Category Archives: Torah

Facing Loss at Rosh Hashanah

StengelThe images of the secular New YearTimes Square, Champagne in fancy glasses, funny hats and noisemakersare all fun and happy. By contrast the images of Rosh Hashanaha shofar, people praying, apples dipped in honeyare more subdued and complicated. They suggest introspection mixed with hope, intention and possibility.

And I’m glad it is this way because this combination of emotions allows both for the celebration of that which might be in the year to come and face the reality of loss of all that is no longer possible.

Sitting in the same space we sat in last year and hearing the same somber tunes we hear year after year grounds us in continuity. We know that come what may, we can be sure this place, these sounds, these words will be here again next year, just as they were here last year, just as they were here ten years ago.

But the continuity also reminds us of what has changed in the last year. Some of the changes are for the better, the new love, the child now wearing a tallit for the first time, the new job, the new home. But not all the changes are for the good. Looking around the sanctuary, or the dining room table, at familiar faces we may be acutely aware of those who are not there. Or maybe the tunes and prayers are familiar but the sanctuary and all the people because you have had to move communities after a messy divorce or a job change. Maybe the clothes are old because buying new ones was simply not an option with this year’s finances. Our losses, whatever form they take, can be painfully clear at Rosh Hashanah.

The liturgy of the season returns to the refrain, “Hashiveinu Adonai, Elecha, V’nasuvah, Hadesh Yameinu K’kedem” “Return us Adonai to you and we will return, renew our days as in the days of old.” The traditional understanding of this prayer speaks to the need to rededicate ourselves to the path of Torah so that the presence of God will be as profound as it was in ancient times. But my own experience with the loss of loved ones at Rosh Hashanah, gave me a different way to understand it. Loss can alienate us from God and from that which is holy, we need help and support to be able to feel grace and the presence of the sacred. We want to feel the feeling of blessing that has slipped away.

My favorite version of this prayer, one set to the Rosh Hashanah nusach or tunes, is somber and has the power to bring me to tears. I remember the last day of my grandmother’s life, the first day of Rosh Hashanah over 25 years ago. It was the only time I ever saw her pray, I got to hear her sing the traditional tunes. The next day she was gone. Each year since, on Rosh Hashanah I am returned to that special relationship and to her absence.

At Rosh Hashanah, we do need to look forward and imagine how we will improve ourselves, our communities and our world in the year to come. But we also should allow ourselves to grieve for that which has been lost and is not retrievable. Services might be somber, but it is also appropriate cry and feel the power of the music, the sounds, the liturgy and the visuals the moment. Our sense of loss can and should propel us to reach out to those who are still with us, to seek help and support for that which we cannot change on our own. Judaism gives us permission and space to feel both the joys and the pains of life. Unlike the celebration of the secular New Year, Rosh Hashanah encourages us to take stock, not to ignore the bad, even as we hope for a better year to come.

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Posted on September 22, 2014

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Look Both Ways Before Crossing!

As we cross from 5774 to 5775, the Akeida (the Binding of Isaac, which is traditionally read on Rosh Hashanah) tells us to look both ways so we can perceive the fullness of our reality.

As he looked up, Abraham saw the place from afar (Genesis 22:4)three days before, God commanded Abraham to offer his son as a burnt offering on a mountain.  Even though he is still far away, the moment Abraham sees the mountain he begins to anticipate his grief. He doesn’t raise his eyes again for a long time.

We all know what this feels like.  This past summer, many of us stopped looking up as well.  We “saw from afar” news of rockets falling on Israel and on Gaza, the murder of another black childthis time in Fergusonthe Ebola outbreak in Nigeria, Robin Williams’ suicide, and the spreading threat of ISIS.  We were flooded with images of beheadings, pleas from helpless parents for the release of their captive children.

And to avoid the pain, we learned to look down.  And in looking down, we missed everything else.

Did you hear – just this month – about teachers at an elementary school in Cudahy California, who got together to donate 154 sick days to a Carol Clark, a sixth grade teacher who was diagnosed with breast cancer?  Or about the zoo in Victoria that released five endangered species, including Tasmanian devils, back into the wild after their populations grew back to a healthy size?  Or about the UN report that the ozone layer is recovering?

No?

As Abraham looked up, he saw a ram (Genesis 22:13)in Rashi’s commentary on the Akeidah, he quotes a midrash that the ayil, the ram, is one of the ten things in existence before the creation of the world.  According to this midrash, the ram was always there and Abraham just never saw it.  With his eyes cast to the ground, Abraham has forgotten something central about the very nature of the world around him.

