Thank you, Rabbi Weiss, for giving me this opportunity to speak to my community. And also, thank you to Rabbi Gerson – who introduced me to the concept of a proem – actually an introduction in itself. I have used some quotes and literary forms to develop my d’var – my commentary on our parasha for this week, Teruma, “gift” in English.
Miss Fuller, in “April Bernard” said this:
“Now I know something else – that it is my labor to understand others, & possibly even myself, that it will be the accomplishment of my life – the accomplishment in the act of trying. Not to be understood, but to understand; not even, alas, to be loved, but to love.”
I HAVE COME TO BE NAMED
I have come to be named.
Riding in the autumn wood
I came to know my life is shaped by misunderstandings
I have come to be named.
I am not unhappy with the shape itself
for no matter what crooked road I have traveled
I have come to be named and I have been led to this moment
The fugitive explosions
The disconcerting schisms
I see in a world where awful harmonies I never guessed still exist.
I have come to be named.
I have come to be named
Following Pacman/Whack-a-Mole’s frothy paroxysms
I came to know my life is not yet culminated
I have come to be named.
I am not unhappy with the sequelae themselves
for whatever mountains out of molehills I have made
I have come to be named and I have been led to this moment.
The dazzling coincidences
The staggering lurches
I deduce in a breath that would not, did not die.
I have come to be named.
Inspired by Peter Carey “My Life as a Fake”
And by Jewel Mathieson “We Have Come to be Danced”
The population of the world hovers around seven billion people right now and that could also be the number of interpretations of this week’s parsha, squared or cubed or whatever the next order of measurement would be. But I want to talk to you about gifts, in Hebrew, Terumah, the name of our portion. In particular, I will speak about the gift of a name, from my favorite part of Hebrew Scriptures, which you may have heard me speak about in the past.
Jacob was given a gift of a name. Jacob becomes open to the climax of his life, an encounter with a mysterious stranger who speaks in the name of God. In the wrestling that follows, Jacob displays two of his strongest characteristics -- tenacity and the ability to make it pay. Jacob wrestles the stranger to the point where he can ask for a blessing. As his blessing, Jacob's name is changed to Yisrael. Unlike the firm faith of Abraham and the accepting faith of Isaac, Jacob wrestles with God all his life, doing His will only after that wrestling.
I recently came upon an alternate interpretation of the Sh’ma – different from the familiar “Hear Oh Israel.” “Listen you God wrestlers,” it says. “Listen. God is One.” It seems that Jewish tradition always had more than one audience in mind for our prayer life. Not every prayer is addressed to some Divine Power beyond and apart from us. In this case and perhaps many others, we say the words of prayer to ourselves. To remind ourselves of what is important. To awaken ourselves to what we really need and to cultivate gratitude for what we already have. We say the words not only in order that God hear them. We say the words in order that we ourselves can hear them. Prayer becomes not only an act of speaking, but also an act of profound listening -- but listening is not always easy.
This has been my struggle also – to listen well enough – to learn from what I hear. So difficult, yet so essential.
Those of you who have known me for a long time know that I have chosen different names for myself over the years for various reasons. First was my last name – riding my bicycle alone in the woods on a gorgeous autumn day, I heard a whisper from the cosmos – Baruch – praised/blessed. My oldest daughter had chosen other names for herself and I admired her courage. Then I began to think I could also do it.
A Jewish tradition is to take a new first name to outwit mal'ach hamavet, the “Angel of Death” so that it will be fooled and cannot find you. With Rabbi Gerson’s help to overcome my fears, I added Baruch to my last name – not to cheat death, but to transform some of my past - and that’s how most of you know me. Then, recently enough that some of my friends have not gotten used to it, I rescued a childhood nickname. At home, we all called each other Dolly and I wanted to add some silliness to my life after an extended period of seriousness as Roberta, a solemn name, I think.
Again, this was not to trick death – but to help alter my own perception of myself – to become named.
By the way, call me either – when I talk to myself about something that HAS to be done, I call myself Roberta. The rest of the time, I think of myself as Dolly.
So what would a mysterious stranger have named me? Since biblical speakers don’t always have as clear a message as Jacob was given - and I’m not convinced it was a clear message– I don’t know. And perhaps the confusion about my “real” name is part of what allows me to continue to live, so that I can continue to struggle – and so that I can continue to expand on one of my strongest characteristics – tenacity – and maybe even develop the other – the ability to make it pay – the ones that Jacob displayed. And so that I can continue to search – and so that I can continue to cultivate gratitude for the gifts I’ve been given – and so that I can continue to listen and perhaps also so that I can continue to give myself and my love to others as they have given themselves and their love to me.
VAYELECH - “A LIFE WELL LIVED”
Commentary by Karen Muriello - September 21, 2012
Our Torah portion for this evening is Deuteronomy 31:1–30, one of the last sections of the Torah. It is entitled
Vayelech (“And He Went”). It describes the events of Moses’ last day of earthly life. Moses announces, “I am
one hundred and twenty years old today and I can no longer go forth and come in. Moreover, the Lord has
said to me, ‘You shall not go across yonder Jordan’." This troubles me. Moses spent his entire adult life, a
mythic century, moving the recalcitrant Israelites toward the land of milk and honey. But at the very moment
of attainment, sweet victory is snatched away from him. Why does Moses merit only a glimpse of that glowing, fertile land, but never gets to set foot there? Is this a lesson in futility? Shouldn’t a mighty life like Moses’ earn an equally mighty reward? Is being “good” and “doing the right thing” only for the naieve?
Shabbat Shuva has been special to me, falling between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It seems the congregation is more introspective while walking through the thirteen prayers. Believers and doubters, cynics and agnostics, join together in this sacred time with our intellectual doors held open a bit. We’ve come to find some peace with ourselves. We try to pray sincerely. Can each Yom Kippur bring us closer to that ultimate goal: that at life’s end, we, like Moses, might die in peace?
John Varley writes in his novel Steel Beach,
“Again, just to be sure you understand me . . . I like life. Not all the time and not completely, but enough
to want to live it. And . . . I’m afraid to die. I don’t want to die. I suspect that nothing comes after life,
and that’s too foreign a concept for me to accept. I don’t want to experience it. I don’t want to go away,
to cease. I’m important to me.”
Can the High Holidays help us connect the dots between virtue and peace, life and death?
Human beings have an imaginative ability that allows us to visualize what is not physically present. In literary
terms this is our “suspension of disbelief.” When we go to the theatre, our minds easily accept the “fourth wall” as invisible, and we imagine the conversations and soliloquies given on stage are overheard rather than recited. Perhaps we can use this innate ability to find psychic comfort with the challenges of the High Holidays.
During these ten days of searching, what we have left unexamined the rest of the year is in focus today. This is the precisely the time to employ suspension of our habits of disbelief. Tonight, God is possible. God is the best in you, the richest journey, the brightest legacy. Doing the right thing is possible, and peace with ourselves is possible too.
So let’s entertain uncomfortable ideas. We stand naked with our baggage, our past year of thoughts and actions. We have all of us hurt our spouse, our child, our co-worker, or our friend. We may have taken an action purely for self-interest, at the expense of others.
In this quiet moment it is appropriate to entertain the possibility that we could have done better. Facing ourselves in front of this existential mirror, we confront our flaws, regrets and recriminations. We remember apologies not given or explanations unspoken. And it is here, in this silent place, with other Jews, in the presence of that which judges and forgives, that we are truthful with ourselves. There is right and wrong, and we know when we’ve done wrong, and thank goodness we have this unique process to shake ourselves back toward civilization.
These ten days allow us to suspend our disbeliefs. It is the time to entertain new possibilities of forgiveness of ourselves and others. Do not look back, full of regret. I’ve learned firsthand that regret is poison for the soul. Robert Heinlein writes in his novel Time Enough for Love,
“Babies and young children live in the present, the ‘now.’ Mature adults tend to live in the future... Give
the future enough thought to be ready for it – but don’t worry about it. Live each day as if you were to die next sunrise. Then face each sunrise as a fresh creation and live for it, joyously. And never think
about the past.”
I have come to believe that Moses did not cross the Jordan River because the journey was important, not the
destination. We need to travel through our lifetimes face forward, with goodness and mercy for our fellow
travellers. Don’t let the destination obscure the importance of enjoying life’s journey. Remember the words of
Henry David Thoreau,
“Go confidentially in the direction of your dreams! Life the life you’ve imagined.”
Vayishlach by Roberta Baruch - date unknown
Each story in our Torah tells in some measure the story of our lives: a memory that is built from our very protoplasm, a consciousness that surfaces when we find a story that touches us, explains our being, informs our present and portends our future. Torah contains many such stories, and the one I speak about tonight is one that has touched me deeply, troubled me, changed me and continues to tell me who I am, where I come from, and where I am going: The eternal questions, the answer to why I study Torah, why Jews study Torah.
Jacob becomes Israel: I concentrate on only a few verses: Genesis 32:25-32. This cryptic tale takes place during the night after Jacob attempts to mollify his brother Esau - you remember this story, Jacob's mother Rebecca conceived when her husband Isaac asked the Lord to give her a child and she bore twins, Esau the red, the hairy, the hunter, and Jacob. Pay attention! Names are important in the Bible and to our own lives. Jacob, Ja-a-kov. The name evokes laughter, Ja-a-kov. It means the heel in Hebrew. Jacob emerges from the womb holding his brother Esau's heel. It also means to overreach - and to be deceitful. Jacob the overreacher, Jacob the deceitful, who lived, like all overreachers, like all deceiver, in anxiety and confusion.
You remember Jacob took Esau's birthright for a mess of pottage. And Rebecca insisted Jacob steal Esau's blessing. She disguised Jacob when Isaac was old and his eyes too dim to see, by putting hairy animal skins over Jacob's smooth skin. So Isaac gave Jacob Esau's blessing "May God give you the dew of heavens and the fat of the fields the Lord has blessed. Abundance of new grain and wine. Let peoples serve you and nations bow to you. Be master over your brothers and let your mother's sons bow to you. Cursed be those who curse you and blessed they who bless you."
Esau cried for his own blessing and hated Jacob, harbored a grudge against Jacob and swore to kill him. Rebecca tells Jacob to flee to Haran, to his uncle Laban. There Jacob sees Rachel by the well and falls in love at first sight. There he is deceived by his uncle Laban and marries Leah instead of Rachel. Anxiety and confusion? Jacob often seemed not understand what was happening around him. He fell in love with Rachel but marries Leah of the weak eyes, the elder, tricked by Laban. How did that happen? Jacob didn't know, or did he?? - in this story of intrigue, he may indeed at some level have known, how could he not?? Whatever the motive, whatever the knowledge, Jacob indentures himself to Laban for 14 years to pay for this confusion. He has six sons during those years with Leah. He cohabits with Leah's maid Zilphah and fathers two more and then with Rachel's maid Bilhah and fathers two more after that. People have served him. Finally, after many years of barrenness, Rachel is blessed by God and bears Joseph, and then his last born son, Benjamin - 12 sons, the 12 Tribes of Israel. "Nations shall serve you." No, not quite yet. It is still Jacob. His sons give him nothing but trouble. He bears the blessing of Esau - he has carried out the prophesy of his mother's late conception. He has lived in deceit and with the burden of the blessing.
Twenty years pass - Jacob has become rich. He fears God. He has changed greatly. He now must return home to fulfill the prophesy: to meet his future, he must confront his past. Jacob is still greatly afraid Esau will kill him but he starts his journey and sends a message ahead to Esau. And he sends ahead the rich gifts, the munificent bounty of his 14 years of subjugation, across the stream so that perhaps his brother will forgive him. There is something to be said about these 14 years of indenturehood. What does he learns from those years: can we assume patience? kindness? tolerance? At least we know that he has become financially independent - some call his methods of obtaining that security trickery. Can we be kinder? Maybe those years signify a metaphor of toil, subjugation and ultimately of survival, even prevailing, that brings Jacob to the point where he can give away what he once had to steal. Esau, by now himself rich, does not need the gifts but Jacob remains frightened of confronting his past, and he needs to give the gifts even if Esau does not need to receive them. Jacob stays behind by himself, does not cross the stream, his gifts are sent on but he waits on the other shore by himself. Perhaps he cannot bring himself to confront Esau. He does not know how Esau will be changed after twenty years. Perhaps Jacob is, as Jacob is wont to be, anxious and confused. And not exactly ready to see Esau.
And so to the verses. I use the text from the Jewish Bible according to the Masoretic Text from Sinai Publishing: And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day/And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him./And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me./And he said unto him. What is thy name? And he said, Jacob./And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel, for as a prince has thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed./And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray thee, thy name. And he said, Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name? And he blessed him there./And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel; for I have seen God face to face and my life is preserved./And as he passed over Penuel the sun rose upon him and he halted upon his thigh.
There are various translations from the Hebrew of the creature with whom Jacob wrestles. It may even be that Jacob thinks he is wrestling a demon from the stream that he has been afraid to cross. Or it may simply be a man, or a messenger from God, or an angel, or God Himself. Or could it be, as some say, a dream, so that Jacob wrestles with his own unconscious, personified as a man who asks his name?
Emily Dickinson, in "A little east of Jordan," calls Jacob the "bewildered Gymnast" who "found he had worsted God" and "sublimely inverts" the blessing and takes it for herself: "I will not let thee go except I bless thee." She takes the act upon herself and blesses the man, the angel, the messenger of God, God Himself. But Jacob in our story does not bless the other. He wrests a blessing from the man, and gets permanently damaged in the struggle. If we think of this as a dream, the injury may be metaphor - expressed as injury to the thigh muscle, or the hip joint. Whatever it is, Jacob limps, or walks haltingly in the morning to met his brother Esau after twenty years. Jacob is humbled.
The man asks Jacob his name - don't forget names. Jacob replies very simply "Jacob." And the man gives Jacob a new name: "your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human and you have prevailed." From Ja-a-kov, the heel, the overreacher, the deceiver, the confused and anxious one, Ya-a-kov-el, the one whom God makes to limp, Ja-a-kov, the laughable - to Israel, the striver, Ya-shar-el, the one whom God makes straight.
Jacob becomes Israel only after he has striven with the mysterious "Beings divine and human and prevailed." Jacob insists on a blessing but the blessing is not specified. How are we to understand this story? The outlines are simple, the words are few, but the psychological impact is profound and powerful. Jacob's very sense of himself - his very self, from the moment of birth - literally hangs on his brother. And his mother. And his mother's view of him as not quite capable - a son for whom she has to lie and prevaricate and manipulate and devise schemes or he will never be able to fulfill her God given prophesy. We are never given a sense of Jacob's actual capabilities. We do not know much about Jacob. We have a physical description: he is smooth. Nor do we know if he is smart, or decisive or courageous, we do not know these things, that is, until he wrestles with the man. Until then, it is his mother who provides us all we know about Jacob - she dresses him in animal skins. She tells him to flee to Haran where Jacob promptly falls in love at first sight - a journey's time away from mom and his first action is to fall in love and then pay for it with 14 years of work.
And what of Jacob's father, Isaac? Is he really fooled by the feel of the animal skins on Jacob's arms? I think not. Isaac asks twice if this is Esau. Is this confusion of old age? Or is this, perhaps, conspiracy? In the end, Isaac bestows the blessing of founding a people on Jacob and Esau again gets a mess of pottage.
What are we to think of these, our patriarchs, our forbears? Isaac and Rebecca have taught Jacob that deceit begets family prosperity, that fulfilling a higher purpose demands conspiracy and manipulation, that the end justifies the means. It is not hard to imagine why Jacob continues to make bad mistakes, continues to be anxious and confused, that it would take divine intervention (if that is how we are to understand the wrestling in the night) to impel Jacob on his journey of change, of transformation, into adulthood.
Confronted by the man, Jacob, true to his name, hangs on. He does not quit even though he has now been broken. And not only does he hang on - he also asks for the blessing for himself. He asks. When he was younger he stole the blessing - his mother inspired, no, required him to receive the blessing - he was it seems a willing co-conspirator - after all, it appears he was some 35 years old at the time of the stolen blessing. But now, wrestling with the man, he demands the blessing, and, as Emily would have it - he blesses the wrestler. No conspiracy. No manipulation. Just straight out - "I will not let you go unless you bless me."
What is the blessing? It is not spelled out in this story. Perhaps the blessing is the new name. Jacob has been afraid to meet his brother. He does not cross the stream. He stays alone on the other side. He wrestles with the man. He is injured. He does not let go until he is blessed. He gets a new name. And in the morning, he limps toward his brother who, perhaps to Jacob's surprise, no longer seems to harbor the grudge, no longer wants to kill him. Again, we are given precious little detail. But Esau too has changed over twenty years. If the ages are right, the twins are now 55 years old. Hard to carry grudges - takes too much energy.
Can we expect that Jacob has changed overnight? Is this a miracle? No, I quote the very next chapter, 33:1: "Jacob saw." We are back to Jacob. But now Jacob is also called Israel. Perhaps two traditions, but intricately interwoven, like our own selves - intricately interwoven parts - not all of one thing or another, but caught by the heel, caught in the circle.
The rest of the Jacob story is summary. The wrestling in the night, I believe, is the denouement of Jacob's life. His son Joseph becomes the focus for the next chapters. But Jacob - Israel - moves at last from childhood to adulthood. Our tradition tells us, in so few words, what it is really like to become an adult. We can limp into our own future no matter what we have been taught, no matter how old we become, no matter how we have been damaged along the way, we continue to have the capacity to grow and change.
Some of my friends have asked me why I chose the story of a patriarch instead of one of the noble women of the Bible. They know I consider myself a feminist - why Jacob? Because I believe Jacob and the blessing he wrests from the man are interchangeable - if you read the passage for the first time it is difficult to know who is talking to whom, which line is whose - "I will not let thee go unless you bless me/I bless you." In the end, it comes to the same thing. Just as it comes to the same thing with male/female and with ends and means. Jacob's gender does not matter in this story. It is Jacob as archetype, Jacob as infant, Jacob as child, Jacob as sibling, Jacob as parent, and most of all, Jacob as striver/wrestler/prevailer, with whom I identify.
At some point in my own life barely knowing what I asked for, and not knowing the bounds of the journey, I asked for truth. And with that search for truth came a name change. I chose it myself. I shall say I chose to change my name but the rabbi can attest that did not come easily: it took several years and in the end, it was not a choice but a blessing.
Remember how important names are. My name, Baruch - it means blessed and praised. It is I who have learned to bless and praise. The promise that Jacob received, the blessing that he wrested from the man, the name change, has power in it. The power frees those of us who either seek it or are given it. Jacob, near the end of his sojourn on earth, called the days of the years of his life short and dark. I hope to be able to say near the end of my days that they have been long and light. I know that my Torah, my story, my heritage, my mess of pottage, my blessing, and my study will continue to bring me light and joy. And so may it be for you also . . .
Can We Move From Suspicion to Trust?
Commentary by James R. Hearst - date unknown
“YHVH Spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them:
If any man’s wife has gone astray and broken faith with him in that a man has had carnal relations with her unbeknown to her husband, and she keeps secret the fact that she has defiled herself without being forced, and there is no witness against her
But a fit of jealousy comes over him and he is wrought up about the wife who has defiled herself; or if a fit of jealousy comes over one and he is wrought up about his wife although she has not defiled herself
The man shall bring his wife to the priest.
And he shall bring as an offering for her on-tenth of an epah of barley flour. No oil shall be poured upon it and no frankincense shall be laid on it, for it is a meal offering of jealousy,
A meal offering of remembrance which recalls wrongdoing.”
Numbers 5:11 – 15
The marriage bond is sacred
Man seems paramount
This determines if the woman is holding a secret that she has gone astray
What if the man goes astray?
Attempt at judgment through the process of ordeal
This is to appease the man’s suspicions or jealousies
The woman could be justly accused
What if the woman suspects her husband is holding a secret?
A meal offering of jealousy
Remembrance which recalls wrongdoing
A form of coercion or torture to initiate confession
Jealousy is justified for the man, not for the woman.
The priest has great power
He mixes a potion which induces a trance
He protects the woman from an unjust husband
He is involved as a judge who must weight the evidence
The intervention prevents the husband from acting in some other way, taking justice into his own hands
There must be some public demonstration for resolution.
As Sotah is described, it is apparent that the innocent woman would pass the test and remain unscathed, a means of silencing a husband’s unfounded accusation. The guilty woman will become sterile, with belly distended and thighs sagging. Within the context of the times, this is better than the Code of Hammurabi in which a wife so suspected would have to prove her innocence by throwing herself into the river.
There is a symbolic aspect to the trail, in that the nation of Israel is also like the unfaithful wife. Moses administered a potion to the people of Israel and made them drink of it. (Exodus 32:20 – 21)
To what extent is a person who commits adultery devoid of sense? No person sins without losing a grasp on reality. Harmful decisions are made by those who fail to understand the consequences of their actions. To what extend are such actions or persons self destructive. Fields 19
Fortunately, in these modern days, the Women of Reform Judaism have provided some corrective surgery.
“Where was the woman’s voice? She may have sounded like this:
I am accused. My husband is jealous. He is jealous of my friendship with any man. … My husband has warned me to stay away, telling me in front of his friends who were with him. He is a big man in their eyes. I have not been alone with a man whom I have seen. Yet I still stand accused.” Feigenson 131
There is a need for determining the truthfulness and openness of such an act, and then a method of atonement and rebuilding of trust.
“The suspicion or lack of trust can come from either party, and may well be mutual. In the Bible, the woman is brought to an authority and is an object of the priest’s actions; in the following ritual, the couple approaches the clergy as equals, and both are immersed in waters, as both seek renewed commitment and trust.
Thus our way of commenting on this biblical passage is not only to use as a model, but also to transform it into something new and respectful of both parties.”
Pikudei -Exodus 38:21-40:38 March 7, 2008 by Barbara Brotman.
This Shabbat's Torah portion is about my friend Avra Cohn.Avra is sitting over there. Hi, Avra!
You may not recall anything in the Torah about Avra. But the Pkudei portion is about Avra nonetheless specifically, about what Avra does.
What Avra does is make things beautiful. Avra is co-chair with me of the temples membership/community committee. She organized and designed tonights evening. She is the person who made the room where we are about to eat our Shabbat dinner glittery and elegant and lovely. She does that with every dinner and party she touches, and youll see what I mean when you see the extraordinary Shabbat gift bags you are about to get. She has a gift; she has an eye. She uses them to make things beautiful.
And this Shabbats Torah portion is about making things beautiful. In Pkudei, we read about the building of the Tabernacle. It is some tabernacle. It and the priestly accoutrements are described in lush detail, from the gold threads worked into the blue, purple and crimson yarns of the ephod to the breastpiece set with stones - carnelian, emerald, turquoise, sapphire and amethyst. A diadem of pure gold, decorated turbans of fine linen, a robe with blue, purple and crimson yarns twisted into the shapes of pomegranates these are no commonplace items. They are beautiful extraordinarily and purposefully beautifully.
But to what purpose? Why the emphasis on physical appearance, even opulence? Are we to take away a sense of a god who demands emeralds and sapphires? That our synagogues should drip with precious metals and jewels? Those are disturbing and unsatisfying conclusions. Surely there have to be others.
But never mind the cost; whats happening is that the Tabernacle is being made beautiful. Lets look at that for a moment instead of the emeralds, and ask why? What is the purpose of making the Tabernacle beautiful? Or making anything beautiful? Why do we set a special table for Shabbat? Why do we use white tablecloths? Why do we put out fresh flowers?
They make us feel well, if not beautiful, then a sweet sense of pleasure. When we see something beautiful, whether a Shabbat table or a painting, it has an effect on us. Which brings up another question to ask: Why?
Why does seeing something beautiful evoke a powerful response in us? Why do we care?
Let me offer an answer that comes from Arthur Green of Brandeis College and Hebrew College. Rabbi Green, one of the worlds foremost authorities on Jewish spiritualism, spoke in Chicago a few years ago, and my Torah study group went to hear him. During the coffee-and-cake afterwards, he hung around long enough and was goodnatured enough to sit with our group and answer some questions. I figured, What the hey, and asked mine:
I asked him, Why do you believe in God?
Well, you might as well cut to the chase.
And what he said was this: Because there is no evolutionary advantage in my being moved to tears by a piece of music.
He was talking about beauty beauty in something we hear, but he could just as easily have talked about beauty in something we see. So much of existence can be explained in Darwinian terms. Our bodies and perhaps our minds work in certain ways because these ways confer evolutionary advantage. There is a point to things.
But what about beauty? What is the point of beauty?
If joy upon encountering beautiful music or art serves no evolutionary purpose, why do we feel it? Why do we have whatever internal receptors make us create and crave beauty if they serve no purpose?
Could it be that there is no rational reason that we are talking about a different realm entirely the realm of the ineffable, the spiritual, the holy? There are, to be sure, Darwinian possibilities: Maybe people are knitted together more tightly when they experience similar emotions when encountering a work of art, and it is that bond that confers evolutionary advantage. Maybe the endorphins released when we encounter art and experience pleasure help us live longer and procreate more. Maybe thats why so many first dates are to a museum.
Maybe. Or maybe just partly.
Isnt it possible that being moved by beauty is to some degree a spiritual response with no evolutionary purpose at all? Call it god, call it holiness, call is transcendence - the lump in your throat at a perfectly held note, the warmth that spreads through you when you look at an impressionist painting drenched in that magical Mediterranean light, the inward sigh of pleasure you feel when you look over a table glowing with candelight and flowers maybe we are hearing an echo of that still, small voice. Maybe we are, in a sense, seeing it.
Our tradition recognizes that transcendence. We set a special table for Shabbbat partly to hallow the day, but also to hallow ourselves.
So after this service let us go into a room made beautiful by my friend Avra. Let us feel that sweet delight, and let us consider the possibility that our savoring of it may be a thing of wonder itself; that the act of making something beautiful, whether a Tabernacle our a Shabbat table, lovely to behold may, may in a rational sense mean nothing and so, in a deeper sense, may mean everything.
Tricia Brauner Oak Park Temple, Shabbat Terumah 5768
Salamone Rossi, ebreo (Jew)—as all Jews were then designated—was probably born in 1570, lived and worked in the city of Mantua, in what is now northern Italy, and died sometime after 1628 (the last date for which we have any record of him).
Mantua—the city to which Romeo fled when he was exiled for killing Juliet’s cousin in Verona, the city in which the story of Verdi’s Rigoletto takes place—is about 28 miles south Verona, 100 miles southwest of Venice. Mantua was governed by dukes of the Gonzaga family, and while Rossi received some payments from the ducal court, he was also employed by the Jewish theatrical troupe of the city and had income from various business arrangements.
During the years 1589 to 1628 Salamone Rossi published 8 collections of Italian secular vocal music for 3 to 5 voices (meaning separate, independent parts), 4 collections of instrumental music, and 1 collection of Hebrew compositions for 3 to 8 voices.
To put those years in context, when Rossi was born Shakespeare was 6 years old; Romeo and Juliet was first performed in 1594/95 and The Merchant of Venice in 1596/97. The early 17th century saw the first performances of Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, and The Tempest; the first English settlements in the New World; and the development of a new music genre, the opera (one of the earliest of these, Monteverdi’s Orfeo, was written for Mantua in 1607).
In 1600 there was no such thing as Italy, of course. The southern part of the peninsula, as well as Sicily and Sardinia, belonged to Spain. A broad swath across the middle, spreading up northeast from Rome, was the Papal States. The north consisted of several independent entities such as the duchies of Mantua, Parma, and Tuscany, the Bishopric of Trent, and the Republics of Lucca and Venice, and of territories of the Austrian Hapsburg or Holy Roman Empire. The struggle to unify the country took place through much of the 19th century, culminating in 1871. I will use the name Italy tonight.
A little slice of history: In 1492, when the Jews who refused to convert to Christianity were expelled from Spain and its territories, tens of thousands of Jews living in Spanish “Italy” left for other cities on the peninsula, while others went to the Ottoman Empire, doing business across the Adriatic with ports such as Venice and Ancona.
Soon Italian cities imposed restrictions regarding where their Jews could live, what work they could do, and what they could wear. The first Jewish ghetto was established in Venice in 1516. Others followed, those of Rome and Florence, for instance, in 1555 and 1571. Mantua’s ghetto was not formed until 1612. In 1630 Mantua was sacked and plundered by Ferdinand II’s imperial troops, the Jews expelled, and the ghetto destroyed. Rossi may have died in the plague that followed, or he may, with many other Mantuan Jews, have gone to the Venetian ghetto, where he had friends and supporters.
In the early 17th century, there were some 23 hundred Jews living in Mantua—perhaps as much as 8% of the population. Among them were bankers, physicians, musicians, merchants, butchers, and rabbis. In 1630 there were nine synagogues (some in well-to-do private homes) and 24 rabbis in the ghetto. Most of the synagogues belonged to the Italiani Jews who followed the Roman rite; a few were Ashkenazic; none were Sephardic.
Salamone Rossi’s relationship with Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga I stood him in good stead. In 1606 the Duke gave him the privilege of not having to wear the compulsory yellow badge, two strips of cloth “half an arm long and a finger wide, [...one] to be set on the frock or coat, two fingers away from its buttons, the other on the hat or head garment [...] to be visible even from a distance.”(1) In 1619 Rossi was exempted from the sumptuary laws that restricted what type of clothing Jews were permitted to wear. Other privileges given—or more accurately sold—to Jews included the privilege to carry a weapon, to study medicine at the university, and to live outside the ghetto. Such privileges were given to actors, musicians, physicians, middlemen, and loan bankers—all occupations that served the Christians’ needs and brought the Jews into contact with Christians. However, after the death of Duke Vincenzo, Rossi’s connection with the court became less close, as the musical life at court declined along with the economic circumstances of the duchy. (From 1600 to 1620 about 30 musicians were on the court payroll; by 1628 there were hardly any.)
Jewish acting troupes played a significant role in Mantuan theatrical life. During the Carnival season preceding Lent, plays and processions for public entertainment were held outdoors, and from 1588 onward during Carnival the Jewish community honored the Duke’s visit to a synagogue with a play. Between the acts there would be scenes of music and spectacle (called intermedii) and refreshments. The Jews, of course, had to pay for these productions. A payroll from 1605 lists Salamone and his brother Emanuele as participants. Rossi is said to have composed music for the Jewish troupe’s intermedii, but none has survived.
Koleinu tonight is singing works from Rossi’s 1622 collection of settings of Hebrew texts, Hashirim asher li-sh’lomo (literally, The Songs that are Solomon’s). The title alludes to the composer’s name, Sh’lomo min-ha-Adumim, “Solomon from the Red Ones,” or, in Italian, Salamone Rossi, and is a play on the biblical book Shir hashirim asher li-sh’lomo (The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s). None of the texts, however, comes from that book—20 of the 33 texts are drawn from Psalms, one each from Leviticus and Isaiah, five are verse hymns or piyyutim, five are prayers, and one is a wedding ode. The liturgical texts are found in prayer books of the Roman rite from the late 16th century, while some of the other texts are found in books of Kabbalistic confraternities such as the one published in 1612 for the Shomerim Laboker (Morning Watchmen).
These compositions are polyphonic, combining three or more individual melodies. I should mention here that the Songs, like all vocal music of the 17th century, were printed as separate part-books—one for soprano, one for alto, and so on—to facilitate performance. Groups didn’t buy multiple copies of a complete score, but rather a smaller book for each performer, comparable to music for band and orchestra today.
There was no precedent for writing polyphonic works with Hebrew texts. Rossi’s pieces are essentially in the style of late-Renaissance Italian music (think Palestrina, Monteverdi). They don’t sound “Jewish” except for the texts. In his preface to the publication Rossi indicated that he “worked and labored” on the Hebrew compositions for years. They must have been performed privately, for he says that singers and listeners were delighted by them, and that friends urged him to publish them.
Rossi had a couple of hurdles to get over, however.
1) There was (and is) a strong animosity in orthodox Judaism to “art music”–the coined Hebrew word is musikáh—as opposed to traditional chant in the synagogue. While there is evidence of attempts to introduce some sort of part singing into Italian synagogues, the rabbinic responsa and discussions do not make clear exactly what sort of music it is. It might simply have been improvised harmony, of the sort we spontaneously do in “Avinu malkenu” in the section “Oseh imanu tzedakah va chesed.” It might have been polyphony or counterpoint, where the different voices don’t all sing the same words and rhythm, but this too can be improvised. A simple example is the round or canon we create when we sing “Shalom chaverim” or “Hine ma tov,” the voices beginning at different times with the same music. The complex polyphony of the Renaissance is composed, learnèd, art-full music, and it is in this style that Rossi wrote.
