Wednesday, January 27, 2010

I gave the opening prayer in Congress this morning. See also Congressman Waxman's remarks after the pledge of allegiance...

Saturday, January 23, 2010

You are the Doorway

Just before the arrival of the terrible tenth plague on Egypt, Moses relays God’s command to the people of Israel to take a bundle of hyssop, dip it in the blood of the paschal offering, and to apply the blood to the lintel and two doorposts of their homes, so that the angel of death may pass them by. It’s a mysterious command, at a dark and awesome moment in the history of our people. What does it mean? Why blood on our doorposts, and why does it keep the Destroyer at bay, passing over the homes of the Israelites?

The Talmud (Bava Kama 60a) explains that the Destroyer, the Angel of Death, does not distinguish between the righteous and the wicked, and so the blood was the only way for it to know not to enter the homes of the Israelites to take the firstborn. It’s a good answer, but why specifically the doorposts and lintel? Why not on the walls or the roof of each house? Something deeper, a message, is being hinted at with this particular image of blood on a doorway. The Sfat Emet, a great Hasidic commentary, points out that even though the Israelites went out from Egypt with a great victory, God wanted them to know “ki heim adayin etzel hapetach,” that they were still in the doorway hoping truly to come inside into the “King’s” inner chambers (2:49). What does this mean?

Doorways are powerful symbols. They are transitions from one realm into another. A doorway often symbolizes leaving behind what we have known and entering into something new. Doorways are all about possibility and hope, and yet they can be frightening places as well: places where everything is in flux, where we are neither here nor there. Doorways can symbolize crisis as well as change: we’re in a doorway in life when all the old ways of coping fall away, and we’re not sure how or if we can handle what’s coming. It’s no wonder that we Jews put mezuzahs on our doorways to this day with the words of the Shema, words of affirmation, tradition and comfort to accompany us as we transition from one place to another in life.

A doorway is the perfect symbol for the Israelites at that moment in the story: in the dark night as the Destroyer passes through Egypt smiting the firstborn, we are still in Egypt, but our Exodus is now a surety. We know we are about to face a whole new and unknown future with the light of dawn. Tonight, there is only death on the other side of that doorway, but with the blood on our doorposts, there is the promise that tomorrow brings life and freedom.

What’s truly amazing is that this command to put the blood on the doorways comes in the midst of a long list of preparations for the Passover festival. The narrative then continues with the description of the final plague passing through Egypt, and finally Pharaoh’s relenting to let the Israelites go. But it’s not over yet even then. Pharaoh, as we know, changes his mind and encounters the Israelites at the Red Sea. We know what happens then—the sea parts, Pharaoh’s chariots give chase, and the sea covers them and drowns the whole army. And so, is the transition, the doorway, passed through yet? No! We have the whole desert before us now! Soon we make it to Mount Sinai and God gives us the Torah. That’s pretty incredible, but is the transition over yet? No! We then have another 40 years of wandering in the desert until we make to the Land of Israel. And even then, we have all the Canaanites to fight and to conquer. Are you seeing a pattern here? At least in Egypt, we were settled. We knew who we were. But as soon as we become a people of God, there is nothing but a doorway! One doorway after another. One transition after another. One crisis after another. Year after year. Generation after generation. In fact, you can make the argument that ever since we left Egypt, those passageways, those doorways have never ceased at all. After the conquest, the judges, after the judges, the kings of Israel and the struggles, and exile, and rebuilding, and destruction, and diaspora and anti-Semitism. To be a people Redeemed from Pharaoh’s slavery, to be Jewish, to be free, is to live always passing through a doorway. It’s not easy being Jewish, is it? But then again, this is our lot in the world. Perhaps this is one way we are fated to be the Ohr LaGoyim, the Light to the Nations, teaching the world a basic Truth of life: that life itself is always about transitions, passing through doorways. We know from doorways and passages. The wisdom of our people, the wisdom of Torah, is the wisdom of doorways. This is why the ancient sages in Pirkei AVot, the Ethics of the fathers, famously taught that “Ha’Olam Hazeh domeh laprozdor bifnei ha’olam haba,” (Avot 4:21) This whole world, this whole Reality, this whole life we lead is like a Prozdor—a corridor, a passageway, a doorway—before the world to come. What they mean by this is not that all the good stuff is in heaven after you die. It’s a deeper wisdom teaching: that we must first understand that everything about our life, our world is transitional and transitory. Understand that, and that is the beginning of True Wisdom. ..

