• Teachings
  • Introduction to the Song of Songs, 2018

    Introduction to Shir HaShirim, Pesach 2018
    Chag Sameach!
    In the introduction to parasha Mishpatim in the Etz Chaim chumash, there is a line that caught my eye. It reads, “Our standards for how we treat others must be based … on the recognition of the image of God in every person and the presence of God in every relationship.”

    It struck me that we talk a lot about b’tzelem Elohim, being MADE in the image of God, but little about the PRESENCE of God in every relationship. What would it be like if we considered God to be present in every relationship? What would our lives be like if we took b’tzelem Elohim seriously; that in every interaction with people we are looking at a face of God?

    We have only to open Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs, to find a paradigm of the presence of God in relationship. The evocative poetry attributed to King Solomon paints sensuous images of an idyllic couple powerfully connected through their love for each other. Whether this work refers to a particular couple or the allegorical relationship between God and Israel, it beautifully illustrates what Martin Buber called the I-Thou relationship.

    For Buber, a 20th century German philosopher, the I-Thou relationship is characterized by “total presentness” and concern for the other person. God is the “Eternal Thou” and our relationship with God serves as the foundation for our relationships with all others. According to Buber, we encounter God through our encounters with other human beings.
    He wrote, “Meet the world with the fullness of your being and you shall meet God.” What a powerful message! “Meet the world with the fullness of your being and you shall meet God.” God is portrayed as immanent, a felt presence in every encounter if only we bring our whole selves to the experience. Buber’s promise is simple but not easy: Bring our whole selves to every encounter and we will experience God.

    What would our world be like if we encountered every person with “total presentness,” from the fullness of our being? How would it change the experience of our day? Our family life? The culture of our synagogue?

    In the yoga world, “Namaste” means “The Divine within me bows to the Divine within you.” Christians quote a verse from Matthew that states, “When two or more are gathered in My name, there am I.”
    What do WE have? We say “Shalom.” Shalom is one of the attributes of God. Shalom shares the same root as shalem meaning whole, complete, full. The new Conservative siddur and Machzor are called Lev Shalem—Full heart. When we wish someone a “refuah shleima,” we wish them a full, complete recovery, a return to wholeness.
    What if, everytime we greeted someone, or before starting a conversation or meeting, we said ”Shalom,” meaning “I see you in your fullness, your completeness, as who you fully are. I bring my full self to this interaction.” Would we not then become aware of God’s presence in every relationship? Would we not then treat each person as they truly are, created in the image of God?

    May we be inspired by the words of this megillah to bring ourselves present to all our encounters and to see God in each person we meet.
    I wish you a Chag Sameach and a heartfelt Shalom.

  • Teachings
  • Sukkot, 2016

    When I told my husband I was preparing this introduction to Kohelet, he asked me a simple question.  “Why do we read Kohelet on Sukkot?”  Simple questions are often the most profound.

    My first response—which may have come to your mind, too—is that dwelling in a sukkah puts us in touch with the fragility of life, and that is the message of Kohelet.  However, the more I studied the text, the more I appreciated the elegant way the author of Kohelet, said to be King Solomon, creates a “virtual” sukkah in which we can dwell.  Let me explain.

    When we sit in our sukkahs in South Florida, which can be blown over in a good wind, we experience in our own     bodies the vulnerability of our ancestors’ journey through the desert, as well as the vulnerability of our lives.  That vulnerability also appears in the final chapter of Kohelet which puts us in touch with our physical body in barely-veiled allusions to our declining faculties.  We read, “When the guards of the house become shaky,” referring to our arms; “And the men of valor are bent,” referring to our legs,” and “the maids that grind, grown few, are idle,” referring to our teeth.  You get the picture–and it’s not a pretty one.

    Dwelling in a sukkah also locates us firmly in the realm of Nature, observing the predictable movements of G-d’s Creation, of which we are an inextricable part.  One of the joys of this holiday is sitting quietly, under the stars, contemplating the Heavens.  We rarely give ourselves permission to just “stop” and immerse ourselves in our surroundings.  Sukkot gives us that opportunity.

    Kohelet is full of references to the natural world:  the opening chapter evokes the sun, the wind and the sea.  The well-known third chapter reminds us of the natural order of our world—a time for living and dying; for planting and reaping, for building up and tearing down.  Sukkot, as a harvest festival, celebrates Nature’s bounty and the abundance of G-d’s gifts in our lives.  Kohelet also exhorts us to enjoy Nature’s bounty, from the vineyard, the fruit trees and the garden, however transitory these pleasures may be.

