Divrei Torah by Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
This Shabbat before Passover is given a special name - Shabbat Hagadol- the great Shabbat. One explanation for this special name is that it is lifted from a verse we read in the special haftarah for this Shabbat which directly preceeds Passover.
Hinei anokhi sholeiach lachem et Eliyahu Hanavi lifnei bo yom Adonai hagadol vehanora.
“Behold, I send you Elijah the Prophet before the coming of God’s great and awesome day. (Mal. 3:23)
What is the great day, before which Elijah arrives? It is taught that Elijah will herald the Messiah on that great and awesome day at the time of the redemption of the world. And so on Pesach we end our seder, our evening of reliving the Egyptian redemption, with our hope for the full monty- the redemption of our broken world. As we open the door for Elijah, we create an opening, ritualizing an opening in ourselves. We welcome in the potential for transformative change- for a greater redemption -for freedom and peace to be manifested in global proportions.
But here, in this verse from which we derive the ritual, we see a very personal, intimate expression of healing. The verse does not speak in global proportions but rather describes a healing within each family, a healing between the generations. The full selection reads as follows:
Hinei anokhi sholeiach lachem et Eliyahu Hanavi lifnei bo yom Adonai hagadol vehanora. “Behold, I send you Elijah the Prophet before the coming of God’s great and awesome day.
V’heishiv lev avot al banim v’lev banim al avotam…He will turn the heart of parents to their children and the children’s hearts to their parents...” (Mal. 3:23).
This ancient verse acknowledges the perennial wounding that occurs in both generations when it says, “He will turn the heart of parents to their children and the children’s hearts to their parents...”
How rare it is to meet a family in which there is no one, who feels estranged or alienated from other members of the family, especially the relationships between parents and children.
In Hebrew, the land of Egypt is called Mitzrayim, meaning a place of constriction. Passover celebrates the awesome potential to move from a place of oppression to freedom. This includes emotional constriction which may feel as if there is a padlock on the heart. In our seder ritual, as we literally open the door to Elijah the prophet, we call on the potential to open up the constrictions of the heart that perpetuate the intergenerational wounds.
Whereas we begin the seder with a description of the 4 types of children and 4 different pedagogical approaches for sharing the story of our people, we end the seder with the very real acknowledgement, that the higher purpose of the “whole story” is to ultimately establish family harmony as a microcosm of world peace.
Must we wait however for Elijah and the Messiah to create such a healing?
Is it not in our hands?
Might we reconsider the power of the Elijah image as one that holds this very specific potential? Opening a closed door requires engagement. It is not a passive process. If the door has been shut for too long, it may require more work to open it. Likely, it requires tenacity, much like the spring bud that weathers the snow storm of April and declares, I am still here and I will open and make myself vulnerable.
This is the season of new beginnings, of new openings as delicate buds push through the boundaries of wood and soil. After the long winter, each and every year, it feels like a miracle… because it is. The miracle of rebirth is embedded in the nature of life. And each new blossom testifies to the regenerative forces that lie waiting in every relationship.
Elijah the prophet- we call upon your energy, You, the herald of transformation and healing, to remind us that we can indeed, soften and open our hearts.
This week we begin a new book of Torah- Vayikra- Leviticus. Our journey out of the land of Mitzrayim, out of slavery hits a pause. Before we go any further from Sinai, any further away from the sin of the golden calf, we are given the tools for reconnection with God. Leviticus begins with a veritable menu of meals to offer God as a way of maintaining connection. The sacrifices of ox, goat, sheep, bread, oil, and frankincense are cooked, baked and roasted - each combination a specific offering of thanks or cleansing of transgressions. Some sacrifices are offered daily to simply maintain a healthy connection with the Deity.
It is important to note that sacrificial systems like this were used widely throughout the ancient Near-East and throughout the world as the primary means for the worship of one or many Gods. Sacrificial systems of offering all manner of foods and incense to deities is, in fact, still practiced around the globe today.
In Hebrew the word for a sacrifice is korban. It comes fro the root- to draw close. The word itself signifies the purpose of sacrifice: to come close to God.
After our Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, our sacrificial system collapsed. This primary means for connecting with God was no longer available. The sages at that time, our early Rabbis, responded to this spiritual crisis by substituting prayer as our primary offering. Prayer became the new spiritual technology for connecting with God. Speech became the tool.
In our mystical tradition speech is understood as the tool of Creation. Our Torah teaches that the world was created through ten utterances by Elohim. Each time a new stratum of creation comes into being it is through Elohim uttering the word “ Vayehi- Let there be…” And so it was. It is through speech that thoughts are manifested in the world. What is conceived in the minds eye finds expression through speech.
Speech, our uniquely human ability to communicate complex ideas and strong emotion has the power to build relationships or to destroy them.
So too, the internal conversation with which we are all engaged, has the power to damage our own selves when it is too critical. How often do we beat ourselves up with ‘should haves’ and ‘could haves’, with unrelenting self-judgments that create inner pain?
All speech arises within us first as thought. The Holy Baal Shem Tov teaches that we can become aware of the process through which thought becomes speech. We can refine this process, slow it down and turn speech into a holy act of Creation rather than an act of destruction. Through awareness one can turn speech into a transformative act. Easier said than done, for sure, yet here are some concrete ways in which we can develop awareness about our use of speech.
