Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Evolutionary Judaism

I love Conservative Judaism. It is a great blessing to the Jewish world. I believe in its message and its wisdom. I know it has real limitations, yet it is poised to address the needs of the Jewish people in the 21stcentury. For decades, our movement has wisely embraced tradition while acknowledging the importance of change as generations go by. Most significantly, I appreciate Conservative Judaism’s embrace of honesty, truth, and intellectual integrity. When we study texts of Torah, we don’t suspend disbelief. We don’t ask our adherents to check their critical thinking at the door. We invite our communities to apply their intellectual vigor and the breadth of their learning from many disciplines—Jewish and non-Jewish-- to discern the meaning and the context of our teachings. We are Halakhic: we uphold the binding quality of a Jewish law that has brilliantly grown up over our 3,000 year heritage. We respect that tradition, and seek to change those laws and practices judiciously, only when careful investigation of modern circumstances clearly warrants a response in our practices. The clearest example of this process of tradition and change is the advancing role of women in Conservative Judaism over the past 30 years. Our tradition, of course, had been non-egalitarian. With the progress of our modern society, our movement endeavored not to dismiss the ancient laws and traditions outright, but to look carefully into the underlying principles, values, and teachings of mitzvot and obligation. With love and respect for the traditions themselves, we found new ways to uphold established notions of obligation and yet find new places for women alongside men in congregational life. This is a brilliant and precious approach to Judaism! Our values aren’t just about intellectual integrity, but also about pluralism, a spirit of welcoming, open-mindedness, and most importantly, of wisdom. We seek the wise middle ground between progressive values and conservative respect for the traditions of our ancestors. Our modern-day society is so often overwhelmed by messages that promote self-absorption, of “pick and choose” religious practices and spirituality. This makes our approach to Judaism all the more important.

And yet, with all of this praise, and all of its importance, Conservative Judaism itself faces many challenges. Our society is advancing at a blinding pace—new technologies, new ideas, new ways of thinking about connection and the world arise every day. A new generation of Jews is coming into the mainstream, and those Jews speak a completely different religious and spiritual language than their parents and grandparents. By and large, today’s younger Jews are not engaged by an exploration of Jewish history and through critical scholarly readings of biblical texts. The Jews of the 21st century are not interested in conceptually-based “movements” in Judaism at all! They are looking for something more immediate and compelling from Judaism.

I believe that if any expression of modern Judaism can respond wisely to this new generation of Jews, it’s the Conservative approach. Our thoughtful, historical, contextual view of Judaism is the perfect foundation for evolving with the new generation of Jews in our society. Our unofficial motto is “Tradition and Change,” and this essential approach is what we’re hungering for today—it’s just that we have to embrace tradition and change in new ways.

For most Jews today, Judaism is a collection of religious “folkways.” At key life-cycle moments and on major Jewish holidays like the New Year and Passover, we come to synagogue to find connection with family traditions. The Judaism that Jews today encounter in synagogue cannot just be an intellectualized endeavor. It’s not enough for me, as your rabbi, to explain the rational underpinnings of Kashrut. Most Jews today feel perfectly Jewish without keeping kosher at all, so a rational justification for it is interesting at best, but not personally compelling.

Conservative Judaism today is poised to heed its own message: “tradition and change” really means “Evolution.” When anything evolves—animals or ideas—it both transcends and includes what has come before it. Conservative Judaism is “Evolutionary” Judaism! The beauty of the Conservative Movement in the 20th century was that it was a great academic journey into the meaning of Judaism as an evolving civilization over thousands of years. It's time to take it to the next level. We’re ready to teach that Judaism is vastly more than “folkways” or even just a type of “identity.” What Jewish people need these days is not just Jewish distinctiveness, but a Jewish experience that can help us engage more with life, with society, with our families. Jewish people today are not anxious so much about Jewish survival in America; they’re seeking a traditional wisdom that can teach them how to be a better spouse, a better parent, a better friend, a better boss. We’re looking for a spiritual tradition that shows us how to take better care of ourselves and each other in a very complex and confusing world.

Conservative Judaism now must show our people how traditional mitzvot and rituals and observances can deepen our character, enrich our spirit, provide meaning, and relieve stress in a world of such uncertainty. We want to know how Judaism’s wisdom can give us insight into our human nature, to guide us in our difficult life decisions, and to provide relief from some of our deepest sufferings. Our people today are genuinely open to the possibility of keeping Kosher, but not because it was once a healthy diet choice in ancient times. We want to know how Kashrut can deepen our character as human beings. How can it relieve stress? How can keeping kosher make us a better citizen of the world? How can Kashrut make us engage better with life, with society, with our family, our non-Jewish business associates? How can it make us live with deeper wisdom in all aspects of our life?

