Divrei Torah by Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
This is a time of journeying. In our weekly Torah reading, we are well on our way in the wilderness journeys of the Israelites. Following a pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night, they move and rest at God's will. It is a journey in which their faith is tested, but over time trust is eventually built. Let us recognize that we are all on a journey of trust.
In this week’s Torah portion Shelakh L’kha, Moses sends spies out and into the Promised Land to ascertain whether it is indeed a good land and gain some sense of what to expect when they enter. The spies return with two messages: It is indeed a good land, overflowing with milk and honey BUT there are giants there, too powerful to conquer. We are “as if, grasshoppers in their eyes.” They declare: Efes,it is all worth nothing! The whole journey has become meaningless, worthless, because Fear has entered their hearts and forward motion is no longer possible. Fear annihilates all potentialities. The mission has become clouded. Fear leads to total despair and a kind of radical skepticism, in which everything is open to doubt. With this mindset the people cannot move forward. They cry to return to Egypt, to a land of enslavement and oppression, because it is familiar, it is known. The mental state of exist ential fear produces a profound lack of imagination and a paralysis.
Their paralysis will unfold as a sentence to wander in the wilderness for 40 years, until this entire generation has died off and a new generation, born into the wilderness of possibilities, will move forward into a new land, into a new future.
This is a very human story. It is one we can all relate to as individuals but also as a community. Every community must at some point face existential questions. How we respond to these challenges will in fact determine the future of the community. With fear as the guide, the community will long for the past, while seeing themselves as powerless to build a new future.
But let us recall a critical counter-voice in this Torah portion, the voices of Caleb and Joshua. They speak up and declare an objective truth: “The Land is Good! exceedingly so! And God will bring us there.” They express the redeeming quality of TRUST without the inebriation of fear.
This is the spiritual challenge,for each of us in this time and place.
Oftentimes birth and especially transition, can feel like death. And this is because in order for something new to be born, something else needs to give way.
Most women who have given birth can attest to this idea. I vividly recall being in labor with both of my children. This is a process that, once it starts , there is no turning back. It is a one way street that must be traversed. Helpers at the side of the woman cheer her on, “You can do this. You’ve got this. You are doing great!” And they cheer so because this is exactly the help she needs. She needs to believe in her capacity to survive, to see this through, to bring new life into the world. In order to survive mentally, she needs to leave fear behind and trust in her capacity to move through this challenge.
Tonight, I am telling you all: You can do this! You’ve got this! You have all the resources to move ahead into new possibilities. Cultivate an open attitude that expects the community to flourish. Be awake to the tendency to view challenges as anakim/giants and to feel like grasshoppers. This is normal. But when those voices arise within, know that they are merely expressions of fear and not the objective truth. Anchor yourselves in trust for this will allow the imaginative possibilities to unfold and a new reality to form. Reach out to the youth, to young families, to the next generation. They understand the wilderness and they possess a unique vision that will bring relevance and contemporary meaning to this community.
Rabindranath Tagore wrote: Man is immortal; therefore s/he must die endlessly. For life is a creative idea; it can only find itself in changing forms.
These few years we have spent together have been rich with changing forms. We have come together for comfort at times of personal and communal grief. We have rejoiced together in the celebration of festivals and at many beautiful life-cycle events in the lives of our families. We have watched our children embrace Torah and Jewish values. Through song and rhythm, we have enlivened the prayer experience. We have opened our doors and our hearts to the greater Rutland community of many faith-traditions and we have shared countless delicious meals together, schmoozing and connecting with one another under the Sabbath moon. I am deeply grateful for these experiences and for your trust and support in walking with me on this journey of change.
Life is an ever-unfolding mystery which I embrace with wonder. At this time, I am being called to take another step into the unknown. I trust in the process that is unfolding though I know not where it is leading. And I trust that the RJC community has the inner resources to continue its unfolding as a meaningful, relevant and nourishing Jewish community.
In the Talmud it is taught that when one takes leave, she should offer a blessing to those with whom she has learned Torah. I leave you tonight with these words from Talmud Brachot, 17a.
