Sarah our Matriarch passes from the world in this week’s Torah Portion, Hayei Sarah. It is a good opportunity to examine the legacy of her relationship with Abraham her husband.
Only three times in the whole Torah does Sarah our matriarch speak to her husband Abraham. All three instances are in contexts of frustration or conflict in which Sarah is deeply perturbed. In all three cases Abraham does exactly what Sarah asks of him. And in all three cases we find modern feminist commentaries suggesting that Abraham could have reacted very differently than he actually does!
In the first instance, after Abraham and Sarah have suffered decades of barrenness, and ten years since God has promised to make of Abraham a great nation, Sarah says to her husband “Consort with my slave girl; perhaps I shall have a son through her”. Our matriarch has seemingly despaired of ever bearing a child in her own womb – she is indeed 75 years old at this point! – and selflessly offers her maidservant to Abraham as a surrogate mother. “And Abraham heeded Sarah’s request”.
Sarah’s maidservant Hagar conceives … and Sarah is unexpectedly devastated. She is humiliated by the protruding belly of her servant, while her womb is still empty. She feels denigrated by the intimacy between Abraham and Hagar that is broadcast throughout the camp by the pregnancy. Her feminine identity takes a terrible beating, and she lashes out at Abraham, irrationally proclaiming “The wrong done me is your fault! I myself put my slave girl in your bosom; now that she sees that she is pregnant, I am lowered in her esteem”. The patriarch dutifully responds to his wife saying “Your slavegirl is in your hands. Deal with her as you think right.”
In the third dialogue between husband and wife, Ishmael, the son born through Hagar, is already on his way to becoming a young man, and is described as mocking Isaac, the young child that God has in the meanwhile miraculously brought forth from Sarah’s own womb. “She said to Abraham, “Cast out that slave girl and her son”. And here again, despite his pain and misgivings, the patriarch arises early the next morning to do exactly what his spouse has demanded.
Should we – and here I am speaking to our male readers – learn from the example of Abraham, immediately acquiescing to what our wives have asked? Perhaps not!
In Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, author John Gray suggests that men ought to remember that women talk about their problems and suggest avenues of possible action, in order “to get close and not necessarily to get solutions.” They may not want a fix but rather a sympathetic ear and a sincere validation of their emotional struggles. Men and women at times speak different languages.
Perhaps Sarah was really not so naive as to believe that her husband could be intimate with her maidservant without the whole structure of their marriage being shaken. Perhaps she really didn’t countenance her husband actually acceding to her request to go in to Hagar. She just wanted to talk about it, to explore her feelings with Abraham, to let him know how terribly bad she felt that her childlessness was preventing him from realizing God’s promise to him. She desperately wanted to be understood. But Abraham did not understand.
And ditto when she blames Abraham for the mess created by the pregnancy of Hagar. She does not want action and she does not want advice. She simply wants to be heard, for Abraham to feel and acknowledge her pain. “Deal with her as you think right” is no solution at all, for it nips in the bud the intimate conversation that Sarah is so much in need of.
And that brings us to the third case. Perhaps Sarah really did not want Hagar and Ishmael sent out into the wilderness. All she wanted and all she needed was empathy. But to her absolute horror, Abraham took her literally, expelling the boy and his mother and abandoning them to possible death, the last thing in the world she would have wanted.
But in this last of the three instances there is a catch. God himself says to Abraham “listen to her voice”. Perhaps in this instance we must abandon our interpretation, and accept that if God tells Abraham to do as Sarah demanded, that certainly indicates that Sarah had already decisively made up her mind that Ishmael and Hagar must be banished. That may be. But there is another way, radical but plausible. It has been suggested by Marsha Pravder Mirkin that when God says “listen to her voice” what God meant is to listen closely to the emotions behind her words … but not to actually perform the act that she had requested!
So perhaps we are to learn that men ought to listen differently to women than they would to men, with attention to the pathos of the inner world rather than focusing on immediate solutions in the practical world. And this advice may be exactly God’s message to us through Abraham: “Listen to her voice.”
