Here are my sermons from Rosh Hashanah 5783:
Help Me Talk About What I've Been Through and Who I Am
Wishing everyone a Shana Tova Umetukah, a good and sweet new year!
Here are my sermons from Rosh Hashanah 5783:
Help Me Talk About What I've Been Through and Who I Am
Wishing everyone a Shana Tova Umetukah, a good and sweet new year!
Posted at 09:20 PM in Calendar, Coronavirus, Current Affairs, Election, Elul, Ethics, Gratitude, Hakarat Hatov, High Holidays, Holidays, Hope, Middot, Midrash, Prayer, Rosh Hashanah, Soul, Speech Ethics, Spirituality, Synagogue, Talmud, Teacher-Student Relationship, Television, Teshuvah, Theology, Torah, Tov! Podcast, USA, Yamim Noraim | Permalink | Comments (0)
This is my D'var Torah from last Shabbat, Saturday, July 23, 2022.
“It’s not a movement if everyone’s just sitting.”
That’s a line from a conversation between then-Professor Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her 15-year-old daughter Jane in the film On the Basis of Sex, which is partly the story of how RBG, zichrona livracha, came to win her first major court case for gender equality. Professor Ginsburg has just come back from teaching her newest law students, after walking through an anti-war demonstration to get into the building. Her own students in class are passionate and impatient, and it throws her for a loop. At home that night, RGB brings up a note with her name that Jane forged so she could skip school and attend a Gloria Steinem rally. They argue about which strategy is necessary for women’s equality -- the legal process or the rallies -- and Jane gets in her zinger: “It’s not a movement if everyone’s just sitting. That’s a support group.”
I think about this argument when I read the story of the five daughters of Tzelophechad in the Torah portion Pinchas. Machlah, Choglah, Milkah, Noah and Tirtzah are sisters who are absolutely the spiritual ancestors of Justice Ginsburg. She a modern icon of equality and the exemplar of a certain approach to change, and the five Torah sisters also icons especially in our age -- but there is a lot of arguing these days against the approach they have in common. So I want to explore how the Torah and the midrash understand the daughters, the B’not Tzelophechad, and to argue why we need more of their approach even though there is truth within Jane Ginsburg’s critique.
The story of B’not Tzelophechad (Numbers 27) is that their father had died in the desert, before the assignment of future land holdings in the Land of Israel to every family. They have no brothers, and according to the law communicated so far, their immediate family will not have any holding of land when the arrive shortly. So the sisters approach Moshe, El’azar the high priest and all the tribal leaders, in front of the whole community.
Vatikrav’na Bnot Tzelophechad -- they “came close.” Which I think we can understand this way: their strategy was to shrink the distance between themselves, and the judges and the men of the community. The best way to read the story in the Torah might be to have in mind the first cases that RGB pressed as a lawyer. Such as the one at the climax of the film, Moritz vs. Commissioner, argued in federal appeals court. There she challenged the constitutionality of a law that denied an unmarried man a tax deduction for the expenses related to care of his mother, even though a woman would have qualified.
So too when the sisters speak, they center not themselves as women but their father. They say avinu, “our father”, three times. Only at the end of their speech do they say give us, t’nu lanu achuza, give us something to hold among our father’s brothers. They mention that their father was not like the other men who had in fact been enemies of Moshe and El’azar’s father Aharon, part of the insurrection against them led by Korach. Those men deserved to be punished by not getting a holding in the land -- but not avinu, our father.
That’s exactly how Attorney Ginsburg started building a set of precedents striking down laws on the basis of sex discrimination: with a series of cases centering men. B’not Tzelophechad, like RBG, did not call into question the whole patriarchical system of property and inheritance. They found a place where the authorities might agree on their own terms to a ruling that benefits women.
And indeed, the five sisters win their case when Moshe takes it to his court of appeals, to God -- and the law is taught that in a case where there is no son then daughters shall inherit. We might say dayenu just at the fact that God seems to respond to this argument from women. That’s suprising all by itself, no? And not only that, but the first words of God’s response put B’not Tzelophechad in the center, and repeat their request as a court order -- naton titen lahem, “give, yes give to them” -- and “their father” isn’t mentioned until last part of that sentence.
But the midrash goes even further in explaining the process of legal response that happens here.
When God hears the sisters’ case, God’s first words to Moshe are: Ken B’not Tzelophechad dovrot. “The daughters are speaking right.” Also ken means “thus”, as in: the daughters of Tzelophechad are speaking the exact words I God have been instruction you Moshe to say already.
In this interpretation, God is saying: Moshe, you have been teaching the people the law of inheritance but you have left a gap. I have told you about it, but you have had a blind spot. Not me, not I the Divine -- but you are not seeing it. Even I haven’t been able to teach you yet how a law about families without sons is necessary. So now here are five real people -- do you see them? Do you get now the situation I’ve been telling you about?
So according to the midrash, God’s law isn’t being changed at all. It’s just being unblocked. Moshe finally is able to teach this part of the law to the people. And this is what makes him realize that it’s time to get to planning better for his retirement and succession. The rest of the chapter is Moshe saying to God: Let’s find a new leader who can lead around these matters better than I have been doing.
It is a compelling case of influencing leadership from the grassroots for social change. Ken B’not Tzelophechad dovrot.They speak ken -- they speak honesty, with integrity, with respect. They say ken to the men in charge -- ken means “yes.” Yes to the basic framework of Torah. The sisters have a better understanding of what God wants than even Moshe does.
