Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Torah of Nature

[For the Ner Shalom Malakh - January 2010]

I am essentially a city (or city-ish) boy. I grew up in a suburb of Chicago, a brand new suburb, paved over a cornfield, where the trees were all saplings chosen simultaneously with the color of house paint, and whatever fauna had once frequented the fields had been officially turned out. It was an orderly and safe place, where nature was kept at bay. I remember our excitement when the first rabbits moved in, and then the squirrels; and our dismay at the first opossums, which seemed like science-fiction versions of the rats my parents had left behind in the city.

I now live on Sonoma Mountain which, though far from being Wilderness, has been my first chance to notice Nature's constant voice. I've begun to learn the futility of planting water-guzzling imports instead of California natives. I've begun to appreciate the deer's grace and the jackrabbit's speed and the bobcat's caution. I've witnessed the destructive power of a single branch falling from a tree that was far bigger and older than I. I don't exactly feel like an intruder here, but I definitely feel like a novice.

As Diaspora Jews, we've been forcibly separated from Nature through our history of confinement to shtetlach and laws prohibiting us from working the land. We conceive of Jewish life and Jewish culture as being urban. Our prayers, after all, happen indoors.

But our texts do not require this, and those who go outdoors to pray find new life breathed right into them. Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav used to require his Chasidim to take walks in the woods, and to pray their hearts not in Hebrew, but in whatever words naturally came to them as they walked under the branches and leaves.

We have another tradition, often overlooked, that has come down to us, and sits right on Page 704 of the siddurim sitting in our sanctuary. It is called Perek Shira. It is an assemblage of some of our most magnificent nature-based quotes from Psalms, Song of Songs and other Biblical books. But Perek Shira takes the extra, imaginative step of putting those quotes in the mouths of the animals, plants, rivers and mountains themselves, so that we hear all of Creation praising Creation. Our texts are moved out of the four walls of synagogues and yeshivot and are universalized -- as the voice of the Universe. So, for instance, the line from Psalm 96, "Then shall all the forest's trees cry out for you before The One," is re-set like this:

The trees say: "Then shall all the forest's trees cry out for you before The One."

Such a simple addition. "The trees say." But as it shifts the praise-filled voice from us to the trees; it invites us to be smaller -- to be just one voice in an infinite chorus of praise that constitutes the World we live in.

This is the text that Rabbi Shefa Gold will teach us during her weekend here at the end of January. She will bring her musical gifts, which Jewish communities around the globe have relied on for decades now, and her unique way of connecting song and text and Earth and spirit, to give us this teaching which she developed while on a pilgrimage to the Galapagos. We all know from the coverage of last week's Copenhagen conference the delicate balance upon which the Earth turns at this moment, and our own vulnerability when we think of ourselves as apart from or better than the Nature that gave birth to us. Perek Shira is one tool we may use to strengthen our resolve to heal the planet and ourselves.

Let's spend some time this month being aware of the world around us, as we prepare for our weekend with Shefa Gold. I look forward to seeing you there.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Toldot: Visualize and Act

[For Congregation Ner Shalom, November 20, 2009]

Why me?

How often do we ask this question? In turbulent times, confusing times? It's a question that presupposes some sort of destiny, yes? That is, why ask, "why me" if there is no possible answer?

"Why me" is the simple but fascinating question asked by our mother, Rebecca, in this week's Torah portion, Toldot. Lamah zeh anochi -- "why me" -- she asks when, after 20 years of marriage, she becomes pregnant with twins who twist and turn in her belly like pro wrestlers. These are the first words we hear from her since her marriage to Isaac, and one can't help wondering if her question refers not only to the turmoil in her womb but also to the whole direction her life has taken since leaving her father's house.

Why me? During the 20 years during which she did not have a child, we do not hear her asking lamah zeh anochi? Why me? She does not plead for a child, nor does she offer her husband a surrogate like her mother-in-law before her or her daughters-in-law after her. It is Isaac, not Rebecca, who pleads to God for a child. A part of me wonders if she was just fine the way things were. After all, she had, even as a child, more charisma, more spunk, more direction than most characters in Torah. When Abraham's servant, Eliezer, went back to the Old Country to fetch Isaac a wife, Rebecca watered and fed his camels all by herself, an immense task for one person. When offered a chance to travel to a place she'd never seen to marry a man she'd never met, leaving her father and brother, she reviewed her options and essentially declared, "Fire up the camel; I'm outa here."

Rebecca is a character who seems determined to live her own life. She is, after all, the major mover and shaker in this parashah. "Why me?" she asks God, and God answers. She carries two nations in her womb, she is told, one of which shall be mightier than the other (although we're not told which), and the older shall serve the younger (which is not the same as saying that the younger is the mightier).

This is a big prophecy. It doesn't exactly answer the question "Why me?" But it is a big prophecy nonetheless, and Rebecca takes it as a communication of her destiny.

Esau and Jacob are then born and Torah fast-forwards right to their adulthood, where Jacob buys his brother's birthright for the price of a bowl of stew. We all know this story. This is a first step toward the destiny Rebecca foresees, and it happens privately, between the brothers. But the next step comes when Isaac is old and his sight and his health are failing. He intends to give his deathbed blessing to Esau, and Rebecca helps Jacob trick his father into giving the blessing to him instead. When Esau realizes what happened, he turns homicidal. Rebecca warns Jacob and sends him away to her brother, saying "Let me not lose you both in one day." But she does. She has lost Esau's love and Jacob's companionship; she will not see him again for fifteen years. But she has secured the destiny described by God as she understood it. She has seen the younger son receive both the birthright and the blessing.

History sometimes judges Rebecca's character harshly. She is seen as conniving, even though in Torah's view the outcome is God's will and even though we, the Children of Israel, are the beneficiaries of her actions. Much as the 20th Century Jewish mother was mocked by her sons for the very traits that allowed those sons to succeed.

But Rebecca is a remarkable character. Isaac, let's face it, does not add much to the story of our people. He is the creme filling in the Abraham-Jacob sandwich. It is really Rebecca, not Isaac, who is the key player of that generation. She takes up the matter of our People's destiny and acts on it, just as Abraham did by leaving home, and as Jacob did by returning home. It is Rebecca who links Abraham to Jacob. She is formidable. She speaks to God. And God speaks back. She receives prophecy. And she takes action to make the prophecy come true.

It is this bit that especially interests me. God tells her that she carries two nations and the older shall serve the younger. But God does not give her an assignment in this matter. There is nothing in God's words -- or at least in what we overhear of them -- to suggest that Rebecca is supposed to do anything. The story would still have worked if she'd just shrugged her shoulders in response, and let nature run its course.

But no, she acts. Why?

I think I might have gotten a hint from something I read this week from Pirkei Avot, our first post-Biblical book. I was preparing a discussion for the post-Bar Mitzvah class and culling some quotes from the early sages. A famous one of Rabbi Akiba's jumped out at me. He says this:

הכל צפוי והרשות נתונה
Hakol tzafuy v'har'shut n'tunah.
All is foreseen, yet freedom of choice ("permission") is given.

I was so interested in this paradox that I did what any modern Jew would do. I posted it as my Facebook status this week and watched while my friends (and my "friends") struggled to make sense of their own sense of direction. It turns out the question was as alive for them as it was for Akiba.

Rabbi Akiba, living during Roman antiquity without the benefit of Facebook, Twitter or anything, was struggling with the still-new idea of God's omnipotence. If God is truly all-powerful, then is free will really free? Mustn't our actions be somehow determined by God? If they're not, then don't we have more power than God, at least over the small, personal matters: which hat to wear, whom to marry, which ice cream flavors go best together on one cone? If we are truly freely making those choices, then God is bound not to make them for us.

Akiba seems to offer a middle ground suggesting that both truths co-exist. All is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is given. Perhaps Akiba is suggesting that צפוי (tsafuy) doesn't mean "foreseen" as in "predestined." But rather something more like "envisioned." The word comes from the Hebrew root that means "to look ahead" or "to scout out." A mitspeh, from the same root, is a high place from which one can scout ahead, a "lookout." So perhaps your relationship to the future is as if you're on a mountaintop looking to the horizon. You are afforded a certain clarity of vision, at least over the broad landscape, even if you can't make out the details. Everything is envisioned. We visualize a big picture. And then permission is given each of us to control where that vision leads us. What actions we take. The skills, gifts, smarts, connections that we bring to bear on the question of here-to-there.

Rebecca had a vision. Given to her by God or perhaps divined from the turbulence in her belly. But it suggested a destiny to her, and then when she had an opportunity to bring about what she had foreseen, she did not hesitate.

Can the same be said of us? When we are in times of distress, the kind that lead us to say, lamah zeh anochi - why me? Does it lead us to new, broader vision? And does that vision lead us to action? We might not all be formidable like Rebecca. But still, does that excuse us for not acting? We all have some ideas about how things might be. For the future of the planet. For the future of Judaism. For the future of gender. We can all imagine so much. But do we take action?

Rabbi Akiba suggests that we must. He goes on to say in the next breath:

ובטוב העולם נדון והכל לפי רוב המעשה
 Uv'tov ha'olam nadon v'hakol l'fi rov hama'aseh.
The world is judged kindly and according to the weight of its actions.

Another seeming paradox. Thank you, Rabbi Akiba. It contains a comforting note and a challenging note. He says to us that when we are judged, by God or by history or by us, it will be done with a kind heart. In other words, all of our efforts, our intentions, really do matter. Our vision, our hope. But, he warns, the world will also be judged by its actions. In other words, our good intentions are good but are not enough. They are not an excuse for inaction.