The role of a Conservative congregation today is to promote the idea that our traditions and rituals are NOT just folkways, they’re meaningful and transformational! Our job as a Conservative synagogue is not to force observance on our members, but to create the conditions where our members can discover the power of observance to touch their lives, their souls—not just their intellects. We need to get the message out there that we don’t want our members just to come and pay homage to an ancient ritual, but rather to find deep personal significance in the words, the melodies, the rhythms of these rituals and practices.

The measure of our success is not how many bodies we can get in the doors on any given Shabbat or holiday or religious school program. Rather, success must be determined by how our members are when theyleave the building! Are we more ALIVE than when we came in? Are we more engaged with life, with our souls, are we kinder and more compassionate? Are we inspired to act for justice? Are we wiser and more sensitive as a human being, and not just as a Jew? The great challenge, the wonderful journey ahead of us is: can we create a synagogue community where we transform people's lives THROUGH tradition, and not in spite of tradition? Can we provide access to meaning without watering Judaism down, or simplifying it? Can we trust our members enough to know that they are more than willing to rise to the ways that our tradition challenges us to grow morally, personally, and spiritually? These are the great questions that we have yet to address fully in this new century, and in our amazing congregation. I am more than eager to join with you all and to begin to address these questions. And may these questions lead to more questions. In seeking the answers, may we grow and evolve joyfully for generations to come.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Being the Earth

It’s hard not to love the character of Noach. He’s always depicted as that dotty little old man who builds the ark, and collects the animals two by two. His ark graces the walls of countless nurseries and preschools. It might come as a surprise the Noach doesn’t quite come off so well in the Jewish tradition. Rashi explains that Noach was only a tzadik bedorotav, which means that, while he is called a Tzadik, it was only in relation to his generation (which, of course was all wanton sinners) that he looked good at all! The midrash (the rabbinic story) in Tanhuma goes even further, and calls Noach a ‘sinner,’ because he did not publicly speak out against the sinners of his generation, and only retreated into the safety of his ark. Pretty harsh words for poor old man Noach! But this is all very strange, because if you look at the literal text of the Torah, it says that Noach was Ish Tzadik Tamim Hayah bedorotav, that he was a righteous and whole-hearted man in his generation. In fact, no other figure in the entire bible is given such a glorious epithet next to his name. Why, indeed, are there so many voices in our tradition who want to denigrade Noach’s accomplishments?

A lot of the trouble comes from the fact that Noach appears very early in the biblical account, and to rabbinic eyes, Noach pales in comparison to a much more central Tzadik to the Jewish people, namely Avraham. Exactly the same descriptive words used for Noach are also used for Avraham: Hithalech lifanai v’heyeh tamim: God says to Avraham, ‘Walk before me, and be tamim, whole-hearted. ‘ (Gen. 17:1). So what’s the difference, our ancient rabbis wondered, between the two men? Obviously, Avraham is a much more active figure than Noach ever was. It was Avraham who set out and walked the land of Israel, who withstood tests of faith, who battled kings, who made a foothold in the land, who stood up even to God for the sake of the potential innocent lives that might be lost in the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah! There isn’t even one instance of Noach standing up for anything in the story. God tells him to build an ark, so he builds an ark. He saves the animals, himself, and his family, at God’s command. And that’s it. Of course, Noach doesn’t come across as well in the rabbinic imagination!

But then again, if you look carefully throughout the ancient rabbinic texts, there are other, less well-known opinions about Noach and his righteousness: In the Talmud (B. Sanhedrin 108a) there’s a dispute between Rabbi Yohanan and Resh Lakish. Rabbi Yohanan makes the standard argument that Noach was only righteous in his own sinful generation, but not any others. And Resh Lakish says, no. You’re reading it incorrectly. When the Torah says that Noach was a righteous man bedorotav—in his generation-- it means that even in his own terrible and sinful generation he was righteous, all the more so in later generations! Rabbi Oshaiya then explains: Resh Lakish’s view may be illustrated by a vial of [fragrant] …oil lying [in a foul-smelling place]: if its fragrance is sensed even in such surroundings, how much more so amid spices!

Now it starts to get interesting! Not everybody was convinced that Noach was a self-serving man in a cruel world. Maybe, say the likes of Resh Lakish, Noach was one of the greatest tzadikim, greatest righteous men, we have ever known, even as great, perhaps, as the likes of Avraham himself?! This morning, I would like us to look again at this man Noach, this Ish Tzadik Tamim, this righteous, whole-hearted man, and see if indeed we have had not yet fully learned his particular kind of righteousness. I believe that, in fact, in our world of today, we are finally ready to really understand and to take in the significance of Noach’s greatness and his righteous. Only today, in this world of global warming and ever-increasing environmental catastrophe, can we really grasp the message of Noach’s life.

Let’s think about what happens in this flood story. It is nothing less than de-creation! Quite literally, the process of creation itself that was set up in the Genesis Creation narrative is undone step by step, as the ‘flood gates’ of heaven are literally opened up, and the world is reduced again only to the spirit of God hovering upon the waters. Only this time, of course, there is that ark, a little micro-habitat of that former created world, with Noach and his family, floating in those waters. What can strike us when we consider this story in its broad strokes is that it’s not a Jewish story particularly at all. Our ancient rabbis didn’t like the description of a ‘Tzadik’ for Noach because he predates Avraham and his particular story of a founding a Jewish people with a connection to the Land of Israel. This story is way more universal. Noach is not a Jew, in particular. If he is anything, he is a second Adam, founding a whole new line of human beings in the world. There is nothing particularly Jewish about his life or his behavior, save his obedience to God’s command to build an ark.

The Sfat Emet, a great 19th century Hasidic commentary pointed out something very interesting about Noach, that his very mission and role in the world was signified by his name. The name Noach is related to the word ‘menuchah,’ which means ‘rest.’ Noach’s role is to come into the world ultimately, says the Sfat Emet, to bring about menuchah, rest itself, ‘lachzor kol echad leshorsho,’ to bring everything back to its source; to realize that ‘ain lo chiyut me’atzmo klal,” that he has no life-force at all on his own. In other words, Noach teaches us the righteousness NOT of struggling against the course of nature or against God’s plan, but to allow it to be, just as it is. (Sfat Emet 1:67)

Talk about a not-Jewish-sounding idea! When we think about Avraham, he is regularly getting involved, regularly ‘making souls,’ calling people to the service of God, making peace, struggling for holiness. He even accuses God of injustice before the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah and says, ‘hashofet kol ha’aretz lo ya’aseh mishpat,” ‘The Judge of all the earth shall not mete out justice?!’ We all know and love the Jewish brand of righteousness: it’s called chutzpah, it ‘s all about marching alongside the oppressed and starting revolutions! Now suddenly, here is the Sfat Emet , declaring Noach to be righteous BECAUSE he didn’t protest, and just allowed the flood to be! Herein is the deeply troubling core of the Noach story. His apparent passivity, his apparent lack of a moral outcry deeply troubles not just the rabbis, but all of us to this day. How can we possibly abide a ‘righteousnes’ that is all about ‘surrender,’ of just letting things be? If we abide this approach, we fear that this is what allows evil to happen in the world, that allows Nazis to run rampant, that allows all manner of injustice to prevail!

But then again, there is the text, right in front of us, saying that this man Noach was an Ish Tzadik Tamim, a whole-heartedly righteous man—this was the man who allowed the flood to be, ‘et ha’Elohim hithalech Noach,’ who walked right alongside God’s destructive plan without hesitation or question. It’s deeply morally disturbing, this kind of passivity. But the question we must reconsider in our time is: was Noach REALLY passive after all? Let’s take a quick tour of some the midrashic descriptions of Noach’s life and career:

According to one midrash, Noach deliberately spent 52 years building that ark ever so slowly because, as the Torah makes perfectly clear, the society of his day was hopelessly corrupt, cruel, and violent. There was no place for him to speak up. No justice. No forum to be listened to. And so, he built that ark slowly so that the wicked people of his generation would take note of his actions and repent of their ways (Pirkei deRabbi Eliezar 22). To no avail, of course, so when the flood came, Noach and his family spent the whole 12 months at sea never sleeping a wink, feeding the animals and birds(Tanhuma 58:9). And it wasn’t just feeding the animals. According to the Talmud (Sanhedren 108b), the ark had three levels: a deck for the family, a middle deck for all the animals, and then a lower deck for all of the animal droppings. Can you imagine?! Noach and his family spent an inordinate amount of time just shoveling that stuff down to the lower deck. And why did they save it all? Rashi explains (Gen. 6:13) that after the flood cleared, the land had lost 12 inches of topsoil from the flood, so when Noach landed, he got right to work using the all the animal compost to work the land, dutifully, tirelessly. He was a true man of the earth, of the soil. Rashi even explains that he invented the plough, and that, “before his time, people would plant wheat and the earth would produce thorns and thistles.” But Noach, ever diligent and hard working, single-handedly regenerated the earth.