And with his gaze lowered, Abraham nearly kills his son Isaac (and some say, the news of what Abraham has gone off to do actually kills Sarah).  In the moment he raises the knife above his head, Abraham has come to imagine that nothing else is possible.  But when he lifts his eyes, he sees a new possibility, a new way of being in the world.

Like Abraham, we learn to expect disappointment and loss, rather than to notice the unexpected wonders that surround us.  In order to protect ourselves, we learn to lower our gaze.  We get into the habit of looking down at the brokenness and shadows in our world, jobs and relationships.  And like Abraham, we cannot perceive reality until we start to look up and see that something else is possible.  The Akeida comes to us this year to teach us to look both ways before crossing.

How do we do this?

Before bed each night, my partner and I share with each other five things that we are grateful for.  Some people keep a gratitude journal.  There’s even a Facebook meme going around of sharing what you’re grateful for, and tagging other people to do the same.  There are so many ways to strengthen our instinct to look up, and get better at noticing what is going right.

On Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate yom harat ha’olam, the birth and renewal of our world.  As we cross into 5775, we aren’t merely surviving anymore.  We aren’t just trying to hold back the knife, or protect ourselves from what is going wrong.  We can and must work on flourishinglifting our eyes to find a saving ram, connecting to the nourishment of our food, feeling the love of an old friend.

Before you cross into the new year, take on a practice that will help you break the habit of just looking down, and help you to look up and see what is good in this world.

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Posted on September 22, 2014

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The Destiny of the American Jewish Community: Assimilation or Isolation?

In the great story of humanity there has always been the forces that compel us to assimilate amongst each other and those that urge us to maintain our differences. When we collapse the contours that are the map of the human family into one straight path our journey becomes simple and uncomplicated. Yet, what do we give up when we venture down the path of assimilation?

AssimilationWhen we turn our attention to the Jewish community we find these polarizing forces very much at work. This dilemma has presented itself at numerous junctures in history. Whenever the larger environment was hospitable to Jews, the tension between blending in and maintaining community surfaced.

I would argue that the answer to this question lies between the extremes. In the 19th century European Jewry gave rise to multiple approaches to emancipation. One approach asserted that with a more tolerant society the time has come to withdraw to the most particularistic parts of our selves.

Alternatively, in the first platform of the Reform movement composed in 1885, it was declared: “We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people… and today we accept as binding only its moral laws… but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.” Similarly, the early members of Reform hopefully declared that their era was “the modern era of universal culture of heart and intellect.”

On one hand, we  encounter the forces that would have us all live in complete isolation from the world and on the other hand a movement whose foundation is an embrace of assimilation. Like in so many instances the solution rests in grappling with the liminal space in between the parts.

jacob_wrestles_angel_rembrandt_harmensz1659The answer cannot be assimilation. The four millennia-long journey of the Jewish people has produced ideas worth perpetuating along with a people that can carry forward those ideas. Jews are not a people of monuments but rather a people of ideas. Our greatest contribution to the progressive development of humanity does not exist in architecture but in the shaping of the moral intellect. The very beginning of our people finds itself in a call to “go forth.” The map of Jewish experience is shaped by experiences of exile and return, of reaching the promised land only to find ourselves shortly thereafter sitting by the waters of Babylon.

The birthright of the Jewish people is the very ability to live with ideas, to grapple with ideas, to test and retest the contours of moral reasoning. It is the challenge to “go forth” and to discover a touch of the Divine in the spaces we live in and the bodies we exist within.

Yet, this need to perpetuate and grow the legacy must be counter-balanced with engagement. No community exists absent other communities. What are we afraid of? Are we afraid that a tradition that survived the tumult of nearly four thousand years will wither in the face of dialogue? Do we lack that much self-confidence in the vitality of this great experiment initiated by Abraham, continued by Moses and then the Sages and thinkers of every era? A Judaism that exists only for itself fails to exist to its full potential.

When one looks at the results of the 2013 Pew Forum study on the American Jewish community one finds, broadly speaking, two growing and competing trends in the American Jewish landscape. There is an ever-increasing rate of disaffiliation. The “universal culture of heart and intellect” that the early Reformers described has no apparent need for a particularistic identity.

AP120520062965-635x357The other trend is a growing rate of Ultra-Orthodoxy. This is the Orthodoxy that argues the answer to modernity is to retreat. In 2012 CitiField was filled with 50,000 members of the haredi community pledging their resistance to the Internet.

These are disturbing trends. What will be left of those who occupy the space in between the parts? What will be left of those who exist firmly planted in the ideas and traditions of Judaism while extending a hand to the world beyond our borders? I am neither a sociologist nor a prophet so the answer to that question will be revealed only by time. What I can do is declare that retreat is not the solution. That liminal space is the birthright of the next generation and all future generations of the Jewish people.

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Posted on September 12, 2014

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The Warrior Within

Synagoge,_Enschede,_Mozaiek“The true test of a warrior is not without – it is within.”Lieutenant Commander Worf, Star Trek: The Next Generation

Current events, recent readings in the yearly Torah cycle, and the inner work of preparing for Rosh Hashanah,the Jewish New Year, come together in this famous literary quotation.

The books of Bamidbar (Numbers) and Devarim (Deuteronomy) talk a lot about war: how to wage it justly, how to win, and how to march under the Divine banner.

Generally speaking, much of history is about war, territory, and the exploits of kings. Traditionally, kings have a motive for celebrating themselves. They have the funds to write, publish and circulate stories of their successes and, occasionally, their distresses.

The books of Bamidbar and Devarim do style themselves as historical texts, narrating events and offering snapshots of legal traditions. Some academic scholars credit the early Israelite kings for commissioning and overseeing the books. Perhaps that accounts for the books’ preoccupation with war and its philosophical justifications.

Current events are heavily focused on war, too. Governments, resistance groups, and advocacy organizations publicize sympathetic accounts of their successes and distresses, too. When we read about unfolding events, however, we recognize and try to respond to urgent needs for relief. Thus it seems appropriate, ethical, and results-oriented to focus on war – not odd at all.

As Torah attempts to tell a religious history, its focus on war seems to present war as a religious experience. Sociologist Max Weber theorized about the roots of this view. The spiritual covenant we prize, Weber argued, was not originally an agreement between the Israelites and God. Instead, it was a confederation agreement between the twelve Israelite tribes to support each other in times of war. But the army’s leader, figurehead, and supreme general could not be recruited from any particular tribe. The leader was God, Commander of Commanders. Thus, worship of a warrior God was important social glue in ancient Israel.

Weber’s contemporary, philosopher Hermann Cohen, saw the exact opposite. The true nature of the Israelites’ God, he wrote, was and is peace. God authorizes the priests to place the Divine name upon the people. This fifteen-word name, known now as the priestly blessing, concludes, “May God lift the Divine Face towards you, and place within you shalom” (Numbers 6: 24-26). For Cohen, God’s true face and most accurate name is “peace.” An essential, fundamental, spiritual yearning for peace holds us as we stumble through war’s posturing and politics.

Two views: war and peace as fundamental religious experiences. Sure, depth psychologists would say, both war and profound peace are numinous experiences. Unearthly and otherworldly, they yank us out of ordinary consciousness, showing us a different order of reality. No wonder some people speak of war as a religious experience, and others speak similarly of peace.

A midrash teaches that during the month of Elul, “the king is in the field,” i.e., God is especially close to us. Perhaps this month we can deliberately focus on our own inner tendencies towards war and peace. Where and when, in your relationships, do you find yourself poised for conflict? Where and when do you find yourself yearning to make peace? Both can be done with intention, grace and justice. And both should begin with reflection, consultation, prayer, and planning.

To adapt Worf’s words slightly, “The true warrior, and the true peacemaker, begin the work within.”

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Posted on September 8, 2014

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God at the Speed of Life

Most moderns live life on the run. You probably don’t need any reminder, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average American claims just 17 minutes per day to relax and think. If you’re like most Americans, you’re running out of time just reading this post.

speed-of-lifeModern life has traveled far from the perhaps mythic ideal of Talmud’s sages, who set aside distractions for fully an hour before thrice-daily prayer (Talmud, Berachot 30b). Plainly they didn’t live at the pace of iPhones and split-second commodity futures trading. Ancient mystics who sat for hours in meditation never sat in rush hour traffic, late for a meeting, perilously low on fuel, while desperately needing a bathroom.

Spirituality and mindfulness, we’re told, need the spaciousness of time – yet precisely in all our society’s collective wealth and productivity, most multitasking moderns feel starved for time. Is it any wonder that spiritual wonder sometimes seems so elusive?

The upcoming High Holy Days challenge us to ask: Where is God at the speed of life? Maybe even more importantly: where are we at the speed of life?  Where are we when we race – whether literally in body, or in our minds? How can we answer these questions if we don’t bask in time-intensive prayer or regular meditation?

We fast-paced moderns can indeed answer these questions – and, for our spiritual survival and sanity, we must.