Before responding to someone or initiating a conversation, you might ask yourself these questions:
Are my words kind?
Will my words support or build connection?
Will they damage my connection with this person?
Is it really necessary to say everything on my mind?
Might restraint be more effective?
What are my personal wounds that might be driving my words?
Our tradition teaches that speech is an act of creation. So let us ask ourselves: what do we want to create?
May we each bring more awareness to this remarkable process by which thought becomes speech and speech creates relationship. May our words become a source of healing. May we turn them into vessels of light and kindness. May we use this gift of speech as a korban- a holy offering that draws us each a little bit closer to one another, in peace.
What was the first game you ever played? Do you recall? Likely it was peek-a-boo. The mild tension of the disappearing face and then, the thrill of its return. The temporary sense of loss, to be replaced by the joy of re-union. How universal is this game- how it delights the youngest, the baby and the adult to disappear and reappear. How I loved playing this game with my children, and when they got older, how they loved to hide from me, under a blanket- a big lump in the bed- Where are they? Where are my children? How they would giggle thinking I did not see them.
It is through this kind of play that infants and children develop a sense of trust; trust in the relationship and trust in the world, that this sense of connection, while challenged through the temporary disappearance of the beloved one, is fundamentally stable and reliable.
How this dance of separation and connection is played out as we grow.
Hide n’ Seek expands the theme only now we can play this game with our whole bodies and each player is empowered to be either the hidden one or to be the seeker. The one who hides is empowered by the initial sense of control and the quest to find the best hiding place, but if the place is too hidden, the game is for naught and there will be no thrill for the one who is seeking, and even too, no thrill for the one who cannot be found.
Do we not all long to be found?
Do we not all hide in some ways?
We have just finished the holiday of Purim in which we read the Megillah of Esther. In the story, Esther, whose name means hidden, hides her true identity from the King until just the moment when her revelation of who she truly is will bring salvation to her people. It is through her hiding that revelation becomes possible.
Chazal- our Rabbinic tradition teaches that the Great Mystery that lies hidden in this story is the hand of God; the way in which Divine providence seems to unfold, turning the destiny of the characters on its head. And so we celebrate by wearing masks, taking on a new character while also hiding some aspect of ourselves.
But do we not all long to be found, to be seen, truly seen?
In this week’s Torah portion Ki Tissa, Moses is on Mt. Sinai for 40 days and the people below become agitated. Moses has been hiding and it seems as if he is not going to return. The people approach Aaron and say: Come make us a god who will go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us out of the land of Egypt; we do not know what has happened to him.
Their anxiety over Moses’ absence has hit a peak. They have not yet developed enough trust to feel secure that Moses will return. They are not able to participate in this very long and drawn out game of peek-a-boo without falling to pieces. It seems the rules have changed and Moses has disappeared into the clouds never to return. They respond by confronting Moses’ brother Aaron and ask for at least, a representation of Moses or a god, so as to appease their fears of abandonment and create some sense of security.
In our story God responds with great anger and a desire to destroy the people. For after all, didn’t God just shed the Divine mask, revealing God’s self on Mt. Sinai to the people through the sound of a heavenly shofar, thunder, lightning and utterance of the 10 commandments? Yes- And the people were overwhelmed by this revelation. They called out to Moses at the time, “ You speak to us, and we will obey, but don’t let God speak to us lest we die.” (Ex. 20:16)
In witnessing the awesome power of God unmasked, so to speak, the people became overwhelmed with fear and demanded to be sheltered from God’s Presence. They request a mediator. It appears that God and the people are struggling to discover how the Divine and the Human can create and maintain a safe and reliable relationship.
Are there times when we need to restrict how much we reveal to others to preserve a relationship? Are there times when we need to wear a mask to serve a greater purpose?
This theme of moderating how much to expose winds its way through this Torah portion. Moses spends another 40 days on the mountain with God in which, like an excellent family therapist, he manages to help God access forgiveness for the people. When he returns to the people, the Torah records that Moses’ face was “radiant with light and the people shrank back from him.” ( Ex. 34:30) “And when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a mask over his face. and whenever Moses went to speak with God he would remove the mask, and when he would finish relating to the Israelites all of God’s instructions, then he would put the mask back over his face. (34:33-35)
What have I learned from peek-a-boo, from Esther, the Israelites and Moses?
That to be missing from the story does not mean gone; that hiding is not the same as absent.
That the one who is hidden longs to be found.
That we all long to be found, to be seen, though, sometimes wearing a mask temporarily is necessary for preserving a relationship.
That the process of hiding and revealing builds trust over time.
And that as long as I continue to seek, as long as I play the game, I remain connected.
This is my prayer: May my eyes be open to the myriad ways that God hides in this world. May my growing trust in people allow me to reveal my most authentic self. May I know when to constrict my self, leaving room for others to reveal themselves. When faced with a person in hiding, may my compassion help me to continue to seek their true self.
May this be a joyful process!
Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
Rabba Kaya served as Interim Rabbi of RJC from October 2017 through June 2019.
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