Author Archives: Rabbi Danny Nevins

Dissonant Beauty by the Sea: BiShalah 5779

jaffaIt’s awesome to discover something precious where you don’t expect it to be. I had that feeling this week when I found a theory of music and a celebration of diversity in the introduction to a 19th century halakhic code. More on that below. On this Shabbat Shirah I’d like to know how the song of the sea actually sounded. Was it one voice united, an antiphonal call and response, some sort of harmony or even dissonance?

The Song literally begins, “Then Moses and the children of Israel would sing this song, and they said, saying” (Ex 15:1). It’s a curious verse, starting with the yud of yashir, which makes this historic moment seem incomplete and ungrammatical. Rashi’s theory is that this yud indicates not tense but an internal process that precedes action—the song that wells up from the heart before finding voice in the throat. He gives several other examples where an apparent future tense appears when the past tense belongs, with no “vov-conversive” in sight, and claims that the yud is playing a distinct role. It is drawing our attention to thought that precedes action. For Rashi, this grammatical insight is the true meaning (peshat), and is preferable to the wilder midrashic reading that this verse “proves” the doctrine of resurrection (purportedly the future tense indicates that Old Man Moses still has a song left to sing, even today).

I am moved by Rashi’s theory of grammar and psychology. We often think of music as an external experience—sound waves made by voices and instruments reaching the ears of the assembled. Yes, it is that, but first it is a thought, a feeling, an emotion. Thanks to Rashi we appreciate the silence that precedes the song. It begins inside with wonder, relief, and joy. And then these emotions burst out into audible song. Still, what did the song sound like? Continue reading


Becoming Conscious: Shabbat Bo 5779

How do you explain consciousness? The inner sense that each of has of being alive, of making decisions, of directing our bodies, of remembering, of feeling, of knowing—where does all of this come from? Why does it ebb at times of sleep, and return when we awaken? It is horrifying to imagine being alive and yet permanently unconscious. Self-awareness is definitive of human experience, but what is it, where does it come from, and what does it mean? These are ancient questions, and are central to Jewish thought (see below). Yet until recently they were outside the realm of scientific inquiry since consciousness seems subjective and impervious to measurement. Neuroscientists, philosophers and psychologists have lately focused their attention on the nature of consciousness. We know quite a bit about how brains work, we can explain how inputs and outputs relate, we can even point to regions of the brain that are associated with different conscious states (such as fear and anger with the amygdala). But what about consciousness itself—what is it?

Philosopher David Chalmers discusses this subject in a TED talk, noting that consciousness may be our defining human quality, and yet we do not have appropriate ways to define it. He proposes some “crazy ideas,” such as that consciousness is a fundamental feature of existence, just like mass or energy. More controversially, he relates the idea of Giulio Tononi that consciousness may be a universal feature of all existence, including inanimate particles such as photons. The more complex the intellect, the more it can integrate information, the greater the consciousness. Tononi uses the letter Phi to symbolize this measure of consciousness. The radical concept is that while humans might have high levels of Phi, there is no aspect of the universe that is devoid of consciousness. Even inanimate objects may integrate information and thus be identified as conscious.

I can’t vouch for the neuroscience, but the idea that consciousness suffuses all existence is familiar to religion, certainly to Judaism. In Tikkunei HaZohar we encounter the memorable expression, leit atar panui minei, “no place is empty of [God].” A mystical reading of “Ashrei” [Psalm 145] from Maharam Shik understands the unbound grandeur of God (ולגדולתו אין חקר) as a reference to consciousness (ידיעה)—it suffuses the universe. God’s greatest gift is the sharing of consciousness. Think of experiences of understanding—moments when an idea took hold in our mind or where you helped another person, young or old, to grasp a concept—that is a moment of joy. At such moments we feel more alive, which is to say, more conscious, since our minds have connected to other minds, and perhaps to the universal mind that we identify with God. Continue reading

The Peekaboo Menorah–Hanukkah 5779

Happy Llamakka

My favorite student sweater this week said “Happy Llamakka,” and of course featured a picture of a Jewish llama. I don’t recall any llamas in the Talmud’s discussion of the festival of lights, but there is a camel that lights the city on fire.

Here’s the scene: a camel laden high with straw is led through the narrow streets of a city. Some of the straw pokes into a window, where there’s a lamp, the straw catches fire, and the camel carries it down the street, torching everything in its path. This is the Jewish answer to Godzilla—or perhaps to Joe Camel, the infamous cartoon character used to entice kids to start smoking. Who is responsible for the damage done by this dangerous camel? Continue reading

Torn with grief; Turning back to life: VaYeshev 5779

The most primal ritual of grief in our tradition is the rending of garments. The word “rending” is too pretty for the violent tearing of fabric with its distinctive sound and sensation. And the timid substitution of ripping a centimeter of black ribbon is far from the original concept. If you want to know what is intended by kriah, the tearing of one’s garments, just look at Genesis 37: 29-35.

When Reuben realizes that Joseph is gone, he tears his garments and says something incoherent to his brothers, literally, “the child is not, and I, where am I going”? A few verses later it is Jacob who receives the terrible news about his beloved son and immediately tears his garments, putting on a sack, and mourning Joseph “for many days.” In truth, he will never stop.