There’s a story told of Reb Shlomo, a great Rebbe who was so enlightened, he knew the answer that God had to all of his disciples’ prayers. At the end of Yom Kippur one year, Reb Shlomo walked up to one of his disciples and said to him, “You have asked God for on this day of Atonement that God give you your livelihood without travail, so that you might be able to study and pray and serve God unhindered.” “Yes! I did ask that!” said his disciple, amazed at his master’s ability to see into his soul. “I can see God’s answer to your prayer,” said Reb Shlomo. “What does God say?” asked the disciple. “What God really wants of you,” answered Reb Shlomo, “is not study or prayer, but the sighs of your heart, which is breaking because the travail of gaining a livelihood hinders you in the service of God.”[i]

It’s a powerful story about longing, about the irony of longing itself. In many ways, this story is one about doorways. That disciple longs for only one thing: to be through the doorway, to be inside the Palace of the proverbial King, to be able to be free to study and pray and serve. But his master tells him something surprising: you’re not through the doorway yet. In fact, God doesn’t want you to be in the Palace of the king yet. Your place is not there yet, but here, in the doorway, in this world of effort and transitions, where things are in flux and falling apart, where things require our struggle and travail. What is precious to God from you in this moment is not your study or perfect prayer, but your imperfect striving to get to the other side of that doorway. What God requires of you in this world is your longing itself!...

Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye has a wonderful teaching about the second line that we know from the Ashrei prayer, “Ashrei Ha’Am Shekacha lo,” (Psalm 144:15) which literally means: “Happy is the people for whom it is so.” According to legend, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef learned from none other than Elijah himself the deepest meaning of this line: that we are to be the people who can look at this world and say “kacha lo,” “So it is.” “So be it.” This is a world where everything changes. Nothing stays stagnant. It’s always in flux. Things fall apart. “Kacha lo,” “So be it.”[ii] And notice that our saying, “So be it,” is not a bitter statement of resignation. The line is “Ashrei Ha’Am shekacha lo,” Happy is the people who can say ‘so be it!’”

And herein is the deepest insight of that command of God to take the hyssop, dip it in blood, and to put that blood on the doorpost and lintels. The Kozmirer Rebbe explains it beautifully. When you are as lowly and humble as the hyssop plant (which grows low to the ground), when you are humble enough to say’ kacha lo,’ ‘so be it,’ only then can you ‘dip the hyssop in the blood,’ which, explains the Kozmirer, is a metaphor for giving your whole being—all your blood-- over to Life, to Reality, to God’s beautiful, amazing, and imperfect, always changing world. When you dip into that blood, when you accept this transitory life with your whole soul, that’s when you can ‘touch the lintel,’[iii] touch the highest place your soul can reach in this life of transition, this passageway we call Reality. And then look what happens: the Destroyer passes you by! You get to live! You get to be free!

Life can be so hard and challenging for each and every one of us. We live in a world of such uncertainty. We reach a place of feeling grounded and safe and secure, and suddenly the ground disappears from beneath our feet. The economy crashes. War looms. Illness strikes. A loved one passes away. Just when we think we’re on top of life’s challenges, we’re in the middle of a crisis, a transition, a doorway again. The insight of our sages, the wisdom of the Jewish people, of Torah itself is not to struggle and fight against Life when everything falls apart and changes. Kacha lo—such is the way of life, of the world. The path of wisdom is to remember Yitziat Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt, when all these transitions began: embrace the change, the unknown, and be the doorway! When we learn to move with the change, as the change, when we give our very lifeblood, our fullest heart and soul to life even as it all changes around us, then even the Angel of Death passes us by, we are free. Of course, I don’t mean that we literally won’t die. I mean that our experience of change, of things falling apart, of eras ending, won’t be felt as unending anguish. When we cease to resist inevitable change and rather move as the change, then we can experience transition not as suffering and death, but as the very Hand of God moving us through the doorway of Reality itself. Instead of suffering, this doorway we call life becomes an achingly beautiful unfolding miracle, day by day, moment by moment.

May we indeed come into this deepest knowledge that our life is a doorway. We are the doorway. We are the transition. May we embrace the transience of life, and celebrate this ever-changing miracle of our existence, without clinging, without resistance to what cannot be changed. May this insight bring us bring us wisdom and peace, and through this insight, may we bring Redemption to the world. Amen.

[i] Adapted from Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim (The Early Masters), 1968, p. 280.

[ii] Buber, Early Masters, pp. 167-8.

[iii] Dovid Kirschenbaum, Fun di Chasidishe Ostros, 1948, p. 176.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

True Knowledge

There’s a very curious moment at the very beginning of the Torah reading this week. God says to Moses, “Ani Adonai,” “I am God—[YHVH],” “I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, “ “U’shmi Adonai lo nodati lahem,” “But my [real] name, YHVH, I did not make known to them.” Strange, isn’t it? Such great men as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and they didn’t even know God’s real name: YHVH! Let’s leave aside the problematics of the fact that the name, YHVH DOES appear in the book of Genesis many times. Clearly, this is a very deep moment of revelation of God’s essence to Moses. So, we must ask, what is this amazing, ineffable name YHVH, and why is it only being revealed officially now, in the book of Exodus?

The midrash and our ancient rabbis give us a wealth of explanations to our question: that the God of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was El Shaddai, which means, ‘The Powerful God:’ they witnessed his strength in their own lives. Others say that the word “Shaddai” is related to the word “Shaddayim,” which means ‘breasts,’ and God was a like a nursing mother to them, nursing the progenitors of the Jewish people in their spiritual infancy. The God of Genesis, say the sages, was also known as Elohim—the God of nature and natural forces and powers, a God who judges and sets limits. But now, this God, this YHVH whom we really meet in the book of Exodus, this is an entirely new face of God whom we meet: this YHVH is the God of rachamim: of compassion: a God who not only works wonders in the life of individuals. YHVH is now a God who loves and redeems a whole nation! This God, YHVH is so powerful in Divine Compassion, that if you look at the succeeding verses in the Torah reading, you see just how wondrously YHVH works: four verbs appear in quick succession as YHVH describes what He is about to do: “V’hotzeiti etchem,” I will free you from your burdens; “V’hitzalti etchem,” I will deliver you from bondage; “v’ga’alti etchem” I will redeem you with an outstretched arm; “v’lakachti etchem,” I will take you to be My People. This YHVH is a God who acts, with love, in History! And, of course, as the great story of the Exodus from Egypt unfolds, God carries out these very things, and this becomes the basis of faith for the Jewish people in God for all time to come. Indeed, our rabbis teach us, now that we have experienced this YHVH, this God of Compassion who acted for our Freedom, how could we NOT believe in God for all time, for all generations?...

Well, of course, in our day and age, not everybody believes in God, even after they read this great story of the Exodus. It would seem that our ancient rabbis couldn’t foresee the advent of modernity and post-modernity, the rise of Reason and critical thinking, of scholarly investigation, of deconstructing sacred texts, of modern alienation from a redeeming God after wars and the Holocaust and terrorism. In our time, agnosticism and atheism are have a voice that fascinates and captivates our imagination. Richard Dawkins, author of the “The God Delusion” recently wrote a piece in the Huffington Post called “Why there almost certainly is no God;” that the God “who designs universes, listens to prayers, forgives sins, wreaks miracles, reads your thoughts, cares about your welfare and raises you from the dead,” is clearly debunked in our modern, intellectually honest age. And while you or I may not be so brazen to debunk God so sweepingly, for so many Jews today, a simple piety in the Biblical God is not something many of us are comfortable with. So how can we find our way back? Do we even want to find our way back to a simple, devoted belief in God? I think we do. I think that our souls need that faith in a God as deeply as our bodies need sustenance to go from day to day. I think that this moment in the Torah, when God’s name YHVH is revealed—this is, more than just a name. It’s a sign post, a direction that points us to Divinity in our lives, no matter what age we live in, no matter how many reasons we may have to doubt…

The Sfat Emet, a great Hasidic commentary, pointed out something brilliant about our passage in the Torah: God says ‘U’shmi YHVH lo nodati lahem,” “And my name, YHVH, I did not make KNOWN to them” [to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob]. The Sfat Emet explains that the key word is “nodati,” which means ‘I made known.’ The the word Nodati is related to the word “Da’at,” which means ‘Knowledge.’ (Sfat Emet 2:40) If you want to understand the meaning of the ineffable Name of God, of YHVH, you have to understand the meaning of the word Da’at, of Knowledge itself. The English word, ‘Knowledge’ is a very broad term, and it has many meanings. Really, it’s too vague a word. Da’at is the most specific and deepest kind of knowedge there is. I will try to explain with examples: I know that the world is round. How do I know? Have I ever gone into space? No, but I’ve seen pictures. Have I travelled personally from one spot in a straight line, only to come back to where I started? No, but I know enough about Christopher Columbus and enough science to know that the world is round. Could I be wrong that the world is flat? Well, there’s a infinitesimal chance that I’m wrong, I suppose. So that knowledge is not absolute. But how about this statement: I know that I love my children. Can anything in this universe ever shake me of that knowledge. No. No way. This I know! This kind of deepest knowing is what we mean when we say Da’at.