    In Kohelet, we are also placed in Nature and in the Creation story through the vocabulary of the text.  “Hevel”, which appears 38 times in the text, is usually translated as futility.  It also means a “shallow breath”, so Kohelet reminds us that life is short, that the “breath” or “vapor” that G-d breathed into Adam also flows through us.

    Kohelet admonishes us that pursuing material pleasures is like “chasing the wind.”  “Wind” in Hebrew is “Ruach”, another connection to Bereishit, v. 2, “a wind from G-d sweeping over the water.”  “Ruach” also means breath or Spirit.  Perhaps Kohelet is suggesting that rather than chasing Spirit, we can receive Spirit by sitting quietly in our sukkahs.  We can welcome Spirit in, just as we receive our Ushpizin, our ancestors and invited guests.

    Kohelet’s advice, to fully enjoy our pleasures because everything passes away, reminds us that the only time we truly can count on is the present.  Rather than a pessimistic approach to life, this message presages the current emphasis on mindfulness—being aware of our breath and coming to life fully in the present moment.

    With these themes of vulnerability, the natural world and the cycles of time,  Kohelet conjures up a “virtual” sukkah that surrounds and protects us.  Sukkot is called “zeman simchateinu”, the season of our joy.  At the end of Kohelet, we are reminded to Revere G-d and to observe G-d’s commandments.  We do just that by dwelling in our sukkahs and celebrating the holiday with joy and gratitude.

     

     

  • Teachings
  • Cheshvan, 2015

    Healing Through Remembrance

    November, which includes the Jewish months of Cheshvan and Kislev, contains three holidays of remembrance. On the 9th, Kristallnacht recalls the destruction which presaged the Holocaust. On the 11th, Veterans’ Day honors our military personnel who made the ultimate sacrifice. On the 26th, Thanksgiving not only celebrates our blessings but also recalls the collaboration between the Native Americans and the Pilgrims.

    Remembrance is a core Jewish value. We remember our departed loved ones four times during the year at Yizkor and at every service with the Mourners’ Kaddish. We are commanded to “Remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy.” We read stories of our ancestors in the Torah weekly. We invite our matriarchs and patriarchs into our sukkahs. We pass our traditions down, L’d’or v’ d’or , so that they will be remembered and practiced by our progeny for generations to come.

    Memories often bring up sadness, but brain science teaches that we can retrain our brains to transform those memories into positive ones. Proust wrote of the pleasant memories evoked by the taste of a madeleine. The recent movie, “Inside/Out,” depicted core memories which neuroscience reveals to be core consciousness colored by emotions. We can choose to remember the happy times, even if the sad ones come up first. If we can increase our focus on joyous memories and experiences, we can heal the past and carry forward positive expectations.

    How do we do that?

    The recently completed High Holy Days offer some possibilities. Rosh Hashanah itself is called Yom Ha-zikaron, the Day of Remembrance. In the biblical readings for that day, we are told that G-d “remembered” both Sarah and Hannah, granting them each a child. Heart-felt prayer was the vehicle for their healing/wholeness (shleimut).

    In the Zikhronot/Remembrance verses of the Rosh Hashanah Amidah, we ask G-d to “Remember us for life,” and that “we may be remembered and inscribed before You …for life and peace.” We also “remember” our own sins, ask for forgiveness and resolve to do better in the New Year. This reawakened mindfulness can help us act from our highest selves and heal destructive patterns in our lives.

    A ritual for healing through remembrance called “Making Caring Visible” is described by Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, in her book, Kitchen Table Wisdom. Friends gather at the home of a loved one facing surgery or illness and pass a stone chosen by the hostess in their hands. While holding the stone, each person speaks of a quality that helped them get through a crisis. After all participants have spoken, the stone, imbued with all the healing qualities, is returned to the person needing support. She can carry it as a remembrance of the qualities and people she can call on to help her heal.

    Finally, healing inevitably leads us to feelings of gratitude. Every Jewish celebration includes a shehecheyanu for having reached this day. Miriam led the women in dance and praise after all the trauma of leaving Egypt and crossing the Sea of Reeds. We bench gomel, blessing G-d after emerging from a dangerous situation. We thank G-d every morning for awakening us to a new day and for restoring our soul.

