Cindy Barnard, 30 Sept 2005, 27 Elul 5765
Deuteronomy 29:9 - 30:209 You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God — your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, 10 your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to waterdrawer — 11 to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God, which the Lord your God is concluding with you this day, with its sanctions; 12 to the end that He may establish you this day as His people and be your God, as He promised you and as He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 13 I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, 14 but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day.
What a privilege it is to stand this day, as Rosh Hashanah approaches on Monday night, as my son celebrates his thirteenth birthday and we welcome him as abar mitzvah tonight, as the year 5766 is about to dawn full of promise - just maybe - for a little morepeace; a little more health and security for all people; a little more ahavat rei’echa, love of our fellow humans.
What does God mean in instructing us to stand this day? We stand at attention to listen to God’s promise of an extraordinary covenant, we stand in respect and awe, we stand because we want to reach just a little higher.
Tomorrow morning Daniel and Frank are going to share their words of Torah with us. I’ve had the good fortune to get a preview of Daniel’s d’var Torah, the words of teaching he has prepared, and I will tell you, I have learned a thing or two from my son. His analysis of what God wants from us really struck a chord for me, and I want to share a brief story from a 10th century midrash on the same theme. When you hear Daniel’s comments tomorrow you will see why I chose this one.
There was a king with two servants -- one dim-witted, not too bright, but a good fellow; and the other one energetic, creative and hard working. Now, the king had to go away for a couple of days. He left the servants, and ordered each of them to carefully watch over a room freshly filled from the harvest with grapes, wheat, and flax.
The king returned from his journey, and immediately summoned the servants to account for their precious stores. The first servant, the rather dim-witted one, obediently escorted the king to the room he had guarded, and look! The wheat, grapes and flax were in perfect order. Not a single bit of fruit or grain had been disturbed. The king thanked his servant. He had done a competent and trustworthy job!
The king then turned to the second one. “And you?” he asked. The second servant led the way to his storeroom and flung open the door. The room was utterly empty and swept clean. The courtiers who had gathered around were stunned. This was the best, smartest, most excellent servant in the palace! What had happened to the grapes, the wheat, the flax? Had they been stolen, or sold?
The king was silent. The servant beckoned the king to another door. The servant opened the door with a low bow. The king stepped slowly to the entryway and behold!
There was a dining table covered with a beautiful white tablecloth… made of the flax! There was on the table a great decanter full of a fine, delicious wine… made of the grapes! And the room was full of the aroma of two enormous loaves of fresh baked bread… made of wheat ground from the flour!
The king was overjoyed with the servant. “You,” he said, “have taken the most care of the treasure I left with you. You did not merely hoard it or guard it; you improved it.”
And so it is with us. We stand here this day with the grapes, the flax and the wheat which God has given us. We have our lives, our work, an abundance of resources around us, and it is up to us to transform what God has given us into what human creativity and passion can accomplish... to leave this earth a little better than the way we received it. In this way we will stand here in fulfillment of God’s covenant. And indeed, ken y’hi ratzon, may this be God’s will.
[My teacher, Rabbi Dr. Byron Sherwin tells this story from midrash Eliyahu Rabbah.]
Cindy Barnard, March 12, 2004
Ki Tisa has a tremendous amount going on - for instance, the Golden Calf and the 13 attributes of God, Moses' radiance and veil - but I hope we'll talk about those tomorrow morning. Tonight I want to focus on one particular part of the parasha, and that is - Shabbat.
Exodus / Shemot 31:15-17 - Six days may work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a sabbath of complete rest (shabbat shabbaton), holy to the Lord…(16) The Israelite people shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time. (17) It shall be a sign for all time between me and the people of Israel. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and was refreshed.
Does this sound familiar….? Of course - it's the text of the V'shamru, which we just sang a few minutes ago. But look more closely at the language in verse 15 -shabbat shabbaton. What is the significance of this grammatic emphasis?
There are two key items I want to link together tonight. One is the language of the parasha, this shabbat shabbaton. And the other is our place in the calendar - that moveable feast which keeps us connected to the foundation of Judaism. Even and especially over the millenia in which we did not have a geographic home, we have always had the calendar, wherever we go.
So, here we are in the weeks leading up to Pesach, in the midst of the "four parashiyot," the four special Torah readings which are added to the usual portion for each week. A few weeks ago it was Shabbat Shekalim, the census; then it was Shabbat Zachor, the shabbat before Purim, reminding us of Amalek (and, by implication, preparing us for Haman)… and now it's Shabbat Parah. This shabbat, we add the section from Numbers which discusses the strange ritual of the ashes of the perfect red heifer which are used to purify after contact with death.
I don't want to dwell on this ritual tonight, but only to focus on the idea that this special parasha is about separation and purification, leaving behind one identity and becoming new, different - separating what we have been from what we will be. Now what does THAT remind us of… Shabbat and Havdalah, right?
Which brings us back to "shabbat shabbaton." What is this interesting construction and what does it signify?
First, notice where it appears in the parasha. God gives Moses incredibly detailed instructions for the building of the Tabernacle - even a bit tedious, really, to read. And guess what, the instructions are structured in seven sections (what is THAT reminiscent of?). And the seventh one begins, "HOWEVER" and then the commandment regarding the "shabbat shabbaton."
…However? In other words, build this Tabernacle; however, interrupt your building when Shabbat arrives.
So we have instructions to build the Tabernacle - and the first six sections are all about construction - and the seventh is to interrupt even this extraordinarily important construction to observe Shabbat!