I can’t get anywhere without my phone’s GPS (which my wife and I have named “Miriam”). We’re so reliant on it that there have been a number of times my wife and I have been driving even in our own neighborhood and said, “Wait —where are we? And how do we get home?”
It’s one thing for you or for me to get a little lost. But for London cabbies, that would be unacceptable. Taxi drivers in London need to have spent literally years studying every single back road, housing estate, bar, restaurant, park, and major or minor point of interest for over 25,000 streets. The test to become a London cabbie is often thought to be the hardest exam in the world, and it’s simply called “The Knowledge.”
But as a recent New York Times article asked, how important is the Knowledge in a world where everyone’s phone can have Waze to get real-time traffic reports, and can tell you how to get to whatever you want to see?
The Knowledge seems quaint and outdated today, but it still is being used. Why is that? As Jody Rosen, author of the article, suggests:
Ultimately, the case to make for the Knowledge may be…philosophical, spiritual, sentimental: The Knowledge should be maintained because it is good for London’s soul, and for the souls of Londoners. The Knowledge stands for, well, knowledge—for the Enlightenment ideal of encyclopedic learning, for the humanist notion that diligent intellectual endeavor is ennobling, an end in itself. To support the Knowledge is to make the unfashionable argument that expertise cannot be reduced to data, that there’s something dystopian, or at least depressing, about the outsourcing of humanity’s hard-won erudition to gizmos, even to portable handheld gizmos that themselves are miracles of human imagination and ingenuity.
The Knowledge, then, is not simply an avenue to know whether or not to take Fishponds Road. It’s a belief that learning for its own sake has value.
And that philosophy is a very Jewish one—in Judaism, knowledge and learning have inherent worth. Torah lishma, Torah for its own sake, is to be celebrated.
In many ways, Torah and Talmud study parallel the Knowledge. Why do we need to know the intricate details of animal sacrifices that haven’t been done for thousands of years? Why should liberal Jews care about the laws of purity?
If we think of knowledge as purely instrumental, then the answer is “We don’t.” But there is difference between knowledge and learning. Knowledge is the result; learning is the process. And regardless of whether or not we use that knowledge, we all can strive to be learners.
As Rabbi Bradley Artson teaches,
Learning is not a possession, something to have. It is a process of growth and unfolding that is a permanent accompaniment to human life…
One of the laws of thermodynamics is the principle of entropy — that everything returns to chaos eventually. In the world of biology and physics, only the investment of new energy can counter the inevitable spread of disorder.
This is true of the spirit world, as well. Judaism has made a cardinal mitzvah out of Talmud Torah, Jewish learning. Jews studying together, the Mishnah teaches us, experience in the process the presence of God. (The Bedside Torah, 238-9)
There is joy in discovery. Curiosity is its own reward. The challenge of learning pushes us in new directions. Even if we might never use the laws of animal sacrifice, the simple act of studying our sacred texts is a sacred act, powerful in and of itself. As Artson says, “Go ahead. Learn a little.”
After all, even if a London cabbie could potentially turn on their GPS, ask them just how much value, pride and excitement they felt in their arduous process of learning. We might need or use all the knowledge we gain, but the simple process of learning for its own sake can be deeply spiritual.
I wonder if I would have cried out in remonstration or supplication to the god who bid me rise up to Him1 on a flame consuming my own child! I think not. I’d have been in shock. I’d have felt summarily shut out, abandoned by this incomprehensible god who’d issued an impossible directive and then fled to the farthest reaches of an inaccessible kingdom.
I think I’d have sat in stunned silence on that mountaintop, wrestling with what to do and how to be. And it’s in light of my empathy for Abraham’s utter loneliness in the face of this terrible test that I interpret the rest of the story.