    Authorities as diverse as Albert Einstein, Rabbi Harold Kushner and Deepak Chopra, MD attest to the healing power of gratitude, of remembering our blessings, of giving thanks. In this month of November, as we celebrate our heritage, both Jewish and American, may we receive the many blessings of healing through remembrance.

     

  • Teachings
  • Sukkot, 2015

    Healing Through Uncertainty: Lessons From Sukkot

    The celebration of Sukkot incorporates two paradoxical elements: the uncertainty and vulnerability of the Israelites living in booths in the wilderness, and the harvest and abundance of the agricultural festival described in the Torah (Exod.23:16). Healing from illness or waiting for a medical diagnosis reflects that same paradox: living with uncertainty even while living in the midst of plenty.

    What can we learn from Sukkot to help us through those uncertain times?

    Dwell in Nature On Sukkot, we dwell in huts, as our ancestors did; simple structures open to the elements. We are instructed to eat, sleep and live amidst nature, to experience the movement of light and darkness, night and day. The Torah tells us to “gather in your labors out of the field” (Exod.23:16), evoking the image of being out in nature, working under the sun. Healing traditions from Hippocrates to modern day cite the beneficial effects of being in nature. What better way to feel healed, connected to the Oneness of God and the Universe than by taking a walk, observing a flower, resting under a tree?

    Simplify When we live in our sukkah, we bring with us the mere essentials of our lives: food to eat, candles to bless, a place to rest. When we are sick or healing, we also reduce our lives to the essentials: rest, good food, our favorite pastimes, companionship. Through uncertain times, while we wait for the path to unfold, we can soothe ourselves with stillness, prayer, meditation and nourishing habits.

    Presence and Gratitude Sukkot invites us to live more fully present lives. We reduce our distractions. We leave our computers and cell phones in the house. We play with our kids, entertain friends, become aware of and grateful for the many blessings and abundance in our lives.

    Illness also forces us into the present moment. There is nothing like a pain in our body to make us acutely aware of our physical existence. Mind-body medicine teaches us that if we stay present to the pain, breathing into it instead of trying to push it away, we can lessen the severity of the experience. Acknowledging the discomfort of waiting for test results, the phone call from the doctor or the next procedure can help us stay present to our lives. Gratitude for all we have received up to this point can give us strength to take the next step forward.

    Hospitality On Sukkot, we welcome friends into our sukkah, including our ancestral “guests” (Learn more about Ushpizin/Ushpizot at http://www.ritualwell.org/ritual/ushpizot-guide ) We share a meal, snack or dessert. We make a blessing and socialize for a few hours.

    When we are ill, we tend to isolate ourselves. We may not be ready to share our anxiety or have our privacy invaded. Sukkot offers us a different model. We can engage one friend at a time, for a limited conversation. We can invite email wishes but not phone calls. We can unburden ourselves of the anxiety of keeping a secret and open to receive the prayers and blessings for healing from our friends. We can deepen our relationships by allowing our “guests” to share our sorrows as well as our joys.

    Protection and Surrender Sukkahs have been called “hugs” from the Holy One in that they embrace us like a hug with their three walls. From Elul through Hoshana Rabba, the 7th day of Sukkot, we recite Psalm 27 which includes the verse “Hiding me in His shrine, safe from peril, God will shelter me beyond the reach of disaster.”(Siddur Sim Shalom, p.80) In times of uncertainty, many of us turn to prayer. We find comfort in our faith in whatever ways we practice it.

    The sukkahs in the wilderness were surrounded and protected by the Clouds of Glory. When the Clouds lifted, the Israelites moved on; when the Clouds settled, our ancestors stopped. Perhaps the final lesson we can learn from Sukkot in dealing with illness and uncertainty is to surrender. We are not ultimately in charge. We are to take as active a role in our healing as we can, and then just follow the path that unfolds in front of us.

    The Talmud tells us, “There is no greater joy than the resolution of doubt.” While we’re waiting for that definitive answer, the lessons of Sukkot, the “Season of our Joy,” can help us heal.

  • Teachings
  • Introduction to the Song of Songs, 2014

    Song of Songs, April 19, 2014

    To many people, the Song of Songs may seem like a comfortable old friend. Its metaphors are familiar– “I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys” –and its beloved wedding invocation is known to all—“Ani l’dodi v’dodi li—I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.”

    But this Passover I want to challenge our assumptions and examine three aspects of the Song through new eyes, through the lens of gender, metaphor and anthropomorphism.