"Dream," says Rabbi Akiba. "And act." "Envision and do."

Rebecca envisions or foresees something about her son Jacob's legacy. And she acts, at great personal cost. Most of our visions are far less pricey to act on.

We live in hard times. Everyone lives in hard times. We all feel the struggles in our bellies. In our souls. We feel the struggles in our communities. We witness the wrestling of ideas. And sometimes the older, stronger idea is not the one we want to see succeed. We recognize that our future lies with the newer, gentler idea, and that will require our care and our action.

Lamah zeh anochi we might ask at any such time. Why me? 

If there is a "why" then the answer lies somewhere in your ability (our ability) to envision - to see the horizon, the great landscape - and your ability (our ability) to act in the here, the now. Think globally, act locally, says Rabbi Akiba somewhere on a bumper sticker.

May we all see far. May we plot our course in the direction that calls us. May our good intentions fuel but not replace our actions. And when we look back on the path we struck, and judge it, may we be proud.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Vayera: Open Your Eyes. Oy, Open Your Eyes.

[For Congregation Ner Shalom - November 6, 2009]

Tonight we will talk about desperation and hope; about seeing and not seeing. Our Torah portion this week is called Vayera. It is the fourth parashah in Torah, and we know some of its stories quite well. Abraham is visited by men we understand to be angels; Sarah gives birth to a child in her old age; Abraham bargains with God to save the people of Sodom and Gomorrah (unsuccessfully); Lot's wife becomes a pillar of salt. There are great destructions and intimate sufferings.

One of the subplots that most interests me in Vayera is the story of Hagar. You might recall that Hagar had been Sarah's Egyptian slave. When Sarah found she was unable to bear children, she offered Hagar to her husband as a surrogate, so that Abraham's line should not die out. Hagar gave birth to Ishmael. But then in this parashah Sarah miraculously gives birth to Isaac and things change.

At some moment, Sarah sees Ishmael doing something that troubles her. She sees him metzachek - laughing, teasing Isaac, gloating. It's unclear. We don't know what the word metzachek means in this context and we never will. But whatever Sarah saw convinced her that Ishmael's presence in the household was a threat - to safety, to posterity, we don't quite know. She demanded that Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael into exile in the desert. Abraham questions this, but God backs Sarah, telling Abraham to follow Sarah's instructions and send away his firstborn.

Hagar journeys into the wilderness. There, wandering, lost, the food and water having run out, she at last gives in to despair. She sees no hope, no possibility of a happy ending, survival or any acceptable outcome. She sets Ishmael down under a bush and walks a bowshot's distance away, declaring that she will not watch her child die, a thoroughly harrowing statement. She sits down herself and bursts into tears.

But God hears the child's cry and sends an angel to Hagar. The angel calls from the heavens and assures her that God has heard the child and will save him, and that Ishmael will be blessed and become a great nation. Then God "opened her eyes" and Hagar saw a well. She filled her bottle and gave water to her child.

This story is packed with far too many troubling issues and surprising plot points to be able to discuss more than a fraction. But to begin with, I'm always fascinated and impressed that our tradition is willing to show our patriarch and matriarch in such an inescapably unfavorable light. We can come up with justifications for their actions, and that has been the project of many generations of rabbis and commentators. But they are nonetheless justifications of something that on paper, on parchment, just looks bad. The willingness to give holy status to a text full of our ancestors' shortcomings says a lot about our tradition's trust that we have the intelligence and patience to sit with difficulty and imperfection, and to understand the world in nuanced ways. This story contains brutal realism. Our ancestors were not gods or saints. Their lives, like ours, contained harshnesses of which they were not only victims but also dealers.

Similarly, I think it's also noteworthy that an angel speaks to Hagar. She is not our foremother. She is not a Hebrew. She is a slave. And she is a woman. You would not expect her moment of revelation, her interaction with the Divine, to be recorded. Even Sarah only overhears the words of angels through a tent flap. But Hagar is spoken to directly, in the depths of her despair. And surprisingly enough, we hear about it.

But besides surprise at the very existence of this story and in the way it is told, what can the story teach us? Because that's what makes Torah Torah. If it can't teach us, then it is not Torah, but merely ink on skin. So what is there here for us to learn?

There is a lesson here, I think, about seeing and not seeing. After the angel speaks words of comfort and promise about Ishmael's future, God, perhaps through the angel, opens Hagar's eyes and she sees the well. There is no indication that this is a miraculous well. It is not Miriam's well that legend tells us appeared in times of need. In fact, there is no indication that the well "appears" at all. It is already there, and Hagar simply "sees" it. Much as Abraham, one chapter later, holding a knife over the bound body of his second son, "sees" a ram caught in a thicket, that he hadn't seen a moment earlier, and offers it as a sacrifice instead. Two children, each saved by sudden sight. In each case, no new thing appeared, unless that new thing was openness to a new possibility.

In Hagar's case, despair had closed her eyes. And can't we all see ourselves in that? When we feel pained and unsupported in our pain, how many times have we let go of hope, or been tempted to? How many times has our suffering stopped us from recognizing help even when it is at our doorstep? How many times have we failed to perceive the deep wells of holy energy that can sustain us? There was no miracle in this story. Hagar is either told, or encouraged, or helped, by a Divine Being or maybe just by an instinct deeper and stronger than despair, to open her eyes. Help is there. But you have to open your eyes to see it. Use your sight. Use your insight. The well, deep and soothing and sweet, is waiting.

Good lesson, eh? And I think it's true, at least on a certain spiritual level. But, on the other hand, this reading isn't completely satisfying either. Too optimistic. It doesn't comport with our experience of the world. This is not the best of all possible worlds, and all we have to do is be awake to it. Sometimes no matter how awake we are, what we see is not good.

Tonight, as you know, we are remembering the lost Jewish community of Sobeslav, whose Torah scroll sits in our aron kodesh. The hundreds of Jews who lived in this Southern Bohemian town - butchers, carpenters, rabbis, healers, tradespeople, mothers, fathers, grandchildren - were forced, not in Biblical times but in our own lifetimes or our parents' lifetimes, into a situation of unspeakable desperation. The jaws of the Shoah closed in on them until there was no escape. They were dragged from their homes. They perished under circumstances that I'm both sad and happy to say none of us can even imagine. It would be false and insulting to say that help would have been there if they had simply opened their eyes and known where to look. Because I'm sure they looked. The kind of help that would have let them survive was not there or was not within reach. And it is foolish and wrong to think it was merely overlooked.

So, in light of the Holocaust and so many other calamities we can name, what lesson can we draw, if any, from Hagar's story? Maybe her story was a fluke, the rare happy ending. If so, then what about all the other Hagars whose stories we don't know but can so easily imagine? The displaced, the disowned, the despairing. How many of them didn't make it? Is the lesson then that there is always a divine source - or personal source - of strength and hope, but it might not always actually save you? Or there is a divine source of strength and hope, but it is conditional - conditioned upon certain factors which we don't understand or know how to predict? After all, what, if anything, made Hagar more deserving of hope and survival than the other Hagars, or than the Jews of Sobeslav and six million others like them?

Maybe we have to look at the story from another angle. We must ask, "Who are we in this story?" And then we must ask, "Are we certain of that?" We all naturally identify with Hagar. We identify with her suffering and her despair. But maybe that's not the only way to see it. Maybe the Jews of Sobeslav, for instance, are not Hagar in the story, even though they certainly rivaled her in displacement and desperation. Maybe they are not even the helpless crying child. What if those who suffer in the world, like the Jews of Sobeslav, are, in this story, represented by the angel?

After all, isn't it our belief, feeble though it may seem in the most brutal of times, that God suffers with us when we suffer? The Shechinah weeps with us. Or looking at it differently, if God is somehow a shared impulse, isn't God also our shared suffering? Perhaps the appearance of an angel in extreme times is a spiritual reflex of our own deep human suffering. It is our suffering's divine counterpart.

Haven't we all experienced moments when God feels more real and more intimate when we are in pain than when we are not? Don't our prayers feel especially real, especially grounded, and sometimes especially heard in those times? Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi teaches that If you want to make a prayer - any prayer - feel deeper, more real, more personal, insert one additional syllable: Oy.

Sim shalom. Grant us peace. Oy, grant us peace. Modeh ani l'faneycha. I'm grateful to be alive this morning. Oy, I'm grateful to be alive. Yitgadal v'yitkadash. Oy. May God name be exalted and sanctified. Oy.

So yes, maybe the people of Sobeslav were not the suffering Hagar, and not the crying child, but the angel, the messenger. They, like the millions of Jews and Roma and Queers stood, and their memory still stands, before the rest of the despairing, unseeing world, saying, "Open your eyes. Open your eyes. Open your eyes."

Sadly, unlike Hagar, it seems the world didn't, and hasn't yet. But maybe the angel is still speaking. We are the heirs of the Jews of Sobeslav and others like them. We hold their Torah scroll, but are we also ready to assume their mantle? To be the angel? To continue saying to the world, "Open your eyes. Open your eyes. There is a well of hope and healing. It is within reach. It can save you. It can save us all. But you must open your eyes to find it."

The angel is the messenger, but not the guarantor of the result. In Hagar's story the angel was successful. Maybe in the stories of others like Hagar, the angel was not. But in this world where God is a non-interventionist, we can't count on the outcome. But even so, we are not free to refuse the mission. As it says in Pirkei Avot: lo aleycha hamlachah ligmor v'lo atah ben-chorin l'hibatel mimenah. It is not your responsibility to complete the task, but neither are you free to abstain from beginning it.

