Monthly Archives: September 2013

Bereshit 5774: The Painful State of Responsibility

One afternoon during Sukkot we took a walk on a country road near the farm where we were staying. Chatting away, we barely noticed it–a brown snake winding across the dirt road in front of us. It was a little snake, not particularly frightening looking, so we took a closer look. I saw that it was swelling up in the mid-section and then suddenly it lifted its head, hissing its tongue, opening its jaws to show its fangs, and looking as menacing as a little snake can appear. cottonmouth-snakeWe backed off, and it slithered into the grass by the side of the road.

This well-timed encounter reminded me of the famous snake incident in the garden of Eden (Gen. 3:1-15), where the nahash tempts/dares/convinces Eve to eat the fruit and “become as gods, knowing good and evil.” (translation of Robert Alter; all Hebrew sources are below). There are many word plays and paradoxes woven through this narrative. If Eve’s goal was to become god-like, the result was quite the contrary. Rather than becoming the powerful lords of their environment, the first humans instead become vulnerable to pain (in birth), to hunger (in agriculture), and to fear (of snakes). As Alter comments (p.27), “the vista of thorn and thistle is diametrically opposed to the luscious vegetation of the garden and already intimates the verdict of banishment that will be carried out in verses 23-24.”

Still, the snake doesn’t promise ease and plenty, only knowledge of good and evil. To his credit, the snake seems to have been correct in his prediction. Indeed, a few verses later God confirms this fact, saying, “Now that the human has become like one of us, knowing good and evil, he may reach out and take as well from the tree of life and live forever.” This narrative raises two questions: Is this what it means to be god-like—to know good and evil? And, is gaining such knowledge worth the consequences? Continue reading

Sukkot 5774: Are You Hungry for Leviathan?

Sukkah 5773After the heavy themes of sin and atonement that have occupied us so far in Tishrei, it is a relief to turn our attention to Sukkot, the time of our rejoicing. I love being outside, even when it gets chilly and wet, and the tastes, fragrances, sounds and touch of the four species and the Sukkah itself all contrast nicely with the sensory deprivation of Yom Kippur. We step outdoors and embrace our physicality, rejoicing in the gift of being alive.

While Sukkot commemorates a particular moment of Israelite history—the desert trek—it also expresses universal themes of thanksgiving for the harvest, anxiety about winter rains, and aspiration for an Edenic future of bounty and ease. Anxiety about food is implicit in many of the “Hoshanot,” and made painfully explicit in the sixth one, אדמה מארר (curse not the earth). For most of us, food insecurity is a topic of interest, but not of personal experience. Even while fasting, we know that a bounteous table awaits us soon, and our main challenge is to avoid thinking about what delicacies we will enjoy first. We are most fortunate, but it is important on Sukkot to become attuned to the larger reality.

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Yom Kippur 5774: The Sage of Sacred Secrets (Yizkor)

Moshe Rabbeinu, alav hashalom—Our master Moses, peace be upon him, played many pivotal roles during 40 years of leadership. He was Israel’s liberator, lawgiver, prophet, judge, general and ombudsman. He was his people’s harshest critic and their staunchest defender. He spoke directly to God, and yet was humble. Moses was our greatest prophet of all time. Oh, and he was also a spy.

What was that? Don’t remember that story? It isn’t actually found in the Torah, but the Rabbis tell many tales of the time when Moses went up to heaven to receive the Torah. Rabbi Natan (Bavli Yoma 4b) says that Moses had to fast for 7 days in order to empty himself of all food and drink and become like an angel, למרק אכילה ושתיה שבמעיו, לשומו כמלאכי השרת. Still, the angels objected to his presence in their heavenly heights and … they were right to worry. Midrash Devarim Rabba tells us what happened next:

Walking around the heavens, accepting God’s gift of Torah, Moses hears a curious sound. What is that prayer the angels are singing? Moses listens closely. It sounds like this—barukh shem kvod malkhuto l’olam va’ed—praised be the name of his glorious kingdom forever and ever!

This mysterious line is the signature prayer of the angels, a jealously guarded secret code, but Moses likes the sound of it, so he takes it home as a souvenir. The midrash says that he stole it from the angels and taught it to Israel, גנב אותו מן המלאכים ולימדה לישראל.[1]

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Yom Kippur 5774: Taking What isn’t Ours

It’s not literally a skeleton in my closet, but I was still upset to find it hanging there. A few months ago I was taking out a jacket and noticed that a wood hanger had the name of a Jerusalem hotel on it. Honestly, I never meant to take a souvenir hanger. Probably I left a similar one of my own behind in its place, but there it is, a hot hanger in my closet. When I visit Jerusalem later this year, I plan to bring it back.

Do you, perhaps, have any “souvenirs” from hotels or other places that you have visited around the world? There is a line between ephemeral items like a bar of soap or ballpoint pen that your hosts may have expected or even encouraged you to take, and larger things like bathrobes that are expensive and meant to stay put. Many hotels now offer such items for sale, not so subtly informing their guests that robes and other durable goods are not being offered as freebies.

Jewish ethics set a high bar for even “borrowing” the property of others without permission. In the Babylonian Talmud (Bava Metzia 43b), the Rabbis debate whether such borrowing is a serious crime or a misdemeanor, but the medieval codes call it simple theft. I remember one teacher giving a mussar (ethics) talk in which he accused all of us yeshivah students of being thieves. He’d noticed people picking up pencils to make notes without asking first to whom they belonged. “You’re all thieves,” he thundered. Are we all thieves? Continue reading

Rosh HaShanah 5774 Mountains of the Spirit

Rabbi Danny Nevins

1 Tishrei 5774 / 5 September 2013

Early one morning my friend and I broke camp, hoisted our packs, and hit the trail. Soft light filtered through forests of spruce and birch, and drops of dew glistened like gems on every leaf. Approaching the trailhead, we came to the register—a big ledger inside a wooden box where hikers record their names, addresses, and destinations. I added my particulars to the ledger, listing Algonquin Mountain as our destination, and then we began the long climb to the top.

Mountain climbing is one of my favorite activities. No, I haven’t scaled the Alps, the Andes or the Himalaya. I don’t climb with an ice ax or a canister of oxygen—nothing of the sort. Just a daypack filled with the essentials: rain shell, moleskin, map; camera, water, PB&J, and always, a chocolate bar for the top. My climbs are usually in the Adirondacks of upstate NY—these are ancient hills, far older than the upstart Rockies, and they offer a quiet invitation to enter and explore their terrain, and my own state of being. I like to test myself on steep inclines of rock, plodding upwards for hour after hour, in the sun and in the rain, through discomfort and fatigue, until finally the trees clear aside, we step out onto the summit, and gasp in wonder as the world opens up all around, for miles and miles.

Some people worship mountains. In fact, a Mishnah from Tractate Hullin (2:8) says that if you slaughter an animal in honor of mountains, hills, seas, rivers or the wilderness, it is not kosher.השוחט לשם הרים לשם גבעות לשם ימים לשם נהרות לשם מדברות שחיטתו פסולה. Ancient people often worshipped nature, and even today, many cross the line between awe and idolatry, seeing nature as itself an object of worship rather than as a blessing from the Creator.

I don’t worship the mountains, but I am grateful for the challenges and rewards that they offer.  Summits are glamorous, but most of the time hiking is spent on the trail, carefully picking one’s way over rocks and fallen trees, squishing through mud, slipping on pebbles, and periodically leaping like a goat from boulder to boulder.

As I walk, I look up at the tree trunks, searching for the little metal markers that tell me that I’m on the right path. Sometimes these blazes of color come clustered close together, nudging me like an overprotective parent—walk here, not there! But other times as I walk along the path, I look for markers and simply don’t see them. My mind begins to play funny tricks. Did I miss a fork in the trail? Am I wandering on some random herd path, straying father from my destination? Should I turn back, or keep plodding on? Such moments of indecision can torment me, especially if the weather is foul, or daylight is running out, or if I fear that I’m ill-equipped for an extended stay on the trail. When the next marker finally appears, it can feel like an old friend grabbing my hand, encouraging me, “don’t worry, just keep on walking, you’ll get there eventually.”

It’s good to know when you’re on the right path. But life doesn’t always provide us with such clear markers. We often stumble and worry about the trajectories of our lives: Our health; our relationships; our careers; our soul. There are so many steps, and so many decisions to be made, that we inevitably experience doubt—did I do the right thing? Was I too hasty? Did I miss something? Can I still turn back? Am I good enough? How can I be sure? When will I get there?  Continue reading