Divrei Torah by Rabba Kaya
This has been a painful week in our nation for so many reasons. Parents and children are suffering, fear is heightened, our discourse continues to become ever more polarized and just yesterday five journalists were killed at their jobs. Tonight I wish to dedicate this teaching on Seeking Truth, to those five innocent people in Maryland whose futures were snatched away from them. Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith and Wendi Winters. May their souls be bound in the bonds of everlasting life.
This week we read a Torah portion that in many ways sounds more like a fairytale than a sacred text, but in its magical simplicity, speaks truths for our times. Once upon a time there was a King named Balak who ruled over Moab. He got word that masses of Israelites were headed toward his border. He was frightened that the people would gobble up all of Moab’s resources since they were so numerous.
The King sent messengers to a local prophet named Balaam requesting his help to put a curse on these people. Balaam asked God what to do and was told, you may go with these messengers but you may not curse the Israelites for they are blessed by Me.
Balaam set off on his donkey with the King’s messengers.
God became angry after all, that Balaam was going and sent an angel to block his path. The donkey saw the angel but Balaam did not. The donkey swerved and so Balaam hit the donkey. The donkey pressed up against a fence to avoid the angel and again Balaam beat the donkey. Finally the donkey sat down in the road and Balaam hit him again. Then, God opened the donkey’s mouth and the donkey spoke saying, “ What have I done that you have beaten me these 3 times? Have I not served you all day ? Am I in the habit of doing this to you?!” And Balaam answered, “No.”
And then God opened up Balaam’s eyes and he saw the angel blocking the path. He then understood why the donkey had acted so. The angel told him that he could go on but that he could only speak what the angel tells him.
Balaam eventually meets up with King Balak who shows him the Israelite encampment. Balak tells Balaam to curse the people but when Balaam speaks, words of blessing emerge instead. Balak takes Balaam to three different vantage points to see the camp and each time Balaam pours forth new blessings, the last of which contains the famous words still sung today: Mah Tovu Ohalekha Yaakov, Mishkenotekha Yisrael. How lovely are your tents Jacob, your holy dwellings,Yisrael.
In our story we have 3 primary characters; Balak the King who is motivated by fear and thereby blinded to the truth of God’s plan; Balaam the Seer who is unable to see; and the simple donkey who is the only one able to apprehend the truth of a Godly presence before him. Is it not often the case that a child or an animal, without the interference of ego and self interest, can perceive the truth of a situation or of a person more accurately than an adult?
Like Balak and Balaam, we are all able to perceive only a portion of the whole truth. The Piacezner Rebbe, also known as the Rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto points out that our senses are illusory. The outer forms of everything are always changing but “the truth of everything lies in its inner being.” Our challenge is to elevate our vision, our ability to see that inner essence.
These days our nation and our communities have become deeply divided and polarized over many issues. We are quick to anger and to judge. For many of us, some lifelong relationships have frayed and in some cases have completely dissolved over political disputes, each side convinced that they possess the truth and that the other is blind.
The spiritual challenge of our day is to develop the humility to recognize that we each hold only a portion of the truth. We are being asked to open up our inner vision, a deeper level of seeing in order to recognize the inner value of the other. We are being challenged to stay in respectful relationship with those whose views and beliefs are divergent from one’s own. But more than that, I believe our challenge is to find the inner essence of truth in the opposing point of view. This is no easy task, which is why it is called Spiritual Work. It requires a kind of constant inner vigilance to become aware of when we are beginning to shut out the other person and attempt, at those moments, to remain open.
If we can do this-myself included, if we can stay in relationship with those with whom we disagree; if we can humble ourselves to acknowledge that we each hold a portion of truth, then perhaps we can create the kind of community where harmony and peace may dwell.
When Balaam stood on the mountain and looked down at the Israelite camp below he saw the tents of the tribes arranged like flower petals around a sacred center, the Tabernacle. Each tribe camped under its own banner, proclaiming its individuality; each situated in a different direction maintaining a unique perspective yet All focused on Holiness at the core.