Let us continue to speak to this despairing world. Let us be the messenger, the angel, with the memory of the people of Sobeslav and the millions like them as the wind under our wings, keeping us aloft, and on our path. Let us continue to speak to the world, to speak to history, and say, "Open your eyes. Open your eyes. Open your eyes."


Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Birthing the Unexpected

[Ner Shalom Malakh, November 2009]

The month of November opens this year with Parashat Vayera - a busy bit of Torah that includes Abraham hosting angels, Sodom being destroyed, Lot's wife turning into a pillar of salt, Sarah giving birth, Hagar being exiled, and Isaac being offered on an altar. (This was my Bar Mitzvah portion 36 years ago.)

This year I'm struck by the complex portrayal of Sarah in the story. Abraham, not Sarah, names their son Yitzchak - my own Hebrew name, from the root tzachak, meaning "laughter." While Abraham might have been filled with joyous laughter, Sarah was not. Instead, she laughs in disbelief when told she would bear a child. And she explicitly fears being laughed at when it is learned that she bore a child. She even accuses God of making her a laughingstock.

Sarah is self-conscious, fearful, even peevish. We understand this. She was, after all, 92 years old, far beyond childbearing age. No one expected her ever to have a child. By one Talmudic account, Sarah was also a tumtum - i.e. she was intersex, meaning that she had an ambiguous sexual anatomy that in her case wouldn't have permitted procreation, even when she was young. Sarah overcame (or undermined) the constraints of both age and anatomy. She gave birth to the unexpected, the impossibly unexpected, in a world that she feared would hold her to her limitations.

I always identify with Sarah when I read her story. Don't we all have the unexpected in us? How often do we hold back from letting it out for fear of ridicule? "What will people think" trumping "what am I called to do?" And then how we bristle and steam at our self-made shackles!

Our own community is made up of people with many seeming limitations - those of age, physical ability, money, education. But creativity is not among our lacks. So perhaps we help heal Sarah also when we overcome our fears and unleash our unexpected creativity.

There is another Midrash that although Sarah felt alone in her story, she wasn't. At the moment that God thought of her, making her fertile, other barren women conceived, sick people were healed, deaf people heard, among other Biblical-style miracles. Perhaps this is our tradition's way of saying that blessing comes in waves. When you step beyond others' expectations of you and your own expectations of yourself, others will follow. And the blessing will touch us all.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Gods, Monsters and the Big Disappointment

[For Congregation Ner Shalom, October 16, 2009]

How many people here tonight had imaginary friends when they were little? How many of you imagined having magical powers? How many of you do have magical powers? How many of you are disappointed you don't?

This week we're back once again at Parashat Breishit - the first portion of the book of Genesis. But you might know we read Torah on a triennial cycle. So this year we read the end of the portion. Not the glamorous "In the Beginning" and "Let there be Light" opening. None of the first 7 days of Creation - Sun, Moon, Stars, Birds, Crawly Things. We skip right over the honeymoon years, with Adam and Eve romping through the garden, watering the plants, sharing papayas, and tossing around baby names. (Of course Torah skips that too.) We bypass whatever moment of mundane beauty human existence offers, and go right for the big drama. Expulsion from the garden. Cain killing Abel. Humankind multiplying in number and in evil. Prohibited mating of celestial and earthly beings. Discontent, jealousy, anger, murder, deceit, culminating in Chapter 6:

And it happened as humankind began to multiply over the earth and daughters were born to them, that the B'nei Ha-Elohim [sons of God?] saw that the daughters of man were comely, and they took themselves wives howsoever they chose. And the Lord said, "My breath shall not abide in the human forever, for he is but flesh. Let his days be a hundred and twenty years." The Nefilim [giants? fallen ones?] were then on the earth, and afterward as well, the B'nei Ha'Elohim having come to bed with the daughters of man who bore them children: they are the heroes of yore, the men of renown.

And the Lord saw that the evil of the human creature was great upon the earth and that every scheme of his heart's devising was only perpetually evil. And the Lord regretted having made the human on earth and was grieved to the heart. And the Lord said, "I will wipe out the human race I created from the face of the earth, from human to cattle to crawling thing to the fowl of the heavens, for I regret that I have made them." But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.

That is perhaps hardest to read: God's disappointment. "I wish I had never created them," says the all-forgiving, all-knowing God about us. And God shuts off the tap of eternal life, like a bartender cutting off a messy drunk. "Sorry, mister," God seems to say, "but 120 years are enough." And then the heave-ho, courtesy of the Angel of Death - that most accomplished of bouncers.

But does the bartender truly have a right to complain about drunkenness of his customers? Who was serving the drinks? In other words, what exactly is God's right to disappointment? I once heard a comic tell a joke about seeing a fortune teller's shop with a sign on the window saying "Out of Business." The comic locks the audience's gaze and says, "You'd think she would have known!" So what is implied here? God couldn't see any of this coming? God had no control over the content of His creatures' characters? (And I say He here, because this image of God is such a sexist cliche of a disappointed father, pained by how his children turned out while accepting no culpability for it. If it were Greek polytheism, we'd be seeing Chronos complaining to Gaia, "Dear, look what your children have done.") Yes, an aggravating bit of Torah.

So how shall we examine it?

From an Asiyah point of view - that is looking at the text but not into it - it is a smash-up of variant mythological traditions. Male deities having sex with human females is an old trope in the Ancient World, explaining both the existence of heroes and monsters. (To be fair, our own body of midrashic literature also references Adam as having had sex with Lilith, a female demon or deity, and that union giving rise to spirits and goblins and demons.)

Oh, and I love this reference to the heroes of yore. What heroes of yore? If there were heroes of yore in our tradition, between the time of Adam & Eve and the time of Noah, wouldn't Torah have told us? Isn't the Torah, by our own tradition, all the news that's fit to print?

So it seems we are the inheritors of a vast pre-Israelite mythology about which we are told almost nothing. This chapter is one of several references to other cosmologies that we find in Torah. But it's not just a reference to our mythological pre-history. On top of it is an overlay of monotheism that fits horribly, and we all feel it. If our primordial story consisted of conflicts between jealous gods, as we see in the other mythologies of the ancient world, we could accept the idea of humankind getting caught in the crossfire because, frankly, that's a lot of what life feels like!

But this is different. We don't have any quarreling deities. We have a world created by God in a way that, face it, invites the worst possible behavior. Don't eat from the Tree of Knowledge? What kind of cockamamy prohibition is that? It's like in the Simpsons, where Springfield Police Chief Wigham tries to keep his stash of guns out of his son's reach by saying: "Ralphy, don't go into Daddy's Forbidden Closet of Mystery!"

The whole thing is a setup. Cain and Abel too. Accepting one sacrifice and not the other. What, God couldn't foresee the outcome of that? If it were a movie, we, limited beings as we are, would be rolling our eyes at the predictability of that plot line.

But somehow we are asked to believe that God's actions are blameless, and that the ugliness resides exclusively in the free will and actions of the humans who misbehave. Even the B'nei Elohim -- the angels or deities who take human wives -- get off scott-free. Yes, things have gone to pot on Earth, and this chapter tells us that we were at fault for it. God is ready to wash his hands of us, in floodwaters no less.

Bad story. Bad plot. An unfortunate way to understand ancient floods and monstrous fossil records. But it is what it is. And it is ours.

So let's move out of Asiyah, out of this world of textual criticism and move to the world of Yetzirah - the world of emotion and deep impulse. What might this story mean simply as an expression of an emotional truth, since as cosmology and history it's such a terrible mess?

Here's one thought. Think of the first couple chapters of Torah as a collective early childhood memory. Unclear, confused, dreamlike. But full of wonder also.

How many of us have early childhood memories that include imagining supernatural figures? Angels or fairies? Deities talking to us? God talking to us? I imagine I had a stronger sense of dialogue with God at age five than I do now. And scary stuff too? Monsters under the bed. My monsters were, not ironically, in the closet. How many of us imagined that our parents weren't really our parents? That our real parents were gods or heroes or monsters or space aliens?

The world was alive with magic, both wondrous and terrifying. The line between imagination and earthly reality was thin at best. Maybe that was part of our early training for a spiritual life. We might not believe in fairies now, but we continue to feel, on some or many levels, that this can't be all there is.

If the description of deities and giants in this chapter is a kind of echo of our early childhood imaginings, then perhaps the problems introduced by later historic monotheism parallel the problems introduced by our own adulthoods. Disappointment in how it all turned out, when it started with such magic - well, that is a very human, very adult sentiment. While we might on one level think God's disappointment to be grossly unfair, we can, in another way, easily identify with it. We've all been Creators. We've all to some extent created our own lives, our own worlds. In them we've tried to mix the heavenly with the earthly. We've been moved by our dreams and driven by our terrors and have fashioned our existences using the clay that was given us. We've done so without foreseeing all consequences, even the obvious ones. Our life spans are short - and if we all actually lived to 120 that also would seem too short. Regret is the inevitable consequence of creating, of living, of having free will.

So how do we not fall into the despair that we see God experience in this parashah? That's a trick question. I don't think God actually falls into despair. If God had, then God would have destroyed Creation utterly, like some of our midrashim tell us God did with earlier worlds. But God doesn't destroy Creation utterly. Why?