By and by, a second godly voice comes to Abraham, not the first imperious voice from On High, but, now, a still, small divine voice that seems to come from inside him, the voice we call “the angel.” This voice suggests he substitute the ram in the thicket, and Abraham offers God a gift more pleasing than blind obedience, he offers thoughtful human response, holy negotiation between creature and creator. With the help of inner divine council, Abraham offers God a loving counter-offer.
Abraham’s god seems to want to draw him near, but rather than raising Abraham to him, God’s ill-conceived invitation opens a chasm between them. Abraham is left staring into that void, terrified, trying to integrate an incomprehensible command. Gradually, as he sits, his stunned silence evolves into a meditative silence and eventually he enters a state of equanimity that allows him to hear past God’s command to the core of God’s yearning to be in relationship.
The angelic voice whispers his name (Avraham… Avraham…) and Abraham reaches out with his own gesture to close the gap between heaven and earth saying something like: “I can’t meet you on the terms you suggest, oh Holy Blessed One, but I, too, wish to be close, so how about this…”
Indeed, our tradition teaches that when God’s words are drawn through a “crucible upon the earth,” they are “purified seven-fold,”2 and that we are the fiery filter through which God’s words can be rendered seven times more precious than they were when God uttered them.3 We interpret God’s commands in our attempt to enact them, refining and enriching what God asks of us by humanizing God’s words so that they can be manifest in earthly, human terms.
What the transcendent god asked was inconceivable to Abraham’s human sensibility, but what Abraham forged by pulling God’s words through the fire of his human heart was a counter-offer that traversed the distance between God and humankind, making continued relationship possible, resuming the two-way flow that delights God.
And God blessed Abraham for offering up joy, tzchok, as in Isaac’s name, Yitzchak.4
The lesson for us is to remember to be “crucibles upon the earth,” drawing Jewish law and custom through our own filters so that we discover how to best carry out God’s Word in our own way and in our own time, refining the possibility divine words contain into do-able actions that raise us up. God’s words are not complete until we enact them, as we are able.5
1 The word for sacrifice in this week’s Torah portion is “olah,” meaning “a raising up” or a vehicle for rising.
2 Psalm 12:7
3Sfat Emet, Parasht Emor, 5634
4 This play on words attributed to Levy Yitzchak of Berdichev
5 S’fat Emet, Ibid.
Election Day in the U.S. is coming. How will being Jewish shape your choice whether to vote?
This November, Americans will elect a new 435-member House of Representatives, a third of the Senate, 36 governors and 6,057 lawmakers comprising 82% of all state legislators. Like paying taxes, serving on juries and registering for the draft, voting is a civic calling critical to any democracy. Unlike other civic callings, however, voting is optional. Whatever the stakes, no law compels Americans to vote. In some elections, only a minority of eligible voters cast ballots – challenging democracy’s core ideal that “majority rules.”
In the “land of the free,” U.S. citizens have a right not to vote. Society advances by collective actions that democratically accountable governments make possible, but American law and society limit government’s power against potential intrusions on personal liberty. A law like Australia’s, which fines citizens who don’t vote, probably wouldn’t wash in the U.S.
While not compelled by civil law, Jewish Americans tend to vote in large numbers – and the political world knows it. In areas with strong Jewish presence, the “Jewish vote” is carefully tracked, highly prized and overtly courted. Groups like AIPAC and J-Street exist to influence Jewish votes and harness Jewish political power. So-called “Jewish issues” (often including Israel, Mideast policy and social programs) rise high on campaign platforms. In New York’s 2014 gubernatorial primary, Gov. Andrew Cuomo campaigned with pictures of himself at the Western Wall, while challenger Zephyr Teachout ran Yiddish campaign ads.
Most pundits and political scientists attribute high Jewish voting rates to higher income, educational attainment and commitment to social justice. Now a new reason is emerging: Orthodox rabbinic mandates to vote for specified candidates. Examples abound: in 2012, 49 rabbis issued a proclamation mandating votes for a Senate candidate opposed to same-sex marriage. In 2013, some rabbis directed followers to support a mayoral candidate adverse to same-sex marriage. Socially conservative rabbis increasingly hold that halacha (Jewish law) mandates votes for what they call “Torah values” in government. This trend is so strong that the New York Times asks, “Are Liberal Jewish Voters a Thing of the Past?”