In other words, Shabbat is the 7th portion – the completion – of the instructions for the tabernacle. And this reminds us of what? Creation - God created the world in six days & completed creation on the 7th. .
Shabbat is not just an absence of doing, it is a creative process all its own - more on that in a moment.
So, we learn from this "however" that time - Shabbat - is more important than space - the tabernacle - and God wants our time more than our material “stuff” - even the building of a temple to be God's place in our midst.
In fact, in a wonderful resonant twist, one of God’s names is MAKOM, the place – in other words, the physical places are really ephemeral, illusions, God is the REAL “place” - and wherever you go, that Place is with you.
So what do we have so far?
We have a special shabbat of separation and purification. We have the mitzvah of "shabbat shabbaton," which is so important it must interrupt even the building of the tabernacle. Now, this term - shabbat shabbaton.
The Lubavitcher rebbe says "shabbat" means to stop our normal work, and "shabbaton" means to begin our special Shabbat activity. Rashi, our 11th century endless source of insight into Torah, says "shabbat shabbaton" is not a "casual" rest. It's not "I'm tired, I'll rest." Even if we are not tired on Friday night, we still observer Shabbat! No, this is a rest which is profoundly creative, and in fact transformative.
Shabbat doesn't mean simply that we stop doing certain things. It also means that we do certain other things. It's not a day to recover from fatigue in the ordinary sense. It's a day in which to examine ourselves, spend the day on God's work rather than what the employer needs or the house needs or even the self thinks it needs. It's a day to work on being better as a person in God's eyes and to start the next week transformed.
If we are going to talk about Shabbat we have to see what Heschel has to say. If you have not read "The Sabbath" lately or at all, I must recommend it to your attention. Heschel points out most wonderfully that the first time in Genesis we encounter the word kadosh, holy, it is not about a thing - not about light, or earth, or man, or animals - but about - yes - Shabbat. "And God blessed the seventh day and made it kadosh, holy" - no OBJECT is so sanctified.
So, this is a special shabbat parah, or shabbat of purification and rededication. And today we are given the commandment to observe shabbat shabbaton, a shabbat of very special and complete rest and transformation.
It’s a day to devote to God’s work instead of our everyday work – not “casual” rest when we do nothing, but transformative rest when we undertake very specific activities which are not “work” but which teach us, change us. This is the special kind of "rest" which actually completes us and our work - just as it completed God's work of creation, and the Israelites' work on the tabernacle.
What a gift – not to be wasted - and the most precious evidence of Israel's chosenness. We could just stand here & read Heschel all evening - but here is one more wonderful thought he offers. If Shabbat is a time when God completed creation - not just a day of non-activity - then what was created on this day? Heschel tells us, "What was created on the seventh day? Tranquility, serenity, peace and repose…This then is the answer to the problem of civilization: not to flee from the realm of space [and material goods]; to work with things of space but to be in love with eternity. Things are our tools; eternity, the Sabbath, is our mate."
With this, then we can truly understand the words of Ahad Ha-am, the 19th century Zionist, who wrote, "More than Israel has kept the Shabbat, the Shabbat has kept Israel."
Shabbat can transform us, if we will allow God the time to do so.
D'var Torah: Nitzavim / Vayeilech September 19, 2003 by Cindy Barnard
It is Elul, and the summer and the old year are dying. It's a poignant time of year, full of spiritual hard work. We're trying to put away old regrets and unfulfilled hopes and promises while we cling to the hope of a new year and another chance at possibilities.
In Nitzavim, Moses does not have the hope of another year, new possibilities, to soften his regrets. He knows that he is about to die, and he is leaving his fractious tribe in full knowledge that they are entering generations of exile, conflict, and pain.
So Moses says to us, as he is about to die and he has his last opportunity to teach: Nitzavim etchem hayom hakol. "You stand here, all of you, this day."
Nitzavim, you stand. Neitziv is different from omed, which also means to stand. Neitziv is more like "be present," almost like stand up and stand FOR something. Rashi, the great Torah commentator of the eleventh century, links neitziv to the similar word in Hebrew for monument. In other words, Stand up, be a monument to your faith and to God.
In fact, standing up for what you believe leads us to the idea of hineni - "I am here" -- remember, that declaration of faith from Abraham we read nearly a year ago - and will read again over the high holidays.
Neitziv - Stand up, stand up for something, be a monument, hineni, be here and present with your people and with Gd.
And that idea, hineni, I am here, leads us once again back to today's parashah. Because what does Gd say? "It is not with you alone that I make this covenant… I make it both with those who are standing here with us today before Gd, and with those who are not here with us today." Asher yishno po imanu omed hayom - Not only with those who are with us today, but asher eineini po imanu hayom. With those who are not here with us today.
Our tradition is full of troubled exploration of this problem - How can Gd make a covenant with those who are not here? How can unborn generations be obligated to a covenant which they did not negotiate and choose? Is this a real covenant? This resonates particularly strongly with contemporary American Jews, who have been imbued with powerful secular ethical concepts of free will and the right to make autonomous decisions.
The Jews-by-Choice among us have solved this problem. They have come to covenant afresh, have studied and made the decision to choose.
What of Jews by birth? How can we be part of a covenant without free will to choose? How can Gd have made this covenant with us three thousand years ago? How can we be asked to "stand up and be a monument" for something we didn't agree to?
Judaism is incredibly realistic. Just as we inherit the color of our eyes and the shape of our jaw, we do absorb the values and ethos of our families. It is simply the truth that a covenant with the parents will in fact bring the children along. We are born into this covenant just as we are born into ideals of democracy and fairness.
