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Becoming a Better Being / Graceful Masculinity: Vayishlach

Part of a year-long Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

 

 וַיָּבֹא יַעֲקֹב שָׁלֵם עִיר שְׁכֶם, אֲשֶׁר בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן, בְּבֹאוֹ, מִפַּדַּן אֲרָם; וַיִּחַן, אֶת-פְּנֵי הָעִיר.

And Jacob came in peace to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Paddan-aram; and encamped before the city. (Genesis 33:18)

 

“Don’t just do something, stand there.” The White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland understands that human beings have a very hard time just being. Often it is easier to pursue the future and be distracted from the moment than to be fully in the present. But it’s important for us to “just be” sometimes. When we are only thinking about what is next, our ability to actually improve ourselves is diminished.

Every week, Shabbos invites us to pivot from a weekday posture of creative production to one of graceful existence. (From “doing something” to “just being.”) The medresh teaches that Jacob came to the city of Shechem on erev Shabbos, and prepared for the day of rest. The Sefas Emes (Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger) understands the word “ויחן”, in the context of this verse, not just as he encamped, but also that Jacob restored grace,  חן, to the land.

Sefer Yetzirah teaches that G-d connects the letter ת with both חן (grace) and Shabbos. As a result, Shabbos is inherently connected with grace. Shabbos supports our acquisition of gracefulness by giving us the opportunity to reflect on what we have and to be satisfied with what we have. Just as G-d rested on the Shabbos from creating, and appreciated what had been made, so too does Shabbos provide a weekly reminder to cease pursuing the physical and instead to elevate it to the level of spirituality. 

The brothers Jacob and Esav offer two different ways of relating to “what we have” and “enoughness.” When Jacob is on his way to meet Esav, he attempts to make amends with his brother by sending him many gifts. Esav rejects the offering, saying, ““I have plenty,” which Rashi understands as an arrogant boast of accomplishment. By contrast, Jacob says of himself, “I have all (כל),” which Rashi interprets to mean that he has enough. 

Jacob tells Esav  כִּי-חַנַּנִי אֱלֹקים וְכִי יֶשׁ-לִי-כֹל / “G-d has been gracious to me and therefore I have all that I need.” (Genesis 33:11) He means “I have found the G-dly type of grace, not a superficial one.” Jacob not only wants to give Esav physical gifts: he wants to give Esav the spiritual gift of his worldview, the spiritual gift of knowing that what one has is enough.

Esav comes with 400 men, a representation of the force of “רע עין,” a negative outlook of the world.  Jacob lives for 147 years, which is the numerical value of “עין טוב”, a positive outlook on the world. The numerical value of “יש לי כל”, I have enough, is 400, the same as the letter “ת” which as we explained, is connected to Shabbos and to חן / grace. Jacob was modeling for his brother a practice of being satisfied with what one has, and not being distracted by the superficial pleasure of being seen as successful through excess. This reflects a real internal חן / grace. 1

וַיָּבֹא יַעֲקֹב שָׁלֵם Jacob came shalem, in peace.  שָׁלֵם (Shalem) can also mean complete or full. Jacob came on Erev Shabbos, a time of completion. We conclude the physical work before Shabbos so that we can be free to invest in the spiritual “work” of Shabbos.2 Shabbos’s name is shalom. Part of achieving graceful living is appreciating what we have, existing in Jacob’s state of יש לי כל. For the moment we know that we have all we need. 

 

Discussion questions:

 

Why does society look at physical wealth as such an indicator of success?

Spiritual ambitions can also be toxic. How can we evaluate if our ambitions are holy?

How can we be more conscious of our presence?

Does being with other people make that easier?

 


1. חיצון = חן יופי

2. עיין אמרי אמת תר”צ “בשבת אדם משלים עצמו”

 

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz.  See other #MenschUp posts here.

Growing the Giving Nature of Love / Graceful Masculinity: Vayeitzei

Part of a year-long Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

 

וַיַּעֲבֹד יַעֲקֹב בְּרָחֵל, שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים; וַיִּהְיוּ בְעֵינָיו כְּיָמִים אֲחָדִים, בְּאַהֲבָתוֹ אֹתָהּ.

Jacob worked seven years for Rachel and they seemed to him a few days because of his love for her.  (Genesis 29:20)

 

There’s a story about a student who is accompanying his rabbi to a restaurant for dinner. After they are seated and have looked over the menu, the rabbi asks, “What would you like to eat?” Still scanning the options, the student responds, “I love fish, so…” The rabbi interrupts by gently lowering the student’s menu, makes eye contact, and corrects him: “If you really love fish, you would let it live out its life peacefully in the water. Instead, you are willing to pay someone to catch it, kill it, dice it, deep fry the pieces, and then you will eat it. You don’t love fish. You love the way eating fish makes you feel.”

Love can be selfish or selfless. We can love another, G-d forbid, for what the person can provide to us — or we can love by trying to offer as much as possible. In Hebrew, the world for “love” is אהבה. It comes from the root הב, which means to give. In the purest kind of love, we seek to better ourselves as a way of making the best possible offering to those we love. 