This narrative begs key questions: does Jewish law require Jewish citizens to vote? Can rabbis tell congregants whom to vote for? What issues should shape the “Jewish vote”?
These questions aren’t new. After the 1948 founding of the modern State of Israel, some Israeli Jews asked if they should vote in elections for the new government. The Lubavitcher Rebbe answered (in Hebrew) that eligible voters must vote to install the most religious parties electable to office. The religious vote was so vital that rabbis told voters to sell their tefillin (ritual phylacteries) for money to reach the polls and cast ballots. At least one rabbi wouldn’t receive congregants on election day until they voted. Apparently, to rabbis it was obvious that Jews must vote.
These rabbis’ approach, however, is circular: it assumes rather than justify a duty to vote. It also fixates on the (ir)religious character of candidates and policies, not the act of voting. Worse, their approach is impossibly subjective and ripe for abuse. An rabbi opposing same-sex marriage (calling it “sacrilege”), and another opposing military intervention (calling it “murder”), each can wield rabbinic authority as a political bludgeon under the guise of “Torah values” on opposing ends of the electoral spectrum. As Joseph Soloveitchik (1908-1993) wrote, rabbis no longer can “be relied on to direct the people in ever-changing political issues: only a political system can [do that].” Thus, Soloveitchik held, Jews mustn’t inject religious dogma into the “shared public square” they cohabit with others.
Were Soloveitchik a constitutional scholar, he might have used the phrase “separation of shul and state” in telling rabbis that they have no authority to mandate voting preferences. His point, however, is clear: rabbis must stay out of the voting booth. That said, I believe that Jewish citizens must vote as a matter of Jewish law. Here’s why.
First, government is important. As in ancient days, we “pray for government’s welfare, for without fear of it [we] would swallow each other alive” (M. Avot 3:2). The duty to create and support government is one of the few duties that Jewish law recognizes for all, Jew and non-Jew alike (B.T. Sanhedrin 56a). To Maimonides (1135-1204), the purpose is to ensure public order (Mishneh Torah, Melachim 9:14); to Nachmanides (1194-1270), the purpose extends to include all social welfare (comm. B.T. Avodah Zara 4a). Public safety, health, social equity, the rule of law – the very fabric of modern life in an interdependent world –today require wise, effective and democratically accountable government as never before.
Second, Jewish tradition views government as a human partnership with God. Where Torah predicts that Israelites would want civil rulers instead of priests and prophets, Moses told the people: “[B]e sure to place over yourselves the king that God elects for you” (Deut. 17:14-15). The canon records that God chose the first king, Saul (1 Sam. 9:16-17). The second king, David, was chosen by God but confirmed by “all of Israel’s elders” (2 Sam. 5:3). The third king, his son Solomon, ruled in David’s bloodline but “all the people” together ratified his accession (1 Kings 1:39). Given this democratic shift, Talmud opined that not even God could select rulers without consulting the people (B.T. Berachot 55a). By medieval days, when Jews elected tax collectors to remit Jewish taxes to Christian realms, Moses Isserles (1520-1572) held that all taxpayers were to assemble and vote “for the sake of heaven” (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 163:1). Declining to vote means ignoring Torah’s notion of human partnership in the “heavenly” work of government. On the other hand, the Chatam Sofer (1762-1839) held that taxpayers who didn’t vote faced no compulsion: their only penalty was to forfeit rights to shape election outcomes.