And when Balaam saw this he spoke these words of blessing : Mah tovu ohalekha Yaakov, mishkenotekha Yisrael- How lovely are your tents Jacob, your holy dwellings Yisrael.
How beautiful it is when we respectfully disagree, when each unique voice is honored, when we each contribute our partial truth to the communal tapestry of life. Then we create a space for the holy to dwell with us.
In this week’s Torah portion a man named Korach, from the tribe of Levi, a first cousin to Aaron and Moses leads a rebellion. His name means frozen. He roused 250 men to join him in a challenge to the authority of both Moses and Aaron. His claim: Are we not all Holy unto God?
"You take too much upon yourself, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. The whole community is holy -- all of them! Why do you, Moses and Aaron, raise yourselves above them?" (Num. 16: 1-3.)
To understand this challenge a little better we need to understand what Korach means by holy and what God intends for the people when they are told they are to be a holy nation. At the very end of last week’s portion, just before we are introduced to Korach, Moses relates to the Israelites the mitzvah of wearing Tzitzit. This section is selected for the third paragraph of the Sh’ma. It says the following:
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying,
Speak to the people of Israel, and tell them that to make fringes at the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put within the fringe a thread of blue; …that you may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them; …That you may remember, and do all my commandments, and be holy to your God.(Num. 15: 37-40)
According to Rabbi Shai Held, herein lies the difference in God’s view and Korach’s view of holiness. Quoting Yeshayahu Leibowitz: a highly respected contemporary Bible scholar and brother of groundbreaking Bible scholar Nechamah Leibowitz, Shai Held explains that the critical difference is between the indicative and imperative. The High Priest, Aaron, wears a golden head band on which is engraved the words: Holy unto God. He has been set apart from the people for holy service and the entire garment and headdress he wears indicates this. The Israelites on the other hand wear Tzizit- to remind us to aspire to holiness. (Num. 15:39-40) As it says in the Torah “And it shall be to you for a fringe, that you may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them, and that you may remember, and do all my commandments, and become holy to your God.
In other words, you are not holy because you were chosen. You must work at this. Holiness is a perpetual aspiration, not an established fact. You might think you can do whatever you want because you are holy. This is not so. This is the thinking of Korach. It is frozen thinking. It bears no life.
So too, with Democracy. It is not static. It is a process. America is in a 200 year old process (some say experiment) with a goal to give dignity to all people. A totalitarian gov’t on the other hand is not interested in this. It is interested instead in enriching those in power. Our constitution gives us the aspirations to create the conditions for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for every individual. We have certainly not attained these goals but we had been moving in that direction as evidenced by the civil rights movement, anti-discrimination laws, the passage of the ERA, DOMA, laws against sexual harassment, the #metoo movement and more.
But tragically, we seem now to be moving far astray from these democratic aspirations. The images in recent weeks of children, separated from their parents, locked up in cages and detention centers should keep us all awake at night and rouse us to demand change. We are being called, at this moment to stand up for what is morally and ethically right. We are being called upon to exercise our compassion, to understand that these children are our children, that these parents are us. We are being called to act upon our values and our legacy to love the stranger and protect the weakest among us.
In our Torah portion, Korach speaks from a place of pure self-interest, entitlement and self-indulgence. He makes claim to the inherent holiness of the people regardless of their behavior; to a kind of chosen-ness, a supremacy devoid of any responsibility. This view is profoundly dangerous and ultimately doomed. It cannot lead anywhere except to sink the entire ship. It is ungrounded and cannot support community. In our narrative, the ground literally opens her mouth and swallows Korach and his family. The other 250 men are consumed in a fire.
This catastrophe however is not the end of the story of Korach and his lineage. Within the longer biblical narrative of our people, the line of Korach will emerge in the future as the finest musicians of the First Temple days- the B’nei Korach. In the book of Psalms we see 24 psalms attributed to the Sons of Korach. They are love songs of devotion to God, of seeking and longing for God, of finding the Divine in even the darkest places. They speak as witnesses to the existence of the beauty and power of the Divine.