What we make of the covenant is, of course, entirely up to us. Rav Hanina teaches in the Talmud that Gd will predict whether an unborn child will be strong or weak, wise or foolish, rich or poor - but is silent when asked, will this child grow up wicked or good? Rav Hanina concludes, "Everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of Gd."
So it's a paradox. We are obligated - and we choose. We are part of the covenant - but even Gd cannot say whether we will fulfill it.
It is up to us whether we are "here" or not for the covenant. We make that choice. When Gd, through Moses, says, I make this covenant not only with those who are here today, but also with those who are not here - Gd is offering the covenant, but knows that yirat shamayim, the fear and awe of heaven, the acceptance of the covenant and all its treasures and obligations, is not up to Heaven but to each of us. And so we read later in this shabbat's double parashah, the Torah and covenant is not in the heavens and beyond reach. It is "very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart."
But we have to take it, accept it, speak it with our mouth and embrace it with our heart and do it with our hands and bodies.
If you have ever been in a kindergarten Hebrew school class at Oak Park Temple, you know the favorite joke. The teacher takes attendance, calls each child by name, and each is supposed to say, "ani po,” I am here. But of course they love to answer, "ani lo po," I'm not here. It gets rollicking giggles, every time.
But guess what? We all have to say, ani po. Hineni. I AM here. Because nitzavim, you stand here, you stand for something, chides Moses. Indeed we do.
We all know the phrase, kol yisrael arevim zeh ba zeh, "All Israel is responsible one for the other." There is a rabbinic tradition that this mutual responsibility was born as Moses died. When we had Moses, we relied on his leadership to pull us together and forward. We could squabble and kvetch, because we knew he'd rescue us. Rather like orphaned siblings, though, when Moses died, we were left to rely on each other. And here we are, reading parashah nitzavim-vayeilech, and Moses is dying, and here we are together, and we have to take care of each other. All Israel is responsible, each one for the other.
It is time, as Moses dies, to listen to nitzavim, you stand here, you are a monument, to faith and to our covenant with Gd.
We are here, we are responsible for each other and the continuation of our tradition. Paradoxically, it is our obligation and it is our free choice to accept the covenant, and to live it. As we say in the Torah service, the world stands on three things. We live the covenant through those three: we live it through study, faith and acts of loving kindness. Here at Oak Park Temple, the autumn is rich with opportunities for all three. Learning, worship and community.
As the fall closes in, and 5764 approaches, may we all reflect on how each of us can fulfill nitzavim: to stand up, to be here, to be a monument to the precious, rich, irreplaceable covenant Gd offers us.
Cynthia Barnard, Shabbat Shuvah, September 17, 1999
In the next few days, many of us will give each other the customary wish for the season, "an easy fast." Now I know pretty much everyone here, and have considerable affection for you all; but yet, I am going to wish you a very difficult fast. In fact, I am going to assert that the fast leads us directly to the three pillars of Judaism, to God, Torah and Israel, and that its difficulty is part of the process.
Why would I wish you a difficult fast? Any reasonably thoughtful child in our congregation might come up with one explanation: If your fast is difficult, that must mean that you usually enjoy a full tummy. If you are bothered by the unexpected inability to reach for food to satisfy you when you are empty, why, you are truly blessed. As the rabbi spoke on erev Rosh Hashanah, gratitude is the essential basis of religious feeling - our hunger must remind us, by its very novelty, of how fortunate we are.
But this level of meaning is not enough. Anyone can skip a few meals to attain a recognition of how lucky they are to feel hunger only when they choose, how lucky to have Grandma's briskit waiting at the end of this long day. But "luck" is existentially frightening, it is not faith and it is not Torah.
In tonight's parsha, Haazinu, "Jeshurun became fat, and kicked then he forsook God who made him, and lightly esteemed the Rock of his salvation." When we are sated, we might forget to be grateful to God. We might be complacent. Jeshurun is a name for Israel, possibly derived from the word ashrei, happy. Can we be too satisfied, too happy, too complacent? And if so, how does fasting bring us back to God?
One purpose of the fast, obviously, is noticing absence. Absence of food in the stomach, yes. But also absence of a much deeper, more complex nature. We are commanded (Deut 8:10), "You shall eat and be satisfied, and you shall bless." On this fast day, we have lost the opportunity to bless God at the conclusion of our meal, because there is no meal. We should notice this loss, we should feel it. We should miss that blessing. This should make our fast more difficult.
So the fast of Yom Kippur brings us physical hunger and it should also bring us some spiritual hunger. It should bring us to remember that every bite, every swallow, truly comes from God. It should remind us to bless and thank God when we do eat.
In some traditions, fasting is "mortifying the flesh." Is this our view of fasting? Torah uses the term "afflict" in ordaining our observance of Yom Kippur (Lev 16:29 and 16:31): "in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls, and do no work at all. It shall be a sabbath of rest to you, and you shall afflict your souls..."
Here is the beautiful leap that the Talmud takes in discussing affliction, the leap which brings us a new insight.
In Egypt, Israel was afflicted by Pharoah with hunger, slave labor, and abuse.
In the wilderness after the Exodus, it was God who afflicted Israel with hunger and thirst, then assuaged it with manna and water.
And now, Israel is a free people. It is up to us to choose to afflict ourselves for a specific purpose. And the affliction of the body, the fast, is not an end in itself, it's a way to get our own attention, to reach deeper inside ourselves.
Fasting in Judaism is not punishment, it is not mortification of the flesh, and it is not in service to some ascetic ideal.
Fasting is a choice we make. It is a commandment, and we accept it, we accept the Torah, in order to teach ourselves to be closer to God, by noticing the absence of food, the absence of blessings, the absence of our normal daily rituals. Fasting is a luxury which a free people can choose to accept. Some starving Jews in concentration camps still chose to fast on Yom Kippur, both as a recognition of their religious obligation and as a stubborn statement that they were still strong enough, and free enough, to choose.
If you are very fortunate, you have at some point had (or will have) wonderful young children around you, who need to be fed even on Yom Kippur. You have the surreal, difficult experience of fasting yourself but feeding others: being hungry ourselves, yet nursing the baby, or fixing macaroni and cheese for the kids - and thereby remembering what an extraordinary blessing these children are, what a gift. You have, right there, the food in your hands and the growl in your stomach. You can see and feel how our choices as adults give these children the opportunity to learn about being Jews and about being strong, courageous, thoughtful adults who can make their own choices.
And as we look about us late on Yom Kippur afternoon, we marvel at all these other strong, thoughtful adults who are making the same shared stubborn optimistic choice of a holy people, a nation of priests. We reflect on the strength we draw from each other every day, from c'lal yisrael, from our community.
So the fast is about gratitude for the luck that we are not often hungry. It is about Grandma's briskit.
The fast is about God and it is about Torah, our tradition, and it is about Israel, valuing our community and each other.
And a difficult fast means that we "get it." We are aware of the fast, aware of ourselves, and aware of God's presence and what it demands of us.
I want to share yet two more levels of meaning of the fast on Yom Kippur: what it is, and what it is not.
The Talmud teaches that "The merit of a fast day lies in the charity dispensed" (Berachoth 6b) and, "If on a fast day, the distribution of alms is postponed overnight, it is just as though blood were shed" since the hungry, who needed it, might have died of starvation. Recall the Haftarah for Yom Kippur, in which Isaiah roars to Israel, "this is the fast that I have chosento undo the bonds of oppression, to let the crushed go free, and to break every yoke to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the outcast poor into your home ." (Isaiah 58)
In this way, the fast connects us beyond all of Israel and with all of humanity. On Rosh Hashanah morning, the rabbi taught that empathy is a primary quality we must possess and nurture in order to be fully human. A difficult fast should teach us empathy for the hungry, renews our connection with our fellow Jews and all people.
So a difficult fast should connect us to God, to Torah, to Israel and beyond, to all people.
Finally, then, let's remember what the fast is not. The fast is not magic or a quid pro quo. It's not a button we push to get results. We don't have the right to bargain with God, to say, OK, I fasted and now you gotta give me - whatever it is I want.
We have to earn our atonement and our self-respect and our redemption through our acts every day, all year, of righteousness, tzedakah, and g'milut chasadim, loving improvement of our world through deeds, prayer and study. The fast is one way we are commanded and we choose to teach ourselves these lessons - it is not an end in itself. It helps to get us refocused and ready for the challenges of our lives.
The yomim noraim, the Days of Awe, are all about preparing us to make the right choices: choices that connect us back to our best selves and to the world around us, to God, Torah and Israel.
So why do I want us all to have a difficult fast?
I hope that it is hard for us to fast because we are used to being full and it makes us grateful that we aren't empty very often, reminds us poignantly of God's gifts and our need to earn them.
I hope that its difficulty overwhelms us just a bit, reminds us of the demands that Torah places upon us, the need to live up to the very high standards of our tradition for an ethical and just life.
And I hope that it is difficult because it brings us to empathy with those in the community of Israel and throughout our world who are so used to hunger every day, every night, and brings us to act to fill their stomachs and lighten their burdens.
Making the right choices in an imperfect and complex world can be very difficult, and we just need to do the very best we can. I hope that wrestling with a difficult fast makes some of those choices a little clearer, maybe a little easier, for you throughout the coming year.
And then, as we learn in our Torah and Haftarah portions this week, "It is not a vain thing for you, because it is your life The Eternal will guide you always, filling your throat in parched lands and renewing your body's strength And you shall eat in plenty, and be satisfied, and praise the name of Adonai your God, who has dealt wondrously with you And you shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am Adonai your God."
Shabbat Vayakhel March 12, 1999
Oak Park Temple B’nai Abraham Zion
How many of you were here last year for our wonderful Shabbat Across America? If you were, then you already know what I’m going to talk about, because Deb Spector set the agenda for me.
Do you remember? Deb offered us a wonderful, funny, warm d’var last year which reminded us all that it's sometimes hard to bring to life those two mitzvot, memorialized by our two candles: remember Shabbat and keep Shabbat. It’s hard because here we are in a busy secular world, with distractions, material plenty, and lots of choices about how to spend Friday night and Saturday.
Deb reflected on how we can remember Shabbat, bring Shabbat peace into our homes, even if it means some new ways of thinking about Shabbat, even if it means inventing a blessing for the dog. And Deb said to us, "Let’s keep it really simple – Friday night only – and meet next year to talk about Saturday."
So let’s say you’ve made a little progress on the remembering part, on Friday night: candles and blessings, challah and hugs and kisses, a special meal, maybe you come to the synagogue and enjoy some time for prayer, meditation and peace, some good fellowship.
Now here I am, to talk about Saturday. Saturday is when you might say the second part of the mitzvah comes into play: you remembered Shabbat Friday night; now, Saturday, let’s keep Shabbat.