Because He notices Noah, the righteous. Perhaps Noah was the only righteous person of his generation. Or maybe he was just the only one who caught God's eye. But whenever we feel that nearly godlike depth of disappointment, of regret, that is the time for us to look for our own Noahs. Our reason to keep going. The thing to hang on to when we let go of the painful stuff that didn't work out.

חן ~ נח

The Rabbis make much of the fact that Noah's name, spelled nun-chet, when written backwards is the word chen - grace. There is always something of grace in our lives when we look up from our regrets. It is there. And when we feel the urge to jettison all of it, we have to look for our Noah, our chen, that bit of grace, that one piece that does feel right. Because when you save it, you don't save it alone. It brings with it a whole boatload of new possibility. New life waiting to be born and to fill what only yesterday felt like desolation.

So there is an emotional truth in this piece of parashah. We are not just the misunderstood creatures of this world. We are creators too, each one of us. Torah asks us, at least in this dreamlike world of Yetzirah, not to be stuck in the role of humankind, but to identify with God as well. The disappointment born of desire to create in a world whose rules don't oblige everything to turn out as planned. Torah says before you wash it all away, find the righteousness, find the grace, find your Noah. Because there is always something worth saving.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Din, Chesed & the Harsh Decree

[Yom Kippur Eve sermon for Congregation Ner Shalom]

Close your books.

Last week, on Rosh Hashanah, we talked about the creation of the world – of all the worlds. Yom Kippur is different. It is about the aftermath of creation – the world as it has unfolded, as it continues to unfold, and the role we play in that unfolding.

But when I listen to a sermon, sure, I like hearing ideas. But I especially like hearing a story too. So I will start with one. It goes like this:

Many years ago, in a tiny village somewhere in one of the countries that our ancestors liked to come from, there was a baker. She had an only child. The baker had little money or learning, as you would expect in this kind of story. But she did have a particular touch when she baked; a certain way the palms of her hands would press the bread dough while her fingertips coaxed the dough’s surface to life. She could tell from the temperature and the moisture in the air whether her customers would want their challah sweetened with a touch of honey this Shabbat or made savory with the slightest dusting of salt under the sesame seeds.

When her child was still young, the unthinkable happened. The baker began to show symptoms of one of the diseases that used to stalk and still stalk people, a dreaded disease that consumes its bearer, quickly and unkindly, and whose name is, by custom, only whispered. The doctor confirmed the baker’s fears.

This was just around the time of the New Year, and the baker’s child – what shall we call him? [The congregation chose Isaac.] – who had studied the aleph-bet and knew many prayers – went to synagogue seeking guidance. He heard the chazzan chanting the Unetaneh Tokef prayer. Tears welled up in him as the cantor intoned the question, Who will live and who will die? Itzik felt a knife in his heart, for certainly God had decreed that his mother would die. The doctor already had.

But Itzik then heard the refrain that closes the prayer:

ותשובה ותפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רוע הגזרה
Uteshuvah utefilah utzedakah ma’avirin et roa hagzerah.

Atonement and prayer and righteous deeds can alter the evil decree.

Itzik determined in that moment that he would save his mother and avert the evil decree. He hurried home and began the work of teshuvah. He told his mother he was sorry about the times he had been disobedient. How he had dragged his heels to help her sweep the flour off the floor. How he had wished sometimes for two parents. How he’d daydreamed about a nicer house that wasn’t always hot and smelling of yeast. He told her how he had at times wondered what it might feel like to be an orphan, and how he was afraid that he’d brought on her illness with his wandering mind. He told her all his bitternesses, and she held him and forgave him and she too told him all that she was sorry for.

Itzik then added tefilah to his daily regimen. Every morning upon getting out of bed and every night before getting into bed, he’d recite all the prayers he knew best. He remembered hearing a story in which a child prayed the aleph-bet and let God assemble the prayers out of the letters. So Itzik began to add a sing-through of all his letters, in case his words had not been enough. He worked to empty his heart and his mind of distracting thoughts and to truly imagine peace when he would pray for peace, and truly imagine healing when he would pray for healing.

But his mother’s condition worsened, and she had to spend many hours each day in her bed. At last the child turned to tzedakah. At first he wasn’t certain how to help those around him in need. He didn’t have money to give. He had no jobs to offer. No skill in building homes for the homeless. As he sat wondering, he heard his mother coughing at the hearth in the center of their house. He went to see if she was okay, and there he saw, as if for the first time, the sacks of flour and bowls of yeast; the jars full of sesame and caraway and poppy seeds. He realized that he could feed the hungry, because he was, after all, the son of a baker. He began to pour flour and oil into a bowl, and his mother laughed at his clumsiness. “No, dearest, like this,” she said, and she struggled to the breadboard to show him.

Every day they stood side by side, baking bread for the poor. They talked and told their stories, little stories of things they had seen and heard and remembered. When his mother was too tired to stand, she would lie back on an old stuffed chair and continue to offer instruction.

After a time Itzik began to have a certain way that the palms of his hands would press the bread dough while his fingertips coaxed the dough’s surface to life. He noticed he could tell from the temperature and the moisture in the air whether challot sweetened with a touch of honey or made savory with the slightest dusting of salt under the sesame seeds would be most pleasing to the tongues of those he would feed.

At last one night the boy had a dream. In it a voice came to him and said, “God has seen your heart and heard your prayers and knows your deeds. The harsh decree shall be commuted.” The boy awoke filled with joy, and rushed to tell his mother the news. He found her in bed, smiling, the breath having departed her body.

Ah, not the ending you expected? Certainly not a satisfying ending, wouldn’t you say? We hate endings like this, because we want our stories to be different from the lives we actually lead. We want them to be better. We want atonement and prayer and tzedokeh to save our loved ones from suffering, to save us from suffering. And in fact the opposite is our experience. Despite our soul searching and our meditation and our acts of justice, bad things happen. Sadly, this is not a magical universe. Or, at least, that is not the nature of this universe’s magic.

Instead, what we know best is the harshness of the laws of the universe. We are finite, our bodies fragile. Death is inevitable, whether we are righteous or wicked. Death comes too early, no matter what age we live to. We think we are special, but at second look we are but one species competing with millions of other evolving species on the planet, including the dreaded microbes that are also children of this creation.

The harsh reality of this universe is what I think our tradition has in mind when we talk about the divine attribute of din (דין). This word is translated in our prayer books as “judgment” as if it describes a quality or action relating to the merits of particular individuals. But I think is more like “law”: God’s law, Creation’s law, the great unstoppable momentum and imperative of this Universe. And the universe has momentum, doesn’t it? Are we not still surfing the wave of God’s first word? The Big Bang that to our ears sounded like the word yehi: “let there be…” This is all din.

From the word din in Hebrew we get the word dayyan (דיין), meaning “judge.” Upon hearing of a death Jews recite the blessing Baruch Dayyan Emet (ברוך דיין אמת) – blessed is the true judge. But if we believe that God actually doles out life and death based on merits that we can’t see or understand, or according to a plan that has not been shared with us, well, that might be a God one can believe in, but it is not a God one can love. On the other hand, if dayyan means not judge, but the din-maker, the one who breathed life into nature’s imperative, well then, in saying baruch dayyan emet we are instead acknowledging the inescapable laws of Creation by which we have no choice but to abide. We acknowledge that death is the inevitable price tag for having lived.

But, thankfully, din is not the end of the story; it is not the entirety of our reality. In our tradition, din is balanced or mitigated or given perspective by the quality of rachamim (רחמים). Mercy.

The Kabbalists called these two parallel streams of divinity by different names. Din is called gevurah (גבורה) – the attribute having to do with strength, located around here, the left shoulder, on the Tree of Life, when it is mapped on the body. Across from it, counterbalancing it, is rachamim’s parent: chesed (חסד). Love. Kindness. Gevurah and chesed are not opposites (remember last week I said, “reject forced oppositions?”). They are rather complements. In other words, in our tradition, the answer to, or partner of, the severity of nature’s law is: love.

Rachamim, chesed. Mercy, love, kindness. These will not prevent hardship, disease or death. They will not calm earthquake or hold back flood. But they soften the blow. They mitigate the effects. They promote survival by giving us tools with which to make life livable and worth living, even in the hardest of times.

We have no control over din. Nature will unfold whether we approve or not. But rachamim, chesed: these are a choice.

Surely humans don’t always respond to din with chesed or kindness. Every day we hear about, or sometimes, God forbid, we come face to face with those who choose violence or who choose war instead. Ugly human mimicries of din itself and mockeries of the suffering the force of din can cause.

But our tradition seems to tell us not to respond to severity with severity. Instead, to respond to hardship with love. Love each other. Care for each other. Apologize. Sympathize. Empathize. Listen. Really listen. Really listen. Help. Show up. Visit the sick. Make food. Give hugs. Give money. Give a job. Make community. Learn together. Sing together. Decide to be someone who acts out of chesed, out of kindness and love, and then be that person. That is the best of what it means to be human, no? As Pirkei Avot says:

במקום שאין אנשים השתדל להיות איש
Bamakom she’eyn anashim hishtadel lihyot ish.

In a place where there are no people, try to be a person. Be a mentsch.

In his book, The Thirteen Petalled Rose, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz wrote a famous essay about teshuvah, this process of atoning or returning to the person we want to be which we actively engage in this time of year. In it, Rabbi Steinsaltz makes a marvelous claim for teshuvah not just as something that makes the difficult world easier to bear, but as something that actually changes the difficult world.