In our parsha, the Torah testifies that Jacob’s love was for Rachel. Perhaps that is why the seven long years of labor felt like days for him. Moments waiting for a beloved can feel like an eternity, but Jacob was already achieving a sense of closeness in the moment by investing the time to work and refine himself. It is not coincidental that he, like many of our early leaders, was first a shepherd of animals before leading people. Putting the needs of others first isn’t easy, and it took effort to habituate themselves to accommodating the needs of the flock.

The Jerusalem Talmud teaches that we can best learn how to love another by learning to love ourselves and then expanding from there. In Tractate Nedarim, the Talmud explains the connection between the first half of the verse “You shall not seek revenge” with the second half of the verse, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Lev. 19:18) The Jerusalem Talmud presents a parable of a person who accidentally cut their finger while preparing food. Would the wounded hand take the knife and avenge itself by stabbing the hand that cut it? When we understand ourselves as being part of a greater whole, this not only discourages revenge, but it can inspire deep love. We are all commanded to love another the way that we love ourselves, but if we are not aware of the care we need to offer ourselves, we can end up hurting others.

Before we can expand our concern to include others, we need to understand our own needs. The way that we feel about ourselves can teach us how to properly feel for others. We must love ourselves in order to fully love someone else.

This is especially true in our most intimate relationships. Maimonides teaches that I must honor my partner even more than I honor myself and I should love my partner as much as I love myself.1 The source for this is the Babylonian Talmud, but it is noteworthy that the order there is reversed: One must love their partner the way one loves oneself and should honor the partner even more.2 The rabbis explain that Maimonides changes the order because he is offering practical advice on how to cultivate love for another. The first step is understanding and honoring what is important to the other, and making it important to you.

Tradition also acknowledges that desire is natural and powerful, and needs to be harnessed and channeled. The mystics understand the 613 commandments in the Torah as corresponding to 613 parts of our being. The commandment of loving another as we love ourselves is connected to the part of us that experiences desire. Intimate relationships offer the unique opportunity to focus on the needs of another, with as much sensitivity, as if those needs were one’s own. It is for this reason that the Talmud mandates that one see the other before marrying, to make sure there is an attraction. Torah’s imperative to love another as oneself is given as the prooftext.3

Jacob’s love for Rachel is passionate and generous. His work, both internal and external, models how we can find personal nourishment by focusing on the needs of another. G-d wants us to feel loved, and to know that we will never get there by exploiting others. Instead, we reach love through giving love in a healthy way.

 

Discussion questions:

How does the way society uses the word “love” affect our understanding of it?

What are some examples of micro-affections, small positive platonic acts, that we can offer through the day, especially to strangers?

If we feel good when we give and help others, why do we often feel resistance to giving more? 

Is it more helpful to try and apply successful lessons in one’s partnership with G-d to human relationships, or apply lessons from our human relationships to our partnership with G-d?

 


1. וְכֵן צִוּוּ חֲכָמִים שֶׁיִּהְיֶה אָדָם מְכַבֵּד אֶת אִשְׁתּוֹ יוֹתֵר מִגּוּפוֹ וְאוֹהֲבָהּ כְּגוּפוֹ.

2. ת”ר האוהב את אשתו כגופו והמכבדה יותר מגופו

3. There are more rational reasons to be attractive to one’s partner, as Maimonides writes: otherwise the partnership could end in graceleness, hate, or divorce. וְלֹא יְקַדֵּשׁ אִשָּׁה עַד שֶׁיִּרְאֶנָּה וְתִהְיֶה כְּשֵׁרָה בְּעֵינָיו שֶׁמָּא לֹא תִּמְצָא חֵן בְּעֵינָיו וְנִמְצָא מְגָרְשָׁהּ אוֹ שׁוֹכֵב עִמָּהּ וְהוּא שׂוֹנְאָהּ:

 

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz. Image from wallpapercave.com.

See other #MenschUp posts here.

The Other Half of the Battle / Graceful Masculinity: Toldot

Part of a year-long Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

 

 וְיַעֲקֹב נָתַן לְעֵשָׂו, לֶחֶם וּנְזִיד עֲדָשִׁים, וַיֹּאכַל וַיֵּשְׁתְּ, וַיָּקָם וַיֵּלַךְ; וַיִּבֶז עֵשָׂו, אֶת-הַבְּכֹרָה.

Jacob then gave Esav bread and lentil stew; he ate and drank, and he rose and went away. So Esav spurned the birthright. (Genesis 25:34)

 

Sometimes we just forget things. Often though, it’s not that we have actually forgotten, but rather that the clarity of our knowledge is not sufficient to orchestrate our actions.1 If a person stays up most of the night playing video games, it’s not because he forgot that he has to wake up in the morning for work. Rather, just knowing that his alarm will ring soon is not sufficient to change his behavior.

When we say that remembering is a call to action, it is because we want to bring to the fore the knowledge that will cause us to behave appropriately. This requires an awareness of what we have “forgotten,” so that we can counter the memory lapse and orient ourselves towards proper activity.