What the Chatam Sofer didn’t seem to understand is the third and most important reason Jews must vote: Jews value collective action so highly that the public interest can compel individual behavior. The Chatam Sofer didn’t understand the political notion of a social compact: by choosing to live somewhere as citizens, we bind ourselves to contract with that society. As Shlomo ben Meiri (1080-1174, “Rashbam”) held, this social compact obliges Jews to honor the realm’s civil laws in exchange for the realm’s benefits and protection (comm. B.T. Bava Batra 54b). Jewish choice of residency also triggers a duty to help provide the benefits of society, lest anyone’s non-participation cause what economists call free riding. (If anyone could take a public good without giving, then all would have the same incentive – and the public good itself could disappear.) For this reason, Jews must not only pay for public benefits they receive (B.T. Bava Batra 8a) but also directly help as needed to serve the public (B.T. Bava Metzia 108a).
While Talmud’s day the main concerns for collective action were flood control, public transportation, civil defense and public health, in our day these concerns depend mainly on government. It is via government that Jews fulfill their civic duty to communities where they maintain residence and citizenship – not only by paying taxes, but also through public service and especially by voting.The implications are profound. Most pundits and rabbis describe the so-called “Jewish vote” in terms of Israel and Mideast policy, but the real “Jewish issue” is government’s effectiveness to perform its public duties. Understood properly, government’s whole agenda – public health and safety, social policy, criminal justice, environmental protection and more – is a “Jewish issue.” All are necessary concerns of Jewish voters as Jewish voters. That is the Jewish commitment to our nation, tradition and values – whatever our personal politics and partisanship may be.
Judaism’s wisdom tradition teaches that “You do not need to finish the work, but you are not free to desist from it” (M. Avot 2:16). Maybe no single election will fix the nation’s fate, but every election is important – and Judaism’s value of collective action mandates Jews to pitch in. If you’re a citizen, you are not free to stay home on Election Day. You are not free to free-ride on the votes of others. Get to the polls. Vote.
This post summarizes a rabbinic teshuvah (halachic dissertation) I wrote in partial fulfillment of requirements for rabbinic ordination from ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. This post is dedicated to Rabbi Daniel Siegel, my dissertation advisor and co-author of Integral Halacha with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi zt”l (1924-2014).
Earlier this month in The New York Times, Reza Aslan continued an ongoing argument against Bill Maher’s blanket condemnation of Islam, and also criticized those who insist that Muslim extremists are simply practicing Islam wrong. His op-ed says we need to recognize the complexity of any religion’s relationship with the good or bad behavior of its adherents.
He then goes a step further, saying, “It is a fallacy to believe that people of faith derive their values primarily from their Scriptures. The opposite is true. People of faith insert their values into their Scriptures, reading them through the lens of their own cultural, ethnic, nationalistic and even political perspectives.”
When I lead Torah study weekly at Temple Beth Emeth in Brooklyn, NY, I teach that our Torah remains vital and relevant because we bring our own experiences and ideas to it, combining the text with our lives to find new ways to think about both. While I think Aslan might be overstating his case a bit, it is quite true that interpretations of our sacred texts evolve with the times, as do our religious practice and our sense of which passages speak most to us, based on the perspectives we bring to the text. It has always been so.
At our Torah study, then, more than once, this question has arisen: How do we know that we’re not using the Torah, or the Bible, to just tell us what we want to hear? To put a finer point on it, how do we know that we’re not using the Torah simply to justify our own bad behavior?
It’s a tough question. One classic example of the Bible being used to support injustice is when pre-Civil War slaveholders used it to justify slavery. Today we find slavery abhorrent (though it continues to exist), and recognize that it is wrong even though the Christian and Jewish Bibles, as well as the Quran, are uncritical of it. A different, current example is the use of the Bible, usually Leviticus 18:22, to condemn homosexuality. I and many others believe this is using the Bible to support injustice. (A fascinating alternate interpretation of that verse is in the article “Pit`hu Li Sha`arei Tzedeq” by Rabbi David Greenstein.)
In Pirkei Avot, we read that Ben Bag-Bag said of the Torah, “Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it.” That means we can find everything in there—good and evil, and justification for both.