    GENDER

    The traditional interpretation of this poem is an allegorical account of the love between God and Israel. God is described as “clear-skinned and ruddy” with locks “black as a raven.” Israel is the comely bride whose love is “more delightful than wine.”

    However, there are many passages in the text that are ambiguous, where descriptions contain both masculine and feminine imagery. In Chapter 4, verse 4, the female’s neck is likened to a tower; in chapter 7 the tower imagery is repeated and also applied to her nose. Towers are architectural and military images usually associated with males. Also, many of the wide variety of animal images depict both males and females; the eyes of both lovers are compared to doves; the gazelle is paired with both genders.

    The usual interpretation of the Song of Songs is to look at it from this male/female perspective. However, as our modern sensibility now includes a wider perspective on gender identity, we can consider two additional approaches to the text.

    The first approach is that this ancient text describes both “male” and “female” characteristics that each of us possesses. Our task as maturing adults is to bring these complementary opposites into harmony and balance. This is the same message we find in Kabbalah, that it is our life’s work to balance the male and female attributes of God within us. In the Song of Songs, for example, the maiden is described as having both male and female attributes. “Chesed,” a male aspect, is found in the lovingkindness of the maiden. “Din,” the female trait of judgment, describes the maiden when she is compared with
    Tirzah, one of the daughters of Zelophehad. “Tiferet,” beauty or compassion of the heart, which pervades this poem, is the balance between the two.

    The second approach regarding gender is that sexual identity and orientation are viewed through a wider lens today than in the past. The ambiguous imagery of the Song of Songs opens this poem up to more universal appreciation. Great love poetry is written and enjoyed by people of all sexual orientations. Just as assigning gender to God limits the possibility of all God is, assigning gender roles to the lovers in Song of Songs limits our appreciation of it. The love affair between God and Israel is big enough to encompass beloveds of all persuasions.

    METAPHOR

    The richness of the language of Song of Songs derives from the repeated use of comparisons throughout the poem. Almost every line is filled with figurative language: “Your hair is like a flock of goats streaming down Mount Gilead. Your teeth are like a flock of ewes climbing up from the washing pool. Your lips are like a crimson thread, Your mouth is lovely. Your brow behind your veil gleams like a pomegranate split open.”

    This is the language of poetry, and it softens our hearts. How much more affecting are these lines than simply saying, “My love is beautiful.” And while we’re not all poets and we don’t usually think of our beloveds in florid terms, perhaps this poem can teach us to open our eyes and speak from our hearts.

    When we say our child is “smart” or “handsome”, we label them and, in a sense, limit them. We’ve defined them, put them in a box, taken a snapshot in time and reduced them to a label. How much more alive our children become if we describe them as having an inquisitive mind, a good heart, a keen eye. Try this: take a moment to picture a loved one in your mind’s eye. Now describe him or her with one adjective; then, flesh that description out: his hair is like……; her eyes shine like….; his spirit is like……

    Notice how your heart opens with each expanded description, how much more connected you feel to the person you’re envisioning. The lesson in this is to catch ourselves seeing other people as “is” or dismissing them as known quantities with a one-word descriptor. If we think about their attributes the way the poet does, describing rather than defining, we also change the way we relate to them. And, if we share our perceptions with them, they may respond to us differently as well—heart to heart.

    ANTHROPOMORPHISM

    Susanna Heschel, speaking at B’nai Torah Congregation, defined anthropomorphism in the Bible as our attempt to describe God from our perspective—assigning God a body like ours. She then suggested we flip the roles and imagine God defining us from God’s perspective, according us the same Divine attributes we ascribe to God.

    What would the Song of Songs be like from God’s perspective? If this is truly a love song between God and Israel, would we be reading a sensual description of the physical attributes of the lovers? Would God dwell on the sexual attraction of the two lovers? Perhaps. But can we instead envision a poem extolling the ethical and holy characteristics we attribute to God applied to man?

    On festivals we sing, “Adonai, Adonai, El rahum v’hanun… God gracious and compassionate, patient, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, granting pardon.” What if we imagined God writing a love poem to Israel that extolled the spiritual virtues of God’s lover rather than the physical form. Might our graciousness be “more delightful than wine,” our compassion as sweet as “an apple tree among trees of the forest?” Can you put yourself into the poem as the object of God’s love, showered with God’s blessings for the holy attributes you possess and the holy work you do in the world?