In our tradition, Esav (Esau) had vast knowledge but there was a disconnect between what he knew and what he did; he was not a talmid chacham, a practitioner of wisdom. He would ask his father detailed questions about halacha, Jewish law,  but he did not use that knowledge to influence his actions. Most egregiously, he was not self-aware enough to realize the tremendous gap between his education and his behavior. He thought he was already there and had nothing left to learn; the Hebrew words “Esav” and “complete” have the same numerical value.2 He was completely unaware of how underdeveloped he really was. Our rabbis teach that this was the source of his evil and like an undiagnosed illness, it never got treated.3

It is for this reason that Esav thought that he was fitting to receive the blessings from his father. He didn’t see himself as a sinner, and even the shock of the rejection didn’t arouse any introspection or change. Esav was “in his head,” not connected to the rest of his body, or the rest of the world.4 Tradition teaches that Esav’s head is buried apart from his body, perhaps as a further expression of this disconnect.

Jacob, by contrast, was constantly struggling, evolving, and throwing himself back into the fight for greater awareness. He was born at his brother’s heel, thereby earning himself the name Jacob / Ya’akov (connected to the Hebrew word for heel, עקב / ekev). Jacob consistently fights his way up until G-d grants him a new name, ישראל / Israel, which is an anagram of לי ראש / li rosh, “you are to Me a head.” With this name change,G-d gives Jacob confirmation of his holy transformation. 

The space between intentions and impact can be vast and even violent. How can men be expected to know what we don’t know? Judaism teaches that knowing that we don’t know is both a high level of knowledge and also a prerequisite for gaining greater wisdom. 

Acquiring this type of sensitivity is truly a gift that comes from the sensing of its absence. When we know that we are not there yet, that there is still much work to be done, then we can be open and worthy of receiving what we need to know.

We thank God for being our source of knowledge in the blessing “You graciously endow man with wisdom,” found in daily prayer. Wisdom is given with grace, and so being wise is not just about knowing facts, but knowing how to be with other people in a way that is graceful. This involves an awareness of how our actions resonate with others.

The Vilna Gaon comments on the verse (Proverbs 3:4) “You will find favor and goodly wisdom in the eyes of G-d and man” that “חן ”, “favor” comes from the language of “חנם” free. It is for that reason, he posits, that “grace” is most commonly paired with the verb “find”. 

We can’t rely on our subjective understanding of what’s appropriate based on how we intend an action in our heads. Instead we need to check in and hear from those being affected by what we do. Esav spurned his birthright by minimizing the consequences of his actions. In the mystical tradition, his ministering angel governs though the power of forgetting. When we recognize that wisdom comes from beyond us, that should humble us, and encourage us to take responsibility to internalize wisdom, commit to its application, and regularly review the space between the ideal and our lived, embodied experiences. 

 

 

Discussion questions:

What framework would enable us to ensure that our actions are having the desired effect?

How can we strengthen the knowledge we have to subdue undesirable habits?

What responsibility comes with being privileged in society?

How does Jacob model a more positive masculinity?

How can we cultivate greater self awareness?  

 


1. עיין מתנת חלקו מ”י ד”ג “השכחה אינו שולטת על הידיע, אלא על מה שהידיעה צריכה לגרום למעשה.

2. עשו = 376, שלום = 376

3. עיין נאות דשא אות ג

4. עיין משנת רבי אהרן

 

 

 

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz. Image source: Charlene Winfred.

Building Communal Resistance for Elul

Part of a yearlong Torah series on building and builders in Jewish spiritual life.

 

Resist so that you may exist. This is the charge that the Torah provides (Deuteronomy 16:20) as an introduction to communal living in the Land of Israel. The statutes that follow demand that we end apathy towards injustice. We must mobilize a resistance in which those with societal privilege feel as freighted by maltreatment in the world as those who suffer indignity directly.

G-d’s design for building a holier world has an interesting and perhaps counter-intuitive prerequisite. According to R’ Yossi HaGalili, the Torah lists categories of military deferment – those who built a new house, planted a vineyard or got betrothed, who might be distracted because they haven’t yet finished those pursuits – only to provide cover for the one true military exemption: one who is fearful and faint hearted (Deuteronomy 20:8). The Talmud re-contextualizes this fear as someone afraid of their transgressions (Sotah 44a [המתיירא מעבירות שבידו]).

Being concerned about one’s sins is not a bad thing: not being afraid of them is a much greater cause of concern. Why, then, should tradition disqualify someone from participating in this resistance on account of a level of spiritual consciousness?

The Torah’s word for fear here (“הירא”) is found in only one other verse in the Torah. After Moses declares that the plague of hail is coming, the verse states: “Whoever among the servants of Pharaoh feared the word of Hashem chased his servants and his livestock into the houses” (Exodus 9:20). This inward-focused fear is limited to retribution for sin, a concern for the safety of oneself and one’s possessions. This preoccupation of שבידו – that which specifically affects “oneself” – disqualifies a person from participating in communal action.

The point is that motive matters. It’s one thing to oppose nearly daily mass shootings by white domestic terrorists because you are afraid to get shot. It’s another to act because no one should get shot! No movement fully can succeed if each participant’s motive is mainly one’s own needs, spiritually or physically. 

