"Turn it over and turn it over, for everything is in it. Stare at it, grow old with it, let it exhaust you, but don't ever let go of it. " (Avot 5:22)
A collection of thoughts on the weekly Parasha. Even though they're probably a bit stale now - a real Torah thought is fresh and spontaneous and almost never written down - maybe there's still some nutriments left, or some compost to let your own Torah thoughts grow.
Rosh Chodesh Nissan
The Torah juxtaposes the 'sin' of building a golden calf, God's anger and appeasement, and the building of the Mishkan in the month of Nissan. It seems that building the Mishkan, a house of God, is some kind of response to God's irritation at the misdirected idolatry of worshipping a lump of gold.
But let's look for a second at God's anger, and how Moses demands God's forgiveness. When God says to Moses 'let me destroy these people', the Talmud brings a wild interpretation:
״וְעַתָּה הַנִּיחָה לִּי וְיִחַר אַפִּי בָהֶם וַאֲכַלֵּם וְאֶעֱשֶׂה אוֹתְךָ לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל וְגוֹ׳״. אָמַר רַבִּי אֲבָהוּ: אִלְמָלֵא מִקְרָא כָּתוּב, אִי אֶפְשָׁר לְאוֹמְרוֹ. מְלַמֵּד שֶׁתְּפָסוֹ מֹשֶׁה לְהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, כְּאָדָם שֶׁהוּא תּוֹפֵס אֶת חֲבֵירוֹ בְּבִגְדוֹ, וְאָמַר לְפָנָיו: רִבּוֹנוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם, אֵין אֲנִי מַנִּיחֲךָ עַד שֶׁתִּמְחוֹל וְתִסְלַח לָהֶם. (ברכות ל"ב:)
"Rabbi Abahu says: if it wasn't written in the Torah, we wouldn't dare say this. When God says 'let me', this shows that Moses grabbed the Holy One by the collar, and said: Master of the Universe! I won't let you go until you forgive these people."
I don't know what "Jewish" means, but this is a very Jewish text. Not a submissive acceptance of divine anger, but grabbing God by the throat and demanding to be forgiven! Even the introduction is audacious. "If the Torah didn't say it, we could not." But the Torah doesn't say it! The rabbis experienced some interpretations as so strong that they just had to be authentically rooted in the divine text.
The building of the Mishkan, with its order and defined instructions, is the building of 'religion'. People need order, we would go slightly mad without it, start worshipping the wrong things, making mistakes between illusions and essence. It's fine. But it comes after brave moments of intimacy and defiance. May we find some of this bravery, demand the acceptance and serenity we deserve.
Shabbat shalom, happy month of Nissan!
Seventh Day of Pesach
The seventh day of Pesach traditionally recalls the crossing of the sea on the way out of Egypt. It's the crescendo of the whole liberation narrative, everything is at its most intense, waters rise up horses chasing feeling trapped scared - and then feeling free, elated. The whole experience flows through the people and they start spouting poetry.
דרש ר"ע בשעה שעלו ישראל מן הים בקשו לומר שירה שרתה עליהן רוח הקודש ואמרו שירה... עולל מוטל בין ברכי אמו כיון [שראו] את השכינה הגביה עולל צוארו ותינוק שמט פיו משדי אמו וענו כולם שירה ואמרו זה אלי ואנוהו
"Rabbi Akiva explained: at the moment that the Israelites crossed the sea, they wanted to recite a song, and a holy spirit rested on them and they sang... even babies, as they encountered God's presence, lifted their heads and let go of their mothers, and they all answered together, saying: THIS is my God." (Tosefta Sota 6)
They want to sing something and then something comes out, that's the song of the sea that is read tomorrow wherever in the world synagogues are still open. Everyone is in a different place this year, maybe some can identify with a sense of liberation; some can only identify with the sense of wanting, wanting to express, and waiting for it to come. Wanting is also something, "not being ok is also ok," they say today, with desire we rise for a moment out of the sea of apathy.
This Shabbat, in homes and synagogues and between lovers, the Song of Songs is also sung. It's a sacred lovesong that I've read a thousand times or less, and never understood, and always want to.
