Thursday, July 16, 2015

Allusion and Illusion - Reflections on Parashat Masei 5775

(Numbers 30:2 - 36:13)

Remember Robin Williams' shtick about "Reality: What A Concept"?  This week's Torah portion challenges our perception of reality, although perhaps taking a slightly different, less drug-induced, approach than Robin's.

In it, we read of the sojourns of the the Jewish People during their 40 years in the desert.

Specifically, the Torah names all the places that they stopped on their twisting path toward the Promised Land. Place names like Marah. Ilem. Dafka. Alush. Refidim. Kivroth Hata'avah. Chatzerot. Ritmah. And on and on. Forty-two of them, to be exact.

But guess what? The Ba'al HaTurim and others say the list of names aren't actual places. Rather, each name is an allusion to some notable event that occurred at that encampment. Like, 'the spot on the trail where I twisted my ankle.'

Marah - the place where the bitter waters were made sweet. Kivrot Hata'avah - the burial place of the lustful. In other words, you'll never find these places on Mapquest; these "places" don't exist per se.  

This makes sense: after all, the Jews were sojourning in a desert - do you think the wilderness was dotted with little frontier towns, complete with saloons, banks and blacksmiths?  Of course not. They made camp in the wide expanses of nowhere; as my Zayde would have said in Yiddish, in Chandikeveh.

So the Jewish People - whom the Maharal describes as the otherworldly people - survived for 40 years with no natural food or water, encamped in places that don't actually exist, and somehow emerged out the other side intact.

There was no there there, almost as if they existed in another dimension of reality.

150 years ago, scientists felt they had a pretty good grasp on reality. They had proven that there were these little particles called "atoms" - from the Greek meaning smallest indivisible unit, aka "elements." Hydrogen. Helium. Lithium. Berylium. These were the building blocks of the entire universe, and Mendeleev had even worked out their orderly arrangement in what became known as the Periodic Table. 

This was huge, because everything in the physical universe, without exception, is composed of atoms. You, me, that big sycamore down the lane, the car that drives down that lane - everything. (Did I mention everything? Because I meant ab-so-lute-ly everything.)

So with great confidence, Science claimed that it had cracked the mystery of the essence of matter.

Only...Science soon discovered that the atom - supposed to be the smallest indivisible unit - was actually composed of smaller, sub-atomic particles. (Ouch! got that wrong...) Protons. Neutrons. Electrons. So the hunt was on for the smallest individual sub-atomic particle, so Science could re-assert its conviction that it had a handle on the essence of physical reality.

Since then, though, the deeper we have looked into the structure of the atom, the more particles we have found, and, to complicate matters further, sub-atomic particles ignore the laws of physics. So Particle Physics has quietly abandoned its efforts to find the smallest particle, but rather catalogues the existence and behavior of sub-atomic particles that might exist for a billionth or a trillionth of a second. 

In other words, when you start seriously studying matter, the more we attempt to peel back its layers to get to the core of reality, the more it seems there's nothing there. 

Similarly, most everyone who has taken high-school level chemistry knows that atoms are composed of a positively charged nucleus around which spin negatively charged electrons in various "shells" or states of energy. We are all familiar with the symbol of nuclear energy, showing rings of electrons spinning around a nucleus:

However, this depiction is not at all to scale. If we were to draw the atom accurately, the nucleus would be the size of a ping pong ball on the 50 yard line of the Superdome, while the electrons would be spinning around way out in the nosebleed section - at the edge of the uppermost bleachers. 

But what's in between the teeny weeny nucleus and those far out spinning electrons? 

Nothing. Not air, not anything. 99.99% of the atom is composed of nothingness. There's no there there.

And we're all composed of atoms. 

Which means that you, me, that big sycamore down the lane, the car that drives down that lane - all that physical reality is chimerical. It is quite literally 99.99% nothingness. 

No matter how immediate, how palpable reality may seem, it's just an illusion - nothing but a momentary hiccup in the unending flow of energy in the universe.

For over 3,000 years, Torah has been teaching us what Science is just now getting around to: that we are spiritual beings - neshamot - shrouded in a veil of physicality, and that physicality itself is nothing more than a Holodeck image - an incredibly convincing illusion.

Like the Jews of old, we are all sojourners in the wilderness, trapped for a time in a dimension foreign to our essential nature. 

In our travels, the wise will stay true to the spiritual self, while the fool will chase the shimmering oasis of physical comfort and self-indulgence. 

Thanks, Robin: "Reality" is just that - a concept. 

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

International Relations - Reflections on Chukat 5775

(Numbers 19:1 - 22:1)

Knock knock? How to get in.

That was the problem for Moses and the Jewish People. After forty long years of perambulating in the desert, they were itching to settle down, plant fields and vineyards, and get to work. But every route was blocked; how were they going to get in to the Land of Israel, long promised to them by Gcd?

Edom controlled the region south of the Dead Sea, straddling the Negev and the Arabian desert. When Moses sends emissaries asking to transit through Edom, he is met by a threat of war. 

What could Moses do? Israel had no quarrel with the nation of Edom; they inhabited their ancestral homeland of Mount Seir and surrounds, on which Israel had no territorial claim. Edom had every right to grant safe passage through his land - or not. His answer was 'no', and the Children of Israel withdrew.

Similarly, the Moabites and Ammonites resided on their ancestral homelands and (up to this point in the history) Israel had no quarrel with them either. 

But this state of affairs effectively blocked both the southern and eastern approaches into Israel. There was simply no way to sneak three million people, and untold millions of head of livestock, through the cordon set up by these nations.

And then the status quo changes dramatically. Sihon, the king of the Amorites, attacks Moab. Why? The Torah doesn't say, but wars are usually started over one of three reasons: power, wealth or women (Helen of Troy comes to mind.)

The Torah also suggests that the Amorites were an unstoppable military force: 

"Thus did the troubadours say: 
A fire came forth from Heshbon, a conflagration from the city of Sihon...
Woe unto you, O Moab, you are lost, O people of Chemosh,
His sons became fugitives, his daughters captives...(22:27 ff.)
Blitzkrieg! When the dust of war settles, the new map looks like this:

The Torah records that the Amorites conquered a large swath of Moabite land east of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea, from the Arnon River in the south to the Yabok River in the north. 

The Amorites were an altogether different beast: unlike Edom, Ammon or Moab, they were one of the Seven Nations whom we were bidden by Gcd to expel from the Land for their evil and perverse behavior.

Sihon's little military adventure temporarily gained him territory, riches and fame. But without his even realizing it, he had also solved our problem, for in displacing Moab he had also created a corridor for the Jewish People directly into the Land of Israel. 

When the Jews request safe passage through his newly-won territory, Sihon, drunk with victory, responds to the overture by waging war against us. The Jews not only repel his unprovoked attack, but the unconquerable Sihon and his army are swept aside like so many bowling pins. In a Six-Day-War-style rout, the Jews conquer and subdue all Amorite territory east of the Jordan River.  

In an amazing about-face, the Jews suddenly find themselves standing on the threshold of the Land of Israel. Yesterday, every door was slammed in their faces; today they stood within grasp of the dream.

We must conclude that the evil, pagan king Sihon, in launching a war against Moab for his own craven ends, was, in some crazy way, actually doing Gcd's will.

Like the Pharaoh, who, by refusing to free the Jews from bondage, was doing Gcd's will.

Like the early Zionist pioneers, who thought they were building a socialist utopia, but with every whack of the hammer and cut of the saw were unwittingly heralding the coming of the messianic age.

In 1898, Kaiser Wilhelm II visited the Holy Land. Theodore Herzl arranged for an audience with the Kaiser in Jerusalem. There, Herzl made an impassioned plea for the case of a Jewish State in Palestine.

The Kaiser replied that in order for there to be a Jewish State in Palestine, the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire, and the German Empire would all have to consent. Alternatively, all four dynasties would have to fall. 

The Kaiser dismissed him by concluding, "And neither, my dear Mr. Herzl, is ever going to happen."

Image result for Kaiser wilhelm Holy Land 1898

Kaiser Wilhelm was a prophet. For not only did those four great powers of 19th Century Europe get thrown onto garbage heap of history, so, too, did the British Empire, which worked tirelessly to prevent the Jews from getting to the Land of Israel, both before WWII and and after. (They even threatened death camp survivors with deportation directly back to Germany if they attempted to enter Palestine illegally.)