Our relationship with G-d also must transcend limited self-interest. Today is Rosh Chodesh Elul (אלול), intensifying our personal introspection into our intimate and unique relationship with G-d. Elul’s name is famously understood as an acronym for the Hebrew verse in Song of Songs, “I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me.” What is less known is that it also refers to the sin of Judah’s son Onan, who marries Tamar after his older brother Er dies (Genesis 38:9). Judah instructs Onan to marry Tamar in order to establish a line of descent for his deceased brother. The verse explains that Onan knew that the child of this levirate marriage wouldn’t be considered his (“לא לו”), and therefore refused to have a child with her. 

Tradition responded to Onan’s fit of pique by leaving him out of our spiritual future.  Our rabbis teach that the Messiah will come from the union of Judah and Tamar along with Ruth and Boaz, both Levirate marriages that would produce children credited to others. Redemption comes from exactly this quality of selflessness.

That’s why a spiritually authentic אלול must also include the לא לו. Elul focuses us on  precisely what is beyond ourselves. True teshuvah requires restoration for all. We must love, protect and provide for asylum seekers, trans youth, and all suffering prejudice, discrimination or other indignities. Redemption and forgiveness only can come when we restore our love for each other the way we naturally love ourselves. 

 

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

Taking Pride in the Parade

Part of a yearlong Torah series on spiritual building and builders in Jewish life.

Today is the Pride March marking 50 years from Stonewall and the beginning of the modern chapter of the LGBTQ liberation movement. So much has been achieved and still so much is left to do.

As rabbis and allies we want to build and tend spaces that provide complete inclusion and  equality. The daily reminders of the brokenness of this world help guide the work we do. The fight for LGBTQ rights is only necessary because society is defective. If there was no homophobia we wouldn’t need straight allies. We only need a trans day of remembrance because many have forgotten that trans folks are G-d’s folks. Our activism is necessitated by our communal failures.

Protests to dismantle socially constructed divisions and calls for radical inclusivity are nothing new. Korach and 250 of his followers bring these demands to Moshe in a dramatic confrontation.

Korach and his entourage say to Moshe and Aharon (Numbers 16:3) “It is too much, all of the nation is holy and God dwells within us all – why are you imposing a hierarchy on us?” At first glance, Korach’s argument seems to be a model of inclusion. All of us are spiritually elevated and divinely inspired. Indeed, Korach is echoing a promise that God held out to Israel at Sinai (Exodus 19:6), “And you will be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Given Korach’s supernal desires, why do he and his followers end up swallowed by a hole in the ground? The rabbinic tradition places Korach in a unique position: apparently punishing him for being ahead of his time. In Psalm 92, the song of Shabbos, we say צַ֭דִּיק כַּתָּמָ֣ר יִפְרָ֑ח כְּאֶ֖רֶז בַּלְּבָנ֣וֹן יִשְׂגֶּֽה A righteous person will flourish like a date palm, and like a cedar, will grow tall. The last letters of the first three words of the verse in Hebrew spell Korach’s name and there is a tradition that this foretells that Korach will flourish eventually as a righteous person.

The mystics (Zohar and Ari z”l) understand Korach to have been motivated by the yearning to get back to the place before the brokenness, by asserting that we had already fixed it. However, if we do not acknowledge what is broken, we will not be able to properly rebuild. G-d’s justice is necessary and restorative because divine punishments are consequences of our inappropriate actions and position us to repent and return to that ideal place. Korach’s aspirations are holy, it’s his lack of awareness of the effort still needed to replace what was removed that is offensive to G-d’s experience with humanity.

While Korach may have wanted to get back to the moment that God offered to make Israel an entirely holy nation of priests, he is in fact ignoring many of the events of the previous year. Since Israel encountered God at Sinai, they sinned by building and worshipping a Golden Calf and were almost destroyed. The first born sons no longer have a cultic role; they have been replaced by the Levites. Aharon’s two sons died because they brought an unauthorized fire in the Tabernacle. And, most recently in last week’s parsha, the nation has sinned by believing the slanderous report of the spies. As a result, God has condemned Israel to wander in the wilderness for the next forty years. Korach and his followers aspire to return to the spiritual state that Israel was in at Sinai. A year later though, the people are different. Pretending that nothing has shifted does not help them get closer to where they were.

As we celebrate the monumental strides that our country has made in removing LGBTQ discrimination, we must take care not to be like Korach and assert precipitously that all has been fixed. Walking around a city adorned with rainbow flags and stores capitalizing on Pride merchandise is a beautiful and healing experience. But it also can make it harder to remember that in this country, the average life expectancy of a trans woman of color is only 35 years. Until all of the human rights of the LGBTQ community have been restored, we must protest and resist the narrative that says we have made it and our work is done. We are indeed all holy and it is our task to see that divine holiness respected in us all.

 

By Rabbis Wendy Amsellem and Mike Moskowitz. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

Coming out against hate for Shavuot

 

This weekend we celebrate, with pride, G-d’s “coming out” speech – the Divine Revelation at Mt. Sinai. Our need to be seen and understood for who we are draws from that very highest of the High Truths of sacred tradition.

The Jewish community and LGBTQ+ community share long experiences of being closeted, forced — in different ways — to choose between being unsafe or hiding the fullness of who we are. Walking in the world as someone recognizably Jewish or LGBTQ+ has often meant being subject to hate, discrimination and attack.