That’s famously how RBG did it, particularly at the start of her career. She won more than one case on behalf of men, and got male judges to say that legal equality between the sexes was not new but had been in the Constitution all along. Justice Ginsburg spoke again and again about what we might call the vatik’rav’na principle, shrinking the distance, and the ken principle, not losing your integrity in the process. And as for what her daughter Jane said in the film, the Torah describes B’not Tzelophechad as va’taamod’na, they stood up. They absolutely did, and this is how they did it.
I hope so far I’ve made a good case for B’not Tzelophechad. But Jane Ginsberg age 15 and plenty of adult critics still have what to say back. Of course a group of male rabbis in the Talmud 1500-plus years ago are going to approve of this soft-spoken, gradual approach from women. And what did B’not Tzelophechad really achieve -- one fix for one specific case. If they had been five sisters with one brother, they would have gotten nothing. If only Miryam had been alive still, maybe she would have spoken more fundamentally about the bias in the whole system. We need an approach based on wider questioning and more pressure and more discomfort.
Well our own Torah reading presents a version of that approach a couple chapters earlier. It’s Pinchas the son of El’azar the high priest, who was faced in real time with a terrible social injustice -- an insurrection against God in the form of a pagan orgy in concert with the people of Moav. People were about to start dying in the conflict, or some say people were already dying. (I would make the case, though this is a whole other talk, that this particular pagan orgy is offensive to the Torah partly because of how degrading idolatry and its rituals were to women.)
Pinchas sees what is happening, the threat to lives and I will say to women. He sees a particular man and woman together and he skewers them through with a sword, killing them -- and the whole thing stops and the dying stops. And the Torah says that God rewards Pinchas and his descendents that they will be the major lineage for the kohanim (priests) from now on.
This is passion. The Torah has God say: Pinchas is passionate for the things I am passionate for. It’s something like what Professor RBG is afraid of according to the film. If a door is opened to violence as a response to social ills, who knows what happens after and who will be its victims down the road, as bystanders or targets. RGB was afraid that people who meet the violence of the current reality with mass protests that are too broad and too agressive, they might stop a plague but also unleash one.
And that’s why the tradition is skeptical about Pinchas, even though the Torah says he is devoted to the right things and he is rewarded. The midrash trends toward a real concern about him. So one interpretation is that Pinchas was allowed only one of these violent acts in his life. And that’s why the Torah labels his reward brit shalom, a covenant of peace. From now on, Pinchas has to include peacemaking in all of his future work and all of his future activism. Otherwise he will be too dangerous an actor, even for God, even against this kind of pagan insurrection that is a clear affront to the Ten Commandments.
(It’s clear to me that the story of B’not Tzelophechad is told the way it is intentionally as a contrast with Pinchas, through wordplay. Pinchas has passion, kin’ah, but B’not Tzelophechad have integrity and honesty, ken. The sisters draw close, vatikravna, in a twist on the root word karav that labels the offerings so associated with priests like Pinchas, the korbanot. Pinchas is unusually for the Torah introduced as not just son, but also grandson. B’not Tzelophechad are given three more generations of lineage than that. Pinchas jumps up -- vayakom -- but B’not Tzelophechad stand and stand together, vata’amod’na.)
In the past, I might have said that the Torah is giving us two models of activism in B’not Tzelophechad and Pinchas, and we need them at different times or they suit different people. A time for passionate and force and absolutism, and a time for up close engagement and gradualism. A time for Gloria Steinem and a time for RBG.
But today I say: Enough with adding more Pinchas. There is too much of it among the bad folks and even the good folks. Our spiritual and political air is choked with aggressive speech, metaphors of force and fight and violence in our speech and writing, zingers far worse than Jane Ginsburg’s to her mother. Not to mention actual violence.
It can feel so good to tell off, to mock and insult. Enough people do that, in direct speech and on social media. They’re on the wrong side but they’re on your side too. It’s more than covered, the aggressive, the Pinchas. It’s not just masculine either. It’s probaby not possible to change all the Pinchas-style behavior once it’s begun.
But we need more people to learn the ways of Bnot Tzelophechad. I don’t mean to be content with only one change. Or to decenter the people who should be at the center. Jane Ginsburg and the other critics are so right about that. But I don’t think the most important thing about Bnot Tzelophechad, or RBG, was the gradualism, the strategy. It’s believing that there is power that comes with ken dovrot, with speaking correctly and out of integrity, with figuring how to communicate what is eternally true and you know it when that’s still new to someone else. There is power in vatikrav’na, to coming toward someone else’s perspective -- it challenges them but not in a threatening way. It challenges in a charged but still inviting way. There is power in believing that the changes that are needed are ken -- they are already here in the Divine image of the world, they are already more eternal and more permanent than anything else, they just haven’t been seen or spoken aloud enough.
These are powerful moves -- they just might not look as forceful from the outside and they sure are not violent. But powerful are B’not Tzelophechad whenever they appear in our world. Enduring change doesn’t come only from force or only from keen strategy. It comes from affecting how people see alternate leaders, the effect of their integrity. Respect for them transforms enough opponents and enough bystanders. It need not transform them all.
People acting like the five sisters might be a support group, and that isn’t a bad thing. But they are not sitting -- they are standing up together. Without them, without us acting like them, there can never be any movement at all.
I haven't posted a Tov! update for a while, but a few new episodes are out the past month and one of them is keyed to Purim which begins tonight. Listen right here or on YouTube (it's just audio), or check out the episode page with the audio and full show notes. Or just subscribe on any of your favorite podcast apps. Simchat Purim, wishing everyone a joyous and meaningful Purim celebration!
This was my D'var Torah on Shabbat morning, Saturday, January 29, on Parashat Mishpatim.