What can we learn from this outcome? What is our tradition trying to teach us here about holiness and about redemption?
Arthur Waskow points out that true holiness is like a seed, for a seed carries potentiality. Holiness is not an end in itself or a pre-condition. It is an eternal aspiration. Korach, the frozen one, inevitably returns to the womb of the earth, to thaw and become like a seed from which holiness will sprout forth in future generations.
And so we ask, what is the work that lies before us? As we face the current challenges in our society, let us remember that our democracy was built on holy aspirations. Democracy, like holiness is a process. It is a verb. It is our task to remember, to engage and to strive to fulfill that vision of dignity, liberty and justice for all. Sadly, it is not self-evident to all. The democratic process requires constant vigilance and engagement.
May we find the strength to continue the work of bringing holiness into the world. May we be aligned with Your will. Ken Yehi Ratzon.
Welcome and thank you so much for coming. It is heart warming and encouraging to see this response to our invitation. It is rather fascinating how an act that promotes hatred and xenophobia actually provokes the opposite response - a show of solidarity and community support for one another. When faced with darkness, we seek out the light- when faced with hatred we seek out connection.
I’d like to thank Tabitha Poole-Mohr, of the NAACP, first and foremost for the impetus and invitation to create this Community Forum to discuss the recent Hate Speech action at the Rutland Free Library. Tonight, let us learn together, let us grow as a community and let us create new light to dispel these shadows.
Our ancient Jewish text- the Torah- known to our Christian brothers and sisters as the Old Testament teaches that God created the world through 10 acts of speech. The first utterance recorded was this: and God Said, Let the be light; and there was light.
The second utterance: and God Said, Let there be an expanse in the midst of the water. and God made the expanse. And later: God Said Let the waters beneath the sky be gathered into one place that the dry land may appear- and it was so… And God Said let the earth bring forth every kind of living creatures, and it was so… So on and so forth, 10 acts of speech through which the world is created. Our sacred text reveals a profound truth in its very first words: Speech is a creative act. Speech has within it the power to create the kind of world we live in. And therefore it is also the case that speech has the power to destroy the world we live in.
Whether the tool is the spoken word or the written word, we understand this kind of power. As Jews we know the destructive power of speech that Hitler channeled, both in spoken form and in a written form in his hate-filled treatise Mein Kampf. As Americans we know the power of speech to inspire us to embody the better angels of our nature. We recall Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. whose words continue to lift us up, strengthening our hearts, and giving us the fuel to continue to work for civil rights and human rights.
So now, at this moment, when faced with these words and images stuffed into my community’s bookshelves, my response is to ask myself- how might I use my words to create a more kind and peaceful world? While I cannot erase the images, I can be ever mindful of the words I choose in every interaction. Before I speak, I can ask myself- will my words build this relationship or damage it? Will my words create an opening or a closing?
Will my words elevate the conversation or degrade it?
Each of us is responsible for the words we choose and thereby, the worlds we create. And We are also responsible for the words we allow to be spoken in our community. We speak often about political correctness and this term gets a lot of flack in our society these days. But why not elevate that term- why not take the politics out of it and instead consider a more fundamental concept- Kind and Considerate Speech. And when we witness hate speech, let us call it out and refuse to condone it through silence.
When Tabitha asked me, what is my response to these flyers- I say, let them be the impetus for us to recognize our shared humanity. Let them be the impetus for us to strengthen our community connections. Let them provoke us to be ever more mindful of our speech. Let them spark us to build a community of kindness.
It has been just over a month since we celebrated Passover- the Festival of Freedom. Around our tables we enacted the journey from slavery to freedom. Perhaps we liberated ourselves a little bit more from the ways we enslave ourselves through unconscious habitual devotion to repetitive patterns in our own lives.
To be free is to have a choice. But one must be awake to realize that choice is possible. The degree of our own unconsciousness expresses the degree of our enslavement. When we become awake and aware, then we have the ability to make choices and then we become truly free. Simply knowing one does in fact have a choice in every situation is the mark of freedom.