How? Rabbi Steinsaltz points out that like the universe itself, our lives are driven by cause and effect.

So, for instance, let’s say I lose my temper at another person. She feels misunderstood or mistreated and feels anger also. Her anger in turn gets unleashed on some other poor schmuck. Or, perhaps worse, she internalizes my unkind words and feels less about herself, which will have its own set of unforeseeable consequences. A butterfly effect of woe.

Rabbi Steinsaltz argues, though, that teshuvah has power over the chain of cause and effect. While it can’t undo an action that has already taken place in the past, it can change that action’s meaning and significance in the present and the future.

So if I engage in the work of teshuvah, offering apology, non-defensive explanation, acts of kindness in recompense and beyond, it won’t erase my actions, but it gives me some hope of rendering them harmless, of curbing the damage, of halting the chain of cause and effect, of restoring the world to what it might have been had I acted from a place of chesed in the first place.

This is a wonderful idea, that teshuvah doesn’t merely lighten the burden of din, but can also have an actual effect on the unfolding of this World. It can make the world a better place. It is our way of participating, being partners, in the continuing act of Creation.

So imagine if we engaged in teshuvah not one day or one season a year, but every day.

A couple weeks ago, at our joint Selichot-Ramadan event, Imam Siddiqui of the Islamic Center of Petaluma gave a beautiful teaching about fasting. How fasting is a great leveler: it’s hard to hate someone else when you are both fasting and feeling the frailty of your body. Then he asked us to consider what it would be like if we could get our governments to fast!

Similarly, imagine what it might be like if we took teshuvah global! If it went viral. If we engaged readily, easily, in teshuvah not only as individuals, but as communities. As businesses. As nations. Apology. Accountability. Humility. What if teshuvah were part of everyone’s mission statement and everyone’s business plan? Every country’s Constitution? What would that world look like? Can we even imagine it? Take a moment right now to think: what are the environments to which you could bring the spirit of teshuvah?

So perhaps let’s think of our teshuvah this Yom Kippur not as an annual activity but as an annual refresher. To remind us how to do teshuvah every day, whenever needed, wherever needed, until healing hurt is as easy as causing it. None of us is so good at this stuff, but that’s why we practice.

As most of you know, in my other life I sing in a quartet. In drag, of course. We’ve been doing this act for fifteen years, and we are not a group made up of people who naturally get along. We spent much time hurting each other’s feelings and after about eight or nine years, after we went full time, we realized that we needed help or the group simply couldn’t continue. We could barely be in a room together.

We went about seeking a therapist from among the array of therapists catering to the a cappella community. And there are, in fact, quite a number of them. We went for pedigree, choosing Chanticleer’s shrink right off the bat. We went in for our first sessions, and although I try to do teshuvah and let go every year around Yom Kippur, it became clear that I was holding in my body nearly a decade of unresolved resentments. The muscles of my consciousness were sore with seething.

In our sessions we learned tools that now, looking at them from this perspective, I can only describe as a practice of everyday teshuvah. We learned and we continue to practice how to apologize in a way that actually shifts something. How to ask for meaningful apology. How to forgive shortcomings. We learned how an apology like “I’m sorry I got angry at your being such an ass” is not only ineffective, but is not teshuvah at all, but rather a next step in the chain of harmful cause and effect, most likely responded to with something like, "Yes, and I'm sorry I was such an ass, it was only because you were such a shmuck." We learned how to take accountability even if you’re not, strictly speaking, to blame.

In the process of practicing this, we began to notice quickly when our own words are hurtful, so that we can apologize and curb the harm without the other person having to sit with bad feeling and having to ask for apology. With practice, we’ve learned to do what Steinsaltz talks about, curbing or nullifying emotional harm.

We’re not always good at it, but we’ve gotten better and better because we’ve created a culture among the four of us where there is language and support for speaking this way. It’s telling that in our world, we can all find the words to be cruel to each other with no effort whatsoever. But seeking words of teshuvah, we often come up empty.

But we can figure it out. That’s what practice is for. As tomorrow’s Torah portion tells us specifically about the mitzvah of teshuvah:

לא נפלאת היא ממך ולא רחוקה היא ... כי קרוב אליך הדבר מאד בפיך ובלבבך לעשותו
Lo niflet hi mimcha v’lo r’chokah hi . . .
ki karov eylecha hadavar m’od, b’ficha uvil’vav’cha la’asoto.

Which means, more or less: This mitzvah, this making good, this power to transform experience into something good: there is nothing supernatural about it; it is not rocket science. It is already in your mouth and in your heart. Your heart will tell you when it has to happen (and if your heart is on the fence about whether teshuvah is required in a specific situation, then undoubtedly it is your heart telling you that teshuvah is in fact required, and it is some other part of your anatomy saying it would prefer not to make the effort). And when your heart says it is time, your mouth will find the words to say. They won’t always be the right words the first time out. But maybe the second time, or the seventh, or the twenty-seventh.

So, teshuvah: it’s not just for Yom Kippur anymore. It’s for every day. To heal relationships. To heal the world. To heal God. To heal our hard hearts. To turn us into the people we want to be. To soften the severity of the world we live in.

So a quick epilogue. You might be wondering what happened to the boy in the story, yes? This is how I’d like to think it went on:

At first, seeing his mother’s lifeless body, Itzik was at a loss. He had done what he thought God asked of him. He had engaged in teshuvah and tefilah and tzedakah. And he had been told his prayers were accepted. Yet his mother had died anyway. Heaven had betrayed him. He questioned God, or perhaps stopped believing in God altogether.

Relatives took him in -- kind people, but they weren’t his mother. He felt alone, even though now he was in a much larger, bustling household. One Friday morning, he saw his cousin kneading the challah dough. “No,” he said. “Like this.” And he began to bake, pressing the dough just so.

He became a baker. He was well loved and when impatience or an uncharacteristic show of temper overcame him, he found he knew words to ask forgiveness, and he knew how to forgive in return. In the morning and the evening at the times when, as a boy, he would pray, he could still close his eyes and imagine what peace might feel like or what healing might feel like or what justice might feel like, and it would inspire him. And when he would bake challah, he would set 10 loaves aside for the poor. And as he massaged the dough, he would remember the stories his mother told him as they kneaded the challah side by side, and he would smile, in love for her, and in the slow recognition that the harsh sentence – not his mother’s but his own – had indeed been averted.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Hayom Harat Olam - the Birth of All the Worlds

[Rosh Hashanah Eve teaching for Congregation Ner Shalom.]

Hayom harat olam. Today the world is born.

This is Rosh Hashanah’s motto, its advertising catch phrase. Rosh Hashanah could have had other marketing slogans: “The World: Just Do It.” Or “The Cosmos: I’m Lovin’ It!” Or “The Universe: Can You Hear Me Now?”

But no: Hayom harat olam. Today the world is born.

What does it mean to say that today is the birth of something that is old beyond reckoning? How do we hold the idea that this world is ageless because it’s so old, but also ageless because it’s so new?

We are a people and a species who live in constant contradiction. And I think this is a fine place, a beautiful place, to be.

A couple weeks ago, while preparing for the Holy Days, I drove out to Samuel Taylor Park and found a quiet spot up on the Pioneer Tree Trail to sit and write. It was a high spot with a backless bench. I’d brought a cushion and I sat on the ground, turning the bench into my writing desk, and leaning my back against a redwood easily four stories tall.

I could vaguely hear the cars way out on Sir Francis Drake, but they were mostly drowned out by the silence of the woods. Way above my head was a broken ceiling of branches and redwood needles and the light filtered through and hit the green undergrowth in messy splotches. I was reminded of Virginia Woolf, who wrote in her novel The Waves, “Islands of light are swimming on the grass. They have fallen through the trees.”

So much magic. So much majesty. Such deep joy to be part of this world.

Now, about this tree at my back. I haven’t a clue how a tree operates. Somewhere in school I learned something about it. There’s a tube or a fluid or something called xylem. And there’s something else called phloem, which I can’t even spell let alone explain. I learned somewhere that the outside of the tree is alive, and the inside is dead wood. Oh, and photosynthesis. Got something to do with light and sugar.

While I have some appreciation for these subtleties of plant biology, to me, that day, the trees were pillars holding up the heavens. The canopy, as we call it in English, was just that. A chupah. I could have gotten married under those trees and stilled fulfilled the requirements of our tradition. I was out in the open, but I was also within a shelter, a sukkah, that was brought about not through eons of evolution but placed by God in that spot just for me, and for that moment.

Now you might reasonably ask, “Irwin, you don’t really believe that, do you? That God placed trees there just for you?”

For which I have two answers: “Of course I don’t.” And: “Of course I do.” A contradiction? Sure. A problem? I don’t think so.

The same question applies to the creation of the world. In one of our classrooms here at Ner Shalom, we have a timeline up on the wall, a timeline of Jewish history. The year 3761 BCE is marked as Year Zero in the Jewish reckoning, and that hashmark on the timeline is identified as “Creation of the World.” Back in the spring, a member of our community happened to see the timeline, and challenged me about it. “Is that what you actually believe?" this person asked. "Is that what you teach? And if not, why don’t you take it down?” Legitimate questions.

In the moment, I’m sure I gave some stammering and unsatisfying response. But the question stuck with me, and I realized that the problem was that the two of us (and the timeline) were conflating two different worlds.

Is the world only the physical, which we study and try to size up empirically? The one made of matter and energy that burst into existence 14 billion years ago? The one whose secrets will inevitably be unlocked, we trust, by observation and theory and, ultimately, proof?