When the sages took leave of the study hall of Rav Ami- and some say it was Rav Hisda they would say to him the following blessing:
May you live to see your world fulfilled
May your destiny be for worlds still to come
May your hope be sustained in generations yet to be
May your heart be filled with understanding
May your mouth speak wisdom, your tongue whisper praise
May your vision be upon a straight path before you
and your eyes shine with the light of Torah
May your face radiate like the glow of the heavens
May your lips speak with truth and kindness
May your feet run to hear the words of the Eternal One.
May your spirit know peace, balance, Shalom.
Last Shabbat our Jewish community around the world began a new book of Torah: B’midbar, meaning, in the wilderness. I prefer to call this book, “Into the Wilderness.” Here we go, on a journey filled with challenges of all sorts: physical, mental, psychological and spiritual.
So what is this place, “the wilderness?”
The wilderness contains all possibilities. It is a place and time of dreaming and of dreams, a time of movement and resting, of journeying with the sacred as our guide.
Midrash Shir Hashirim Rabba
R. Berachia said: This verse was spoken by the wilderness. The wilderness said, I am wilderness, and I am beloved! For all the good things in the world are hidden in me- as it said, : I will plant cedars and acacias in the wilderness” ( Isa. 41:19) God gave them to me in trust and when He asks them of me, I will return the trust in full, and I will become full of sap with good deeds, and I will sing in God’s presence”
As Aviva Zornberg states, the wilderness is a “world of imaginative reality”, a place where “a hidden reality comes into being.”
At this time in the history of this community, the RJC is about to enter yet another new stage, with a new leader. Like the traveling camp we will read about in this Torah portion, that will disassemble the Tabernacle, transport it and then re-assemble, many times over throughout their journeys, we too will discover that the holy exists in our community regardless of changes in form and structure. It is the community who will guard, lift aloft, and carry forward all of its sacred parts no matter where the journey leads.
In last week’s portion the guidelines are given for how the community will camp
and this week we shall read: here is how you will move forward.
Two of the levitical clans, the families of Gershon and Merari receive wagons to transport the Tabernacle structure, but the Kohatites clan who are tasked with transporting the most holy objects, will lift them up and carry them directly upon their shoulders. Incidentally, the verb Naso, the name of this parashah, means to lift up.
The sacred will travel with the people into the wilderness of the unknown. The Levites will take apart all of the pieces of the Tabernacle. The most holy objects will be raised up on their shoulders for all to see as they journey forth, and then the parts will be re-assembled when the camp finds a new footing.
This it is not necessarily an easy task.
To hold aloft the sacred, in a time and place of transition, requires inner strength, focus and patience.
The Mussar Masters teach us that the quality of savlanut- which mean to bear something, to have patience,is a spiritual quality. The capacity to bear the holy, and to lift it up, is a sacred task and it is the spiritual work we are engaged with. Journeying through the wilderness of our times requires that we develop the quality of patience, while we continue to bear the holy and lift it up for all to see.
Mark Margolius writes: As our ancestors prepared to leave Mount Sinai, they likely wondered how they could preserve the sense of deep connection and trust they’d experienced in that place, as they encountered the inevitable challenges and setbacks of the journey ahead. They had already built the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, as a kind of portable Mt. Sinai to accompany them in their travels. But only in this parashah, as they learn the skills of “lifting” and “bearing” the components of the Mishkan—the “weight of life”—do they learn how to maintain that deep sense of connection and holiness in the midst of everyday living.
We are living through times of great transition and change. Our little microcosm of the RJC is part of a greater sea change in consciousness and practices. It is a time to move forward, for sure, but to do so with our Jewish values held aloft. It is easy to get lost in the wilderness during a sandstorm. All the signposts, few as they are, are obscured by blowing wind. We are living through such a time of disorientation and blowing wind, but Torah is our compass.
When we lift up the sacred, that is, the good and holy in each other, we strengthen one another on the journey. As we all move forward into a wilderness of sorts, may we find the strength and patience to bear the holy, to lift up the sacred, and lift up one another in the process. This is the power of a Jewish community.
