, might not the world lose one entire species of creature?”
Resh Lakish, by the way, was a bandit who left his gang to study Torah – he’s one of the sources that I quoted in my High Holiday sermons. Resh Lakish’s comments regularly demonstrate a keen eye for these kinds of injustices. He seems to be aware that God or nature or Providence – whatever you might want to call it – does not always deal a fair hand to every creature. It’s an interesting point to ponder.
This midrash does not arise in a vacuum, however. It is a response to a very particular problem in the text. The rabbis have noticed that the Noah story has a series of redundancies in it.
For example: How many animals went into the ark?
- A pair of each kind: Genesis 6:19
- Seven of each clean animal and a pair of each unclean animal: Genesis 7:2
How many days did it rain?
- 40 days: Genesis 7:12
- 150 days: Genesis 7:24
What kind of bird did Noah release?
- A raven: Genesis 8:6-7
- A dove: Genesis 8:8
- A second dove: Genesis 8:10
Some Biblical scholars believe that the Noah story may be two separate stories stitched together from two different sources. In fact, in one of the exercises in Rabbinical school in our second-year Bible class, we were asked to use two different colors of highlighter to identify the two different stories regarding Noah. It is something you can try at home.
The ancient rabbis, of course, were very aware of this aspect of the text, but they were committed to the reading strategy that sees the whole text – even these composite stories – as part of a larger revelation from God, one that is perfect in its own way.
That is to say, if the text has contradictions in it, or seems to be an amalgam of two sources, it must be trying to tell us something. This doubling must have meaning.
In the case of the raven and the dove, for example, the rabbis conclude that Noah’s relationship with the raven was already strained. Hence, they write:
“Noah replied: What need has the world of you? You are fit neither for food nor as an offering.”
It is a cutting remark, to remind the bird that its death would be the sum value of its life – and even in death, the bird is not worth much. That is why the bird responds:
“Your Lord hates me and you hate me. Your Lord showed His hatred of me by ordering that seven pair of the clean fowl be taken into the ark, but only two pair of the unclean. And you hate me, seeing that spare the species of which there are only two pair, you send me. Should the prince of heat or the prince of cold smite me, might not the world lose one entire species of creature?”
‘The prince of heat’ and ‘the prince of cold’ are references to the angels in control of the weather. The raven has a point: Noah is the one who makes the decision to send a raven – it is not a decision attributed to God by the text. Noah sends one of the pair of unclean birds rather than one of the seven pairs of clean birds. Noah has no extra ravens to spare, and could accidentally cause the extinction of a species by his choice.
That point, though interesting, is not the core meaning of this text. I have only quoted about half of it so far, in fact:
“Nevertheless, “Noah did send out the raven” (Gen. 8:7) to learn what was going on in the world. The raven flew out and, finding a man’s corpse flung on a mountaintop, perched itself over this food and did not come back to its sender with word concerning its errand.”
The raven finds food, forgets its errand, and (in the process) demonstrates exactly why it is not able to be sacrificed on the altar. It might also be noted that the raven also apparently forgets about the other raven in the ark. The raven cares only about the immediate need, and is willing to gorge on offal. The Midrash continues:
“Then Noah sent out the dove, and she did bring back word. “And lo, in her mouth an olive leaf freshly plucked” (Gen. 8:11). From where did the dove bring it? R. Bebai said: The gates of the Garden of Eden were opened for her, and she brought it from there.”
Let’s stop there for a moment and consider what has been said so far. These ideas may seem far-fetched for you. For one thing, where in the Bible does it suggest that the gates of the garden of Eden were ever opened for any creature? Are they not making things up when they write this material?
As I said earlier, the ancient rabbis make a series of assumptions about the text: this text is meaningful – all of it – and this text is the revelation of God. Nonetheless, the text’s deeper meaning is not always obvious to us. There is a possibility that we may have to interpret it. As the rabbis will remark at times, “this text says ‘interpret me!’” – they are aware of the problems and difficulties of the text. They are aware of the repetitions and the contradictions. They are committed to uncovering its meaning, but they are not committed to a process that relies on objective historical research.
It is not yet clear where they are going with this comment. Therefore, we will return to the text to try to discern the point that the rabbis were making here. A different rabbi elaborates:
“R[abbi] Aibu said to him: Had she [the dove] brought it [the olive branch] from the Garden of Eden, would she not have brought something finer, such as a stick of cinnamon or a leaf of balsam? But in truth the dove’s olive leaf was a way of hinting to Noah: My master Noah, I would rather have something even more bitter than this from the hand of the Holy One than something sweet from your hand.”
The rabbis are responding to the reality that an olive leaf is an odd choice for the dove to pick. Olives are bitter fruit, which is why we brine them. Think of that astringent olive taste: the leaves must also taste bitter, like the unbrined fruit. There is a reason why we never eat olives raw!
The olive tree, however, provided the oil for the lamps in the Temple. In this reading, the olive is an allusion to the sacrificial system that would one day be instituted in the Temple in Jerusalem. In this context, then, it should not surprise you to find out that the dove also is often a symbol for Israel in the rabbinic literature.
What does this text mean, then? The rabbis were aware that the life of the Jews may be exceedingly difficult at times. But here they are framing it as a choice: we would rather partake of the blessings of God (even if they are bitter at times) than the blessings of humanity (even if they are much sweeter). Unlike the raven that is content to scavenge, the dove seeks out the higher reality behind the everyday search for food and shelter.
What about the gentle reminder that the dove gives to Noah? What does that mean? Noah represents the righteous people of the world. The dove (that is to say, the people Israel) is aware that there is more to life than mere righteousness, praiseworthy though it may be. We are also called to serve God.
In this regard, the Midrash is referencing other Midrashim: Noah was righteous in his generation, according to the Biblical text – but would not have been righteous in another generation, according to some Midrashim. How so? When told that the whole world would be destroyed, Noah built an ark for his family. In contrast: when told that the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah would be destroyed, Abraham argued with God, suggesting that God should not destroy the righteous and wicked alike. It is righteous to take care of your family; it is godly to take care of others as well.
What are we to take from this text, then, for our own lives? It takes all kinds of courage and character to follow the voice of God in our lives. It can be very difficult. But above all else, know this: we are defined by the choices we make in our lives. Are you Noah, the raven, or the dove?
 Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky, The Book of Legends: Sefer Ha-Aggadah, Legends from the Talmud and Midrash, William G. Braude, transl. (New York: Schocken Books, 1992), p. 28.
October 28, 2016 § 1 Comment
What is the meaning of the story of Adam and Eve?
My rabbi, Allen Krause, z”l, read it as a narrative about the human condition. When we are children, we live in Eden: all of our needs are met and we have no need to till the soil.