So how do we know that we aren’t supporting injustice when we use the Torah to help us make choices? My answer is that we might not always be able to be sure, but we have to do the best we can. Here’s how to do that: Study the Torah, study the Bible, study whatever your sacred scriptures are, and study them some more. Do it with other people. Study what people before us have thought about it. Bring your own best sense of right and wrong. Pay attention to when you’re supporting something that causes harm to people—that’s a sign of injustice. Wrestle with the text and argue about it, and listen to what others think. Don’t expect black and white answers, and don’t settle for them. Don’t be so sure you’re right. Expect it to be hard.
And have faith. Faith in ourselves, in our study companions, and in our scriptures, faith that we’ll find a way for ourselves, and that we can bring more good into the world.
Every year, I do my best to engage with the process of teshuvah (repentance) during the High Holidays. A few weeks ago, I made resolutions, asked for and received forgiveness, cast away my sins, felt spiritually renewed…and then the craziness of the year began, as it does each year: right now, my partner and I are settling into our new apartment and unpacking boxes. I am starting new jobs while getting acquainted with a new city. Despite my best intentions, I’ve lost sight of the higher self with whom I am trying to align. Like many of us, I am overwhelmed with the business of life at this time of year.
At the end of this week, we enter the month of Marcheshvan, most notable for its lack of holidays. And last week, at the end of Sukkot, Jewish communities around the world began to add the words to the Amidah that we will say until Passover: mashiv ha’ruach u’morid ha’gashem (“the One who causes the winds to blow and the rains to fall”).
Why do we say this as we enter Marcheshvan?
According to the 12th century commentator, Rashi (in his comment on Lev 25:21) the ancient Israelites would “sow…in Marcheshvan, and reap in Nisan.” Planting seeds at this time could be precarious: Marcheshvan’s ancient name, Bul, suggests it was capable of bringing both floods, and raindrops (from Mar-). The story of Noah’s flood that we read this week expresses our anxiety that the small and fragile seeds we plant, whether physical or spiritual, will be washed away by disaster. In our own lives, the intentions we sow need a special kind of nourishment.
A Hasidic teaching from the Alter Rebbe explains that water, the essential ingredient for life, is an expression of Divine love. Rain is life-giving, and the slow downpour of water sustains the world – whereas a flood of water overwhelms us and is destructive. After the holiday season and the intimate moments with God it hopefully brought, we ready ourselves for the long period until Hannukah by praying that God hold back the flood, showering us instead with the divine “rain” we need in order to continue to nourish the seeds of the highest intentions that we sowed during the High Holidays.
As we emerge from the aseret y’mei ha’t’shuvah (“the 10 days of repentance”), we pray for the capacity to integrate the insights we received during this time into the everyday. During the onslaught of the ordinary, it is all too easy to succumb to old habits. But as we enter Marcheshvan we are invited to consider how to more mindfully re-enter the day-to-day business of our own lives. This month gives us the space we need to bring the resolutions we made during the “high” of these holidays into our everyday functioning. And during this time, along with our ancestors, we ask for the blessing of steady rains to nourish the seeds we have planted.
Whether it is recommitting to a regular spiritual practice, to deepening our learning, or to nourishing our creativity, only we know what nourishment and love will help the seeds of our intentions break open and take root in the ground of our daily lives. Through careful tending, when the time arrives to stop praying for rain at the beginning of Passover, we will be able to reap the fruits of our labor and truly taste our freedom.
“Why do bad things happen to good people” is the most fundamental question of theology. Just about everyone has given it some thought in his lifetime. It’s a simple question, and its outlines are more or less like this: If God is indeed omniscient (all-knowing) and omnipotent (all-powerful), and if He is just and righteous as well, why does He permit upright and honest individuals to suffer. It would seem to be a contradiction in terms, and this apparent contradiction has brought many to the brink of despair … and beyond.
The issue actually presents itself at the very outset of the Torah, which we are just beginning to read anew this Shabbat. We are told that two sons are born to Adam and Eve. One of them, whose name is Abel, is presented as a fine, God-fearing man, while God is extremely displeased with his brother Cain and as a result the latter becomes angry and sullen. To make a long story short, Cain ends up killing his brother with no apparent provocation.
