Sunday, March 24, 2019

Shemini (Casimir Pulaski Day)

A fire came forth from God and consumed [Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu]; thus they died at the instance of the Eternal.  Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what God meant in saying, ‘Through those near to Me, I show myself holy and gain glory before all the people.’”

And Aaron was silent.
(Leviticus 10:2-3)

All the glory that the Lord has made
And the complications when I see His face
In the morning in the window
All the glory when he took our place
But he took my shoulders and he shook my face
And he takes and he takes and he takes
                        (Sufjan Stevens, “Casimir Pulaski Day”)

As Ecclesiastes reminds us, there is a time to for speech and a time for silence.  The challenge is to figure out which response is best in any given situation—particularly in times of trauma and tragedy.

This challenge is at the heart of our Torah portion for this week, Shemini.  Aaron suffers the ultimate heartbreak when his two sons, Nadav and Avihu are instantly killed by a mysterious fire from God while offering incense on the altar.  Upon hearing of this calamity, Moses attempts to comfort his brother.  He offers a rambling—even incoherent— explanation for his nephews’ inexplicable deaths: “This is what God meant when God said, ‘Through those that are near to Me, I will be sanctified, and before all the people, I will be glorified.’”

Not surprisingly, this lame speech does not console Aaron.  His response is telling: Va-yidom Aharon—“Aaron was silent.”  In the immediate aftermath of tragedy, we don’t want explanations, excuses or diatribes—even if they are well-intentioned.  What Aaron needs from his brother is a silent, loving presence.  In such situations, words always fall short.  Explanations fail because there are no explanations.  Sometimes good people suffer and die without any justification whatsoever to ameliorate the pain of those who loved them.  We best understand and acknowledge this reality with compassionate silence.

In Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar wisely advises: “Do not appease your fellow in the time of his anger, nor comfort him while his dead lies before him.”   Our tradition’s laws of bereavement stipulate, accordingly, that when making a shiva call, the visitor should not speak until the mourner speaks first.  As Blu Greenberg notes, The halachah enjoining the comforting visitor to hold back in silence serves a function: to caution against offering a rationale for the decree of death.  The deeper human religious response is to be silent, to live with the contradiction, and to affirm that we need not force meaning into tragedy.  Sometimes, the deepest response of love is to be silent.”

In social justice matters, it has often been noted that silence implies consent.  Failing to speak out against oppression perpetuates the injustice.  But in personal matters, especially in the aftermath of heartbreak and calamity, excessive chatter is only a reflection of our own discomfort.  In these situations, loving silence is often the best balm for the pain. 


Sufjan Stevens offers a heart-achingly poignant story of death and silence that echoes the emotion of this week’s portion in his song “Casimir Pulaski Day.”

He opens with two responses to the news that a good friend has been diagnosed with a terminal case of leukemia.  Stevens brings her a couple of sentimental objects; the patient’s father weeps, torn with remorse and grief:

Goldenrod and the 4H stone
The things I brought you
When I found out you had cancer of the bone
Your father cried on the telephone
And he drove his car into the navy yard
Just to prove that he was sorry

As the song unfolds, Stevens—a serious practicing Christian—raises the omnipresent question that confronts believers in the face of tragedy: Why doesn’t God respond to our petitions for healing:

Tuesday night at the Bible study
We lift our hands and pray over your body
But nothing ever happens

The songwriter’s relationship with the dying young woman and her family is erotically-charged and complicated.  Her loss of innocence is also his own, and it creates tension with her parents.  But when she dies, everyone is simply overwhelmed with grief.  As in the aftermath of the death of Aaron’s sons, here, too, there is an immensely heavy silence.  The songwriter concludes with his anguish over what he sees as God’s role in this inexplicable loss:

In the morning when you finally go
And the nurse runs in with her head hung low
And the cardinal hits the window. . . 

All the glory that the Lord has made
And the complications when I see His face
In the morning in the window
All the glory when he took our place
But he took my shoulders and he shook my face
And He takes and he takes and he takes

This last line is devastating: He takes and he takes and he takes

God takes and takes and takes—to our horror and dismay.  Neither Aaron nor Sufjan Stevens tries to defend him.   The words echo, then there is only the painfully, beautifully poignant instrumental music—and after the music, the silence. 

