Rosh HaShanah 5779: Recovering from Moral Injury

Out damn spot! Out I say! Who said that line? [Reply] Correct, this is perhaps the most famous line in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, and it belongs to his wife, Lady Macbeth. Macbeth was the murderer, but it was she who goaded her husband on to the heinous act of killing their houseguest King Duncan. It was she who took the bloody daggers from her husband and placed them on the sleeping guards to frame them. She literally had blood on her hands, and now she can’t forget.

Initially the Macbeths seem to have succeeded in covering their crime, becoming king and queen, but did they really escape punishment? Macbeth is tormented by apparitions of Duncan and Banquo, his former friend whom he had killed. Lady Macbeth falls to pieces. By Act V she starts sleep-walking, talking in her sleep, rubbing her hands, seeking to cleanse them of their blood guilt. But her heart is tainted and so too, in her eyes, are her hands.

The idea of clean hands being associated with a pure heart goes back further than Macbeth. Psalm 24, which is associated with Rosh HaShanah, asks:

(ג) מִֽי־יַעֲלֶ֥ה בְהַר־יְקֹוָ֑ק וּמִי־יָ֝קוּם בִּמְק֥וֹם קָדְשֽׁוֹ: (ד) נְקִ֥י כַפַּ֗יִם וּֽבַר־לֵ֫בָ֥ב אֲשֶׁ֤ר׀ לֹא־נָשָׂ֣א לַשָּׁ֣וְא נַפְשִׁ֑י וְלֹ֖א נִשְׁבַּ֣ע לְמִרְמָֽה: (ה) יִשָּׂ֣א בְ֭רָכָה מֵאֵ֣ת יְקֹוָ֑ק וּ֝צְדָקָ֗ה מֵאֱלֹהֵ֥י יִשְׁעֽוֹ:

Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in God’s holy place? One who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not taken a false oath by My life, or sworn deceitfully. That person shall carry away a blessing from the Lord, a just reward from God, the deliverer.

Is it only the perfect saint who can stand on the mountain of the Lord, the one who has never sinned? What about teshuvah? Is some guilt just stained too deeply to be removed?

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Nitzavim 5778: Remember the Children!

The cries of children, and the sobbing of parents, ring in our ears each Rosh Hashanah. The Torah and haftarah readings emphasize the perils faced by sons Ishmael and Isaac, and the terrors experienced by mothers Hagar, Sarah, Hannah, and Rachel. To witness a child in danger evokes a nearly universal response to rush to the rescue. Implicit in this collection of texts is the plea that God look upon us—the Jewish people—as vulnerable children, that divine mercies might be stirred, and forgiveness extended to us all. Just as the mothers of Israel were stirred with mercy, we ask that God be moved to show us love.

This shift from human to divine mercy is made explicit in the special prayers written for Rosh Hashanah, especially in the Zikhronot section of the Musaf service. In each of the ten verses, there is an association between human vulnerability and divine mercy. It begins with reference to the frightened people (and animals) on Noah’s ark, continues to the terrorized slaves in Egypt, and extends to the Israelite refugees on their trek through Sinai. In each case, God remembers that the people—pictured as children—are in danger and responds with mercy and rescue.

The most touching of all of these passages is the final one, from Jeremiah 31:20. “Is not Ephraim My dear son, My precious child, whom I remember fondly even when I speak against him? So, My heart reaches out to him, and I always feel compassion for him, declares Adonai.” This text, which is also the finale of the haftarah for the second day, has inspired generations of cantors and popular singers. It speaks to the complex emotions of a parent faced with a wayward child. Jeremiah is channeling God, imagining that God feels fondness for Israel even when Israel has acted provocatively, like a parent does for a child. Midrash Vayikra Rabbah observes that whenever God claims someone as “Mine,” it is forever—in this world and in the world to come (Parashat Vayikra 2:2). Continue reading

Ki Tavo 5778: An Understanding Heart

Moses presents the people of Israel with a paradox toward the end of the parashah. In 29:1-3, he first states that they have “seen with their own eyes” all the miracles wrought by God on their behalf from the Exodus until this point. But then he states that God did not give them, “a heart to discern, eyes to see, or ears to hear until this day.” These words seem to contradict each other—either the people did witness the wonders, or they didn’t. Moreover, it appears to be entirely up to God what people understand, which undermines the concept of merit and responsibility.