Eventually, we grow up and become parents and have to work for a living. Eventually, we become knowledgeable in the ways of the world. Eventually, we have to leave Eden to know what it means to feel pain.
It is not simply a cautionary tale, however: the process of growing up also means gaining knowledge. When we eat from the tree of good and evil – when we gain that knowledge – we become aware of our ability to affect the world around us. We learn how to take responsibility for our lives.
For us, therefore, the Adam and Eve narrative is an acknowledgement that growth involves some pain and rupture.
We have to leave behind what is comfortable and familiar to venture into a new realm, one that is profoundly unfamiliar. At times, it seems that the land itself is resistant to our efforts: The soil is rocky, the task is difficult, and the yield is poor.
But this growth is also what allows us one of the greatest joys: that of nurturing new life.
But is that the only way that the story could be understood?
Maimonides provides us with a second interpretation. In Maimonides’ view, Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden basking in the glory of God. This ‘glory’ is considered to be a form of energy, like a golden light, that overflows from God and animates all things. This energy, known as the Active Intellect, is also the source of wisdom.
When Adam ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, it meant that he shifted his attention away from God’s glory to the world around him.
Adam’s turn away from God to consider the lesser subjects of good and evil was the reason why he lost his immortality. Whereas he had been contemplating pure truth, he was now thinking about mundane things – what is good and what is bad.
What is particularly interesting to note here is that good and evil are not considered to be absolutes, according to Maimonides; instead, they are relative terms that relate to social conventions regarding the regulation of the appetites of the body.
That is not to say that Maimonides believes in relativism. For him, truth and falsehood are absolutes. But ideas regarding what is good and what is evil are related to social conventions. It is a strikingly post-modern formulation for someone who wrote in the 12th century.
Even though Adam turned away from truth, we can still perceive it. Even as mortals, humans are still sometimes able to turn back to God in isolated moments.
That capacity to turn toward God, in fact, is the true source of righteous behavior. As Maimonides observes, “all of man’s acts of disobedience are consequent upon his matter and not upon his form, whereas all his virtues are consequent upon his form.”(1)
To put that in more modern language: we are sinful when we follow our bodies’ desires but we are righteous when we follow our minds’ analysis. In the act of thinking, we have the ability to rise above ourselves.
What is another possible interpretation of this text?
For the mystics of Lurianic Kabbalism, the Adam and Eve story is an explanation of how evil entered into the world.
First, God created the holy light. That’s what’s meant by ‘God said, ‘let there be light’ – and there was light.’ After the creation of the light, then God then created vessels to hold that light. But when the light poured into the vessels, they shattered.
The story, therefore, is read as an allegory by the Kabbalists: it describes the processes within God that unfolded during creation. In their view, our role is to redeem those scattered rays of primordial light. We do so by performing the commandments with pure intentionality.
Later, the Hasidic movement added to this Kabbalistic textual inheritance, and provided additional insights as to how these texts might be applied to our own lives. It offers quite a lot of wonderful material. Over this past year, I have been reading Hasidic texts with a hevruta, a study partner, as part of my work as a fellow in the second clergy cohort of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.
In this coming week, we will study a text from Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Halevi Epstein of Cracow. According to the text, our task as Jews is to repair the original orderliness of creation, the one that existed prior to the first sin. Our job is to release all of the sparks, the ones that fell into inanimate matter, plants, animals and human beings.
I found two things that are interesting here: the first is the idea that at every level we are able to help repair the world. Even when we are doing our regular work, we are able to have an impact on the larger project of perfecting the world. I find that particularly encouraging.
If you do a good job, even when doing a mundane thing, that work can affect the people around you for the better. Are you cheerful? Are you helpful? Are you kind? These things matter. Regardless of whether your role in the world is large or small, you can be a force for good.
The second thing I found interesting here: according to the text, even your mistakes can be helpful to others. In fact, mistakes are how the sparks within human beings are released. Why is that? If you should repent for what you did – even if it is a small thing – and then say that you are sorry, your example can influence others to do the same. You release the misdeeds of others by modeling this behavior.
This lesson demonstrates why pursuing integrity in all our deeds really matters: how each of us respond to others can be a source of inspiration – or a source of pain. You are the one who decides. You can always choose to be kind.
December 18, 2015 § Leave a comment
Have you ever wondered what your life would be like if….? The ‘if’ could be anything: if I had gone to a different school or if I had taken that opportunity or if I had chosen the other option. It’s natural for us to wonder about the paths that were not taken. Robert Frost’s most famous poem addresses this question:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
In Frost’s poem, the choice “that has made all the difference” is between two remarkably similar paths with minor variations. This poem has become axiomatic in our culture, as a reminder that small decisions can have far-reaching consequences. One only needs to quote a line to make that point. It’s a pleasing poem, one that reflects a quietly self-satisfied kind of life.
That situation, however, is not what’s facing Joseph right now.
Rather, our weekly portion opens with a dramatic moment in Joseph’s life: his brothers have returned to Egypt, and his half-brother Judah has just come forward to argue on behalf of his full-brother Benjamin’s life. And Joseph must now choose how to respond.
One can imagine what he is thinking as he listens to Judah’s plea: These are the brothers who sold him into slavery; these are the brothers who have arrived in Egypt starving and penniless; these are the brothers who do not recognize him in his Egyptian dress, outfitted as the second only to Pharaoh.
What would his life look like if his brothers had not sold him into slavery?
When he thinks about taking the road less traveled, it’s not a happy musing about alternate options. For him, it’s a dark night of the soul. It’s true that it was a small decision – the decision to go out in search of his brothers on that fateful afternoon – that set off a chain of events that eventually brought him to Egypt. But the big question in his life is not ‘why did I go out in the field that day?’ The big question of his life is ‘how do I move past the trauma inflicted upon me by my brothers?’
And it brings up for us an important question: What happens when the defining feature of your life is trauma of this intensity? How can you venture a definition of your life and your self, when this kind of abuse is the dominant feature?
That event, after all, is a touchstone for every aspect of Joseph’s personality and character. For better or for worse, it is the central defining moment of his life. Any personal narrative that he constructs to explain himself to himself and to others must try to make sense of this trauma. Those who have been marked by this kind of intense pain will understand: he will always be the kid who was sold into slavery by his brothers. It has, in a literal sense, become part of his DNA. Ever after, he will always be just a little bit intense; it’s the scar that this kind of trauma leaves behind.
So his brothers are standing in front of him, the ones who caused him such pain, and he needs to decide what to do. How to respond?
Is it ever really possible to forgive and forget?