    As you read this evocative love poem, dwell in the poem’s universal statement about love; open your heart to its metaphors; and imagine the possibility of another love poem replete with images not of the body but of the soul.

  • Teachings
  • Staying Healthy Through the Seasons: Lessons from the Jewish Calendar

    Months and days and nights and solstices and seasons and cycles and passages of
    the year were before the Holy One of Blessing.  The Holy One passed through the
    year, and then passed these teachings on to Adam in the garden of Eden, as it is
    written…There will never cease from the earth planting and harvest, heat and cold,
    summer and winter.  Seedtime is the season of Tishrei.  Harvest is the season of
    Nisan.  Cold is the season of Tevet, and heat is the season of Tammuz.  Summer in
    its time and winter in its time.—Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 7

    As the well-known verse from Ecclesiastes tells us, “To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under the sun…” The Jewish calendar is not random but an ordered progression through the wheel of the year, with holidays falling at their proper time:  Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, at the darkest time of the year;  Pesach at the time of new beginnings and Sukkot at harvest time.

    The cycle of seasons also yield secrets of healthy living to keen observers of nature.  Ancient and modern healing traditions advise living in harmony with the seasons.  Judaism provides us with a shortcut to understanding the seasonal imperatives in the symbolism of the four elements.

    The Koshnitzer Maggid writes in Avodat Yisra’el:

     Everything that exists is composed of the four elements, fire, wind, water, and
    earth.  And these elements are in opposition to one another.  For example, water
    extinguishes fire, while wind fans its flames.  Each of the elements exists in a
    complex relationship with the others.  This claim that such diverse and even
    oppositional elements can come together and form compound matter defies all
    logic.  But they do.  A spiritual force unites them and completes them…and that is
    God.

    Each element corresponds to a season:  fire/summer; water/winter; wind or air/spring and earth/fall.  The oppositional relationship the Koshnitzer Maggid refers to is described as the Inner and Outer aspects of each season by Rabbi Jill Hammer in her book The Jewish Book of Days.  For example,  the Outer element of Summer is Fire, since Summer is characterized by heat; Water, the Inner element,  provides the balance to keep the fire in check so it doesn’t get out of control.

    The chart below is a graphic illustration of the relationships of the elements to the seasons and months of the year.

    4-element-chart

  • Teachings
  • First Commandment, Shavuot 2013

    The eve of Shavuot is one of the most awesome dates on the Jewish calendar.   Imagine yourself going back in time and standing again at Sinai as our forbears did three millennia ago.  According to the Talmud, the soul of every Jew was at Sinai, so return now to re-experience that event.

    Close your eyes and rock a little bit on your feet.  Remember that you have fasted for 3 days, have purified yourself and are now waiting at the foot of the mountain with a mixture of fear and awe.  Suddenly,  the ground starts to tremble under your feet.  The air crackles around you and you lift up your arms to the Heavens.  The Heavens are filled with thunder and lightning.  From the top of the mountain, you hear the Voice which fills all the space around you:

    Anochi  Adonai  Elohecha, asher hotzeticha mei’eretz mitzrayim mi’bait avadim…

    I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage…

    Feel in your body your connection to that overwhelming experience that our ancestors witnessed on Shavuot.  Midrash tells us that it was so literally earth-shaking that the people fled after the second utterance, begging to hear the rest from Moses, unable to stand in the Divine presence any longer.

    Now, sit down quietly.  What do you remember of the first commandment?  While the first commandment makes explicit the connection between Passover and Shavuot…we were taken out of Egypt and brought to this holy mountain 50 days later to receive the covenant… what most of us remember of the first commandment are the first three words, “ Anochi Adonai Elochecha, “ “I am the Lord your G-d.”

    The Ten Commandments are said to contain all 613 mitzvot.  In fact, there are 620 letters in the 10 Commandments, which are said to stand for the 613 mitzvot plus the 7 Noahide laws.  It is also said that all the commandments are contained in the first two  (one positive and one negative) and that the first two commandments are contained in the first one.  The first commandment is then contained in the first word, Anochi,  and the first word is contained in the first letter, Aleph.  This reductive analysis begs further exploration.

    The first question that comes to mind when we read this commandment in parashat Yitro is, “Why Anochi?”  “Why not the often-used word, Ani, to mean I?”  In fact, Ani appears  112 times in the Torah, while Anochi appears just a handful of times, and each time it refers to something concealed.