After the calamity and their dramatic responses of tearing clothes, Reuben and Jacob are never again quite the same. Reuben has lost his leadership, and the one time he tries to advise his father (42:37), his idea is foolish and is ignored by his father. Jacob will be bitter until the end.

The tearing of garments is not only  a symbol of grief. It indicates something much deeper, like a wound, a gaping hole in the soul. Indeed, when the Talmud seeks to define mental illness, using the category of shoteh, the sages offer three symptoms—a person who wanders alone at night, who sleeps in a cemetery, and who tears their garments. When a mourner tears garments in response to the death of a relative, it is as if to say, “I am crazy with grief, don’t try to talk with me, because I am not me without them.” Halakhah stipulates that a mourner must tear a least a hand-breadth of cloth in their garment—front and center, starting from the throat and down to the heart—as a way of acting out their grief. Continue reading

We have so much: VaYishlah 5779

How much do you have? That question is never purely objective nor purely subjective. Whether discussing physical assets like money and possessions or social assets such as honor and power, our sense of wealth depends both on personal need and comparison to the possessions of others. Do we answer the question in reference to our immediate wants, or according to our relative position within the circles of family and friends? This question arises as Americans gather each year for the festival of Thanksgiving. If we have a place to gather, people with whom to share, and ample food to eat, then we know we own a great deal—much more than many people. We don’t need to look overseas, but to parts of this very country which have been devastated by hurricanes and fires in recent weeks, to know that we are extremely fortunate to have anything at all. Yet we cannot but help thinking of others who possess even more, and this makes it difficult to feel true thanksgiving. The comparative instinct is ignoble—we shouldn’t regard the penury of some as occasion to exalt ourselves, or at the stupendous wealth of others as reducing the value of our own good fortune.

And yet we do, and so it has always been. Take for example the estranged brothers, Esau and Jacob, marching toward each other for a long delayed reunion. Wealth is apparently the first metric for their presentation of self. Jacob, true to form, is clever and complex. In verse 32:6 he instructs his representative to tell Esau, “I have ox and donkey.” In Hebrew the singular of these nouns can be read as plural—indicative of great quantities that defy easy counting. Or, it could mean literally, “I have an ox and a donkey.” The Midrash chooses the second reading and takes Jacob’s modesty as proof of his righteousness. Of course, this modesty is belied by his subsequent staggering tribute sent to Esau. Jacob’s idea is to lower Esau’s expectations only to wow him by the end. Continue reading

What’s fear got to do with it? VaYetze 5779

Could it be that Rabbi Nachman got it wrong when he said, the world is a narrow bridge, and the key is not to be afraid at all? How many times have we sung these words, rocking to and fro, slow and then fast, soft and then loud, calling out encouragement never to be afraid? It feels so right and true, yet did you ever stop to wonder why the “ikar” or most important thing is not to be afraid? After all, “fear of heaven” (or as we prefer to translate, “reverence”) is a cornerstone of Jewish spirituality, a sobering realization of one’s limitations before the Eternal one, a necessary posture of humility before love can flower in the heart.

Fear can be a crippling emotion, yet it plays a positive role at several key points in our portion. When Jacob awakens from his dream, “he was afraid and said,” but in this case, perhaps the better translation really is “he was awed.” At the end of the Torah portion Jacob twice uses a synonym, pahad, which certainly means fear, to describe his father Isaac’s relationship to God. In Chapter 31:42 Jacob says to Laban, “Had not the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac been with me….” A few verses later Jacob makes an oath, swearing “by the Fear of his father Isaac.” This word for fear, pahad, is the same one Rabbi Nahman tells us not to feel. Yet it worked for Isaac—how so? Continue reading

Peace on Earth? Toledot 5779

The story line of the patriarchs and matriarchs of Israel has moved on to the second, and soon to the third generations, but our portion begins with a curious backwards facing reference that seems entirely redundant: “These are the generations of Isaac son of Abraham; Abraham fathered Isaac.” Interpreters have long puzzled over this seemingly pointless verse. We know! Already two weeks ago we got the good news. Even on the verse’s internal level, it is almost ridiculously obvious, like asking who is buried in Grant’s tomb. Isaac is the son of Abraham; Abraham fathered Isaac. Got it—can we move on? Apparently, not yet.

The rabbis discern a hint of anxiety in the Torah’s belaboring of the point. Why emphasize that Abraham was the father of Isaac? Ah yes, there is the matter of this aged and previously infertile couple suddenly having a son. Really? And then there is the suspicious fact pattern of Sarah having spent time with two other men, Pharaoh and Avimelekh. We understand why they want Isaac to be their son, but we also get why that claim might have been viewed with suspicion.

The rabbis felt that such suspicion was reasonable, and further imagined it eating away at Abraham himself, causing him to wonder if he really was the father. In Bavli Bava Metzia 87a, they imagine Isaac’s weaning party, and a thoroughly skeptical gathering of the neighbors—don’t tell me that Sarah was suddenly fertile, they laughed.  And so, a miracle—Sarah took every baby in town and nursed it. OK, so maybe Sarah is still fertile, but look at old Abe! Yes, the rabbis agree, look at Old Abe very closely. The emphatic verse must mean something, and so another miracle: Isaac suddenly became the spitting image of his father. Like father like son—everyone could see the resemblance, and thus were the skeptics shut down. Continue reading