"Our enemy said, 'I will hound them, I will overtake them, I will dole out the plunder; I will fill my lust for their blood, I will unsheathe my sword, and I will take everything from them.'  [But what happened?] You [Gcd] blew your wind, he [the enemy] was covered by the sea; he sunk like lead in the deepest waters." (Exodus 15:9)

Even in our day, there are those in the world who still attempt to close Israel's borders with boycotts and sanctions; who attempt to wrest Israel from her rightful owners, by diplomacy if possible, or by war and nuclear weapons if necessary.

They should pay heed to the fate of their predecessors. Presidents and potentates may craft foreign policy based upon their narrow self-interests, but it is the King who reigns over all kings that directs the events on the stage of history - and often in the most unlikely and unexpected ways.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Candy Store - Reflections on Parashat Korach 5775

(Numbers 16:1-18:32)

Korach was one clever cookie.

By dangling plums of power and glory, he cobbled together a rebellion from the most improbable group of malcontents: (1) some firstborn among the various Tribes of Israel, who sought the restoration of the traditional priesthood to the eldest sons; (2) some Reubenites, who, as descendants of Jacob's firstborn son Reuben, felt entitled to the priesthood; and (3) some Levites, who were dissatisfied with the support role they were assigned in Gcd's service, and coveted the priesthood for themselves.

These rival factions could agree on nothing - except that the High Priest Aaron (and his sons the Cohanim) had to go.

Korach knew that he couldn't keep his promises to them all, but no matter: they were useful idiots in the advancement of his secret agenda: a coup d'etat to topple Moses, to be replaced by none other than - Korach himself. 

And why not? Korach was rich where his cousin Moses was not; charismatic where Moses was reserved and stern. (Korach probably had whiter teeth, fresher breath and could bench press twice his body weight, too.)

But for all his advantages, Korach, as his name hints in the Hebrew, was cold as ice and just as slippery. Wealth made Korach insufferably arrogant (as wealth is wont to do), and his natural charisma drove his limitless ambition.

At the heart of Korach's insurrection is a question which bears heavily on Jewish life to this day: does "religion" serve Gcd, or is religion meant to serve us?

Korach stroked the egos of the insurrectionists by arguing that the purpose of religion was to serve them: after all, "kulam kedoshim," all the people are holy. Accordingly, Moses' lawbook should be edited to conform to the evolving needs and aesthetic sensibilities of the people. 

In this view, the synagogue is a spiritual service center, where people turn to have their afflictions comforted, their marriages sanctioned, their dead buried, their children bar-mitzvahed. And just like the local tire shop or dry cleaner, you don't give the place much thought when you aren't in need of the services provided.  

The consumerist view posits that religion is like powerful medicine: good to know it's there when you need it, but who takes Dayquil if you don't have the flu?

In the spiritual marketplace, the customer is king. Is your rabbi coming down a little hard on your lifestyle choices? No problem, go rabbi shopping! There are boatloads of others, one of whom is sure to give religious sanction to anything - and I mean anything - your little heart desires, and all for the most reasonable of fees. 

As savvy consumers, Korach and his motley crew were trading up - on both Moses and Aaron.

By contrast, Moses, the eved Hashem, the servant of Gcd, embodied the opposite view: that the religious life is a life of service, first to Gcd and then, by extension, to our fellow man.

Avodah, service, is all about performing Gcd's mitzvot with joy. Avodah is recognizing that the mitzvot come from Gcd through Moses, but not from Moses. Thus it's about doing the mitzvah even if we don't fully understand why, (and even as we resolve to gain deeper understanding) because we trust the Source. Avodah is about loving Gcd by doing His mitzvot with all your heart and all your soul and all your might.

In other words, true piety is not about calculating the take, the bennies that we extract from our religious experience as a spiritual consumer. Rather, it's all about the moment-to-moment hard work of spiritual growth and development, of what we give of ourselves to Gcd, quietly and without fanfare.

