Tetzaveh 5779

Tetzaveh 5779

This dvar Torah was delivered at Anshe Emet in Chicago.
Parashat Tetzaveh, 11 Adar Rishon, 5779

Shabbat shalom! It is an honor and privilege to be with you this Shabbat. I wish to extend a sincere thanks to the Kehilah Kedoshah committee, as well as to the Anshe Emet clergy for inviting me. Parashat Tetzaveh, coming directly on the heels of parashat Terumah, continues the instructions for building the mishkan or tabernacle. The bulk of our parsha centers on the holy garments that are to be created for use when performing the priestly service in the mishkan. Just as with last week, we see here a lengthy and very detailed description of how these clothes are to be fashioned and which materials are to be used. As was true with the mishkan, every detail is tended to. Our Torah’s attention to detail here again signifies to us that this is an incredibly important aspect of the service that the kohanim would be performing. If a kohen did not have the priestly garments on, he was still a kohen but was unable to perform the priestly sacrificial service.
Commentators have noted that it is curious that our Torah spends some 400 verses describing the construction of the mishkan, all of its implements and the priestly garments to be worn at this point, when the Children of Israel have just been freed from slavery. Why do we shift so quickly in Shmot from Divine revelation at Sinai to a detailed discussion first of miscellaneous civil laws in Parashat Mishpatim, to the mishkan’s construction in Terumah and to the fashioning of the priestly garments in Tetzaveh?
Much has been made of the fact or perhaps truism that for those of us who are visual, judging someone by their appearance is pretty commonplace and often quite subconscious. For those of us who are nonvisual or for whom visual information plays a less central role in how we navigate the world, the messages we receive about clothing do quickly translate to a snap judgement of the individual wearing that clothing as well. There are reasons why we wear particular garments at particular times, even without the Beit HaMikdash in Yerushalayim, and even in a time in which kohenim play a far less central role in Jewish worship. Though we are not able to replicate the garments of the priests, we are to remember that we are all members of a holy people, and one way we signify that to this day is by the wearing of fringes or tzitzit. Some of us choose to wear a tallit katan underneath our clothes, as well as a larger tallit when at morning prayer. Others of us choose to mark ourselves as members of the Jewish people through the wearing of a kippah. And still others choose to wear jewelry with a magen David or other important Jewish symbol or signifier. When we choose to mark ourselves in this way, we are affirming the importance of our Jewishness. However, we must also navigate the world knowing that our commitments read in a variety of ways to those we encounter, and we know, instinctively, that we cannot control the reactions or attitudes of others. We likely face a variety of responses, some supportive, others curious, and perhaps, most unfortunately, others that are hostile or judgmental. We hope that by visibly signifying our Jewishness, we are able to offer a window into what it means to live a life of Torah and mitzvot. And, at the same time, we know that the choice we make to mark ourselves as Jewish also lends itself to an increased exposure to the projections and baggage that others carry.
For the past decade or so, February has been designated as Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month, a time when Jewish communities across North America take some time to think about the many intersecting issues impacting Jews with disabilities in all facets of Jewish life. We might do a cheshbon—an accounting—of where our communities are on any number of metrics pertinent to inclusion. Are our sanctuaries accessible to all who want to find a spiritual home within them? Are Jews with disabilities assuming a variety of leadership roles within our kehillot? Do folks feel warmly welcomed when they enter our sacred spaces? What are we doing to help strengthen genuine, mutual, authentic, reciprocal relationship-building for everyone in our communities? These are some questions we sit with this month, and too often, we opine that we are not seeing changes as quickly as we would like. Often, the work feels overwhelming, momentous, multifaceted and diffuse. Where are the support structures, the educational frameworks that we could rely upon so that we don’t feel like we are constantly reinventing the wheel? It feels like there’s a missing ingredient, an element that is absent from the conversations we have this month, and thus I want to draw our attention back to the discussion of the priestly garments.
Just as those of us who visibly mark ourselves as Jewish—as other—in a majority non-Jewish country sometimes encounter snap judgements and projections from others as we go about our day, so, too, do people with disabilities. In a world that humans created to structurally advantage some bodies over others, our Jewish tradition radically and importantly reminds us that we are all created in the Image of G-d, that we each carry a spark of divinity within, and that, because HaShem gave us free will, we can choose whether to reveal that divine spark into the world through how we treat others. We can also choose, through our actions and attitude, to conceal that holiness, that divinity. As a dear friend, mentor and colleague of mine, Rabbi Dr. Julia Watts Belser importantly teaches, people with disabilities are experts in the art of managing the anxieties, the discomfort and fears of others. We do it every day, whether we are conscious of it or not. We know all too well what it feels like to live in a world in which a moment’s glance, a split second decision has the power to radically alter our lives. We know what it feels like when the so-called experts on our disability, impairment or diagnosis make predictions about our outcomes that severely hamper us. Sometimes, we might even come to expect the naysayers, the “I don’t know how you’ll ever be able to do that”, the “I just don’t know if that’s possible—it’s never been done before”. And, worn out and worn down, we might enter our Jewish community carrying a lot of fear and prepared with our defensive armor. What sort of attitudinal barriers might we encounter? Those of us who are working to develop a sense of pride in our identities as people with disabilities might hope that our visibility will help diminish the stigma that accompanies all of us on our journeys through life. And yet, that still, small voice in the back of our head nags at us—will I be able to show up as who I am in all that I am here?
I am the first blind woman, as far as I am aware, to become a rabbi. That meant a lot of things—it meant moments of tremendous joy and celebration, a profound sense of accomplishment and a deep awareness of the abundance of blessing in my life. It takes a village to raise a rabbi and in the case of this rabbi, it took a village of people unafraid to think outside of the box, who said yes even when they didn’t know how we would get from point A to point B. It meant folks saying yes even when that meant a lot of trial and error, even when that meant soul-crushing spiritual despair and disappointment. They said yes even when it meant that they would need to sit with the humility, the anavah, that it takes to recognize when they don’t know what they don’t know. They said yes with the Emunah, the knowingness, that collaboration and authentic partnership would make all of the difference.
And yet. I also know deep in my bones what it means when a snap judgement, a split second decision based on my appearance and ability status resulted in a no. The Shabbat tables I sat at, week after week, in which people questioned how I would ever go to rabbinical school. The programs that took one look at me and, assuming that accommodating me would be too costly and burdensome, said no. When we allow that narrowness, that discomfort, that fear to entrap us, we lose so much Torah, we lose so much richness, because we are afraid of our own vulnerability, we are afraid of what it means to be the child who doesn’t know how to ask. Or, worse still, we don’t know how to be the simple child, the one who has questions but, out of fear of offending, closes doors of possibility and promise. We don’t know what it means to sit with our growing edges, our fears, our discomforts. Our contemporary culture, long on visual aesthetics and short on contemplative moments, teaches us that sitting with ourselves is scary and ought to be avoided. And, yet, we know that we build truly accessible and inclusive spaces not by looking at these intersecting and interlocking concerns s a series of problems to be solved, throwing up our hands when a solution doesn’t immediately reveal itself. We know that we build deeply inclusive and accessible communities when we honor the wisdom of others, when we are willing to inhabit the expansive space of not knowing, when we bring our beginner’s mind, our radical curiosity to the fore. And we know, because HaShem revealed HaShem’s Torah to all of us, in a way we could understand, that we must set aside quick judgements in favor of allowing all of that Torah into our holy places.

Divrei HaTefillah: Baal Shem Tov, selection from section Peh Chet of Amud HaTefillah

This was written in 5777 and is intended for use as a kavvannah or meditation before Pesukei Dezimra, verses of praise, on a Shabbat or chag morning.
Before we begin our davening this morning with Pesukei DeZimra or psalms of praise, I want to offer a brief kavannah or intention for our prayers. Many do not realize that Judaism has a longstanding rich and varied meditative tradition. Mystical or contemplative modes for entering into our prayers are very much a part of our tradition, and I believe that they can be excellent vehicles for connecting with the words in our siddur which I know for so many of us are quite difficult to grasp. I want to give over a brief teaching from the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Chasidism about prayer. In his Amud HaTefillah, the Baal Shem Tov speaks a great deal about focusing on the individual letters of the words which comprise our prayers as a mystical vehicle for ascending into greater levels of consciousness. There is an idea that this form of contemplative practice is also a deeply ecstatic one, and the more a person immerses themselves into the letters of the prayers, the greater the ecstasy. Ultimately, one should be so immersed and so wrapped up in the ecstasy of the moment that the words of prayer, which as we know are often spoken aloud become inaudible. It is as though through the vehicle of our speech, we simultaneously enter into our prayer and go beyond it. Our intense meditation and concentration upon the letters of the prayer, for the Baal Shem Tov, serves as a vehicle for connecting with the divinity that is found within each letter. You may be familiar with the idea that the Torah is the blueprint for creation or that before anything else existed, there was a primordial Torah of sorts. The Hebrew letters that make up the Torah and likewise our prayer books are a physical, tangible manifestation of that divinity we are trying to connect to. I often think of this as a way of achieving cosmic union with God through the vehicle of spoken prayer. Nevertheless, this state of cosmic unity, which the Baal Shem Tov also illustrates by describing the individual as going through the four worlds of classic Kabbalah as they ascend in greater consciousness, sounds quite unattainable. How might this admittedly complicated and confusing teaching impact our prayer lives? Though many of us yearn to experience some kind of divine encounter when we pray, that yearning often goes unrequited.