In the Passover story, the Israelites left the land of enslavement and began a journey into the wilderness toward an unknown destination. Tradition teaches us this journey lasted for 49 days and culminated in the giving of Torah at Mt. Sinai.
In this week’s Torah portion- Emor- all the festivals of the Jewish calendar are listed including the commandment to count the 49 days from the day after Pesach until the 50th day. This tradition is called counting the Omer.After these seven weeks we are instructed to celebrate a harvest festival called Shavuot which means weeks.
Like all Jewish practices related to the calendar cycle, there is both an agricultural land basis to the traditions as well as a spiritual significance tied to the narrative of the Jewish people. In this case, the yearly counting of the 49 days between the first barley harvest at Passover time and the first wheat harvest at Shavuot, became tied to the 49 day journey of the Israelites from Egypt to Mt. Sinai.
In both cases the expression of life renewing itself through an unfolding process over time is revealed; first physically, in the springtime cycle of nature’s rising energy as barley and then wheat come to fruition and also spiritually, through the gradual awakening of the people out of slave mentality to the freedom of choice. Slaves who have never experienced the freedom to choose anything are released from bondage and arrive 50 days later at Mt. Sinai where they make a choice to accept Torah declaring – na’aseh v’nishmah- we will do and we will listen.
So too do we possess an ongoing potential for renewal and refinement of ourselves. During this period in our calendar, in which we count the days between Passover and Shavuot, we can become aware of our potential for growth and change. Jewish mystical tradition teaches that each of the 49 days of this Omer period is linked to certain spiritual traits which we may focus upon and cultivate each day.
The beauty of the Omer counting practice, much like the practices of teshuvah/repentance in the Fall, is that it acknowledges that all growth is a process, never accomplished in one day or one season or even one year. We are all in process, traveling a spiral path round and round, but never in quite the same place each year. And so, each spring, after the elaborate ritual of the Passover Seder in which we become more deeply aware of the liberation struggle within ourselves and the world, then, do we embark upon the 49 day journey through the wilderness of our lives.
This Shabbat, beginning tonight and through tomorrow is the 35th day of the Omer. On this day we culminate a week devoted to the quality of gratitude. When we experience true gratitude our focus expands beyond our sense of limitation. We become the recipients of blessing as we experience goodness in the world. How we see the world directly effects how we experience our daily lives. When we expect the worst or feel a constant sense of lack, our experiences will validate those beliefs. When we live in a state of lack we nurture a kind of insatiable hunger within. However, when we train ourselves to seek out blessings, the little gifts that surround us every day, our experience of life will be changed. In our earliest collection of Rabbinic teachings we have the words of Ben Zoma who said: “Who is the rich person? The one who rejoices in his portion.” For it is true that the one who can see the gifts, who can rejoice in the blessings in their lives, is rich in happiness.
I offer to you tonight a simple practice with far reaching benefits. Consider an evening practice of recalling and writing down five things which occurred that day and for which you are grateful. Try to increase the number over time. See how your attention may change during the day if you knew you had to report on your blessings each evening. Perhaps you would seek out moments for gratitude otherwise unseen? These do not need to be momentous happenings. They can and are simple moments; when someone offers you a smile, or the sun shines on your face, or a favorite song comes on the radio. Whatever it is, take note and write it down in the evening. We all have countless moments for which to be grateful if we are looking through the lens of blessings.
These days our society is hyper-focused on improving one’s physical health, looks and physical body. Yoga, pilates, special diets, supplements fill the marketplace. The emphasis on physical beauty is everywhere. Jewish practices are also concerned with self-improvement, but of quite a different nature. Our practices are rooted in honest self- examination and the recognition that we can refine our inner lives and bring more holiness into the world.
This Omer count from Passover to Shavuot- from freedom to receiving Torah- has often been described as a ladder, counting up, not down, to the moment in which revelation becomes a possibility. As we commit ourselves to becoming, to entering into a process of refining the heart and opening our eyes, then, we can come more into contact with our Divine nature. In this sense do we become conduits for revelation, that is, channels for revealing holiness in the world.
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.