This contrast between Moses and Korach's view of the utility of religion is reflected in Pirkei Avot (5:17):
Every argument that is for the sake of heaven is destined to endure. But if it is not for the sake of heaven -- it is not destined to endure. What is an example of an argument for the sake of heaven? The argument of Hillel and Shammai. What is an example of an argument not for the sake of heaven? The argument of Korach and all of his followers.
Korach wasn't casting his eyes heavenward, in the service of Gcd, he was casting his eyes downward, dispensing candy to the Jews. Moses had nothing to offer them but spinach and hard work. 

Which is easier to sell?

Tragically, there is a lot of candy for sale in the Jewish world today. We live in a time when it has become fashionable to modernize Judaism with all kinds of updates and tweaks and improvements. 

The thorny problem is Moses' Lawbook, which is an obstacle to the new-and-improved Judaism. So Job One must be to delegitimize the Torah, undercut its authority. Then we can begin crafting a Judaism in our own image.

Don't like the wording of a particular prayer? A little liturgical nip-and-tuck is in order. Trim the fat. Cut out the parts you don't like, or better yet, write your own prayer book, which reflects your uber-sophisticated modern sensibilities (because let's just say it - it's all about you.)

Don't like a particular mitzvah? Cut and paste it out of the Book. Better yet, chuck the Torah out the window altogether and design your own customized faith system. Invent your own mitzvot. Then head out to the marketplace where you're sure to find a rabbi to call it "Judaism." 

And the pluralism thought-police demand that we equate candy corn and corn corn.

The Edward Scissorhands routine has become so pervasive in American Judaism that it becomes harder by the day to find the simple faith of our forbears, that dedication to truth, so nobly embodied for all generations by Moses.

Ultimately, Gcd had to intervene to remind people that the heart of the Jewish faith is not the Jewish People or Jewish Tradition, but the service of Gcd. Korach was literally swallowed by his own ambition, and his rebels destroyed. But as the parsha goes on to tell, the ripples of that rebellion spread in their time and in ours. 

Candy tastes good going down, but you will get sick and die if candy is your only food. Snickers doesn't satisfy. 

So it should come as no surprise that many Jews are rejecting the empty spiritual junk food on which they were raised in their suburban temples, or, at the other extreme, certain yeshivot where rigid conformity substitutes for honest intellectual inquiry. The spiritual seekers look instead to feed their souls from someone else's garden.

But more than a few have turned inward to discover the rich spiritual nutrition of avodah.

"Behold the days are coming, saith the Lcrd, when I will send a terrible famine in the land; not a hunger for bread or a thirst for water, but a hunger to hear the authentic words of Hashem." (Amos 8:11)

My prayer is that the entirety of the Jewish people will drink from the vivifying waters of Torah, and come to merit the great appellation conferred on Moses, Eved Ne'eman, the faithful servant of Gcd.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Humble Pie - Reflections on Parashat Ba'Haalotecha 5775

There is a well worn story about the rabbi who, looking out upon his flock on Yom Kippur, prostrates himself before Holy Ark and declares, "Oh Gcd! Before you, I am as nothing!"

The cantor, upon seeing the devotions of the rabbi (and never to be outdone), quickly falls upon his face and also cries out, "Oh Gcd! Before you, I am as nothing!" 

A simple congregant, deeply moved by these acts of piety, prostrates himself as well and screams out, "Oh Gcd! Before you, I too am as nothing!"

To this, the cantor whispers to the rabbi: "Ha! Look who thinks he's a nothing!"

Don't hate me for my bad jokes.

This week's parasha describes Moses as the humblest man to ever walk the earth. (Numbers 12:3)  How does that statement help us understand the personality of Moses? Did he see himself as a 'nothing'? How do we define humility anyway? And lastly, why is this character trait so important? 

The definitions of humility are all over the map. Rashi succinctly defines humility as being of lowly spirit and patient. The Ibn Ezra says that Moses was humble in his estimation of himself, in that he never aspired to greatness, to be elevated above his brethren. The Ramban says Moses' humility was defined by his willingness to remain silent in the face of the hurtful rumors against him. And so, says the Ramban, Gcd Himself rose to his defense. 

