The Deepest Groan

No sound is more quintessentially Jewish than “Oy Vey!”/”Woy Woy!” At its deepest, it expresses speechless surrender, a hopelessness beyond words.

The Netivot Shalom (Parshat Ki Tetze) distinguishes between an “optional” war and a defensive one. (Please note that in this drash he is talking about the wars we wage against our own overwhelming emotions and drives towards denying our highest natures.) In an offensive war, when we attack deep-seated issues we’ve ignored up-to-now, we take one tack (which can parallel a number of current therapeutic systems, but that’s not the point here). But in the defensive war, when we’re attacked by and overcome with irresistible  emotion or desire for something we know will only, in the end, drag us down, we need a totally different, and much simpler approach.

The archetype of the defensive war, milchemet chovah, is presented in Parshat B’Ha’alot’cha, where is states (BaMidbar 10:9) that when an enemy brings a war into your land (i.e. when an overwhelming emotion strikes us), our first step is to cry out with our trumpets (V’Hareiotem b’Chatzotzrot), but not to merely rally the troops, but to be recalled by The Creator so the He will rescue us. While this is, of course, especially relevant in the current weeks preceeding Rosh HaShanah which centrally features the Shofar, it’s not merely a guide to a single Jewish Holyday but, rather, constant advice to each of us in our lives.

In a personal note, I’m running the “home stretch” of my return to Eretz Yisrael. Having dismantled my home of the last many years, slowly making my way to my upcoming departure to Israel, I’m overwhelmed with fear and insecurity as well as with sweet anticipation. I’ve taken all the measures I can, prepared and pre-planned, packed and re-packed, discarded and regretted, existed in even-more-than-usual limbo for months, culminating in a full month of rootless “couch-surfing” my way across the US. It would be more than understandable to just let it all fall apart at the last moment. And how tragic….

Rather, without quite understanding it until seeing this great insight from the Slonimer, I’ve followed my instinct, an instinct I suspect is deeply ingrained in all of us, and cried out many bitter “Oy“s. My heart and soul have joined together (always a good thing no matter the motivator) to cry out in my own wordless speech, making my breath and voice into a primordial “shofar“, confessing to The Creator and to myself that I have no strength to continue save that which He, in His Infinite Mercy, provides.

Although I will already find myself in Jerusalem for this year’s shofar, I pray that, in my sense of relief and joy, I don’t forget the lesson my experience has taught me.

Shana Tova

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Brief Thoughts On V’Etchanan

The gematria (numerical equivalent of the letters of the word) for V’Etchanan (ואתחנן) is 515, which is also the number of special prayers, actually more kabbalistic meditations, composed by Ramchal, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto in his book תקט”ו תפילות (Taktu Tefillot)–the gematria of Taktu also 515.

We learn that Moshe prayed 515 times for a reprieve from the decree against him entering the Holy Land, before he stood down. We’re told that God told him to not ask again even one more time, because if he did make that one more request God would have had no choice but to grant his wish. Various answers are proposed to what great negative for Bnei Yisrael and humankind in general would have occurred had he led the Jewish People into their land. Perhaps he understood that he had to choose between his own fulfillment or the fulfillment of the nation (there are textual hints that either he could have entered or the people might have entered, but not both). Another idea is that Moshe, leading the nation into Eretz Yisrael, would have immediately assumed the role of Mashiach, thrusting the world into Olam HaBah, the world-to-come, the final and stable reality-mode, but at an “inferior” state of perfection than were it to occur in its proper historical context (for which we still await and pray). In either event, Moshe chose for Bnei Yisrael rather than for his own benefit.

There is something very unique about Judaism. Unlike many other religions, we don’t elevate our greatest prophet to an unrealistic pedestal. We don’t declare Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our teacher, as “the perfect human being”, as “god”-like or in any way divine. Rather, the highest praise The Creator gives to Moshe is, “The man Moshe was very humble, more humble than any man on the face of the earth.” (Bamidbar 12:3). His very greatness was his profound self-understanding that as a human being, by definition, he was imperfect. Perhaps the one quality that is shared by every single person who has ever lived and who ever will live is imperfection. As such, Moshe was the most effective teacher and prophet because his commonality with all humanity was always in the front of his consciousness.

