Bahaalotekha 5780

Bahaalotekha 5780

Our parsha or Torah portion this week is parashat Bahaalotekha, the third parsha in Sefer Bamidbar or the book of Numbers. We are introduced to Pesach Sheni or Second Passover in this parsha, which was instituted upon request of some Israelites who were unable to offer the Passover sacrifice at its official or fixed time—on the 14th of Nisan at twilight. The stated reason was on account of them being what is called Tumaat Meit in Hebrew or imperfectly translated, ritually impure due to recent contact with a corpse. Their ritual status made it impossible for them to offer the Passover sacrifice in Nisan, but all was not lost. A month later, on the 14th of Iyyar, they were able to offer the Passover sacrifice. Today, when we no longer offer sacrifices, Pesach Sheni has been understood in a variety of ways.

In some Chasidic thought, Pesach Sheni has come to represent the idea of spiritual second chances. Teshuvah, or turning and returning is a practice that is available to us all year long, not only on the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Pesach Sheni is another opportunity for us to right what has been wrong, to return to a better path, to have an opportunity to make up something we may have missed. It has become customary in some communities to hold a model seder on Pesach Sheni—indeed, I had the joy of participating in one myself this year—following the structure but of course omitting all of the elements that are only applicable on Pesach itself. Some folks also will eat a bit of matza. Because Pesach Sheni falls during the Omer period, which traditionally is a period of semi-mourning, it also allows for a bit of a celebratory respite.

The Torah states that those who may offer the Passover sacrifice on Pesach Sheni also include those who were on a long journey in Nisan and unable to make the sacrifice. This notion of being on a long journey has also been transformed and made into something of a metaphor.

Much ink has been spilled regarding this challenging and difficult time on a local, national and global scale. Many of us feel as though we have been on a journey whose beginning we barely remember and whose end we cannot imagine. The raw, visceral, unavoidable and inescapable truths of the foundation of America which black, indigenous folks and other people of color have known intimately for centuries are finally, or so it seems, being seen by more white folks than ever before. Many are cautiously optimistic, noting that something about this moment is different but worried that this will not last, as far too many past experiences have amply demonstrated.  We are collectively journeying but importantly, we are each also on an intensely individual journey. In this time of national and global reckoning, it is our responsibility to continue on our inward journeys because without an honest and often times difficult soul-accounting, we cannot show up as our full and authentic selves in the work externally which urgently needs doing and needs all of us. We each have an important role to play. This is a long haul, a marathon and not a sprint. We may feel shame in this moment, realizing that we in fact have had many chances to choose to do and act differently and we did not avail ourselves of those opportunities.

Pesach Sheni was instituted so that those who were far away could make the sacrifice. Our Torah understands that even with one’s best efforts to get it done on time, some folks are not able to. There is something important also about this opportunity for a do-over only for Pesach, not for any other holiday. Pesach is a foundational event for the Jewish people, as we journeyed out of slavery and into freedom or, as the Haggadah also describes, from degradation to praise. Sefer Shemot/the book of Exodus notes that we cried out because of our oppression. Our cries were finally heard, but after many centuries of enslavement, degradation and loss of dignity and autonomy.

And in our own day, our siblings cry out for justice, for life, for breath after too many centuries of injustice. We have had many opportunities. Many of us have been close, proximate and others have not been. Hashem knows our innermost thoughts, yearnings and feelings of shame. It is never too late to do important work, our parsha is teaching us. If not now, as Hillel taught, when? May our journeys guide us to committing to make this world a true dwelling place for the Divine Presence/Shechinah. May we co-create a world of beauty and abundance, where all may thrive and feel utterly at home in their bodies.

Behar 5780

This week marks the tenth Shabbat since I have been in shul, davening with a minyan. Each Shabbat morning as I arise, put on my tallit and prepare to pray the morning or Shacharit service, I cannot but feel the absence of friends, the silence without melodious harmonization, and the void left without a physical community to be amongst. This is the second Shabbat out of those ten Shabbatot during which we liturgically complete the reading of one of the five books of the Torah. This week, we read the two final parshiyot in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, Behar and Bechukotai. Ordinarily, when the Torah is read with a minyan of ten adult Jews present, at the conclusion of a book of the Torah, the entire congregation rises if able to do so and proclaims together, “be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another”. We know that in the fullness of time, a year will elapse, and we will return once more to Leviticus, and we wish each other and ourselves well on our continuing journey through Torah and life itself.

