Thursday, April 28, 2011

Always Fresh

While most of this week’s Torah portion, Emor, deals with the cycle of holy days, a section at the end deals with the subject that dominates the book of Leviticus: priestly offerings. Thus the text teaches: “You shall take choice flour and bake it into twelve loaves . . . Place them on a pure table before the Eternal One in two rows, six to a row.” These loaves—one for each of the twelve tribes—were known as lechem panim, often translated as “shewbread” since they were baked for display rather than eating.

Unlike many of the offerings, which were repeated daily, these loaves were replaced just once a week. With this in mind, the Talmud notes: “A great miracle was performed with the shewbread, for when it was removed it was as fresh as it had been when it was set out" (Menachot 29a). To which Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the 19th century founder of modern Orthodoxy, adds: “These Talmudic words are not to be taken literally. They convey the idea that the sanctuary was immune from the boredom and habit that afflict many religious institutions. Rituals did not grow stale or obsolete there.”

The commentary here points to a classic tension in Jewish tradition, between keva—that which is fixed and traditional, in text and ritual—and kavvanah, which is the spirit of spontaneity and focused intention. Much of Judaism is about following standardized practices; the challenge is to do so while still maintaining vitality.

Of course this is true in many, many areas of our lives: our jobs, our parenting, our relationships. We are, in significant ways, creatures of routine—and we need the order and stability that our set routines bring. Who would want a life with no anchors, with no set patterns? At the same time, we must take care to avoid falling into ruts, where we simply go through the motions with no real passion or intensity. We need both: the fixed and the fresh, keva and kavvanah.

And both are embodied in this season of spring. It is a time of renewal, of spontaneity and joy. Yet part of that joy comes from understanding that spring’s rebirth is itself part of an on-going fixed cycle. We take comfort in the knowledge that spring follows winter, and that summer will follow spring.

A challenge: as you go through the week, consider which aspects of your daily schedule are routine and which are new and varied. See if you can bring a little more intention to that which is routine. How can you act more consciously in your relationships and in your Jewish life? In other words, how can you be more like the shewbread—constant and reliable, yet ever fresh and new?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Kedoshim: Letting Go of Resentment

This week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, marks the halfway point of the Torah cycle, and it stands at the center of the text both geographically and metaphorically. The nineteenth chapter of Leviticus contains many of the best-known moral imperatives from our tradition. It commands us to strive for holiness, keep Shabbat, care for the poor, and honor the stranger in our midst. It is also the source of the famous teaching: “Love your neighbor as yourself (v’ahavta l’rayechah camochah).

The words immediately preceding that “Golden Rule” are less widely recognized but of equal importance: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your people.” This implies that in order to love our neighbor, we must be willing to forgive their wrongdoings and not dwell on past hurts. Of course, this is much easier said than done. We tend to remember every time people hurt or slight us, much more vividly than we recall their acts of lovingkindness on our behalf. This propensity to dwell on old injuries and injustices can easily lead to an obsession with victimhood and an inability to move forward in our lives.

Recognizing this difficulty, Maimonides notes: “The desire for revenge is a very bad trait and we must do our best to relinquish it. One way is to realize that many things that prompt our wrath are vanity and emptiness and are not worth seeking revenge for.” To which the contemporary teacher and counselor Rabbi Abraham Twerski adds: “Carrying resentments is like letting someone whom you don’t like live inside your head rent-free. Why would anybody allow that?”

It is no accident that we read Kedoshim, with its injunction against grudge-bearing and vengeance, in this season of spring, in the aftermath of Pesach. The rebirth and renewal in the natural world reminds us that we, too, can start anew in our personal relationships. And the Passover festival encourages us to leave the narrow places of heart and spirit that are our Egypts, our Mitzrayim. Our journey to freedom starts with getting those destructive rent-free tenants out of our heads.

May the end of Pesach and the week to come bring blessing, reconciliation and rejuvenation to us all.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

An Only Kid

At many Passover seders, the most oft-repeated line is: “When do we eat?”
There is even a movie called “When Do We Eat?” that features the fictional—and very dysfunctional—family of Ira and Peggy Stuckman. They gather to celebrate “the world’s fastest seder,” ending with a meal that is “kosher enough for Moses” (see We get the gag because we’ve all been there.

And yet, beneath the laughter there is a profound sadness. On a night defined by so many wonderful questions, this one is a travesty, even when uttered half (or more than half) jokingly. If our ancestors could wander for forty years in the desert before arriving at the Promised Land, we can surely make it a few hours before the brisket arrives. “When do we eat?” turns the extraordinary story of our people’s liberation into an obstacle standing in the way of a nosh. Pesach is all about telling that story. The meal is, essentially, incidental, just one more prop in the unparalleled pedagogical drama that is the seder.