A similar phrase used by Jeremiah (24:7) offers the beginning of an answer: I shall give them a heart to discern Me…when they return to me with all of their heart. This too is a paradox. God will give the people the “heart” to understand only when they return to God “with all their heart.” It seems that the Bible wants it both ways. The solution to the puzzle is found at the end of the verse in Jeremiah. Knowledge comes from God, but people must want to receive that knowledge for it to become accessible. Thus people may experience something wonderful and yet not acknowledge and integrate that experience into knowledge. It takes a willing heart to appreciate the wonders of life.

This reading is buttressed by a Rabbinic line of interpretation beginning with Devarim Rabba. There Rabbi Yitzhak claims that forty years back at Sinai when Israel expressed its enthusiasm for the Torah with, “We will heed and hear,” God announced—“May their hearts always be so,” but the Israelites were silent. It felt good in the moment, but were they ready to make a commitment? Their sense of closeness to God was fleeting, and so their knowledge quickly evaporated. Only now, at the end of the desert trek, has their heart become receptive to appreciate what their eyes have witnessed. But what has changed? Continue reading

Re’eh 5778: Children of God

In my more rational moments, I have trouble believing in a personal God and am put off by anthropomorphic imagery. I get it—infinity is impossible to imagine, and so we compare God to more familiar relationships—to a person, to a parent, to a partner. Maimonides broke the naïve experience of the mighty hand of God, forcing us to read such images metaphorically, to accept the core concept that God is not embodied, for bodies are limited in time and space. For God to be God, there must be no limits.

I believe all of that and yet it leaves me cold, for I live in a body. I experience physical pleasure and pain, and I find the deepest meaning in relationships with other people. And so when I read Deuteronomy 14:1, “You are children to the Lord your God,” it is refreshing to hear the Torah speak intimately and lovingly about our relationship to God. The first half of this verse is beautiful, but its continuation is truly powerful. God asks us—God’s children—not to gash our skin, not to rip out our hair—not even for our dead. The cultural context is missing but not hard to imagine—people sometimes express grief by self-mutilation. The Torah says that God is like a parent—witnessing the suffering of a child and intervening to prevent the child from harming themselves.

In Midrash Sifre Devarim Rabbi Yehudah suggests that God’s love is contingent. “If you behave like [good] children, then you are [God’s] children; if not, then not.” But Rabbi Meir disagrees—you are always God’s children. This is the power of Deut. 14:1—a promise of love, without limit. The rabbis understand the original meaning of “do not make gashes”—on your own skin, but they apply it to the collective body of Israel. Do not divide yourselves into warring factions. Find a way to love God, to love yourselves, and also to love each other. Continue reading

Shabbat Pinhas 5778: Whose land is it?

Back in 1976, John McPhee wrote a beautiful book about Alaska called Coming into the Country. In it he profiled the peoples—native and immigrant, rural and urban—and the varied environments of American’s largest state (more than double Texas, the next in line). About land ownership he wrote (83), “The federal government, long ago, used to watch over Alaska with one eye, and with so little interest that the lid was generally closed. In all of that territorial land, so wild and remote, emigrants from the United States easily established their frontier code: breathe free, do as you please, control your own destiny. If you had much more in mind than skinning hares, though, it was difficult to control much of a destiny—to plan for example, any kind of development on a major scale, since the federal government owned more than 99% of the land.”

That period ended in 1959 with statehood, and Alaska has long been the theater for great controversies about land ownership and management. We are familiar with the conflict between conservation and development, but it is hardly that simple. There are conflicting claims between the state and federal governments, between different federal agencies, and of native peoples, which were formally recognized under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement. Conservationists may be allied with native peoples in revering the land, but in conflict with their desire to continue subsistence hunting and other ancient forms of land use.

Who owns the land? It is complicated, and always has been. Parashat Pinhas contains within it some of the conflicting agendas that often face people hoping to accommodate different claims. In a five-verse passage (52-56) Chapter 26 explains that the land should be divided according to population—the bigger the tribe, the bigger its claim—and yet also by random lottery, regardless of tribal size. This internal contradiction tied the rabbis in knots, and that was just the beginning. What was the basis for population-claims—the number that departed Egypt, or the number that would eventually reach the land? What about the few who fit both groups, or neither? There is a long discussion in Bavli Bava Batra dedicated to exploring, inventing and resolving such conflicts. Rashi (in his Torah commentary) summarizes the Talmudic discussion with a cut through the Gordian knot, claiming that the lottery was directed by the Holy Spirit, with consideration not only for quantity but also quality of the land, magically meeting the true needs of the people. Ramban doesn’t buy it. In an extremely long comment he argues that was a distinction between tribal claims, which were all treated equally, and the claims of families within the tribes, which were allotted according to their original size. Not magical lottery cards, but good governance, was used to resolve the conflicting claims. Continue reading

Behar-Behukotai 5778: Theology as Meteorology

Imagine if your weather app displayed not images of sun and clouds, but icons of good and evil, like this:  ☹. Each city might have a virtue index—with the weather forecast tracking not the jet stream but morality, indicated by a friendly or fierce face. City X has been charitable, so they can expect light rains followed by sunny skies, but City Y has seen an uptick in violent crime, so it is in for a drought or hurricane. Such a system sounds absurd, and yet it is basically what the Torah presents as a theology of weather.

Our second portion, Behukkotai, opens with the prediction that if we follow God’s laws, then God will “grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit” (Lev. 26:4). If we do not obey God and do not observe God’s commandments, then “I will make your skies like iron and your earth like copper, so that your strength shall be spent to no purpose. Your land shall not yield its produce, nor shall the trees of the land yield their fruit” (Lev. 26:19–20).

Rabbinic literature has preserved numerous legends that correlate rainfall to virtue, none of them more famous or entertaining than the legends of Honi the circle drawer (Mishnah Ta’anit 3:8; JT Ta’anit 66d; BT Ta’anit 22b-23; Megillat Ta’anit Scholion, etc.). During a severe drought, the people ask him to pray for rain, and he does, initially without results. Then, when he persists, God delivers a measly drizzle; he persists further, and a deluge follows. Finally, Honi stands in a circle and demands that God send rains for a blessing. It works, but he is chastised by a rabbinic colleague for his insolence. Never mind, Honi is a favorite of God, and of Jewish children everywhere.

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Karma and Kehunah: Aḥarei Mot-Kedoshim 5778

They’re a strange combination, Aḥarei Mot and Kedoshim. The former parashah focuses on an inaccessible ritual—possible only for a certain person, at a specific time, in a sacred place, from which we have been exiled for millennia. The Torah states, “no person may be in the tent of meeting when he [the priest] enters.” In Midrash Vayikra Rabba, Rabbi Abahu makes a radical claim that the high priest himself ceased being a person at the moment when the holy spirit rested on him, and his face lit up like a torch. The world of Aḥarei Mot is that of the most elite form of religious practice. In contrast, Kedoshim contends that any Israelite, at any time, in any place, may become like a priest in the tabernacle. An ordinary farmer may sanctify life, just like the most elite priest in the Temple. Through a program of ritual and ethics, Parashat Kedoshim establishes holiness as an accessible goal in the family, on the farm and among the people in town.

It is tempting to say that the second portion supersedes the first, making the arcane rituals of the tabernacle/temple obsolete, but it’s more complicated than that. The cultic system of Aḥarei Mot gives purpose and power to the DIY vibe of Kedoshim. The dangerous power of the Temple alerts us that there is also dangerous power in our religious service. Handled properly, our practice may invite blessing and peace. Handled poorly, it can provoke conflict, crisis and destruction.

The consequences of our conduct affect not only our own spiritual development, but also the lives of those around us. What about the lives of those still to come? Can holy or hateful behavior have consequences felt generations or even centuries later, like water seeping slowly down through layers of limestone? Is there a Jewish concept of karma? The term may be Sanskrit, but the idea is attested often within our own tradition. Continue reading