When the song ends, there is nothing, really, to say. 

Only tears. 

To hear Casimir Pulaski Day, from Sufjan Stevens’ record Illinoise:

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Tzav (Age of Miracles)

We must have confidence that each day will produce its own miracle
            (Rebbe Yitzchak Meir Alter of Ger)

Seems we’re just standing still
One day we’ll ride up that hill
In the age of miracles
There’s one on the way
            (Mary Chapin Carpenter, The Age of Miracles)

Amongst the many sacrifices described in this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, we find a detailed description of the todah—the offering of thanksgiving.  Individuals brought this sacrifice to express their gratitude.  Rashi suggests that occasions for the todah include safe completion of a sea or desert journey, deliverance from captivity, and recovery from a severe illness.  Today, when we no longer offer sacrifices, we mark such passages with our modern equivalent, the gomel blessing, a public expression of thanksgiving proclaimed during the Shabbat morning Torah service.

One of the great nineteenth century Hasidic teachers, Rebbe Yitzchak Meir Alter of Ger, comments on our portion’s insistence (in Leviticus 7:15) that the todah be consumed on the same day that it is sacrificed.  For the Gerer Rebbe this teaches:  We must have confidence that each new day will produce its own miracle.  Therefore, the feast celebrating a miraculous event should be confined to one day and not extended into the next.  Tomorrow will bring its own miracle.

This is a lovely expression of faith, but it does not seem to square with a another Talmudic principal: “Do not rely on miracles.”  Our Sages worried that the anticipation of Divine marvels could easily diminish our human efforts to heal our broken world.  Our tradition unequivocally obligates us to do tzedakah and feed the hungry, rather than praying that God miraculously shower down food for all who need.

So how do we reconcile these two teachings?  Is it possible to live with faith that each new day will provide its own miracles while avoiding the temptation to rely on them?

I think this depends upon how we define the word “miracle.”  If we equate the term with showy supernatural events like the parting of the Red Sea, then we should never depend on—or even expect—miracles.  But if we shift the context and redefine the miraculous as a product of our own sense of wonder, then we should anticipate them daily, from the sunrise that greets our wakening to the immense starry sky at night.   To return to my earlier example, while we must not look to God to feed the hungry, we can give thanks for the marvel of growing things—and share our bounty with those in need.

This week, like last, I turn to one of my favorite musicians, Mary Chapin Carpenter.  Her song “Age of Miracles” inspires gratitude and hope in challenging times. 

She begins by harkening back to childhood, when we are naturally filled with wonder:

The past comes upon you like smoke in the air
You can smell it and find yourself gone
To a place that you lived without worry or care
Isn’t that where we all once came from?

Green leaves and tall trees and stars overhead
And the sound of the world through the screen

But as we grow older and more anxious, our view of the world changes.  It feels dark and dangerous out there, and we slip into cynicism:

Now you sleep with the covers pulled over your head
And you never remember to dream. . .

Thousand-year storms seem to form on a breeze
Drowning all living things in their paths
When a small southern town finds a rope in a tree
We’re all once again trapped in the past

Following Bruce Springsteen’s playbook, Carpenter gives voice to despair in the verses, then returns to hope in the chorus:

It seems we’re just standing still
One day we’ll get up that hill
In the age of miracles
There’s one on the way

In the next verse, she notes the enormous gap between our culture’s technological and moral progress:

We can fly through space with the greatest of ease
We can land in the dust of the moon
We can transform our lives with the tap of the keys
Still we can’t shake this feeling of doom

But Carpenter does shake the feeling of doom, as she watches myriads of monks marching in support of Myanmar’s 2007 Saffron Revolution:

I woke to see monks pouring into the streets
Marching thousands strong into the rain
Now if courage comes dressed in red robes and bare feet
I will never be fearful again

She ends with the chorus, affirming that we live in the age of miracles—if and when we are able to envision the world this way, and work together toward that vision:

Seems we’re just standing still
One day we’ll ride up that hill
In the age of miracles
There’s one on the way

The organ swells, the guitars soar, and the music takes us out, certain that in this age of miracles, there really is one on the way.

To hear Mary Chapin Carpenter and her band performing “Age of Miracles”: