Those of us who fall under the general rubric of “believers” may feel a sense of God’s presence in our lives at most, if not every moment, and others may find God hidden or seemingly absent much of the time. This experience of God’s absence probably goes back to time eternal and the Bible records how our ancestors confronted it. Much has been written, and much will be written as people of deep faith continue to face this question.
One of the much discussed themes of Purim is this hiddenness of God in the Book of Esther. I will not attempt to add anything new to this theological concern, except to point out something that emerges from the mitzvot/practices of Purim.
After describing the mitzvot of Purim which include reading the Megillah, giving gifts to the poor, gifts of food one to another and have a festive meal, Maimonides (Mishneh Torah Laws of Megillah 2:17) adds:
“It is preferable to spend more on gifts to the poor than on the Purim meal or on presents to friends. For no joy is greater or more glorious than the joy of gladdening the hearts of the poor, the orphans, the widows, and the strangers. Indeed, he who causes the hearts of these unfortunates to rejoice emulates the Divine Presence, of whom Scripture says, “to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones” (Is. 57:15)”
Maimonides reminds us that while all the mitzvot of Purim are binding, gifts to the poor should be of greatest importance. What is striking is his use of the idea that to support the poor is an expression of imitating God. This is a theme expressed in a number of areas by Maimonides (see my previous post Hysteron Proteron for one example). While Jewish law has its specific applications in all areas, we who follow the law should also be a certain type of religious personality whose goal is to lead a life in imitation of the Divine. Thus when I come to Purim, I must observe all its practices. The serious religious personality who understands that they must be seeking to emulate God, will pursue supporting the poor to a greater extent than the other mitzvot.
While I have no illusion that Maimonides intended this, supporting the poor on Purim (and any other time as well) is a way of addressing the problem of God’s apparent absence. On Purim I “emulate the Divine Presence, of whom Scripture says, “to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones”. While God’s absence may and perhaps should bother us theologically, it in no way can hamper us morally and ethically. I must always act as if I am in God’s presence, seeking to emulate all that God does.
Jewish tradition takes pride in these words, we will do and heed-na’aseh v’nishmah and one Talmudic passage even have God wondering who revealed this great secret, these words to the Jewish People. The context of course is Sinai and these words are seen as the great acceptance of Torah. The technical term for these words is hysteron proteron, “latter before” where the first term actually occurs after the second term, for example, put on your shoes and socks, but is placed first to emphasize its importance. Israel commits herself at Sinai to the totality of practice, even without necessarily knowing the extent of the laws.
Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky, author of the Netivot Shalom, offers an additional reading of these words. He sees na’aseh as a commitment to do God’s will, even in the absence of specific details or legal injuctions. While fully faithful to traditional Jewish practice as legally binding, Berezovsky still understands that even in the most strict attention to observance, one must ask am I doing God’s will. While one could use this idea in an antinomian direction, for Berezovsky the question might be as I observe a particular practice, am I doing it in a way pleasing to God and one that really reflects the will of the Divine?
One of the best examples where this insight can be seen is in the case of Maimonides. In his legal work, he discusses the laws of slavery. While many would initially recoil from imagining that such laws should play a role in our tradition, nonetheless they are firmly rooted in Biblical practice. While the laws associated with Jewish slaves serve as a way for a slave to pay off enormous debt, Jews were permitted to own non-Jewish slaves. Even while acknowledging this, and codifying it, Maimonides says as follows:
It is permissible to have a Canaanite slave perform excruciating labor. Although this is the law, the attribute of piety and the way of wisdom is for a person to be merciful and to pursue justice, not to make his slaves carry a heavy yoke, nor cause them distress. He should allow them to partake of all the food and drink he serves. This was the practice of the Sages of the first generations who would give their slaves from every dish of which they themselves would partake. And they would provide food for their animals and slaves before partaking of their own meals. And so, it is written Psalms 123:2: “As the eyes of slaves to their master’s hand, and like the eyes of a maid-servant to her mistress’ hand, so are our eyes to God.”
Similarly, we should not embarrass a slave by our deeds or with words, for the Torah prescribed that they perform service, not that they be humiliated. Nor should one shout or vent anger upon them extensively. Instead, one should speak to them gently, and listen to their claims. This is explicitly stated with regard to the positive paths of Job for which he was praised Job 31:13, 15: “Have I ever shunned justice for my slave and maid-servant when they quarreled with me…. Did not He who made me in the belly make him? Was it not the One who prepared us in the womb?”
Cruelty and arrogance are found only among idol-worshipping gentiles. By contrast, the descendants of Abraham our patriarch, i.e., the Jews whom the Holy One, blessed be He, granted the goodness of the Torah and commanded to observe righteous statutes and judgments, are merciful to all.
And similarly, with regard to the attributes of the Holy One, blessed be He, which He commanded us to emulate, it is written Psalms 145:9: “His mercies are upon all of His works.” And whoever shows mercy to others will have mercy shown to him, as implied by Deuteronomy 13:18: “He will show you mercy, and be merciful upon you and multiply you.”
In effect what Maimonides has done here is to be honest with what exists within Jewish tradition in a specific case and then asked what really the will of God should be in this case. Looking at the tradition as a whole, Maimonides transform the question of what is permissible or forbidden to rather one of how does my behavior best reflect God’s will. For Maimonides it is to emulate God’s practice of mercy which effectively undoes what one is theoretically permitted to do. The righteous statutes and judgments, our commandments, must lead us to be merciful in all our actions.
This being the case, then we can suggest na’aseh v’nishmah is not a revolutionary call, but rather one of evolutionary development. It seeks to move us in a direction that does not undermine past practice as primitive or lacking authority, but rather pushes us to ask the broader religious question. It is not a commitment only to mechanical practice, but to a deep moral conscious behavior.
Last Monday evening a light rain fell on the Capitol City where I live on 16th Street, a mile up from the White House. I caught a bus in front of my house to go downtown for a class. After five minutes, the bus stopped unexpectedly.
Police cars blocked the entrance to the tunnel. We all imagined the worst. The bus turned to the right to find an alternate route. Another string of police cars blockaded that street as well. The driver led us through the traffic, the rain — the uncertainties of getting to our destinations on time.
Next to me sat a red-headed, attractive, thirty-something female who, suddenly realizing the situation, offered up the explanation. “Oh!” she said, “They must be blocking off the streets for the president. I’m going to hear him speak at the Hilton Hotel, but I guess I am going to be late.”
Well, the president is coming! That changes everything! I got off the bus and began walking in the rain among the others who were finding this rush hour to be particularly challenging. Police kept us in line and politely guided us to the other side of the street. We waited as the president’s motorcade drove by.
Big, beautiful, shiny black limousines passed in front of me with American flags waving in the wind. Which car holds the president? Will he notice this rush hour public? The locomotion of the city streets became a still life picture. People ceased their chatter and their movements. We froze in a timeless moment.
I closed my eyes and prayed for his safety. Like a flash mob at the end of its performance, people slowly began to walk away from the scene. All with their own thoughts. All a little late to their activities.
If they resonated with the atmosphere that surrounded us, perhaps like me, they were uplifted by the ritual of the moving motorcade of the president of the United States. A miracle on 16th Street.
As a rabbi and teacher, I teach many different subjects with students from preschool toddlers to lifelong learning adults. Admittedly, I am concerned with what I know and what I need to learn to present a coherent and well-formed lesson. I focus on curriculum and on values clarification. I am committed to sharpening my skills and techniques, my presentations and my mode of communication. I convey joy and passion. Yet, according to our ultimate educator, Dr. Palmer, I have only just begun the teacher’s journey.
The public discourse about Jewish education reform has given birth to many innovative and often highly creative solutions to the Hebrew afternoon school of the twenty first century. We have been rewriting curriculum, revising textbooks, and restructuring the very foundation of synagogue learning.
However, the Jewish community of educators and administrators have paid little attention to the heart and soul of good teaching: the teacher!
A teacher needs the support of educational institutions who can provide the environment
for spiritual growth that teachers need to develop the self that teaches.
Teachers need mentors who are dedicated to that teacher’s soul and spiritual development. Teachers need partners in the dance of teaching who will not only lead but will guide the young dancer in the movement towards their authentic self.
We in the Jewish community have been focused on “performance” and how we look
in the classroom, rather than creating a living classroom of integrity where teacher and
student are connected to the truth of their Jewish identity, where the personal and the
public come together and a new role model is revealed.
Are we creating the kind of community that is centered on the capacity for connectedness
among the students and the teachers and their parents? Are we creating relationships
that are truthful and whole, caring and candid?
“All real living is meeting,” said Martin Buber, and teaching is an endless meeting of the self
in every classroom we enter.
Perhaps it is time we had the courage to create communities of learning with teachers who are themselves creating an inner landscape of hope, heart and wholeness.
So there we were this past Saturday evening, some 500 people strong, many arm in arm, singing the la, la lahs, and doing Havdalah together. It was at the 10th anniversary celebration of the local Jewish High School, which at first branded itself as a “Conservative” school, but curiously downplayed that part of its history and no denominational reference was made at the dinner except by an honoree who referred to the school as being non- Orthodox.