    Anochi, in fact, comes from the Egyptian language, so it would have been understandable to the people.  Since it is an unusual usage, it grabs your attention.  Anochi places a strong emphasis on the individual; Ani, on the other hand, emphasizes the action.  Anochi says, “I” am the Lord your God.

    The difference in spelling between Ani and Anochi is the addition of a “chaf” in Anochi.  This is the same letter that appears in the word “Keter” which means “crown” and is the first sephira of the Kabbalistic  Tree of Life, denoting God’s kingship, the first Divine emanation from the Heavens into this world.  Kaf also begins the word “kavannah” which relates to one’s intention.  And the “kavannah” of the first commandment establishes the personal connection between God and the Israelites.

    This is further reinforced by the grammar, because the pronoun suffixes of “elohecha” and “hotzeticha” both refer to “you” in the second person singular.  This is an unexpected usage, since G-d is addressing the whole multitude gathered at the foot of the mountain.  The message that the grammar emphasizes is that this is a personal G-d who is making a personal covenant with each individual standing at Sinai—then and now.  This is not the impersonal G-d who created the Universe.  This is the personal G-d who took us out of the Land of Egypt, the house of bondage.  One unique G-d making a connection to each unique individual.

    Next, Focus on the first letter, Aleph.  There’s a sweet midrash that says that for 26 generations, the letter Aleph complained to G-d, “I’m the first letter of your letters, yet you didn’t create the world with me.”   “Don’t worry,” said G-d.  “Tomorrow when I come to give My Torah at Sinai the first word I say will begin with you.”

    The Aleph is made up of  2 yuds and a vav.  The diagonal vav has been likened to Jacob’s ladder, which connects the upper and lower realms of Heaven and Earth, represented by the two yuds.  Looking at the letter in that way, gives a physical representation of the verse from the Zohar, “As Above, So Below.”  We also know that the double yud is used as a symbol for G-d’s name, Adonai.

    Taking this a step further, by deconstructing Aleph into its parts (2 yuds and a vav) the gemmatria or numerology of Aleph becomes 26, which is the same as the gemmatria of the 4-letter name of G-d,

    Y-H-V-H.   If we draw the 2 yuds with the vav vertically between them, it’s apparent that every face carries an aleph on it.  This calls to mind the verse from Psalms which appears,  “Shiviti Adonai l’Negdi Tamid”, “I keep G-d before me always.”  One of the ways we keep G-d before us is by carrying the aleph on our faces.  It gives new meaning to “b’tzelem  Elohim,” that we were created in the image of G-d.  And it gets even better…

    Since the gemattria of Aleph is the same as that of Y-H-V-H, if we write the Y-H-V-H   vertically, you can see that we carry the 4-letter  name of G-d on our bodies.  The yud forms the head; the upper hay, the arms; the vav, the torso; and the lower hay, the legs.  In addition, these 4 letters correspond to the 4 levels of soul, starting with the yud—the transcendent; the hay, the intellect; the vav, the emotions; and the lower hay, the physical.  What’s more, if you write the beginning of the first commandment vertically, you see that the words also correspond to the four levels of the soul:  I am—transcendent; the Lord—intellect; your G-d—personal/emotional; who brought you out of the Land of Egypt—physical.

    Getting back to the letter aleph, it is the first letter of many important words in our tradition:  Elohim; Adam; Avraham, emet (truth),  ahavah (love) ayin (nothingness) and echad , meaning “one”.  One is also the gemmatria of the letter aleph, since it is the first letter of the alphabet.  Midrash teaches that G-d addressed the aleph, saying it stands at the head of the aleph-beit like a king.  “You are One, I am One and the Torah is One,” says G-d.

    The aleph itself makes no sound, but communicates volumes.   It is said to be the sound you don’t hear before every utterance when you speak a word in awe.   Aleph makes no sound, but gives birth to the entire aleph-beit.  Everything emanates from the stillness, from the silence.  In contrast to the thunder and lightning of revelation, there is a midrash that says:

    When the Holy One gave the Torah, no bird screeched, no fowl flew, no ox bellowed, none of the ofanim (angels) flapped a wing. The seraphim did not say “Holy, holy, holy,” the sea did not roar, none of the creatures uttered a sound.  Throughout the whole world there was only a deafening silence as the Voice went forth, “I am the Lord your G-d.”