The Psalmist wrote, Shiviti Adonai l’negdi tamid – “I will keep God before me always” (Ps. 16:8). Centuries earlier, Moses encountered God in a common thorn bush (Ex. 3:2). Later, Moses was recorded to teach that ein od milvado – “There is nothing else but God” (Deut. 4:35). These teachings all offer a common promise: awareness of holiness “always” is in our reach “everywhere,” even in “common” contexts. Whatever we may believe or sense in our frenzied pace, tunnel vision, distraction or religious predilections, the God of “always” and “everywhere” must mean God also – even precisely – at our speed of life.

Nice words, but do “always” and “nothing else” really help at the speed of life? Panentheists like Rabbi Art Green offer that everything is part of God: we, our iPhones, traffic jams and everything are part of the unfolding of evolutionary Being, all of them flowing with the potential for holiness. But even if we can imagine it cognitively, few find panentheism especially moving (and I know none who even say “panentheism”) while going nowhere fast in traffic.

For me, the power of “always” and “everywhere” is less in theology than empowerment. By definition, “always” includes now and “everywhere” includes here – no exceptions. If so, then heightened awareness beckons not despite but precisely from daily life’s rough and tumble. When we forget – and we all do – it’s not because cosmic reality changed, but because we stopped paying attention.

As New York Times columnist Frank Bruni recently wrote, how we focus our attention can invest even the most routine daily experience – even sitting at one’s desk, or getting one’s teeth cleaned – with the power to elevate the seemingly ordinary. This is the high potential of “now.” Shiviti Adonai l’negdi tamid: “I will keep God before me always” – even in the dentist’s chair, even in traffic.

The lyricist of “Hello, Dolly!” knew that “It only takes a moment to be loved a whole life long.” It only takes a moment to find our breath, notice a sunrise, smile at a passerby, or count a blessing. It only takes a moment to reclaim “now” – but make no mistake: this isn’t easy spirituality. Claiming a moment (then another, then another) is the teshuvah (spiritual return) to which we re-commit at Rosh Hashanah. Tools of spiritual life – prayer, study, meditation, reflection, good deeds – empower us to make Godly moments “always” and “everywhere.” What would the world be like if we all made a whole year of holy moments like that?

Try it next time you’re stuck in traffic.

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Posted on September 4, 2014

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Holy War: What Would Moses Do?

dove-gloveJoshua, Moses’ trusted assistant, has exactly three spoken lines in the Five Books of Moses, a.k.a. the Torah.

After the revelation of the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai, Moses and Joshua climb the mountain. From below, they hear the sound of people worshiping an idol, the Golden Calf. Joshua says, “The sound of war is in the camp!” (Exodus 32:17). “No,” replies Moses, “That’s the sound of people singing.”

When Moses asks God for help with spiritual leadership, God gifts 70 people with the ability to prophesy. When a young servant reports to Moses and Joshua that people are prophesying in the camp, Joshua says, “Jail them!” (Numbers 11:28). “Don’t,” replies Moses, “If only all God’s people could be prophets!”

When the twelve scouts return from assessing the habitability of Canaan, ten scouts report that fearsome giants control the land. But scouts Joshua and Caleb say, “Don’t be afraid if they fight us; they are undefended!” (Numbers 14:9)

If the Torah were a movie, those three lines would convey Joshua’s character. His eyes see the discipline of war everywhere. So it’s no surprise that in the sequel (i.e., the next book of the Bible) The Book of Joshua, he leads the people to war.

The Biblical Joshua is no ordinary general. He is a deeply spiritual person. He has a gift for creating ritual, which he uses to design a ceremony for crossing the Jordan River (Joshua 3:1-17). He facilitates miracles: when he asks God to make the sun stand still, God complies (Joshua 10:12-14). He is a stickler for the ethics of just conduct in war, punishing soldiers who violate them (Joshua 7:1-26). Perhaps a spiritual frame helps him shape and contain war’s terrifying adrenaline overload.

But peace is not part of Joshua’s spirituality. He accepts a peace treaty only when tricked into it (Joshua 9:1-27). He considers his war to be a holy war, commanded by God.

On these matters, he completely reverses the teaching of his mentor Moses. For Moses, a divine command to do battle should be questioned. A peace treaty should be offered, proactively.

In Deuteronomy, Moses reports that as soon as the Israelites had raised a strong army, God told him, “I have delivered into your hands Sihon the Amorite, king of Heshbon…engage with him in battle.”  Instead of engaging, however, Moses says, “I sent messengers to Sihon with words of peace” (Deuteronomy 2:24-26).

Moses is generally a critical thinker par excellence. When he has an adrenaline overload, he stops to reflect. When he hears God talking from a burning bush, he says, “What is your name?” (Exodus 3:13). When an angry God later tells him, “I’m going to wipe out my disloyal people,” he explains logically why that is not a good idea (Numbers 14:13-16).