For centuries Jewish life and perhaps all spiritual life was built with closets.  As we felt the need to hide the fullness of our truest selves, we built in society and religion closets out of fear.

But that’s not the Judaism (or the world) that we are called to build.  We’re called to build a world that reflects and uplifts the many diversities of G-d’s splendor, the many colors of the rainbow refracting G-d’s infinite light.

To build that world, first we must stop fooling ourselves about how much work still lies ahead, or who must do it.  Many who grew up in America over the last 50 years believed that anti-Semitism had become far more an historical relic than a modern reality.  Many LGBTQ+ people and allies, especially over the last decade, believed that progress was flourishing: legal protections were expanding rapidly, and civic leaders increasingly took our safety and health seriously.

But Dr. Martin Luther King’s prophetic vision of an ever more just and inclusive world — while ultimately true on G-d’s time — isn’t automatically true on human time.  The arc of the moral universe doesn’t necessarily bend toward justice unless we build it that way.

Today, societal forces are mounting to undo the progress of the last decades — targeting houses of worship, inciting fear and hate, shoving whole communities back into closets that we thought we were well on our way to dismantling.

The good news is that we’re not alone, we’re not building alone and, as always, we’re far stronger together than any of us ever could be on our own.  Advancements against anti-Semitism and homophobia always have been incremental and cooperative: they happen slowly, and they require the collaboration of many hands on the “build team” of a futre worthy of everyone.

It’s easy to focus on building that better world “for us” — forgetting that the only way truly to build that better world is to build it for all.  How many cisgender white gays and lesbians celebrated when marriage equality became a reality, but went absent from ongoing activism for their trans siblings?  How many progressive Jews felt that anti-Semitism had vanished from their lives, not noticing that our visibly-Jewish Orthodox siblings faced continued attacks?  How many white Jews were absent from activism on behalf of Jews of color? It goes on and on.

Real progress means expanding beyond our own communities and specific interests.  The fact that we may not yet have experienced certain vulnerabilities and inequalities does not mean that we are protected from them. The privileges that shield us today can easily slip away in the future. But as history keeps teaching, if we don’t stand up for others, there won’t be anyone left to stand up for us.

This ongoing work is both external and internal. We need to build outward and advocate for others (for instance, straight and cisgender allies must advocate for the LGBTQ+ community, and non-Jewish allies must stand up for the Jewish community).  At the same time, we must build inward and strengthen connections internal to our communities as well.

Now 50 years since Stonewall, this work is far from complete.  To paraphrase the charge given at b’nei mitzvah celebrations: this must not be the end of our activism, but the beginning.  In the words of our sages, even if it’s it not our job to “complete” this work (it’s never “complete”), neither are we free to refrain from it.

This year’s Pride Month coincides with Shavuot, the end of Judaism’s seven-week cycle of counting the Omer, moving from the story of Passover to the receiving of Torah. Over these 49 days, we followed the example of the Children of Israel in the desert, working to transform ourselves from a newly freed mixed multitude into a unified humanity able to stand together at Sinai and receive the highest Torah.  During this time, we reaffirm our spiritual duty to ensure that all are protected and safe, so that we all can stand together.

The reason is core to Jewish spiritual life.  Tradition teaches that we received the Torah only as a unified community, with each and every person equally invited, present and welcomed.  The completeness of Torah depended on the wholeness of community. Just as a Torah with even one letter missing cannot ever be true Torah, so too a community with even one person excluded or dehumanized cannot ever be true holy community.

In that spirit, there are real spiritual consequences if anyone feels pressured much less forced to conceal who they truly are out of fear of not being fully accepted.  We learn that it is un-Jewish and un-holy, by definition, to exclude in those ways — as equally unacceptable as dropping letters from Torah itself.

In that same spirit, the Revelation at Sinai was a true divine “coming out” to the world.  What little our enslaved ancestors knew of G-d was in their liberation from bondage, but now G-d would reveal G-d’s Self. G-d’s “I” narrative of introduction at Sinai (Exodus 20:1-2) reminds that there is but one G-d, in whose image we all are created. To discriminate against a person for just being is to discriminate against the source of all being.

On Shavuot, we remember the moment when G-d said, “This is who I Am.”  G-d’s identity needs no affirmation, but G-d still gave humanity the opportunity to say, “Yes, we see You, and we will call You by the names You teach us.” G-d modeled coming out, and G-d modeled how we should treat everyone.

This Shavuot and this Pride Month, may we all continue the work and blessing of that ongoing Revelation – fully seeing each other, being completely present for each other, ensuring that no one ever is pressured to hide. That’s how we’ll build a future without closets of fear, a future truly for everyone.

 

 

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz and Rabbi Marisa James. 

Healing from the affliction of separation

Part of a yearlong series on Torah’s wisdom about spiritual building and builders.

The Talmud teaches (Megillah 31b): “If old men advise you to demolish, and children [advise you] to build, then demolish and do not build, because the demolishing of old men is [as constructive as] building and the building of children is demolishing.” In other words: wise elders can help us see when it’s time to demolish old structures, practices, and ideas that no longer serve — so that the demolishing becomes the first step toward building something new.

