Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Resolutions (Parshat Shemot 2015/5775)

Sixty years ago, film icon Marilyn Monroe (then 29 years old) jotted down her new years resolutions.[1] They reveal how seriously she was committed to acting and how deeply she wished to take full advantage of the opportunity to study with Lee Strasberg which had recently come her way. She wrote in her address book:

Must make effort to do
Must have the dicipline [sic] to do the following
z go to class my own always without fail
x go as often as possible to observe Strassbergs other private classes
g never miss actors studio sessions
v work whenever possible on class assignments and always keep working on the acting exercises
u start attending Clurman lectures also Lee Strassbergs directors lectures at theater wing enquire about both
l keep looking around me only much more so observing but not only myself but others and everything take things (it) for what they (its) are worth
y must make strong effort to work on current problems and phobias that out of my past has arisen making much much much more more more more more effort in my analisis [sic]. And be there always on time no excuses for being ever late.
w if possible take at least one class at university in literature
o follow RCA thing through.
p try to find someone to take dancing from body work (creative)
t take care of my instrument personally & bodily (exercise) try to enjoy myself when I can Ill be miserable enough as it is.

2015 is launched. Did you make new years resolutions? I want to recommend one more for all our lists. Id like to see us all open our minds about the nature and meaning of Torah. Much of the internal turmoil and conflict in the Jewish world originates in our seemingly eternal squabbling about what Torah says, requires, and means. Torah has always been, shall we say, an open book. I would offer that what we need in order to read it constructively as a community is open minds. Im aiming for something broader than אלו ואלו דברי אלהים חיים הן both these [the opinions of Bet Hillel] and these [the opinions of Bet Shammai] are the words of the living God (BT Eruvin 13b), which is about halakhah (Jewish legal decisions). Im hoping to open an umbrella so wide that Eruvins famous pronouncement will seem somewhat narrow in the scheme of things and our big, broad, diverse, wonderful Jewish world can all stand beneath it, keep dry, and make room for everyone. Toward that end, as we open Torah this week to Sefer Shemot (the Book of Exodus), I offer these thoughts (which admittedly are far too long but I trust youll read as much as interests you).

Sefer Shemot (the Book of Exodus) recounts the saga of slavery in Egypt, Redemption from bondage, encounter with God at Mount Sinai, and construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) in the Wildernessnot to mention many laws. The Book of Exodus is contained in Torah, yet tells the story of Israels receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai but just what is Torah itself? And what role does it play in the world and in our lives? The answers to those questions depends upon how you understand and define Torah. From Torahs perspectivethe story it tells of itselfit is Gods word revealed directly to Moses at a particular time and place and containing a particular content. From the perspective of secular scholars, it is an ancient text cobbled together from oral traditions that circulated in ancient Israel, that was edited and (for the most part) canonized by the time the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E.[2] and further edited by the Masoretes[3] in the 6th through 10th centuries.

Prof. Lawrence Schiffman (New York University) writes:

The unfolding of the history of Judaism takes place against the background of the interpretation of a revealed, authoritative body of literature. For Judaism this corpus is the text of the Hebrew Bible. The notion of a canon provides a fixed consensus on the contents of this body of sacred literature and, therefore, helps to give unity to the diverse interpretations proposed by the varieties of Judaism encountered throughout history. (From Text to Tradition: A History of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism, p. 58.)

Schiffman is saying, in essence, that Torah is a unifying text for a community that lives by its interpretations. As the anchor, Torah facilitates not only a variety of interpretations, but a diversity of forms of Judaism. Ironically, it goes further: the Jewish interpretative tradition extends to diverse understandings about what Torah itself is. The conversation about just what Torah is dates back to before the time that the content of the text was fully fixed. Sometime before the Masoretic period, the Rabbis wrote a midrash in which they envisioned a Primordial Toraha metaphysical Torahwhich God used as a blueprint to create the universe:

The Torah declares: I was the working tool of the Holy One, blessed be God. In human practice, when a mortal king builds a palace, he does not build it from his own skill but with the skill of an architect. The architect moreover does not build it out of his head, but employs plans and diagrams to know how to arrange the chambers and the wicket doors. Thus God consulted the Torah and created the world, while the Torah declares, In the beginning God created (Gn. 1:1), בראשית/beginning referring to the Torah, as in the verse, יְהוָה--קָנָנִי, רֵאשִׁית דַּרְכּוֹ The Lord made me as the beginning of His way (Proverbs 8:22). (Bereishit Rabbah 1:1)

Just as a king hires an architect to build a palace, and the architect works from a blueprint, so God opened the Primordial Torah, gazed inside, and created the universe. This conceptualization of Torah is very different from a defined text composed of specific words in a particular orderhowever open to interpretation we hold that text to be. The Primordial Torah is more akin to the singularity point and the laws of physics that emerged when the universe came into existence.

