Go to my post from a couple years ago, with links to the text and to a later reading of the letter from King himself. Simply the most important teaching about what it means to be religious that I think I have ever read:
Go to my post from a couple years ago, with links to the text and to a later reading of the letter from King himself. Simply the most important teaching about what it means to be religious that I think I have ever read:
When I was studying Berachot 12, I had a mini-experience that is exactly what Torah study should be.
On 12b, Rabbah bar Chinana Sava taught in the name of Rav that anyone who could have prayed for compassion/mercy (rachamim) for another but didn't is called a sinner. I was thinking about this for some reason while I was standing on the curb outside Logan Airport waiting for about 15 minutes for a van to pick me up. I started thinking that this teaching is a kind of logical impossibility. How is it even possible that there is such a thing as a person who can't pray for another person? Also, how is it even possible for me to pray for every person who might need a prayer for mercy? The teaching seemed either over- or under-inclusive.
So I was looking around at all the people getting out of the airport, getting into cars or buses, and thinking, "Okay, I pray for that one and I pray for that one and I pray for that one..." and as I was walking back and forth for about the third time, I passed a young woman who looked like she was of college age sitting on a bench. And I happened to look down and see that she had an immobilizing boot on one of her feet.
So I said to myself, "Wow, the exact moment I'm reflecting on this teaching and here is someone who could really use a prayer for mercy and healing. I pray for her." Of course she was sitting right there, and saying that prayer to myself felt a little silly and a lot incomplete. Maybe she needs help with her suitcase! But that would be weird, she is just sitting there. Anyway, it turned out we were getting on the same van, so here was a random person I was connected to -- in that moment, the exact quarter-hour I was thinking about this particular teaching.
I offered to help her with the suitcase. Which she didn't need, but appreciated that. We chatted a little bit on the van.
I still am not sure what the teaching means. Yosef Chayim of Baghdad asks: In what situation would a person be unable to pray for someone else? He muses that a person might be so overcome with concern for another that he can't compose himself to pray. Or he might be in so much of his own suffering that he can't pray for someone else. But he wonders why the Talmud itself doesn't suggest these, and leaves the category of "unable to pray for another" undefined and possibly empty on purpose.
My teacher Rabbi Joseph Lukinsky z"l taught us that when we study the week's Torah reading, there are two approaches. The usual one is to look for something in it that is relevant to our lives or our world. The other way, he said, is to make whatever happens to be in that week's Torah relevant -- to look for some connection. In this case, Daf Yomi brought me a teaching, and made me realize that something I would have usually seen as an empty experience -- waiting for a pickup at the airport -- was a spiritual prompt.
I'm not necessarily going to have something to write about every daf (page), but here is something from a couple days ago.
Daf 7 opens with a discussion of God's own prayer. The Talmud says that God prays that God's own mercy will overcome God's anger. It's a fascinating depiction of God -- as a being who prays and who needs to pray, who needs to summon will to direct God's own energies. Who would have thought?
I don't find it useful at all to think of God literally the way the Talmud describes. Instead, I take this teaching to be talking about a spiritual experience a person might have. The divine is describe here as not static, but with energies that are expressed differently in response to human actions. A person might experience affirmation or support, or judgment or suffering, as energies of God and not only as personal, internal emotions. These basic experiences of approval or judgment can be experienced as aspects of divine energy. Indeed, to believe that the divine is "one" means that all of these must be rooted in the same divinity.
The Talmud reminds us that what the Torah calls God's anger is a response to wrongdoing; it's not gratuitous or random. I'd say then that the Talmud is describing the anger of our conscience or our spiritual aspect when we recognize or are helped (forced?) to recognize when we have done something that is very wrong.
But the prayer of God is that this emotion or experience not be the end of the matter. The Talmud says here that divine anger is very short. Infinitesimal in time from the divine point of view. The prayer attributed here to God is that when we experience divine judgment, we move quickly from that, toward an equally dramatic perception of divine energy helping us toward righting ourselves, toward teshuvah.
I have to say that I have a bias in my own Talmud study toward passages that seem to be structured a certain way. That seem quilted, where you can make out some kind of logic to the patterning. This page does not have that. It's a skip from one topic to another.