Occasionally he does lapse; for example he loses his temper after his sister Miriam dies, insulting the people and ignoring God’s instructions (Numbers 20:1-13). But for the most part, he does not accept either violence or spiritual experience uncritically. He does not unreflectively use spirituality to make sense of violence.

Jews, Christians and Muslims revere Moses as a prophet and a leader. Four out of five books of Torah focus on his story. New Testament quotes his Deuteronomic speech 32 times. Qur’an mentions him more than any other individual. Please, world, when we are tempted to use God’s name to justify war and religion, let’s follow our inspirational leader.

What would Moses do? He would think, question, and try to craft peace.

Posted on August 11, 2014

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Patrilineal Jewish Descent: An Open Orthodox Approach

This week there has been much conversation online and offline on the Jewish status of people of patrilineal Jewish descent. My fellow Rabbis Without Borders alumna, Rabbi Alana Suskin, brought up the issue in an honest and compassionate article Wednesday that has garnered quite a lot of attention. I, too, have found this issue of status to be a vexing and complicated one.

Jewish denominations do not live in a vacuum. The actions of one movement can have profound impact on the collective Jewish community. Actions must be carefully weighed and considered. This is something that the broader Orthodox community refused to acknowledge for much of the early 20th-century American Jewish experience and is a mistake that I pray all movements from now on would seek to not repeat. Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, the immediate past PJewish-Star-and-questionmarkresident of the Rabbinical Council of America, in an eloquent, impassioned and moving speech to his Conservative colleagues at The Jewish Theological Seminary, stated it succinctly:

“The question before us is not simply whether we can learn to talk to each other—There is much more at stake. The real question is. “What role will we play, or not play, in shaping the story of the Jewish people at this critical juncture?” If we can’t get along, then we cannot make the kind of difference that we should.

I suppose that we could all react to this challenge in usual fashion, by blaming each other and saying, “Well, it’s really the fault of the Orthodox or the Conservative or the Reform.” After all, it’s always the ‘other’s’ fault. But the Torah teaches us otherwise, that, like the brothers, we are all at fault. If we allow this to go on, if we continue to move apart and do not find ways to act together, we will all be held culpable for the unfolding, potentially tragic fate of the American Jewish community.”

Rabbi Goldin urges us to see each other within the framework of brothers, as part of a global Jewish family that needs to work together. We can either all rise to the heights of incompetence together and bring severe havoc to our broad Jewish family or we can rise to the greatest of our potential, together, and usher in a new renaissance and flowering of Jewish life and vitality. That is our charge and our responsibility. The folks in the pews, and even more potently the folks who have long ago left the pews, are waiting for us to act maturely and cooperatively. If not now, when? If we wait too long, it may be very well too late.

It is within that backdrop that I approach the question of patrilineal descent. There are two strata of response to the question: 1. The responsibility of leadership and 2. The pastoral dimension. Both are important but it is important not to conflate them in a discussion of the issue.

Let me preface by saying that I have the utmost respect for my Reform colleagues. I grew up in the Reform movement and it is because of those formative years and the rabbis and educators that so profoundly impacted me that I became traditionally observant in my early teenage years and eventually an Orthodox rabbi. This is less to do with the individuals in the movement than the decisions movements as a whole make, in this case Reform, but in other cases other denominations.

The decision by the American Reform movement to adopt patrilineal status some thirty years ago was, in my opinion, a mistake. It was not primarily a mistake because of the outcome, that is actually the secondary issue, it was a mistake in process. Organizational experts and the best thinkers in community development have long taught that making decisions from a silo is not how to act strategically, it is how one acts tactically. It is a refusal to acknowledge the interconnectedness of movements, peoples and families; the weaving together that is the American Jewish story, and to act alone and unilaterally. It is to declare an austritt when the time has come for collaboration.

Marty Linsky, professor at the Kennedy School of Government and author of Leadership on the Line argues that leaders need to possess a “balcony perspective.” What is the big picture? Where do we want to head? How do we get there most successfully?

A balcony perspective would have shown that Reform Judaism does not exist on its own island and indeed no denomination is its own island. Reform Jews are married to Conservative Jews who are siblings with Orthodox Jews who are cousins with unaffiliated Jews. Reform Jews do not only mingle, socialize, date or marry other Reform Jews. The decision some thirty years ago was either predicated on the idea that all other movements will be coerced into going along or on the notion that Reform congregants will never need to run up against differing standards practiced by almost every other Jewish denomination and by Reform equivalent types of Judaism throughout the world. Both ideas were misguided and represented a failure of strategy.

In regards to the pastoral dimension, the situation must be handled with the greatest sensitivity and compassion. The standards of halakha as outlined by the Gemara, Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch must not be compromised in the pursuit of an expeditious conversion. Yet, nonetheless, a child of Jewish patrilineal lineage, must be respected greatly for their identification with the Jewish people, their love of Judaism and of Israel. I was inspired by a lecture by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership several years ago where he insisted that people of patrilineal descent be referred to as Jews who need to rectify their status vies-a-vie Jewish law. In other words, to understand the modern dichotomy between Jewish affiliation and halakhic Jewish status, while upholding with full integrity the halakha and the legal process.

It is my hope that Jewish professional and lay leaders learn from the experience of patrilineal descent and come to do things better: to be more cooperative, more collaborative, to work strategically, to think from a balcony perspective. Unfortunately, examples like this exist in every movement and represent moments to grow from not just for the movement highlighted but for all of us. The time has come to envision ourselves, in the words of Rabbi Goldin, as brothers and to act as a family that seeks to live together in harmony and co-existence. Rabbis Without Borders represents a powerful model in that direction and, G-d willing, we will soon see it become the dominant paradigm of doing business in the Jewish community. We will all be better for it.

Posted on August 16, 2013

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On Becoming Empty Nesters

This entry was posted in Parenting, Torah on by .

This morning my wife and I drove our youngest daughter to the airport as she left for a year of study in Israel to be followed by university study in New York. I think we are now official empty-nesters as our older daughters have established residences of their own. While you never cease being a parent (or a child for that matter), this does usher in a new time in our lives with the usual challenges, but we are both looking forward to this next period.

But what does it mean the nest is empty?  We are in constant communication with our children through cell phones and other electronic means.  The nest may be physically empty but access to it exists in the digital world. Is there a Jewish lens I can use at this moment to make sense of this experience?

I am going to quote 2 verses and the somewhat long (at least for a blog post) commentary of Rashi. It is worthwhile to study the texts first and only then read my thoughts on them.

1. Genesis 1:2

Now the earth was astonishingly empty, and darkness was on the face of the deep, and the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the water.

Rashi

and the spirit of God was hovering: The Throne of Glory was suspended in the air and hovered over the face of the water with the breath of the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He and with His word, like a dove, which hovers over the nest.

2. Deuteronomy 32:11

As an eagle awakens its nest, hovering over its fledglings, it spreads its wings, taking them and carrying them on its pinions.

Rashi

As an eagle awakens its nest: He guided them [Israel] with mercy and compassion like an eagle, which is merciful towards its own fledglings and does not enter its nest suddenly. [Rather,] it beats and flaps its wings above its young between one tree and another, between one branch and another, in order that its young should awaken and have the strength to receive it.

hovering over its fledglings: [The eagle] does not impose its [whole] body upon them. Rather, it hovers above them, touching them and yet not quite touching them. So too, is the Holy One, Blessed is He. [As in the verse:] “We did not find the Almighty great in power” (Job 37:23). When He came to give the Torah to Israel, He did not reveal Himself to them from one direction [thus concentrating His power at one point, as it were], but rather, from four directions, as Scripture states, “The Lord came from Sinai, and shone forth from Seir to them, and appeared from Mount Paran” (Deut. 33:2). [This accounts for three directions.] The fourth direction is referred to in [the verse], “God comes from Teman” (Hab. 3:3). – [Sifrei 32:11]

spreading its wings, taking them: When it [the eagle] comes to move [its fledglings] from place to place, it does not pick them up with its feet, as do other birds. Other birds are afraid of the eagle, which soars very high and flies above them. For this reason, it [the other bird] carries them with its feet because of the eagle [above them]. The eagle, however, is afraid only of an arrow. Therefore, it carries its young on its wings, saying, “It is better that an arrow pierce me, rather than pierce my young.” So too, the Holy One, Blessed is He, [says]: “I carried you on eagles’ wings” (Exod. 19:4). [I.e.,] when the Egyptians pursued [the children of Israel] and overtook them at the [Red] Sea, they cast arrows and catapulted rocks [at Israel]. Immediately, “The angel of God moved… [behind them… and the pillar of cloud] came between the camp of Egypt [and the camp of Israel]” (Exod. 14:19-20) [for Israel’s protection]. — [Mechilta 19:4]

The Hebrew word for hovering, which Rashi sees as associated with the image of  a mother bird hovering over her nest, is used twice in the Torah.  Rashi appears to have taken the nest image from Deuteronomy and used it in Genesis, although the bird shifts from an eagle in Deuteronomy to a dove in Genesis.  God hovers over the world just before creation and God hovers over the Jewish people.   Rashi’s image in Deuteronomy of the eagle hovering: “touching them yet not quite touching them”, is a striking description of God’s paradoxical relationship and presence with Israel and the world.