Why did God let him do it? The Torah says explicitly that God knew something malevolent was brewing. Immediately before the murder, God says to Cain “sin crouches at the door.” So God is right there at the scene of the crime, and he is totally aware of what is going on. Yet He deliberately refrains from stepping in to prevent the homicide from taking place!
Let’s backtrack for a moment. Put aside the question of why. The fact is that God did not save Abel from his brother’s onslaught. The Torah is telling us straight out that God does not see His role as one of intervening to prevent crime or to protect the righteous. If we use the argument of “why do bad things happen to good people” as a basis to challenge religious faith, we are seriously mistaken, for it turns out that “bad things happen to good people” is actually a fundamental of biblical religion! To put it differently, this tragic story of fratricide is right here at the beginning of the Torah to nip in the bud any potential misunderstanding: God is right here, but He is not here to stop us from harming each other.
And why not? – Well, right after God says to Cain that “sin crouches at the door,” He adds that “it endeavors to gain mastery over you, but you may yet overcome it.” There is a mighty struggle going on with us, and apparently, allowing this struggle to run its course is more important to God than ensuring that human events always turn out justly. This struggle is the source of evil – when we fail to overcome temptation – it is also the very source of all good. It is of the very essence of the meaning of being human. God created us to grapple with the evil inclination and to choose good, and that entails the possibility of us choosing evil. We are given free will to make bad decisions, and it is exactly that option that makes good decisions good. If God were to prevent all evil – thereby stymieing free will – good would lose all meaning. Life would be emptied of its primary significance.
God has created an unredeemed world, and it is for us to redeem. He has put within us an imperfect character and it is for us to perfect. God will not do it for us. That would fly in the face of the entire Divine plan. It is man’s job.
So when bad things happen to good people, don’t ask “where was God?” God was most certainly there. The question to be asked is rather, “where was man?” God was there, providing us with the opportunity to better ourselves through choosing good. It was one of us who dropped the ball.
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Yom Kippur conjures solemnity and foreboding for many Jews. Ritual fasting, abstinence, penitence, and rehearsing for death evolved as core Yom Kippur tradition to rivet and purify the soul. Hidden from most moderns, however, is another level of Yom Kippur that is bright and light rather than dark and heavy—a day of highest joy and even dancing.
Joy and dancing on Yom Kippur may seem like too-easy spirituality, untraditional or even heresy. But consider: liturgy for Kol Nidre evening begins with the Psalmist’s words of light and joy: “Light is sown for the righteous, and joy for the light of heart” (Ps. 97:11). In ancient days, “there was in Israel no day of greater joy” than Yom Kippur, when singles donned white and danced (Mishnah Ta’anit 4:8). If today this practice seems odd, to Talmud’s rabbis it was obvious! Coinciding with the day Moses received a second Tablets of the Covenant after the Golden Calf episode, Yom Kippur is our day of second chances, forgiveness and re-commitment (Ta’anit 30b)—truly a day of joy.
While the white clothes some wear on Yom Kippur rehearse our death by simulating the traditional Jewish white burial shroud, some moderns re-interpret wearing white to represent the light and joy of angelic purity. After all, light and joy are themes of Yom Kippur’s morning Haftarah. In the prophet Isaiah’s words, purification and holy living will cause our “light to break forth like dawn” (Is. 58:8), our light “will rise in the darkness” (Ps. 58:10), and we “will find our joy in God” (Is. 58:14).
Light and joy—but what of dancing? Talmud describes Israel’s ancient Yom Kippur choreography as m’kholot (circle dances). Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov (1783-1841), the Seer of Lublin‘s disciple, observed that circle dances are most fitting on Yom Kippur because m’kholot share a root word with m’khal, to pardon. The pardon to which Yom Kippur aspires is to return full circle—body, heart, mind and soul—to a condition before impurity.