I just returned from a trip to the United States / Mexico border co-sponsored by HIAS and T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. We visited the Otero County Processing Center, which houses over 1000 migrants who have been separated from their families. The refugees housed there have not committed any crime, but the warden referred to them as “inmates.” They wore colored jumpsuits, and slept 50 to a room behind bars. These family separations are connected with the affliction described in this week’s paresha — and in Torah’s cure for that affliction, we can find tools to heal and to build.

In this week’s paresha, Metzora, we learn that Torah’s cure for the affliction called tzaras (sometimes translated as leprosy) begins with sacrificing birds. Rashi writes, on Leviticus 14:4, “since the affliction [of tzaras] comes about because of lashon ha-ra (malicious speech) which is an act of verbal twittering, therefore for purification Torah requires birds that constantly twitter.” Tzaras isn’t (just) a skin condition: it’s a moral condition, rooted in the sin of malicious speech.

In another interpretation, the Talmud (Arakhin 15b) explains that the word “metzora” (a person with tzaras) can be understood in the language of “motzi ra,” giving off evil. Metzora is when a person’s essence becomes so twisted that whatever that person says or does is bad. The Torah this week provides a roadmap both to the depths of that impurity and the path towards purity.

Our rabbis also say that this affliction of tzaras comes from arrogance. For this reason, Rashi explains, Torah prescribes a cure of cedarwood, crimson wool, and hyssop. “What is the remedy so that one should be cured? He should lower himself from his arrogance like a worm [תולעת / tolaat means both wool and worm] and like hyssop [which grows low to the ground].” And why cedar? According to the medresh (Tanchuma 3) the cedar’s tall magnificence reminds us that the sinner thought of themselves as glorious (and needs to adjust their self-image a bit).

In Talmud (Sotah 5a) we learn that G-d separates from us when we are arrogant — something that doesn’t happen with any other character trait. Our purpose in life is to see G-d as the source of all, and not fill space with the fake reality that we are somehow better than any other person created by G-d. When we are arrogant, G-d pulls away from us. When our eyes are open, we recognize that in our connectedness with each other, we experience connectedness with G-d… and when we separate from each other, we separate from G-d.

The family separations that I witnessed on the border are a profound case of separating from each other. Not only are parents and children separated from each other, but all who take part in creating and enforcing that separation are maintaining a system that separates us from G-d.

The rehabilitation of the metzora, as described in Torah, involves experiencing a temporary separation from community (Leviticus 14:3). We can see that as a kind of sensitivity training. If tzaras is (as Rashi and Talmud teach) an affliction of arrogance and malicious speech, the metzora needs time away from community to do their own work so that they can return with a sense of the communal responsibility that must be at the core of all spiritual practice. Every sin between people creates separation between us and G-d. We need to build in a way that heals that separation — and heals our illusory sense of separateness from each other, too.

As builders of the Jewish future, we must turn away from lashon ha-ra (wicked speech). We must turn away from the temptation of arrogance or holding ourselves to be separate from or better than others. All of these are today’s tzaras — a word that shares its root with tzuris, suffering. Wicked speech, arrogance, and separating ourselves from each other (which means separating ourselves from G-d) are our tzaras and our tzuris — and these are no way to build.

The rabbis opine that the two birds slaughtered at the start of this week’s paresha (Lev. 14:4) can represent two approaches to building a more humble and human society. One approach is to first focus on the greatness of G-d and all of G-d’s wonders, which helps us more accurately calibrate our own greatness. Alternatively, we can start by looking at the loneliness of the human experience. What’s behind our capacity as a people to create terrible separations like those unfolding at the US/Mexico border? Examining that, we should see clearly that the places and policies that come out of lashon ha-ra, arrogance, and separation need to be demolished.

Torah gives us tools: tackling our twittering (let spring’s birdsong remind us to sing the greatness of G-d, not to speak wickedness or untruths), cultivating humility (hinted-at by the wool and the low-growing hyssop), and recalibrating our sense of awe (remembering the majestic cedar). With these we can demolish old structures that serve to separate, and we can build something better in their place.

 

 

 

 

 

By Rabbi Mike Moskowtz. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

 

 

Building Sacred Spaces With (and For) G-d

IMG_0296Part of a yearlong series on Torah’s wisdom about building and builders in Jewish spiritual life.

Jewish tradition teaches that G-d is constantly recreating this world, building something out of nothing.  The fact that we are here right now testifies, in this very moment, to G-d’s intention for us to be here.

By contrast, when we build something, we are simply making something out of something else. We are really just taking things that have already existed — like trees, stones, and other elements  — and changing their form into buildings and furniture. As a result, we can walk away from our creations, and they continue to exist without us. However if G-d were to stop thinking about us for even a second, we would cease to exist like we were never here.

In this week’s parsha, Tetzaveh, we read, “I will abide among the Israelites, and I will be their G-d. And they shall know that I Adonai am their G-d, who brought them out from the land of Egypt that I might abide among them, I, Adonai, their G-d.” (Exodus 29:45-46) Everything we do in Jewish life comes with this reminder: G-d dwells within us and among us. We build a space for G-d in order to be reminded Who liberated us from the Narrow Place, and Who liberates us even now.