The Jewish tradition is one deeply bound to time, but not in a Western, linear fashion. Instead, ours is a tradition of cycles. Seven is a key number for us in organizing these temporal cycles. The 25th chapter of Leviticus, which is the vast majority of Parashat Behar, the first of our two Torah portions this week is a prime example of our Torah’s concern. We learn first about the Shmita or sabbatical year. Every seven years, land is to lie fallow, uncultivated, unharvested. The prior six years the land is worked as it typically would be and, knowing that the Shmita year was coming, it is expected that society is organized in such a manner that no one is left behind in the seventh year. Animals and human beings are able to sustain themselves and enjoy the rest afforded to them by this time.

The fiftieth year, after seven cycles of seven years, is known as the Yovel or Jubilee year, in which all debts are forgiven, and land is returned to its original occupants. It ought to be mentioned here that even as such land returns to its original inhabitants, G-d makes clear to human beings that land is, in fact, not ours at all—we are merely tenants upon it. All land ultimately belongs to G-d.

As we are reading about the forty-nine years leading to the Yovel, we are simultaneously in the midst of counting the Omer, a practice that we do daily during the seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot.  On the fiftieth day after the first day of Pesach, when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, we would bring our first fruits, the first results of our post-Pesach wheat harvest. We rest on this day out of abundant gratitude for our produce, and with each day’s counting of the Omer leading us to this time, we are deeply conscious of where we are in this cycle, we pray will have an abundant end.

So, too, we count the years until the Yovel, marking the Shmita year with each cycle as we go, praying for years of bounty and plenty. The Torah instructs that when we are resting, we are to ensure that all members of society can engage in this rest. And, so too, when the Torah describes the three pilgrimage festivals, of which Shavuot is one of them, their rest and joy is meant to be felt by and available to all.

And so, I return to my Shabbatot in this time. I think often as I engage in my own Shabbat practice of the privileges inherent in being able to remain sheltered in place, with access to plenty of wholesome, nourishing food, a spacious yard to enjoy, and enough space so as not to feel too cooped up. With each passing Shabbat, I mark the time since I was with in-person community. I grieve that loss, and yet, I know deeply how truly lucky I am. The relative stability and security I presently feel should be available to all.

The Torah this week reminds me starkly yet again that the social safety net it envisions, a system of laws and practices rooted in the idea that all human beings are created B’Tzelem Elokim—in the image of The Divine is, at best, profoundly broken in our own society. We express gratitude for essential workers and first responders, calling them heroes. Many are showing the very best of humanity through how they are relating to those of us who are engaged day in and day out doing tasks which we would be hard-pressed to function without—and, if we’re honest with ourselves—hard-pressed to do ourselves. Yet, too many express nothing more than surface-level gratitude and are angry when a delivery is delayed. I want my package and I want it now. Workers going without essential PPE? Too many of us are more concerned with expediency than with protecting the health and safety of those delivering our longed-for quarantine goods.

In a society steeped in instant gratification, the notion of interdependence, that we are each ultimately responsible for and bound up with one another is foreign, anathema.

Let us heed our parsha’s radical calls for social responsibility and restructuring as we imagine and, G-d willing, co-create a more abundant world post-COVID. Just as our Torah instructs us to ensure that the needs of all are met before the Shmita year, let us work to reimagine a society that considers meeting basic human needs as a given and not an inconvenience. Just as we honor the cycles of time, experiencing periods of rest and labor, let us work ceaselessly to ensure that the rest our Torah calls us to engage in is something that all can enjoy and not merely a privileged few.

On Spiritual Seeking: A Dvar Torah for Parashat Vayeitze

This dvar was written in 5777.

Leah’s story has always cried out to me in this week’s parsha—darsheni! And no, it’s not because my Hebrew name just so happens to be Leah. I find much of Leah’s narrative to be deeply resonant and oh so human. Though on its face, Leah’s is a deeply troubling and tragic story, I think there is incredible inner strength to be found within it, as well as a wealth of contemporary spiritual and psychological insight for us all.

