Sunday, January 30, 2022

Portion Terumah: Shine Your Light

Our Jewish tradition calls us to raise up both our world and our selves by casting light into dark places.

This week’s Torah portion begins with God’s command to Moses and the Israelites: “Bring me an offering—let every person whose heart moves them make an offering to me.”  The Hebrew word for “offering”—terumah—which gives the portion its name, literally means “uplifting.”  Thus the interpretation of this verse by the Hasidic commentary No’am Elimelech: “Strive to enjoy the light of My divine presence in your life. . . This verse tells you to draw the Blessed Creator to you and rejoice in the Divine Presence.”

This sacred calling can push us into difficult places, both within and without.  For instance, the Talmudic sages once debated whether or not Jews should be permitted to attend the Roman gladiatorial games, which were brutally violent and rife with gratuitous carnage.  Rabbi Meir understandably forbid it, arguing that one who goes to the stadium to watch was complicit in the bloodshed.  But Rabbi Natan argued that Jews could attend—in order to cry out for mercy and potentially save someone.

Rabbi Natan believed it a mistake to pretend that we could above the fray.  For him, our challenge is to step down into the darkness and add to the light that might lift it away.  He asks us to engage in the world, with all of its ugliness, for we cannot possibly help to heal it from a pure but aloof distance.

Right now, the world can feel pretty dark: anger, division, fear, rising antisemitism and, of course, two years of pandemic that continues to drag on, leaving us lonely and weary to the bone.  It is tempting to just tune it all out and retreat into our own fortresses of solitude.  

But our Jewish calling is to engage, despite everything, to find ways to raise one another up, to cast our light into the darkness and help illuminate the way, for ourselves and for our neighbors.

In this month of Adar, the Talmud commands us to rejoice.  The Psalmist declares: “Ivdu Adonai b’simchah—serve the Holy One with gladness.”  This is our collective challenge.

Conversation Question:

This week, can you find one thing, each day, that is a source of joy?  Write it down, or share it with a friend or family member.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Portion Mishpatim: After the Ecstasy, the Laundry

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

We all know that after the honeymoon comes the marriage, after the election comes the hard task of governance.  In spiritual life it is the same: After the ecstasy comes the laundry.  (Jack Kornfield)

At first glance, our Torah portion, Mishpatim, is the epitome of anti-climax.  Last week, we marveled at the drama of hearing God’s voice at Mount Sinai.  This Shabbat. . . paragraph after paragraph of the fine points of biblical tort law.  We move from transcendent ideals to legal intricacies, from extraordinary spiritual drama to quotidian banality.

And yet, in some ways, the details of Mishpatim speak more truly to what defines the vast preponderance of our lifetimes.  We all experience peak moments when the adrenaline rush sweeps us away.  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.  

Jack Kornfield describes this experience beautifully in his book, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry:

Cycles of awakening and openness are followed by periods of fear and contraction. Times of profound peace and newfound love are often overtaken by periods of loss, by closing up, fear, or the discovery of betrayal, only to be followed again by equanimity or joy. In mysterious ways the heart reveals itself to be like a flower that opens and closes. This is our nature.

Enlightenment is only the beginning, is only a step of the journey. You can't cling to that as a new identity or you're in immediate trouble. You have to get back down into the messy business of life, to engage with life for years afterward. Only then can you integrate what you have learned. Only then can you learn perfect trust.

That’s where Mishpatim begins.  It is all about the rest of the journey, what happens in the days, weeks, months, and years after enlightenment: laws on marriage, employment, lost property, and finance.  We go, in short, from the awesome to the ordinary—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.  God is truly in the details.  We ignore them at our peril.

Conversation Question:  Consider one small but significant area or action in your daily routine where you might consciously be more mindful this week.  Practice that mindfulness. 

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Beshallach: Stuck at the Edge of the Sea (inspired by Rabbi Yael Shy's commentary)

As this week’s portion Beshallach opens, we stand at the edge of Red Sea, with Pharaoh’s army closing in from our rear flank. We’re terrified, with no place to go.  Completely stuck, paralyzed by what Avivah Zornberg calls radical doubt, bitterly bemoaning Moses: Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us to die in the desert?  

This is a classic response to incapacitating fear—our panic leads to anger, blame (sometimes of ourselves, sometimes of others) and a reactionary desire to turn backwards—even when that is not a real option.
We might, then, learn from Moses’s response, as he radically reframes the situation: Don’t be afraid!  Stand firm, for with patience you will witness God’s liberation. The manner in which you now see the Egyptians will shift; you will not experience them this way for eternity.  The Eternal will fight for you, but you shall remain silent.

In this fraught moment, Moses reminds the people that life is dynamic. In doing so, he offers a new perspective—a widening of vision and scope that is the direct antidote to their distress. As Zornberg writes, fear is born of a way of seeing; a changed way of seeing will change their feeling and thinking. 

So, too, in our own most anxious times.  Our challenge is to find ways to still our minds and bodies, to resist panic and despair. We must learn to trust that the distorted and fearful views that grip us in our seasons of pain and struggle are, in fact, fleeting. We have to stay in the not-knowing longer than is comfortable in order to allow our path to emerge.

Conversation Questions
At what point in the journey out of narrowness and into freedom do you currently you find yourself?  How can you shift your perspective in ways that will enable you to navigate that journey successfully?