You might recall the very First Yom Kippur when Moses, through his wisdom, passion and charisma achieved forgiveness for the people, for the sin of the Golden Calf. This takes place on the 10th of Tishrei, marking the very first Yom Kippur. This experience of asking for and achieving forgiveness from G-d becomes an everlasting, annual ritual of atonement and purification. One of the specific rites includes two goat offerings; one for G-d and one to be sent into the wilderness to Azazel, carrying off the sins of the people. This ritual is detailed in this week’s Torah portion and read again in the synagogue on every Yom Kippur morning.
It is important to first consider, why is this an annual ritual. It exists because because G-d expects the people to fall all the path. It is understood that we are far from perfect, that we will make mistakes, and so we are given this gift of Yom Kippur as a way for making repair and becoming whole as an individual, as a family member and as a community.
After Moses’ first Yom Kippur, the Torah instructs the first High Priest in a very specific ritual to effect atonement for himself, his family and the people. After many hundreds of years of observing Yom Kippur in this way, after the destruction of the Temple, the Rabbis create very specific rituals actions for us, as individuals, in order to achieve atonement for our misdeeds.
We fast. We wear or don’t wear certain types of clothing. We come together as a community. We recite specific prayers. We recite a confession. We tap our chests. We listen to specific melodies…
Wouldn’t it have been enough to simply go around and apologize to everyone, to set aside one day to go around and make things right with people? It could have been like that, but it isn’t. Instead we have an elaborate ritual, and I would like to put forth here, that the ritual itself is important, that the ritual itself has a certain kind of power. A ritual is an act, repeated through time and whose components remain steady through time.
At its most basic, we have the example of a birthday ritual. I just celebrated my birthday this week and with it came the cake with the candles and the Happy Birthday song. When I experienced that moment of sitting before a cake about to make a wish, some deep part of myself awoke as I connected to every birthday I have ever experienced. And I would propose that in that moment the singers as well became connected to every birthday they have experienced.
Rituals create a tether to the past and to the future. They anchor us in time so that we do not become lost as we are confronted by change.
And so, we have rituals for all the significant moments of transition in our lives; for the birth of a child, for coming of age, for marriage, and rituals for the mourners at the time of death. These are moments of transition in our lives in which our rituals create a structure, a framework, and an anchor for us to mark that time of transition. The rituals connect us with our past, with all those who have also gone through these rituals, and it connects us as well to our hopes and dreams for the future.
Rituals help us embody our values. They create a form and a structure to express our ideals. And when we do that, it helps to deepen our commitment and relationship to those ideals and values. When we come together in this Jewish community for Shabbat, whether for a Friday night service or a Shabbat dinner or Saturday morning service, we sing the same prayers our ancestors sang as we celebrate this transition in time from one week to another. We ritualize this sacred pause and express our hopes for a world renewed, as we deepen our commitment to the values we and ancestors hold as sacred.
Our Rabbis, in their great wisdom created rituals for us to mark every season and every transition so that we do not become lost in time or lost from our most cherished values. Judaism is an enterprise concerned with the betterment of the individual and the society we create. Our rituals allow us to embody and concretize these ideals.
Today, the danger that Judaism truly faces, is the loss of our rituals in favor of the preservation of Jewish culture. To liken the Jewish enterprise to a physical body, one could say that the rituals are the skeleton upon which the flesh of culture, of music, of language and recipes, reside. Without the structure of the skeleton, the flesh will eventually lose its form. Perhaps this is an old argument you have heard before and perhaps you do not agree. Nevertheless, I suggest that you take up this conversation as the RJC continues its Jewish journey into becoming.
Barbara Meyerhoff in Number our Days states the following: No primitive society… expects to cause rain by dancing a rain dance. A rain dance is a dance with the rain, the dancing of an attitude…attending, dramatizing, making palpable unseen forces, setting apart the flow of everyday life,… stopping time and change by presenting a permanent truth. If the spirits hear and it rains, so much the better, but the success of the ritual does not depend on the rain.
Meyerhoff reminds us that our rituals engage us in a conversation with the soul, a dialogue with the past, present and future, a heart-to-heart with the Eternal.
May we rejoice in our inheritance.
Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
Rabba Kaya served as Interim Rabbi of RJC from October 2017 through June 2019.
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