The Torah itself tells us that when Noach was born, his father gave him that name, saying “This one will provide us relief [y’nachameinu] from our work and from the toil of our hands, out of the very soil which the Lord placed under a curse.” Of course, he was referring to the curse of Adam when he was expelled from the Garden of Eden, who was now to toil and suffer by the sweat of his brow on the land. Noach is the one who, by his very birth, would point us the way to healing that sense of a cursed relationship with the land, with the earth itself. It is in this way that he is a Tzadik Tamim, a whole-hearted righteous man, because through his life, through his relationship of allowing the world to be, he shows us all how to heal ourselves, how to return to our source, and our relationship to the earth itself!

Rabbi Leib Saras once taught the true meaning of a Tzadik, of a righteous man. He said “A Tzadik is not a person who preaches Torah, but rather lives Torah. Not his words, but his actions should teach Torah to the people. I visit Tzadikim not to listen to their interpretations of Torah, but to observe how they conduct themselves from the time of their arising in the early morning until the time of their lying down to rest at night.”

If we compare Noach to Avraham, yes he will appear to come up short. But it’s not a fair comparison. Avraham’s very role in the Torah is to be a teacher of righteousness through direct action. There was no morality in Noach’s society, and so Noach could only teach righteousness by his example. All he could do was hope that others would listen and follow. Noach’s presence teaches us that there are other kinds of righteousness in life that are also equally important, namely, the righteousness of acceptance, of moving inexorably with the flow of nature itself. No matter how much cruelty and wickedness surrounded him, Noach remained TAMIM, which means ‘whole-hearted,’ but it literally means ‘simple-hearted.’ He remained close to the earth and the animals and nature and resisted the corrupting influence of the society around him. In this temimut, in this simplicity, he was righteous and a teacher to us today! No matter what environmental catastrophes resulted from human wickedness, he kept moving forward, creatively finding a way to sustain life despite catastrophe. He never lost his faith, or his faithfulness. He didn’t board the ark until the floodwaters forced him to, always holding out hope that his human bretheren might repent of their ways. When there was nothing left of the world but the ark, he still didn’t lose his faith and resolve to preserve life itself. He gave and he gave and he gave, even when there was no apparent hope of a reward.

When we talk about the modern environmental crisis, we always talk of the need to ‘save the planet earth.’ But this isn’t exactly right. No matter what we do to the earth, ultimately, the earth will be fine. The earth has survived countless catastrophes in the past. The earth will survive. The real question is: will we survive? Noach is the perfect teacher for our time because Noach IS the very embodiment of the earth itself. In his survival, he teaches us all how to survive: it can only happen through tzedek and temimut, through righteousness and simple whole-heartedness itself. No matter what terrible things happen to or around Noach, he always finds a way, he always regenerates, and returns himself and the Earth to its source.

When Noach emerges from the ark, God sends a rainbow as the sign of a new covenant, and God promises never again to destroy the world by flood. And on our end of the deal, we are asked ultimately to BE the children of Noach. We are called by that rainbow to Be the ones, like Noach before us to bring the earth back to rest, to repose, to return the earth to its source, to make the world into the Garden of Eden once again.

And we accomplish this by emulating the simple righteousness of Noach. We are to BE the earth itself. We must live our lives in tune with the rhythms of this miraculous world. We must be simple and whole-hearted, working with the world in all its challenges and limitations, always giving and giving for the sake of the earth and for one another, never expecting a reward. Perhaps the environmental crisis about us can remind us to awaken to this deep calling to be a little more Noach—to be simple lovers of this earth, of each other, of all that is. May we all activate this righteousness of temimut, of simplicity within us all, and in so doing, may we regenerate this earth and return it to its source, to peace.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Creation: Thou Art That

The texts of today’s Torah reading are the source of one of the greatest controversies of our time. Namely, the Creation verses evolution debate. It seems like you can barely turn on the television or open the papers these days without seeing some reference to this debate. Just look at the New York Times bestseller list this week and you see Richard Dawkin’s ‘The Greatest Show on Earth,’ arguing vehemently against the intelligent design argument, and there’s also Karen Armstrong’s ‘The Case for God.’ When Frances Collins was selected to head up the NIH, a veritable storm of controversy was kicked up by his scientific colleagues who could not abide his belief in God. There seems to be a modern obsession either with attacking or explaining away the biblical account of Creation in light of evolution. Richard Dawkins and his militant atheist friends seem to reduce all religion to fundamentalist literalism—that if you believe in God you MUST be a supernaturalist, and you must believe the biblical 6-day account. And folks like him arrogantly stir up all kinds of animosity toward religion in general, positing that all religions are based on facile notions of irrational faith, and the world would be better off without the scourge of irrational religion all together.

As a Conservative rabbi, this leaves me in rather a strange position. It seems pretty clear to me that life as we know it evolved over countless millions of years. It makes the most sense that some kind of process of natural selection charted the course of all the species of life we now encounter in the world. Scientific inquiry and rational investigation has yielded enormous evidence to this effect so that, while I can never know for sure, I am as certain of the validity of evolution as I can be about most aspects of life that I count on to be True. I read of fundamentalist Christians who demand equal time in school textbooks to argue that the world is about 6,000 years old and my stomach turns. I hear of some of my ultra-Orthodox rabbinic colleagues who similarly insist that God put dinosaur bones that carbon date to millions of years just as a nisayon—a test of our faith—and again, I am horrified. So what would Richard Dawkins make of the likes of me?

There are many well-meaning people who try to solve the clash of modern rationalism and religion by attempting to erase the problematic aspects of the biblical texts. There are those who argue, for example, that dinosaurs were from a previous Creation that God did “before” the account in our Torah; or those who say: what’s a “day” for God? A day for God can be millions or billions of years! So there’s no problem with our text, because each day left millions of years for evolution to happen! These justifications are nice, and they certainly solve the problem on some level, but they have always struck me as an attempt to fit a square peg into a round hole.

Let’s face it: the Torah says that God created the world in 6 days, and on the 7th day, God rested. If the Torah had wanted to say that God brought about Creation over eons of time, it certainly could have worded it that way. The great tragedy of this evolution verses Creation debate is that both sides fundamentally miss the point of the Torah. If you scratch beneath the surface of the arrogant claims on both sides, you will notice that they, just like us, are challenged very deeply by the Torah text. The debaters on this issue, just like we are, are human. This text very deliberately flies in the face of their experience of Reality, and so in their great discomfort with this fact, they either rush to the ramparts to defend it on grounds of “faith,” or rush to obliterate it on the grounds of “reason.” And in going to either extreme, they lose the Truth—the Ultimate Truth, the beautiful and transforming wisdom--of the text itself.

Six days of Creation: beginning with Tohu vaVohu—chaos—and the Light separating from darkness, waters above and below, land and sea, plants and vegetation, stars and galaxies, all manner of creatures and animals, and then finally humankind. And behold it was very good. And then, vayechulu, it was all completed: a day of Rest, Shabbat. It’s a story of order emerging miraculously up out of chaos. Through each “day,” through each cycle we see the Divine Will moving inexorably toward some kind of goal: God works ceasely through the 6 days, creating separating, naming, leading up to the greatest achievement of all: humankind, in the very image of God, capable of ruling over and manipulating this harmonious order itself! And then…something completely different appears! Rest. Cessation. Stillness. Non-Creation! And that stillness is called “Holy.” It’s a profoundly awesome and mysterious text. This is no history book. This is not a recounting of cold facts to be taken literally “on faith.” This is a spiritual teaching that is at once beautiful and terrifying, awesome, mystifying and challenging.

The point of this text is not to give us an easy answer about the world. It’s supposed to set us into a total tailspin! This life, this Reality that you and I find ourselves in, is but a hairsbreadth away from Tohu vaVohu, from incomprehensible chaos. That idea is frightening enough. But at the same time: this whole stable world that you and I count on to live in, day by day, is moving toward complete cessation, toward stopping, toward an unfathomable stillness where all our plans and dramas and loves and strivings will merge into that stillness! When we start to look at the text on this level, then we’re really reading Genesis: the point is not to take it on faith, but to inquire what it means. The point is not to read it as a factoid that happened 6,000 years ago, but to ask ‘where is this process of Creation happening within me, right now?’

Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, the author of the Sfat Emet, a great Hasidic commentary, noticed something very interesting about the Creation account. He noticed what the account leaves out, not just what it includes. Genesis, for example, says nothing about the creation of Heaven or angels or other realms beyond the material world. Certainly, Judaism teaches all about all kinds of angels and divine messengers—what of their creation? The Sfat Emet explains: The Torah didn’t have to explain the creation of heaven and angels. The fact that we’re here means that they are there! “Hem b’atzmam hachelek haSheni hashayach l’otan habruim shel’matah. They are the other other half of the creatures who live here on earth. As you live and walk here on earth, you have your angelic “other half” as it were, on a higher realm of Creation above. All week long, you’re just you by your lonesome here on Earth. But on Shabbat, however “yored oto koach hashoresh umitchabrin shnei hachalakim,” the power of the upper root comes down, and the two halves are joined together. In other words, in the joy and completeness of Shabbat, you become more whole than what you were, because now your higher spiritual self is joined with your mudane and worldly self.