עַל־מִשְׁכָּבִי֙ בַּלֵּיל֔וֹת בִּקַּ֕שְׁתִּי אֵ֥ת שֶׁאָהֲבָ֖ה נַפְשִׁ֑י בִּקַּשְׁתִּ֖יו וְלֹ֥א מְצָאתִֽיו׃
"Lying on my bed at night, I desire the one my soul loves, I desire and have not found." (3:1)
To want is the source of prayer, and the source of life. And if we don't feel the desire at the moment - Rebbe Nachman teaches that at least feeling that absence of desire, wanting to want, is also a way of wanting, and of praying, and of living.
The third wave and fourth wave and so on flow over us, and I want the sea to burst open and I want to sing something - I just don't know what, or how, yet.
Adar 5781 - Wearing Masks
Once a month the moon is hidden, the skies are cold and clear and dark. But it's not just hidden from us, our planet is doing the hiding; as the moon sneaks into vision tonight we realise: we are the mask. Adar begins tonight, Purim is approaching.
We're in a month of masks and a year of masks, maybe we've never understood concealment in such a physical embodied way before.
And we have a commandment: משנכנס אדר מרבין בשמחה "when Adar begins, increase happiness". What does that mean, framed as a law? Obligatory happiness? Should we put on another happy mask? Everyone has had their own crises this last year, expressed in one way or another, and most of them have been concealed from others. "How are you?" We wear a mask and say, "Yeah, not bad."
But it's Adar, we put masks on masks on masks, and they're all true in a way. When we seek out points of happiness we choose for those to be our mask, and it's revealing a part of ourselves, not just concealing.
Purim is coming up in two weeks, and it's been a year of Purim. We've learned a lot, we are infinitely wise, knowing that we know nothing. I'm not sure what I'm happy 'about', but I'm glad to take this commandment seriously, this month, and just be happy.
Shabbat shalom, chodesh tov!
Va'era 5781 - alternative facts, relativism, slavery, sorcery and "mind-forg'd manacles"
How can it be that I'm usually right and most people are usually wrong? Maybe it's the other way around? How can I know? And if a Moses was to walk in and perform miracles and tell me what to do - would that help bring certainty? But he turned a stick into a snake and so did the Egyptian magicians, and he turned water into blood and so did the Egyptian magicians, and even if he eventually pulls off more tricks than them, is that the way to decide who's right?
אמר אביי הלכות כשפים כהלכות שבת יש מהן בסקילה ויש מהן פטור אבל אסור ויש מהן מותר לכתחלה
"Abaye said: The laws of sorcery are like the laws of Shabbat. There are acts which are absolutely forbidden, acts which are not forbidden but shouldn't be done, and acts which are absolutely permissible." (Talmud, Sanhedrin 67b)
A supposed prophet with a miracle doesn't solve the problems of doubt, and the good/evil distinction is blurry. Is he or she a messenger of God or a sorcerer? The Israelites were slaves in Egypt and had to be freed. But our tradition says that some of the Israelites also owned slaves, and had to free them first! The Egyptians worshipped idols and so did the Israelites, at that point. But one was worthy of being redeemed and one was punished. How do we know what the divine will wants?
There's a feeling of flow and alignment and in those moments, there's no question at all. But outside of that, maybe we shouldn't be certain about anything. Maybe we should pepper our speech with the word 'maybe'. It doesn't mean we need to freeze: we can do things and say 'I'm probably right about this, but maybe I'm not.' Or the other way around, 'I'm probably wrong, I'll do my best though.' I'm not sure we need to have opinions, only encounters.
Who knows. Shabbat is coming, and it's as complicated and delicious as sorcery.
Vayechi 5781 - anti-2020ism, sadness and creative voices
If the Torah was a story, which it also is, then cutting it up into different sections would frame it in different ways. Casting Joseph away to Egypt is a Bad Thing; Joseph saving his family from famine is a Good Thing; becoming slaves in Egypt is bad; redemption and freedom are good, and so on. We could also see the Torah, like the world, as infinite Becoming, not limited by good and bad and story and so on.
I prefer stories because I don't know how to grasp infinity in any other way. I don't mind chopping up infinity into chapters, giving them names, and comparing 2021 and 2020, or celebrating the beginning of a new chapter. But I know that the beginning and end and meaning of the story is arbitrary.