In another midrash, most likely written between the 9th and 11th centuries, Torah has taken on the characteristics of a specific text, but what is significant here is how precious it is to God: as precious as a daughter is to her father. The midrash is  explaining

God said to Israel: I have sold you my Torah and it is as if I were sold together with it, as it is written, [Speak unto the children of Israel,] that they take for me an offering (Exodus 25:2). It can be compared to a king who had an only daughter. Another king comes to the kingdom, marries the kings daughter, and asks to be allowed to go home to his kingdom with his bride. The brides father says to his new son-in-law: I have given you the hand of my only daughter in marriage. I cannot bear to be separated from her nor can I order you not to take her with you because she is now your wife. Therefore, I ask you to do me this one favor: Wherever you live, please construct for me a small room so that I can live together with the two of you because I must be where my daughter is. Similarly, God says to Israel: I have given you the Torah. I cannot bear to be separated from it nor can I order you not to take it with you. Therefore, wherever you live, I ask you to construct for me a home so that I can live there, as it is written, And let them make me a sanctuary (Exodus 25:8)]. (Shemot Rabbah 33:1)

This brings us to an even later and fascinating understanding of Torah that was offered by Rabbi Menachem Nachum Twerski of Chernobyl (1730-1787). The Chernobler rebbe was a hasidic teacher, himself the student of Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezeritch. Writing about this weeks parashah, Shemot, he tells us:

We all know the secret meaning of our exile in Egypt: דעת (being mindful of God) itself was in exile. We knew nothing of the Creator or Gods Torah. In the generation of the Flood people said: מַה-שַּׁדַּי כִּי-נַעַבְדֶנּוּ What is God that we should serve Him? (Job 21:15) Even though Torah hadnt yet been given in the generations before the Flood, it existed in this world as the power of the Maker within the made. It had not yet been garbed in specific worldly forms, such as it would have after being given.

From his first words, Rabbi Menachem Nachum is telling us that he views the Exodusthe entire storyas an allegory for a metaphysical truth: Its about being mindful of God, and the danger of losing that awareness. The Torah that interests him here is, likewise, the primordial, metaphysical Torah: the power of the Maker within the made. Torah is the inherent potential within the universe to burst into existence. This Torah, like the one the Rabbis spoke of in the midrash from Bereishit Rabbah (quoted above), which was analogized to an architects blueprint, existed long before Sinai, and indeed, as the Chernobler will go on to say, before the Flood, an event that marks a great change in the relationship between people, God, and Primordial Torah.

But at the time of the Flood, humans were so wicked that they cut both world and Torah off from their connection to the Creator. Both world and Torah were separated from their Root; that is why the Flood came to destroy the world.

Evil comes about when people sever their connection with the Source of all, the Root: God (or more accurately, the godhead, since were in the world of metaphysics here). Evil is, most fundamentally, a state of mind in which one sees oneself as separate from everything else, disconnected from the whole of the universe and the Source of existence (God and Torah). From the Kabbalistic viewpoint, when people become enmeshed in the physical world, losing perspective on their lives and how they fit into the bigger scheme of things, they descend into darkness, a place where evil is not only a possible, but even a likely, outcome.

In the wake of the horrific and meticulously planned and executed attack on the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdoas I write this, it is being reported that 12 have dieddoes this notion resonate? At this time, the gunmen are presumed to be Islamist terrorists who feel no connection to anyone unlike them, anyone who does not share their convictions and worldview. No connection, no understanding, no compassion. The result is the unleashing of evil, a flood of blood.

Rabbi Menachem Nachum goes on to say that the result of the evil and the Flood that ensued was that Torah was cast down into a shell. This sounds much like the divine sparks of the Shattering of the Vessels in the initial Big Bang of Kabbalistic cosmology[4]. We call that shell Egypt. What a marvelous image! The Hebrew term for Egypt is Mitzrayim which means narrow place or straits, a constrictive, imprisoning shell. Egypt, therefore, was a place of Exile from the very mindfulness, or awareness of God, that we need and seek to be whole and connected to one another and to the universe. Again, in accordance with a Kabbalist reading of the Exodus story as allegory, the Chernobler rebbe tells us, Israel had to go down into Egypt, to raise up fallen Torah. The Exodus, then, is the release of Torah and mindfulness of God from the shell of Egypt, from exilic separation from people.

By now you might be asking yourself: How could the Chernobler make this claim that Torah and God were released from Exile when Israel left Egypt, if Israel in the Chernoblers time was still living in galut (Exile)? How could he conceive things this way? And that is precisely the wonder of his interpretation. He challenges our conventional understanding and perspective, saying that Exile is not merely an historical condition; Exile is a spiritual state of mind that is not constrained by historical reality. Our minds are free to achieve mindfulness and rise above the historical and physical conditions of our existence. This is a keen and shining psychological and spiritual insight.

The next question we might ask is: How do we free ourselves to achieve this mindfulness? The answer, not surprisingly, is through the sefirot, which in the Chernoblers thinking means cultivating the middot (character attributes) of divinity: love, awe, glory, compassion, etc. This is a beautiful tie-in with Musar (Jewish ethics) which was not yet a full-blown movement in Twerskis time, but was definitely in peoples minds and on the horizon. The Chernobler is quick to assure us that using the middot as vehicles to attune ourselves to God and Primordial Torah does not mean that we have to perfect each attribute:

Everyone knows that reality of God [i.e., that God exists] (may Gods Name be blessed) and has mindfulness/knowing in proportion to his proclivity. Yet our qualities are veiled in exile: we have improper loves, improper awe/fear, and thus we use these attributes in ways that violates the will of the Creator (may Gods Name be blessed), who shaped and apportioned these attributes only for the service of God (may Gods name be blessed)If every one of us remembered that mindfulness/knowing itself was once in exile, but came forth from it, and we became aware of Gods existence, it would be easier for us to bring those personal qualities, as well, into goodness and away from evil. We would then use them only in ways that accord with mindfulness/knowing of God.

We dont have to be perfect, we dont have to be models of morality, we dont have to get everything right. How reassuring! What is more, there is a marvelous positive feedback loop here: When we recall the Exodus (as happens in both morning and evening prayers), we become mindful of God, who is made manifest through the middot, and in practicing the middot, we become attuned to God.

This is a message that speaks far beyond the boundaries of the Jewish community. It speaks to Paris and to everywhere in our world where failures of love, awe, compassion, kindness lead to brutality. It speaks to the Exile of primordial Torah from our midst and our inability to see the humanity of others and ones place in the universe.

Returning to the Jewish world: Imagine that our focus in the Jewish community were not on the minutiae of kashrut and ritual, and defensive claims of authenticity, but rather on what binds us together, strengths us, and assures not just our survival (too often the highest communal goal Jews aspire to) but our creativity, our flourishing, and the wisdom we have to offer the world. I know Im probably preaching to the choir but the pain of the present situationespecially as it is played out in the State of Israel todayis intense. With this in mind, please give some consideration, and perhaps make a new years resolution, concerning how you might contribute to the broader umbrella of Torah for the sake of Israel now and in the future.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[1] Marilyn Monroe, Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters, pp. 152-3.
[2] Arguments ensued for some time concerning the content of the larger compendium of Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), specifically the status of Proverbs, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and Esther. Talmud records some of these discussions.
[3] The Masoretes were communities of scholar-scribes who lived primarily in Tiberias and Jerusalem in Eretz Yisrael between the 6th and 10th centuries. Recognizing the need for a uniform biblical text, the Masoretes determined the canonical text of Hebrew Scriptures from among extent variant versions and added a diacritical vowel notation system for pronouncing the heretofore unpointed text. The result is the version of the bible we have today, also known as the Masoretic Text.
[4] Heres an excellent piece by Howard Schwartz on the central myth of Kabbalistic cosmology. It is entitled How the Ari Created a Myth and Transformed Judaism”—

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