A very interesting teaching, and it unlocks much of the mystery of the account of the Creation. Don’t worry: I’m not asking us necessarily to believe that we all have guardian angels or that there’s a heaven “up there” in a celestial realm. It’s all metaphor. What does it mean? It means that the story of Creation that we read about in Genesis is not so much a description of how the universe was created. Rather, it’s a message to you about the kind of universe that you are creating! The Torah text states directly that each of us, you and I, are the very image of God. Divinity expresses itself as a powerful energy, the very urge that has brought about the very evolution of the world that we perceive. Likewise, we create as well. We spend our whole lives doing just what God was up to during those six days: we’re constantly ordering things, separating this from that, good from bad, desirable from undesirable, happiness from sadness, beginnings from endings. We function on a week of 7 days. We manipulate nature, the whole world to suit our needs and our whims. But look where the story places us in this process: right at the end of all that doing. We exist on the cusp of doing, and ceasing from all doing. Our ancient sages remind us that God created us very last, right before Shabbat came in. And the Midrash explains that it is through us that God can finish all that ‘doing’ and it is through us, that God—and we--can enter into the Shalom, the Peace of Shabbat, of rest.

The point of the Genesis Creation account is to show you the big picture, the very purpose of your life. The purpose of Creation is Shabbat. The six days culminate in Shabbat. The purpose of your life is not to mindlessly scurry about, toiling and working and struggling with problems: but live fully engaged in life, to understand that the purpose of all work and struggle is to end toil and struggle and suffering. The purpose of your life is to transform the world into Shabbat. And you do that by transforming YOUR world into Shabbat!

Zen master Dogen once famously taught: “everyday we swim on the surface of the ocean, yet our feet can walk across the bottom.” By this, he means that to live life well, we must live consciously in two realms: the conventional realm and the realm of Ultimate Reality. In our daily lives, we get up, we get dressed, we go to work, we pay bills, we make meals, watch TV, etc. Most of us only live in this world of surface-swimming—which is the 6 days of creation. This world is Tov Me’od, it is very good. It’s real and it’s important. But we’re living only half of our lives if we live only in this dimension of Reality. There’s another realm of reality as well: the deep abiding depths of the Ocean, or the heavenly realm of angels, or the timelessness and peace of Shabbat. It doesn’t matter what you call it. It’s the Ultimate. The point of it all. The six days of Creation represent our material world: that’s the world where evolution happens over millions of years—it’s the world of space and time, of science and history, the world of dualities and separations.

Vayekadesh Oto…and God called Shabbat Holy, ‘ki vo shavat mikol melachto asher bara Elohim la’asot,’ because Shabbat is what all the work was created for in the first place. Shabbat is not just a day of the week. It’s not just a day to light candles and have challah and go to shul. Shabbat is a state of being. Shabbat is your Ultimate essence. It is the timeless moment where you are not separate and alone in the world, but connected to your Higher Angels—connected to Divinity itself. Shabbat is always there, beneath the surface waves and the trials and tribulations of life. When we develop this Shabbat-consciousness, suddenly all the troubles and challenges of life take on a different hew. They have a different context. They don’t loom as large, because there is a peaceful inner timeless realm where no time or work or troubles can touch us. We have Created the conditions for Shabbat. We enact Shabbat on a weekly basis as the Jewish people, but on an even deeper level, we are, each of us, called to enact Shabbat within our very hearts and souls.

Ramana Maharshi, a great early 20th-century teacher in the Hindu Advaita Vedanta tradition, once said, “The essential purpose of … [sacred scriptures] is to teach you the nature of the imperishable (‘Atman) [Ultimate Self], and to declare with authority “Tat Tvam Asi,” “Thou art That.” What he means is: look into the sacred text, look into the Torah. What do you see? If you see just a story, you’re not really seeing it. If you see a history book, a book of facts, you’re not really seeing it. If you see something irrational and supernatural, you’re not really seeing it. Look deeper. Thou art That! That text is meant to be a mirror into your Truest and deepest Self! The whole world is being Created through you. You are the miracle arising from chaos, on an incredible journey to find peace. May we see that journey as Tov Me’od, as very good. And when we find that peace within, may we indeed declare our whole lives, and this whole world, as holy.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Death is Not as Real as Love

There’s a very fitting connection between Shmini Atzeret and the service of Yizkor. The term “Shmini Atzeret” literally means, “stopping on the eighth day.” Numbers always have great symbolic significance in Judaism. The number seven, of course, has obvious significance as the symbol of completion—like the completion of the seventh day of creation, and the completion of the week with Shabbat. But what of the number eight? When we consider the symbolic references to the number eight, we are reminded of the brit milah, the circumcision rite that always happens on the eighth day. It’s rather strange, isn’t it? Why indeed have rituals and holidays on the eighth day, when the seventh day has such a biblical connection to significance, completion, and perfection?