515 is a unique number. “5”, at the right side, represents the ה׳ חסדים, the five elements of love, while the “5” on the left represent the ה׳ גבורות, the five elements of strength and awe. Between them, nourishing both as well as supported by both of these “wings”, is “1”, אחד (Echad), the One God Who unifies all reality.

אחד יחיד ומיוחד (Echad, Yachid U’Meyuchad), One, Alone  and Unique.

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New Thoughts On Hillel

Hillel famously states (in Avot 1:14), אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי. וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתָי, Im Ayn Ani Li, Mi Li, “If I am not for myself, who is for me? U’k’sheAni L’Atzmi, Mi Li, And when I am (only) for myself, what am I? V’Im Ayn Achshav, Aymatai, And if not now, when?”

We usually interpret this as a balanced approach to life, keeping all three principles in mind at the same time. Perhaps we should also see it as describing the two modalities of existence, Olam HaZeh, today’s world as we know it, and Olam HaBah, the enlightened world we know is inevitable.

Although God’s Reality never changes, (אני ה′ לא שניתי (מלאכי ג:ו, “I, God, never change (Malachi 3:6)”, our realities and our perceptions of reality do change. Living, as we now do, in a world where most people have no conception that The Creator m’lo kol ha-aretz kvodo, fills the entire world with His Presence, His totally benign, endless light and energy, where He is Ha-m’chadesh b’tuvo b’chol yom tamid ma’ase b’reishit (daily liturgy), “The One who renews, from His Goodness, every day, the act of creation”, the fact that we, indeed, realize that life is far from a “zero-sum game” or, worse, a “negative-sum game” (that illusion that resources are limited and dwindling while the population, i.e. demand for those resources, is soaring out of control) forces us to live as if that nightmare were true. In other words, even though we know that God’s Shefa, Bounty, is endless, there are many people who are convinced that whatever we have is at their expense and the only path for them to acquire what they want or need is to take it away from someone who has already acquired it. Our vision of the ultimate reality and our confidence in it, however, doesn’t permit us to live above the fray. Throughout human history to date, the Jewish people have had to protect our very lives as best we can as many have perceived us as the obstacle to their own success. In this still-current paradigm, we, therefore, exist in the same state of perpetual strife and warfare as the rest of the world and to survive we must defeat our enemies at every turn. “If I am not for me, who will be for me”, indeed!

However, as we gradually and eventually succeed in truly being Ohr L’Goyim, that Light of wisdom to all the nations, revealing to them that The Creator really has provided for all everyone needs and that rather than stealing or despoiling the wealth of others, they can create and generate their own, we find ourselves moving into Olam HaBah, that world of the future which, indeed, will come one day. No longer necessary to fight and scramble, all mankind can finally realize the truth of “If I am (only) for myself what am I?”. Rather, we can begin to join together in Absolute Unity with The Creator and His Creation, to be at one with all.

Although it’s dangerous, foolish and counterproductive to pretend that we’re farther along the path than we indeed are, our impatience is in order. Our years of suffering (both as the Jewish People, but also, more broadly, as Humanity) have been endless. “If not now, when” shall we at least start to work towards Geula, the ultimate redemption from the very real, but ultimately false nonetheless, world of conflict?

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Two Modalities For Two Realities

I, along with a number of contemporary rabbis (Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo and Rabbi David Bar-Hayim to name just a couple), have remarked and written extensively on the two modes of contemporary Jewish life, Diaspora/survival-oriented and Sovereign-in-Eretz-Yisrael/Redemption modes. The Babylonian Talmud, along with Rashi and other commentators, also make this distinction (Avoda Zara 22a and following, also many other places), as well as the distinction of when we are living in our land under either foreign domination (lo b’tokef) or Jewish/Torah-based sovereignty (b’tokef).

A basic assumption those of us who explore Torah make in viewing the world is that it is anything but a “zero-sum game”. Rather, it is, in fact, an infinitely-“positive-sum game”. M’lo Kol Ha’Aretz K’vodo, (He) fills the entire universe with His Presence (Isaiah 6:3), as well as M’chadesh b’tuvo b’kol yom tamid ma’ase bereishit (daily liturgy), “He renews, with His Goodness, every day, eternally, the acts of Creation”, are repeated twice daily in our prayers. We acknowledge and celebrate that God unceasingly pours His Infinite Light, infinite energy, into the universe. There is no limit to His Bounty and, therefore, to even suspect that what I have is at your expense or that what you have is at mine verges on atheism. There is and always will be plenty, and increasingly more, for each of us, if we only open our eyes to the non-superficial reality that monopolizes today’s dominant world views.

This radical realization, however, is of very little utility until it’s universally known and acknowledged. Until then, as long as even one person acts as if another’s wealth and other resources are entirely at his own expense, rather than trying to generate the bounty which is out there waiting just for him, he will try to take away from someone else. This mean-heartedness, what our rabbinic tradition calls Ayin Rah, an evil/defective/deceived eye (perception of reality) will continue to fuel war, hatred and crime until everyone finally awakens (Uri, uri, “Wake up, Wake up!”, as we recite in L’cha Dodi, entering into Shabbat where we, hopefully, awaken from the illusions of the weekdays) to the realization that rather than envying each other we should celebrate everyone’s success and see it as proof that our own is just around the corner.

The idea of the Tenth Commandment, V’Lo Tachmod and  V’Lo Tit’aveh, specific injunctions of what not to envy, is really an affirmation of God’s ultimate power, to rain His Shefa, bounty, on all of us all the time. Eyn atar p’nui minay, there is absolutely no corner of existence where God and His Infinite Light are absent. It’s all there for us to make the connection through the keys given to us, Torah and Mitzvot.

Perhaps our mandate to become Ohr l’Goyim, the proverbial “Light to the Nations”, is to, through our assigned work of Torah and Mitzvot, bring illumination of the transcendent, ultimate reality of this unlimited bounty, to replace the horrid illusion that all wealth is at the expense of another.

No need to steal, no need to plunder, there is nothing to envy except, perhaps, open eyes, hearts and minds (our neshamot, souls, are already, by definition, open). Rather, let’s each of us go out and earn our own.

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Curses Into Blessings

Even an elementary approach to Parshat Balak demonstrates that, in the long run, our enemies are unable to curse us because The Holy One will always turn these curses into blessings, (even if the blessings don’t manifest until much farther down the road).

The story is well-known. Balak, the King of Moab, fearing the approach of Bnei Yisrael on our way through the desert to the Promised Land, hires Bilaam, the evil prophet whose level of prophecy approached that of Moshe (although at the negative end of the spectrum) to curse Israel, weakening us so we’d become vulnerable to Moab’s military attack.

Overcoming first the resistance of God, Himself, Who explicitly told Bilaam to not accompany Balak’s entourage (BaMidbar 22:12), and later the refusal of his own ass to bring him to meet Balak himself, warned once again by The Creator to “not curse the people because they are blessed (BaMidbar 22:12)”, Bilaam, nonetheless, attempts to curse them. His words, however, are overcome by and replaced with the words “God placed in his mouth (BaMidbar 23:5 and others)” and, much to Balak’s displeasure and fury, he proceeds to bless Bnei Yisrael instead.

Familiar and reassuring, this is still just the “first-grade” lesson we all learned in grade school. Yes, God will protect His People from ultimate harm, but there are deeper and more profound lessons here.

We say “Yisrael v’Oreita v’Kudsha Brich Hi Chad Hu”, Yisrael, Torah and The Creator are all One. The Torah is not just a collection of words and letters, a quantity of ink on treated animal hide, not just the history of the Jewish People, not limited to a code of laws, but the entire Torah, all 600,000 letters that comprise the Torah (including those letters which don’t even appear in ink on parchment but which we are taught exist anyways and contribute to the Torah) is, itself a unique Name of God. Chained together to provide semantic meaning or experienced as a string of letters (each of which is a combination of ink-strokes), taken together, all of the letters in the Torah, all the words as well, are a part of the “meta-Name” and, as such, are filled with infinite light and holiness. When we, Yisrael, study and read the words of Torah, we chant and invoke aspects of God’s Holy Name.

Thus, even the words of klalah (cursing), as well as the horrific words of warning, hochachah, elsewhere in the Torah (Parshat Nitzavim, for example), beneath the simple semantic meaning of the words, are, nonetheless, names of The Creator and, as such, filled with blessing and light.

With this insight, the words of Bilaam take on an even deeper power of blessing than is already apparent. Curses, warnings, history and halachot are all part of the great blessing we receive whenever we engage with Torah.

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Sinat Chinam: This Week’s Example

Parshat Korach is the archetype of Jewish self-destructive behavior. A naked power play, couched in terms of holiness and halacha (the back story is that Korach presented a bogus question about talit and tzitzit to Moshe), Korach tried to leap over Aaron and seize the High Priesthood. Not content to challenge God’s structuring of the Jewish People, Korach just had to add ad hominem attacks against his own cousins.

As if we hadn’t, in the previous parsha of the meraglim, spies, learned the consequences of narcissistically insisting that we “know better” than The Creator, Korach, our very own biblical narcissist par excellence, gathers a group of supporters, including the yes-men (or, in relationship to Moshe, the no-men), Dotan and Abiram, a crowd of two hundred and fifty “princes” as well as an additional fourteen thousand seven hundred men, all of whom perished. Remember, this was from a total Jewish population at the time of six hundred thousand!

It’s not that Israel and the Jewish People cannot tolerate challenges. As we all know, Jewish tradition, beginning with the Mishna, has always been transmitted through debate. But we learn from Avot (5:17) which explicitly distinguishes between makhloket, debate, aimed at clarifying reality and makhloket aimed at personal power or belittling another, that there is a difference. One strengthens us all and leads us closer to Geula, Redemption. The other, for which the Mishna intentionally chooses Korach as example, leads to plagues, to destruction (as we know, the Second Temple was destroyed and our people exiled for two thousand years which is not yet completely over, for the sin of sinat chinam, pointless fratricidal hatred), chaos and death.

A famous story is told of the late Satmar Rebbe, a leader, I must say, I had little fondness for (because he actively discouraged his followers before the Shoah from escaping to Palestine). When Hubert Humphrey ran for President in 1968, he visited many leading religious leaders. On his way to visit the Satmar Rebbe, his advisor told him to not mention Israel to the rabbi. Humphrey was shocked and asked him what that was all about. “Aren’t all rabbis and Jewish leaders great supporters of Israel? Isn’t Israel always at the top of their political agenda?” The advisor merely said that this was a different kind of rabbi and that he should just ask about his local community.

The moment Humphrey walked into the Rebbe’s presence, the Rebbe asked, “So, what’s your position on Israel?” Humphrey was dumfounded and replied, “My advisors told me to avoid all mention of Israel, that you were a different type of Jewish leader. And the first thing you ask me is my position on Israel! I don’t understand.”

The Rebbe replied, “In the family, we argue among ourselves. To the outside world we are one.”

Would that Satmar of today, as well as the Jewish Left of today, as well as the American Jewish community and their communal organizations of today remember the critical place that Israel occupies for all of us, religious and secular, affiliated or not, and furthermore understand the vital need for Ahavat Yisrael, our mutual love for each other. If we only focus on this, imagine how much Jewish blood might not be tragically shed.

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To Be A Jew

There are so many attempts to define what it means to be a Jew. Is it genetic? Consensual? Opting-in? Participatory-Only? Are you a Jew because you eat bagels and cream cheese, or, as we’re in the midst of Shavuot thoughts, cheesecake? Do you experience being a Jew by studying Torah? By acting “ethically” (whatever that might mean)? Does not driving a car on Saturday qualify? Do you need to wear the uniform of a black suit and an oversize hat? Is daily prayer non-negotiable? Can watching tv or going to movies disbar you? What about on Saturday? Are we a people, a race, a religion, a country?

These are all old questions, addressed, answered and re-answered countless times.

As Shavuot approaches this year, my working definition is that to be is Jew is to be married to God (not in the same sense, of course as Catholic nuns and priests who renounce marriage with other humans, but rather, in the sense that applies to our people it’s a matter of “as above, so below”–our “Olam HaZeh” (this world) lives mirroring the reality of the higher realms). Of course, there is the Aggadata that God held the mountain, Har Sinai, over our heads, as a Chuppah when giving us the Torah (actually the pshat (simple meaning) of the story is a little less romantic–He gave us the choice to accept the Torah, in which case the mountain was, indeed, a Chuppah, but if we refused we’d be buried beneath it. (This image of coercion, combined with our laws of relationships, removes, as it were, God’s option of ever divorcing us!)). And, as the second chapter of Hosea (2:21-22) has God saying to us, “And I will wed you forever……”

Of course, in our day, the concept of eternal marriage and commitment sounds to many of us as fantasy. But even in the “good old days” when divorce was the exception rather than the rule, an eternally ideal marriage was never on the menu. Since, by definition, we humans are not perfect and complete within ourselves, we  have, and always will have, needs. No matter how loving one or both of a couple are, the combined individual needs, no matter how small they might theoretically be, doesn’t allow us to be permanent givers, concerned only with our mate’s happiness and not with our own. As humans, everything will be flawed and the best we can do is to minimize those flaws.

A Jew’s marriage with The Creator, on the other hand, is of an entirely different order. God is, by definition, complete within Himself, lacking nothing. In His simple Unity as One Who creates and creates for the benefit of others, His “Agenda” is to fill each of us with precisely what we individually need, both in terms of quality and quantity. God is never “in competition” with us over any supposedly “rare” resource since, to God, the Creator and Source of All, not only has no needs nor desires for any”things”, but how could any conceivable resource possibly be “rare” to Him?

Since, in His Wisdom, He understands that a necessary component for human satisfaction is a sense of independence, He provides a modality for us to earn our satisfaction rather than giving it to us without any effort on our part, accompanied by the unavoidable shame of feeling undeserving. This “modality” the Torah, both guides us, step-by-step, to earning fulfillment, and is, itself, that fulfillment.

The Ketubah (the marriage contract), with which The Almighty betroths each of us as individual elements of His beloved, in other words, the Torah, is an ingenious “interface” in which He embeds those aspects of Himself that he gives us the potential to experience, bond (devekut) and interact with, the 613 mitzvot (as well as the historical and moral tales of our ancestors). Moreover, he creates each of us with an analogous structure that allows us, by following these mitzvot-directions, to fully engage with the 613-faceted interface to Him that He provided.

Imagine an earthly marriage where not only can good intentions be assumed, but where an opportunity to express our love and to deepen our connection with our lover is provided every single instant! Here is that marriage where our Lover never puts Himself before our needs, where counsel and encouragement and explicit instructions are lovingly offered every moment. (By the way, this is a different approach to the multitude of halachot–rather than being intrusive and controlling, they keep an always-open door for us.)

Just as with a material marriage, there is both much to prepare in advance, and also much to review and revisit after experiencing such an intensely transforming moment. In addition to the fellowship, the happiness and, yes, the cheesecake, may we all experience, and continue to experience the primal transformation that is Shavuot.

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