    I was very moved when I read that, because in my own personal prayer experience, I’ve noticed that at the end of the Amidah, where we insert our personal prayers, I suddenly get very still.  However much I’ve been swaying or bowing or otherwise moving, at the moment I close my eyes and go inward, everything stops and I get very quiet.  From this place of stillness, I can then reach toward the Divine.  This recalls a line from psalms which says, referring to G-d, “To you, silence is praise.”

    Finally, there is a concept from Kabbalah, which, by the way, means to receive.  The Kabbalists tell us that G-d created the world by contracting G-d’s self to make space for something new to appear.  In the first commandment, we can trace that contraction all the way back to the first letter, aleph, the soundless breath from which the covenant arises and expands to fill our whole world.

    As you stand tomorrow to hear those words anew, quiet yourself inside and find that space in your own body, in your own soul, where you can receive this covenant  and re-experience the revelation at Sinai:

    Anochi Adonai Elohecha….

    Shavuot

  • Teachings
  • Kohelet, Sukkot 2013

    I usually don’t look forward to reading Kohelet because of its negative and misogynistic bent.  The text opens with “Havel Havelim”, “Vanity of vanities,” “Utter futility…”  Why do we even read such a message on Sukkot, a holiday of Thanksgiving and harvest?

    Then I remembered the popular peace song from the 60’s– Turn, Turn, Turn— that comes almost verbatim from the third chapter of Kohelet—Sing it with me:  To Everything—turn, turn, turn—There is a season—turn, turn, turn—And a time for every purpose, under Heaven.

    The message to live in harmony with the cycles of seasons as we follow the Jewish Calendar through the year is a very positive one.  In addition, the title of this megillah, Kohelet, means “Gatherer” or “Gatherings” and Kohelet is full of wise adages like, “A good name is better than fragrant oil.” Another is, “It is better to listen to a wise man’s reproof than to the praise of fools,” and also, “Better a patient spirit than a haughty spirit.”  How does this useful advice and upbeat theme mesh with the pessimism of “Havel havelim?”

    The Jewish approach to an apparent paradox in a text is to look more closely at the text itself.  When we do that with Kohelet, a new possibility arises.  There are 3 words that are repeated over and over again in Kohelet :  Hevel, Shemesh and Adam.  Hevel, translated as vanity or futility, also means “breath, vapor or mist.” It indicates something insubstantial, something transient, so the “utter futility” of Kohelet is an allusion to the impermanence of the material world, just like our sukkot.

    However, words meaning “breath” in Hebrew are also used to refer to the different levels of soul—nefesh, ruach and neshamah.  So Hevel can be a reference to the life force that inspires us, and “utter futility” can be a reminder to pay attention to our breath, to the breath of life through which we were created.  Rather than lead us to despair, “Hevel havalim” can inspire us to see everything as infused with the breath of life and of God.

    We know that the other two words—Shemesh and Adam—mean “Sun”—S-u-n—and Man or Earth.    Listen to some of the other words found in the beginning of Kohelet ; what do they call to mind? Di-ber (Word); Ruach (Wind); Mayim(Water); Shamayim( Heaven); Afar(Dust); Gan(Garden); and Shivii(Seven) which appears near the end.  Sound familiar?

    These are the same words found in the Creation story in B’reisheit where God SPOKE the world into being; where a WIND from God swept over the water;  where HEAVEN and EARTH were finished; where God BREATHED life into DUST and created ADAM; where God put Adam and Eve in the GARDEN; and rested on the SEVENTH day.    Also, the word Hevel is referenced SEVEN times in verse 2 of Kohelet and Hevel also is the Hebrew name of Abel, the firstborn of Adam and Eve.

    Another way Kohelet is connected stylistically to the Creation narrative is in its use of pairs:  God separated the light from the darkness, the water from the dry land, day from night.  Kohelet links “a time to be born and a time to die,” “a time to plant and a time to uproot.”  Eve bears two children, Cain and Abel;  and, of course, the animals went into the Ark “two by two.”

    There is another interesting parallel between B’reishit and Kohelet.  In Genesis 2:16 we read:

    And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you are free to eat

    This is the proof text for the Noahide laws, the commandments incumbent on all humankind.  The Sages read into this verse the prohibitions against blasphemy, idolatry, adultery, murder and robbery.  These are called the mitzvoth b’nei Noach—laws incumbent on all the descendents of Noah.

    At the end of Kohelet, the author gives us a similar message:

    The sum of the matter, when all is said and done:  Revere God and observe His commandments!  For this applies to all mankind.