Immediately, my attention is grabbed by the first thing we learn about Leah—that her eyes are weak. There’s a classic debate as to whether or not this description of her eyes is intended to refer to a visual disability of some sort—as yet undefined—or whether, as many of us learned, her eyes were weak on account of the rivers of tears she wept upon learning she would be marrying Esau. For me, the important thing to note here is that this is literally the first physical feature we learn about Leah, and the Torah contrasts this optical weakness with her sister, Rachel’s beauty. Why this stark contrast? If, as so many of our Hasidic masters teach, the Torah does not give us extraneous information, why the focus on her eyes? I believe that this helps us set the scene for the way in which Leah’s life will play out. Already, we are here told that there is something physically unsatisfying about Leah, and perhaps this is the Torah’s way of beginning to offer us some justification for why Jacob doesn’t love her—the deceit aside, of course.

Leah, I believe, is keenly aware of her position. Observing daily the love Jacob clearly shows Rachel, Leah is left fruitlessly seeking, both the tangible, temporal love of her husband which seems to be constantly out of reach as well as, perhaps, a sense of closeness to God. If, as the Ohev Yisrael teaches regarding last week’s parsha, Toldot concerning Yitzchack’s wells, each of us has an inner well inside of us, and it is our task to ensure that that well is flowing with the living water from the divine source. However, that well is apt to become blocked, and it is so difficult to break through that blockage. Leah, unloved, unappreciated, seems very adrift, desperately looking for some way to fill that well to overflowing, and despite her efforts, nothing seems to change.

We first encounter Leah’s deep emotional distress when our Torah tells us that God knows that Leah is hated, and thus opens her womb, in contrast to her sister, Rachel who is of yet unable to conceive. In a certain sense, we could think of this as Leah having access to a powerful status marker; though she lacks the physical beauty that is so prized, she does have the ability to bare children, which will enable her to have greater social status perhaps.
She names her firstborn Reuven, from the root to see, for the Lord has surely seen my affliction (Gen. 29:32). “Now that I, his unloved first wife have borne him his first child and a son at that, surely, Jacob will love me!”

We know that Leah’s cry, Leah’s yearning, is for naught. After all, our Torah indicates to us immediately following this that Leah gives birth to a second son, whom she names Simeon—for God knows that I am hated, and so he gave me this one, too (Gen.29:33). Leah knows that God knows her heart. Indeed, Leah is going through the classic stages of grief that we are all familiar with, though we also know that those stages of grief are never linear and rarely as clear cut as they are made out to be.

Though Leah appears to be cognizant of God’s presence in her life and God’s care and concern as is aptly demonstrated with each successive naming, there is also a relentless seeking, a deep, primal yearning for closeness that is never fulfilled. Though with each additional son, Leah assures herself that this is the thing that will make Jacob love me, we know, or at least it is strongly implied that this is not to be. Indeed, after naming Levi out of a belief that now Jacob will be attached to her having borne him three sons, when she names Judah, Leah says only, now I will thank God. Notably, Jacob is absent.

The Noam Elimelech, in his commentary to Parshat Noach teaches the importance of elevating all of one’s daily physical actions in the service of God. Gashmiut is not ancillary to divine service—rather, what we are tasked with doing is revealing the hidden divine sparks in the mundane. Leah is in a situation that is at once both troubling and tragic, profoundly unjust and, also, in its own strange way, perhaps redemptive, at least in her social context in which a woman’s ability to conceive was one of her most important assets. Deprived of what she yearns for, Leah strives to overcome the obstacles not of her own making the only way she is able to, giving each of her children a name that is both emblematic of her feelings towards God and her hopes for her relationship with her husband.

In his commentary on Parshat Lech Lecha, referring to Avraham’s journey, the Degel Machaneh Efrayim talks about prayer—particularly, yehud kriat Shma as an act of mesirut nefesh—a complete nullification of the self as the ultimate act of devotion, stemming out of a primal desire for divine closeness and unity. Though mesirut nefesh is a state that the Degel teaches is something we should be striving towards, if we think about the notion as applied in our very messy and human world, it can be incredibly damaging. Leah is striving with everything she has—literally—to secure Jacob’s affections. Though he makes it abundantly clear that his love is for Rachel and Rachel only, Leah finds herself married to this man not by her own choice, and, unable to extricate herself from such a deeply unfair situation, does what she can to find some sense of rootedness or grounding. She knows full well that, through no fault of her own, she is at a profound physical disadvantage. God gives her access to the sort of capital, to put it perhaps too bluntly, that will allow her status to increase. But even that capital is not enough to make Jacob change.

