Sunday, April 4, 2021

Portion Shemini: Mindfulness/Muda'ut

Sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy; neither shall you defile yourselves with any manner of swarming thing that moves upon the earth.
  (Leviticus 11:44-5)

This week’s Torah portion, Shemini, is devoted in large part to the laws of kashrut.  The eleventh chapter of Leviticus is, essentially, a long list of permitted and forbidden foods.  For mammals and sea creatures, the criteria are clear: we can eat only animals with cloven hoofs that chew their cud, and fish that possess both fins and scales.  Reptiles and amphibians are prohibited, as are all insects except locusts.  Birds are handled on an individual basis, without any specific criteria, though birds of prey are generally prohibited.  Chicken is in; hawks, eagles, and owls are out.  

Interestingly, the Torah gives no rationale for any of this.  But long after the fact, countless sages and scholars have offered explanations for our tradition’s dietary laws.  These conjectures include health/hygiene, spiritual discipline, the preservation of Jewish identity, and a reminder that all of life is holy and eating the flesh of any once-living creature is a form of moral compromise.

I find varying degrees of merit in all of these conjectures but for me, the most compelling reason to keep kosher to some degree or another is that it can be a powerful practice of mindfulness.  When we pay full attention to what we eat—including where it came from and how it was produced—we transform a universal animalistic necessity into a sacred act.  

Mindful eating practices include traditional kosher laws, ethical considerations around the treatment of animals and human food service workers, and production and consumption choices that minimize our carbon footprint and counter catastrophic climate change.  By eating with intention and awareness—as Torah urges us to do—we increase the holiness in our lives and help to heal our broken world.

In the end, of course, we all make our own choices, and we should be careful not to be harshly judgmental of others. It is essential to recognize that on our collective Jewish journey, one’s chosen path is often not the same as one’s neighbors’.  But the choices that we make should be informed and well-considered. As Rabbi Kushner concludes; “I don’t know if God cares about what I eat, but I know that I feel closer to God when I care about what I eat.”


The Hebrew term from mindfulness—muda’ut—is a contemporary word based upon the ancient biblical term for knowingla-da’at.  To know something truly and deeply is to play close attention over a significant period of time.  To gulf down a hamburger from a fast food restaurant is the antithesis of such knowing; mindfulness in eating asks us to consider the sources of our food and to savor its flavor. 


Mussar Practice for this Week  

Pay real attention to what you eat.  Add a level of kosher and/or ethical awareness to your normal food consumption.  Offer a blessing or acknowledgment before or after eating.

Slow down and savor every bite.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Portion Tzav: Generosity/Nedivut

How do we live a life of gratitude?

This week’s Torah reading, Tzav, raises this question in an indirect but important manner.  The portion continues last week’s lengthy and detailed description of the sacrifices offered up by our Israelite ancestors.  Our focus this Shabbat is on a class of offerings known as shlamim—offerings of well-being.  In this list, the todah—the sacrifice of gratitude—stands out in one significant way.  Whereas other sacrifices of well-being may be eaten until the third day, "the flesh of [the] thanksgiving sacrifice of well-being shall be eaten on the day that it is offered; none of it shall be set aside until the morning" (Leviticus 7:15). Whatever is left over until the following morning must be destroyed.

What does the Torah have against leftovers?   Drawing on the commentator Isaac Abravanel, Rabbi Shai Held suggests that by requiring celebrants to finish the thanksgiving offering in one sitting, our portion encourages them to share the meal with friends and family.  He writes: 

The nature of gratitude is such that it is inherently outward-looking. When we are moved to the depths of our being by having been given something, we seek to become givers ourselves. A grateful heart overflows. The simple requirement that there not be any leftovers from the thanksgiving offering thus teaches us a fundamental theological and spiritual lesson. We are not meant to rest content with being recipients of God's gifts but are asked to becoming givers ourselves. God's gifts are meant to flow through us and not merely to us.

In other words, gratitude and hoarding are completely incompatible.  As one of my favorite prayers in our Reform siddur, Mishkan Tefilah adds: Teach us, O God, to give thanks for what we have by sharing it with others.


The Hebrew term from gratitude—hakarat ha-tov—translates as “recognizing the good.”  We experience myriad small acts of kindness every day, but we quickly tend to take them for granted.  We forget that, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, “just to be is a blessing.”  The trait of gratitude calls us to pay close attention to the gifts in our life, even—or especially—when we also experience difficulties.      

This coming Shabbat is known as Shabbat Ha-Gadol, the Shabbat before Pesach.  It’s fitting that we read about the gratitude offering, as Pesach asks that we open our homes and our hearts to others. “Let all who are hungry, come and eat.”  Indeed.  To be grateful is to share.