The resistance to musikáh was countered by Rabbi Leone Modena in a responsum of 1605. He argued that art music derives from the Temple, which used instruments and voices and which itself inspired Christian music.
2) There was no tradition of how to compose—and print—art music with Hebrew words. Hebrew reads from right to left, while European musical notation—which has evolved from the ninth century onwards and continues to evolve today—reads from left to right. According to Leone Modena, in Rossi’s eyes “it seemed better for the readers to pronounce the letters backward and read, in contrary order, the words of the song that are well known to all, than to reverse the direction of the notes from what is customary and have the readers move their eyes, as we Jews are used to write, from right to left, lest they lose their minds.”
Rossi placed each Hebrew word of the text—written normally, from right to left, and without vowel points, the way it appears in the Torah scroll—under the last note of the musical phrase to which the word was to be sung. Thus the entire word was easily grasped at once.
However, in many cases, there are more notes than there are syllables, and although the first and last notes are obvious, the distribution of the remaining ones is not.
For Latin and Italian texts there were conventional rules about how to do this. For example, the accented syllable—in Italian usually the penultimate—falls on the extra, faster notes. Or, syllables are not to be sung on the first larger note after smaller ones or on the smaller ones themselves. Or, in a dotted figure, separate syllables are not to be assigned to the smaller note or notes after the dotted one.
The only problem with these conventions is that in Hebrew, the accent usually falls on the last syllable. In the 33 pieces in Rossi’s collection, there are about 22 problematic spots, where the Italian conventions cause the Hebrew text to be mis-accented. The music adapts better to the Italian approach, suggesting that Rossi was not seriously concerned about this issue. Modern editors sometimes disagree.
Where were the Songs performed? Possible venues include the synagogue, the study hall (where they would be rehearsed), the house of a bride and groom, and other festivities in private homes. The texts are suitable for holidays, feast days, festivals, Sabbaths, weddings, circumcisions, times of rejoicing, banquets, and so on. They could be performed by talented amateurs (like Koleinu). The Mantuan Jews in 1610 were said not to have many singers for the intermedii, but there were certainly professional performers among them. We really don’t know how much the Songs were ever performed in synagogues. A few references from 1642 imply some might have been done on feast days, but musikáh didn’t ever catch on in the Italian rite, nor did it become an integral part of Ashkenazi ritual until the 19th century In fact, copies of Rossi’s publication are rare: only two complete sets of the 8 partbooks are extant, plus 11 additional partbooks, out of which it is impossible to make up another complete set.
But what is intriguing is the revival of interest in Rossi’s music in the late 19th and the 20th centuries, correlating with a revival of “early music” in general. There was such desire for Renaissance music suitable for synagogue use that adaptations were made. The Shir ha-ma’alot that opened our service is almost note-for-note the music printed in 1622, but the editor has added text repetitions to break up long melodies on a single syllable. The remaining pieces tonight come from an edition by Isadore Freed (1900-1960), a composer and organist who was Professor of Music at Hebrew Union College's School of Sacred Music. Freed wrote: "Synagogue music must be first good music; it must be living music; it must be functional music, and it should bear witness to the continuity of Jewish tradition, be it in language, expression, form or style."
Following his own precept, he derived from Rossi’s music a set of pieces suitable for a Reform Jewish Sabbath Eve service.
The Bar’echu, like Shir ha-ma’alot, is the piece Rossi published, with some adjustments in the rhythm to change the way the text is accented.
In Rossi’s liturgical pieces, the responses belonging to the congregation are not set to music, and he did not set the text of the Sh’ma. As far as I can tell, Freed himself composed this setting, using four times a motif that does not seem to come from any of the Songs.
For the Mi chamocha, Freed adapted a portion of Rossi’s setting of Ps. 146, Hallelujah nafshi et Adonai (Hallelujah! O my soul praise the Lord), with some changes in the rhythm to accommodate the different text.
The Adon olam has an even more complicated history. Rossi set this hymn for 8 independent voices, one of the most difficult of the works—and not the one sung tonight. In 1876 Samuel Naumburg, in Paris, set the text of Adon olam to Rossi’s Kaddish for 5 voices, which he recomposed for 4 voices. Naumburg was one of a number of musically trained chazzanim and choirmasters—among whom were Solomon Sulzer in Vienna and Louis Lewandowski in Berlin—who felt the traditional synagogue melodies should be given a “musical face lift” in accordance with the current taste. Naumburg’s arrangement of Adon olam was reprinted in Paris in 1933 and again in New York in 1954. I have not been able to compare Freed’s arrangement to Naumburg’s, but they both derive from Rossi’s Kaddish.
So we come around again to the premise that music in the synagogue should, as Rossi wrote, be used “for thanking God and singing to His exalted name on all sacred occasions” and that things old and new may be pressed into God’s service. Tonight, we are walking in Rossi’s footsteps.
(1) Don Harrán, Salamone Rossi: Jewish Musician in Late Renaissance Mantua (Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 25.
D'Var Torah Terumah, Sh’mot (Exodus) 25-27,
2 Adar 5768, 8 February 2008 Mark Burger
Passages in Torah that get into heavy detail tend to be overlooked in the more liberal circles of Judaism. Besides the focus on minutae, there is a sense of the details conveying a sense of exclusivity. It has to be done this exact way by an elect person or persons, or it’s not acceptable or even dangerous. Details of rituals such as the High Priest intoning the word of God in the Inner Sanctuary on the Day of Atonement reinforce this belief.
One can believe that, or one can look at it another way. The details are meant as a template that can be done by anyone willing to undergo the effort, and spelled out in detail that does not require a special authority or intermediary to interpret it. The Ark is meant as a gift, “Terumah” to God, and a place where Our Creator may dwell. It is transitory and to be borne in a journey, such as life is meant to be.
But the ability to replicate is a singular benefit of this passage, as is the ability to replicate scripture and the ability to replicate temples and other places as sanctuaries. Each of you has the opportunity to take part in this replication, both daily and on special occasions. On March 14-16, the Oak Park Temple Retreat in Wisconsin will feature a “Build the Ark” exercise, as well as other wonderful opportunities to pray, study and socialize. Find out more at the Temple office. You can get a glimpse of the same wonderful feeling of building the Ark that was experienced by our ancestors thousands of years ago. You can help provide a sanctuary for God to dwell in, as well as a sanctuary for your own heart and soul. Amen.