It is an excellent high school, with students from across the Jewish religious spectrum, many superb teachers, lots of innovative quality programming, and most significantly, draws a third of its students from public schools. My middle daughter was part of its initial cadre of 25 students, and except for being threatened with expulsion for dyeing her hair green during her freshman year, had a fine educational experience there.
To the school’s great credit, they honored seven teachers and administrators who were there from the beginning, including the maintenance man. A former student spoke about each of them and this was a clear statement of the mentchlichkeit (decency) that pervades the institution.
But back to Havdalah. I was bothered by the fact Havdalah came after Hamotzi and after we had started eating. Jewish law is clear that Havdalah should precede eating on Saturday evening. While it should still be recited if this was not done, I thought a day school should model Jewish practice as the tradition clearly understands it and take the opportunity as a teaching moment to explain why it was preceding dinner. However, in this case, and in many cases outside of Orthodoxy, aesthetics seemed to dominate over the integrity of practice, the genuine and powerful good feelings of the moment having more importance than the rules of the game, the very ceremony marking distinctions discarding the very distinction the ceremony makes and collapsing into feel good mushiness.
So I am left with questions? Should a ceremony about borders have any borders? Is there integrity to how the tradition understands a ritual that should play a role in how it is practiced? Am I too Orthodox that it clouds my vision of the beauty of the moment? Am I being too judgmental?
Sunday morning I was at the Great Lakes Naval Base where I am one of a group of rabbis and educators who teach a class “Jews in Blues” to naval recruits. This is the only naval boot camp in the country. The local JCCs (to their great credit) organize rabbis and educators to staff Friday Shabbat services and they have partnered with the Chicago Board of Rabbis on this project. Attendance at class on Sunday can vary from 1-10 recruits and people are always arriving to or graduating from their seven week boot camp course.
We begin each class with Havdalah. Although it is Sunday morning, it is a good ritual with which to begin the class and the recruits certainly could not do it on Saturday night. This Sunday I only had one student. Like many Jews in the Navy (though not all and everyone we meet has a fascinating story), he had a very limited Jewish background, but was beginning a journey to rediscover and explore his Judaism. He was thrilled to follow along the Hebrew, recognized some words, but this was probably his first experience of Havdalah. And for what it is worth, I was honored to be there to open a door for that one Jewish recruit I will probably never see again. This time I left with no questions.
Twenty early morning souls relax into the padded cushions that line the basement of the Washington Center for Consciousness Studies. I place myself in the back right corner and lean back into the plump fabric-covered pillows.
My gaze catches the glow that emanates from the room’s interior cavity. A life-sized picture of the host couple’s Indian guru greets me. We engage. His eyes follow me like Michaelangelo’s Mona Lisa and encourage my contemplation.
The dharma is presented by a visiting Hindu teacher. He reflects on the life of his beloved guru, Bhagavan Nityananda, with stories, humor and pathos. He recalls and recites the miracles created by his spiritual mentor. His tales enhance our way of modeling a superior spiritual life.
“The spiritual,” he says, “is about connections and coincidences, the relationship to the One and the flow of the mysterious.”
The chanting occurs in Sanskrit. Several people sing along, while I relax into the rhythmic tones and nest my face into my white pashmina scarf. My breathing is nonexistent to myself. God takes my inhalation and sets my heartbeat into a peaceful pace.
In time, the chanting changes and completes its round. The dimmer radiates more light. The 90-minute meditation session ends with a smooth finish. No one speaks; everyone moves.
Ten hours later, I stand before the Shabbat candles in the corner hallway at the Chabad House in Herndon, Virginia. I hear and embrace the giggling sounds of my four grandchildren and the rabbi’s five children as they relay race down the corridors. I quiet my mind for reflection.
Amidst the joy, I linger in the entryway in front of the gold-framed picture of the Rebbe and a portrait of the late young Chabad rabbi, Levi Deitsch, who died of cancer the year before. The Rebbe, the late Chabad rabbi and the nameless guru follow me into the Friday evening prayers of Kabbalat Shabbat.
Rabbi Leibel Fajnland faces the Holy Ark. The echo of his continuous Hebrew davening wafts through the many rooms of this sparsely furnished one-story school and learning center.
I receive his concentric prayers and whisper the mantra of my silent evening Amidah by heart. I enter into dialogue with the God of my ancestors.
I soften my eyelids. I close my eyes. I see into the light of my early morning soul again.