Sunday, February 26, 2012

Getting by Giving (Portion Tetzaveh)

Torah trivia question for this week: What is unique about this week’s portion, Tetzaveh?

Answer: It is the only one from the beginning of Exodus until the end of Deuteronomy in which Moses is not mentioned by name.

Of course in good Jewish fashion, this “answer” only prompts more questions. First and foremost: Why is Moses’ name and voice absent from this parashah? Our Sages point out that the traditional date of Moses’ death, the 7th of Adar, always falls during the week when Tetzaveh is read. As Rabbi Harold Kushner notes, many commentators see Moses’ absence from the Torah reading, like his virtual absence from the Passover haggadah, as part of an effort to ensure that the people would not idolize him at God’s expense.

I, however, prefer another line of interpretation, which starts with the recognition that the real “stars” of this week’s portion are Moses’ brother Aaron and his sons. They are designated to serve God as the priests—kohanim—who will offer the sacrifices and administer the rites in the portable sanctuary that will accompany the Israelites through their wanderings. Thus most of Tetzaveh describes the splendid priestly vessels and vestments in intricate detail.

But before Aaron and his sons can assume their duties, they must be installed by none other than Moses himself. For the full course of the week-long installation ceremony, Moses gets to serve as the priest. Then he must personally hand over the reins of the priesthood to his brother and nephews, dressing them himself in the holy garments and ordaining them with great pomp and pageantry.

At that moment, Moses had good reason to be jealous of Aaron. Surely it would be understandable if he coveted this honor and longed to pass it along to his own sons. Yet the Rabbis tell us that Moses felt only pure joy in surrendering this sacred task to his brother and his descendants. In their commentaries, they suggest that this is the real reason Moses is not mentioned by name in Tetzaveh; this absence teaches that he subsumed his own ego in order to fully rejoice in Aaron’s success.

It can be very difficult for us to take pleasure in the accomplishments of others. All too often, we act as if their success must somehow come at our expense. We begrudge the love and recognition that our friends and neighbors receive, believing that their gain is our loss.

Moses teaches just how wrong-headed this path really is. One of our greatest and most important challenges in life is to emulate his humility, and learn to celebrate the achievements of those around us. As Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes, the fundamental challenge that confronts us all on the road to adulthood is precisely this: “To learn that it is good for you when other people love other people besides you. That I have a stake in their love. That I get more when others give to others. That if I hoard it, I lose it. That if I give it away, I get it back.”

May this week bring us many opportunities to grow by subsuming our own egos and rejoicing in the honor accorded to others.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Coming Down (portion Mishpatim)

Several years ago, an old controversy was rekindled when climbers found the body of George Mallory buried beneath the ice on the north face of Mt. Everest. A broken altimeter in his shirt pocket suggested that Mallory may have reached the summit before dying on the descent. If so, he would have been the first man to stand atop the world’s highest peak, beating Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay to this feat by twenty-nine years.

But when news of this discovery reached Hillary, then 79 years old, he remained remarkably unperturbed. With the cool understatement of a British peer, Sir Edmund told a television reporter, “Coming down is also important.”

So, too, for each of us. We all experience peak moments when the adrenaline rush seems to carry us along. These can occur in either triumphant or tragic times, but they are almost always intensely spiritual experiences that, as they are happening, feel profoundly life-changing. Upon surviving a heart attack or having a baby, we swear our lives will never be the same and vow that from that point on, we will do things differently, get our priorities straight, give our focused attention to what really matters most. Sometimes we stay the course—but more often, after a bit of time passes, we lapse back into our old ways. We make our resolutions sincerely—yet we struggle when the peak moments recede into memory. We make it to the mountaintop, but we falter coming down.

This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, is all about coming down. It addresses the stuff that happens when the revelation ends and the adrenaline rush wears off. Last week, in Yitro, we experienced the high and holy moment when we heard God’s voice from atop Mt. Sinai. Now, with Mishpatim, we get the practical, mundane guidelines on how to behave the other 99% of the time: laws on marriage, employment, lost property, and finance. We go, in short, from the awesome to the banal—as indeed, we always must. Weddings and births are big occasions, but the real work lies in sustaining marriages and raising children, and it is done through thousands of little ordinary choices and small feats of endurance. Both God and the devil are, truly, found in the details.

This is at the core of our tradition’s approach to life. We dare not squander the time waiting for the next peak moment. Mountaintops are rare—but the descent lasts a lifetime. May we find meaning and holiness in the ordinary acts that, taken together, add up to the sum of our lives. Like Sir Edmund Hillary, let’s remember: “Coming down is also important.”

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Sheryl Crow Teaches the Tenth Commandment (Portion Yitro)

What is the most commonly violated teaching in the entire Torah? I think one could make a very good case for the last of the Ten Commandments, as found in this week’s portion, Yitro: “You shall not covet” (I write this in the immediate aftermath of three hours’ worth of Super Bowl ads, for which corporations spend millions of dollars precisely in order to induce us to covet—and purchase—their products).

Why is this so injunction so difficult? With very few exceptions, the Torah offers guidelines for our behavior. Thus the commandments which precede this one address, among other things: keeping Shabbat, respecting one’s parents, and avoiding idolatry, theft, murder, false witness, and adultery. Then, suddenly, we get that rare exception in which our tradition seems to legislate against thoughts and feelings. How is this even possible? Do we really control the storms of emotion and desire that flood our hearts and minds? Shouldn’t it be our actions—rather than our thoughts—that finally matter? What harm are covetous feelings if we do not act upon them?

One answer to this puzzle begins with the recognition that in our Jewish tradition, we do not actually use the Christian term “Ten Commandments”; we refer to them as Aseret Ha-Dibrot, the Ten Utterances. With this in mind, the tenth utterance may not be a commandment at all. Instead of translating “Lo Tachmod” as the imperative “You shall not covet,” we might instead read it as a statement: “You will not covet.” In other words, as my colleague, Rabbi Mark Glickman puts it, if you sincerely observe the first nine teachings--honor your parents, celebrate Shabbat, show fidelity to your spouse, take only what is yours, and all of the others—then you won’t be so tempted to want what you do not have. In the words of Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (born in Prague around 1565): “ If your heart be filled to overflowing with the love of God, it is impossible that it would covet anything from among all the beautiful things of this world, for then there is no place in the heart that would desire or covet anything at all. It is like a full cup, unable to receive any more.”

There is much wisdom here. How do we deal with our culture’s incessant calls to covetousness, to craving all manner of consumer goods and services? By learning to truly value what we already have, savoring the blessings in our lives rather than obsessing about what we lack. As Pirkei Avot teaches: “Who is happy? One who rejoices in his or her portion?”

Or, to quote a more contemporary source, in the words of Sheryl Crow: “It’s not having what you want; it’s wanting what you’ve got.”