In the 19th century, Rabbi Israel Salanter defined humility as focusing on our own personality flaws (for the purposes of self-improvement) while overlooking the flaws in others. And in the 20th century, Rabbi Avrohom Twerski in Let Us Make Man defines humility as always looking forward, towards the next task to which we can apply our unique talents and gifts, rather than looking backwards at our accomplishments, constantly pointing to a mantlepiece bulging with awards and trophies.

Perhaps humility is, as Oliver Wendell Holmes observed (on a very different subject) hard to define, but you know it when you see it.

I suggest that Moses' humility was rooted in another key concept Gcd uses in these verses to describe him: Avdi, My servant. 

Moses' life was utterly devoted to the service of Gcd and to the service of his fellow. He was indefatigable in this. Unlike the rest of us, he never needed a mental health day, or "me" time, or summer vacation. Moses was forever thinking about the needs of others; and when a person is wholly, utterly preoccupied with the needs of others, there is simply no time to consider the self. 

That's an almost impossible standard, and that's why Moses was in a league by himself. 

Humility is not lack of self-esteem,  a sense of worthlessness or self-abnegation; it is rooted in selflessness and service to others. C.S. Lewis once said that, "True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less."

And it must be said that arrogance and narcissism, the great spiritual scourges of our time, are the polar opposites of humility. The Arizal understands arrogance to be the root of all sin, so we can infer that humility is the root of Gcdliness.

Humility comes from being a holistic, centered person, one with an healthy sense of their own strengths and weaknesses. When a person has a balanced life and healthy relationships (see more on this subject HERE) they have a clear sense of the contribution they can make, and are thereby in a position to truly serve others.

By contrast, off-center people who feel some lack in their lives are perpetually focused on themselves, vainly attempting to fill the unfillable black hole of "what-I-need." Any service such a person may attempt to render to Gcd or their fellow man is flawed because it is ultimately self-serving.

I am indebted to my friend Brian Goldman for sharing a recent David Brooks op-ed in the New York Times. In it, Brooks asked readers to describe where they found fulfillment and meaning. Many of the respondents found meaning in a "small, happy life."

He recounts the story of a young man

...who was asked by a journalist to show his most precious possession. The man...was proud and excited to show the journalist the gift he had been bequeathed. A banged up tin pot he kept carefully wrapped in cloth as though it was fragile. The journalist was confused, what made this dingy old pot so valuable? ‘The message,’ the friend replied. The message was ‘we do not all have to shine.’ This story resonated deeply. In that moment I was able to relieve myself of the need to do something important, from which I would reap praise and be rewarded with fulfillment. My vision cleared. [My emphasis. - YM]  
Moses, as great as he was, was the icon of humility because he tackled the challenges Gcd had assigned him to tackle. It is not for us to do Moses' task. For the rest of us, humility is a willingness to accept the challenges and solve the problems that Gcd presents in our own lives, and to do so with quiet dignity, with grace, and without fanfare.

The verse in Psalms 131 states: "My heart was not proud, nor my eyes haughty, nor did I pursue matters too great and wondrous for me." 

Most of us are not kings or generals or captains of industry; it's probably not your job to single-handedly to invent "the-next-big-thing" or abolish hate or war or hunger or avarice. So instead of stressing out over things we have no power to control, better to do those mitzvot that Gcd lays at our doorstep: study Torah; feed the poor; care for our cherished ones and our community; plant a tree, tend a garden or put up a bird feeder.

And as we learn in this week's parasha, those who cultivate within themselves a spirit of genuine humility can be assured that Gcd will rise to their defense.

Ours is to apply our efforts to the task ahead. As Rabbi Tarfon said: The day is short; there is much work to do; yet the workers are lazy though the incentive is great; and the Business Owner is insistent. (Avot 2:20)

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Easy Button - Reflections on Parashat Nasso 5775

America is, by and large, a shortcut culture. Want to make a fast fortune? Find a shortcut for something people hate to do. TV remotes. Wash & wear clothes. Plastic food. Online shopping. EZPass. Tan in a Can. Diet Pills. If there's a shortcut, you can be assured that we'll find it.

This week's Torah portion talks about the dangers of spiritual shortcuts. In it we read the segment about the Nazir (a term for which there is no adequate English translation.) 

