Sunday, October 28, 2012

Between Speech and Silence (Portion Vayera)

There is—as Ecclesiastes teaches— a time to be silent and a time to speak.  Our challenge is to figure out which is the right response in any given situation.

Lately, I have been pondering the nature of silence.  On Sunday, I will leave for my annual five day retreat at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in New Mexico.  This is a place of intense quiet and stillness.  Words are few and far between.  The daily monastic liturgy of the hours is filled with intense silences, and the red rock cliffs that surround the abbey inspire a kind of hushed awe.  No one speaks after 7pm each night, and the communal meals are eaten in complete silence. 

When I am there, I am often struck by how much I love this stillness.  I am, after all, a rabbi, the representative of a tradition that places a premium on words.  In Genesis, God creates the world with language, and we, too, shape our worlds with the words that we speak. 

And speak we must.  As the AIDS activists in the 1980s reminded us, in the face of oppression, silence = death.  Secrecy is the breeding ground of complicity and evil.  As Louis Brandeis noted, sunlight—speech—is the best disinfectant.  We use language to create community, fight persecution, cement relationships, and establish our place in the world.

So when do we keep silence and when do we speak?  This question lies at the heart of our Torah portion for this week, Vayera.  It is filled with silences, both sacred and disquieting.  When Sarah hears that she will bear a child at ninety, she laughs inwardly—silently.   Lot’s wife, upon looking back at the destruction of her home in Sodom, is turned into an eternally silent pillar of salt.  Ishmael and Hagar are banished to the harsh, mute wilderness.  And most notably of all, Abraham binds Isaac to the altar and raises a slaughtering knife to his throat—and neither father nor son utters a word.  The same patriarch who argues fiercely with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah responds with stunning silence when God commands him to offer up his own child.

Torah and life are both full of complexity and paradox.  Silence does indeed equal death—but it also equals life.  It is both a primary cause of injustice and a source of strength and liberation.  Silence is the beginning of wisdom and the font of ignorance, the ladder to heaven and the highway to hell. 

May our times, of speech and of silence, be properly aligned, and may we gain insights into this delicate and difficult dance in the week ahead.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

You Must Go (Portion Lech L'chah)

One of my favorite musicians, John Hiatt, conjures the spirit of this week’s Torah portion in his song, “You Must Go”:

When that howling wind
Comes to carry you again
Just like your next of kin
You must go
To a far away place
Where you don’t recognize one face
Don’t unpack your old suitcase
Cause you must go

You must go and you must ramble
Through every briar and bramble
Till your life is in a shambles
Maybe then you will know
You were born to blunder
Born to wander, born to wonder
Even when you’re six feet under
There’s a place
You must go

“You must go. . .”  This is a good translation of the opening line of this week’s portion, Lech L’chah.    The Eternal calls Abraham and tells him, “You must go. . . from your homeland, your birthplace, your kin. . . and head out into the unknown, to the place that I will show you.”

Abraham heeds the command and goes forth, as does his wife Sarah.  This demonstrates remarkable courage.  Abraham leaves behind so much that he knows and loves: family and friends, familiar language and culture, plans and expectations for his future.  His ability to muster the faith to leave on the basis of a mysterious divine call is extraordinary.  And I find Sarah’s faith greater still, for she makes all of the same sacrifices as her husband—without having heard the call directly herself.

Yet Abraham and Sarah do not set out without any resources.  As the text tells us, they brought with them “ the souls that they had acquired in Haran.”  As Rabbi Yael Levy interprets this: Torah here reminds us that we don’t have to let go of everything in order to become more of ourselves.  We can lift up where we have been, we can call forth love, we can hold the resources we have gathered.  These practices can help us step forward into the paths of uncertainty.

We all have our “Abraham/Sarah moments.”  With almost every major challenge that we confront, whether planned (new job or school, relationship, move, having a child) or unplanned (illness, relationship, having a child), we essentially journey into the unknown.  We make our choices, but when we do, we are largely in the dark, without a clear understanding of what we are really getting ourselves into.  This is frightening for us, as it was for Abraham and Sarah.

But we do not journey alone.  As Rabbi Levy concludes:  The Mystery of the Universe is by our side, has our back and will be with us through the challenges and into the blessings.  The Mystery of the Universe will help us find our way again and again.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Closing (and Beginning) the Circle

Sometimes, you are closer to your destination than you might think.

In his wonderful book about the Days of Awe, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared, Rabbi Alan Lew recalls a lesson that he learned from the great Orthodox Rabbi Joseph Solovetchik.  He notes: “If you are moving along the circumference of a circle, it might seem at first as if the starting point is getting farther and farther away, but actually it is getting closer and closer.  The calendar year is such a circle.  On Rosh Hashanah, a new year begins, and every day is one day farther from the starting point; but every day is also a return, a drawing closer to the completion of the cycle.”

If one thinks of our fall holy day season as a kind of marathon, then Simchat Torah represents the finish line—and it is within sight.  After the preparation of the month of Elul, the introspection of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and the harvest festival of Sukkot, we at last arrive at a time of pure and unabashed joy.  We exhale a collective sigh of relief: we have been written and sealed in the Book of Life, the harvest is secure—and now, at last, we can celebrate.

We dance, we sing, we stomp and swirl and carry flags and Torah scrolls.   And amidst all this revelry, we welcome our newest students with a ceremony of consecration.  It is a raucous occasion; we’ve paid our dues and now it is time to party.  In the words of Rabbi Michael Strassfeld, “Simchat Torah celebrates a Torah of pure joy, a Torah without restrictions or sense of burden. . . It is a magical moment when all that exists are God and Torah and ourselves.  We throw ourselves into endless circles of dancing and become time lost.”

The circle is, indeed, the central image of the festival.  The Torah scroll circles back on itself, as we conclude the end of Deuteronmy and begin again with the Creation.
Our circle dances echo that circle of the text itself—and the circles that mark the journeys of our individual and communal lives.

Most marathons follow a circuit route: the finish and the starting lines are the same.  So, too, in so much of life: we end up, essentially, back where we began. 

But what matters is what we see and do along the way—the twenty six miles of the marathon, or whatever the years allotted to us.  “In the beginning” God creates the world.  At Torah’s end, Moses dies.  In between, in both the words and the spaces, life is lived.  And then God creates the world anew.  Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.

Chag sameach—a joyous end of Sukkot and Simchat Torah to all.