Our tradition teaches us to think of the eighth day as the fullness of seven, of completion… plus one more! It is true perfection, because when you reach the natural completion of seven, the eight makes a perfect circle: think of the eight-note musical scale: do re mi fa so la ti do! It’s only when you come full circle, that you can stop (“atzeret,”)turn around and behold the whole fullness of the hakafah—the circle—that we have been journeying through throughout this holiday period. That’s just the idea in a brit milah: the baby has survived the first full critical week of life, so now, on the eighth day, we can take a deep breath and truly celebrate this birth, this new little one entering the covenant of the Jewish people.

So here we are at Shmini Atzeret, the eighth day. Today we stop, we pause and look back with satisfaction and gratitude at the joy we have celebrated on Sukkot. And we are also at Yizkor: the act of looking back always reminds us of our loved ones who are no longer with us. But each service of Yizkor has its own particular character, it’s own palate of emotional experience. If, on Yom Kippur, we said Yizkor in our humility and awe from the intensity of the Yamim Noraim…today, Yizkor is recited as a simpler, sweeter reflection.

When Sarah Imenu, the great matriarch of the Jewish people, died, the Torah refers to her death rather strangely: it says “vayihiyu chayey Sarah meah shanah v’esrim shanah v’sheva shanim, shnei chayey Sarah,” which literally translates as “Sarah’s lifetime was 100 years and 20 years and 7 years, the years of the life of Sarah.” Strange wording. The Torah could have just said, “Sarah lived to be 127 years old,” but instead, it lengthed out the numbering of her years. And our sages explain that it’s worded this way because the Torah wants us to do a little “Atzeret,” to pause and consider the fullness of her years while she was live. Even before the Torah tells us that she died, it wants us to think about how she lived! …About how each and every year was well lived, beautifully and courageously lived.

I once read a story about a woman who couldn’t stop grieving over the loss of her son, who died in a mountain-climbing accident. For twenty years, this woman’s life was utterly devastated. What I read was the record of the counselor who worked with this woman: the counselor explained that this woman was stuck in an eternal mental loop that she was trapped in. Every day of her life, for twenty whole years, over and over, she watched in her imagination that image of her child slipping and falling off that cliff to his death. No! No! No! would be her silent scream in her head at this image. And then there was all her anger at him for not taking better precautions, her guilt at not doing something to protect him. Finally, the counselor asked that woman a powerful question: how many times did your son fall to his death? Once, of course. And how many times have you mentally been falling to death together with him? Hundreds of tens of thousands of times, more than anyone could count, was her answer. And with this answer, suddenly she realized that she could do her own atzeret, she could step out of that hakafah, that loop that went around over and over in her mind, and she realized that once that young man’s death happened, it was over. There was no more suffering for him, just for her because she was forcing herself to experience that death eternally. But all of a sudden, for the first time, she was able to grasp a much wider Hakafah, the much wider cycle of a beautiful life that had been gifted to her in the person of her son. Instead of just replaying his death, she had the spaciousness now to really look back at the fullness of her son’s life: this wonderful, funny, brilliant, creative, adventuresome young man whose time had come. Yes, it was so much shorter a life than anyone should live, but it was his time. And, for the first time in her life, his mother came to a place of peace, gratitude and even joy, because of the fullness of years she did share with her wonderful son.

This is the meaning of Yizkor on this day of Shmini Atzeret: that death is not a gaping emptiness that swallows up life and love. No, death is a Shmini Atzeret, it is the fullness of a completed circle. It doesn’t matter how many or how few years a life was lived in this world. Each life is perfectly whole and complete—whether we die of natural causes or of tragic circumstances—when our life comes to an end, the Hakafah, the circle is full and whole. No! No! No! we may shout. He or she was too young. He or she didn’t get to complete this or that. I didn’t get to tell them I loved them one more time. All of that, of course is true, and we grieve these losses. But even with all of that, their time is their time. And so this moment of Yizkor is so important for us to acknowledge this side of the Truth: that despite death’s experience of separation, we can see our loved one’s lives as a perfectly completed circle. We can look back and find the peace within ourselves. At this service of Yizkor, we can remember our loved ones, and find the joy and fullness beyond all experiences of emptiness and loss…

All throughout our prayers, we affirm over and over that God never forgets the lives of each and every one of us: ‘umekayem emunato lisheinei afar,’ that God keeps faith with those who sleep in the dust, with our loved ones who have passed on. In our prayers, we say that God remembers the Chasdei Avot, the loving acts of our forefathers, and in fidelity to them and their love, God will send redemption to us and to our children someday in this world. God remembers, and we remember. Our tradition calls to us to remember, again and again, that when our loved ones die, don’t focus on their death, always remember shnei chayeyhem, the years of the fullness of t heir lives. Because in our remembering them, this is how they never die.

On Yom Kippur, I did a thought experiment, where I had us picture ourselves. Now we will do another thought experiment, but this time, think someone you love who has passed on. Close your eyes, and see if you can really call to mind a vivid image of them together with you right now. Go ahead: look at their wonderful faces. Look at their smile. Look into their eyes. See how much they love you. See if you can reach out in your mind’s eye and touch their skin and feel the warmth, the life of them. Just take this moment and be in their loving presence. Isn’t it amazing how much the fullness of their life is truly there for you? And don’t discount this as just a fabrication of mind, of imagination. This isn’t a random thought that you’re having. When we see our loved ones in our mind in this way, this is coming from a very real place in our neshamah, in our soul, that has been touched and shaped, forever affected by the fullness of our their lives. That image that you just conjured up isn’t random imagination: it’s an image that flows from a place of real love within you. So in an ultimate sense, that image—which is a vivid and living memory within you—is as Real and True as our loved one’s physical presence while they were still alive! This idea might sound outlandish, but when you search your own deepest Truth, this is undeniable…

When you think about anyone whom you love—living or dead—on a very deep level, you know that they’re always with you, because you have let them into your heart. It doesn’t matter where you are: whether you’re in the living room downstairs and they’re in the bedroom upstairs—really you’re not ultimately separate. Even if you’re in one continent and they’re on another, you can really feel them—sometimes even physically—you can sense their loving presence. Their heart is with you and your heart is with them. This kind of ‘knowing’ is very subtle yet powerful, and very very deep when you love another human being. This isn’t just an act of imagination: this is real stuff. It’s the Ultimate Reality. It turns out that time and space are not quite as real as Love itself. And when it’s all said and done, death itself is not quite as real as Love itself either!

In his old age, the Gerer Rebbe told this story: “When I was still a student, Rabbi Shlomo Leib came up to me in the Beit Midrash and said: ‘Young man, you are known as a gifted Jew from Poland, so tell me why our sages commented on the verse in the scripture: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all they heart and with all they soul,” with the words: “Even if He takes our soul [you should still love God];” but [our sages]failed to comment “Even if he takes your heart,” [meaning: why did the sages NOT command us to love God EVEN if God takes our heart away?!]

I did not know what to say, [at the time, said the Gerer rebbe]… But …The older I get, the larger his question looms before me. If God so desires, let God take our life, but God must leave us that with which we love Him—God must leave us our heart.”

And indeed, this is the Ultimately reality that we discover at Yizkor on Shemini Atzeret: God may take the lives of our loved ones, but nowhere in God’s universe is it even possible to take away their heart. You see, their heart cannot die, because it is none other than YOUR heart! This is the great way that all love cheats and trumps death. In life, when we love another, we are present in their hearts. So when we die, our hearts live on—not metaphorically, but Truly, literally as their hearts.

Yizkor uses the language of ‘memory’ and ‘rememberance,’ but in matters of love and life and death, there is no time, there is no space. Even though we say we ‘remember’ our loved ones at Yizkor, in Truth we are more correctly making ourselves Mindful of their loving Presence that is with us always, in all moments of our lives. The fullness of their lives IS the fullness of our life. This is the essence of their love for us, which doesn’t die.

So this year, let us take this moment of Shmini Atzeret, and pause and look lovingly at the fullness of the lives whose love has brought us to this joyful time. Let us come to realize that God keeps faith with their lives through our keeping faith with them through living our own lives. Let us feel their care and nurturing and concern supporting our every lifebreath. And may the wholeness and completion of their lives remind us to cherish the fullness and completeness of our own life’s blessing here and now, while we have it. May their lives be source of blessing to us and to our children from generation to generation.