What does Saturday mean in Oak Park? Possibly "Shabbat" is not the first answer that leaps to your mind. Possibly you will instantly rattle off the weekend to-do list: shopping, kids’ sports, household chores. So you might say, Saturday doesn’t mean anything to me Jewishly. It’s certainly not Shabbat, I don’t hesitate to drive, handle money, kindle fire on this day.
But don’t be hasty.
When my daughter attended preschool here at OPT many years ago, she had a particularly wonderful teacher who used to say that being Jewish was incredibly special because we get a holiday every week.
A holiday – a holy day. Every week!
How can we keep the holiness of the Shabbat we welcomed Friday night? I’m here tonight to suggest that a little bit of holiness, specialness, difference on Shabbat can enrich our lives way out of proportion to the few hours we might give to the effort. We just have to make Saturday feel like a holiday.
I’ll follow Deb’s footsteps for another moment, and use my own personal experience as an example. Some Shabbat mornings we come to services here, especially for Learner’s Services. But I have found that Shabbat afternoon tends to be our special time. Essential errands are done, basketball or baseball or soccer is over, and we’re home for lunch and a quiet afternoon. These few hours beckon us. How can we take this wonderful gift of time, and make it our holiday?
Here are my own solutions. I always spend this time with my children; they’re my best company anyway, and especially for Shabbat. And I label the day, name what we are doing. "It's Shabbat afternoon, what shall we do together?" Naming the day is part of making it special. It means taking a risk of feeling a little bit inauthentic or silly, even preachy at times, using language that feels a little rusty and unfamiliar at first. But think about it: Creation of the world was effected by God’s word, and Shabbat is our memory of creation. Part of Friday night’s Kiddush is to bless the day itself. Words make things special.
My kids and I use this special time for small things, nothing grand or even, perhaps, particularly Jewish. Board games and card games, baking, even doing homework together if we’re so inclined. Sometimes a trip to a museum. Never TV or shopping; I want us to be able to talk undistracted. We're just together and we are talking about how great it is to be together, that Shabbat means love and care for each other, and that this is a way of remembering God’s acts of creation and of freeing us from slavery.
OK, maybe it's not exactly written in Torah to keep Shabbat with Monopoly and Parchisi and a jigsaw puzzle. But no matter what you do on Saturday, the point is to separate the day from all other days. To take a deeper breath in the morning and appreciate this incredibly special world. To hug the kids and remind them that this is our holiday that we get, every week, just because being Jewish is very special. To phone a friend for a more leisurely chat than usual, because just this day we won’t rush around and let the world dictate our schedule.
Just like welcoming and remembering Shabbat on Friday night, keeping Shabbat on Saturday takes a little getting used to. But the rewards are there. Our tradition teaches that we each receive an extra soul for the duration of Shabbat. After what I have begun to call our Shabbat "special time," I have to say I think we all feel healthier, move loving and relaxed than maybe at any other time of the week.
So this is my own perspective on how we can make the ancient truth real for us today: More than Israel has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept Israel. I find that Shabbat does keep me going, that weekly holiday, weekly new beginning. I hope it does the same for you. Let’s all practice both remembering andkeeping Shabbat, and let’s help each other to find an authentic and spiritually enriching observance of Shabbat, and let’s all come back next year and talk about how we did it.
Cynthia Barnard, 11/13/98
In reflecting on this parasha, and in particular the verses I have chanted tonight, I want to leave you with the image of Rebecca, who embodies some of our most profound Jewish values, and I want to leave you thinking about – believe it or not -- Niagara Falls.
The images in tonight’s parasha are wonderfully vivid. Rebecca approaches the well, and draws up water, again and again, refreshing the foolish, nameless servant and his camels. But she doesn’t just walk – she runs, she hurries, she even interrupts. She enters our story in the midst of the servant’s plaintive bargaining with God – before he had finished speaking. She quickly lowers her jug for the servant to drink. She exceeds his request to slake his own thirst and she hurries and runs to the well to draw water for his camels. (As so often in Torah, the great soul is one who cares for the welfare of God’s other creatures, the animals.)
Back and forth, we imagine her strong and lovely and intent on her work, quick and purposeful. The clean, lifesaving water pours rhythmically from her jug, over and over, satisfying man and beast.
Water is an image that dominates Torah from the very first ringing phrases of B’reishit through the end of Deuteronomy when Moses gazes across the Jordan. God pulled solid earth and rich seas apart from the rushing, formless void. God sent the Flood harshly to cleanse a corrupted world. Hagar is sent out with a meager skin of water to sustain herself and her son. The infant Moses floats to his foster mother, Pharoah’s daughter, while his sister and mother lurk, agonized, on the riverbank. The great Reed Sea parts for Moses’ ragtag band of slaves, closes its torrents over the heads of the Egyptian pursuers. At Meribah, Moses loses control and in his anger defies God, as he strikes the rock which will yield precious water for the desert wanderers. Water is certainly the most important natural resource in the desert and in Canaan. Water makes up seventy percent of our earth, seventy percent of our bodies. Even today, more traditional congregations continue to include in the longer version of the Sh’ma and its blessings the section of Deuteronomy in which God promises that faithful worship and righteous behavior will be rewarded with rain in its season.
And so Rebecca teaches us so much. She teaches us to bring water to those who need it, and to bring it in a great hurry. To do right, and to do it now. To know what is needed, to listen and even to exceed what is asked, and to do it quickly. To bring water to those who cannot get it for themselves. To pour out the water again and again, to slake thirst, to refresh the withered and sere, to run to the task.