Here's a story: Joseph is in Egypt and his father Jacob thinks him dead. For 22 years, Jacob loses his power to be a prophet, his sadness weighs him down. When he hears that Joseph is alive, he comes back to life (וַתְּחִי רוּחַ יַעֲקֹב) and he remembers how to prophecy. In fact, coming into Egypt, the place of the hardest challenges and tightest constrictions, he finds his inspiration restored (וַיְחִי יַעֲקֹב בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם). Only at the end of his days, blessing his children, he sees the enormity of the struggle and the intensity of the divine presence surrounding him, and he chokes up again. For a moment, he forgets how to be a prophet.
We know this and we know that. There's been moments of inspiration and creation during this Covid plague, and moments of closeness that came because of the restrictions, not just despite them. But mostly - for me - it was bleak and a lack of creativity. The inspiration of joy and warmth and a story of hope is a better one, and I can't wait for it to return.
Yitro 5781 - Certainty and Cloudiness
"And the people saw the thunder" (Exodus 20:15)
What does revelation look like? What does certainty sound like? We have a fake nostalgia for weighty words of Truth to drop down from heaven - Thou shalt do This! And not That! - Our comical lust for rules expresses this nostalgia. But moments of certainty are always surrounded by clouds.
וַיַּעֲמֹ֥ד הָעָ֖ם מֵרָחֹ֑ק וּמֹשֶׁה֙ נִגַּ֣שׁ אֶל־הָֽעֲרָפֶ֔ל אֲשֶׁר־שָׁ֖ם הָאֱלֹקים
"And Moses approached the thick cloud where God was." (20:18)
Certainly, rules are good to stop us from being silly or selfish. You want to do the right thing, not be blinded by the ego. But that's already a trap - it's the ego itself that wants that! You visit your family during lockdown or you stay home. You take the job offer or you turn it down. How do you know when you're accepting God's word and when you're making selfish choices? Clouds surrounded by clouds surrounded by clouds. ענני כבוד.
Rebbe Natan was offered to be the rabbi of Mohyliv, and was terrified. Was it right to leave his teacher and go there? "Is going there the way of truth?" he asked Rebbe Nachman. "Yes, it's the truth." But Natan knew his teacher better than that. "Is going there the truth of the truth?" Rebbe Nachman answered:
אז דו ווילסט דעם אמת'ן אמת, זאָלסטו קיין רב נישט זיין (שיח שרפי קדש, קע"ה)
"If you're looking for the truth of the truth, you shouldn't be a rabbi."
Moses goes into the clouds and brings back the Torah, an echo of an encounter with truth, an echo of cloudy confusion. And we - we follow some rules and try to make the least bad decisions we can, with infinite trust and minimal certainty.
Be'ezrat Hashem. Shabbat shalom!
Vayera 5781 - A plague rages
דֶּבֶר בָּעִיר, כַּנֵּס רַגְלֶיךָ
A plague rages in the City -
Go inside (Talmud, Bava Kamma 60b)
Something in us senses the Outside. This interface between in and out is what we call 'the world'. We perceive this world through sensation, not knowledge. I don't know this plague really, except through numbers and headlines. But I sense my warm breath against the inside of my mask, and know that I am alive, and that there is a plague outside. Sometimes I smell wet leaves or coffee or a bakery, and I also sense that I am smelling, and understand that the plague hasn't reached me yet.
A plague rages out there -
Like Noah, looking for a safe space in the storm. 'Bo el ha-teiva', he was told, come into the Word. Words are another interface between our insides and the Others. We can listen to our own words, use them as paths back inwards, or try to fling them out and reach across the divide. But there's a plague out there, we're socially distant, and words are weak.
Everyone I know carries sadness somewhere inside. We hide it from each other in words or with silence. Everyone thinks they are alone with the sadness, and it's often true. But now we have to go inwards, face ourselves. There's a plague out there.
Noah goes inwards and Abraham goes outwards. In theory, two opposite models. But also: Noah is told what to do, and follows the path laid out for him. Abraham is told confusing, contradicting things, and leads a confused, contradictory life. He does what he hopes is right, with pious doubt, carrying his sadness outside. Noah sits with his sadness in the rocking waters, sure that that's where he's meant to be.
There's more hopeful ways of talking about all this, of course, I could find inspiration if I needed it. There's not just sadness, and Noah and Abraham are only two of infinite models of being, and sensation of the inside and outside are wonderful not only in times of plague, words can work and the world is enormous. I sense my warm breath against the inside of the mask, and don't know how to make sense of anything else but that, but keep going on, nonetheless.
