Saturday, January 22, 2011

Parashat Yitro: The Speech of Sinai

[For Congregation Ner Shalom, January 21, 2011]

I just got back from Los Angeles yesterday, where I spent the early part of the week in a long negotiation with someone who wants to do some business with my other, um, congregation. These were difficult negotiations in some ways. There is possibly a lot at stake, and the person across the table was perhaps more different from me than anyone I've ever had to stare at for 9 hours. He was in many ways a stereotype. That is, there exists a particular stereotype of the tough guy, right out of the Sopranos, and either he fit it perfectly or he played it perfectly. I, of course, am undoubtedly a stereotype in other people's eyes. You know, the singing-drag-queen-slash-rabbi sterotype. But his type is a special challenge for me. I spent my childhood fleeing toughs, and my adulthood building a life in which they do not figure. And yet here he was. I looked at him and he looked at me. And I couldn't figure out how to understand him, so imprisoned was I within the image he was presenting - or that I was projecting.

As I sat there I began to feel sadness over the inability of any of us to really understand each other. After all, what clues are we ever given? Clothes, affect, words. These are such paltry tools. So deficient. How many times a week do we say "that's not what I meant" because the words preceding them were too limited to adequately convey our intent? Even in the mouths of the greatest poets, can words ever communicate someone's wholeness? Or the fullness and complexity of any idea?

Mt. Sinai
The limitation of language is one of the many themes arising out of this week's Torah portion, Yitro. In it we arrive at Mt. Sinai and God reveals Torah to us in the form of Aseret Hadibrot - the series of statements we call the Ten Commandments. The Torah portion is abuzz with sound. The ground rumbles. A shofar blast comes from nowhere. And God speaks - with a kol - a voice. But midrash says it was much more than a human voice. When God utters the first word of the revelation - anochi, "I am," the Children of Israel all hear it, but not through our ears. The deaf and the hearing perceive it equally. We somehow get it direct, without the mediation of our senses or our brains.

This ability to absorb language fully and unmediated is of major interest to the early Chassidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev. He notes the following verse of our parashah:

בחדש השלישי לצאת בני ישראל מארץ מצרים ביום הזה בא מדבר סיני:

On the third month of the Children of Israel's departure from Egypt,
on this day they came to Midbar Sinai.

Midbar Sinai. The Wilderness of Sinai. But Hebrew is a marvelously squirmy thing. Squeeze midbar enough to change the vowels and you can read it that the Children of Israel came not to the Wilderness of Sinai but to the Speech of Sinai. And this is where he begins his inquiry. What is the Speech of Sinai, he asks, and he answers.

The speech of Sinai is language that carries not just the simple and limited meanings of the words but all their possible meanings as well. There is dibbur - the actual words recorded in Torah, and kol - the voice - God's voice, which includes all the associated thoughts about the words, all the Masechot of Talmud discussing the words. In the mouth of another rabbi, this idea could simply be a defense of the holiness of the Talmud. "See? God delivered that too at Sinai."

But Levi Yitzchak is much more expansive. He doesn't limit the content of God's voice to a specific canon. God's voice, rather, is infinite. For Levi Yitzchak, the Speech of Sinai is language in which word and voice, dibbur and kol, are the same. Language through which we hear with fullness, with completeness. No distinctions between surface structure and deep structure, between form and meaning, between pshat, the simple meaning and drash, the interpretation.