When I was trying to decide whether to apply to rabbinical school, as a senior in college, I gave myself an ultimatum: I would not apply until I was putting on tefillin every day. Tefilllin are basically mezuzas but for the body -- leather boxes with small scrolls of Torah text inside, attached to straps, that we place and wrap around one arm and the forehead in the morning when it’s not Shabbat.
Tefillin is a practice that is distinctively Jewish, and distinct even among Jewish practices. If mezuzas are uniquely Jewish, tefillin is even beyond that. It’s unusual and not a lot of Jews do it outside of Orthodox environments. It just felt weird to me, and I was having trouble making it a regular personal practice. Even after a full year in Israel at the Seminary, going to minyan regularly in the morning for the first time in my life, putting on tefillin there -- still, doing it on my own, I couldn’t get there.
And I had made that my test for myself about my identity as a Jew obligated to halacha, to traditional Jewish law as a duty. I was already quite strict about Shabbat; for some reason that was no problem. But tefillin became for me a litmus test of my self-image and my right to present myself as a future Conservative rabbi. I wonder what your thing is, the Jewish practice or ritual or words that seems like you’re supposed to buy but it’s hard for you?
It’s not that I didn’t appreciate tefillin and the symbolism and ideas behind it -- still it remained at arm’s length, hard to wrap on my actual arm. But I really wanted to go to JTS (well, I really wanted to be finished going to JTS), so it was quite the cognitive and spiritual dissonance. I called the dean’s office to schedule my preliminary interview with one of the team, and something about just that interaction spooked me. I found some excuse to cancel so I could reschedule with the dean himself, Rabbi Gordon Tucker, whom I had met a few times. I thought if I talked to him and told him where I was, he’d respond in the right way, whatever that would be.
There is a phrase in the parasha this morning that comes to mind about this, and it’s a favorite when it comes to questions of Jewish observance. We quote: na’aseh v’nishma. We will do and we will hear. It’s usually explained as first you commit to a mitzvah, then you learn more about what you’re doing. You might think the other way makes more sense, study something before you commit to it -- but no, na’aseh v’nishma. Take a leap of faith first. The midrash praises B’nai Yisrael for taking that leap of faith at Mt. Sinai, saying na’aseh v’nishma knowing that compared to everything else they knew before, Torah would be weird to them a lot of the time. It would be like tefillin everywhere.
With a lot of other things in my Jewish path, like Shabbat and kashrut, I did a lot of na’aseh v’nishma that way. But it didn’t work for me with tefillin. I’ll pick up the tefillin story in Rabbi Tucker’s office -- but first we need to reexamine na’aseh v’nishma.
Here’s the context for the phrase. Before the Ten Commandments, Moshe brings God’s offer of a covenant in a general sense, and all the people say: What God has said so far about that, we will do. Na’aseh. Then they hear the Ten Commandments directly from God, and Moshe gets all of the mishpatim, the first big set of very detailed laws, and he tells them the law out loud, and the people say: All the words that Adonai has spoken we will do. Na’aseh.
Then after that Moshe sets up a big sacrificial meal and a ritual with blood, and Moshe reads the laws again to them out of the Book of the Covenant, as though to say: Do you really mean it? And they say: Everything that Adonai has spoken, we will do and we will hear -- na’aseh v’nishma. Then Moshe sprinkles blood over all of them, just to make sure, and says: All right, this is really a covenant now.
That’s where na’aseh v’nishma is in the Torah. So, a couple of things. First, tefillin seems a little less weird in comparison to sprinkling blood on absolutely everyone. Second, it’s clear that na’aseh v’nishma was not a right-off-the-bat leap of faith, like sure we’ll do this and we can talk about it more as we go along. It took three tries just to get to na’aseh v’nishma. A lot of repeating of the people’s commitment, and of course forty days later it didn’t matter anyway, because -- Golden Calf.
So I want to offer a slightly different way of looking at na’aseh v’nishma, we will do and then we will listen. I want to look at this through a lens from a modern rav named Tina Fey, master teacher of comedy improvisation. Na’aseh v’nishma: Meet the Rule of Yes-And.
In improv, you’ve got two or more people creating a scene together, and one person starts. Maybe that person -- call them Moshe if you want -- makes up a premise in their head or maybe it comes from the audience.
Tina Fey writes [in her book Bossypants]: The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES... This means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, “Freeze, I have a gun,” and you say, “That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,” our improvised scene has ground to a halt. But if I say, “Freeze, I have a gun!” and you say, “The gun I gave you for Christmas! You [insert word I can’t say in shul]!” then we have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is in fact a Christmas gun.
Rabbi Jon’s commentary: This first back-and-forth agreement, preliminary and not completely formed, is Na’aseh. We’re going to be in this scene together and create from here together.
Back to Tina: The second rule of improvisation is YES, AND. You are supposed to agree and then add something of your own. If I start a scene with “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you just say, “Yeah...” we’re kind of at a standstill. But if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “Yes, this can’t be good for the wax figures”, or “I told you we shouldn’t have crawled into this dog’s mouth,” now we’re getting somewhere.
[Still Tina:] To me YES, AND means don’t be afraid to contribute. It’s your responsibility to contribute... [and] MAKE STATEMENTS; Don’t ask questions all the time. ...Whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles. THERE ARE NO MISTAKES, only opportunities. If I start a scene as what I think is very clearly a cop riding a bicycle, but you think I am a hamster in a hamster wheel, guess what? Now I’m a hamster in a hamster wheel. I’m not going to stop everything to explain that it was really supposed to be a bike. Who knows? Maybe I’ll end up being a police hamster who’s been put on “hamster wheel” duty because I’m “too much of a loose cannon” in the field. In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents...I mean, look at the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup...
