Category Archives: Divrei Torah

Menorah Meditations: Hanukkah 5781

Aryeh Kaplan’s classic book, Jewish Meditation presents many techniques for focusing one’s attention in order to perceive dimensions of reality that are otherwise hidden. I love his discussion of the letters shin and mem. The sound we make with sin/shin is a hissing noise, a chaotic cacophony. In contrast, the mem, Kaplan writes, “is pure harmonic sound, the epitome of order and regularity.” He continues, “the shin denotes a hot, chaotic state of consciousness (fire=aish), while the mem denotes a cool, harmonic state (water=mayim).” The idea is to move from a normal unfocused state of consciousness, of shin, to a focused stated of mem, which is associated with prophecy (as in the story of Elijah and the kol demmama of prophecy). The two letters combine to form the words sheim (name) and sham (there) which are associated with the “transition from the chaos of the general to the harmony of the particular.” (130) I might add that the splintered shape of the shin (ש) and the round shape of the final mem (ם) further indicate their respective associations with chaos and harmony.

You can practice meditating on these letters with a simple exercise. Sit comfortably and close your eyes. Exhale with the sound of shin, inhale, and then exhale with mem. You can visualize these letters if you like. You may also add the ayin to complete the word shema. As Kaplan notes, ayin is valued in numerology as 70, a number associated with the creation. Saying the shema in a meditative state, we can share in the creative transition from chaos to cosmos.

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Earthy Expertise: Vayishlah 5781

Here is a verse on which I have never commented before: “These were the descendants of Seir the Horite who were settled in the land: Lotan, and Shoval, Tzivon Anah. Dishon, Ezer, and Dishan”(Gen.36:20f). I know! How have I allowed such a scintillating text to escape examination? Perhaps I have been distracted by Jacob’s midnight wrestling match with the angel and other dramas found in Vayishlah, but this snippet of Edomite genealogy is also Torah, and it has something to teach us, at least with help from Hazal.

In Bavli Shabbat 85a Rabbi Yohanan is reported to have explained a better known verse from Deuteronomy by reference to this one. There we are commanded, “You shall not move your countryman’s landmarks, set up by previous generations….” (Deut. 19:14). The straight reading is that later generations should respect the property lines left by their ancestors. Likewise, our verse in Genesis probably means that these Edomite clans inhabited the land prior to the time of narration, as Rashi explains.

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Thanksgiving in the Face of Sorrow: Vayetze 5781

On the face of it, Leah has been dealt a dreadful hand. Her marriage to Jacob was born of subterfuge, and the Torah relates that “God saw that Leah was hated, and opened her womb, but Rachel was barren.” Leah’s fertility failed to win her husband’s affections as testified by her statements in naming their first three sons, Reuben, Shimon and Levi. Each name is plaintive, speaking to her sorrow and desperate hope for improvement in her marriage. Jacob’s absence from the naming of his first three sons is notable; does he even notice these boys? Finally, with her fourth son, Leah shifts focus from her indifferent husband to her munificent God, saying, “this time I thank the Lord,” yielding the name Judah, the child of thanksgiving.

Our sages puzzle over the shift in Leah’s perspective and the precise meaning of her words. In the Talmud (B. Brakhot 7b) Rabbi Shimon b. Yochai notes that Leah is the first biblical character to use this language of thanksgiving, but what does it mean? Midrash Bereshit Rabbah looks to arithmetic—Jacob had 12 sons from four wives, so it should have been three apiece, but Leah has borne four (so far). Her gratitude is the product of excess—the prophetic knowledge that she has been granted more than her fair share. This sense of plenty, her relative fortune despite her unhappy marriage, leads Leah to invent the language of thanksgiving. This reading is affirmed by Rashi in his Torah commentary, though in its one-ups-woman-ship it is not entirely honorable.

Midrash Tanhuma gives Leah even more prophetic insight—for each child she anticipates future failures among their descendants. For Judah, she foresees his own failure. Yet Leah also anticipates Judah’s remarkable willingness to admit error in the matter of Tamar (and I would add, in the matter of Joseph in Vayyigash). The name Judah hints at another meaning—modeh—confession, and it is this humility of her son that causes Leah to thank God. Indeed, the Midrash adds that it is due to Judah’s willingness to admit error that the entire Jewish people is named for him, and that King David and the messiah will descend from his line. We Jews are intended to be the people who acknowledge—error, dependence, and gratitude.

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Making Love in the Field: Hayei Sarah 5781

Isaac went out to meditate in the field toward evening. He raised his eyes and saw camels approaching (Gen. 24:63). This scene, this moment before Isaac and Rebecca first meet, is dramatic and full of mystery. The two protagonists have come physically close, but remain each in their own world, and that never really changes. True, they will soon occupy a tent together, and Isaac will love his wife,  but just now Rebecca is alone on her camel, and Isaac too is alone in his field. Each seems psychologically wounded. We don’t know much of Rebecca’s background—her parents are ciphers, but her brother Laban is a piece of work. He takes advantage of her, and will do worse to her son. She wastes no time leaving home, as her one word answer אלך, “I’ll go” makes clear. As for Isaac—mourning his mother’s death, and not so close to Abraham since Mt Moriah, he is alone in the dark.

To meditate. What was he thinking? Could the ambiguous verb לשוח relate to the shoots or shrubs growing in the soil? If so, then he was taking advantage of the cool time of day to inspect his crops, a symbol of renewed vitality. Or does the verb truly mean to meditate, as the rabbis insisted in B. Brakhot 26b when they said he was praying Minhah? Meditate? That’s an after the fact translation. The verb means to speak, but with whom? Is Isaac speaking with God? If so, then what is he saying?

In the field. A promising place to meet one’s partner, a place of fertility. It is also a place of concentration, as I often experience when outdoors in a quiet space. In mystical thought, “the field” refers to Shekhinah, the divine presence, and this time of day, Minhah, is when “judgment is dangling toward dusk,” as the Zohar states. Isaac himself is a symbol of divine judgment or gevurah, and so this evening scene is tense and potentially dangerous. The field is a place of encounter—but will it be a struggle, an embrace, or both? The same ambiguity will recur during Jacob and Esau’s reunion in the field. Is Isaac preparing for battle, or is he battling against judgment itself, seeking an opening for compassion? Hasidic writers imagine Isaac engaged in an exalted campaign—to “sweeten judgment,” not only for himself but for the world.

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Dreaming of the Future: Vayera 5781

Once again the pollsters blew it. As in 2016, so in 2020, predictions about election results have born little resemblance to the outcome. Why are we surprised? It is hard enough to describe events that have already happened with accuracy and perspective. The future? Who are we kidding? No doubt, explanations will be found for the significant gap between expectation and reality, but pollsters are no prophets.

Were even the prophets prophets? Did they hear the divine voice, see divine sights, and discern divine secrets? Or was their experience more like a dream or hallucination—vague patterns of uncertain significance? This question pits the two titans of medieval Jewish thought, Rambam and Ramban, against each other. Rambam stakes out a skeptical position in his Guide of the Perplexed, Section II: 42. Because for Rambam there is no material aspect to the divine realm, it is simply impossible for a prophet or any person to see or hear God or angels using sensory perception. Even Moses “heard” God speak through a process of intellection, not auditory perception. Rambam writes, “It should by no means occur to your thought that an angel can be seen or that the speech of an angel can be heard except in a vision of prophecy or in a dream of prophecy, according to what is stated as a principle: I do make Myself known unto him in a vision, I do speak with him in a dream.”

That “principle” comes from the story in Numbers when God rebukes Aaron and Miriam for criticizing their brother, and indicates that prophets such as them are limited to dream like revelations. But Rambam leaves out the next verse, “Not so my servant Moses…” Moses sees the image of God, speaking face to face as if to another person. For Rambam this claim is unacceptable. That which is reported of the prophet’s experience is truly a reflection of their internal vision—a dream or an apparition, not an encounter in time and space.

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An Activist Covenant: Lekh Lekha 5781

Destiny is a seductive concept. The idea that our personal and even national history is somehow predetermined can be comforting, especially when hazards abound and the best path forward is hard to discern. Historian Niall Ferguson surveys the tenacity of deterministic thinking among religious and secular thinkers through the ages in his book Virtual History. Marxists have often matched religious fundamentalists in their conviction that history is governed by inexorable forces and their sense that personal agency is an illusion.

Ferguson responds to this fatalistic tendency with chapter after chapter of counterfactual accounts—moments when a different decision by an individual or group could easily have changed the course of history. What if the American revolutionaries, many of whom were loyal to the Crown just months earlier—had found a way to settle their differences without violence in 1776? Would American slavery have ended earlier and without civil war in the 19th century? Would the British Empire have survived the 20th? Ferguson’s point is not to promote a parlor game of what if, but rather to provoke readers into taking responsibility for major decisions in their own lives, and in their society.

Given the enormous uncertainty about how next week’s election will play out and the staggering ramifications of various outcomes, it remains tempting to throw one’s hands up and say, “what will be will be.” Of course—spoiler alert—that will not be my take away, but don’t we believe that “all is in the hands of heaven”?