There is a section about demons, and the desire to perceive them (or not!) -- there are certain magical-ish things you can do to see the footprints of them. The rabbis caution against this, because the perception of demons can cause spiritual harm or physical harm. They do posit that demons outnumber humans by a large margin and we are constantly bumping into them.
So all I've really got is the passage that opens and closes the page. The opening teaching, continued from the last page, is about a person who enters the place of prayer with another person. If you cut that person off, your prayer goes awry. At the end of the page, the situation is that you encounter a person who you know makes a real effort to ask about your welfare -- you ought to try hard to ask that person first, and not take their interest in you for granted.
Today I did my skimming while I was listening, at a meeting, to a presentation about "adverse childhood experiences" and their impact on mental and physical well-being throughout life. It was an interesting backdrop to what most of today's page, Berachot 5a-b, are about, which is: suffering.
The Talmud starts with a fairly traditional theology -- which I reject -- of suffering as punishment. It then moves to the different, but still difficult concept, of "sufferings of love" or yissurin shel ahavah. This is the idea that God brings suffering to those God loves, as a way of.... I'm not positive, haven't done enough theological reading in the area, to know if there's an original sense of the purpose of this kind of suffering. The Talmud seems to suggest that suffering not from punishment can teach; that suffering is a way of proving one's spiritual heights; that suffering is the necessary pathway for the most important spiritual gifts, including the Torah itself.
I can understand that the rabbis, living for centuries already under foreign domination of one or other imperium, might decide that the condition of national suffering must be some kind of sign of a special relation to God that is beyond the material and political. But especially sitting where I was while reading today, I could not find a way to make this concept of "sufferings of love" make sense. Some of us were talking about the randomness of suffering, the fact that people living similar lives in similar situations, whether of privilege or "adverse childhood experiences", suffer or develop resilience and joy.
Anyway, all of that is obvious. Sorry not to be adding anything.
What is interesting to me in the Talmud, though, are stories that follow the argumentation about categories of suffering. I heard a talk by Prof. Judith Hauptman, my Talmud professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, in which she noticed that in many places, when the Talmud follows an analysis with a story, the story often nuances or complicated or just contradicts the teaching.
So here, there are some interesting stories of rabbis who fall ill, and are visited by colleagues or teachers. In each vignette, the visitor asks "Is your suffering beloved to you?" and the answer is, "Neither the sufferings nor their rewards." Then the visitor offers a hand and the lifts up, perhaps heals, the one who is ill.
Again, there's an obvious thing -- touch and presence over theology, when someone is suffering in front of you. Don't be like the friends of Job. I like that the Talmud allows rabbis to contradict their own teachings in the face of real experience, even their own. I don't know if the Talmud is setting up its theologies to be debunked, or passing along the range of tools so we will do that if we see fit.
A lot on today's page is familiar, and shows just how much of the general structure of Jewish worship was already set by 500-600 C.E. The page mentions saying Ashrei (mostly Psalm 145) three times a day, praying in a synagogue and not just individually, saying the Sh'ma in a service as well as at bedtime. There are even discussions about verses that have been added to the essential prayers -- the beginnings of adornments or embellishments around an understood structure.
So I'll today just observe three things that caught my attention that aren't the usual.
One is a teaching about "midnight." One of the Torah references to midnight is Moshe telling Pharaoh that "around midnight" the final plague will take place. The Talmud wonders: Didn't Moshe know it would be exactly at midnight? The Talmud suggests that Moshe knew, but was afraid the Egyptian elite wouldn't calculate right, and that therefore they would claim that Moshe was lying or didn't know what he was talking about. From this the Talmud learns that a person should be very careful in speech on the basis of what other people might misunderstand -- you have to take that into account even when you think you are very clear.
The second is a tangent on the word "one", which is the key idea in the Sh'ma, the oneness of God. In a brief passage on the page, the Talmud discusses spiritual personages from the Bible who are one step from God vs. more than one step. I'm going to chew on this as a way to meditate on the word the next time I recite the Sh'ma, see what it's like to place one-step-ness in relation to divinity at the center, rather than some statement about the divine itself.