But in the context of Deuteronomy 32, this description only applies in the desert wanderings of the people before they cross over into Israel.  Once Israel leaves the nest of the desert, the pillar of cloud will cease and Israel will have to make choices without the guarantee of God’s protection. For the rest of Deuteronomy 32, these will be most unfortunate choices.

The image of the empty nest is then this capacity to choose.  We hope and want our children to make the right choices.  Yet, I would suggest that according to Rashi we do not have to lose the experience of the nest entirely. It is always recoverable, even if the protective, almost miraculous elements of it are no longer accessible.

The image of the eagle hovering over its young is the image of Sinai.  God’s presence in Torah is the moment of “touching them yet not quite touching them”.   We can always return to Sinai textually.  The miracles of the desert may no longer happen, but the call of Sinai remains. The nest beckons both parents and children to pursue this relationship of “touching them yet not quite touching them” to God and each other.

Posted on August 15, 2013

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World Cat Day: A Jewish Perspective

world cat dayTraditional Jewish thought sees the whole world as a laboratory for learning. On the one hand, everything has value in and of itself. On the other hand, everything points beyond itself to teach about something else.

Including cats.

Thursday August 8 was World Cat Day. Sources say that the International Fund for Animal Welfare inaugurated the holiday in 2002, but I can’t find anything about it on the IFAW website. However the holiday came about, it’s badly needed to raise world awareness of cats.

World Cat Day is especially needed to raise Jewish awareness of cats. If I asked you to tell me, off the top of your head, where cats appear in Jewish tradition, you would probably giggle and say, “Nowhere!” But if you were to search MyJewishLearning.com for information about cats, you might revise your answer.

Ordinary house and barn cats are revered as hunters, seers and teachers. Big wild cats evoke the King of King of Kings.

Every year, during the Passover Seder, we celebrate the cat whose bold hunt set history in motion. Yes, the cat that ate the kid that my father bought for two zuzim, chad gadya. The cat who teaches about the persecution of Jews, the folly of revenge, or the omnipotence of God – depending on how you interpret the Chad Gadya poem.

The Talmud honors cats as teachers of virtue. “Rabbi Yochanan observed: If the Torah had not been given, we could have learned modesty from the cat” (Eruvin 100b). Rashi says R. Yochanan praises the cat for its delicate habits of eliminating waste, but I myself learn modesty from the cat’s thoughtfulness. From its hiding place, a cat can observe a situation in careful detail, before finally leaping out to make a bold, intelligent and successful move.

In Perek Shira, the “Song of Nature,” cats teach the world humility by embodying a prophetic verse. “The cat says, ‘If you rise up like a vulture, and place your nest among the stars, from there I shall bring you down,’” (Obadiah 1:14). No one, no matter how high or powerful, can escape the claws of a determined cat. Often, the vulture is a metaphor for imperial power. Through the cat, God teaches that even the most militarized empire is vulnerable to rebellion and decay.

In Hebrew Bible, big wild cats express divine power. Lions appear in Ezekiel’s vision of the heavenly beings attending God’s Presence. The Lion is the symbol of the tribe of Judah, lineage of King David. Members of the royal courts describe their kings as lions. Honoring a lion honors a king; honoring a king honors God.

Lions have been in the news recently. This month’s National Geographic Magazine includes a story about the life of African Serengeti lions. The writing is realistic and balanced; lions are fierce predators, competing with one another for territory and family leadership. (No wonder they symbolize royalty!) When people fence off lands for farming or livestock grazing, they come into conflict with local lions, who attack livestock and their human ranchers. Sharing land responsibly requires balancing many factors. In Africa, many government agencies and private conservations groups are pursuing that balance.

Some factors, however, are out of balance themselves. For example, Friday’s New York Times showcased an article about lion poachers in Africa. Not surprisingly, illegal terrorist organizations raise money through illegal activities. Activities include illegally hunting lions and selling their body parts.

Happy World Cat Day – not.

Of course you can argue that “terrorist” is a pejorative term for organizations that might be fighting a just cause. But still, something is wrong here. Human beings are taking animals and dragging them into our quarrels. We use them as as tools when we should revere them as teachers.

Cats can teach us never to attack without fully assessing the potential damage and to temper our political goals with humility. They can remind us that every creature has value in and for itself; that using any animal as a tool is intrinsically wrong; and that honoring animals honors God.

This year, World Cat Day coincided with day two of the Hebrew month of Elul. Elul is the month of self-reflection. How perfect.