July 21, 2006
This was without question the hardest d’var I have ever had to prepare. I had more false starts, more crumpled up pieces of paper, more feelings of desperation in the wee hours over this than I ever had before and certainly more than I ever hope to have again. For most of the portion for this week--the one I chose included-- we want to shudder and say ‘God who?’ Many of God’s commands to the Israelites fly in the face of everything we have learned and come to know, some of our most treasured values about tolerance, patience, acceptance of strangers. There are things I gleaned from this portion, certainly, as measured by my desire to rant and harangue, speak too much about some peripheral matters and not enough and not in the right way about the meaty ones.
In the end, I decided that I will focus tonight on just two sentences. One is a verse from the section of Torah you just heard: (Numbers 33:50-56) Verse 55. The other is from a newsletter I received at an Israeli support rally earlier this week. In the section you heard, after telling the Israelites that they have come to their homeland, their inheritance, God admonishes them that they have work to do; they must possess the land and take it for their own in the face of opposition from the Canaanites. In verse 55, he warns them “...if you do not dispossess the inhabitants of the land, those whom you allow to remain shall be lesikim be'eyneychem “stings in your eyes and velitsninim betsideychem “thorns in your sides” and they shall vetsareru etchem “harass you in the land in which you live. I used the Hebrew words because if you say them three times fast--once you get your tongue untwisted-- it almost sounds like a swarm of buzzing, stinging insects.
And these words have echoed with me; they seem so prophetic. They are reminiscent, too, of a story a little later in the book of I Samuel in which King Saul is ordered to destroy all of the Amalakites, including women,children and livestock. The Amalakites were noted Jew-haters. King Saul did as he was told--except that he spared the life of Agog, the Amalakite king, and some livestock. As far as I know, the cows were harmless, but Agog was left to propogate and promulgate, and he was the ancestor of the infamous Haman. There is some modern midrashic opinion, I believe, that Haman and his sons were not killed in time to prevent them from having offspring, one of whom was the ancestor of Hitler.
I do not think that most people or people are Jew-haters, but there has always been a remnant of Jew-haters and Jew-baiters. They have existed in almost all places and in almost all times in history since there have been Jews. They have been known as the Crusaders, the Inquisition, pogroms, the Shoa--and the Intifada. They have been called Haman, Hitler, Farrakhan, among others--and Hamas and Hezbollah.
Their currency is lies--inventions to justify their hatred of Jews and of Israel. These are the “stings in the eyes,” of verse 55 which blind otherwise good people and confuse them--e.g, the blood libel or the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” The thorns in the sides are provided by the deceptive practices--sometimes intentional, sometimes not--of some of the people whom we thought we could trust: The media, who talk about militants, dissidents or even freedem-fighters--who in any other context would be known simply as terrorists. Religious leaders who refer to murderers as martyrs. And all of the misguided and misguiding souls who drive us nuts with their earnest analyses of the Middle East: occupation, settlements, fictional massacres in Jenin and elsewhere, refugees, economic factors, the WALL( which becomes higher and more forbidding with each mention); they do not mention that all of these are not causes but products of Jew-hating and attempts to destroy the state of Israel from day one.
The second sentence, found in a special issue of a newsletter entitled “The State of Israel Today,” provides wise counsel regarding a response. At least to me, because I’m inclined to become angry when discussing these issues, and, in addition to talking too much and too loudly, I tend to get incoherent and inarticulate-- and, despite my efforts, no one listens. The sentence reads “We must speak quietly, say little and tell the truth.” The State of Israel must do battle now with guns and rockets, but our best weapon here, our best response to the lies and deception, is clear, reasoned truth. Not to the creators of the lies (They don’t want to know) but to their targets--an uninformed public.
The truth that is Israel is not harsh or difficult. No other country in the world has provided a refuge, a haven, a home to Jews from all over the world, while welcoming people of other religions and ethnic groups. Few countries have lived in a continual state of siege, beset by almost daily attacks, and still managed to maintain a democratic government, a relatively stable economy, universal health care, and extremely humane and ethical standards regarding all human beings. And Israel invented cell phones. We don’t have to apologize, or rationalize or lie.
I think that we can also be consoled somewhat by another truth, supported by history, that, while bullies may prevail for short periods of time and may do a lot of damage in that time, they seldom thrive or survive over the long haul-- but the people of Israel have. Stings and thorns can hurt and distract us, but they’re not nearly as large or powerful as they seem.
TQ White II, Presented 10/14/2005
Fulfilling the PromiseMoses last speech is sort of a narrative that summarizes a difficult view of our behavior and relationship with God. It includes a lot of flowery language but it comes down to this: God was near and life was good. We took Him for granted and cared for other gods. God turned away so we felt lost.
Moses tells us that we should “do all the words of this law.” If we do, he says, we shall “prolong” our days and get to the promised land.
Well, where I come from, the word ‘law’ usually doesn’t refer to a story that describes bad behavior and consequences. Still, you have to give Moses his due, so I search for the lesson.
The other part of this portion is equally problematic. Moses is at the end of an incredible life of service. He has sacrificed everything to do God’s will and to bring his people into the promised land, except he doesn’t get to join them. The reason, God reminds him, is that he “sanctified Me not” in a an earlier story that took place at a spring at Meribeth-kadesh.
The conditions for getting to the promised land figure prominently in both sections and so I find my focus.
I think it’s safe to say that few of us think that we are going to relocate to some new homeland that is going to make a difference in our life that is worthy of being seen as a divine reward. I think it’s equally fair to say that most of us don’t expect God to physically intervene to prevent us from achieving our life’s goals.
So I figure that this is the final the story of an obedient man who heard the word of God and accepted God’s truth when he was told he “trespassed”. When God said “thou shalt not go thither,” Moses didn’t receive it as a command or even as a punishment, but as a statement of fact. It wasn’t that God wouldn’t let him go to the physical place. Moses understood that he was unable to enter the land of milk and honey because he was not able to live the life that was promised or to achieve its joy.
Moses explained the problem in his final speech to the people. When, “of the rock that begot thee thou wast unmindful,” the penalty, God says, is that “I will hide My face from them.” The consequence of this instruction is a coin with the promised land on one side and God’s absence on the other.
I’ll tell you now that the direction I am going is that the real meaning of the promised land is a place where one feels fully embraced by God and all the goodness that results from that relationship and that Moses couldn’t go because, in the practical reallity of leading his tribe, he came to believe that he was the critical instrument of God’s will. But first, let me talk a minute about Moses’ at Meribeth-kadesh.
At Meribeth-kadesh, the Israelites are dying of thirst and they are angry about it. They confront Aaron and Moses and complain that they have been led to disaster. The leaders said nothing and went to pray. God offered Moses a miracle. Go to the rock, He said, and speak to the rock. It will produce water.
Moses goes outside, gathers the people and says, “are we to bring you forth water out of this rock?” Then he smacked it with his walking stick and the water flowed. He didn’t even seem to notice that it was amazing.
God immediately chastized Moses complaining that Moses “believed not in Me, to sanctify Me” and as a consequence, he would never get to the promised land.
The usual explanation of Mose’s flaw is that he hit the rock with a stick instead of speaking to it and that this was disobedience. I think that’s wrong.
Not only does God actually say “believed not” and “sanctified” as the wrongdoing, but it is clear that Moses language allowed the people to believe that the miracle of the water was because he, Moses, was there to bring about God’s bounty. Moses used the term “we” when he announces the miracle.
In his speech, Moses said that the crucial flaw appears when one “waxed fat” and “forsook God”. The text makes clear that the meaning of “waxed fat” refers to the sense of entitlement that comes from being well fed, that at some point, people are inclined to accept God’s bounty as a given and give priority to other things that lead us away from God.
So Moses, at Meribeth-kadesh, had been running a big organization for a long time. He had repeatedly called on God for help and gotten it. He was used to being the central character in the story of the Israelites and their God. But then, he forgot about God and, thinking only of his role in asking for help, used “we” and didn’t give God credit for the miracles that sustain the people.
Sanctify means, among other things, give authority to. Moses did not give authority to God for saving the people from drought.
But yesterday at Yom Kippur services, we were told that God will forgive anything if we repent and make good. It can’t be that God would not forgive this incredibly loyal servant. So, what about this transgression makes Moses incapable of entering the promised land?
To figure that out, we need to consider the idea of ‘promised land’. A hundred times throughout the Torah it’s promised to the decendants of Abraham in one fashion or other. Most of the time it’s described vaguely as a homeland where things are going to be good. Often, though, there are more details and those tend to describe the things that God is going to do to insure that the people there are going to happily, peacefully be able to worship God, or, more practically, live a life that is consistent with God’s will.
Since the land is already there and God has already given it, what is needed from a person to for this dream to come true? The ability to keep God frontmost in your mind. Not to be distracted by other gods or, to extend the concept, not to allow other priorities to interfere with your ability to sanctify God. Without that, one can’t live in a manner consistent with God’s will because it’s not possible to separate His will from your own.
Moses demonstrated, at Meribeth-kadesh, that he was not able to do that.
Moses was not a bad guy, nor was he impious. He was the judaism’s great leader. At Meribeth-kadesh, he wasn’t thinking, “It’s all me and God doesn’t matter.” He was just being a person, doing the job of being a leader under stress. Trouble came, he turned to his divine resource, sought help and got it.
It is not a big flaw that he came to assume that God would help nor is it evil that he sort of came to feel like the reason that God was doing these miracles was because Moses was there to ask for them. Like many of us, he was doing his job well and when it was time to bring water out of a rock, well, he was the guy that went to God to make it happen. That he felt like it was his achievement, well, it’s not unreasonable.
But it’s a killer if you want to have the place you end up actually be the promised land. Even if he had crossed the Jordan, the promised land wouldn’t have fulfilled its promise because Moses, despite all his virtues, had come to the feeling that his job and his performance were a contribution to the happiness of his people that was comparable to that of God. Who made the water come? God wouldn’t have done it unless I asked, so it’s “we.”
And why is this so bad? Why can’t one achieve the ‘promise’ of the promised land if one is not able to put God above all else, all the time?
Personally, I am not figuring that God is going to be pouring water out of any rocks on my behalf anytime soon. I expect no manna to fall out of the sky. I don’t really expect God to be doing any physics experiments in my life. I do, however, believe that, to the extent that I live my life in a manner consistent with God’s will, I will have a better life for myself, my family and my community.
It’s not easy to do that in the modern age. We are led to believe that making money to support your family is the absolutely most important thing you can do. We think that making sure that our children are able to go to a good college is the sine qua non. It is suggested that our fulfillment as a person is closely related to our status at work and the excellence with which we perform our jobs. These are, of course, all good things and there are many others as well.
So the years go by and we do our jobs, just as Moses did. We achieve some level of success. We have some excellent children of which we are very proud. And we think, it’s a miracle that I am able to do these things. But, of course, we have to work very hard for long hours. We don’t really have time to get to Friday services. Not much time to do some volunteer work. Not much time to study Torah.
We know we have to prioritize and in our judgement, we just can’t do it all. We just don’t have the time to acknowlege the important things that we are told to do by God. Our focus on ourselves and the ‘other gods’ in our lives, cause us to feel lonely, to wonder if God is really there. In our family, accomplishments and friends, there are so many beautiful things, but we fail to recognize that they are miracles.
We live a life of prosperity and ease that the people in the Torah could never have conceived and yet the promise is not fulfilled. We are, somehow, not in the land of milk and honey. It’s not that God hasn’t made fulfillment available. It’s that we are not doing our part.
So, like so many others in the Bible, Moses is a slightly tragic figure. A hero that fell short so that we could learn a lesson. Moses, were he at Meribeth-kadesh today, would not merely have failed to thank God for the water, he would have failed to keep the Sabbath. He would not have realized that his success at work is because his parents taught him well. He would not have focused on his good fortune in having met a good wife and of having children that were healthy and kind.
He would have, to the extent that he reflected on these things, thought that they happened because he was hardworking and lucky, not because he was blessed by God with advantages. He wouldn’t recognize the miracle. Having gotten used to it, having taken it for granted, he would feel no joy. because he was used to miracles.
And that Moses of today would have been equally unable to find the promised land because he would have to make judgements about his successes and his failures, to adjudicate priorities, and always wonder if he was doing the right thing. Without sanctifying God, without ‘giving authority’ to God, he is left to his own devices and must evaluate his success and virtue on the teeny little scale that he invented himself.
But if he had been able to keep God foremost, if he had, if only I could avoid flirting with the gods of pleasure and sloth and status, then I could focus on my family, do tzedakah, comfort the bereaved, help the sick, keep faith with those that sleep in the dust. And I could do it safe in the knowledge that God had shown for 3500 years that these are the right things to do and that even if I don’t understand why or how it will work out, even if I have to go for a year or more without a job, even if I can’t always pay my bills, I can find joy in the miracles of a healthy family and wonderful friends and be confident that I am doing the right thing by doing God’s will because it is God’s will and, as Moses tells us in his final song, that is the path to the promised land.
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.]