Thanks Tina. I say that the ideas of YES-AND, and THERE ARE NO MISTAKES ONLY OPPORTUNITIES, that’s v’nishma. I’ll agree to what you start with, and then we will agree on a next thing, and we will each keep listening, accepting what the other person brings and then building on that.
The “Yes-and” dynamic is a covenant. It begins and deepens a bond between two people that generates and solidifies the obligations between them around something specific they both are invested in up to a point. Both parties are the do-er, the listener, the responder -- and hopefully the scene keeps going.
So let’s apply this back to me and my tefillin, and then to Beth Abraham.
I flew down to New York for my preliminary interview and told Rabbi Tucker the truth about me and tefillin. He didn’t say no, you can’t be a rabbi. He didn’t even do the first kind of na’aseh v’nishma -- Well, Jon, what about just putting on tefillin for a few weeks, seeing how it affects you, and call me back after that? Instead he did this other version of na’aseh v’nishma. Yes-and. He accepted where I was. He didn’t argue with me. I remember him saying: What about thinking about it this way. Have you thought about it that way. How about it’s not an external commandment. It’s not for God, it’s for you, because it helps you think about your day ahead or the actions from your arm or your head. He made a number of suggestions, and then he left the ball in my court, to continue to apply if I wanted to.
Obviously I did. My final interview was kind of improv-y in a crazy way; that’s a whole other story. But tefillin became part of a much longer and wider yes-and for me about prayer and spirituality, and part of a process of finding a theology very different from the one I thought I needed. I gave up the idea of God and me divided by certain laws standing on two sides of an unbridgeable river. I became a rabbi who wasn’t putting on tefillin regularly, and maybe five years ago or so, only then, did I begin putting on tefillin nearly every day. Though it might well not have turned out that way. Part of that same story is that I’ve become part of Laura’s meditation groups, and believe me that was even more unlikely for me than putting on tefillin. Now I’m working on b’rachot over the food I eat; that’s a next part of this particular scene.
I’m grateful for Rabbi Tucker, who had no idea what our first yes-and would set in motion between the two of us and also beyond the Seminary. My own practice of laying tefillin is very much this other na’aseh v’nishma -- the way of yes-and, patient agreement, moving from deficiency in my own eyes to spiritual opportunity.
And that is every bit a covenant. And I think for many, many things, Beth Abraham should strive for covenant among ourselves in that kind of na’aseh v’nishma spirit, the yes-and-spirit.
People might come to us with a Jewish statement – a desire, an idea, an act. A way to approach a ritual or Shabbat or a Bat or Bar Mitzvah that might strike us as out of left field at first. Because of not knowing Hebrew, or not accepting traditional God-language, or feeling out of place in a traditional service, or being steeped in something exciting and spiritual from the outside. Our job would be to respond “Yes, and…” Acceptance -- but not just yes-full-stop, and the scene ends awkwardly. Out of yes comes yes-and. Out of acceptance and curiosity we would contribute the next idea, another step, an offer to explore together. I, we, the traditions we have, are part of the scene. Not whatever you say we can do, but let’s see what we can say together. Something to interpret, ask questions about, and respond to. We build a covenant, and then we enrich it and deepen it.
Sometimes the traditional na’aseh v’nishma is the right approach-- try this and see where it leads. But for me, this new frame of na’aseh-v’nishma-meets-yes-and helps show the Jewish world here as a place full of opportunities, not a place of Jewish deficiency. I want to flesh this out with you and all our leadership as a fundamental approach and an attitude of positivity and curiosity toward everyone in our community.
No is a powerful thing to say. Yes can be surprisingly powerful, and welcoming. But yes-and is even more powerful -- it’s acceptance and trust, and curiosity. It’s eagerness to go into the unknown and create something Jewish together. That is the leap of faith we need these days. Not just one person’s leap toward something the shul has defined previously, but a leap together. A leap toward each other, and together toward something purposeful and joyful. Na’aseh v’nishma, let’s leap together to do something Jewish, and keep listening for what we can do together next.
I wrote this midrash on the 5th of Sheva 5782 (January 8, 2022) as my Dvar Torah for Parashat Bo, and in particular chapters 11-12 of Exodus, which introduce and lead into and through the last of the ten plagues in Egypt. I was thinking about issues of collective accountability and responsibility, which are the ethical and spiritual dilemmas of the plague narrative. And I was thinking about how to tie this part of the Torah to everything going on right now, the pandemic and politics. This is what emerged. I could have written more and better, but was working on a deadline and also wanted to keep this particular version to less than 15 minutes (it's about 13m30s). It's a bit clunky in all kinds of ways, but it is certainly better than the expository Dvar Torah I had in mind. If anyone wants to take this and rework it, make it your own, you have my complete permission -- all I'd love is some reference to "from an idea by Rabbi Jon Spira-Savett."
Sabba and Savta are Hebrew/Aramaic for grandma and grandpa, which is a bit anachronistic. Rechavia is the name of one of Moshe's grandsons, reference once in the Torah as having many children. I had never known his name, much less thought about him, until I needed another character for this midrash.
Here's a video of me reading it (recorded not on Shabbat), and my text follows.
Rechavia was standing in the doorway of his grandfather Moshe’s home. It was night time in Goshen, and quiet -- more quiet than usual for a night with a moon that was almost full. Even in the worst of slavery, bright spring nights were when children wandered the alleys of Goshen with their littlest lambs and sang songs -- Peh Peh, Hashem Ayeh? Poh, Poh, Hayom Yavo. Rechavia was forty when he had to learn these songs for the first time for his grandchildren, starting a year ago when Sabba Moshe announced that the whole family was leaving Midyan and going to Goshen to rescue their people. Peh Peh, Hashem Ayeh -- it was a kids’ song about Yosef’s bones and the secret code that would lead back to them, on the day Hashem would come out of hiding and lead them out of Egypt -- Poh Poh Yavo Hayom; here, here, it’s coming today.
