Monday, October 29, 2018

Narrow Bridge (After Pittsburgh)

In the wake of Saturday’s tragedy, I offer a special chapter of e-Torah rather than the usual consideration of the weekly portion.  We’ll resume that endeavor next week.  I am still choosing to focus on a song to inspire further reflection.

“All the world is a narrow bridge.  The main thing is to go on, despite our fear.”
                        -Rebbe Nachman of Breslov

Terrorists like the Pittsburgh shooter Robert Bowers feed on hatred.  Their evil purpose is to murder and maim—and in so doing, to instill fear.  They do not want us to feel safe in our synagogues and schools, and, alas, their malevolent intentions often bear fruit.  As the old Yiddish saying goes, Shver tzu zein a Yid—it has always been hard to be a Jew.  After this past Shabbat, it has gotten yet a little harder.  As we wrote to you then, your CABI board and staff are listening and learning more about how we can minimize the risks and bolster our security while remaining the warm and welcoming congregation that we’ve long taken deep pride in being.

At the same time, we should hold fast to Rebbe Nachman’s famous teaching.  The world is a very narrow bridge—and it is our Jewish calling to resist the temptation to yield to the fear sown by evil men.  As we say when we finish a book of Torah: Chazak, chazak v’nitchazek—Let us be strong and strengthen one another.

Over the last couple days, I have found both comfort and courage in the song Narrow Bridge by Nefesh Mountain, the Jewish old time and bluegrass band fronted by Doni Zasloff and Eric Lindberg, who joined us at our Shabbat retreat in McCall just a few years ago.  It is based on Rebbe Nachman’s wisdom, but transformed by Eric and Doni into a fully fleshed out journey from fear and loss toward hope and possibility.

We begin in a frozen landscape, weary and anxious—as so many of us feel right now:

When the first light came in, it was cold up north
and the frost slowly thawed in the dawn
It takes a faithful breath to put a weary mind at rest
and still remember the narrow bridge we’re on

We are living in troubled times.  What do we do about this?  For starters, we address this difficult truth, head on.  Perhaps just acknowledging the struggle helps us to move forward with faith rather than fear:

Troubled times, troubled times—you don’t easy a worried mind
Troubled times, troubled times—just stay behind.

And so we travel, as all inevitably do, through highs and lows, passing through broken, barren lands in search of glimpses of beauty:

It’s not far from our homes where the woods are turned to stones
and the feeling of wonder is nearly gone
But in the cracks of barren land a beauty grows unplanned
so we just keep to the narrow bridge we’re on

I have walked this world on a narrow bridge—Kol ha-olam kulo
From the lowlands so low to high up on the ridge—Gesher tza’ar m’od

Then, as the dark of night descends, we gather our strength—and something breaks through our sadness, suspicion, and cynicism.  The music starts out soft and slow, the swells into an epiphany:

When the night returns again and brings quiet through the glen
and still we hear the blackbirds call
From o’er these rivers you can see in the moonlight through the trees
that the bridge was not so narrow after all

My friends, in these troubled times let us walk that bridge together—for narrow though it may sometimes feel, it is wide enough to hold us all, if we walk together, with love and courage.

To hear Nefesh Mountain’s hymn of hope, Narrow Bridge:

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Vayera: You Want It Darker

After these things God tested Abraham, and said to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here am I.”  God said, "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you." 
                        (Genesis 21:1-2)

If you are the dealer, I'm out of the game
If you are the healer, it means I'm broken and lame
If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame
You want it darker
We kill the flame
Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name
Vilified, crucified, in the human frame
A million candles burning for the help that never came
You want it darker
Hineni, hineni
I'm ready, my lord
                        (Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker)

At the end of this week’s portion, Vayera, we find one of the most challenging passages in the Torah: the Akedah, or binding (and near sacrifice) of Isaac.  The Rabbis consider this the tenth and last of the trials God poses to Abraham, beginning with the call to leave home that opens last week’s portion, Lech Lechah.  Indeed, the first and final trials serve as bookends, for each begins with the commandment, “Go!”—to Canaan in the former and then to the land of Moriah.