Who is a Nazir? Any person who, with great public fanfare, swears off wine (alcohol) and by extension ANY product made of, or containing grapes; who must let their hair grow long and shaggy; and who cannot become exposed to death (tumat hamet) - even for their closest relatives, like mom and dad. (To gain a deeper understanding of tumat hamet, click HERE.)

Is the Nazir to be praised for his self-denial or is he to be condemned? On the one hand, the Torah describes the Nazir as 'kadosh,' holy. On the other hand, he must bring a sin offering upon the successful completion of the vow.

There are venerable rabbinic voices down through ages on both sides of that question. I stand firmly with those who condemn the Nazir.

Consider the following: why would anyone in their right minds undertake such a disruptive, restrictive oath? What kind of mindset would volunteer for the life of a religious ascetic? 

An out-of-control person, that's who. Like a raging alcoholic, who desperately hopes that the power of the oath will buttress his weakening resolve.

Or perhaps someone who needs to call attention to themselves; one who derives self-esteem in holding themselves to a higher standard than their peers. This individual constantly gauges their religious performance against others - and consistently finds everyone else lacking. This type of Nazir finds bargain-basement self-esteem - not through hard work and honest achievement, but through building himself up by tearing others down.

And by the way: who (besides our Nazir) is the one other person on the planet who cannot be exposed to tumat hamet, even for a spouse, parent, sibling or child? Answer: the Cohen Gadol, the High Priest of Israel.

On a certain level, the Nazir is trying to be as holy as High Priest himself. 

It takes a lifetime for a person to prepare for the awesome responsibilities of the office of High Priest; but our Nazir, by mumbling a few words, catapults himself from zero-to-holy in 4.3 seconds. Neat trick.

The Nazir is trying to take a spiritual shortcut, and the Torah suggests that there are no shortcuts in the ethereal realm. That's why the Nazir brings the sin offering, and that's why the burning of the hair.

A sin offering (chatat) is brought for the commission of an inadvertent sin: the person meant no harm, but accidentally violated a serious Torah prohibition. Thus the Nazir brings a sin offering because his intent for self-improvement was laudable, but the execution was flawed.

And in one of the most curious aspects of the ending ritual of Nazir, his/her hair is shaved off their head and thrown into the fire. Why? This luxurious mane of hair, this very public sign of the Nazir vow, is symbolic of the entire Nazir experience. And in the end, it goes up in smoke. The acrid smell of the burning hair says: your spiritual shortcut accomplished nothing, your self-abnegation was all for nought, you're back where you started, you still have to deal with your issues.

Because no vow, no pill, no Easy Button, can fix the things that are wrong in your life.

We don't have the Nazir vow in our day. But sadly, we still see the all-too-human Nazir impulse: not just in the addictive personality, but in mean-spirited, petty people who derive their self-esteem by denigrating others - with an acerbic tongue, or an arrogant attitude, or competitors in the frumkeit (holier-than-thou) olympics.

There are no shortcuts to spiritual growth and development. Spiritual growth is hard work. It requires humility and introspection; a sober evaluation of one's strengths and weaknesses; a receptiveness to the still, small voice inside us all; a willingness to see steady change over time; consistency; and patience with oneself. It requires Torah study and deepening our performance of mitzvot. It requires constant vigilance against complacency, intellectual stagnation and arrogance. It's the work of a lifetime - you can't bang it out in a weekend or two, or sub it out, or find easy answers on the internet. It's the ultimate do-it-yourself project and it comes with no instruction booklet. 

But the results of applied effort will, over time, yield inner peace, wisdom, and improved relationships. And if everybody on the planet focused on fixing themselves, imagine the kind of world we would inhabit! That is the Torah's eschatological vision; and isn't that the place where we're all trying to get to?

So instead trying to impress everyone with ostentatious demonstrations of piety, do something truly Jewish: fix yourself from the inside out, and by extension, repair the world.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Trivial Pursuit - Reflections on Shavuot 5775

I like coffee. It is one of the few bad habits I have left (he says with tongue firmly lodged in cheek).  So you won’t be surprised to learn that every week I teach a parsha class at a local coffee house. It’s a lot of fun actually; a bunch of us drink tea or coffee and talk about the weekly Torah portion and its relevance to everyday life and current events.