And where Talmud requires the tools of scholarship to access it, Levi Yitzchak sees God's kol, the greater meaning, as something available to anyone with the proper mindfulness. He says:

כשאדם מאמין שכל הבלים והדיבורים היוצאים מפיו הם הכל כח וחיות הבורא, ו'רוח ה' דיבר בו', ואז כשמקשר הדיבור בקול, והכל במחשבה בשורש הרוחני  וחיות אלהות, אז אף אל פי שאין הדיבור יכול לכלול כמה דיבורים, יכול הוא להיות מכמה ענינים  וכמה שכליים והדיבור מתפוצץ לכמה חלקים , כיון שהוא דיבור אלהים.
If you believe that your breath and words draw on the power and vigor of the Creator, such that the Spirit of God speaks through you, you will thereby connect the words and the voice, and if in your thought it all derives from God's spiritual source, then the words give way to multiple thoughts and understandings, and the dibbur, the speech, explodes into multiplicity, for it is the speech of God.
In other words, holding an awareness of their divine source turns the spoken words into something much bigger and deeper and multicolored. Mindfulness of the divine source of everything opens the floodgates of meaning. The word embodies its full meaning; the fragment implies the whole.

La Grande Jatte
Side story. Over the winter holidays, my family set about working on a jigsaw puzzle. Seurat's Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of la Grande Jatte in 1000 pieces. As is not uncommon, the borders were quickly assembled, constituting by my math about 12.5% of the overall puzzle or 100% of the fun part. Then interest waned. The pieces lingered on the coffee table for a fortnight and were then returned to their box. Monday, at Oakland Airport, after passing through security, I went to put my shoes back on and, not unlike a sleepless princess fidgety from a pea 20 featherbeds down, I noticed some slight topography under my Dr. Scholl's insoles. I slipped my fingers in and found a single jigsaw piece. Blue. With dots. I put it in the outside pocket of my backpack and caught my flight. Two days later my sister and I went hiking in Placerita Canyon outside LA. At the furthest point of our route we sat down to rest. When we got up to head back I happened to look down. There was the blue puzzle piece, fallen out of my backpack. I grabbed it and wondered what would have happened had I missed it. A single puzzle piece, 400 miles from its origin. Who would find it and what would they ever make of it? How could they ever know what it was about or imagine the beauty of the painting it refers to?

The Piece in Question

I think this is how Rabbi Levi Yitzchak sees human language; and perhaps how I see each of us. We are isolated. So far from our origin. Each of us is a clue hinting at a larger picture, the way the puzzle piece implies the puzzle. With an awareness of holiness, of the divine pouring  like a fountain through each of us, we become less isolated, less bereft, and we begin to embody the whole of la Grande Jatte or a million other pictures in which we might figure, radiant in blue with dots.

So too in my standoff of stereotypes this week. I can stare at the tough across the table and simply stop there. But opening up to the holiness of our origins, or to some heart space that feels like that, I might perceive a deeper truth. Something about the life experience that drives someone to choose to show toughness rather than vulnerability. And the possibility that on deeper levels we're much more alike than we'd guess.

I may not be accurate in my speculations about this guy, but these intuitions are in themselves holy and, as Levi Yitzchak later suggests, they flow from the divine quality of rachmanut - or rachmones, compassion. The same spot on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life that is placed over the heart and gets to be nicknamed "truth."

If this connection to a greater truth is activated, then maybe it will work not just when I am reading the words or faces of others, but when I speak as well. Maybe it will allow me to convey more than the first impression I make, more than the stereotype I represent, more than the sum of my words. Maybe with it I could speak, even haltingly, like a tourist with a Berlitz, the Speech of Sinai. Maybe with it we could hear in each other a little bit of the kol, of God's voice, even if just for a moment.

May the Speech of Sinai come easily to our lips. So that when we speak to each other, our words lose their skins and dissolve into meaning, explode into possibility and tremble with holiness. And let us say: Amen.

Much gratitude to my chevruta partner, Reb Eli Herb of Durango, who stubborned through this difficult bit of Kedushat Levi with me, and to my sister, Lynn Keller, who made some key connections as we hiked and discussed God's voice.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Parashat Bo: Freeing the Hard Heart

[For Congregation Ner Shalom, January 7, 2011]

I've been thinking about freedom lately. I just got back from Washington, DC which, despite all that frustrates us in American politics does, after a couple weeks, leave one feeling steeped in lofty ideals. I went to the Museum of American History and, after the quick gay pilgrimages to the the ruby slippers, Julia Child's kitchen and Carol Burnett's famous Gone with the Wind curtain rod dress, I settled in and got serious. I walked through the dimly lit, humidity-controlled gallery that houses the Star Spangled Banner which is, I'd never realized, enormous. And I confess that, for all my counter-culture rhetoric, I found myself choked up.

I then visited the African American gallery. There I saw physical artifacts of American slavery, including first editions of slave memoirs. I thought, "How am I 50 years old and have never read a slave memoir?" On display was Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs. I bought a reprint in the bookstore and read it in a single breath. In elegant prose Jacobs gives over both her painful experience and her sense of moral outrage. She could not threaten military action to end slavery or promise political reform. She could only offer her words. I thought about how much ink was spilled trying to end the institution of slavery on this continent - and how much blood. And how a practice so obviously, deeply wrong could have been defended - to the death! - by the white, slave-owning South.

This week's parashah, which is called Bo looks at the question of the price of freedom, and why that price might in fact be so high. In the story, we, the Children of Israel, are still in bondage in Egypt. God has already inflicted seven plagues to free the Hebrew slaves, and the Egyptians are certainly suffering. Yet Pharaoh has not relented. God says to Moshe:

בא אל פרעה כי אני הכבדתי את לבו ואת לב עבדיו למען שתי אתתי אלה בקר
Bo el Par'oh ki ani hichbadti et libo v'et lev avadav l'ma'an shiti ototai eleh b'kirbi.

Which means: "Come to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants so that I might show my signs among them."

Hichbadti et libo. "I have hardened his heart." This is a troubling bit of Torah that countless generations of Jews have had to contend with. The hardening of Pharaoh's heart is mentioned 19 times in the book of Exodus. In 10 instances, Pharaoh does the hardening; in 9 - nearly half the time! - it is God. What possible purpose is served by God hardening Pharaoh's heart? The text implies, and the sages agree, that it is so that the remainder of the plagues may be inflicted; so that the oppressor comes to have a full appreciation of God's power. Somehow the process of change must be big, and dramatic, and violent. But for whose benefit? So the Egyptians give up and don't chase down the Israelites? If that's the case, the project was a failure; they chased the Israelites down anyway, even after 10 plagues. Or maybe the purpose was to establish a level of violence and suffering compared to which the state of slavelessness would ultimately feel preferable?

Or maybe the end is retribution, plain and simple. That no one should profit by acts of cruelty and oppression. As Lincoln wrote in his Second Inaugural Address, in the middle of the Civil War:

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
But of course no matter how much violence we think the theater of social change requires, we're also stuck with a tricky theological problem. According to the p'shat, the simple reading of this verse, God is setting Pharaoh up by hardening his heart. God is nullifying Pharaoh's free will in order to impose punishment. Pharaoh is framed. Not that one needs to feel excessive sympathy toward him; but one might certainly feel some suspicion here about God.

Taking a second look at the phrase hichbad'ti et libo - "I have hardened his heart" - might be fruitful. The root is k-b-d, which in Hebrew doesn't have to do with hardness as much as with heft. Kaved, heavy. Koved, weight. "I have made his heart heavy," could be another way to translate this verse. Said this way, it sounds less like God announcing a strategy than God admitting a sad fact. "I have made Pharaoh's heart too heavy to move, too cumbersome to change."

I think this reading says something about the nature of our hearts and the nature of power. Change is not easy in the best of circumstances. But when one has become accustomed to power, to ease, to privilege and safety, the heart can become so weighty as to be immobile. Under this reading, God is not acting on Pharaoh at all. God is acknowledging, perhaps even lamenting, the human nature that God created. "Yes, Pharaoh's heart is now immobile; and yes, that is the nature of the hearts of tyrants; and yes, I'm responsible for the nature of the hearts of tyrants - and of all people."

Another resonance of this word, hichbadti, is one you might have already guessed at. The same root gives us kavod - "honor." If we project this shade of meaning onto it, you have an even greater resignation on God's part. God says, "I am forced to honor Pharaoh's heart." That is, I made it, I am prevented from changing it; all I can do is show signs and wonders.

"Poor Pharaoh," this reading seems to suggest, stuck in his narrow place with his heavy, unchangeable heart. So burdened with years of power and profit and fear of the unknown that the machinery of his heart has come to a standstill.

I know it might not sit well to look at Pharaoh this way; it feels too sympathetic toward the archvillain of our collective imagination as he holds firm against the inevitable tide of emancipation. But the parashah seems to invite it. After all, it opens with bo el-Par'oh, - "come to Pharaoh," not lech el-Par'oh, "go to Pharaoh." The vantage point is Pharaoh's; he is the fixed point and Moshe - and we - are being invited into his world.

Uncomfortable, certainly. But while sympathy might in fact not be required, looking deeper than the villain archetype is valuable. We know no one is simply evil. That's comic book stuff. Seeing southern slave owners as something other than human; seeing Hitler as a monster and not a person; are both errors. Dangerous errors. It's uncomfortable to sit with the idea that we share anything with these people, let alone the capacity to do terrible things.

But of course we do. We are not just Moshe. We are Pharaoh. We have the capacity to hurt, to kill, to enslave. But we don't. Maybe because we've made our moral choices. Or maybe we haven't; we are simply spared that trial because the opportunity has never arisen.

But our hearts do share something with Pharaoh's. We feel how difficult it is to acknowledge when we're wrong. How difficult it is to change. How difficult to give up power. How difficult to acknowledge the suffering of others, and to see our own complicity in it.

I hope you will forgive me as I point out things we know but which are hearts are hardened against.

We know how our cars and air conditioners poison the environment. When future generations say, "They must have known it was wrong; why didn't they stop," we will have no defense.

We know the unspeakable cruelty enacted on animals through factory farming, approved by us every time we choose the cheap meat or eggs at the grocery store. When future generations say, "They must have known it was wrong; why didn't they stop," we will have no defense.

We know that many of the cheap tzatzkes we buy are that way because children overseas are making them in conditions of near-slavery. When future generations say, "They must have known it was wrong; why didn't they stop," we will have no defense.

Or when we learn new ways that our actions might cause harm that we weren't previously aware of - even how our use of perfume and scented detergents can cause others physical suffering. We could ask ourselves right now, "why don't we stop," And we will have no defense.

Unless the defense in all of these cases is: Adonai hichbid et libi. God hardened my heart. This is our nature. We do not give up power or privilege or habit easily. And we cannot at every moment have our hearts open to the full suffering of this planet.

As Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote thirty years ago regarding the horrors of the Vietnam War:

Most of us prefer to disregard the dreadful deeds we do over there. The atrocities committed in our name are too horrible to be credible. It is beyond our power to react vividly to the ongoing nightmare, day after day, night after night. So we bear graciously other people's suffering...O Lord, we confess our sins, we are ashamed of the inadequacy of our anguish, of how faint and slight is our mercy. We are a generation that has lost the capacity for outrage.
Yes, we are evolved from the same Creation that gave us Pharaoh and that gave us generations of holders, traders and hunters of slaves on American soil. Our hearts are not identical to theirs, but they are akin.

But buck up. We are also different; or at least we can be. If not in our natures, then in our choices. We can choose to change. We can choose to change now. We do not need to wait for the signs and wonders. We do not need to suffer the plagues or wars or disasters or other retributions that will change us by force. We can jumpstart our immobile hearts and act on what we know, even if it's inconvenient or painful.

And our ability to choose to have less power, less ease, less comfort because there is something else that matters more, well that, thank God, is in our nature too.

So when we sing for the freedom of the slaves - the Hebrew slaves of Egypt, the black slaves of the Americas, or all who are oppressed in the world today - let us also sing for Pharaoh's freedom. For our freedom. That we may not be oppressors. That when a new prophet comes and says, "Let my people go," we may have the strength and wisdom to say, "Yes. It's time. Let us all be free."