This raises a vital—and controversial—question: Does Abraham pass the test?  The strong majority of our Sages say yes, and the biblical text itself points toward this reading: in the immediate wake of Isaac’s rescue, God says to Abraham: “Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore.”

But some of the Rabbis dissent.  In Midrash Bereishit Rabbah, Rabbi Acha points to Abraham’s startled reaction when God’s angel stops the sacrifice; accordingly he offers a radical reinterpretation of the text:

Abraham became surprised [and said]. “These words are confusing. Yesterday you said, ‘Take your son…’ And now [your angel] says to me, ‘Do not lay your hand upon the land’ – I am bewildered!” The Holy One responded: “Abraham, ‘I will not violate my covenant or change what I have uttered’ (Psalm 89:35). When I said to you ‘take your son’ I never said to slaughter him. I merely said to ‘raise him up.’”

So here we have two diametrically opposed readings of the text.  In the first, Abraham is the heroic knight of faith; in the second, he is a zealot with a tragic misunderstanding, who should have challenged God.

Leonard Cohen’s genius is that he manages, in good paradoxical fashion, to hold fast to both of these perspectives—and more—in his brilliant song, “You Want It Darker,” the title piece of his final record, released just days before he died.  The album is shot through with mortality—a perfect context for wrestling with one of Torah’s darkest episodes.

Cohen begins by confronting God, as Abraham did on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah but curiously refrained from doing when called upon to murder his own son:

If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game.
If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame.
You want it darker—we kill the flame.

This language of what our Sages called chutzpah toward the heavens runs throughout the song:

They're lining up the prisoners
And the guards are taking aim
I struggled with some demons
They were middle class and tame
I didn't know I had permission to murder and to maim
You want it darker

Yet interspersed between the challenges, Cohen also offers traditional Jewish words of praise, lifted straight from the Kaddish:

Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name

And then he delivers the ultimate expression of service—or perhaps, resignation— the one word uttered by Abraham three times in response to God’s horrific request:

I’m ready my Lord

Cohen sings over an ominous bass run, in a voice so deep and world-weary it shakes the earth—but the song ends with the plaintive repetition of the phrase by Gideon Zelermeyer, the cantor from the Montreal synagogue that Cohen’s family helped to found, backed by the congregation’s choir.  It is heavenly and hellish at the same time.

Just like the story in our parsha.
To hear Leonard Cohen’s holy and eerie, “You Want It Darker”:

Monday, October 15, 2018

Lech Lecha (You Must Go)

For this year’s e-Torah, I will be looking at each week’s portion through the lens of a song.  The music will serve as a kind of midrash, a commentary on the sacred words.

God said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. . .” Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran.  Abram took his wife, Sarai, and his brother’s son, Lot. . . and they set out for the land of Canaan.           
            -Genesis 12

On pilgrimage the traveler is a foreigner in several ways: a stranger to the companions she meets along the way, a stranger to places visited, and a stranger to the inward journey of meaning and transformation.  On some level, pilgrimage always connotes a life-changing journey. . . What is consistent across cultures and religions is that the path of a pilgrim is a challenging one
            -Dr. Sheryl A. Kujawa-Holbrook, Pilgrimage: The Sacred Art

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 that you must go
            -John Hiatt, You Must Go

This week’s Torah portion, Lech L’chah, begins with God’s call to Abraham: “Go!  Leave behind everything familiar and journey to the land of Canaan.” 

Abraham—and Sarah—set out on what proves to be a lengthy and arduous course of voyages.  Their travels take them through a series of hardships that the Talmudic sages describe as the Ten Trials, beginning with this command to forsake their ancestral home. Ensuing challenges include famine, war, physical and emotional trauma, the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael and, ultimately, the binding of Isaac on the sacrificial altar.

Sometimes Abraham and Sarah face these trials with grace and wisdom, while at other times they stumble and fail.  But in the end, their journey—which lasts their lifetimes—proves to be transformative.  Their travels—successes and failures alike—re-make them from Mesopotamian shepherds into the father and mother of the Jewish people.