Or is the world how I experience it, the feelings it invokes and the stories my mind and heart use to explain it all? Or is it our collective dreams, fears and imaginings? Passed on to us, and by us to our children, through ink on animal skin, through murmured lullabies, through salt thrown surreptitiously over a left shoulder. Are those nothing?

Ultimately we, as Jews, as moderns, as humans, are inheritors and holders of multiple cosmologies, and we live in them all, all the time. Is it possible to see the cosmos as occurring naturally through processes that might be governed by Guiding Principles but not by a Guiding Intelligence, and at the same time to feel magic, or feel Divinity, in all things? Yes, of course it is. Many of us do that all the time.

The problem, perhaps, is that we’re guilted into feeling like we ought not feel both. The Empty Universe and the God-filled Universe, like so many ideas and phenomena in our culture, get unnecessarily poised as opposites, and then we are forced to choose one view or the other. As the old Benny Goodman song goes, or sort of goes:

If it ain't wrong, it's right
If it ain't day, it's night
Godless or Yiddishkeit --
It's gotta be this or that!

So we live in the gray area and feel pressured by the imperative of “gotta be this or that.” On one side we feel a need to be modern and scientific which ends up inexplicably meaning secular. And on the other side, despite none of us actually being religious fundamentalists, we’ve somehow unquestioningly adopted from fundamentalism a belief that accepting the literal word of Scripture is the defining trait of a religious person. How many of us think of ourselves as bad Jews because we don’t believe in all of it? How many of us tell people, “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual,” because on some level we’ve bought into the idea that we have no right to lay claim to our religion unless we believe specific literal things. That Judaism is a strictly delineated and guarded territory and we are effectively trespassers.

So here’s the reminder for all of us: our tradition does not now, and has almost never, demanded literalism. Last year, I told a story, and I will tell it again now, because it bears repeating. My teacher, Rabbi Marcia Prager, was once in a panel discussion with a fundamentalist preacher, who wagged his finger at her and asked, “But do you believe that the Bible is true?” And she responded, “Yes, I do. But I don’t think that’s what you’re asking. You want to know if I think the Bible is factual.”

We have so much room, and such good models, for multiplicity in our tradition, for the holding and embracing of multiple understandings, conflicting and sometimes interconnecting narratives of reality!

To start with the basic one: tomorrow morning we will read in Torah the first chapter of Breishit, of Genesis, telling the 6-day creation story we all know practically by heart. But Torah itself provides alternative creation narratives as well. The second chapter of Genesis tells the story differently. The Book of Psalms hints that the world began with great battles, in which God subdued other deities, and forced the Sea to submit to His will and subside to form land.

Jews who came later held the 6-day story as something holy, yet articulated other beliefs as well. Maimonides, our great rationalist of the Middle Ages, believed that the world was arranged and functioned in the way that Aristotle described. But he simultaneously would have upheld the truth of Torah’s creation story.

The mystics similarly held more than one worldview, not limited by a long shot to the first chapter of Genesis. They saw creation as having a prologue – God retracting from complete fullness in order to provide the quasi-physical space in which the world would be created. The Zohar, our most famous book of mysticism, describes the creation and ongoing operation of the world as the interaction of the processes of Ten Spheres, called Sefirot.

I imagine to myself that for those Kabbalists, the 6-day creation story might have been what they thought factual, but the story of the spheres might have felt true. Or maybe the other way around. But in any event, they would have believed both, on different levels, and both would have been Torah to them. Contradiction? Yes. Problem? No.

Our mystical tradition offers us a particularly lovely and deep way of understanding the multiplicity of cosmologies in which we sit: the Four Worlds. These are four layers of reality that exist everywhere simultaneously. Asiyah, Yetzirah, B’riah, and Atzilut. These are described as stacked tiers, like a layer cake. Our physical world is at the bottom, dominated by Asiyah – the world of action and thought. Next up is Yetzirah, an angelic realm, where angels are used to describe what we might call our emotions, our motivations, our impulses. Moving up is B’riah, a realm of visionary experience, where we can sometimes make contact with something that feels Divine through prophetic or ecstatic experience. And on top, although even the bottom-to-top is just a metaphor, is Atzilut, the divine inner realm, hidden from us, beyond our ability to know. Mystery.

  • Atziliut – divine
  • Beriah – visionary
  • Yetzirah – emotional
  • Asiyah – physical
In the Kabbalistic view, the same ten sefirot are mapped through all four of the worlds. All experience, all action, all processes, occur in all the worlds at once. Every moment is a bite clean through the layer cake.

The idea that there are multiple levels of reality captures something that we sense but have a hard time putting into words. The notion that what happens in one world happens in all is poetic and stimulating and not unique to Judaism. Especially appealing is the idea that what happens in the physical world has effect upon the internality of God, and not just the other way around. For instance, the belief that engaging in a mitzvah not only produces effect in this world, but also causes a spiritual shift in the other dimensions of reality. It is a profound idea. And isn’t it in fact what we mean when we loosely talk about karma? That our deeds have not only physical effect but spiritual ripples as well? Of course, it’s often easier and safer to say it in Buddhist than in Jewish, since our experience as trespassers in the terrain of Judaism has made us into dispossessed wanderers as well.

So back to the timeline. How old is the universe?

Fourteen billion years sounds like a good answer in the world of Asiyah. The world of action and thought and radio telescopes.

And maybe 5770 years is the right answer in the world of Yetzirah – it captures an emotional truth about a world that seems ancient compared to our own lives, but also feels very young, intimate, not so much older than us as to make our lives seem irrelevant. Or perhaps it captures a collective emotional truth about our peoplehood. The Universe might be billions of years old, but for us it started when we, collectively, woke up. Sort of the difference between measuring your own life from your birth versus from your first memory.

And maybe the answer in Beriah – the place of vision – is hayom harat olam. The world is only coming into existence at this very moment. The world is only now. The future is a speculation and the past a supposition. The world recreates itself at every moment, and we are recreated with it.

Isn’t that what the Yamim HaNora’im are about? The possibility of transformation, of change, of rebirth, no matter how old we are? An infinite abundance of newness and potential. Sure, the dust that makes up our bodies is as ancient as the Universe. But it doesn’t feel that way. We are not bound by our clay. Our bodies may be made of earth but our breath is pure possibility.

So, was the world created 5,770 years ago? Two answers: “Of course it wasn’t.” And: “Of course it was.” A contradiction? Yes. A problem. No.

And who or where is God in all of this? The trigger? The overseer? The baker of the layer cake or just a fancy name for the layer cake itself? Maybe it doesn’t strictly matter. It is all true. It is all true. The Godlessness of the Universe, and the Godfulness of it as well. And so, to the underlying question, “Is there a God?” Two answers: “Of course there isn’t.” And: “Of course there is.” A contradiction? Maybe. A problem? I hope not.

I have a new favorite term for God, a traditional one, that we sing in our waking-up blessings. It is Chey Ha-olamim. Life of the Worlds. Not life of the singular world, but life of the plural worlds. If God is anything, God is the totality of all the realms of existence we could ever touch or dream of. Baruch Atah YHWH, chey ha-olamim. Blessed are You, the great IS, the breath of life in all the worlds.

And so, friends. People. Jews. Do not be afraid of contradiction. Do not be afraid of complexity, or multiplicity, or subtlety. Reject enforced oppositions. Black and white. Right and wrong. Man and woman. Science and religion. Gray area is what gives our lives true richness.

Hayom harat olam. Today is – everyday is - the birthday, the birthing day – of the world. Of all the worlds. In celebration we have a layer cake.

Bon appetit.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Check, Please!

[For the Ner Shalom Malakh, September 2009]

These are the oft-dreaded words at the end of a restaurant meal. The time of settling up. In the context of dining, it almost never results in a completely happy moment. The food might have been subtle and surprising and presented in fashionable cairn-like stacks. But the check at the end undoes some part of the joy. As much as we might believe that the quality of the meal was high or that we deserved the indulgence, there is still nagging doubt. Our wallets are finite. We could have prepared something at home, not as fancy but still special, for a fraction of the damage.

In Hebrew, the check is called the cheshbon - the accounting, or reckoning. In this month of Elul that leads up to the High Holy Days, our tradition asks us to engage in cheshbon hanefesh - a reckoning of the spirit. We are asked, plain and simple, to account for ourselves. What have been our deeds? What have been our misdeeds? We might feel like we've mostly been well behaved, kind, somewhat patient. Yet there's still nagging doubt. I could've been more generous. I could've been more grateful. More loving. More patient. More honest. I could have acted more for the benefit of my community. I could have acted more for the benefit of the world.

Quite simply, our tendency is to dread cheshbon hanefesh in the reflexive way that we hate paying the check at the restaurant. We put it off because we suspect the accounting might not be so favorable. At least I do.

But there is a difference here. The currency with which we pay off our soul's debt is teshuvah - a returning to who we know we are or can be. Teshuvah involves focusing on what we know deep down, and acting in accordance with that. The marvelous thing about teshuvah is that it is limitless. Our wallet is always full.

A month-long period of cheshbon hanefesh seems like a tall order. But perhaps the intent is for teshuvah to be habit-forming. One does not need to wait until the beginning of Elul or the end of Elul or the last hour of daylight on Yom Kippur to look at oneself honestly and to choose the next steps accordingly. We can do that every day. Every minute. It only sounds painful because we don't know how to start.