Easier said than done… and maybe it’s why the Day of Atonement is called Yom Kippur rather than Yom M’khal. During the rest of the year, two words describe daily penance and purification—s’lakh (forgive) and m’khal (pardon). Only on Yom Kippur does liturgy expand to include the third and most complete level of purification—khaper (atone). My teacher, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi who died earlier this year, used to teach that these three levels of purification are like putting a computer file in the trash (forgiving), emptying the trash (pardoning), and wiping the hard drive (atoning). Yom Kippur is for wiping the hard drive: Yom Kippur is for returning full circle to purity.
Putting together these three words in the liturgy of Yom Kippur—s’lakh (forgive), m’khal (pardon) and khaper (atone)—their acronym spells samekh, the Hebrew letter that itself is a circle, the shape of Yom Kippur’s ancient circle dance. What’s more, in gematria (Jewish numerology), the value of samekh is 60, a number that in Jewish philosophy and law represents completeness. On Yom Kippur, we not only wipe our spiritual hard drives clean but also reconnect ends to beginnings, completing the spiritual circuit and becoming complete anew.
That’s why Yom Kippur—even in solemnity—also is for light, joy and circle dancing. It’s why my synagogue will observe Yom Kippur in traditional ways, and also with dancing. On this Yom Kippur, may we all join the ancient circle dance of light, joy and atonement for a truly good and sweet new year. Shanah tovah.
Dedicated to my teacher and circle dancer extraordinaire, R. Elliot Ginsburg.
I wasn’t at The People’s Climate March in New York on Sunday. I wanted to be, but I was, instead, writing a sermon for the holidays about… you guessed it…. the woeful state of the environment.
And thinking… about the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve took things into their own hands— literally and figuratively. And the more I ponder it, the less I think the story has anything much to do with fruit (yes, I know it wasn’t an apple), or a serpent, or temptation, or Adam’s and Eve’s innocence of foolishness. Nor the idea that they wanted to be god-like. Quite the contrary.
I think it’s about their deciding that they were just fine without listening to or being grateful to God, thank you very much. They asserted their independence—but not because they had to evolve emotionally so we wouldn’t be stuck forever in the garden (to me, a pretty scary thought, since I tend to picture the glassy-eyed beings from H. G. Well’s The Time Machine). But because they decided that they knew better. So they were unceremoniously booted out of paradise, and ever since, we have been abusing the bounty and blessings of what once was perfectly balanced creation. So yes, perhaps the sins of the fathers are passed down to the thousandth generation.
We have gloried (in pride? or in shame?) in our efforts to make the most of the consequences of the expulsion. We thrill at the results of our labors (which were, as you will recall, punishment for the sin in the Garden).
Now, as the unhappy fruits of our self-serving labors are ripening fast, the stakes are higher than ever. And we, as a nation, like Adam and Eve, when they were found out… are hiding and making excuses. And we turn our faces away from all who suffer because of our behavior. Not just the endangered wild plants and animals—but all life all over the world—and for all who are yet to be born.
And all because we, the created, have decided that we know better than our Creator.
We’re choking on that “apple” still.
And now, on Rosh Hashanah, which our sages tell us is the day of the creation of humankind, what do we say again and again? “Hashiveinu Adonai, elecha, v’nashuvah, chadesh yameinu k’kedem” —“Return us to you, Adonai, and we will return, renew our days as in days of old.”
Perhaps this year—and maybe always—we can read his verse as a call to return to the essential teaching of the Garden. To remember that we need to regain humility and stand in awe of our Creator and all creation. That everything we have is a blessing and a gift and that we are obligated to care for and sustain it. In this way, as partners with our Creator, we can renew all creation as in days of old—for ourselves and all living things—l’olam va’ed—for all time.
The images of the secular New Year—Times Square, Champagne in fancy glasses, funny hats and noisemakers—are all fun and happy. By contrast the images of Rosh Hashanah—a shofar, people praying, apples dipped in honey—are 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.