Talking Torah. At Starbucks. How convenient. [smile]

Anyway, one of the people that attends these classes is a real live farmer. With an actual farm. And barnyard animals. The real McCoy. This fact never ceases to fascinate me, because let’s face it: as a group, Jews are pretty…urban.

My farmer friend was telling me about how incredibly busy he is this time of year – getting all the seeds in the ground at just the right time, animals being born, etc. And as he was sharing all of this, I had a blinding flash of insight on a curiosity of the Jewish calendar that we will experience this weekend.

I refer to Shavuot, aka Pentecost, aka the Feast of Weeks, aka the Feast of the First Fruits. It is the day we received the Torah from Gcd at Mount Sinai. And it is the second of the three annual pilgrimage festivals (along with Pesach and Sukkot) when the entire Jewish People would ascend to Jerusalem and Gcd’s Holy Mountain to commune with the A-lmighty in the Holy Temple. (And will do so again very soon, probably in our lifetimes.)

But there is a difference: Passover is a seven day holiday; Sukkot is eight. On these pilgrimages, the entire Jewish People hung out and celebrated in Jerusalem for over a week.

However Shavuot, equal to the others in import and gravity, is only a one day event. A quick in-and-out to Jerusalem, as it were. Why should that be the case? Why isn’t Shavuot a week long affair like all the other pilgrimage festivals?

Here's the insight: we were once a nation of farmers, and Shavuot falls smack in the middle of the busiest time of the agricultural year. It is as if Gcd is saying to the Jewish People, “We need to meet because I have something extremely important to give you. But I also appreciate how busy you are, so we’ll make it quick.”

Think about that: Gcd is being considerate of us. (Isn't supposed to be the other way around?) Like a doting parent, Gcd cares about what is important to us, takes note of ostensibly trivial and random details in our lives. 

In Hebrew it's called Hashgachah Pratit, Gcd's involvement and concern with the trivialities of our individual lives, guiding us towards our own highest good. 

That Shavuot is a one day holiday is a testament to hashgachah pratit. The Torah is sensitive to our needs, and the mitzvot were designed for our ultimate good. And all year long, Gcd's Knowing Hand guides our affairs in ways that always ultimately accrue to our benefit, even if we can’t understand it in the moment. 

And so often, that guidance comes through the "random event."

How many times do we do things that we think are good but turn out bad? Or we experience bad things from which good things ironically emerge? 

Or sometimes people do things to us that really hurt at the time, but turn out to have been fortuitous in hindsight. Like getting fired from a job. 

Or the opposite: you win the lottery (sounds good) and it destroys your life (just read the studies on the effect of the lottery in peoples’ lives.)

Or we experience a chance meeting with someone on a plane or a hotel lobby that proves to be...providential. Or the things we thought were really important in the moment fade in relevance, while some seemingly unimportant and random fact of your life turns out to be huge?

On Shavuot, the Torah was given to the Jews on the most unassuming, unimportant and seemingly random of mountains, Mount Sinai. The most important event in human history occurred in a place no one would have thought to look, in a no-man's land.

People who grab the headlines and constantly call attention to themselves are less likely to be the conduits of Gcd's will. But keep your eye on the quiet ones, the humble ones, the people no one pays much attention to; for it is through them that Gcd manifests His Will in the world.

Lastly, I suggest that this is another reason why we read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot. 

Ruth, the destitute outsider, is introduced to the Jewish People through a series of bad choices and unfortunate circumstances. The verse states that she "happened" to "randomly" choose Boaz's estate from which to glean barley. Thus it is through Ruth (this most unlikely of women) and under the most unlikely of circumstances that David (the most unlikely of Jesse's seven sons) becomes the Savior of Israel and the paragon of Jewish Leadership and Nobility for all generations. 

Gcd's Will is often done in places where we least expect it, in ways in which we least expect it. That is Hashgachah Pratit. That is the message of Ruth, and that is the message of the Torah to which we recommit this Shavuot. 