So here's how you might start. If you are someone who prays, then pray. Pray in a way that helps you see yourself more clearly. If you meditate, meditate. If prayer and meditation are not part of your personal toolbox, then choose one single aspect of your life to look at more closely. How you eat. How you do business. How you spend your free time. Is there something nagging at you in one of those areas? Something you know, when you become really mindful about it, that you should be doing differently? This is cheshbon hanefesh.

Set aside some time for it before the High Holy Days. See if you can arrive at Selichot or at Rosh Hashanah already tenderized, already more self-aware. And on the way, notice what it is like to make cheshbon hanefesh - accountability for the integrity of our spirits - as regular a part of our lives as food.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

From the Ashes of our Broken Houses

[For the Ner Shalom Malakh, August 1, 2009]

We are now sitting squarely in the month of Av, a mournful month that launches our trajectory through the High Holy Days. On the ninth day of Av, which fell this week, we mourn the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians. And the Second Temple by the Romans. And scores of other calamities that have befallen the Jews and which occurred -- or which had such heft that they feel as if they occurred -- on that same day of the year.

Our Days of Awe begin right here, with the destruction of Beyt Hamikdash -- the House of Holiness, our house. We bring our awareness to the ways that our own houses are always in the process of crumbling. We live lives full of inevitable change. We lose jobs, homes, loved ones. Our bodies change. Our health comes into question. Many of our deepest hopes go unfulfilled. Every moment is, in some part, a loss, a leave-taking of the previous moment's expectations. Every moment sends us into a new exile, if we dare to look at it. Tisha B'Av is an invitation to look.

But we are not defined solely by our tragedies. Every moment provides opportunity for rebirth and rebuilding. The Jewish calendar offers this model to us. In Av we experience loss and we grieve. In Elul we run our fingers through the ashes of our crumbled houses, searching for a new understanding of who we are when the externals are taken away. At Rosh Hashanah we see the possibility of new life out of the ashes. For ten more days we do the hard spiritual work of teshuvah -- the process of penitence and forgiveness. We gain insight, depth, dignity. And, at last, on Sukkot we build our first new shelters, shaky perhaps, but green and beautiful.

In our earthly lives, loss, grief, introspection and rebirth do not occur on a schedule; they do not roll out in a linear fashion. We are, in some way, engaged in all points of this process at every moment. Every day is Tisha B'Av, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. The Jewish calendar simply uses those landmarks to draw our attention to the process we all go through and to sketch us a path of healing.

We are born into a Creation that is still unfolding, and we only have a finite chance to live in it. Loss and rebirth are cyclical, natural, inevitable. In fact, these are all Days of Awe.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Shabbat: Mid-week, Mid-moment

[For the Ner Shalom Malakh, July 2009]

I'm not certain I have yet been as much at a loss as I am this month in deciding what to write for the Malakh. It's not that I don't have things on my mind - there is always quite a racket in there. And it all seems to be rattling at equal volume. Not just the "expansive" thoughts I like to try to put down here, but the mundane ones - the car repairs, the airport pickups, the bill paying, the stolen moment for a ukulele lesson, the simchas, the worries, all of it.

How does any one of us ever make sense of it all? How do we ever arrive at or maintain an expansive moment under the crushing pressure of daily, monthly, yearly life?

I think there's an obvious Jewish answer to this and a less obvious Jewish answer to this. Both answers are: Shabbat.

Shabbat has, all our lives, been offered to us as a model of balance - separating the melody from the noise, the bigness from the smallness, the breath from the breathlessness. But we've come to abandon Shabbat, conceiving of it as a day ripped out of the calendar, in which work-like activity is banned. And this often doesn't fit the lives we lead.

But we might think of Shabbat differently. My teacher, Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg, once described Shabbat as a great, powerful flow of holiness. The seventh day is merely a vessel to catch and hold some of that holiness. In his words, "If you are standing at Niagara Falls and you are thirsty, it helps to have a cup."

So perhaps where we get snagged is in conceiving of Shabbat as being an absence of something, instead of a fullness of something else. There is a hum of holiness underlying everything we do. The trick is, from time to time, to be aware of it. The seventh day is one invitation to do that. But it needn't be the only one. What if we became aware of Shabbat in the middle of a busy weekday, and let it fill us? Just for an instant? The word shabbat, coming from lishbot - to cease - is also related to lashevet - to sit. What if, at a random moment in a jam-packed day like the ones I've been having, we took a moment just to sit? Sit. Breathe. Be aware of the elegant largeness of all of this and that hum of holiness coursing through you.

It could be (as it is at this moment for me) a Wednesday afternoon, and it would be Shabbat. Take a moment like that now. Whatever day of the week it is: Shabbat shalom.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Parashat Balak: Testing Your Moral Mettle

[For Congregation Ner Shalom, July 3, 2009.]

Ah, to open your mouth and have words of blessing pour out!

Ah, to have angels bar your way when you are heading out to do something rotten.

Ah, to have your pets and beasts of burden pull you aside when seem up to no good.

These are the incredible gifts given to a soothsayer named Bil’am, who is the protagonist of this week’s parashah. His story is one of the most fanciful in Torah. It doesn’t further the storyline of the Israelites’ wandering in the desert. It doesn’t aid in the character development of Moses or Aaron or Miriam.

Instead it is its own self-contained fable, full of poetry -- perhaps very ancient poetry, talking donkeys and foiled plans of bloodthirsty kings. And it is plopped down in the Book of Numbers as if it belongs there.

As K. (tomorrow's Bar Mitzvah) pointed out to me some time ago, this portion could have started with, “Meanwhile in Moab,” and could have concluded with, “But back at the Israelite encampment...” The whole story is a time out. A digression. But a beautiful, curious and revealing one.

K. will be telling and discussing much of this story tomorrow. But as a refresher or preview for you, the king of Moab, fearful of the mass of Israelites encamped at his borders, afraid they will devour his subjects like an ox eats grass, calls upon a famous deliverer of curses named Bil’am. He tries to persuade and then bribe Bil’am to place a curse on the Israelites.

Bil’am, though not an Israelite, is in direct communication with YHWH – not just a deity, but our deity. This is one of those infrequent moments in Torah where God’s universality is attested, where God is not confined to being a celestial echo of the Israelites’ earthly identity and adventures. There are others in the world who know YHWH by name. And this is also an invitation for us to take a plunge and identify with Bil’am.

So God, early on in the story, communicates to Bil’am that he may not curse the Israelites, for they are worthy of blessing. Bil’am dutifully tells the King, “I can only do and say what YHWH permits. I cannot transgress against YHWH’s will in matters either great or small."

But Bil’am proves to be a puzzle. He finagles God’s buy-in for him to take the journey the King of Moab proposes. He sets out on his she-ass toward the Israelite encampment -- rather eagerly, the rabbis point out, as is evidenced by his saddling his own donkey and not waiting for a servant to do it.

Then, in an exciting action sequence, God sends an angel with an outstretched sword to block the path. Bil’am doesn’t see the angel but his donkey does, and swerves aside. Bil’am beats the donkey to get it back onto the path. God “opens the mouth” of the donkey and allows it to speak directly to Bil’am to tell him to knock it off. And only then does Bil’am see the angel. Bil’am falls to the ground and begs forgiveness, not for his errand, but for beating the donkey.

Then, oddly, Bil’am is allowed to continue. Bil’am meets up with the king, and eventually catches sight of the encampment of the Israelites. God then “opens his mouth” – the same language that had just been used for the she-ass – and out pour words of blessing.

מה טובו אהליך יעקב משכנתיך ישראל
Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenoteycha Yisrael.

How fine are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings Israel. And the blessings continue to pour out.

K. will talk to us in depth tomorrow about those famous words, so I leave that to him.

I, instead, got curious this week about the crazy ups and backs in this story, this dance of refusal and permission that God and Bil’am engage in.

1. God says you may not curse them.
2. God says, okay, go on the journey.
3. God tries to stop him.
4. God lets him go anyway.
5. God opens Bil'am's mouth.
6. Bil'am utters words of blessing.

This is a theological mess. If God had wanted to stop him, couldn’t God have? And if God didn’t want to stop him, then why all the theatrics? Or, as my fellow householder S. said to me: "When God says, 'don’t go,' is He just talking out of His ass?"

I think one possible lesson here is about blessing and curse and the need to test your own mettle.

You see, cursing is easy. Dismissing or accusing or speaking ill of those who annoy or threaten or frighten you comes so naturally, so easily.

Bil’am could have simply refused the whole Israelite gig. In doing so, he would overcome the desire to curse, and would have succeeded in carrying out God’s will.

But in a certain way, that also would have been too easy. We have all been told to play nice, to be nice, not to speak ill of others. What’s more, we even know how to articulate words of compassion – at least formulaic words of compassion – about our enemies, or those we’ve been told are our enemies.

But doing such a thing from the heart. And doing it in the physical presence of the other, of the one who frightens you, or who you are told threatens to devour you, that isn’t easy.

In the play Angels in America, the character Louis is called upon to recite Kaddish for Roy Cohn, in the hospital room where Cohn had just died. Louis refuses, but Belize, friend and night-nurse at the hospital, says to him, about giving a foe the blessing of forgiveness: “It isn’t easy, it doesn’t count if it’s easy.”

Did Bil’am go with the intention of blessing? Or did he go with the intention of cursing? I think the answer is neither. He went with the intention of finding out what he would do.

Bil’am knew what God demanded of him. It came to him in visions and in dreams and in the words of angels and the actions of rogue donkeys. Or maybe these were all his inner voices, and they happened to all be saying the same thing. But still, Bil’am needed to know what he would do not in the safe, comfortable distance of his home, but on the spot and in the moment. He had to refuse the voices of “should” and “should not” and find out the strength of his own moral fiber.

Or, in the words of poet Theodore Roethke, as brought to my attention by A. (K.'s father): I learn by going where I have to go.

I think this ends up being kind of a heroic tale. A lone prophet overcoming impediments. The irony, of course, is that we happen to agree with the impediments. And so might have Bil’am. And yet he shut his eyes and ears to them in order to find out what he was about.

Condemning others at a distance is easy. Blessing your enemy at a safe distance is easy too.

But being up close, and allowing your mouth to be opened and blessing to pour out. That takes some courage at least. A willingness to unlearn what you’ve assumed, and possibly to face consequences for it. Isn’t that heroism?

May we all be blessed with visions – may angels try to keep us from doing wrong, may kindly beasts try to keep us from evil paths. But when they fail to stop us, may each of us have the strength to turn our hard-hearted curses into outpourings of blessing.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Facing the Wilderness

[For the Ner Shalom Malakh, June 2009]

As I write this, it is May 26 and I am, it seems, still married in the State of California, a member of one of 18,000 clever, or lucky, or merely bewildered same-sex couples. This is a fascinating turn of events, in which an important civil right (marriage), once inconceivable, became conceivable, then statutorily withheld, then constitutionally interpreted into reality, then snuffed out again by vote of a simple majority.

California will come around, I think; it probably already has since last year's Prop 8 vote. Same-sex couples who have just met, or who haven't met yet, or who are still nervous abotu commitment will someday reasonably soon, I suspect, be able to marry (for better or for worse).

But there's another scary element of this week's California Supreme Court decision that we should note. For the first time in California history, a simple majority of voters was allowed to explicitly take away a constitutional right (even if newly recognized) from an unpopular minority. As Jews this should worry us plenty.

As Americans, we take for granted our Constitutional rights despite seeing them get chipped away as quickly as they are articulated. We take comfort that here minorities are protected from the tyranny of the majority through our federal and state constitutions. But in California, as of this week, anyone is fair game. Jews of course have long experience with such vagaries. In every country we've wandered into we've had Golden Ages and we've had our rights removed by whim. It shouldn't surprise us.

So how do we handle new situations like this? How do we remain calm but poised? I think there is a nice hint in the first parashah of Bamidbar - the Book of Numbers, that we began reading last week. Bamidbar means "in the wilderness" and that's where the book opens. The Children of Israel are in the wilderness - a landscape without landmarks - and God commands them to take a census, by tribe and clan, of all the battle-ready men. This always struck me as an odd story - census taking in an unknown and potentially dangerous setting.

But now I look at it this way. Every moment is wilderness. The future carries no landmarks. We don't know what it will bring, but it keeps arriving at our doorsteps without pause. So when facing the new and unknown, take a census. Count your strengths. What are your special skills? Your talents? Your gifts? What have you gotten from your ancestral house? Does your DNA permit you to do some things others can't? What have you learned from your non-biological ancestors - the people who taught you and loved you and do so still? Do you make music or poetry? Are you good with numbers or with your hands or with children? Are you a good talker? Are you a good listener? Are you a good organizer?

So when facing the unknown, figure out what you do know. In a landscape without landmarks, become the landmark. Remember your strengths. Count them, so that you can count on them, and so that we can count on each other. Sure, every new moment carries risk. But let us approach the wilderness with our banners high, like the Children of Israel in the Sinai Desert or the Plains of Moab. May we know who we are, and let no one tell us otherwise.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Parashat Kedoshim: The Mirror

[For Congregation Ner Shalom, May 1, 2009.]

What do you see when you look in a mirror? What do you see when you think about seeing your “self”?

This week’s Torah portion poses, without answering, some challenging questions of how we see ourselves. “You are like God,” Torah says. But before you get too excited about that, you are also like the person in your life who bugs you the most. Torah says that too.

Both these identifications are uncomfortable; both unnatural. Like looking in a three-way mirror at a clothing store and seeing the back of your head. You know it’s yours, but you don’t feel it.

The parashah is Kedoshim, which means, of course, “holy.” Typically in Judaism we apply the quality of holiness with some restraint. God is holy (“holy holy holy,” in fact). And time – Shabbat, for instance. But we rarely ascribe holiness to a person, no matter how righteous they seem.

But this week’s bit of Torah does just that. It opens holiness up to the masses, democratizing it. It presents a series of mitzvot, and implies that by following them, we can all be holy.

The commandments? You’ve heard them before. No placing stumbling blocks before the blind. No insulting the deaf. Leave some of your harvest for the poor. Deal fairly with disputants when passing judgment. Rise before the aged. No cheating in business. No false measures. Be kind to the stranger.

These are good commandments. Signature ones. Commandments that have become axiomatic and which speak to values that we, as moderns, as progressives, as Jews, can be proud of.

But it’s not 100% clear that the relationship between following these mitzvot and “holiness” is causal; i.e. that one's holiness results from engaging in these good acts. At the opening of the parashah (Leviticus 19:2), right before launching into these commandments, God says:

קדושים תהיו כי קדוש אני
Kedoshim tihyu ki kadosh ani.

This might be a future tense: “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”

Or it might be imperative: “Be holy! (I am.)”

Or it could be a statement of present fact: “You are holy, because I am.”

If this last, then the association of humankind with holiness is not the product of following these particular commandments, but grows independently out of some identification with God. This is not an unreasonable reading. It hearkens back to Genesis where it says we were created in God’s image. If we follow that reasoning, and indeed holiness is part of God’s image, then we are hardwired for holiness, engineered to be Godlike.

-Nu? How are you today?
-Godlike, thank you. You?
-Same. Like always. Thanks.

Take a moment and close your eyes and imagine being like God, whatever you imagine that might be like.

No really, do it.

Did it feel good? Scary? Weird? I would guess it depends on how you imagine God, if you imagine God. If you are working with an idea of God as separate from you, big, powerful, perhaps benevolent, it might be hard to maintain the identification. We often feel powerless. And we all sometimes feel, well, less than benevolent. Or if you do for a moment feel “like God” in some way, you might then feel vain or embarrassed, and end up wondering how an emotion like vanity (or embarrassment) squares with being Godlike.

It might be easier to hold the identification if your idea of God is less personality-based and more of, say, God as the Universal Xi – the energy that flows through and fuels the Cosmos. But even then, if I were to look in the mirror, searching for the Holiness of God, I don’t know if I would see it.

And yet Torah tells me to see it. You are holy, because I am.

Imagining our likeness to God through the quality of holiness is awkward and uncomfortable and riddled with doubt for most of us. Maybe we just don’t want to look in that mirror; we don’t want to be measured against godly standards.

Perhaps we are, in fact, better off understanding this phrase kifshuto, i.e. in the simple way in which it’s commonly interpreted. The commandments here are instructions to help us achieve holiness, and God’s utterance, “kedoshim tihyu,” is, in fact, a challenge, not an observation. “Do these things in order to be holy; do these things to be like me.”

Maybe holiness is merely an embodiment of the kindnesses and justice that these laws set in motion. And maybe that is what God is – the sum total of kindness and justice unleashed upon a world that doesn’t clearly require it for survival.

Kedoshim tihyu ki kadosh ani.

Be holy and by those acts I, holy, am.

The parashah calls upon us to make one other important identification. In Verse 18 we have a famous commandment:

ואהבת לרעך כמוך
V’ahavta l’re’acha kamocha.

Love your fellow as yourself.

This is a very odd commandment, a commandment to love someone. Not just someone, but everyone. Our sages did not understand this mitzvah as being meant literally. Their view was that it is impossible actually to love anyone else as much as you love yourself; in fact, under Jewish law, your life takes precedence over another person’s. And how could you love another in the particular way, with the depth and specificity, that you love yourself?

Instead, some suggested that kamocha – as yourself – might best be read not as an adverb describing how you should love, but rather as an adjective, describing your fellow. In other words: “love your neighbor who is like yourself.”

Seeing similarities between one’s self and other people can be fun in a limited way. Think of being in a new relationship. “We have so much in common! We finish each other’s sentences.”

But seeing similarities between you and those you love is natural. It hardly needs to be commanded. It’s seeing the similarities to those you don’t love that is growthful and difficult and holy and that is commanded here.

Close your eyes again. Imagine someone in your life who makes you uncomfortable.

Really, do it.

Imagine someone who bugs you. It should be easy to think of who that is. Breathe deep and see the ways in which you’re alike. You’re both stuck inside bodies that work sometimes and not other times. You both get hungry. You both worry. You both want appreciation. You both want love. You may have different tools and skills and talents to get what you want and need, for sure. But you both want and need.

So take a moment, in your heart, and love that person. Because that person is so much more like you than you’d like to admit.

V’ahavta l’re’acha kamocha. Love your fellow, because your fellow is like you.

And if this person is like you, and you are like God, isn’t this person Godlike too? That’s a hard one. Take a moment and set aside your grievances and your annoyance. Look at that person with love. Can you see their holinesss? Can you see God in them too?

So there you are, back in the three-way mirror. Look at your face in the mirror on the left. It is God’s face. Be brave and look. Then look at your face in the mirror on the right. It is the person who is so hard for you. Go ahead and cut them – and yourself – some slack. And look at your face straight ahead, and feel them both in you.

Kedoshim tihyu. You are holy.