Mussar Practice for this Week  (from Every Day, Holy Day)

This week, make a special effort to thank every person who does even the slightest thing that is helpful or beneficial to you.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Portion Vayikra: Humility/Anavah

Every person should hold two truths, one in each pocket, and take them out according to the need of the moment.  One should say, “The world was created for my sake” and the other should say, “I am dust and ashes.”

        -R. Simcha Bunam

I have always loved this teaching but over the years, I have also come to realize that it is, like most Jewish wisdom, more complicated than it first appears.   The challenge is that the “need of the moment” is not always obvious and may, in fact, be paradoxical.  Someone who seems to be acting arrogantly—and therefore in need of the “dust and ashes” truth—may, in fact, be overcompensating for a deeply-rooted insecurity that actually calls for “the world was created for my sake.”  And sometimes when we find ourselves in the throes of depression, an awareness of our mortality—“dust and ashes”—can offer a perspective that is comforting, much like listening to the blues.  Knowing which truth to pull out at any given time is a fine—and essential—art.

This week’s Torah portion, which begins the book of Leviticus, opens with the word that bestows its name, Vayikra—God called.  It starts with the Holy One calling to Moses to teach him the laws that he will transmit to the Jewish people.  But there is an interesting anomaly in the way the word Vayikra is written in the Torah scroll.  The last letter, aleph, is inscribed in a small, undersized script, as if it were a sort of afterthought.

The Rabbis offer an abundance of commentary on this phenomenon but my favorite connects that aleph with the ego, as it is the first letter in the word anochi—“I” or “self.”  Like R. Simcha Bunam’s teaching, this reminds us that our ability to hear and respond to the call of the Divine depends on having our ego in proper proportion.  If we have too much ego, we are so full of ourselves that we leave no room for God (or anyone else).  If we have too little ego, we assume ourselves unworthy of being called in the first place, and shy away from the encounter.  We can only harken if we possess a strong sense of self that is balanced by compassion and genuine curiosity about others.  


The Mussar understanding of the trait of humility—anavah—echoes Simcha Bunam’s insight that when it comes to ego, either too much or too little is problematic.  As we noted when we covered this midah earlier, in the context of the story of Noah, it is important to avoid confusing humility with humiliation, which is all too common a mistake.  Being humble does not entail self-debasement; real humility is, instead, grounded in healthy self-esteem.  As with most midot, the goal is to maintain a proper equilibrium between arrogance and self-loathing.  Humility is about occupying the proper amount of space in one’s life: stepping up when called upon to do so, while also leaving room for others.  As the contemporary Mussar teacher Alan Morinis puts it in his beautiful book, Everyday Holiness: “No more than my space, no less than my space.”  If we wish to harken to the call of the Holy One and embrace the sacred mission it demands of us, we must find that balance between dust and divinity.    


Mussar Practice for this Week  (from Every Day, Holy Day)

This week, carry Rabbi Simcha Bunam’s two notes in your pocket: I am dust and ashes and the world was created for my sake.  As he suggests, take them out according to the need of the moment—and reflect carefully on which you choose each time, and why.

Monday, March 8, 2021

Portion Vayakhel-Pekude: Strength/Gevurah

According to all that the ETERNAL had commanded Moses, so the children of Israel did all the work.  Then Moses looked over all the work, and indeed they had done it; as the ETERNAL had commanded, just so they had done it. And Moses blessed them.

Countless commentators, both ancient and contemporary, have noted the literary links between the completion of the mishkan, the Israelites’ portable sanctuary-tent, described in the second part of this week’s double portion, Pekude, and the creation narrative in Genesis.  The mishkan is a microcosm, a world in miniature—a modest human echo of God’s grand design.

There is, however, a significant difference between the model and the thing itself.  With the mishkan, everything falls perfectly into place, exactly according to plan.  Later, even in the worst of times, when the Israelites rebel and fall and fail, this space remains a beautiful, safe, and secure shelter for the Divine Presence.   Would that this were true for the wider world!  As Rabbi Shai Held notes: “In reality - and according to the Torah itself - the world as we find it falls far short of God's hopes and expectations. Instead of a world in which human dignity is real, we live in a world in which barbarism and cruelty all too often rule the day, in which unspeakable suffering pervades every corner of the globe. . .”

So what do we make of the mishkan in a world so often gone awry?  Perhaps it is meant as a powerful and essential reminder of the way things were meant to be—and might yet become if we can learn to work together to create justice, compassion, and peace. As Professor Jon Levenson notes, the world is supposed to be just like the mishkan: "A place in which God’s holiness is palpable, unthreatened, and pervasive." 

It is hard work to repair what is broken in the world—and in ourselves as well.  Sometimes we need to take time to renew our vision of what we are working toward.  We seek havens—sanctuaries—that remind us what we are laboring to achieve and why it matters.  Our experience of God and sacredness in brief moments and small spaces can restore our dedication to the larger effort when our faith and courage might otherwise falter.


We turn—or return—to our chosen sanctuaries in space and time when we need to renew our spiritual batteries.  They help us replenish our midah of strength, known in Hebrew as gevurah. Time and again, psychological studies have demonstrated that we grow best when we focus on developing our strengths rather than repairing our weaknesses.  As Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz recognized a century ago, “Woe to those who are not aware of their defects, and who do not know what they must correct.  But much worse off are those who do not know their strengths, and who are therefore unaware of the tools they must work with to advance themselves spiritually.”
This week, consider: What are your strengths? When and where do you find sanctuaries in space and time that replenish those strengths when they are drawn down?  And how do you best employ those strengths to help bring the world as it is closer to the vision of what it might yet become?


Mussar Practice for this Week  (from The Mussar Torah Commentary)
Identify people and situations where your unique strengths will bring others both help and an added measure of wholeness.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Portion Terumah: Generosity/Nedivut

Make for me a sacred place, so that I may dwell within you.     (Exodus 25:8)

Research in the field of positive psychology over the last two decades that it truly is better to give than to receive.  In a study published in the journal Science, psychologist Elisabeth Dunn gave envelopes containing money to her students at the University of British Columbia and told them that by day’s end, they had to either spend the money on something they wanted or purchase a gift for someone else.  When Dunn interviewed the students later, the results were clear: those who gifted others were significantly happier than those who kept the money for themselves.

In this week’s Torah portion, Terumah, God asks the Israelites to donate materials for the construction of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary that they will carry through the desert for the next forty years.  God tells Moses: “Accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves them.”  The people respond with extraordinary generosity, bringing forth beautiful fabrics, tanned skins, fine wood, oil for lighting, precious stones and, above all, gold, which will be used to cast the sacred vessels.

Why does God request such offerings?  Lest one think that the Holy One needs a luxurious dwelling place, the Rabbis point to the wording of Exodus 25:8: “Let them make for me a sacred place, so that I may dwell among them.”  God does not ask for a sanctuary in order to dwell in it; instead, God suggests that through the building process—which invokes the people’s generosity—God will dwell among them.

In other words, God asks for our gifts because God knows that the very act of giving opens the heart of the giver and thus creates the possibility of intimacy.  When we share what we have with others, we raise ourselves in holiness, for the name of the portion, Terumah—meaning “a donation”—comes from a Hebrew root for “to lift up.”  Through giving, we draw upon our own higher angels and invite the Divine into our lives.

In other words, it really is better—healthier and holier—to give than to receive.


The character trait of generosity is known in Hebrew as nedivut, which refers to an openness of heart that moves us to share what we have with others.  The cultivation of this quality is an essential Mussar practice.  The founder of the movement, Rabbi Israel Salanter taught that “the spiritual is higher than the physical, but the physical needs of another are an obligation of my spiritual life.”  We heal our own souls by bearing the burden of others and sharing what we have with those who are in need.  As Alan Morinis notes in Every Day, Holy Day:

The heart gives freely when it realizes that it is not a separate and isolated entity, but rather belongs to larger wholes.  Giving comes easily to such a heart because it experiences no rupture between the one who gives and the one who receives.  Generosity by its nature draws closer the giver and the receiver, until ultimately there is neither “me” nor “you,” but only love.


Mussar Practice for this Week (from Every Day, Holy Day)

Begin each morning with the phrase: The generous heart gives freely

Then try to do three generous acts per day: one with your money, one with your time, one with your caring.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Portion Mishpatim: Order/Seder

These are the rules that you shall set before them.  
                (Exodus 21:1)

Jewish wisdom does not follow a partisan political platform.  While my personal politics incline (mostly) toward progressivism, I recognize that our tradition offers its share of teachings and opinions that echo the ideology of classic conservatism. Judaism is too old and vast to follow any single party line; look closely and within our sacred texts you can find a vast array of views that include radicalism, moderation, socialism, capitalism, and almost everything in between.  

There is, however, one perspective that is noteworthy in its absence: anarchy. This attitude, which asserts that the best government is, essentially, no government at all, is often where the far left and far right meet. We don’t see it in our Jewish tradition because it is anathema to the very foundation of our culture.  Jewish life is built upon the rule of law—a system of mitzvot, of legal and ethical obligations. Long before Thomas Hobbes described life without government as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” our Sages taught: “Pray for the welfare of the government—for without proper respect for governmental authority, people would swallow one another alive.”  It is worth noting that the government under which the Rabbis lived was hardly benign. They endured brutally oppressive Roman rule—yet they still saw this as a better alternative than anarchy.  Our Sages would have been deeply shaken—as we all should be—by the anarchic (and not coincidentally anti-Semitic) takeover of the US Capitol just a few weeks ago.

For Jews, law makes life possible, and, at its best, it raises us up as individuals and communities.  At every level—from families to neighborhoods to synagogues to nations—just laws create and maintain just societies.  In our culture, we insist that belief follows behavior.  To change your beliefs and suppositions, you start by changing what you do in the world.  And the best way to change behavior is to change the law.  To offer an example dear to my heart: If we want to create justice for our state’s LGBTQ community, you don’t say: “We’ll add the words after we teach everyone to love one another.”  Instead, we slowly, imperfectly—but inexorably—teach love by making it the law, even for those who don’t (yet) love.

This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, is at heart a collection of laws dealing with an eclectic assortment of topics, civil and criminal and ritual, holy and mundane.  At first, it seems a far cry from the spiritual heights of last week’s parshah, where God speaks to the Israelites from Mount Sinai.  But since, for the Jewish people, law is love and life, these legal matters are of utmost spiritual significance.  


In the Mussar tradition, the opposite of anarchy and chaos is the midah of seder, meaning spiritual order.  The significance of this character trait can be gleaned from the Hebrew word, which lends its name to both the order of the Passover meal and the siddur, the prayer book that contains the “order” of our daily and holiday liturgy.  As Alan Morinis notes in Everyday Holiness, Mussar is a practical discipline that draws upon this trait, and sees it as essential to both functional daily life and divine service.  Chaos is an impediment to a meaningful, intentional life; order helps make this path possible.  Morinis concludes: “Order helps create an inner sense that the things that matter have been properly arranged and tended to and, as a result, that the details of life are under control. Calm and unworried, at that point the channels to the divine will are open and unencumbered as they can get, and the possibility of serving—and happiness---will have become real for you."


Mussar Practice for this Week (from Every Day, Holy Day)
Begin each morning with the phrase: First things first and last things later
Then try to set one thing in order every day this week.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Portion Beshallach: Honor/Kavod

Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Holy One—They said: “I will sing to the Holy One, who has triumphed gloriously! God has hurled horse and driver into the sea!”
(Exodus 15:1)

At the time (of the destruction of the Egyptian at the Sea of Reeds) the ministering angels desired to recite a song before God.  But the Holy One said to them: My creatures are drowning in the sea, and you are reciting a song before Me? Apparently, God is not gladdened by the downfall of the wicked. Rabbi Yossi bar Chanina says: God does not rejoice in their downfall, but God does allow others to express joy.                                    (Talmud, Sanhedrin 39b)

How do we respond to the demise of our enemies?  

This week’s Torah portion, Beshallach, raises this ever-relevant question and refrains from offering simplistic answers.

Many of us know the midrash where God rebukes the angels for singing as the Egyptians drown in the Red Sea; it is featured in many of our Pesach seders, cited as we take ten drops of wine from our cup to remember each of the plagues, a reminder that our joy at liberation should be diminished by the suffering of others.  But this is only half of the story—for while God does silence the angels, God does not object to the Israelites’ victory song, which revels in the death of our oppressors.  Indeed, God seems to take pleasure as we chant triumphantly, “They went down into the depths like a stone!”  Liberal Jews tend to focus on the angels’ silence much more than our ancestors’ song.  The idea of rejoicing in the death of our enemies embarrasses us, because it feels primitive and violent.  Yet I believe it is wrong to completely ignore or deny the joy we feel when our adversaries fall.  


In the Musssar Torah Commentary, Rabbi Nancy Wechlser ponders the events at the Red Sea as a reflection upon the midah of honor, which is known in Hebrew as kavod.  She writes: “It seems that our tradition is of two minds when it comes to kavod.  On the one hand, we are commanded to celebrate our redemption from our enemies, which we might call “kavod to self.”  At the same time, we are commanded to feel empathy for other human beings—including our enemies—and lift them up with kavod, too, that is “honoring others.”  We live with this dichotomy.  If we are not happy that evil has been punished, then we do not care enough; but if we are not sad at the loss of life, then our humanity is weakened.”  To rejoice is to honor our own commitments and high ideals.  To temper our rejoicing is to honor every human being as intrinsically due a sense of dignity.


In the chapters on honor in his book Every Day, Holy Day, Alan Morinis offers the key phrase/affirmation: Each one, holy soul.  It would be nice if the phrase read, Each good one, holy soul.  But as Morinis notes, every human being is created in the image of God and therefore worthy of some measure of honor—including our adversaries.  Indeed, this is the real challenge with kavod.  It’s relatively easy to honor people that we love and respect; the true test lies in learning to honor those whose actions cause us grief.  We should fight hard for our own highest ideals, and we are not required to our enemies—for we are not angels—but we should strive to remember that they, too, are children of the Holy One, and honor them accordingly.

Mussar Practice for this Week  (from The Mussar Torah Commentary)
Give kavod/honor to someone without expectation to receive in return.  Give honor to a person with whom you do not have an easy relationship.  Notice what happens.