Pesukei DeZimra is a time in our service for us to warm up for prayer. Pesukei Dezimra can feel like a lot of words that we move through rapidly, without the kavannah with which they were intended to be recited. Traditionally, this portion of our service is seen as a means of giving us space to cultivate the kavannah for Shacharit and beyond. This morning, I want to encourage us all to adapt this teaching from the Baal Shem Tov. Is there a particular line that jumps out at you from the text or cries out to you? Is there a line you don’t understand and want to immerse yourself in? Take that one line, focus your attention and intention upon the words, the letters, and how they all fit together to form the whole of the verse. What comes up for you as you immerse yourself wholly in that line? Do you find you no longer hear yourself saying the words or, put another way, that your prayerful experience transcends the words? Though the intensity of the Baal Shem Tov’s meditative practice might feel unattainable, I think that we can use his focus on contemplative and ecstatic prayer to enliven our own prayer lives.

Or HaMeir on Bereshit

This piece was written in 5777/2016.

In his commentary on Bereshit, the Or HaMeir refers to two of the earliest Jewish mystical concepts—the notion that the Torah proceeded everything and the notion of a Ma’aseh Bereshit consciousness. When we think about the creation story, which has been interpreted and reinterpreted throughout the centuries, we tend to think of it as a means of grasping how the physical world around us was created. However, for the Or HaMeir and many other mystics, the creation story opens a window for us into the inner workings of the individual spiritual and religious life. The Torah proceeded creation, which is likened to the waters that preceded everything else. Thus, the Torah is a blueprint for our lives, since it predates physical creation. The Torah is thus able to instruct us in all times and places. Related to this is the notion of Ma’aseh Bereshit consciousness—renewing the work of creation each and every day.

A related concept is the notion that, as we learn later in the creation story, we were created in the image of God so we could be God’s partners in the renewing of creation on a daily basis, creating a world as it should be. This is a momentous task indeed. Though the Or HaMeir does not explicitly reference this idea, he does talk about the notion that the religious life should be rooted in a Ma’aseh Bereshit consciousness. Mitzvot are not merely what they appear to be on the surface—there is much more lying beneath. Though we aspire to be shomrei mitzvot, all of us find ourselves connecting to some mitzvot over others, finding deeper meaning in some practices over others, etc. Indeed, there is also here to be found an idea that individual Jews tend to connect to a specific mitzvah that somehow calls out to their soul.

This notion of an individually meaningful mitzvah I believe is the key to thinking about the religious life and halakhic observance. We tend to think of halakhah as a rigid, unchanging system, and if we are not careful, we can easily do things by rote, instead of doing all of our religious rites and rituals with a sense of profound kavannah, which the Or haMeir is calling us to do here. It is easy to become bored, to daven thrice daily, put on tefillin, even keep Shabbat according to the strictest halakhic interpretation and all the while do so devoid of any kind of spiritual grounding or kavannah.

Too many of us find ourselves despairing of ever being:”good enough Jews” if we aren’t strictly observant. And conversely, too many of us find ourselves going through the motions of a religious life without any sort of devikut or kavannah. What would it look like for us to each pick a mitzvah—any mitzvah—and do it with the Ma’aseh Bereshit consciousness the Or haMeir so beautifully talks about? For those of us who are not so traditionally observant, may this be an opportunity for us to connect deeply with a mitzvah that calls out to our souls. And for those of us who feel bogged down by the minutia of mitzvot, may we find that mitzvah that makes our heart and soul sing and do that mitzvah with the kavannah we wish we could apply to all mitzvot. Starting with that one mitzvah will, God willing lead us to a richly rewarding ritual and spiritual life.

The Sfat Emet on Yom Kippur

This drasha was originally written in 5777.
One of the most beautiful teachings I have encountered about Yom Kippur is from the Sfat Emet. The Sfat Emet uses the symbology and metaphor of a mikvah to talk about what Yom Kippur is and how it functions. Yom Kippur is this day of total immersion, total unity with God. On Yom Kippur, we are forgiven, as God has spoken, which we say multiple times, so we know that at the end of the holiest day of the year, we will have a clean slate as it were, able to begin again. Yom Kippur is also very much about coming close to God. Just as a kosher immersion in a mikvah is an immersion in which the total body is submerged and there’s no barrier between the physical body and the waters of the mikvah, and just as mikvah waters are mayyim chayyim—living waters, on Yom Kippur, we ask repeatedly to be written and later sealed in the Book of Life for the coming year. And we don’t merely ask to be sealed in the Book of Life. We also ask God to write and seal us in the book of long life, good deeds, etc. We are immersed not only in reflection about the year which has past but we look forward to choosing life in the New Year. When we experience that day of complete unity with God, we are completely immersed in prayer and confession, supplication and fasting. These spiritual and ritual acts are the vehicles through which we achieve that unity with God. Yom Kippur has a unique character all its own. On other days, though we hope that our avodat hashem will get us there, on Yom Kippur, our tradition gives us particular ritual and spiritual tools that we can use in achieving that unity. We have a particularly special access to God on Yom Kippur that, though God is with us always, we don’t have the same level of immediacy. The difficulty, however, is that as beautiful as the Sfat Emet’s teaching is here, it is so aspirational. How many of us can truly say that on Yom Kippur we are achieving this unity all of the time? I think that perhaps a balanced way to think about this is that we are always striving for this unity, that even if we achieve this unity for only a few moments, we have still gotten somewhere spiritually significant and important.