The other thing that struck me is a source that imagines David vouching for himself as a king unlike the fancy kings of other nations. He says that he engages with all manner of bloody things, gets his hands bloody, in order to prove that a woman is in a state of ritual purity so she can sleep with her husband. The Talmud talks about David using his own hands to determine if blood is menstrual or not, to investigate the gestational age of miscarried fetus, to touch placenta.
This is quite a subversion of the Bible's treatment of David with regard to both woman and blood. David's hands were bloody in war, and David went through all kinds of machinations to try to get Batsheva's husband Uriah to sleep with his wife after David had impregnated her, and in the end David had him set up to die in war. What chutzpah to turn around and say that his own bloody hands are testimony to his being a king who is a man of the people and a protector of women and/or marriages? I have no idea on first reading what the rabbis are trying to do here.
(I actually wrote and FB-posted this yesterday.)
Today is the start of a 7 1/2-year worldwide Jewish learning activity called "Daf Yomi" or the "Daily Page." In sync, Jews everywhere of all kinds of backgrounds read and think each weekday about the exact same page of the Babylonian Talmud -- alone or in study groups or through podcasts etc.
I haven't decided if I'm going to see this through for 7 1/2 years, but for the time being I'm going to use it as an opportunity to at least skim each day this very essential, one-of-a-kind, completely strange book in Judaism. As much as I can I'll post some insights from the daily page. Maybe I'll do it here, or if you're interested e-mail or message me and I'll set up a dedicated list or channel.
Before I write about today's page -- let me say in the spirit of what I posted a week ago that Jewish study is an essential counterpart to Jewish pride and Jewish self-protection. It doesn't have to be Talmud, but studying Torah in some way gives you a voice right next to whatever Torah you are studying. Torah study lets you do the talking, and lets you (challenges you to) figure out the Jew you ought to be.
Today's page in the Talmud, the very first one (Berachot/Blessings, page 2, the books all start on page 2), asks the seemingly arcane question of what the time period is for reciting the Sh'ma every evening. The Sh'ma is a basic declaration about the unity and uniqueness of the Divine, taken from the Torah. The Talmud doesn't talk about what the Sh'ma is first, what it means. Instead it asks this technical-ish question and seems to answer it with a series of inside-baseball-ish details about priests in the Second Temple and purification rituals.
What struck me when I studied this page a few weeks ago with my chavruta (study partner), Rabbi Dan Ross from Central Synagogue in New York, is that on this page the Talmud threads together a bunch of things that happen in life at the start of the evening: reciting this prayer, reading a few passages from the Torah, priests eating meals in the Temple provided by the community before the Temple was destroyed by the Romans, poor people eating a daily meal provided by the community, individuals having Shabbat dinner, going to a party that lasts all evening, the purification of a priest or something called "the purification of the day."
To me, the Talmud is indicating that each time we say the Sh'ma, we're not really talking about the oneness of God unless we're really meditating on the oneness of all those other things. We're not really fulfilling our obligation to live in the glow of God's unity if we're not figuring out how to fulfill the other obligations related to giving, purification, feeding, celebrating in daily life, providing for our spiritual institutions.
This is the letter I wrote our congregation today.
Once again we are mourning and raging after an anti-Semitic attack on a synagogue over the weekend. Lori Gilbert Kaye was a dedicated member of Chabad of Poway, and she was killed as she tried to protect Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, who was injured. Almog Peretz and his 8-year-old niece Noya Dahan were also wounded. We pray for their healing, and for consolation for the Kaye family.
I have been and remain determined not to give any anti-Semite the victory they want in any way. They want to push us out of this society. They want us to be too afraid to gather in our places, or to live our lives as Jews out in the open. They want us to feel that we do not belong.
But it is they who do not belong. It is they who are being overwhelmed. Our mitzvot – the deeds that we do, our whole reason for being as the Jewish people – our mitzvot are simply and inevitably more powerful than their violence.
Our place in America is part of what America is all about. Every time an anti-Semite shows his or her face, ten or a hundred or a thousand of our friends and allies come to our side. Within hours after news of the shooting, our synagogue received messages from Christian pastors in our Greater Nashua community, and from the Islamic Center, which offered us any help we might need and sent a note to their entire congregation.
Tomorrow, Tuesday at 7:00 p.m., we gather at Rivier University as we do each year, to commemorate the Shoah (Holocaust) and learn something new about what happened, how people responded at the time, and how people have lived with purpose and hope after the Shoah. That will be our opportunity to be together after the Poway shooting. I urge you to come – with your pain and with your resolve, to comfort each other. To declare our unity and resilience as a Jewish community and a wider community in the face of anti-Semitism and hate. To honor the Shoah’s victims and survivors, and to keep learning its lessons for us today. Please invite people you know outside the Jewish community to come tomorrow as well.
We have spoken with officials at Rivier to go over security for the event, and there will be an extra security detail. Our own Security Committee has been working continually and is in the process of preparing an update for the congregation.
I have reached out with calls and messages of support on our behalf to Chabad of Poway and the other two synagogues in that community, as well as to the Krinsky family, who lead our own Chabad in Manchester.
We will not stop being who we are, even during a week like this. We are the people of the House of Avraham and Sarah who spread Torah and goodness into the world.
My D'var Torah at Beth Abraham on Shabbat morning, Saturday, January 6, 2018.
Today we begin reading the most important book in human history -- Sefer Shmot, the book of Exodus.
This is the book that transformed what was possible in the world and what was imaginable in the world. You can divide human history and culture into before the book of Exodus and after the book of Exodus. You can divide world literature into before Exodus and after Exodus, and you can divide religion into before Exodus and after Exodus. No one had ever told a story like this, about the gods or the powers of the world, its peoples or its leaders.
The book of Exodus made it possible to change the world, and to tell other stories about change and hope and transformation. And we, the Jews, are the Exodus people -- people who not only experienced the Exodus from Egypt, but whose whole civilization is built out of this book we are reading here over the next ten weeks.
Genesis, which we just finished last week -- it’s not bad. A God who creates the universe with no more effort than speaking, who tracks people across the world from Mesopotamia to Egypt and talks to them, who identifies special individuals and sends them on missions and adventures -- Genesis is bringing some game.
But Genesis isn’t radically new. There are new things in it, but it’s full of the kinds of stories you could imagine in other cultures. And Genesis is still a book about the familiar world. It ends not with transformation, but with exile.Exodus announces itself as something different right away. You see it in the opening scenes, when women get out in front of men and even in front of God, taking charge of the transformation of the world where Genesis left off. The world of suffering and oppression. Midwives who talk back to power, an inventive mother, a courageous sister, Pharaoh’s own rebellious daughter -- they are the last line holding against total evil and the first to rise up.
And what a transformation takes place, from the first to the last chapter of Exodus.
Who could imagine this powerless people, whose babies were being tossed into the Nile, standing at a mountain hearing God speak to each and every one of them? In chapter 1, the Israelites are slaves who have to find their own straw to build cities of darkness to reinforce Pharaoh’s power. By the last chapter, they have given whatever they have in overflowing generosity, and they have built a Sanctuary so perfect that God’s presence immediately fills it and lights it up.
The book of Exodus changed forever how human beings conceive of God. Until Exodus, gods were parents and protectors and allies of kings and overlords, and specific lands. In Genesis, the God Who created heaven and earth seems to be mostly on high, at the top of a ladder of angels perhaps.
But in Exodus, God leaves our land and God comes down. Down to the Nile, to the lowest spot in the low valley of Egypt. Down from the sky into those waters of chaos and death that are carved, down, deep into the lowly Earth. God comes down to the lowest people, who are beaten and dehumanized, whose hands are muddy and blistered and broken, who are detached from their souls to the point where they can hardly do anything but groan, who can’t think beyond the terrible things happening to them now.
God has to fight for them, against a tyrant who everybody thinks is really the god. God has to fight for the Israelites’ awareness. God has to get next to them, down in the mud and in their slave camps, and next to the taskmasters too, just to get any of these people even to notice.
God has to frustrate the expectations of all those who think that gods only go with grandeur like Pharaoh has, the beauty and richness of his palace and his temple and his architecture, and the hosts who do his bidding.
The book of Exodus says: This is much harder work than creating the universe. As you read Exodus, it’s clear that redemption, rescuing these people, takes much longer than six days. And it is a much, more, difficult labor than the Genesis project of making the world.
And by coming down, God shows us that more is involved in being God than pure power -- more than just the abililty to make things and do things. The task of redemption requires commitment, and loyalty, and dedication. Rabbi Heschel called it divine pathos: God’s essence is that God hurts when people hurt. And God is enraged when people stand by and go along or do nothing.
So when people are enslaved, oppressed, suffering, the hurt is so large that God’s response to that is the largest thing that God ever does.What God does in Exodus by redeeming our people is the only thing big enough to justify the idea that God is great. God’s true nature, the gadol-ness, the greatness that we associate with the notion of God -- it isn’t manifest until God comes down, as far from Heaven as possible, into Egypt.
The book of Exodus changed forever what it means to be a leader on behalf of God. In previous stories, in other Middle Eastern societies, leaders were blessed by the gods from the beginning and show off divine powers at a human level. Or they were heroes with magical powers or immortality.
Moses is different. Moses isn’t the son of God. He actually the one who ran away for decades even when he felt responsible for what he saw.
Moses at the burning bush doesn’t remotely see himself as a hero, as a leader. He doesn’t have any of the basic credibilities of a leader or a hero -- he can hardly speak, he does not inspire. As soon as Moses experiences his revelation at the burning bush, he argues that he can’t do what God wants. This resistance against leading is easily the longest conversation between anyone in whole Torah.
At almost every key moment in Exodus, Moses is shown not to be a god, but simply to be a human vessel, an instrument for divine energy and purpose. Moses teaches that anyone can become this, regardless of origins or personality or specific qualities and talents.
The book of Exodus redefined forever what it means to have laws and religious practices. In other societies, religion helped cement the social order and taught people how to be servants for the needs of the gods.
The law code of Hamurrabi in Babylonia, for instance, starts off with the investigation and punishments around murder. The law code in Exodus, right after the Ten Commandments, puts the laws of murder and assault second. The first law is about how to set free the slaves in our own society.
This teaches us that every law and every practice is not simply to serve God but to imitate God. We are God-like, the book of Exodus says, whenever we follow the law, live the law. When we bring about more freedom in our world, or pay our workers a fair wage on time, or watch out for the stranger because we know what it’s like to be the stranger -- Exodus reminds us that we are being like the God who liberated us from the house of slavery.
And the way we pray and the rituals that structure our day and week are Exodus rituals. We sing the Song of the Exodus morning and night, every day. When we rest on Shabbat, we affirm that we are not slave laborers anymore. When we give tzedakah, we are told that this is the opposite of hardening our hearts to people who live in our community and our world.
And our sacred spaces are celebrations of the Exodus. The whole last section of the book of Exodus is about how slave builders became builders of a Sanctuary to the God who frees slaves. It’s about making physically permanent the transformation from slavery to freedom, from darkness to light, from hopelessness to possibility. As permanent as any pyramid or mummy.
And of course, Pesach. God says: The moment of liberation is going to be there, always. We bring it back at least once a year in an elaborate way. So that every time you are oppressed by another Pharaoh, by armies of enemies, by illusion or illness or depression, you will know that I come down, I come there, as low as you are or as low as things go. No matter how much mud or blood or tears as there may be. I can’t stop those things from happening, God says, but I can and will be there and fight for you to notice Me, to see me fighting there with you.If a religion is made up of ideas about God and rituals and sacred places -- then the book of Exodus changed religion forever. Not just Judaism, but every religion that ever learned about the book of Exodus.
And the book of Exodus changed history, and the possibilities of history. After Exodus, human beings could know that oppressive power might be strong, but it’s never an equilibrium. Each time the Jews have found ourselves against an unshakeable enemy or an unmovable evil -- we have read Exodus and told the stories and prayed Exodus and observed Exodus -- and eventually overcame.
And other peoples have read the book of Exodus and the stories and histories inspired by it, and the same things have happened. The book of Exodus created and continues to create hope, to prove that hope is not absurd in our world.
We are Exodus people. Charged to keep reading and teaching this book, and to define our lives as responding to this book. We take it in, and we broadcast it out. That is what it means to be a Jew -- to live in the light of the most important book ever written.