Parashat Lekh Lekha presents a zigzag account of divine providence and human agency. God seems to be in control, commanding Abram to set out for “a land that I will show you.” But hadn’t Abram actually begun the trip of his own initiative last week? In chapter 14 Abram responds to Lot’s capture by taking charge and rushing to battle without so much as a prayer. Thanksgiving can wait until the work is done. If God is really in control, then the strings seem quite loose.

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Miracle of Miracles: Noah 5781

What to make of miracles? They are among the most dramatic and beloved features of biblical narratives, but are distant from what most believe about reality. Wait, are they? Many modern people operate on a split screen, their rational analyses coexisting with magical thinking about fate, luck and miracles. Neuroscience has alerted us to the presence of parallel response systems in the brain. The prefrontal cortex engages in rational analysis, while the limbic system governs emotional life. So there may be an organic basis for inconsistent interpretations of reality. Is there a way to integrate our thought processes, to reconcile irrational belief in miracles with data driven analysis? If so, can this help us relate to Parashat Noah as more than myth?

Consider the approach of Nahmanides (Ramban, Gerona, 1194-1270) the great scholar of halakhah and kabbalah who served also as physician and communal leader. It is difficult to extract a systematic theology from Ramban because he intentionally veils his esoteric ideas and scatters elements of them across many different works. Fortunately we have assistance from modern scholars, most recently Moshe Halbertal with his masterful book, Nahmanides: Law and Mysticism (Yale UP).  Chapter 4, “Miracles and the Chain of Being,” draws on Ramban’s Torah Commentary as well as Sha’ar Ha-Gemul, the final chapter of his book Torat Ha-Adam, which presents Jewish beliefs and practices around death and the afterlife.

Ramban’s version of modern science was a popular theory that the world was generally governed by the constellations. Before you dismiss this as astrology (which, I concede, it is), consider that this concept might be more akin to physics. Constellations are vast celestial systems that demonstrate order and predictability in the universe, and therefore model the physical laws that govern reality. Ramban asserts, however, that there are exceptions. The Land of Israel evades this type of control, as do the original and ultimate eras of creation, and so too do certain righteous individuals. These exceptions link reality to the realm of miracles.

Rebounding from Crisis with Strength: Bereshit 5781

Like millions of American children in the 1970s, I tuned in weekly to ABC’s Wide World of Sports. The opening sequence showed skiers gracefully racing down a mountain, and then spectacularly wiping out while the narrator promised viewers “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” Something tragic and true was contained in this message. The possibility of calamity makes moments of triumph precious and worth pursuing.

The same narrative device is employed by the Torah. Dazzling victories are paired with ignominious defeats. Consider, for example, three victorious moments in the Torah: The dedication of the Tabernacle; the declaration by Israel at Sinai that they will “heed and hear” God’s teaching; and God’s proclamation at the end of Creation that all of it was “very good.”

Each moment completes an arduous process, signaling blessing and joy. Yet the Torah barely allows one to celebrate before delivering a devastating narrative twist. What does this say about the nature of victory, and what can it teach us about resilience in a pandemic?

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Yom Kippur 5781: By Consent of the High Court

Kol Nidre begins with a dramatic declaration, “by consent of the court on high, and by consent of the court below, we permit prayer with transgressors.” This formula is attested already in the circle of Rabbi Meir of Rotenberg (Germany, 13C) as reported by his student Samson b. Tzadok (Tashbetz Katan 131), and then in the Tur (OH 619). Most scholarly attention focuses on the final word, “avaryanim,” (transgressors, or perhaps Iberians—conversos?) but I want to know who are the justices of the court on high? How were they nominated and confirmed?

The expression, “court on high” (ישיבה של מעלה) occurs throughout rabbinic literature. In Bavli Bava Metzia 85a we learn that whoever teaches their friend’s child Torah merits to be seated on the court on high. On the next page we hear that when Rabbah bar Nahmani died, he was caught pronouncing the words, “pure, pure” (טהור טהור). A heavenly voice was heard saying, “fortunate are you that your body was pure and your soul departed in purity.” Then a note fell from the heavens right into Pumbedita saying, “Rabbah bar Nahmani is invited to join the court on high.”

From these and other rabbinic sources it seems that the court on high, or heavenly court, is a place where the greatest sages serve after death. Why then do we invoke their authority on Kol Nidre? Releasing people from vows is one of the most complex and controversial areas of Jewish law, requiring a Beit Din of three senior scholars to review each case. But on Yom Kippur the entire Jewish people asks for release, so mortal judges will not suffice. Thus the invocation of the heavenly tribunal.