As the Ohev Yisrael teaches us, though we each have that divine wellspring within, and though it is important to keep the mayyim chayyim within it flowing so we can experience a state of spiritual wellness, because we are humans living in all too human and broken world, that well within gets blocked. Perhaps those obstacles are temporal, financial, social, spiritual, structural, emotional. But rarely are they obstacles we can somehow overcome alone.

When the world feels destabilized, adrift, when the future feels deeply uncertain and profoundly scary, it is easy for us to feel like our foundation has been ripped out from underneath us. It can often feel like we are wandering through that metaphorical desert for longer than forty years, looking for some way forward. When we don’t have that sense of being grounded and rooted, we may use whatever we have access to find that safety and stability that I believe we humans all deeply crave. Making order out of the chaos all around us is something we achieve through whatever means or structures we have available. For Leah, perhaps her children served that function somehow. Setting aside the problematics of that possibility, Leah, I believe, was doing the best she could in less than satisfactory circumstances, and was doing so alone. Though Zilpa is given a cursory mention, we read nothing about anyone coming to Leah’s aid. Her inner well is blocked with no one but herself to get through that blockage.

Though our Chasidic masters teach us much about the spiritual seeking of the individual, ours is a tradition that invests a great deal in building community, be that through our rituals and religious practices or through coming together for simchas and times of deep sorrow alike. Interdependence, I believe, is something I believe we should be striving towards. Had Leah had a community around her, perhaps it would have been easier for her to manage her deep loneliness, and perhaps even depression. Rooted in community, Leah would have, perhaps, been able to channel her completely valid anger in a healthier direction for herself and her family.

On Deception and Its Consequences: Parashat Toldot 5777

I wrote this drasha originally in 5777 (November 2016).

When I read the story of Yaakov stealing Esau’s blessing from their father, Yitzchack in this week’s parsha, Parashat Toldot, I am filled with a wide array of often conflicting emotions. I feel a profound personal connection to Yitzchack, understand his pain and vulnerability on a gut level. At the same time, questions such as these gnaw at me: am I overanalyzing, projecting my own sense of what is right and just onto an ancient text? What was Yitzchack and Rivka’s relationship like and what would inspire Rivka, who in many ways is the individual with the greatest amount of agency in the story to do what she did? How can I square hers and Yaakov’s actions with what I believe Judaism calls all of us to do—to do justly, love kindness and walk humbly with God? And perhaps most importantly for me, how can I bring my own experience as a blind person to this text authentically?

Someone recently asked me if I was bothered by God’s apparent nonintervention. What does that say about our tradition—that our patriarch, Yaakov, received his bracha through outright deception? What does that mean for me, for all of us?

I have sat with that latter question for years. As I read the narrative every year, I am struck by the starkness of it. Yitzchack favors Esau, the hunter, Rivka Yaakov, who is an indoorsy sort of guy. Rivka believes the blessing is rightfully Yaakov’s but as we of course know, Yaakov is the younger of the twins, and the blessing belongs to the older. What to do? Yitzchack is aged, he is blind, and it should be easy enough to manufacture a plan to get Yitzchack to believe he’s giving the blessing to Esau, his favored son. We know how the story proceeds. Yitzchack calls Esau to him, telling him he suspects he is nearing the end of his life and implores him to go hunt game and prepare foods for him so that he can give him his blessing. Rivka, overhearing, devises a plan to deceive her husband. Yaakov initially protests, saying that a curse will befall him if Yitzchack learns of the deception. At Rivka’s insistence that the curse will be upon her if the deception is revealed, Yaakov dresses up in skins reminiscent of those Esau was accustomed to wearing, brings Yitzchack the game he requested and so on. Although it is clear from the pshat of the text that Yaakov and Rivka put much thought into this disguise, our Torah also gives us many hints that perhaps Yitzchack knew that something wasn’t adding up. The tragedy in that, from my perspective, is if it was indeed the case that Yitzchack sensed from the very beginning—highly plausible, in my opinion—that despite his disguise, Yaakov was not in fact Esau, he was completely powerless to do anything about it. It is that powerlessness, on top of the vulnerability he already experiences as an elderly blind man who has more than a few lifetimes of trauma and tragedy to contend with that pulls at my heartstrings and fills me with incredible despair and anger.