It is at this moment of decision that Joseph proves himself to be a person of extraordinary character. It is at this moment that Joseph gives us the most transcendent moment of forgiveness in all of the Biblical literature. Listen to him speak, and learn from his example. This is what he says:
“I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. It is now two years that there has been famine in the land, and there are still five years to come in which there shall be no yield from tilling. God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt.” [Genesis 45:4-8, JPS translation]
You will not reproach yourselves, he says, for it was all, ultimately, for the good. As he explains later, I know that you meant me ill, but your evil act has enabled us to reach this place, he says, and has allowed us to experience an extraordinary deliverance. Now go and bring our father close, so that we may once again be united.
I must admit, I find that I am moved by this story every year. There is no ‘what if’ and there is no regret here. There is just the courage to go forward.
What is particularly interesting about Joseph, however, is the fact that he does not minimize what they have done.
He recognizes that this event is part of the larger narrative of his life and he gives it meaning on that basis. But at no point does he fool himself into thinking it was any less hurtful than it was. He is quite willing to engage in the full accounting of what has happened. I think that this point is key: to be able to heal and forgive, it is absolutely necessary to acknowledge openly the pain of the past.
But that is why his example is so awe-inspiring; something so awful also set in motion something so extraordinary.
January 30, 2015 § 1 Comment
What does it mean to be redeemed?
The Israelites cross the Reed Sea on dry land after Moses lifts his hands at God’s command. After they have safely crossed, the waters fall back down again and drown the Egyptians who pursue them. On the other side of the water, they are much relieved; they sing a song of redemption: Mi chamochah. Who is like you, God, among the gods that are worshipped?
What does it mean to be redeemed?
We see, in the text, that almost immediately they begin to complain:
“Then Moses caused Israel to set out from the Sea of Reeds. They went on into the wilderness of Shur; they traveled three days in the wilderness and found no water. They came to Marah, but they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; that is why it was named Marah. And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’ So he cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a piece of wood; he threw it into the water and the water became sweet.”
Three days. Only three days pass before they begin to complain. They have witnessed a redemption at the Reed Sea that is so inconceivable that even Moses hesitated at first. They have been accompanied by a visible sign of God’s presence from the beginning, and have just escaped a four-hundred year oppression by the world’s greatest superpower.
Three days later, they are complaining.
What is wrong with these people? Why do they behave in such fashion?
I think that some of the answer has to do with survivor guilt. It is the guilt that they have escaped, that they are alive, that they are given this great opportunity. After centuries of oppression and servitude, it is unlikely that any of them would have left Egypt with a healthy sense of self. Instead, the narrative in one’s head is closer to: ‘why should I be so lucky? I am no better than those who have died.’
The hardest part of redemption is learning to think of yourself as worthy of it.
As the commentator Nehama Leibowitz notes, “This sidra portrays the character of the ‘generation of the wilderness’. We are able to watch, for the first time, the reactions of the children of Israel suddenly redeemed from two centuries of persecution and slavery.”
And, as we discover, it is very difficult to leave that mentality behind.
It is very hard for them to see themselves in a different light, to fundamentally believe that they are worthy of receiving the kind of attention and care that is being lavished on them. If, for your entire life, your needs did not matter, then how do you understand this extraordinary redemption? And, if all of your life, the only needs of yours that mattered were the basics of nutrition, would you not focus on these very same basics?
So, not surprisingly, they do not react well. As Leibowitz continues, “what do we see? – timidity, skepticism, twisted thinking – the residue of hundreds of years of bondage and exile.”
To illustrate her point, Leibowitz focuses on the opening lines of our portion:
“Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds.”
Instead of taking the direct route, they will spend a fully generation in the wilderness. Why is this detour necessary?
According to Leibowitz, there are several possibilities suggested in the commentaries. For example, “Rashbam [otherwise known as Samuel ben Meir, the grandson of the famous commentator Rashi] explains that God diverted them from the short route, since they would be immediately plunged into the hostilities with the Canaanites in the attempt to conquer the land and would prefer to return to Egypt.”
It would appear that they needed some time to catch their breath, so to speak. Better to regroup in the wilderness than face a war right after this initial redemption.
She offers another possibility: “Rambam [also known as Maimonides]… in his Guide for the Perplexed offers a rather different explanation.” According to Rambam, “Divine Providence wished to accustom them to hardship in order to toughen them for the fight to conquer the Promised Land.” In other words, the detour was not just to catch their breath. “Had they immediately been confronted with the task of conquest,” she writes, “after their sudden redemption, they would not have been capable of undertaking it. Man cannot suddenly be freed from persecution and slavery and then be expected to wash away the sweat and toil and fight against such enemies as the giants who populated Canaan. The tough conditions of the wilderness would serve to harden them, teach them endurance and heroism.”
They would need to learn how to defend themselves, rather than crumpling in a heap before their foe. Learning self-reliance would be a good start.
Similarly, she writes, “Ibn Ezra analyzes the character and morale of the people. It is indeed astonishing, he observes, why such a large body of six hundred thousand men should fear their pursuers. Why did they not immediately turn round and fight for their lives? In his answer, Ibn Ezra points out that the Israelites were psychologically incapable of putting up a fight against those who had been their lords and masters for centuries.” Imagine being a slave and then trying to fight your master after having been afraid of him for so many years. It is not a task easily done.
Yet the slaves did take those first, most difficult steps toward freedom. We should not underestimate how difficult it is to liberate yourself. Leibowitz points out, rightly, how hard it must have been for the Israelites to take that first step out into the desert. As she writes, “beside the pettiness and grumbling we also encounter greatness, intense faith and trust in God.”
For example, in the rabbinic literature we see the following comment: “Rabbi Eliezer said: This reflects great credit on Israel. For when Moses said unto them: ‘Arise and go forth’, they did not say: How can we go forth into the wilderness when we have no sustenance for the way?”
I am reminded here of the testimony of one of the survivors of the concentration camps, relating what it was like to have been redeemed:
“All of a sudden I saw…a strange car coming down the hill, no longer green, not bearing the swastika, but a white star. It was sort of a mud-splattered vehicle but I’ve never seen a star brighter in my life. And two men sort of jumped out, came running toward us and one came toward where I stood. He was wearing battle gear…His helmet was this mesh over that and he was wearing dark glasses and he spoke to me in German. And he said, “Does anyone here speak German or English?” and I said, “I speak German.” And I felt that I had to tell him we are Jewish and I didn’t know if he would know what the star means or anything…I was a little afraid to tell him that but I said to him, ‘We are Jewish, you know.’ He didn’t answer me for quite a while. And then his own voice sort of betrayed his own emotion and he said, ‘So am I.’ I would say it was the greatest hour of my life. And then he asked an incredible question. He said, ‘May I see the other ladies?’ You know…[to think of how] we have been addressed for six years and then to hear this man. He looked to me like a young god. I have to tell you I weighed 68 pounds. My hair was white. And you can imagine, I hadn’t had a bath in years. And this creature asked for ‘the other ladies.’ And I told him that most of the girls were inside, you know. They were too ill to walk, and he said, ‘Won’t you come with me?’ And, I said, ‘Sure.’ But I didn’t know what he meant. He held the door open for me and let me precede him and that gesture restored me to humanity. And that young American today is my husband.”