G-d is continually building this world for us. In return, we’re called to build places for G-d, reminders of the One Who liberates us from constriction. And when we do build those places, we need to truly accommodate the needs of G-d’s creations.

There is a beautiful midrash about the construction of the portable sanctuary, the mishkan. Imagine a king who has only one daughter, and that daughter marries a king from another land. After some time the son-in-law wants to return home with his bride.

The father explains to the younger king, “I understand that you want to go home, and I can’t tell you not to take my daughter with you — she’s your wife! But she’s my only daughter, and I can’t bear to be separate from her. Rather, please do me this favor: wherever you go make guest quarters for me so that I can dwell with you.”

So too G-d said to Israel, “I’ve given you the Torah.  I can’t tell you not to take it — it’s yours now. But I can’t bear to be separated from it. Rather, every place that you go, make me a home where I can live. As it is said: ‘Build for Me a sanctuary’…”

The Zohar expands “sanctuary” beyond just the mishkan to mean any sacred space. “How beloved are we by G-d that in every place where we are found, G-d’s presence is among us, as it says, ‘build for me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them;’ all spaces where people gather are called a sanctuary.”

Often the spaces where we gather aren’t really sanctuaries, though. They may not be accessible on a physical level. And even when they are ADA-compliant, they may exclude people for emotional, intellectual, and / or spiritual reasons. Too often, some of G-d’s children are excluded, unwelcomed, and suppressed — often in the false name of making these spaces “welcoming” for G-d.

The Talmud teaches that “It is greater to invite guests than it is to greet the Divine Presence.” Welcoming each other, in all that we are, is more important even than welcoming G-d’s own Presence into our midst! The tradition teaches that G-d is like a Parent who experiences pleasure when their children get along, not when we create ostensibly “G-d-focused” events while excluding any of G-d’s children… whether that means excluding people on the basis of gender expression or sexual orientation, or on the basis of race, or because of what form of Judaism they practice.

Indeed, excluding each other from community is the senseless hatred that (tradition teaches) caused G-d’s Temple to be destroyed 2,000 years ago. The Talmud teaches that although G-d no longer (since the Temple’s destruction) has a physical address, we can still seek and find G-d in the four cubits of halakha (Jewish law). We can still seek and find G-d in the open space that’s contained within the scaffolding of tradition, law, and interpretation.

Last week’s Torah portion called us to build for G-d a sanctuary that G-d might dwell within and among us. This week’s Torah portion links that building with our core story of liberation, reminding us that we must build our holy spaces both literal and metaphorical — we must build the Jewish future — with constant remembrance of the One Who brings us forth from narrow places.

Torah offers us Divine specifications for supporting sacred space, and when we follow those instructions we become co-creators with G-d. G-d builds the world for us, and in return we build holy space for G-d. G-d liberates us from Egypt, and in return we are called to liberate others from small-mindedness and exclusion.

The holy scaffolding that we provide for our communities requires our renewed and constant involvement, like G-d’s renewed and constant involvement in keeping the world turning. We must expand and reconfigure our sanctuaries to protect, inspire, and nourish the evolving needs of the Jewish people. If we don’t, then G-d doesn’t have a place to live with us, and none of us can truly be free.

 

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By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

Building a Temple from Tears

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Part of a yearlong series on Torah wisdom about building and builders.

The Torah is filled with instructions for building the Mishkan, G-d’s “dwelling place” that our ancestors carried in the wilderness, but those blueprints don’t provide measurements of the emotional dimensions needed to build that holy space within our hearts. It often feels like the walls we have constructed, to protect that space, are more permanent than the walls of the original Mishkan, designed to create an inviting space.

There are few things that penetrate our hearts more powerfully than the wailing cries of a child. We hear and witness the holy purity and unfiltered truth of their experience in real time. It is this portal into the honest rawness and exposed feelings of human vulnerability that naturally move us to open up our own emotional channels.

IMG_3665Tears can be powerful, cleansing, and soulful. They can also be the result of overwhelming pain. Regardless of the part of us that hurts, it is the eyes that cry. No other part of our body is as sensitive to the basic material of the physical world. Even one speck of dirt in the eye can be excruciating and incapacitating, where it would go completely unnoticed nearly everywhere else on the body.

Our Rabbis teach that we come into this world crying because the soul feels the pain of just being forced into this physical and constrained space of a body. Crying, it seems, is also a bridge back to that spiritual habitat. The Talmud teaches that although the gates of prayer are sometimes shut, the gates of tears are never closed. If so, asks the Kotzker Rebbe, why then do they need gates at all? He answers that only true, heartfelt tears are let in. It is not coincidental that the Hebrew word for crying (בכי) has the same numerical value as the word for heart (לב).

So why in this week’s Torah portion didn’t Jacob cry with his son Joseph, when they are finally reunited? The verse (Genesis 46:29) observes that “Joseph harnessed his chariot and went to Goshen to meet his father Israel, and he appeared to him, fell on his neck, and he wept on his neck excessively.” Rashi comments that while Joseph wept greatly, continuously, and more than usual – Jacob however, did not fall upon Joseph’s neck nor did he kiss him but instead said the Shema.