Another name for this kind of transformational voyage is pilgrimage.  This is very different from tourism or business travel, which are, essentially, utilitarian endeavors.  Pilgrimage is about changing your life.  As Professor Huston Smith notes: “You target a distant place—your Mecca, your Jerusalem, your Mount Meru—and set out.  Obstacles enough will erupt.  But by attending to them now—openness, attentiveness, and responsiveness are the essence of pilgrimage—you will be able to surmount them by yielding to them in the way that life always requires that we yield to it.”

The Hebrew Bible is full of pilgrimage journeys: Jacob’s night visions and wrestling, Joseph’s descent into Egypt, young David’s flight from Saul and, of course, our collective forty year voyage through the wilderness.  All of these journeys follow the pattern set by Abraham and Sarah: a physical passage accompanied by inward transformation that requires the traveler to leave her/his comfort zone, overcome significant hardships, and live with openness to learning from the unexpected.  TS Eliot describes this ethos beautifully in his poem, “Little Gidding”: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all of our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Or as John Hiatt sings, in his perfectly-suited, well-worn traveler’s voice:

When that howling wind
Comes to carry you again
Just like your next of kin
You must go
To a faraway 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

That’s how it begins—for our forebears, for John Hiatt, for each and every one of us.  Whether we long for it or not, the call always, eventually, comes:

You must go. 

And so we ramble through the briars and brambles, back and forth between victories and defeats, , and somehow emerge anew.

To be a Jew—a child of Abraham and Sarah—is to be born to wander and to wonder.

To hear John Hiatt’s You Must Go, from his superb album, Walk On:

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Noach: God Gave Noah the Rainbow Sign

For this year’s e-Torah, I will be looking at each week’s portion through the lens of a song.  The music will serve as a kind of midrash, a commentary on the sacred words.

“[God said to Noah]: Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”  (Genesis 9:11)

God gave Noah the rainbow sign: No more water but the fire next time.

We tend to tell the Noah story as a children’s fable, complete with stuffed animals and cute songs
 (. . . they came on in two-sies, two-sies, elephants and kangaroo-sies).  This has always struck me as odd, for the Flood narrative is the most brutal tale in the entire Hebrew Bible.  The plot is pretty simple: God destroys every living thing except for Noah’s family and the creatures they’ve gathered in the ark.  Genocide is hardly child’s play.

Of course the hopeful note in this otherwise brutal story comes at the end, when God promises never to flood the earth again.  We arrive at that passage and breathe a sigh of relief, thinking, “Well, that was horrible, but thank God, we’re safe.”  But are we?

Midrash teaches that as Abraham witnessed the fiery destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, he confronted God: “You promised never again to destroy the world in a deluge.  Surely You did not mean that you might still send a flood fire?”  And God was silent.  Or, as the old southern spiritual puts it: God gave Noah the rainbow sign: No more water but the fire next time.

Folklorists suggest that these words originated as coded communication among African-Americans living in slavery and under Jim Crow.  They allowed the community to comment clandestinely on the wickedness of their oppressors while, on the surface, just singing wholesome Bible stories.  Understood in this manner, the spiritual’s premise is clear: there are still hosts of wicked people in the world to be punished “next time.”

James Baldwin drew on this history for the title of his landmark 1963 book, The Fire Next Time, a fierce, prophetic examination of race relations in America.  For Baldwin, the song offers both a warning and a call to hope in the darkest of times.  He describes the full fury of the conflagration of racism, yet still holds forth hope for reconciliation rather than vengeance and destruction: “The impossible is the least that one can demand.”

The fire next time—the words of the spiritual and James Baldwin’s elaboration of them echo, for me, the portentous language of Unetaneh Tokef, which we read last month for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: Who by fire and who by water?  We Jews, too, recall the Flood’s devastation, and the terrifying possibility of a repeat occurrence, by way of conflagration rather than deluge—not to cow us into submission but, rather, to turn our hearts and hands to the work of tefillah, teshuvah, and tzedakah—spiritual renewal, repentance, and liberation.

In a world ablaze with injustice, on an earth where rising temperatures are melting polar ice caps, spawning massive storms, and unleashing wildfires across our own region, let us listen and learn from the Noah story.  These times cry out for both its warning and its hope.   With courage and persistence, we might yet avert the fire next time.

--> Here’s a great 1929 recording of the Carter Family performing God Gave Noah the Rainbow Sign: