Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Heaven and Earth: Listening and Learning

Most of Ha’azinu, the shortest Torah portion, is a poem/song. In the opening words, Moshe calls upon heaven and earth as his witnesses:
Give ear, O heavens, let me speak;
Let the earth hear the words I utter!
May my discourse come down as the rain,
My speech distill as the dew,
Like showers on young growth,
Like droplets on the grass." (Deut. 32:1,2)
Is Moshe distinguishing between heaven and earth, or suggesting that together they constitute a whole?

In midrash Devarim Rabbah (Deuteronomy Rabbah 10:4), Moshe’s words are understood to attribute human characteristics to heaven, and if we pay close attention to the proof texts offered, we see something else, as well:
R. Yehoshua of Siknin said: From here you learn that the heavens have mouth, heart, and ear. Whence mouth? For it is written, The heavens declare the glory of God (Psalm 19:2). Whence heart? For it is written, And the mountain burned with fire unto the heart of heaven (Deuteronomy 4:11). Whence ear? For it is written, Give ear (Deuteronomy 31:1).
The choice of proof texts is fascinating: Psalm 19 is a magnificent paean to God’s heavenly presence manifest in the physical universe (treat yourself: read it!). Similarly, Deuteronomy chapter 4 speaks of the revelation at Mt. Sinai, an event that was a nexus of heaven and earth. We are accustomed to thinking of heaven and earth as separate domains, but Torah continually reminds us that the universe is one cosmic whole.

In the early 1960s, James Lovelock, working for NASA in conjunction with the Viking program to develop instruments that would detect life on Mars, formulated the Gaia Hypothesis. He posited that all of Earth and its biosphere, functioning like one self-regulating biomass, is a single enormous organism. Scientists debate whether Lovelock’s hypothesis is scientifically valid (among his critics are Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins who have expressed concern about its predictive capacity and teleological underpinnings). Lovelock’s thinking has been derided as neo-Pagan New Age religion.

But can we view the Gaia Hypothesis as a beautiful and powerful religious metaphor: if we see our world as a metaphorically living, breathing organism, rather than a treasure trove of natural resources for us to excavate and plunder, we see a path forward that is in keeping with Torah’s teachings about protecting the earth, serving as her steward, and respecting her resources. The path leads us to see interconnections throughout the universe that we missed – and that truly matter: ecologically, religiously, spiritually.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman 2009

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Have we lost the art of apology?

Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of the creation of the world, but more specifically, the creation of humanity. You might think this means Rosh Hashanah is a celebration of the wonder of us, but it’s not. It is a time for serious introspection, meditation, and prayer toward the end of facing our true selves with an honest, critical eye and asking: Am I the best version of myself I can be?

For each of us, self-improvement begins with patching ruptures of the past. Therefore, Rosh Hashanah is a time when we seek forgiveness from those we have wronged in the past year, approaching them to apologize and ask for forgiveness in the hope of achieving reconciliation. That’s not an easy thing to do because it means admitting our faults and failings.

There was a time when even if apology wasn’t easy, it was a normal thing to do. Today, crass behavior is often viewed as strength, and apology is frequently interpreted as a sign of weakness best limited to political necessity.
Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouted, “You Lie,” in the midst of the president’s nationally broadcast address on Health Care Reform. Whatever possessed him to interrupt in this manner?

Kanye West interrupted Taylor’s Swift’s acceptance speech for best female video at the MTV Music Awards ceremony to state his personal preference for Beyonce Knowles.

Serena Williams smashed her racket in anger (bending it irreparably) and then launched into a tirade against the line judge at the U.S. Open.
Rep. Wilson apologized under pressure, and a few days later declared he wasn’t going to apologize any more, casting doubt on the sincerity of his apology.

Kanye West, under immense pressure, offered three public apologies – the third on The Jay Leno Show -- before he finally got around to calling Taylor Swift to apology personally. Poor form.

Serena Williams is reported to have said, "I really wanted to apologize sincerely. I think the lady was doing the best she could. She was just trying to do her job. I would like to give her a big old hug and put it behind us." But did she apologize directly to the line judge, or only offer the semblance of an apology to the press? I don’t know the answer to this question, but I’d like to think she did.
If one says: I shall sin and repent, sin and repent, no opportunity will be given to him to repent. [If he says]: I shall sin and the Day of Atonement will procure atonement for me, the Day of Atonement procures for him no atonement.

For transgressions between a person and God, the Day of Atonement procures atonement, but for transgressions between two people, the Day of Atonement does not procure atonement until the one has appeased the other. (Mishnah on Yoma 85)
Many things pass for an "apology" these days: "I shouldn’t have done that to you, but here’s why I did it..." and "I’m sorry you feel that way" are but two examples. These are not apologies.

We can all do better. And when we do, we will repair our relationships, restore trust, and move closer to becoming the best versions of ourselves possible. And along the way, we will experience a wealth of blessings:
R. Chama b. Chanina said: Great is repentance because it brings healing to the world… R. Levi said: Great is repentance for it reaches up to the Throne of Glory… R. Shmuel b. Nachmani said in the name of R. Yonatan: Great is repentance because it prolongs a person’s life… R. Meir used to say: Great is repentance because on account of an individual who repents, the sins of all the world are forgiven… (Yoma 85)
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman 2009

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Who's on First? On Sinai? In Moab?

I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord your God and with those who are not with us here this day. (Deuteronomy 29:13-14)
These verses are part of Moses’ third and final address to the Israelites who are encamped in Moab and preparing to enter Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel). For our Rabbis, however, the “covenant” in verse 13 refers to Sinai, and these words were uttered when Torah was revealed.

Who are those who are standing here with us this day, and who are those who are not with us here this day?

Perhaps you noticed that “standing” is used in the first part of verse 14, but not in the second part of the same verse? Midrash explains that those standing here with us this day are all the Israelites who stood at Mt. Sinai when God gave Torah. The second part of the verse, those who are not with us here this day, refers to all the prophets and sages whose revelation and wisdom will fill the pages of Nevi’im (Prophets), Ketubim (Writings), and Talmud; they are not standing because they have not yet come to be. This interpretation permits the Rabbis to include all the elements of the Written Torah and the Oral Torah in the revelation at Sinai.
Another explanation of And God spoke all these words, saying: R. Yitzhak said: The prophets received from Sinai the messages they were to prophesy to subsequent generations; for Moses told Israel but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord your God and with those who are not with us here this day. It does not say “that are not here standing with us this day” but rather “not with us here this day” – these are the souls that will one day be created; and because there is not yet any substance in them, the word “standing” is not used with them… [Exodus Rabbah 28:6]
We find an even more expansive and inclusive view in the Talmud (masechet Shevuot 39a) where we are told that the phrase those who are not with us here this day includes all the future generations of Israel, as well as all who will enter the Jewish People through conversion. But the gemara goes even further making an even more remarkable claim:
…And from this [i.e., those who are not with us here this day] we know only [that the generations yet to be born were obligated to] the commandments that they received at Mt. Sinai. How do we know that they [the generations yet to be born, as well as future converts to Judaism] [were obligated to] the commandments that were to be promulgated later, such as reading the Megillah [the Scroll of Esther, read on Purim]? Because it is said, They confirmed and accepted [Esther 9:27]: they confirmed what they had long ago accepted [at Mt. Sinai].
This is about including all the generations of the People Israel in the Sinai covenant. The gemara is saying that not only are future generations retroactively included in the covenant of Mt. Sinai, but also future generations are included in future understandings of what constitutes Torah and its obligations, as interpreted by future generations, after Sinai.