Rebecca is a one-woman Niagara Falls. She is water, sustenance, endless tzedakah and generosity, rushing and hurrying and powerful in fulfilling God’s plan in a simple, brief encounter with a bumbling servant and his tired camels. She is chesed, that special sort of loving-kindness imbued with spiritual luster, that is so hard to translate from Hebrew to English.
Rebecca has probably run to the well for dozens of thirsty strangers before this very special one arrived on this very special day. Niagara Falls goes about its business day and night, in rainy season and dry season. Our chesed must flow constantly as well, day and night, whether acknowledged or private, whether in response to loud demands or silently proferred.
Hillel reminds us, “If not now, when?” and the sages comment that he did not say, “If not today, when?” – he said now. This moment. There may not be another moment in this day, or tomorrow, or the day after. We must hurry to tzedakah, to righteousness, to generosity, to chesed. We too must be Niagara Falls.
D'var Torah: September 25, 1998
Tonight is Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat during the period we call the “days of awe,” the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. During these ten days, we hope for a special pause in the hustle of living to turn back to our real selves, the highest ideals and principles that we believe in.
Shabbat Shuvah is not named for our Torah portion this week, as most of our Shabbat names are derived; it is named for the haftarah reading for the week from the book of the prophet Hosea, and this is what Cantor Green has chanted for us today. Shuvah, commonly understood as repentance and returning, a return to God.Hosea says,“Return, O Israel, to the eternal your God.”Shuvah, Yisrael, ad adonai elohecha.
What does return mean? Return to what? Return to temple for the two days a year that many Jews associate with organized religion?Well, certainly, that’s a start.But what else?
Hosea spoke 2800 years ago, but it might as well have been last week. Listen to him:Never again shall we say “Our God” to the works of our hands.We quoted him earlier this week, as we ushered in the new year with our Rosh Hashanah services.In part of that service, we lamented that "many have said to the works of our hands, you are our gods." We admitted to God, "You are absent only when we shut You out, only when, full of ourselves, we leave no room for You within our hearts."
This is a brilliant characterization of the soullessness of our dying century.This is the malady which so many people are attempting to cure with the current return to spirituality and religion.We worship the works of our hands virtually every day.That self-worship fills our hearts and leaves no room for God. Our entire society, the world, worships its own creations. We forget that all we can really do is rearrange the raw materials given us by God.
Still, Hosea recognizes that how we rearrange those raw materials does matter.It matters a lot.That is what this Shabbat is all about.Be humble – and yet proud. Live your faith humbly through your actions - and be proud of those actions, that faith, the good you can do.
The humility-pride continuum is fascinating.Judaism refuses to take the simple path of predetermination or the simple one of existentialism. We do not say, God is directing our every move and we are merely God’s instruments.And we do not say, God is long since gone (or never lived) and it’s up to humans to invent the world in our own image.
No, Judaism says, you are smart people.You can handle reality, which involves ambiguity and complexity. The chasidic master Bunam of Przysucha taught us that each of us should carry two slips of paper at all times. One should say, “for my sake the world was created.”This reminds us of the extraordinary importance of each human life, the inestimable potential for good in every one of us.And in the other pocket we must carry another paper:“I am nothing but dust and ashes.”And this is to remind us that we are accountable to a greater power than just ourselves, that the work of our hands is not to be worshipped. We must earn our worth through a relationship with God which includes study, prayer and action.
We are nothing but dust and ashes; be humble: remember God gave us this glorious work of creation. We did not create it, and we can’t really create. We can rearrange, we can give matter new forms, we can make beauty and we can make horrific brutality, we can do a great deal, but we are not the Creator. Don’t be foolish enough to say “our god” to the works of our hands. We remind ourselves with the blessings, the brachot, and the simplest one is a perfect example. What is the first bracha that our children learn in preschool? With their challah, they remember that Adonai is "hamotzi lechem min-ha’aretz,” the one who brings forth the bread. We may plant the seed, water and nurture it, reap and mill and bake it into bread, but it is God who gave us the earth, the rain, the sun, and the laws of nature that allow for growth of that seed.
And yet, Judaism says, for our sake the world was created: be proud too. We are not to give up in passive depression when things are tough, we cannot blame all evil and pain on an omnipotent God, we stand up for ourselves and improve the world we’ve been given. We don’t think of pain and suffering as a way of exalting us, as something we are to accept as special evidence of God’s love – as some other traditions do. We hate pain and suffering. We fight them. We work to eliminate them. It is up to us to complete the work of creation which God began. We are partners with God, every one of us has a role, however large or small it may seem, in perfecting this world.
And this is what we have to be proud of: the work of our lives. Our work, our role, is the path to t’shuvah, repentance and returning, which is what the high holidays are really all about. Hosea says, Return, O Israel, to the eternal your God … The wise shall understand these things, the discerning shall know them: that straight are the ways of the Eternal.
Now what are the ways of God, darchai adonai? What then, shall we know?
And this is the great challenge of Reform Judaism since its inception, and a challenge which we have largely failed thus far. We are not wise in understanding, discerning in knowledge. In fact, as Eric Yoffie, the president of the Reform movement, has said, there is a literacy crisis in our community. Less than a year ago, he said, “Ours is a uniquely ignorant generation… And the great irony of our ignorance, of course, is that we are simultaneously the best educated generation of Jews that has ever lived. Wonderfully educated in the ways of the world, we are abysmally ignorant in the ways of our people. Too many of us can name the mother of Jesus, but not the mother of Moses. We know the author of Das Kapital, but not the author of the Guide for the Perplexed….”
If we believe that we, dust and ashes, are yet partners with God in work of perfecting creation -- if we want to return to our great moral and ethical tradition, the rich teachings of Judaism -- then we need to know what those teachings are. To take actions grounded in morality and ethics implies a choice, and choice implies knowledge of the options for action, the principles and implications of those options. Yoffie, again, says that "there is no task more urgent and no mission more compelling than deepening the study of Torah in our midst."
In this week’s Torah portion, in Deuteronomy 31:9, we find the first reference to a written Torah, and the first instructions to read the Torah aloud to all the people – men, women, children, and the stranger among you. The Torah reading and the haftarah reading are telling us the same thing: listen and learn… thendo.
The resources for learning in Judaism are phenomenal. Within our own temple, we have adult education and outreach opportunities, several torah study groups, a vigorous book discussion group, and in October our redesigned book and learning fair will feature resources for individual and group learning. We have our library, thoughtful and generous leadership willing to share their time to teach us, and many opportunities through committees to form new connections and learn in new ways. The temple’s own Web site, and the beautifully designed Web site of the UAHC, are wonderful places to begin if you are comfortable with that method of learning.
And this is the start oft’shuvah. T’shuvah is repentance and returning, and this is the season in which many of us try to work toward a deeper understanding of what repentance and returning will mean to us. The road map is here. It is not just study, but the connection between learning and doing. Learning how to do, how to choose what to do.
I am constantly impressed with the torah study group, the book group, the conversations and emails among some of those in our temple who are really trying to learn – this is not an abstract, theoretical crowd. This is a bunch of people – you all – who really want to understand what our tradition has to teach and to offer us today, to find and follow darchei Adonai, the paths of God, and to use that perspective to find and follow their own paths in life that make sense and that make a difference.
Last Shabbat, Rabbi Gerson reminded us all that the Judaism we learned as a child is not the right size, the right style, to fit us as adults. We can't stop learning at 13 or 15 and think that we know Judaism. As we grow older, we have the extraordinary possibility of learning it all again, with new insights every time, and with the really profound pleasure of sharing with others who are doing the same.
This is something that any member of our community can do. And it's a lot easier, more rewarding, and more fun with other people. There is no end to the process; it’s a lifelong opportunity to continue to study and think, to be alive, to choose actions. But there is a beginning to the process, and every one of us can make that beginning right now. Check the Messenger every month for book group and Torah study options. Check our library and the book and education fair. Check the web sites for the incredible discussion groups on email, the lectures you can study online, the funny and profound and reflections on our holidays, even the recipes!
Return, O Israel, to the eternal your God… Never again shall we say “Our God” to the works of our hands… The wise shall understand these things, the discerning shall know them: that straight are the ways of the Eternal. We are dust and ashes, and yet the world was created just for each of us. We owe everything to God's grand design of creation, and yet we are necessary to complete the work of creation. Our tradition reminds us to do good the day before we die – and the punch line of this serious joke is that, of course, we do not know what day this will be and so must do good every day. Our prayerbook gives us a list of obligations without measure… and Torah, learning, is equal to them all, because Torah leads to them all. If we learn our tradition we can make wise and informed choices about our lives and the ways in which we will use our lives to continue to perfect the work of creation. This is the truest t'shuvah, and may it be a sweet year full of learning and doing for us all. Amen.
D'Var Torah Cynthia Barnard, October 31, 1997
For merchandising value, the best part of Torah is here: adorable images of animals traipsing into a big wooden ark, led by Noah and capped by a vivid rainbow. We can buy this cuteness packaged into wallpaper, quilts and toys.
But read the actual words of Noach - it's a shock. It's a violent, ugly story. And yet through the ugliness we can hear a challenging message, G-d directing our energies to save our world and ourselves.
The story of Noach is anything but cute. Mankind has descended from Adam and Eve to a vicious state. The world is full of "chamas" - corruption, robbery, lawlessness. The earth itself has become "nish-chatah," has suffered. It is "shacheit" - corrupted.
The evil in Noach's time was directed both against other people and against the earth itself. The rabbis tell us that rich men carefully sheltered marble statues from the freezing rain, ignoring shivering human beings in agonized need of the same protection. Midrash suggests that a person might come to the market carrying a full basket of beans and find it soon empty, as each passerby stole just one. Universal petty thievery - reflecting the loss of basic respect and lawfulness. Selfishness rules.
In the midst of this, we are told, "Noach ish tzaddik tamid haia b'dorotav" - Noach was a righteous man, perfect in his generations. Is this praise or not? Noach was perfect in his generations -- which, we have just learned, are notable for exceptional wickedness! And, as the story progresses, Noach does behave himself ignobly.
It took 120 years for Noach to construct the ark. We may imagine him, lonely and isolated, mocked by his community. I see him as ploddingly obedient to G-d, perhaps not very imaginative. Consider Noach's failure to argue with G-d about the impending devastation. Not one word is uttered to challenge G-d's intention. Later, both Abraham and Moses will be successful in persuading God to avert destruction on behalf of a few virtuous people.
In fact, the haftarah refers to the flood as "the waters of Noach" - how was he responsible? The essence of Noach's failing was that he merely followed G-d's explicit instructions. He did not emulate the chamas, the evil, of his neighbors, but still he did not actively improve his world or fight for the good in it. Noach clung to his own family and protected them, and only them, through his obedience to G-d. Perhaps our own day echoes this, with its sometimes smug focus on the well-being of our own, while ignoring the crying needs of those who may not look, or speak, or believe as we do.
And then -- the flood. As the earth has become shacheit - corrupted, destroyed - so G-d uses the same verb to describe what will happen - "l'shacheit kol-basher asher bo ruach chaim mitachat hashamayim"... to destroy all flesh which has a breath of life under the heavens." The corruption of the earth has been so terrible that there is no remedy. It can only be swept away along with all other life.
Noach and his family cared for the animals in the ark for one year and ten days. They must have felt thoroughly abandoned. Midrash tells us that there was never adequate sleep for the eight people on the Ark. It was a year of pure devotion to thousands of creatures - four men and four unnamed women feeding, cleaning, smelling, hearing animals of every description. Of all of G-d's attributes, the one we can most readily emulate, and which brings us closest to G-d, is unstinting kindness and giving. Indeed, some of the rabbis claim that this single redeeming merit of kindness to the animals led G-d to remember Noach's family and the animals, and to cause the flood to ebb.
G-d's symbol of the new covenant which is now sealed with humanity is the rainbow. We are told by the rabbis that the rainbow had always existed, since Creation; only now G-d gives it new significance, teaches Noach and his descendents to see it as a symbol of this relationship. Perhaps the meaning here is that we must renew our appreciation of the irreplaceable beauty of Creation. God's covenant need not be sealed by a new symbol - as Proust reminds us, the real journey of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes, but in seeing the extraordinary ones we already have with new eyes. Nature's magnificence should be evidence enough of G-d's covenant, if we can only see it.
The balance of nature comes back into focus after the flood's destruction, but it has changed. There is a new mutual understanding between G-d and man, an acceptance that humans have an innate capacity for chamas, for evil, but that it must be controlled and managed. G-d's bargain is that Noach and his descendants shall "be fertile and multiply" and shall rule humanely over the animal kingdom, but only on condition that a rule of law and value for human life shall also prevail. It is this condition that Noach is about to violate.
His behavior on returning to everyday life was ugly. He still had no concept of the innate value, the potential for redemption, in every human life. His first act was profane: he planted a vineyard and made himself drunk. He "uncovered himself" in his tent, and his son Ham "saw his father's nakedness" and told his brothers. The two other sons managed to cover their father's nakedness without viewing his humiliation directly and Noach responds with a curse upon Ham's son Canaan, raging that he shall be "a slave of slaves" to his brothers.
We are left, in our final glimpse of Noach, with a sad portrait of a man who was obedient, whose righteousness saved G-d's creation, and who was able to give care to animals, when locked in a floating zoo with them; but he never did understand the value of a human being. He did not argue with G-d when told that all humanity was about to die; and he closed his life with an ugly act of drunken folly and savage revenge on an innocent grandchild.
Noach came to maturity in a time of terrible evil and lawlessness. He was mocked and jeered by his society, and then subjected to an unimaginable experience of storm, destruction, death, and a year of imprisonment in a floating world of animals. In Noach, we see that those who are brutalized and traumatized may well brutalize and traumatize in their turn, and that we - like Noach's sons Shem and Yapheth, who covered their father without witnessing his nakedness - must shelter our fellow creatures from the humiliation of their own frailties.
The message of this parasha comes to its full conclusion in its final section - one which may seem incongruent at first.
We might hope that Noach's descendents would have learned from Noach's abuse of the earth and its fruits, his drunkenness and its ugly aftermath, would live their lives in the balance of nature which G-d restored after the flood. Instead, they build a tower of Babel, an edifice of worship of technology and civilization. G-d's covenant, symbolized by the rainbow, is forgotten; mankind now seeks to compete with G-d, to build a tower reaching past the rainbow and into the heavens.
What is particularly important about this is G-d's response. In response to mankind's pillage of the earth and violence inflicted upon each other, G-d destroys humanity. But when men challenge G-d, building their tower into the heavens, G-d merely interferes with the building project by confusing their languages, splintering them into seventy nations. I infer from this that G-d is enraged by our disregard for each other and for nature - so enraged (to use a human emotion to characterize G-d) as to invoke that same violence, that chamas, to destroy the offenders. But if mankind merely threatens G-d, we may almost say that G-d "can take it," merely gestures perhaps more in sorrow than in anger and fractures mankind's communications and civilization to prevent such an intrusion where humans do not belong. G-d's own sanctity is not threatened by humanity's chutzpah.
In the haftarah, Isaiah quotes G-d speaking to Israel in Babylonian exile, "In slight anger, for a moment, I hid my face from you, but with kindness everlasting, I will take you back in love, as I swore that the waters of Noach nevermore would flood the earth." On reading Noach, let us take away that single profound thought: humanity's redemption will be in God's "kindness everlasting," if we can find that kindness in ourselves for our fellow creatures.
This is such a powerful statement as we reflect on our responsibilities to our world. We must focus our energies, our resources, on mankind's relationship with all of humanity and all of nature. Our paramount responsibility is to repair, to nurture our world. To genuinely see our rainbows, to understand their significance. To learn unstinting kindness, to give of ourselves to those who are like us, and perhaps even more to those who are not - to seek out and find, and to champion the righteous among us. To generously understand that those who are brutalized victims may tend to brutalize in their turn, and must be generously aided.
G-d can handle challenges to G-d's authority, and let us leave that task to G-d.
G-d cannot protect the fragile creation of Bereishit unless we participate vigorously in its defense.
Let us close with the blessing we are taught to utter upon seeing a rainbow, "Baruch atah adonai, elohenu melech ha-olam, zocher ha'vrit v'ne-eman bi-vitro vkayom b'ma'amaro." Blessed is our G-d who remembers the covenant and faithfully keeps G-d's promise.
May we keep ours as well.