Have we used others without their consent? Have we spoken badly of someone in order to gain advantage? Fired someone without due process? Profited financially by offering lies or partial truths?

Where could we have benefited from modesty and humility, or from ethically assessing a situation before acting?

Learn from our teachers.

Happy World Cat Day.

Image: facebook: black cats

Cross-posted at OnSophiaStreet.

Posted on August 11, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Researching God

boy researchTheist? Atheist? Agnostic?

Don’t answer until you’ve done some rigorous research.

That’s right, research: with a method, literature review, experimental design, data collection, analysis, conclusions, and proposals for future research.

Last week, I conducted a mini-study, and here is my research report.

Method: For a study of opinion, a phenomenological (experiential) method is best. Thus, I explore my subjective response to two different God concepts.

Literature review: This study explores two concepts found in Jewish sources: God as king and God as energy. Each concept offers a way of understanding Genesis Chapter One. Here God says, “Let there be light!” and light comes to be.

Readers in the Talmudic era (200-500 C.E.) pictured a King with a staff of thousands, quietly leaping to fulfill his every command, beginning with the creation of light.

Kabbalistic philosophers (c. 10th century) pictured an energy underlying all creation, in the way that breath underlies speech. Passed through a body’s cavities, breath becomes sound. Passed through God’s designs, divine energy becomes familiar ideas and objects.

Experimental design: The familiar Jewish practice of blessing is the technology used to explore the two concepts.

Talmud teaches that the world belongs to God the King. We inhabit it at the pleasure of our Divine landlord. We should pay rent at the rate of 100 expressions of gratitude per day. Each time we notice something extraordinary, we should say, “Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam…Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the Universe who ___________________.”

Hasidic teachers (c. 1700-1800) use Hebrew etymology to recast the blessing as an appreciation of Divine energy. Baruch, traditionally translated as “blessing,” is from a root that also means “fountain.” Adonai stands in for YHWH, the Ineffable One. Elohim often refers to “God as revealed in creation.” Melekh shares a root with malchut, a kabbalistic synonym for Shechinah, God’s intimate maternal presence. The root of the word olam also means “elusive.” Thus, each time we see something extraordinary, we should say the Talmudic words, and mean, “You are flow, beyond concepts, yet revealed in creation, intimately close, yet elusive and infinite, present in this ______________________.”

Data Collection: On two summer days, I walked outdoors, taking ten minutes each day to notice extraordinary things. On the first day, I marked each thing noticed by saying in English the Kabbalistic interpretation of the blessing. On the second day, I did the same with the Talmudic interpretation. Each day I recorded my observations, thoughts and feelings.

Day One:

“You…are present in this abandoned spider web.” Weather has frayed it into two kinds of tissue. The small, decaying thread opens onto potentially infinite information about the life form that produced it.

“You…are present in this dried-out maple seedpod.” The veins in its leaf are secret pathways, feeding it, just as the membranes hidden in the human body feed us. Many life forms have many common structures. Does a single molecular code structure us all?

“You…are present as my phone rings with a missed call, but no message is left.” My anxiety over lost information is insubstantial and yet overwhelming. What does its presence tell me about myself? Negative emotions are an opportunity to learn.

Day Two:

“Blessed are you…who created this flower.” As I get close to a glowing, yellow buttercup with an intricate center, I feel as though I am in a royal garden. The world seems incredibly lush.

“Blessed are you…who caused this seed carrying hair to float and land.” What a wondrous mechanism. My respect for the designer increases, but I do not speculate on how the designer operated.

“Blessed are you…who caused this crow to cross my path.” Why, the crow must be one of the King’s servants!

Analysis: “God as energy” brings my mind to familiar scientific and psychological questions. “God as King” helps me understand famous Jewish teaching stories about courtyards and angels of the king.

Conclusion: I believe in God as energy. This belief is consistent with my philosophical education. I do not believe in God as King. However, I find it a powerful metaphor.

Question for further research: Perhaps if I had more exposure to monarchy, I would take that metaphor literally as well.

You might be drawn to replicate this research project in your own life. Or you may think it would not be an authentic approach for you. By sharing the project, I invite you to research the God question on your own, drawing on tools of Jewish tradition. Practice responsible theology: research before believing. Over and over again.

***

Image: discussions4learning.com. Sources and Inspirations: Rabbi Judith Z. Abrams on Tractate Berachot, Jerusalem & Babylonian Talmuds; Rabbi Marcia Prager, The Path of Blessing; Catherine Marshall and Gretchen B. Rossman, Designing Qualitative Research. Cross-posted at On Sophia Street.

Posted on July 28, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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