When we recite the Shema, we close our eyes and give testimony to our faith and total commitment to the One that we can’t see, but know to be the source of it all.

שמע ישראל ה׳ אלהינו ה׳ אחד

The large “עand “ד” spell the words for “witness” and “knowledge”. Saying the Shema is IMG_3663a demonstration of our inner truth and willingness to serve G-d “With all of our heart, with all of our soul, and with all of our might”.

The six letters of the first and last words are an acronym for six people who sacrificed their lives in the service of G-d, and were miraculously saved . These two words are 1 also acronyms for the six different literal sacrifices that were offered in the Temple , 2 often compared to the neck, where we are told heaven and earth are connected.

Perhaps Jacob’s absence of tears wasn’t a denial of a shared experience, with his son, but rather an expression of it.

The verse can be read as “Shema Yisroel”, “Israel (Jacob) heard”: he listened, he internalized, and he responded with a complete focus of reunification with the ultimate source of goodness, healing, and power. This is one of the interpretations of Chanukah- “חנוכה” an application (חנו) of the 25 (כה) letters of the Shema.

The Greeks wanted to darken the eyes of the Jewish people. In response the Maccabees rededicate the Temple and brought forth miraculous light. The Midrash teaches that G-d told Israel that once the Temple is destroyed, G-d will desire that we say the Shema, twice a day, and it will be an elevation greater than the sacrifices themselves. That’s the path that Jacob models here: eyes closed, heart open.

IMG_3664The temple for our soul, our Rabbis teach, is in our eyes. This is perhaps why our tradition instructs us to close the eyes of a person, once their soul has returned to its source. However, as long as our heart beats, it must beat for the collective, to see the pain of another’s, as our own.

Too often we limit our vision of what we see as possible. When we connect and partner with the Omnipresent (המקום), not only is there comfort but there is a true sense of empowerment. When we look out into the world, whether our heart feels moved to tears or not, we must feel the responsibility to each other, and be willing to make an offering, because of our relationship with G-d.

Today is Rosh Chodesh Teves, the day tradition has it that Jacob is buried. It is also the month that is ruled by the letter “ע” and the power of a deeper sight. We must constantly rededicate our temple, allowing our soul to hear, granting it permission to cry, and letting our tears flow to form a path forward to soothe the pain of all of G-d’s children.

 

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By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

Noah’s Ark: A Failed Ally-Ship

Part of a yearlong series about building and builders inspired by the Torah cycle.

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“Justice can never be about just us.” Noah, therefore, certainly wasn’t a just person – and in many ways, failed at being just a person. For 120 years Noah toiled to build an ark of self preservation, but didn’t invest at all in building a better society. He saved himself, his family, and some animals, but didn’t offer a single prayer for the people of his generation. The Zohar writes that because of this, God names it the “Flood of Noah” and sees Noah as if he caused the destruction of the world.

At the beginning of the story (Gen 6:9) Noah is introduced as “a righteous man, perfect in his generations; Noah walked with God”. Before the flood (Gen 7:1) he is no longer perfect, but is still called righteous. After the flood (Gen 7:23) he survives only as Noah, and then defiles even that basic human identity (Gen 9:20). He finds himself alive, but not so different from those whom he let die.

He wasn’t able to see the Godliness in humanity. Not in others, and in the end, not even in himself. With all the effort towards self preservation, he failed to preserve even self.

Rashi interprets “Noah walked with God” as “Noah needed support to bear him up.” God was Noah’s ally and expected him to reciprocate towards God’s creations. Rashi contrasts this with Abraham about whom it is written (Genesis 17:1) “Walk before me.” He writes: “but Abraham would strengthen himself and walk in his righteousness on his own.”

These verses are referenced by the Vilna Gaon (18th century) in his commentary on the first entry of the Code of Jewish Law. The Rema, quoting the Psalmist, opens “I have set the Lord before me constantly” (Psalms 16:8); he then adds “this is a major principle in the Torah and among the virtues of the righteous who walk before God.” The Gaon ends his comments with “and this is the entirety of the virtues of the the righteous!”

The difference between one righteous individual and another is simply the degree by which one sees God in the world around them. In the mundane. In nature. In each other.

Abraham saw it; all of our great ancestors did. They prayed, argued, and negotiated with God to save and protect people. When we see something that isn’t ok we are meant to to something about it. Faith is a call to action and gives us hope that we can be part of the solution.

This November, there will be an anti-trans referendum on the ballot in Massachusetts that would legalize discrimination against trans folks. Some of us may find ourselves comforted with thoughts of how it doesn’t affect us directly – because we don’t live there, or because we are cis-gender, or because we don’t feel like we need those protections. But this kind of thinking makes us no better than Noah and part of the problem.

Judaism holds us responsible for inaction. It is therefore incumbent upon us, as Jews, to take action – to build a better society, to push back against measures that will hurt the people of our generation, and (if we live in Massachusetts) to vote yes on this referendum for the dignity and respect of all people.

We live in really hard times, with no shortage of things to be outraged about, but God forbid it should ever get easier to see the world being destroyed around us. We must pursue justice for all or soon we will be pursued for being just us.

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Post by Rabbi Mike Moskowitz; sketchnote by Steve Silbert.