    Thus mitzvoth at the end of Kohelet point us back to the mitzvoth b’nei Noach of B’reishit.

    There is more than just a semantic connection between Kohelet and B’reishit.  In ancient times, it was the custom to read Kohelet in 4 parts—on the first 2  days of Sukkot, on Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.  Since the Torah readings from  Sukkot to Shemini Atzeret relate to the set times for the Festivals, reading Kohelet during this period reinforced the message of the cycle of seasons of the Jewish calendar.

    Then, on Simchat Torah, we turn from the end of Deuteronomy to the beginning of Genesis—from D’varim (Words) to B’reishit (Creation).  Kohelet acts as a bridge text, foreshadowing B’reishit through its imagery, its vocabulary and its message of mitzvoth.

    In Pirke Avot we are told about the Torah to “Turn it, turn it for everything is in it.” Next week, as we gather to celebrate Simchat Torah, think about Kohelet and its connection to the beginning of the Torah.  As we turn it, turn it and turn ourselves again, beginning a new cycle of time, remember to breathe in our connection to God, as God breathed Creation into being,  and to fill our lives with the joy of mitzvoth, the joy of this holiday season and every day of our lives.

     

  • Teachings
  • Introduction to the Song of Songs, 2012

    The Song of Songs raises many questions:

    Is it a unitary composition or, as many commentators believe, a collection of love poems and wedding songs?

    Why is it read on Passover?  One popular explanation is that young love blooms in the spring and Passover is the Spring holiday.

    Is it a literal love song between a shepherd and a woman of Jerusalem, or an allegory of the love between God and Israel?  Either view can be supported.

    Why was it included in the Biblical canon?  No one knows for sure, but Rabbi Akiva called it the Holy of Holies.

    I’d like to take a step back and look at the 5 megillot as a whole, before focusing on the Song of Songs.

    All 5 books—Song of Songs; Book of Ruth; Lamentations; Ecclesiastes and Book of Esther—are either stories of strong, assertive women or are full of female imagery.  Song of Songs gives voice to young love.   Ruth speaks to the mature love of female companionship.   Esther models women’s power and leadership.   Eicha gives us the image of Jerusalem as a widow, sitting amidst her destruction.  And Kohelet counters the futility of the material world with the female imagery of nature, balance and flow.

    Because these books focus on positive feminine attributes, one commentator even suggests that these 5 books were intended as instruction for women in the Women’s Courtyard of the Temple.

    Alicia Ostriker, a contemporary Biblical scholar, calls these books “counter-texts.”  They challenge the dominant structures of authority in the Bible as a whole and in traditional interpretation.  The Song of Songs fits the definition of counter-text in many ways:  the conspicuous absence of God ; the lack of national themes; the anti-patriarchal character of the book;  its private, domestic setting;  and the egalitarian relationship between its protagonists.

    There are 3 main voices in the Song of Songs—the Shulamite woman, her lover, and the daughters of Jerusalem, who form a type of Greek chorus, or, as scholar Dr. Amy Kalmanofsky calls them, a “sisterhood” whose role is to advance the action.  The woman’s voice is the most prominent, calling out to her lover, searching for him, dreaming about him.  There are numerous references to her “mother’s house” but never to her father’s.  Her brothers are called “her mother’s sons,” not her father’s sons.

    One of the anti-patriarchal aspects of the Song of Songs is the equality of the woman and her lover, and the mutual of expression of their love.  The woman and man are equal in their interactions, even sharing similar descriptive phrases, like “your eyes are like doves.”  Each says to the other, “Look at you!  You are beautiful.”  There is no subordination of the female to the male.  In fact, it is the woman who is more assertive, who goes out looking for her lover, who takes control of her own desire.  This book presents us with a model of interdependence and mutuality.  That is the message that their love brings to the world.  On the allegorical level, the Song of Songs also suggests the possibility of a love relationship between God and Israel that is mutually interdependent.

    Returning to the question of why the Song of Songs is read on Passover,  the Talmud tells us that the Israelites were delivered from Egypt “on account of the righteous women who lived in that generation.” The story of those “righteous women”— Shiphrah and Puah; Miriam; Yocheved; and Pharoah’s daughter—is also considered a “counter-text”.  In many congregations, women chant the megillot.  If you have occasion to listen to womenchant the lyrical and erotic poetry of the Song of Songs, consider that women chanting ANYTHING from the bimah—no less evocative love songs—is a countertradition for our own time–and one we are proud and grateful to perpetuate.