In a sense, their grumblings are an expression of their faith in God and their trust in Moses: we followed you into the wilderness because we knew that you would take care of us. Perhaps that is precisely the reason why their requests – multiple requests! – are answered. It’s true that both Moses and God appear to be irritated with the people when they engage in this behavior. And to us, safe from such deprivation, it might even seem ungrateful. But the grumbling receives a response nonetheless, because they are right; they do merit food and drink. They are worthy of sustenance. And for that reason, in this portion alone, they receive water at Marah; in the wilderness of Sin they receive quail and manna; and finally, water again at Rephidim.
Eventually this people will learn self-reliance; eventually this people will no longer look to Moses and God to provide for them. But at this moment of redemption, to merely speak their needs – whether as a request or a demand – is to acknowledge that they are worthy of being cared for. And, for someone who has just been redeemed, that is the hardest step of them all.
I am quitting.
January 2, 2015 § 1 Comment
The woman ahead of me in line at the drug store asks the clerk for two packs of cigarettes, specifying her brand and the color of the package.
As the clerk turns back to ring up her purchase, the woman announces: “I am quitting.” The clerk nods dutifully.
“I am going to quit on the first of the year,” the woman continues. It is at this point that I notice the smell of cigarette smoke that clings to her clothing and her hair.
“It’s so I can see my grandchildren,” the woman continues. The clerk gives her a fixed smile, trying to be encouraging, but not really convinced. “You can do it,” the clerk says, feigning enthusiasm.
“I did, once,” says the woman grandly, “for nine months.”
Now, at last, the clerk is engaged: “what happened?”
The woman laughs an easy, raspy laugh, a smoker’s laugh. “My niece and nephew came to visit,” she says, “and took me out drinking. And they smoke. So there you are.” Aha.
The clerk smiles again, but this time she means it: “Maybe this time, then.” And the woman nods; “yes, maybe this time.”
On one hand, we all know that her chances of actually following through on this New Year’s resolution are not that great. According to a 2013 University of Scranton study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, only about 8 percent of the New Year’s resolutions that Americans make for themselves actually stick.
On the other hand, hope springs eternal. We want that she should be successful. She should pick a date and stick to it. It’s what anyone who has ever successfully quit has done. Pick a date and stick to it.
Change is indeed difficult, because it means changing how we understand ourselves and our world. It means giving up something that has brought us pleasure in favor of something we do not yet know. These things are difficult.
From a practical point of view there are, of course, several things that each of us can do to be more successful when changing our behavior. I can, for example, name three things that will certainly help:
First, one should identify what is driving the behavior. Is it loneliness? Boredom? Addiction? Physical need? It is better to pull at the behavior from its roots.
Second, one should make a plan. What are the times and places of greatest vulnerability? What situations make caving in more likely? What are the greatest obstacles? Identify where things are likely to go astray and make a plan for addressing them.
Third, one should visualize success. The best way to see yourself as capable of change is to visualize exactly what that change looks like. Picture in your head what it feels like, tastes like, sounds like. See yourself living your life differently.
These three actions, taken together, provide practical advice: this is what you can do to change your life. These are things that can be done in the realm of action: identify the roots, make a plan, and visualize success.
But there is another realm as well, a spiritual aspect to the things we do. You can ‘do’ everything right yet still find yourself struggling.
Groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous understand this aspect of change particularly well. In fact, one of the key steps of the twelve-step program is giving yourself over to a high power.
But that kind of language can be difficult for Jews, since it sounds sort of Christian. AA is not a Christian organization, but its founders were from that tradition, so its language is written in the Christian idiom. Think about it for a moment: When do I ever, in a sermon or a class, speak of giving yourself over to God? It’s not how we, as Jews, normally speak about theology.
So let me speak to you in our native tongue: the language of the Torah.
In this week’s portion, we see Joseph and his brothers many years after he was sold into slavery, many years after he tested them and revealed his identity. We see that in his relationship with his brothers, there is still a current of mistrust, for in the period after their father dies, the brothers appear before Joseph and beg for their lives. They make up a story, convinced that he has been waiting for this moment to exact his revenge.
They think that he is still the same kid who would tell them his dreams and brag about how he would one day rule over them.
As the text relates, “His brothers went to him themselves, flung themselves before him, and said, ‘We are prepared to be your slaves.’”
They do so because they are truly afraid. The kid that they knew once upon a time would have taken revenge. That kid would tattle on them to their father for lesser crimes. Of course he would be waiting to take advantage of their weakness!
But Joseph is not offended or bothered by their assumptions. He has changed.
And so he tells them: “‘Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result — the survival of many people. And so, fear not. I will sustain you and your children.’ Thus he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.”
In other words, he tells them: What you had intended for evil was transformed by God into good. The jealousy that led you to sell me into slavery ultimately became the catalyst for saving a population from starvation.
And on this basis, he forgives them.
Notice that he does not say it was God’s will. Notice also that he does not argue that things had to happen this way. Notice also that he does not pretend that the brothers had good motives, or that their actions were any less destructive than they actually were.
Rather, he has created a theology that allows him to heal and forgive, by assuming that God has transformed all the negatives into something positive.
Even in the darkest depths, he says, it is possible to remake the situation into a lasting good.
And what are we to learn from Joseph?
If you want to change your life, you need to have faith. You need to have the faith that it will work out for the good, that it is possible to change, and that you are worthy of it.
In other words, what undermines our New Year’s resolutions is not so much a lack of planning but a lack of faith. All the nicotine gum in the world won’t help if you are convinced that you are unworthy. The smoker in front of me at the drug store will succeed in quitting only if she thinks that she is indeed worthy of seeing her grandkids. That she might be found deserving of this goal.
You must have faith that you are created in God’s image and that you are worthy of love. You must have faith that you are worthy of what is good and right and wonderful in this world.
Because you most certainly are.
Counting my blessings
September 12, 2014 § Leave a comment
I think that I may have told you this: when my son was very young, he could not eat soy. It was an inability to digest soy protein, similar to an allergy, more serious than an intolerance. And, as I discovered, soy is in everything.
He could not eat fast food, chain restaurant food, frozen prepared foods like pizza or pot pies, ice cream products, most snack crackers, most cereals, most breads — and so on. We learned quickly which places prepared their own food and which ones had it trucked in pre-prepared.
It was a royal pain, and as a working single mom and a full-time graduate student, I did not really have the time or money to stop and make every single one of his meals by hand. That was the curse.
But, like any parent, I did what was needed to be done. I simply had to. I had known how to make a few dishes prior to that point, of course, but like most folks I leaned on the prepared foods as well. In response to this changed circumstance, I learned how to cook.
That’s when I learned how to cook Indian food, in fact: realizing that vegetarian meals might be cheaper, I went to the local Indian grocery in Cincinnati and asked the clerk for a recommendation for a cookbook. He called his auntie to come and help me and she selected a copy of ‘Indian Vegetarian Cooking’ for me – “it’s what we give all new brides,” she said. I’ve made just about every dish in that cookbook.
For four years straight I made everything from scratch, in large batches, and froze individual portions in little plastic containers. Everything he ate was made by me. Everything. Because he would be violently ill if it wasn’t.
And that was a blessing, actually. In those same years, it would have been very easy — and quite reasonable — to pick up a serious fast food habit. The dollar menu is cheap and easy and it makes kids happy. But it would have been profoundly distructive to my own health.
Sometimes a curse is a blessing.
But it is very difficult, of course, to see how the curses in this week’s portion could ever be transformed into a blessing. They speak of famine and want, of starvation and degradation. And all this for ignoring God’s commands.
It seems wildly vindictive: how could such activities be punishments if God is just? There are times when we go astray, but why should God be so harsh in punishment?
So let me try and explain what’s really going on here.
According to the text, “Moses and the levitical priests spoke to all Israel, saying: Silence! Hear, O Israel! Today you have become the people of the Lord your God: Heed the Lord your God and observe His commandments and His laws, which I enjoin upon you this day.”
That is to say, Moses is about to explain the terms for the covenant with God. You are about to join in a covenant, he says, let me explain what that will mean.
So, to turn back to the text:
“Thereupon Moses charged the people, saying: After you have crossed the Jordan, the following shall stand on Mount Gerizim when the blessing for the people is spoken: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin. And for the curse, the following shall stand on Mount Ebal: Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphthali.”
In other words, this particular reading of blessings and curses is not a theological statement of what God will do to you if you don’t behave. Rather, this passage is explaining a ritual action, one taken in order to join in a covenant with God.
So what does that mean, exactly?
Our relationship to God is structured as a covenant, which is a very particular type of agreement. In the Ancient Near East, the great powers would enter into agreements with weaker nations. The powerful one would pledge to protect the weaker nation, and in return the weaker one would pledge fidelity to the powerful one.
Thus, the ritual that is enacted here parallels those enacted among nations in the Ancient Near East. In both cases, witnesses are needed: in the case of God and the people Israel, the witnesses are heaven and earth. And, in both cases, a list of blessings and curses are read out loud before the assembly: blessings if the covenant is kept, and curses if it is broken. Here we have a record of the blessings and curses being read aloud, as is appropriate for a covenant ceremony.
As a final step, a ritual action is taken in which something is split into two parts to symbolize the ‘cutting’ of an agreement. Usually it’s an animal. Here, though, the people are split into two parts, so that one half is on Mount Gerizim and one half is on Mount Ebal.
For the record, I suspect that this particular ritual is actually a projection backwards: it’s written after the first exile, as an explanation for what has happened to the Israelite people. There are two reasons why I make this suggestion: first, this ritual is heavy on the spoken word and light on the blood sacrifice, which would suggest a later date for its provenance. Second, the nation did split into two, the northern and southern kingdoms, with half of the people in one and half of the people in the other. So this passage might be a projection backwards, to make the case that the exile was part of God’s plan.
Now you might ask: why do they think in these terms? Why would these images of conquest and subsequent covenant appear here?
Some of it has to do with the ancient belief that there were a multitude of gods that were each assigned to protect a particular territory. That’s the context for the narrative of Jacob’s ladder: Jacob dreams of angels going up the ladder – these are the angels responsible for the territory he is in now – and angels coming down the ladder – these are the angels responsible for the territory he is about to enter. The dream is the realization that God transcends borders. The story teaches: if you must believe in local protective spirits, these might be conceptualized as angels guarding you in a particular territory. But God transcends all.
And that was a revolutionary concept. The common assumption in that time and place was that when one nation would conquer another, the newly-conquered peoples would take on the worship of the conquering peoples’ God.
The covenant ceremony, therefore, is a form of resistance: just as we might sign a treaty with the powerful nation that conquered us, it is also possible to sign a treaty with the power that is our ultimate ruler. And that power, Our God, demands our fidelity. Losing on the battlefield, therefore, does not mean that the other peoples’ gods have won as well. We remain loyal to our God.
In other words: the blessings and curses here are not a tit-for-tat litany of what happens to you if you sin. They are, instead, a statement of defiance: even if we become a conquered people, even if we experience exile, we will remain faithful to our God and our culture. We don’t just believe in God when good things happen to us; we have faith when things are difficult and all appears to be lost.
And that’s a more mature faith: it is moving past an idea that God is like Santa Claus and moving toward an understanding of the world that is much more nuanced and appreciative of all that does go well in our lives. And in that sense, it’s an important lesson for us as we move toward the holidays.
So I will pronounce a blessing upon you: May you be inscribed in the book of life.
What did the Romans destroy?
August 1, 2014 § 2 Comments
Next Tuesday is Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, when both Temples – the first and the second – fell. The First Temple fell in 586 BCE, destroyed by the Babylonians. According to the tradition, the Second Temple fell on the very same date – the ninth of Av – nearly 600 years later, in the year 70 of our secular calendar, this time at the hand of the Romans.
Up until the destruction of the Temple, the primary approach to worship in the Ancient Near East had been animal sacrifice: you bring an animal to the priest, who slaughters the animal in a ritual fashion, burns part of it, and then splits it between you two. The priest gets a portion as his fee, and you have the rest.
And the purpose of this sacrificial system, at least in its ancient form, was to maintain the order of the cosmos.
The Temple, behind the curtain of the Holy of Holies, was the point where heaven and earth meet. The priests were charged with keeping this system going, and preventing the profane elements of living from reaching the holy.
So when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, they destroyed more than a mere building – they destroyed the entire structure of Israelite worship.
And the Romans were fairly thorough in their destruction: they set it on fire, desecrated its precincts, and forbade any further use of the Temple.
If you go to the area of the southern wall excavations in Jerusalem, in fact, you will walk along the Roman street, and encounter the pile of rubble left behind from their efforts that day. In nearly 2000 years no one has cleaned it up. At this point, it is no longer possible to clean it up: those stones are our history, a moment frozen in time.
In the wake of that destruction, however, the ancient rabbis had to rebuild. They had to create a structure for worship that was not dependent upon sacrifices. They had to create a religious self-understanding that was not dependent upon being settled in the land. They had to create a pattern of observance that was not dependent upon what had been destroyed.
Now, the rabbis asked themselves, how do we continue, now that the central cult is gone?
These ancient rabbis, convening in Yavneh, on the banks of the Kinneret (also known as the Sea of Galilee) started the process of rebuilding.
They sat together and reasoned amongst themselves: God’s love for us is manifest in the commandments, right? So if we are commanded, and it is no longer possible to fulfill the commandment in its literal sense, then there must be a metaphorical way to do it. If the Temple is not standing, then we shall dress our scrolls as the High Priest. We will transform our kitchen table into the Temple altar. We will offer the words of our mouth in place of sacrificial offerings. And so on.
All of this was done in the context of the existing structure of law, faithful to its spirit yet also radically different in its execution.
Piece by piece, ritual by ritual, each new thing was mapped out, conceptually linked to the ancient practices yet also fundamentally transformed.
And this process of transformation was so successful, and so complete, that it is hard to think of Judaism as being any other way.
So much so, in fact, that later generations were prompted to ask: Why were the Israelites commanded to offer sacrifices? That is to say, if God knew that it would one day change to another form of worship, why ask for sacrifices in the beginning? Why not identify the proper form of worship and require that of the Israelites?
Consider, for example, the answer that Maimonides gives.
For Maimonides, the highest form of worship was the contemplation of God, but the level of discipline needed to accomplish it remains well outside of the capabilities of the masses.
God therefore allowed the sacrificial cult to flourish, as it provided a physical expression of what their minds could not fully grasp.
Moreover, it helped the Israelites transition from their earlier pagan customs to the correct apprehension of God.
As he argues: If God had required that the Israelites suddenly give up their sacrificial service, then “at that time this would have been similar to the appearance of a prophet in these times who, calling upon this people to worship God, would say: ‘God has given you a Law forbidding you to pray to Him, to fast, to call upon Him for help in misfortune. Your worship should consist solely in meditation without any works at all.’” The change would have been too sudden, and too difficult to accommodate––which is what prompts God to provide an alternative.
In Maimonides’ view, these older forms of prayer might be called a ‘gracious ruse’ on God’ part, for they were an accommodation to the weaknesses of human beings.
Immediately following the fall of the Second Temple, however, when the sacrificial cult was no longer operative, prayer-forms were left to the individual to create on an ad hoc basis, without a formal structure.
Thus, he argues, these new prayer-forms were created by the Men of the Great Assembly, sages who were guided by a true apprehension of reality. They created a structure that might be used by worshippers to perfect themselves, so that over the course of many years they might learn the highest form of contemplation.
Maimonides retains a certain nostalgia for the ancient prayer-forms, but one also senses from his text that these newer innovations are in many ways better than what had gone before, in that they are less visceral and more intellectual.
Looking at it from the perspective of the ancient rabbis, these changes to the ritual and theology of Judaism took an enormous leap of faith: where did they find the courage to make such changes?
Looking at it from the perspective of the later rabbis, however, these changes were not changes at all: they were simply what Judaism must be. It is hard to conceive of Judaism as looking any different than it does now.
Thus the interesting thing in all of this, of course, is how different it really has become: the worship of the heart is a far cry from the physicality of cutting animals to dash their blood on the altar and burn their entrails.
I would argue, therefore, that the strength of Judaism lies in our ability and willingness to adapt. We bewail the awful events in our past – these events have shaped us, and are part of our identity – but they do not define us.
We are able to create and build anew. We continuously construct a Jewish self-understanding that is both wildly different than what came before yet also very much its fullest expression. And in this ongoing process we are ever renewed.
June 13, 2014 § Leave a comment
I bought my tallit, this large one that I wear all the time, during my first year in rabbinical school. A group of us students made a special trip to the old city of Jaffa to visit the Gabrielli family’s storefront along the stone streets.
The tallit showroom is in the basement of their shop, featuring shelves and shelves of tallitot. The six of us students camped out there one afternoon, trying on every conceivable color and size. Red tallitot with black stripes; blue tallitot with grey stripes; white tallitot with rainbow stripes; Cotton, wool, and silk varieties; all kinds of handwoven tallitot were stacked on the shelves around us.
And it was wonderful to have my fellow-students help pick it out: they argued persuasively for the supersized black-and-white tallit that I am wearing today. I diligently tried on a whole stack of tallitot in smaller sizes – they were much less expensive, after all – but my crowd was absolutely convinced that I was best served by the full sweep of the largest size.
Had I been left to my own devices, I would have bought a more demure white-on-white silk tallit in the smallest size. But the consensus was that mine needed to be a graphic black and white, and larger than life, big enough to serve as a chuppah when I remarried. I am grateful to my friends for knowing that about me.
I have worn this tallit at all major life-cycle events since that time. I was ordained in it and got married under it. I wore it at the Western Wall for the Women of the Wall 25th Anniversary. It has become a part of my identity as a rabbi. Not that it is irreplaceable – for no object ever truly is – but it would certainly feel that way.
My kippah, however, is actually much older than my tallit: that’s why they don’t precisely match. I bought it at a URJ biennial convention before I ever applied to school, just after my conversion. I’ve worn the same one for twenty years now. Though it’s very pretty, it doesn’t have the same significance to me. For one thing, the kippah – the head covering that Jews wear – is not something from the Biblical era. It’s a custom rather than a mitzvah – it’s not a commandment – which is why we don’t say a blessing when we put it on our heads.
The tallit, on the other hand, is something entirely our own. The purpose of the tallit is to serve as the vehicle for the tzitzit, the knotted fringes on the four corners. That’s why there is such variety in the tallit design: it’s the placeholder. The fringes are what’s actually commanded.
In fact, the commandment to wear tzitzit comes from our Torah portion today:
“The Lord said to Moses as follows: Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God.”
Why are the tzitzit usually white if the passage says they must have blue in them? Apparently, the blue dye came from a sea snail that has since gone extinct. I have seen tzitzit in multiple shades of blue, done in the hope that one of the shades would be the right one. But the general ruling is that without the proper dye they should be left white.
The knot pattern itself is distinctive: the most common pattern found in the US is an Ashkenazi style of a double knot, seven spirals, a double knot, eight spirals, a double knot, eleven spirals, a double knot, thirteen spirals, and finally a double knot. There is a Separdic variation in which the spirals loop in on themselves to create a swirling spine down the length of the tassel. Though there are reasons for why that pattern, they all appear to be explanations after the fact. Why that pattern? It just is.
If you go to the Israel Museum, to the Shrine of the Book, where the Dead Sea Scrolls are kept, you will see an exhibit downstairs of the other items they found alongside the scrolls. One of those items is a tallit, made of white wool with black stripes, with white knotted fringes. It looks remarkably like the traditional tallitot for sale on Ben Yehuda Street today, but for the 2000 years of wear and tear.
In other words, wearing tzitzit is not simply one of the commandments: it is also a practice uniquely our own, one that stretches all the way back to the Biblical period.
It is likely that the tallit gadol – the grand tallit like what I’m wearing now – was originally worn as an outer cloak; eventually it became a prayer garment, worn in the morning during the shacharit prayer service, at the Yom Kippur Kol Nidre service, and when leading services. We also wear one here when doing an aliyah, which are the blessings before and after the Torah reading.
But the tallit gadol is not the only kind. Traditionally, there is also an undergarment that is worn every day, all day, as the first layer of clothing. It is called a tallit katan (small tallit) and it is usually a kind of tank top or bib that you pull on over your head. You may have seen the tzitzit from one of these: some men tuck the tzitzit in, so that they are not visible; others like to pull them out, so that they dangle from the edges of their shirt. That’s usually how they outfit the character Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. Both options are supported by the tradition.
Traditionally, of course, this mitzvah of wearing the tallit katan was reserved for men. The verse has been interpreted to mean that only men are specifically required to wear it. So, if you were shopping for a tallit katan you were necessarily shopping in the men’s section. For traditional women, it is inappropriate to wear men’s clothing – that’s why traditional women always wear skirts or dresses – so it is a genuine barrier to the performance of the commandment if the only ones available are sold in men’s sizes in the men’s section.
When I first saw the notice on the internet regarding a new company Netzitzot [see https://www.netzitzot.com/about-us.html] that sells the tallit kaftan for women I decided to buy one in support of this new company. I wanted to help make it possible for women to fulfill this commandment, but I did not have a clear sense of what I was planning to do with it myself. Bring it to my Introduction to Judaism class, perhaps, for show and tell? Wear it on occasion, perhaps?
The morning after its arrival, I put it on to see how it felt. And I found that there was a certain sense of rightness to it, a sense that a missing piece had been fulfilled. I had wanted to fulfill this commandment but it was not open to me. And now it was.
So I started wearing it as often as possible while also taking steps to keep it freshly laundered. It did not take me long to decide I was going to need a full set.
Thus I have taken on the daily mitzvah of wearing of tzitzit. Why should that be something so satisfying to me? Why should a tank top with fringes make a difference, you ask?
The odd thing about ritual: it is always a bit arbitrary in its structure. Why fringes? There is no clear rational answer as to why this and not that.
But it also has a certain logic to it: you wear something on your body as part of your person to remind you, in those moments of transition and vulnerability, of the grander structure.
And that is indeed what it means to be a Jew: to see godliness in the smallest detail, and to do so in the context of a tradition that extends well into the past, and to do so with the intention of continuing well into the future.
 Numbers 15:37-40, from the JPS translation
Does God Punish Us with Illnesses?
June 4, 2014 § Leave a comment
For the sin of gossiping against Moses, Aaron and Miriam are called onto the carpet, and God tells them in no uncertain terms that Moses is special: God speaks to Moses face-to-face. No one else can claim that honor. And then God’s presence departs from them in anger.
As the cloud leaves, Miriam is suddenly covered with white scales.
When Aaron sees her, he immediately assumes that the illness is a punishment for her sin. The timing of the affliction would suggest as such, given that it happened in quick succession. And he says to Moses, “Please my lord, do not hold a grudge against us for acting foolishly and sinning. Let her not be like a stillborn child…” In other words, Aaron’s narrative – the story he tells himself – is that she is now ill because they sinned. In his view, God punishes us through illness and death.
Aaron’s explanation is the one usually adopted by commentators: Miriam was punished for her sin.
The problem with this explanation, however, is that it makes the unreasonable assumption that illness and death occur as a result of God’s anger with us over having done something wrong.
But notice that Moses does not validate this explanation. He does not concern himself with questions as to why she is ill: he simply says, “O God, please heal her.”
And more importantly: God never says that her illness is a punishment.
Look at what God says in response: “If her father had spit in her face, would she not have been embarrassed for seven days?” I believe that the phrase ‘spit in her face’ is intended to call up the image of a father so angry that he is yelling at her, so close to her that he is spitting in her face. Imagine that her earthly father was so angry as to yell at her in this manner, and imagine that she agreed with him. Wouldn’t she be mortified at her behavior? How much more so, then, if it was God who is angry?
In other words, God tells Moses that Miriam is profoundly embarrassed. In this context, in fact, her scaled skin appears to be a physical expression of her emotional state, a stress reaction to having been reproached by God for her bad behavior. In other words: it is not a punishment for her sin, but a symptom of her distress at having been so wrong.
And so, in response, God explains to Moses that she needs time to heal herself. She needs to sit outside of the camp and watch the world go by for about a week until she has recovered from the shock and anguish.
I think, in fact, that it is important that she is outside of the camp for the span of a week. This process of repair does not involve days of introspective brooding inside her tent. It is better that she be out in the fresh air, where she can watch the clouds scuttle by and listen to the sound of leaves. To heal from her affliction, she needs to pay attention to the movement of ants and become familiar with the play of sunlight on blades of grass. We all need a break sometimes to let it all wash over us, to just be still.
What we see here, in fact, is several different responses to the stress of having been wrong before the Lord.
Aaron does not say anything about his own guilt; he focuses on others. His altruism might also be a dodge of his own responsibility.
Miriam, on the other hand, directs her emotions inward, so that they become physical manifestations of her distress.
Moses, of course, was not one of the guilty parties, but his response is interesting nonetheless. He focuses on the task at hand: to heal her.
And God’s response to his plea is to draw attention to Miriam’s emotional state. God’s response, in effect, is to say, ‘I can’t heal her, as this is a manifestation of her own distress. Only Miriam can heal herself, and they only way to do that is for her to spend some time experiencing the painful emotion directly. And the best way to do that is to spend some time in nature, away from the camp and all its motion and noise.’
Anyone who has ever been to AA or Al-Anon or who has had to watch an addict struggle with that affliction understands the wisdom of God’s response: only Miriam can heal herself.
What we also see here is a certain wisdom as to what kinds of actions are healing for us. God’s suggestion to Moses has several gems for us to use: the first one is the awareness that there is no need to move on just yet, for it is possible to sit still for a while. There are things that need doing, but it is likely that most of the things that need doing can be put off for a few days, particularly if you should need to spend some time to recuperate.
In fact, God seems to be very concerned with our need to rest: are we not commanded to rest every single week, on Shabbat?
Another pearl of wisdom: the observation that spending time in nature is healing. Just knowing that you are a part of a larger chain of being, an endless symphony of movement around you, is comforting. And this observation is one is backed by scientific research: a study of brain waves found that just walking among the trees calms us. It is good for her to go out camping for a while.
And there is another gem: we should note that our physical distress might have emotional roots. Our mind-body connection is profound; some afflictions require that the emotional scars are healed before the physical ones recede.
The story we tell ourselves in the wake of an illness will define how well we respond to that illness. There are tales that lead to blind alleys and tales that lead to healing. Listen to God’s response, rather than Aaron’s: instead of viewing illness as God’s punishment, we should give ourselves time to heal.
Vayakhel — O Lord, won’t You buy me a Mercedes Benz?
February 21, 2014 § 3 Comments
It seems that every time that I get a cold it goes straight for my voice. Instead of my usual mezzo-soprano, my voice has spent most of this week somewhere in the baritone range. My deepest gravelly voice, in fact, sounds a bit like Janis Joplin, which is precisely why I have one of her songs on my mind today:
O Lord, won’t You buy me a Mercedes Benz
My friends all have Porsches, I must make amends,
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,
So Lord, won’t You buy me a Mercedes Benz
I love that song! It’s just so direct about it.
But we all know, of course, that this kind of pleading does not work. We are all sadly familiar with the fact that God does not take special orders of this kind. It’s usually something we learn as kids: you can’t get a brand-new toy by asking God. You’d have better luck asking Grandma, or saving up your allowance.
So, then, what is the purpose of prayer, if it is not to get stuff? It must have some kind of larger meaning – or else why do we engage in it?
One possible answer to this difficulty is that it is for God’s benefit. We engage in worship because God commands it. It is, after all, one of the demands placed upon us by our covenant: God commands us to make a sanctuary.
For example, we read in our portion today, “This is what the Lord has commanded: Take from among you gifts to the Lord; everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring them — gifts for the Lord: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, and goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and the breastpiece.” On the face of it, therefore, the purpose of bringing all of these gifts is to offer them to the Lord, to build a sanctuary to honor God.
Interestingly, however, some of the midrashim reject this interpretation. For example, consider this one:
“The whole paraphernalia of the Tabernacle, the candlestick, table, altar, holy things, the tent and curtains – what was their purpose? Israel addressed the Holy One Blessed be He: Lord of the universe, the kings of the heathens have their tent, table, candlestick and incense burner and such are the trappings of sovereignty; for every king has need of them. Should not then Thou which art our King, Saviour and Redeemer possess the same trappings of sovereignty, that it may become known to all the inhabitants of the world that Thou art the King?
“The Almighty answered: You who are flesh and blood have need of this, but I have no such need, since there is no eating or drinking associated with Me, and I have no need of light.” So it’s not for God after all! Why is it commanded then?
In this Midrash, God goes on to tell the Israelites that they are already worthy of divine concern due to the merit of their ancestors. God specifically cites their connection to the Avot – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We would also add the Imahot – Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.
But the Israelites object to God’s answer: we do not pray to them, we pray to You. In other words: even though they merit God’s attention and protection on this basis, they still have a need to engage in prayer. For example, what should they do when they need to specifically ask for something in particular? In response, God tells them, okay, fine: “make what you desire but make them as I command you… as it is stated: ‘Make Me a sanctuary…a candlestick…a table…an altar for burning incense.’”
It is like a parent saying to a child, ‘anything that you need I will give you.’ And the child responds: ‘yes, but what about the things that I want? How do I ask for things that I want?’ And the parent finds some structured way to accommodate the child’s request.
What that means, according to this Midrash, is that the sanctuary is not for the honor of God; and it is not to demonstrate the glory to God the way we might demonstrate the glory of an earthly king. Rather, it is provides a structured way to ask for things.
But now we are back to our original problem: it’s not like we can ask God for a Mercedes Benz. We don’t get what we ask for, at least not in any sort of direct, easy-to-catalogue way.
And that’s a genuine pity, of course, because there are so many things that we want, and so many things that we need. Eventually, we learn to ask for bigger things than a new bike, bigger things than a Mercedes Benz. We ask for things like health, long life, children, employment, fulfillment, happiness.
Yet we discover that these things do not come to us magically, just for the asking. It’s one of the great surprises of adulthood: after having the majority of our needs fulfilled by our parents, we venture out into the world to discover that we are not provided with this same kind of support wherever we go. Apparently the world does not owe us anything: not health, not wealth, not happiness. And that can be a rude shock when it comes. Who will take care of me? We find that we must take care of ourselves.
So, then, what are we trying to accomplish in prayer? What is the point of worship? Why do our prayers include requests for God’s response, if we don’t have magical powers over the Godhead?
One possibility is that prayer helps us sort out what we really want, what we really need. In hearing ourselves speak, we realize whether we are asking for something worthy or not. It could be that prayer is our way of coping with this most basic difficulty: an acknowledgment of our boundless need and our limited means of fulfilling that need.
For example, whenever I visit people in the hospital, I will pray with them, if they are willing. And in that prayer, I will state some of our hoped-for outcomes: real ones, like “…and may this person go home soon in good health…” as well as miraculous ones, such as “…and astound his or her doctors with the speed at which healing takes place…”
The point of this act of prayer in the hospital room is more than saying “I hope you get well soon.” It’s a nice sentiment, of course. And the point of prayer in the hospital room is more than the good cheer that comes with having a visitor. It’s a welcome sight as well, of course. But there’s more going on here than that.
As Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “Reading or studying a prayer is not the same as praying. What marks the act of prayer is the decision to enter and face the presence of God.” Prayer addresses what is transcendent.
But if you are agnostic about God or a non-believer, then the act of prayer does seem to be pointless. Why should we speak of something transcendent, when all we know is what we can sense here and now?
Yet is that really the case? I have found, in my own experience, that we really do sense more than what’s just here and now. What is that energy that fills a room and causes a crowd to cheer at once? What is that energy that fills our eyes with tears when the bride comes walking down the aisle? What is that energy that overflows our heart when we hold a new-born child? What is that energy that we feel and know when a congregation prays on our behalf?
That is the energy that we are addressing in the act of prayer. Prayer is more than merely talking to ourselves, and more than listening to ourselves talk. There is more to it than stating a wish, no matter how dearly felt it is. There is something greater at work here, in fact. In the act of prayer, we are asking that the energy that is available to us be put to work to good ends.
In other words: if you find that you really cannot grasp hold of the full concept of God – if the idea seems entirely too difficult, too fraught, too complicated – then think of it in smaller terms. Make a modest request. Ask that energy be available to you, energy to do what is right. Nothing more. No throne of glory or angels on high: just a small, modest request that you have the energy you need to do what is right.
I started this process of becoming Jewish without a belief in God and with a doubt that prayer can be worthwhile. If my own spiritual life is any indication: if you concentrate on that smaller goal, that practice will ultimately lead you to its source, to something grander and larger. Learn to focus on the energy you can discern, and you will eventually find something much greater than yourself. You are not alone in this search.