But no singing tonight. Going out was not safe, not a day before everyone would be slaughtering the sheep or goat they were keeping, and every home would be in danger, Egyptian and Israelite, from the plague of death that Sabba had announced two weeks before. Rechavia was full of thoughts, but his house was full of kids, twelve of them! So he snuck out to go see the one person who was always willing to talk with him. Or, brood with him.
Sabba? Rechavia called out again, quietly on this quiet night, but in his firm voice. For a few seconds Rechavia stood by himself in the entrance, a hand on each doorpost. His right hand could feel a spot that was smoother than the rest, it was about a third of the way down from the lintel. He knew his Sabba had smoothed it, probably stood there for an hour each day since the new moon, contemplating this spot where the blood would be tomorrow, which later they would all remember by putting a scroll of Torah in such a place in their desert tents and their eventual homes.
Savta Tzippora saw him standing there. Rechavia, what are you doing here?
I’m looking for Sabba. I wanted to ta.... I think he wants to talk.
You think he wants to talk? No, Sabba is all talked out. To me, to you, to Pharaoh. He just wants to be out of here. He’s hardly said a word the past week. That’s not true, I heard him the other day muttering -- keep the lamb from the tenth day until the fourteenth day and then slaughter it, why five days’ waiting inside? Wouldn’t two or three have been enough? Oh well, once a shepherd, always a shepherd, your Sabba. And me too, I’m named for the birds after all. And you Rechavia -- your name means wide open space. Look at you, standing in that cramped doorway of all places, what kind of a place for a man with such a name?
Rechavia tapped his hand. I like the doorway. I like to look in, and out. It’s important what we do in here, what we say inside. It’s all perfectly clear when we can talk ,and ask all our questions, and address all points of view. Everything makes sense. Everyone knows what they’re accountable for. If only that were good enough, to get it right in here. But we’re connected to what’s going on out there. The other families in Goshen, the homes in the rest of Egypt. I wish I could be in all of their conversations and not have to wonder what they’re thinking and planning.... When I’m out I need to come in and when I’m in I need to go out. So, I like standing in the doorway.
Rechavia closed his lips and bobbed his head, down once and back. End of speech. Then he tilted his head, gave a little shrug. Tzippora smiled at him.
Ah, this is why you are such a blessing to us, Rechavia, she said. Sometimes I think your Sabba is still trapped in that little box his mother saved him in, even when we was roaming the hills in Midian with my father’s sheep for all those years.
I can see you need to talk and so does your Sabba. Go out and find him. He also couldn’t stay inside tonight. I’d have gone out with him, but someone had to watch this lamb, Hashem forbid she escapes! How would it look if this was the one house without blood on our doorpost and lintel tomorrow. I saw him go out and head left, just after sunset. Stay safe, Rechavia. See you when we’re free.
Rechavia blew her a kiss, turned around, held his hand one more second on the smooth of the doorpost -- then out and to the left. It wasn’t hard to find Sabba Moshe, at the end of their alley on a small hill looking out toward the Nile.
Oh, Rechavia! You shouldn’t be out. I shouldn’t be out. Ha -- of course we all should be out! I can’t wait until we are out, tomorrow night finally.
But something tells me Sabba you’re not quite ready.
.... No, I’m ready. But I just keep asking myself: Does it have to be like this? Is this how we get our freedom -- someone in every one of their homes dies? Someone in Goshen forgets and maybe one of us dies too?
I know Sabba. I’ve been thinking about that too. I don’t know many Egyptians -- we’ve only been here the year. I know the taskmasters but it’s hard to believe that’s all they are.
Moshe gestured toward the Nile -- the shimmer of the moon over the wide waters. See Rechavia, right below the hill here, that’s where my Imma put me in the water, in a basket. And just over there is where Pharaoh’s daughter found me, and it wasn’t just her but the girls with her. You’ve heard the story. They decided together to save me. They knew it was right. They knew it together.
And Rechavia, so many hated us, or went along. I never knew until I turned thirteen. But from the start I always judged them one by one. You know this, I taught you about this when you were little.
That’s right Sabba. When you killed the Egyptian it was one man, threatening the life of another. You made me repeat it: No one shall die for the sins of his father, but only for his own sin.
Yes Rechavia. So why not that way tomorrow? Why can’t Hashem just punish the homes of the taskmasters, or the magicians advising Pharoah, and the king himself? I ask Hashem. I ask the one known to Avraham, and I get no answer.
Sabba, do you remember the day I turned thirteen? You said: Today you come out to the sheep with me, just like your father and uncle when they were your age. You said: I want you to watch carefully and understand. Sometimes a sheep runs away, and even if you can’t remember ever noticing a special streak of color in their wool, you know it is this one sheep, this particular sheep, whom you love and you do anything to bring it back. Then there are other times, when the sheep move together to water or pasture, it’s so miraculous-- how they change the shape of the flock to grip the hills so no one falls, protecting and nurturing each other, and in those moments there is no such thing as a single sheep, there is only a flock. In those moments no one sheep would ever consider running away. And a shepherd learns to know ahead of time the moment just before a flock becomes sheep or sheep become a flock again.
That is what you taught me Sabba. I think this is why Hashem chose you. You always knew long before the moment a flock turns into sheep and long before the moment sheep become a flock. All I ever wanted was to know this as you do.
But Rechavia, tonight I am having trouble with the difference. I know the Egyptians are like a flock of evil sheep -- they lose themselves as they oppress us, they are responsible together. They won’t save each other’s lives let alone ours. We gave them so many chances to run away and I, I myself would have taken any of them in, even if I couldn’t have recognized a single streak in them from before. None of them did. They are responsible, every one of them. So why am I still troubled? Why do I sit like a shepherd on a hill under the moon and look at them still?
The other night, Rechavia, I dreamed of a day I am even older, and we are far along out of this place, and our people are thirsty and I help them find water. And all of a sudden I am sitting right here looking down at this Nile and I am seeing the girls lifting a baby up out of a basket -- and then I hear their cries at the death of their firstborn. In the dream it is too much for me, and I shriek and lash out with this staff and then everything disappears.
Rechavia looked out toward the Nile for a long moment. Then he gestured with his head back, toward the houses, and said: Come on. I have something to show you. They stood up and Rechavia led them back to Moshe’s home.
Rechavia stood in the door frame, felt the smooth part of the post on his right, then moved inside and said: Sabba, stand here. Stand here, and feel this right here.
Moshe took his spot, and Rechavia held his hand and placed it so it touched the part that Moshe had made smooth.
I like the doorway, Rechavia said. What happens inside is important. We talk in here about all the things you asked outside. Who is responsible, for their own actions and for the actions of their nation or their friends, when are you responsible for your own sins and when for the sins of your fathers, and we address all points of view. We decide in here how we will act if this is the truth or if that is the truth. In here, we figure out how to hold each other accountable.
Now Sabba, keep your hand where it is, and turn around. Moshe turned carefully, holding his hand against the doorpost and looking out.
We look outside, Rechavia said, and we hope that inside other doorways it’s the same as in here. But we know it’s not. Not in too many Egyptians homes, and not even in all Israelite homes. It’s all right to wish that other homes would be like ours. When they aren’t, people die. The wrong people are punished.
If we only look out, all we will see is that the wrong people die, how they are all responsible and they are never accountable. We’ll think that is all there is. So each time we look out, we have to look back in here.
Sabba, we have to stand right here, and look both ways. How did you tell it to me once -- when you are sitting in your home and when you are out on your way. A doorpost that shows blood, a doorpost with Hashem.
It was midnight now. Moshe held his arms against the posts. How did you know, Rechavia, that I have been standing here an hour every day since the new moon, feeling this spot over and over, trying to smooth what won’t ever be smooth enough.
He looked at Tzippora, with her hand on the lamb. Moshe thought: Today each of us is a precious lamb, and I do know the moment in twenty-four hours exactly when we will become a flock, losing ourselves as we protect each other on the way out of here.
You know, said Sabba Moshe, I still have my sources still down the Nile. There are Egyptians who today want to come with us, and I have heard that on their doorposts they put up a sign, in our own language as a code to find each other: V’erev rav alah itam. I sent them a message today -- take down the note and put up blood instead and meet us tomorrow after midnight.
Maybe it’s the grandchildren of the women who fished you out, Sabba.
Do you think their homes will be spared from the plague?
I hope they will, Rechavia. When we talk of these things in the future, to your grandchildren -- that’s how we should want them to remember it. It was good to talk, Rechavia. I needed to talk before we left.
Not talk, said Rechavia. Teach. You just needed to teach. See you when we’re free.
Rechavia walked out, under the almost full moon. And without realizing it, he was humming a child’s song, peh peh Hashem ayeh, about the secret hiding place of Yosef’s bones and the day coming when Hashem would no longer hide but redeem them, and if not everyone in Egypt at least many more would be free tomorrow -- poh poh, yavo hayom.
This was my D'var Torah for Saturday, June 19, 2021, Parashat Chukkat. The article I reference at the start is really good, in ways that somewhat connect to my theme and also jump off in another important direction.
I was in the middle of thinking about the parah adumah -- the red heifer with its potpouri of potion parts that would be very at home in a Harry Potter book -- when I came across an e-mail from The Forward titled, “Has Shabbat become just another form of #self-care?” In one corner is the idea that Jewish practices are good for us in a self-care sense, on secular terms -- we need rest, we need to unplug, we need not to let seven days go by without calming and resetting. In the opposite corner is the red heifer, the most inscrutable practice in all of Torah.
In Midrash B’midbar Rabbah, we learn that a Roman pagan asked Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai specifically about the parah adumah: "These rituals you do, they seem like witchcraft! You bring a heifer, burn it, crush it up, and take its ashes. If one of you is impure by the dead, two or three drops are sprinkled on him, and you declare him pure?!" Rabban Yochanan said to the pagan, "Has a restless spirit ever entered you?" He said to him, "No!" "Have you ever seen a man where a restless spirit entered him?" He said to him, "Yes!" ..."And what did you do for him?" He said to him, "We brought roots and made them smoke beneath him, and poured water and the spirit fled." Rabban Yochanan said to him, "Your ears should hear what leaves from your mouth! The same thing is true for this spirit, the spirit of impurity...They sprinkle upon him purifying waters, and the spirit of impurity flees." After he left the rabbi's students said, "You got rid of him with a skimpy response, a thin reed. What will you say to us?" Rabban Yochanan said to them, "By your lives, a dead person doesn't make things impure, and the water doesn't make things pure. Rather, God said, 'I have engraved a rule, a chok -- I have decreed a decree and you have no permission to transgress what I decreed, as the parasha begins: ‘This is a chok [rule] of the Torah.’
To the Roman pagan, Rabban Yochanan says: You and I know that certain things work, and maybe what Jews are doing seems like magic to you but we’ve all got a common language of self-help. The red heifer is a kind of medicine; it makes us better. But to his own students, he says: There’s no explanation in this case, but we have to do it anyway. It is one of the chukkim, one of the inscrutable laws that are mitzvot just because the Divine has commanded, no other reason.
I do not think that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai believed that everything in Torah is like the red heifer, the parah adumah. Not everything is one of the chukkim, the impenetrable laws. But I admit I like his answer to the Roman. Not the outdated medicine part, but the idea that there’s a function to the practice that we could figure out, and it’s good for a person. In fact, in spite of what Rabban Yochanan says to his own students, Jewish tradition does try to interpret the elements of parah adumah potion -- the cedar, the hyssop, the scarlet -- to try to find a purpose for each element. Something for us to meditate on that will help us heal our souls or something that symbolizes how to become better people.
But at the same time, we have this phrase that is familiar from many prayers and the Torah -- chukkim u’mishpatim. In Jewish thought, chukkim are those practices that are or seem beyond our comprehension, while mishpatim are practices or rules that are socially valuable or valuable to our personal lives. Chukkim come first in this phrase -- the irrational laws before the functional ones. Some would say it's the chukkim that define religion as religion.
But trying to make most things in Judaism like the red heifer, something we do to prove that we can serve something other than ourselves -- that can lead in absurd directions and dangerous directions too. We here wouldn’t buy that. The Torah itself says later that other peoples look at Israel and our ways and say that only a wise and understanding nation could live in such a way. Wisdom, meaning wisdom to apply to life -- not just awe and obedience.
So, some Jewish philosophers have suggested that the Torah of revelation is a short-cut, because most of us don’t have the time or energy or wisdom to figure out for ourselves what is good for us.
And yet -- the problem with Shabbat as #self-care is that if we can explain Jewish practices always in terms of a purpose, is that really Judaism? Isn't that just looking back at ourselves? Surely we could design from scratch a weekly rest and even some rituals that give us rest, build community, and even move us toward kindness and justice that are more direct and easier, without the mumbo-jumbo and the details we don't get.
So where does that leave us, as far as chukkum u'mishpatim? Can we have both the red heifer and #Shabbat-as-self-care?
A big part of me thinks that if Judaism can be taught in terms of self-care -- dayenu. We certainly don’t suffer from a lack of self-care and grounding in our lives and this current world. If Judaism can be a vehicle for that, even if it’s for reasons that aren’t completely coherent intellectually, that’s not bad at all.
But my real answer comes sort of from the red heifer. It comes from magic -- specifically, the magic of Harry Potter world.
To me the genius of Harry Potter is not that it takes place in an alternative universe, although it’s true that Muggles can’t go to Hogwarts. To me, the big khap is that the magical world is layered on top of our world. If you are fortunate enough to have inherited the capacity for magic, you can see things others in London don’t see, and you have special powers too.
And my favorite locale in the universe of Harry Potter is Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross Station. To get from the regular city onto the train to Hogwarts, you have to run into a brick pillar. It really is a brick wall, and you run at it and into it. It looks impenetrable -- like trying to understand the red heifer. But your propensity for magic, even before you are well-trained in it, allows you to get through it, to the train that will take you to the special school, where you learn where you fit into the magic world layered on top of the world most people see. Where you struggle with how to make the potions that work and rescue, and you complain about the teachers, and you wonder whether it all makes sense.
Judaism, all its practices and rhythms and even the ethics that you could pick up elsewhere, are a magical world layered onto our world. To get there does require flinging yourself at brick walls -- red heifers, practices that aren’t obvious, Hebrew words, sometimes Aramaic -- but when we do go at them full speed, we see that we are connected to a bigger story. Our daily lives, our friendships, our rivalries even, our powers are all connected to a bigger story -- the Torah story, the Exodus, the story of redeeming and completing this world. Every Shabbat is part of that story, every word of our Siddur is, every specific ritual is. They don’t all make sense one by one; yet each is a piece that whole tapestry.
Being part of that story involves taking care of ourselves. Because being the person or the people who deserve care and rest and joy is itself one of the main points of the story and of Jewish history. Because Shabbat rest and ritual celebration are what allow us to glimpse where the story is heading. Our individual acts and each piece of the Torah, even the strange parts, are part of a much larger book we are playing a part in.
So whether it’s the parah adumah, the red heifer, or Kashrut or Shabbat or the Hebrew language, fling yourself at the brick walls of Judaism. Believe that the grape juice at kiddush is a magic potion, more than just the sugary chemicals in it, and enjoy the sweetness too. Keep flinging yourself, and don’t settle for easy but incomplete explanations on this side of the wall. It’s not bruises or intellectual brick walls ahead, but a deep care for you, and special powers for you and us together. It’s not just sensible; it’s magic.
Again, I'm behind in my post though not my studies...
The second chapter of the Talmud begins with a discussion of the concept of kavvanah, which means "intention." The specific issue is whether one can fulfill the mitzvah of reciting the Sh'ma by mechanically vocalizing the sounds, or whether kavvanah is required. The Talmud begins by positing: yes.
There is an entertaining part of the discussion, in which an example is suggested: A person is proofreading a Torah scroll at the time when one is supposed to recite the morning Sh'ma, and happens to be proofreading Deuteronomy chapter 6. Does this count? You know you're reading these words, you know it's the Torah -- but you have the purpose of proofreading, not the purpose of affirming the oneness or uniqueness of God.
More to the point, the rabbis discuss the meaning of the word "Sh'ma" itself -- does it mean the physical act of hearing, or the concept of hearing and receiving, i.e. understanding. So there is a debate about whether the essential thing is to say the Sh'ma audibly to one's own ears, or in a language that one understands whether or not it's Hebrew.
What distills from the exploration is that kavvanah could have four possible meanings:
#2 and #3 are usually the debate within traditional Judaism, about how deep kavvanah has to go -- but at least an awareness of the mitzvah/command dimension is needed. In my next post I'll go into #4, which I was surprised to find in the Talmud -- kavvanah possibly detached from the mitzvah act.
I wrote this midrash early in rabbinical school -- it's somewhat rough and unpolished, but it has some interesting things in it and I've left it pretty much as it was. I was thinking about how we add the phrase "Elohay Rachel" (God of Rachel) to our prayers, yet we do not have as many stories about Rachel for that phrase to recall as we do for her husband Yaakov. This story just came to me one day. I'm not sure exactly all that it means. But I let my thoughts follow some Hebrew wordplay in last week's parasha and this week's. This midrash is a take on the incident of Yaakov's wrestling with a figure at night in Parashat Vayishlach:
25 Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. 26 When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob's hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. 27 Then he said, "Let me go, for dawn is breaking." But he answered, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." 28 Said the other, "What is your name?" He replied, "Jacob." 29 Said he, "Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed." 30 Jacob asked, "Pray tell me your name." But he said, "You must not ask my name!" And he took leave of him there. 31 So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, "I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved." 32
* * * * *
It became a topic of much conversation in Yaakov's household, this incident which he had kept to himself until the ominous meeting with Esav had passed. Yaakov told of wrestling with someone in the night, hearing his name, gaining a blessing. Did it happen, or did he dream it? Yaakov wasn't sure, but he felt that it had happened. Rachel knew otherwise -- she knew it must have been a dream.
She knew, because she had dreamt this dream before. She would dream it again.
In time, the discussion around the fire turned to the question: Who had Yaakov wrestled with? Those who told and retold the story said: vaye'avek ish imo -- a man wrestled with him. But who was this ish, this man?
This Rachel did not know. For though she had the same recurring dream, the ish was always different.
The first time Rachel had the dream was in Paddan-Aram. It was night, and she was alone. Then, a man. They wrestled -- vaye'avek ish imah. Or perhaps it was an embrace: vay'chabek. In the twisting and locking of hands, she heard a name, her name, and Yaakov's. She turned to see the face whose hands wrapped around her -- was it God? Then she felt the tap, and the blessing. When she awoke with the light of the dawn, she felt within her the pain, a new pain, a pain she had never known before -- but Rachel knew it was a pain toward new life, toward birth.
Rachel thought she understood the dream. She had asked her husband Yaakov to be God, the Progenitor and Source of Life. She had asked Yaakov to give her the blessing of life and more life, to open her womb as he had opened her life the day arrived from the land of Canaan. He had been angry with her -- "Can I be God?" -- they were estranged, and then one night -- it was that night, that same night -- the night of the dream, that night she conceived Yosef. On the night of the dream she conceived Yosef, "master of dreams."
Rachel dreamt the dream again the night her father Lavan overtook them, as they stole out of his home to make their way back to Canaan. It was night, and Rachel was alone, in her tent. A man, a white-haired man placed his arms around her -- vay'chabek ish otah. A warm, fatherly embrace -- or was he trying to strangle her -- vaye'avek? In the clasping and squeezing of hands, she heard her name, twice, in two overlapping voices -- one calm, soothing, warm and one cold, distant, angry. She tore loose a hand and reached out -- was this God? Then she felt the slap, the ambiguous blessing, and when she awoke at the break of dawn, she again felt the pain.
Again, Rachel thought she understood the dream. She uncovered the pack of her father's idols, hidden under her bed, and looked at them. Her father, Lavan. How many nights when she was but a girl did he tell her stories of her aunt, his sister Rivka, his beautiful sister Rivka, his virtuous and generous sister, who had left her home and her father's house? And Rachel had tried to grow to be Rivka, the mysterious ancestor she had never met. The day Yaakov, Rivka's son, arrived in Paddam-Aram, Rachel was Rivka, bringing him water. And the day Rachel cried out for a child, she was again Rivka.
Her father had given her one of the most precious treasures a parent gives a child: someone to live after, to live like. But he had not given her that other most precious treasure: a God.
These idols, these small gods, these trafim! They have made my father Lavan a white-haired man, a colorless old man as far back as I can remember. These trafim, who have torn the cloak of dignity from my father, and made him a petty man, a joke in the eyes of my husband and in my own eyes. What God did Father give me, to pass on to my children? I have only these trafim. My son Yosef, the dreamer, wakes up screaming, dreaming that these trafim are wild beasts, come to tear him apart and leave only his bloody cloak behind.
The pain was again the pain of women -- Rachel had not lied to her father, for she was again pregnant. But she did not want her godless father to see this second child.
Rachel dreamed the dream one final time, the night before she gave birth for the second and last time. It was night, in the hills of Canaan, and she was aone. She felt the pounding inside of her, those little hands and feet beating her from the inside. Vaye'avek ish imah -- a man, a little man, struggling with his mother. She thought she heard her name, muffled, speaking to her from inside. Was it God? She reached out for the dream embrace, but instead she felt the push, and the blessing. When the daylight awakened her, she felt the pain, the birth-pain, the death-pain.
As her soul departed, Rachel tried to understand the dreams, the single recurring dream. But the images fell over each other, clasping hands in struggle and embrace. Yaakov, Lavan, Ben-oni, God; husband, father, son, God; her name, Rachel, o tender little lamb -- was this all she had been? God protect my children, be WITH THEM, gather them wherever they disperse. So wept Rachel as she died -- and her cry is heard by God, generation after generation.