Our sages taught: “In every generation, it is incumbent upon us to see ourselves as if we, too, went out from Egypt.” Pesach is not about remembering the distant past; it is about re-experiencing that past in the present time. It is not the story of our ancestors long ago; it is our story. Our challenge is to consider what enslaves us—anything and everything from money to technology to stale habits—and find ways to free ourselves from those burdens. The Hebrew word for Egypt, mitzrayim, means “a narrow place.” This spring festival of deliverance is the time of our own liberation, an opportunity to renew ourselves.

So this year, don’t ask, “When do we eat?” Savor the journey rather than kvetching your way to the destination. Raise other, better questions: “What can I do to change the world this year? What still enslaves me? How can I help hasten the redemption of others still in bondage?”

It’s not about the food. It’s about the freedom—and finding yourselves in the pages of the haggadah.

For more, see one of my favorite poems, by the early Israeli poet Natan Alterman, below.

The Kid of the Haggadah

There in the market place, bleating among the billy goats and nannies,
Wagging his thin little tail—as thin as my finger—
Stood the Kid—downcast, outcast, the leavings of a poor man’s house,
Put up for sale without a bell, without even a ribbon, for just a couple of cents.

Not a single soul in the market paid him any attention,
For no one knew—not even the goldsmith, the sheep-shearer—
That this lonesome little Kid would enter the Haggadah
And his tale of woe become a mighty song.

But Daddy’s face lit up,
He walked over to pat the Kid’s forehead—and bought him.
And so began one of those songs
That people will sing for all history.

The Kid licked Daddy’s hand,
Nuzzled him with his wet little nose;
And this, my brother, will make the first verse of the song:
An only Kid, an only Kid, my father bought for two zuzim.
It was a spring day, and the breezes danced;
Young girls winked and giggled, flashed their eyes;
While Daddy and the Kid walked into the Haggadah
To stand there together—small nose in large hand, large hand on small nose.

To find in the Haggadah—
So full already of miracles and marvels—
A peaceful place on the last page,
Where they can hug each other and cling to the edge of the story.

And this very haggadah whispers,
“Join us. . . you’re welcome here. . . you belong,
Among my pages full of smoke and blood,
Among the great and ancient tales I tell.”

So I know the sea was not split in vain,
Deserts not crossed in vain—
If at the end of the story stand Daddy and the Kid
Looking forward and knowing their turn will come.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Elijah and the Promise of Spring

Why is this coming Shabbat different from all other Shabbats (except—sort of—one in the fall)?

For much of Jewish history, rabbis only delivered two sermons per year. One of those occasions was this Shabbat, immediately preceding Pesach, which is known as Shabbat HaGadol—the Great Sabbath. The other was Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

There are some significant parallels between these two special Shabbats. Both mark seasons of unique spiritual power, with the promise of reward and liberation. Indeed, in biblical times, the new year was celebrated in this spring month of Nisan; the Rabbis later moved it to the autumn month of Tishrei with Rosh Hashanah. Thus Shabbat HaGadol and Shabbat Shuvah are, in a sense, bookends. They help us prepare to properly enter the two pivotal periods of the Jewish year.

But there are also significant differences between these two holy days and the seasons that they introduce. The Days of Awe in the fall are essentially times of judgment and introspection. We take a spiritual accounting of ourselves and stand before the True Judge. Pesach, by contrast, is about turning outward, toward the wider world. The name of this month, Nisan, means “bud.” This is a season of flowering and renewal. As Rabbi Jill Hammer notes in The Jewish Book of Days: “This is a different kind of rebirth than the one at Rosh Hashanah; this is a birth that draws us out of ourselves.” In the fall, we pray for rain—which Jewish tradition always depicts as a sign of God’s favorable judgment upon our deeds. In the spring, beginning at Pesach, we thank God for dew, which is a symbol of divine mercy—for we enjoy its blessings as a gift of grace, without regard for our worthiness.

These aspects of spring’s unique promise: grace, budding, outward turning toward nature and community—are evident in the special haftarah reading for Shabbat HaGadol. At the end of this passage, from the book of Malachi, the prophet reassures us of the power of God’s love as expressed in the restoration and repair of our most precious relationships: “I will send the prophet Elijah. . . and he will turn the hearts of the parents to the children and the hearts of the children to the parents.” I love this image, with its beautiful promise of healing and hope that is so much in keeping with this spring season.

This week, as Shabbat HaGadol approaches, consider: as you prepare to welcome Elijah at seder next Monday, how can you strengthen your relationships with family, friends, and community?