I've put out post a Tov! podcast episode and an identical written piece, encompassing just about everything I can think of about how The Good Place on TV illustrates, elaborates, and even improves on a core teaching of Maimonides about teshuvah, the core Jewish metaphor and practice around personal change!
This was my D'var Torah for Parashat Re'eh last Shabbat, August 12, 2023.
Two friends encounter each other late at night near the town square. It’s a classic small New England town, gazebo in the center, and it’s a particularly clear night, the new moon. The one finds the other kneeling down next to a street light looking around at the sidewalk.
“Hi! What are you doing?”
“I was here earlier and I lost my ring, so I’m looking for it.”
“Where do you think you lost it?”
“I’m pretty sure over there by the gazebo,” says the first one, pointing across the street at the village green.
“So why are you looking over here?”
“Oh! Because the light is better.”
This is what it’s like for us often, when we’re looking for something we need or we’ve lost. It’s hard to get ourselves to look in certain places, hard or scary, and often it’s easier to stay where we already know how to see the things we’ve learned how to see.
Which is why the opening to our parasha is so surprising. Re’eh Look -- I am giving in front of you today a blessing and curse. Re’eh, anochi notayn lifnaychem hayom b’rachah uk’lalah.
When the Torah wants to get our attention, it almost never says Re’eh, “see” -- it says: Sh’ma! Listen. It’s not “Look O Israel Adonai is your God...”; it’s Sh’ma Yisrael.
Seeing and hearing are two very different metaphors, and I think the metaphors are meaningful even for those of us whose physical sight or hearing is not perfect.
Seeing is the most problematic of our senses. We can only look in one direction at a time, and even those of us with good peripheral vision miss things a bit to the side. When we’re looking for something particular, we miss other things even right in front of us -- like the study where the subjects were asked to watch a video of a basketball game and count passes between players, and completely missed the gorilla walking across the court.
We have eyelids that we can deliberately close. We “see with our own lens.” We talk about “looking the other way”, in order to avoid seeing a person who needs us or a wrong we know is being done. We can use our mind to override the inputs that our eyes might want to give us. And some of the al-chets on Yom Kippur, the list of wrongs, are about our eyes -- sikkur ayin, leering at someone; aynaim ramot, looking down on someone.
And seeing is different from hearing because what we perceive through our eyes alone is always on the surface. Seeing often stands for judging a book by its cover.
Or looking in a certain direction is just hard, or painful. This week, it’s hard to look at certain places in this Sanctuary where someone is so palpably missing.
So seeing is imperfect and it’s difficult -- and it’s easier just to look in the light.
Hearing is a different metaphor. Our ears hear a voice from deep within someone trying to say something real, or a cry from the heart. We can try to plug our ears, but we can’t close them at all the way we can with our eyes. There’s no real way to turn your head in a direction so you don’t hear.
Sounds force us to pay attention even when we try not to -- if the gorilla made a sound, you couldn’t help yourself from noticing that it’s different from the dribble of a basketball.
So it’s not surprising that in the Sh’ma itself -- the prayer that opens with “Hear O Israel”-- the Torah tells us to look at our tzitzit so our eyes have something mitzvah-centered to focus on, v’lo tatura acharei l’vavchem, v’acharei eineichem asher atem zonim achareihem -- and don’t go straying after your mind, and after your eyes which you go lusting after!
Moshe in our parasha talks about doing the right thing in the future as the opposite of the desert, where “everyone does anything that seems right in their own eyes” -- ish kol hayashar b’einav. Maybe it goes all the way back to Gan Eden, to Chava taking a look at that fruit.
Sh’ma is a spiritual paradigm for us -- for being responsive to others, letting ourselves be drawn out toward them even when we’re not prepared, getting to what’s beneath the surface in the people around us. And it’s a paradigm for responding even to our own inner voice, our own prayers and our cries. Sh’ma is all over this parasha, it’s one of the most important words in the whole book of D’varim.
So why does our parasha say: Re’eh. See this important thing I want you to have, a blessing as well as a curse to stay away from. And by the way just for good measure, Moshe messes with the people: See what I am putting in front of you today, which is that in a few weeks I’m going to show it to you on some mountains across the river which you literally can’t see from where you are now.
Rabbi Josh Feigelson teaches: Nonetheless, Moshe uses the language of Re’eh instead of Sh’ma here, because we don’t have the option to replace seeing with hearing. What we can do is to make our seeing more like our hearing.
In our parasha, human eyes are generally not a good metaphor -- but Divine eyes are. Kira Sirote points out a unique phrase in the Bible that appears once in the Torah and a couple places in the prophets, and the phrase is ayin b'ayin, literally an eye in an eye.
It’s used once in the Torah for the most famous law about the eye, an eye for an eye (and there’s a nugget about that you can ask me later how it connects). But in the prophets, Kira notes, the phrase talks about a moment when the regular human eye becomes a prophet’s eye. “How beautiful on the mountains are the legs of the one who announces redemption, making sounds of peace... Your lookouts will raise their voices because eye in eye they will see the Divine returning, ayin b’ayin yir’u b’shuv Adonai"! (Isaiah 52:7-8)
Imagine seeing something as simple as another person’s leg, just a person walking, and immediately perceiving from somewhere deeper that redemption is almost here, that peace is possible within yourself or in the world -- that reunions are possible with people, and our own souls and dreams, and even I pray with loved ones across the boundary between this world and the next.
Imagine if there was an eye inside your eye, whose default was to wonder what depth or what feeling is beneath the surface of any person you see.
A kind of spiritual infrared, an eye that perceives more wavelengths when it sees, that almost hears when it looks.
An eye looking at tzitzit not to avoid being distracted, but to follow them out past their ends in each of the four directions because there is too much here not to miss.
An eye that closes long enough to replenish itself to see more, or to leave time to see dreams.
An eye inside your eye that saw when another person was looking over here because it’s hard for them right now to look over there.
That I believe was Chava’s eye in Gan Eden, which saw that the fruit was good and nourishing, and beautiful, and worth thinking about more, before she took it and shared it.
Two friends encounter each other, and one of them has lost something. The other asks, “Why are you looking over here,” and the first one says, “Because here the light is better.”
And the friend says, “Maybe we can look there together.” Or: “Would it help if I stayed around here while you went over there.” Or: “I’ll be here again if you want to look tomorrow.”
As we look ahead to the moonless night later this week that marks the month of Elul, that leads us to the new year -- may our seeing be as good as our hearing. May we help each other make our way to the mountains we can’t yet see where announcers are calling us; help each other see the blessings in the places that are harder to search. And may we all see each other with the eye inside our eye.
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)
These are to me the best of my Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur sermons from years past. I'm collecting them here because you find them useful to read and think about in Elul. They aren't in chronological or any particular order.
Hope In An Uncertain World (5777/2016)
What the Chanukkah dreidel can teach us about four kinds of hope.
Who Knows? (5780/2019)
How the story of Esther even more than the Torah can guide us to live in a world of mortal dangers.
How Good Do I Have to Be? (5777/2016)
With assists from the Green Monster, Pesky's Pole, Naomi Shemer and Reb Simcha Bunem.
Still Small Voices (5778/2017)
We are a community where many people have prayers they don't reveal out loud about the difficult things happening in our lives and families. How to be there even when we don't reveal or don't know what those prayers are.
Finding Purpose and Direction (5773/2012)
Figuring out your purpose, especially in up in the air times, or transitions in life or work.
Lost and Found (5779/2018)
When the pieces of life's puzzle aren't gone, but someone else has yours to give you back, or vice versa.
V.O.R. -- Vision-Opinion Ratio (5779/2018)
Fewer superficial reactions to public things, more visions -- how to find and speak about the things you are truly committed to, and quieting down about the rest.
Holy Impatience (5775/2014)
Some impatience is selfish, unfair expectations. Holy impatience is rooted in love, a concern for someone else who doesn't have the life or peace they deserve.
Helping Someone Else Change (5771/2010)
No one can change someone else -- but sometimes we can support other people in their changes. Starring a mitzvah in Leviticus and some social psychology research.
Why "Busy" has become the answer to "How are you?" and what we can do about it.
Moral Adventure (5776/2015)
Adventure isn't just for heroes and myths. Our own lives are different when we recognize them as moral adventures, and the people we go through life with as our fellow students and sidekicks.
Long Tables, Shabbat Meals (5772/2011)
Why long tables are better than round, long meals are magical, and Shabbat creates relationships different from friendship but no less powerful.
Back to Better Than Normal (5782/2021)
As we transition from the Covid-19 pandemic, the old normal is certainly not what what we want to go back to.
Being Present in a Digital Age (5774/2013)
How to make people and not devices more central to our daily lives.
Look Up (5780/2019)
In a cynical age, we need to focus more on looking up to people -- the everyday people in our lives, the people who need us, the best leaders we know.
Body Talk (5779/2018)
How to show others we really believe they are the image of God.
Posted at 04:37 PM in Calendar, Coronavirus, Current Affairs, Election, Ethics, Gratitude, Hakarat Hatov, High Holidays, Hope, Justice, Leadership, Middot, Patience, Ritual, Rosh Hashanah, Shabbat, Teshuvah, Tikkun Olam, Torah, Tzedek, USA, Yamim Noraim, Yom Kippur, Youth | Permalink | Comments (0)
This is based on what I said on Shabbat morning, August 27, 2022 at the start of the month of Elul. It was the day of a Bar Mitzvah and an aufruf (blessing to a couple about to get married)!
Usually I think of Elul as a time of introspection before we get together in a big way on Rosh Hashanah. But the past few years I’ve been thinking that it would be great to start the month leading to the ten particularly intense days with a dance party, a disco party! First we should celebrate that we’ve gotten here -- we should look at each other and who’s in this together with us and going to help us look back and look ahead. And wow, this past year having been what it’s been and the year before that, we ABSOLUTELY should start it with a party. And my dream came true and I didn’t even realize it when we scheduled Jonah’s Bar Mitzvah celebration and when Rachel and Joel told me the date of their wedding. So this is how it should be. A new month, that little sliver of moonlight that says to the shade: You are going away, we’re going to make our own energy here and we’re going to gather our powers together so we can make a new year.
It's been quite a year, and we need more than the three days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to do our reflecting and our redirecting and our rebooting – our teshuvah, our returning. The spiritual recalculating on the GPS of our hearts. I don’t even know if a month is enough.
The point isn’t to come to services on the holidays. The point is to figure out what we each need from the next 40 days (really it’s more like 52!) – and what of the many offerings of spirituality and learning can support each of us:
I’ll send you daily e-mails with thoughts and ways to gather for conversation or learning or spiritual practice. But the point isn’t to read the e-mails! It’s to use them. It’s really simple: Use this month and the next for you, for the better life you’ve been thinking about having or creating. Use it to figure out your piece of making the world better -- boy do we need that.
Say thank you as many times as possible, in a world that doesn’t do that enough and where there’s plenty you’re not happy about. You don’t have to decide if the world is more bad than good, or maybe you have decided there is more bad now -- but just find gratitude every day and express it, out loud, to someone or to your own ears. That will ripple out. No one can change only out of sadness and anger. Not unless you can connect it to someone you love whose suffering is what powers your anger, your sadness. Not unless you can find a lighthouse ahead for hope, powered by someone you deeply appreciate.
This time of year is serious, but it doesn’t have to be solemn. That’s why it needs a party today, and at the end of the season on Simchat Torah we have another one! I am so happy we’re together, and thank you for listening to my prayers this first hour and saying Amen, even if you don’t know what all my prayers were. Thank you, even if you didn’t know that’s what you were doing.
So I hope you’ll tap into the energy of today, not just the energy of joy but of words of Torah in many forms, to help you launch into Elul and a month of individual reflection that’s good for you and good for us all when you do it.
We're deep into Season 3 of Tov!, my podcast about The Good Place and Jewish ideas related to teshuvah. You can find all the most recent episodes here, or type "Tov!" into your favorite podcast app.
Also, I have been logging in at 12:36pm Eastern time each weekday this Elul to teach and talk about some classic teaching about teshuvah, mostly Maimonides but other things maybe too. You can join here, or you can listen to the ones I've taped:
My D’var Torah from July 30, 2022 * 2 Av 5782
One of my favorite anecdotes about morning davvening (praying) comes from the Babylonian Talmud. Rabbi Chanina went to shul one day. This was some 1700 years ago, give or take, and at the time there were no siddurim (written prayerbooks). People who led knew the outline of the service, and the theme for each short section and the specific language of the blessing to end each section – Creator of lights, Yotzer hame’orot; Redeemer of Israel, Ga’al Yisrael, etc. A few prayers had been written and were well-known but the leader, the shliach tzibbur, could compose or make up his own prayer on the section’s theme to get to the very few fixed words.
So Rabbi Chanina is in shul and this guy stands up to recite the Amidah, and he starts chanting: Ha’el ha’gadol ha’gibbor v’hanora, v’ha’adir v’ha’izuz v’ha’yarui he-chazak v’ha’amitz v’ha’vadai v’hanichbad. Now you don’t need to know what all the words mean to know that what this prayer leader is doing is adding on top of the familiar prayer more praise adjectives for God. Strong, and courageous, and certain, and honored, and and and….
Anyway, the leader finishes the Amidah and Rabbi Chanina says to him: “Nu, did you get them all? I mean did you use enough words to describe the Divine, you know, better than Moshe Rabbeinu did? Because we’re using Moshe’s own words when we say Ha’el ha’gadol etc. , and some words that other prophetic figures did, and if it weren’t for these ancestors we couldn’t use any words at all to talk about the Divine. But you, you kept on going, but what did you really do? It’s like if there were a king who was known for having so much gold, and a person praised him for how much silver he had.”
So first of all I love that in shul in the Babylonian Talmud, everyone’s a critic and everyone has an evaluation of services while they’re still happening.
But I think about this teaching anytime we get into discussions like last week’s Kiddush program about theology and the Divine. It was really wonderful and thoughtful, and I appreciated everyone’s honesty in the questions you have and the views you expressed. And it did not go unnoticed by your rabbi that the ways our siddur talks about God really do not land for the vast majority of you who were there – the big metaphors of “King” and “Lord”, the importance of praising the Divine as though this was needed on high somewhere.
I just want to say a few things to open this crack more, because a lot of the ideas that you reject about the Divine and that I do not hold either — we feel like we’re breaking something when we say it out loud. And I am really working ahead about the High Holy Days, to make sure that the metaphors we are using to aid us are indeed helpful and true in the moments we need them, and I am concerned that the liturgy as it is will not help us at all unless we do some pre-thinking about it before the holy days. I’m going to say a few things today, and I have started reaching out to the people in our congregation who have been our spiritual teachers because I think we should hear many voices the coming weeks — different voices about what the Divine means to us, what it means to stand in the presence of the Divine with kavvanah, with purpose. There are people here who teach this better and more clear than I do, and you should have a chance to learn from them on Shabbat and other times. If we just walk into Rosh Hashanah without thinking about them, the words of the machzor (prayerbook) will not have depth and will not open a door for us.
So for me, one of the biggest things is maybe a paradox. I do not think of the Divine as a being in some one place, a personality of some kind whom I can address who is completely separate from myself or from us. And at the same time, I find the experience of imagining myself in the presence of a power I had no say in choosing to be very important. Visualizing that, which I do not literally believe, does something important that I won’t give up.
So to the first part of that: I wonder a bit how all of this got started and created, but not knowing doesn’t really affect my day. I take now as a given; we are here and so is the universe. It is permeated with Divinity, and just as every atom and every charge in the universe is affected somehow by every other, so too every spiritual atom and spiritual electron is linked. The totality of it is the Divine; each part of it is; and also each thing made up of it – me and you, the tent and the concrete, the trees and the engines in our cars. We are all spiritual receivers and transmitters. We have that capacity whether we use it or not, and the invisible Divinity is everywhere just as much as the gravitational force we don’t see or the radio waves that are hitting us and going through us whether we choose to tune to them or not, to produce or amplify or play for someone else. That’s my operating picture. That’s where God is for me. And in a way I can’t tell you very well I think that these Divine sparks – atoms and charges – they carry goodness and wisdom and Torah. Like a circuit that can be completed or broken by us, we can tap this goodness, which is a renewable energy and is never consumed, like the burning bush. I and we didn’t create it, but it doesn’t travel unless we extend or complete the circuit.
So I don’t think God sends floods or plagues, or heals from cancer or doesn’t, or decides on 400 years of slavery in Egypt and then its end. I don’t think God is judging or decreeing. There isn’t someone else out there doing those things. Some of the evil and suffering that happens is the fault of humans, and some just a product of nature. That’s the world as created.
Part 2 is that for me it’s good to focus on a particular cluster or manifestation of that everywhere-Divinity, on a regular basis. The metaphor of malchut, of melech or “king”, is made up for me of power and lawgiving and a selection I had no part it. And I need a reminder that there are things outside of me and that won’t disappear when I can’t hold them up, with my incomplete goodness or my incomplete spiritual focus.
Sometimes I look up at the top of the Aron Kodesh (ark) or I look up toward the Ner Tamid (eternal light) or the open sky, because I want to feel smaller than I usually do, humbler, but still present, and aware that this small person is still at the center of my horizons.
Sometimes I talk intimately to the Divine I imagine gathered up that way, atoms and charges concentrated palpably in front of me, and I like to say exactly the words in the book, and to find myself in them. To connect to the thoughts of the many, many people who put them together and sounded them out initially, and the ones who have said them before for important reasons and occasions. I like to say their words, to run them through me, because just as the Divine was not made by me — I had no say in that but I am made up of Divine stuff — so too these words change and recreate me. They make me able to say certain things and they make me into the person who can make those words more real.
I never experience my words as praise of a God “out there”, watching from afar to see what I am saying. I experience my words helping to connect the circuit, making the universe worthy of these praises, reminding me that my intentions help make the words in the siddur true when they don’t seem true in the daily news. Sometimes I’m consciously reconnecting myself to the grid, completing the circuit running through me. Sometimes I’m just noticing that there is more spiritual energy flowing than I remembered since yesterday. Sometimes it’s just cathartic to ask for things, in a chant out loud, speaking directly to the “king” who graces me with an interview. Sometimes it’s good to hear myself say the hopes and yearnings and thank-you’s out loud that I don’t otherwise say to people (but ought to more). Sometimes it’s helpful to let myself ask for things — for help for me, for a better world for you.
It helps me to approach my praying this way, with this kind of cinematography. It doesn’t bother me that I don’t believe my picture is actually there. At least, I do not anymore experience it as any contradiction. In the Kabbalah, the idea of “king” is split in two. If you look at the diagram of the ten sefirot, the ten phase-states of divine energy flowing toward our spiritual consciousness, the farthest away is called Keter, the crown; and the closest is called Malchut or royalty, sovereignty, and is identified with us, with the people of Israel. I like that the Kabbalists are messing with the king metaphor, to make it both so far away and so close by simultaneously.
That’s where I will leave it today. We are in the period leading toward Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of the two ancient Temples, and then toward Yom Kippur which recalls when we all were united with each other and the Divine name at the Temple in its glory. This is a time of year to experience the breaking of the circuit, the incompleteness of the Divine name, the breaking of ideas that have led us to inner destructions – the Jewish calendar wants us to do that, to see what’s not whole in our theology and to break what needs to be broken. As Rabbi Chanina reminded us in the Talmud, we don’t have to use words about God that don’t do the job, just to look good to others.
If the teachings you think you have heard from Judaism about the Divine cannot hold, let them break. Break them yourself. You will not hurt God; you will not hurt the shul or me, and you will not destroy Judaism or the world. Some of our old names and ideas for God, they are like building materials that are obsolete, or wires frayed from a lot of good use. But we have better stuff with which to understand and imagine and connect to the Divine. Some of it is brand new and some of it has been in spiritual storage for whatever reason. I’m grateful for the many teachers in our community who will help us find it all and take it out and learn how to use it, so we can build sturdy and electric for the new year.
On “The Good Place” Chapter 7 is the classic lying episode, and on the podcast Rebecca Rosenthal and I jump off from the Talmud’s analysis of white lies to talk about truth and relationships, how and when we tell people important truths, and how truth emerges between people not just by telling.
(Also the Klingon death ritual....)
The new episode is published!!! Listen and read the show notes here!
Rabbi Dan Ross and I co-host once again. On “The Good Place”, Eleanor tries both to keep and not keep her promises to Michael — and on the podcast, Dan and I trade stories of dog-watching gone wrong and explore why promising is such a big, Yom-Kippur-level matter in Judaism. (That's Dan below!)