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A Note of Confusion: Shabbat Rosh HaShanah 5781

Do you find the shofar service confusing? Good, because it is supposed to be that way! Many rabbinic traditions about shofar, such as blowing it daily for a month prior, but then stopping the day before Rosh HaShanah, and then blowing it at different points of the service are supposed “to confuse Satan.” Poor Satan—Jews around the world in all the time zones are blasting away on their horns at different times—what’s an ornery angel to do?

Shofar confusion runs deeper and more serious than this charming folktale. The Torah refers several times to the blowing of the shofar in the seventh month, using different words, tekiah and teruah among them. What do these terms mean? Numbers 29:1 refers to Rosh HaShanah as יום תרועה, “a day of shofar blasts,” which is translated into Aramaic as “a day of wailing” (יבבא). This leads to the idea that the teruah is a sound which reflects and instills sorrow and brokenness. Still, is it a sobbing sound or more like wailing? How about both?

In Bavli Rosh HaShanah 33b-34a there is a long discussion about these notes, especially teruah. The sages can’t quite decide how it is supposed to sound, so they give us three versions, familiar to synagogue goers as shevarim (three notes, each 1/3 the duration of a tekiah), teruah (9 staccato notes, again adding up to one tekiah) and then a combination of the two. Why would one bout of sobbing suffice when you can expand it to three? So much of Judaism is captured here!

On that same page the rabbis interpret Leviticus 25:9, with its two references to “passing” the teruah through the land to mean that the broken notes must always be preceded and followed by a simple extended note of tekiah. Those “straight” notes are unbroken, indicating a posture of confidence and joy. For all our tears, we begin with strength and end there too.

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The Gates of Tears: Nitzavim VaYelekh 5780

A student touched me deeply today when I opened our Zoom meeting and found them weeping. “Why are you crying?” I asked. They said, “How can I stand before my community and lead them in prayer when such terrible things are happening? How can I pray for blessing when things are so wrong?”

How indeed? What gives us the strength and the hope to ask God to bless the world when we are ravaged by pandemic, scorched by massive wildfires in the West, brought low by economic collapse and demoralized by a political system and politicians who shock us with selfish and irresponsible conduct? How can we summon the confidence to ask for blessing when we are isolated and concerned, dreading whether worse is yet to come? In such a moment, tears are the most rational response.

Bavli Brakhot 32b says that since the Temple was destroyed the gates of prayer are closed, citing Lamentations 3:8 (And when I cry and plead, [God] shuts out my prayer), yet claims that the gates of tears always remain open. Still, as you may know, the mourner’s kaddish is missing the “titkabeil” paragraph (“Accept the prayers and requests of all Israel…”) because it seems unreasonable, cruel even, to tell mourners to expect the granting of their desires while tears flow down their cheeks. And in a sense we are all mourning, whether for relatives and friends who have died, or for many other losses that we have experienced in recent months. How indeed can we pray?

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Covenantal Judaism: Ki Tavo 5780

About fifteen years ago Rabbi David Wolpe suggested that Conservative Judaism be rebranded as Covenantal Judaism. I felt this to be an attractive solution to our brand challenge. Wolpe spoke of the covenant on numerous levels—a theological covenant between Jews and God, a national covenant between Jews and each other, and an ethical covenant between Jews, other peoples, and our very planet. This was an aspirational framing, a bridge between ancient and emerging Judaism. “Conservative,” in contrast, felt like an attempt to cling to a possession before it slipped away. It also had political overtones that were unrelated to the original intentions and unpopular with many if not most members of the movement. This has not exactly changed. Neither has our brand name, at least in America, and maybe it doesn’t really matter.

However, covenant is one of the core frameworks for understanding the Torah. Both in Exodus and in Deuteronomy the relationship between God and Israel is described as a treaty that is mutually binding and beneficial. This framework is on display throughout the portion of Ki Tavo, including its fearful list of curses that will follow failure to abide by the agreement.

Let’s focus on a brief passage of four verses, and even closer on just two words at their center. Deuteronomy 16: 16-19 is a pithy encapsulation of the entire Torah. “On this very day,” Moses tells Israel, “the Lord commands you” to obey all the these statutes and laws with all your heart and all your soul. The sages took this literally—that forty years since Sinai Moses finally revealed the fullness of Torah to the people–and deduced that no student can assume that they have understood their teacher until they have studied with them for forty years! But I prefer Rashi’s take (based on Bavli Brakhot 63b)—the words of Torah should always remain fresh in your eyes, as if they were given today.

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