Your prayers will be answered, and everything will work out OK in the end...just probably not quite the way you expect it to.  "The stone the builders rejected as inferior will become my cornerstone." (Psalms 118:22)

Shabbat Shalom & Chag Same'ach.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Springtime's Bustin' Out All Over - Reflections on Sefirat HaOmer 5775

(Advance apologies to Rodgers & Hammerstein.)

Sefirah is the seven week period between Pesach and Shavuot. During part of this time in early spring, for 33 days, Jews observe a period of mild mourning. Primarily, we avoid live concerts, we put off weddings, and (if you're a guy) you grow a beard like a mourner.

The reason is to be found in the Talmud, Tractate Yevamot 62b:
It was said that Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples from Gabbatha to Antipatris; and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect...A Tanna taught: "All of them died between Passover and Shavuot". Rabbi Hama ben Abba (or it might have been Rabbi Hiyya ben Abin) said: "All of them died a cruel death." What was it? Rabbi Nahman replied: "Askarah."
In my ill-spent and dissolute youth (smile), I must confess that I just couldn't get into the mode of mourning. I mean it's springtime - springtime! The world is coming alive again! Birds are a-twitter (back when 'twitter' only meant a melodious avian articulation.) Trees are in blossom, love is in the air, everything is fresh and new and vivid and just breathtakingly beautiful. 

And every spring I am reminded of a line in Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King: “Every twenty years or so the earth renews itself in young maidens," a renewal that undoubtedly occurs, as do the crocuses, daffodils and tulips, in the spring.

So, as I say, I didn't understand. To compound my confusion, the reasoning of the Talmud was very obscure. 24,000 students? What does that even mean, for one guy to have 24,000 students? How does one teacher relate in a meaningful way to 24,000 disciples? (Even today, the Mir Yeshivah in Jerusalem, one of the largest in the world with hundreds of rabbis on staff, only has about 7,500 students.)

And what does it mean that they died because they dissed one another? We're talking about the disciples of Rabbi Akiva here, arguably one of the greatest rabbis in all of Jewish history. And they all died of a cruel death called "askarah?" And the plague magically stopped on one specific day? And why do we traditionally celebrate that day, the 33rd day of the count, with picnics and bonfires and archery?

None of it made any sense to me. How could it be that the Sages of Israel were so out of touch with the palpable, vital reality of springtime that they ordained a period of sadness and mourning? Didn't they look out the window? The incongruity of sefirah and spring was screaming at me. 

And then my wife's only brother was killed by a drunk driver. 

Michael Allen Ziegler, z"l, was killed during sefirah. He was only 24, single, in the springtime of his life. And to compound the pain, he was killed by his best friend, who walked away from the twisted wreck uninjured.

And then I began to understand.

I began to understand the futility of trying to comfort an inconsolable wife. I began to understand how the blossoming flowers that spring held no solace; indeed, in their very beauty they seemed to mock Michael's death. 

I began to understand how the beauty of spring is fleeting when weighed against the inevitability, the permanence, of death. 

The Sages, in their wisdom, were counseling temperance in enjoying the beauties of spring. 'Soak up the loveliness of spring,' they seemed to be saying, 'but don't be overcome by the seductions of youth, by fleeting beauty, no matter how immediate or palpable it may seem in the moment.'

The historical fact is that Rabbi Akiva's "students" were actually the warriors in Bar Kochba's rebellion. Like Uncle Mike, they were in the prime of their lives - youthful, idealistic and beautiful. The "cruel death" his disciples suffered was the decisive military rout by the Roman Legions in the fields of Beitar. Those brave young men died in battle, and the battle - and their lives - ended on a single day in 135 CE. Also ended was any hope of Jewish political sovereignty for the next 18 very long and dark centuries.

So that explains the archery and bonfires used to commemorate Lag B'Omer, the 33rd day of the count (which is this coming Thursday, BTW.)

But the Gemara couldn't tell the real story, could it? Not with the Roman censors looking on and the fears of reprisal against the pockets of remaining Jews. So it speaks in hints and ambiguities. 

With wiser eyes, it must be said that the loss of our national sovereignty and personal freedoms are indeed things worth mourning over.

So yeah, go sit under a tree in the park and enjoy the gifts of spring...but tuck a Pirkei Avot (Wisdom of the Sages) under one arm, too.

Shabbat Shalom.