How do we approach the notion of being born into obligation at a time and in a social milieu that rejects anything that conflicts with our complete and unfettered freedom of choice? How do we respond when our kids say, “I didn’t choose to be born Jewish”? We can respond by gently and calmly telling them that they are heir to many blessings: the blessing of belonging, the blessing of being accepted by a community, and the blessing of having a tradition and a heritage. They may not fully appreciate all this, but it is we, their parents, who make these blessings real and tangible and powerful for them by living them in our own lives. Our children learn more from what we do than what we say. Our words merely confirm the values we articulate, or prove us hypocrites.

© Rabbi Amy R. Scheinerman 2009

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Ki Tavo -- The Value --nay the necessity! -- of Joy

There are two mentions of the altar of unhewn stones in our Torah, one this week’s parashah, and one in Exodus prefaced with an “if.”

In parshat Ki Tavo:
There, too, you shall build an altar to the Lord your God, an altar of stones. Do not wield an iron tool over them; you must build the altar of the Lord your God of unhewn stones. You shall offer on it burnt offerings to the Lord your God, and you shall sacrifice there offerings of well-being and eat them, rejoicing before the Lord your God. And on these stones you shall inscribe every word of this Teaching most distinctly. (Deut. 27:5-8)
Earlier in Sefer Shemot (Exodus), we read:
Make for Me an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well-being, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you. And if you make for Me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones; for by wielding your tool upon them you have profaned them. (Exodus 20:21-22)
Rashi explains, “the purpose of the altar is to lengthen the human lifespan, while implements of iron (i.e. weapons) shorten it. It is therefore inappropriate for the executor to be raised upon the preserver.” Rashi is telling us that the altar, whose purpose is to affect reconciliation and peace, unity and harmony, was to be constructed of whole stones, untarnished by implements of violence or weapons of war. Accordingly, King Solomon would direct the construction of the First Temple from stones cut at the quarry so that no iron implements were used – or even heard – on the Temple Mount:
When the House was built, only finished stones cut at the quarry were used, so that no hammer or ax or any iron tool was heard in the House while it was being built. (I Kings 6:7)
The altar is, of course, the place sacrifices are offered to God. But our passage from Ki Tavo connects the altar with more than sacrifices: it is a place for rejoicing in our covenant with God.

In the Babylonian Talmud (Pesachim 109a), R. Yehudah b. Beteira taught:
When the Temple stood, joy was derived through eating meat [of the sacrifices]as it says, And you shall sacrifice there offerings of well-being and eat them, rejoicing before the Lord your God [Deuteronomy 27:7]. Now that the Temple is no longer standing, joy is derived through wine alone, as it says, wine gladdens the heart of man [Psalm 104:15].
Joy was an integral part of the sacrificial rite, and even after the Temple was destroyed, joy was still to be an integral part of Jewish religious ritual. Perhaps the unhewn stones of the altar also hint at an unhewn heart: one that should not be excessively tempered by social constraints of decorum and formality that stifle the joy we might feel and express in our religious ceremonies and worship. We have perfected the art of sitting quietly and politely. Have we lost the art of joy?

Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav taught: Dancing, singing (music), movement, and exercise of the body uplift the spirit and make possible a feeling of happiness. One should understand that simply the recognition of being Jewish is an amazing fact and a source of joy and happiness. And if one says out loud the phrase, “Praised is God who created us for His glory and distinguished us from those who were not given the Torah,” it has the potential to bring great joy.

Perhaps this explains the difference between the Exodus and Deuteronomy passages quoted above. The Exodus passage instructs the people to immediately make an altar of dirt, and if they should make a stone altar at some later time, it should be made of unhewn stone. The newly freed slaves are not yet ready to celebrate God with a whole (unhewn) heart. The passage in Deuteronomy reflects the time when that stone altar was about to become reality. The Israelite are entering the Land of Israel and celebrating the first fruits – they are ready for genuine, unbridled joy. Are we? Is it time to rediscover, cultivate, and nurture the experience and expression of joy?

May your week be filled with joy and your shabbat an expression of that joy.

© 2009 Rabbi Amy Scheinerman