(Vayera Vlog for Yesod/JDC)
Toldot 5781 - prayer, social distancing, laicité and reading news
Desperate for a child, they pray. Isaac "pleads profusely" and Rebecca "goes to demand God." One legend describes the scene:
זֶה עוֹמֵד בְּזָוִית זוֹ וּמִתְפַּלֵּל וְזוֹ עוֹמֶדֶת בְּזָוִית זוֹ וּמִתְפַּלֶּלֶת
"He in this corner praying and she in that corner praying."
The distance between them! Unable to put their sadness and emptiness into words to each other, in praying in parallel there is a different kind of connection, a hint of togetherness. And yet the distance remains, the prayer lets them feel the distance but doesn't erase it. Prayer is always individual, even side by side.
Does prayer work? In her suffering, Rebecca cries "If so, why am I?" This is not the naïve prayer that today's enlightened society loves to mock. Prayer doesn't run away from the real world into fantasies, it approaches the world as it is. People all around are catching the virus, some are fine, some die. What do I do with that knowledge? Prayer isn't so much about speaking, but listening, being addressed by reality, responding to reality. Newspapers have numbers, but prayer is 'adaata denafshei', 'concerning me.' Rebecca's open question "If so, why am I?" rings out in honest prayers in every generation.
Still, the distance between them, Isaac and Rebecca praying in opposite corners of the room. There's love between them, and some understanding, and an infinite stretch of lonely silence filled with prayers.
Chayei Sarah 5781 - sense-making, exhaustion and intimacy
"Abraham was One" (Ezekiel 33:24)
אֶחָד֙ הָיָ֣ה אַבְרָהָ֔ם
We don't know much about the early life of Abraham and Sarah, except that they "made souls in Haran" - people were moved to emulate them, somehow, in their childhood home. No normal conversion, Abraham had faith but no religion; he had a mission, but was no missionary, no boring ideology or theology or idolatry. A lover has something to teach the world, and it's not content, but form. If Abraham and Sarah had a message, perhaps it was about submission to destiny.
A mysterious destiny, for sure, only fully revealed in hindsight. But Abraham refuses to treat his life as flat. He forces facts into a story. The future and the past make sense, a sense which he barely understands but to which he submits.
Sarah's death and burial, the ultimate rupture in stories-that-make-sense, forces Abraham to be rooted in space again. The Talmud tells of a rabbi who wanted to enter the burial tomb of Abraham and Sarah in the holy city of Hebron:
ר' בנאה הוה קא מציין מערתא כי מטא למערתא דאברהם אשכחיה לאליעזר עבד אברהם דקאי קמי בבא א"ל מאי קא עביד אברהם א"ל גאני בכנפה דשרה וקא מעיינא ליה ברישיה
"When Rabbi Banaa arrived at the cave of Abraham, he found Eliezer, the servant of Abraham, standing before the entrance. Rabbi Bena’a said to him: What is Abraham doing at this moment? Eliezer said to him: He is lying in the arms of Sarah, and she is examining his head." (Bava Batra 58a)
One of the clearest commentaries to this fantastic tale comes from Franz Kafka in a letter to Milena:
"I’m tired, can’t think of anything and want only to lay my face in your lap, feel your hand on my head and remain like that through all eternity."
After Sarah's death, Abraham wants to rest. The task of making sense of destiny is passed to Isaac and Rebecca and their descendants. Submission is still there, but more intimate, without a narrative.
We are children of Abraham, of course. But which one? Abraham who makes souls make sense, who makes today make sense in light of tomorrow's promise? Or an exhausted Abraham, resting in Sarah's lap? We are familiar with both these Abrahams in our life, and many more, and nonetheless, "Abraham was One."
Vayetze 5781 - winter, conspiracy, a/theism, unanswered prayers and dreams
The winter is dark and cloudy and it's impossible to see past it. I know my son will be five years old four years from now, but I can't describe the route from this point to that. I'm not sad and I'm not afraid, but I just don't know anything about how the world works. The virus of doubt is also spreading, and I don't trust the news, or rumours, or myself.
In one of the lists of curses in the Torah, God says: "On that day, I shall abandon them and hide My face from them." (Deuteronomy 31:17) A rabbinic tradition does something shocking with this verse.
וחרה אפי בו ביום ההוא ועזבתים והסתרתי פני מהם אמר רב ברדלא בר טביומי אמר רב כל שאינו בהסתר פנים אינו מהם
Rav Bardela bar Toviomi said in the name of Rav: Anyone who doesn't experience the 'hiding of the face' is not included in 'them'. (Chagiga 5a)
To be God's people is to not experience God. To take God's word seriously is to admit a godless reality of confusion, unanswered prayers, and existential loneliness. To deny that and think that the world is following some sort of secret plan is to minimise God's promise, or not to see oneself as part of the 'them'. 'Them': the community of the confused.
That's not to say that there is no revelation at all. We can at least see that the face is hidden. But it's a hidden kind of seeing, nothing obvious: like a dream. Our dreams are always important, and perhaps this winter more than usual. They give us a sense that something is clear, without clarifying what it is. Holding on to that sense, the morning-memory of the dream, is vital. Maybe we should be writing them and sharing them, maybe not. At the very least, we should appreciate the contours of clarity that they give, and let dreams echo into the only world we have: this one.
Channukah - 4th candle
The story of Channukah is a war over memory: the only thing that matters. Will the Torah be forgotten or not? The universe tends towards entropy and forgetfulness. It takes enormous mental energy to create, preserve and transmit memories.
Memories are as fickle and transient as a candle-flame. In this age of an attention economy, where concentration and desire are bought and sold by massive online companies, deciding the nuances of our self-perception is important; deciding who to be influenced by and which dangers to avoid; honouring our memories. Everyone on my street has a light in the window. Mine means something that makes me me.
A small thought on the story of Channukah, and what's done with it. There was a war against the Greeks and the Jews won, and regained their Temple, for a while. The historical accuracy and the different accounts don't matter to me, at the moment, just trying to figure out what to do with this story. Because everyone does something with this story: stick attribute A on the Greeks and B on the Jews and say that B is better than A. Doesn't matter that we're all inheritors of the Greek tradition today as much as or more than the Jewish one, doesn't matter that the synthesis is a wonderful one - we have to find a way to make B better than A.
!אמר להן מה דין אתריסתון לקבלי? אמרו ליה סטנא נצח
There's a version of the Greek-Jewish dialogue in the Talmud (Tamid 32a) that I love. Alexander of Macedonia asks ten questions to the Sages of the Negev, and they keep giving him annoying answers (like "We don't know!"). Frustrated, he bursts out and says: "On what basis do you oppose my culture?" And they reply "Sometimes, Satan is victorious."
It's a great answer because it's honest and it completely flips the logic of A is better than B or the other way around. He asks, can't you see that the Greeks are stronger and more successful in the world? They say: so what. Shit happens. Our identity is rooted deep and doesn't have to make sense. Sometimes it's great to be a Jew and sometimes the opposite, and this argument is just a game.
The ones who lit the lights in the Temple on the first night didn't expect a miracle. They did the best they could with what they had, and that's the message I hear for me, today.
Shabbat sameach, channukah shalom!
Channukah - 10th Candle
What did I learn this Channukah? Nothing. Except that rhythm and ritual are more powerful than words and systems. Nothing, except that every night I poured oil into the jars and arranged the candles and prepared the wicks and sang the songs, and Amitai was fascinated with the flames and so was I. Sometimes I ran off to make supper or finish off something, sometimes I sat and watched the dancing lights. Sometimes I put some winter thoughts together, and wrote them down or didn't. Actions come first, meaning later, not the other way around.
אמר רב יהודה ברם זכור אותו האיש לטוב וחנניה בן חזקיה שמו אלמלא הוא נגנז ספר יחזקאל שהיו דבריו סותרין דברי תורה מה עשה העלו לו ג' מאות גרבי שמן וישב בעלייה ודרשו
"Indeed, remember this man for good, and Chanania ben Chizkia is his name. If it were not for him, they would have destroyed the book of Ezekiel, for it contradicts the other books of Torah. But they brought up three hundred barrels of oil to his attic, where he sat explaining the book." (Shabbat 13b)
I almost think this was a Channukah miracle too. Some crazy Jews wanted their Torah to make sense, but this man Chanania sat in his attic, turning oil into light into words into peace.
Channukah candles shine outwards, Shabbat candles shine inwards, and they are both lit by people submitting to the rhythm of their ritual, the bass beat that holds together the flashes of meaning and of inspiration.
Channukah Shalom, Shabbat Sameach