“Please come closer so that I may feel you, my son, whether you are really Esau or not. The voice is the voice of Yaakov but the hands are the hands of Esau”. Something just isn’t computing. “What isn’t computing”, Yitzchack might be wondering? “My son, Esau, is hairy, Yaakov is smooth, but I hear what I know to be Yaakov’s voice, though his skin is hairy like his brother’s. Is the knowledge I feel I possess deep within actually true, real, complete? I don’t know, I can’t know, because I cannot physically see the man before me. I have to believe that I am not being deceived, and so I do, even as I experience some uncertainty deep down. I don’t have access to all of the information independently that I want. I have a gut feeling that I am not speaking with my eldest son, but I’m going to shut down that nagging feeling. This is a blessing I must give to my beloved Esau. What if it is in fact Esau and I don’t give him the blessing? What then? I’ll go ahead and give this blessing to this son of mine before me with the faith I am acting as I wish to be”. On these verses, Rashi comments that Yitzchack asks to feel whom he believes to be Esau because he senses a different manner in speaking, not only in terms of tone of voice—Esau’s being stronger, harsher—but also because Yaakov mentions God’s name more often.

Of course, Yitzchack later learns that he has been deceived. “Who was it, then, who hunted game and brought it to me?…I blessed him and he is indeed blessed!” (Gen. 27:34). Yitzchack’s strong physical reaction, I believe, speaks to the fact that he was cognizant of his vulnerability and powerlessness to stop this cruel injustice. This is a feeling all too familiar for many of us who are blind or visually impaired. That playground bully who delights in disguising their voice as a test, only to laugh at us when we get it wrong, feeling like we are set up to fail in a system that structurally disempowers us, despite our best efforts to do all of the right things, the countless ways daily that we are made painfully aware of the inherent vulnerability in disability that living in an ableist society entails.

How could this deception have gone on unchecked? God is supposed to intervene on the side of the downtrodden and oppressed! How can I make sense of this in a way that neither apologizes for, nor sugarcoats the text, but allows for an honestly expansive read?

Yaakov, as we know, is a morally flawed character. Indeed, the rabbis are wont to remind us that ours is a tradition that prides itself on our ability to sit with the tensions and complexity inherent in the fact that our ancestors are portrayed in all the realness and messiness that it is to be human.

Yaakov faces a great deal of trickery and deception in his own life and must pay a steep price for that. He is first tricked into marrying Leah, Rachel’s older sister and later still, tricked into believing that his beloved son, Yosef, has died. And it is only at the very end of his life, as he, too, is losing his eyesight, that he learns his son is indeed alive, though a far cry from who he was a boy. Yaakov works fourteen years for Rachel, his beloved, and his marriage to Leah is a less than happy one, Leah always having to live with the knowledge that she is unloved. What a profound tragedy that is all its own. Had Yaakov not deceived his own father, would any of this have happened? Though we cannot answer that question with any degree of certainty, there is a significant lesson for all of us in this, and I believe this is what God is showing us. Our moral and interpersonal actions have consequences. God knows the secrets of our hearts. God knows when we are not living the way God calls us to live. Yaakov’s two experiences of personal deception allow him to viscerally access the pain he has caused, to understand the multiple emotional layers, the vulnerability, the fear, the anger. Hopefully, those experiences caused him to do tshuvah and a cheshbon hanefesh. Hopefully, he grew from those experiences. If our ancestors teach us anything, it is what not to do. Jokes about our dysfunctional family aren’t for naught. God is showing us, through the complex narratives of our ancestors, the consequences of thinking only of ourselves, using others’ vulnerability in the service of our own aims, and the ways in which that can land an emotional punch.

As we say thrice daily in our Amidah, God gives human beings knowledge, wisdom and understanding. Knowledge is a truly powerful thing. It allows us to learn, generation after generation, more about the experiences of others and how the things we may think of as harmless means of achieving an important aim may leave indelible marks. That knowledge, used intentionally and wisely, with full awareness of the past and our present context can also allow us to co-create a better, more abundant and just future for all, in which the vulnerabilities many of us carry are not used against us, a future in which our means of understanding and relating to the world around us is seen as a normal part of the diversity of the human family and not an aberration. Though God enshrines “lifnei eivir lo titen mikshol” (you shall not place an obstacle before the blind) in Leviticus, referring to physical obstacles, God shows us powerfully in our parsha and throughout Genesis that denying dignity to another is even more wounding. May we grow from our past mistakes and approach each day with the kavannah that we will act rightly in all of our worldly encounters.

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.