A story is told that when Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev returned home after a lengthy journey from his first visit to his rebbe, Reb Schmelke of Nikolsburg, Levi Yitzchak’s father-in-law said to him, “So, Levi Yitzchak, what did you learn from your great Rebbe that you could not learn right here at home?”

“I learned that there is a Creator of the universe,” Reb Levi Yitzchak replied. “And for this you had to travel all the way to Nikolsburg?” said his father-in-law. His father-in-law called to a nearby peasant woman and asked her, “So, what do you say, young lady? Is there a Creator of the universe?” “Of course!” She said, and went on cleaning the house. “Nu?” Reb Levi Yitzchak’s father-in-law said, feeling very satisfied. Reb Levi Yitzchak responded to him: “She says, I know.” [i] And that’s the end of the story…

That peasant woman says that of course there’s a God because she heard all about God, and, being the simple typology of a character that she is, she just accepted that there is a God. Reb Levi Yitzchak learned something that he could only learn on his great journey to faraway Nikolsburg: only in the presence of his Rebbe, his teacher, in his loving, wise presence, could he find that deepest kind of Knowledge, a Knowing, a Da’at, an unshakable experience of the Divine that only comes from living life itself. This, according to the Sfat Emet, was the Da’at that only Moses and Israelites, after 400 years of Slavery in Egypt, were ready to come into a deep knowledge of. Only through the experience of slavery itself, could they truly appreciate what it means to be freed, delivered, Redeemed, and Taken out of bondage by God, thereby knowing a totally new Face of God: YHVH, a God of compassion for a people.

The wisdom of this moment in the Torah, is perhaps the most critical wisdom that we need in our time of so much doubt and confusion. Richard Dawkins and so many who doubt and reject the God of the Bible, and so many of us—we’re all reacting to the mindless piety of that peasant woman in the story. We reject that kind of simple-minded faith in a God that we read about in an ancient story called the Bible. But the great brilliance and irony of that story, is that Richard Dawkins and you and I, in all our immense intellectual abilities and academic learning and critical reasoning, are actually no different from that peasant woman. We live in a society, in a world that defines ‘knowledge’ ONLY as intellectual knowledge! We accept that the world is round based on evidence and reason. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course! But the deeper kind of Knowledge, Da’at, we don’t give equal credence to! Isn’t that strange?

The over-arching ethos of our modern world is that the only Knowledge that is “true,” and “real” is that which can be put on a map, or charted on a graph, or indicated on a scale. In other words, that which is concrete and verifiable with scientific investigation—that Knowledge is all that is credible. The deeper Knowledge of Da’at, the deepest, most unshakable Knowledge of the heart is irrational, not-verifiable. While it may be moving, it’s not as “real” as scientific knowledge. And besides, it’s the fundamentalists, the bible-pounders, the terrorists who are convinced that they “know” the Truth, aren’t they, and they want to impose it on us? That kind of Knowledge is dangerous, we reason! But think again…

The Baal Shem Tov, perhaps one of the most Enlightened rebbes ever to walk the earth, once famously said, “When I reach a high rung of knowledge (da’at), I know that not a single letter of the teachings is within me, and that I have not taken a single step in the service of God.” [ii]What did he mean? How could such an advanced soul say that he knows nothing, and has done nothing? What he’s showing us is what Da’at really is all about: to really Know the Knowledge of the heart is to know that we don’t know anything. In other words, intellectual knowledge, book learning, inferences based on evidence are all fine and good, but they’re NOT the be all, end all of Knowledge. What the Baal Shem Tov is saying is that anyone who claims to know the Truth, is a liar! He or she is deluding himself or herself! The fundamentalist who “knows” what God wants is no different than the militant Atheist who “knows” that there is no God—they’re both making exactly the same kind of mistake! They’re both the chambermaid who says, but doesn’t know! They’re both making inferences from books, from teachings, from evidence. Those are important sources of intellectual knowledge, but if we only stop there and don’t go deeper, then we’re like people who memorize the menu, but never taste the meal.

In our age, we are all so cut off from real Da’at, from this deepest Knowledge. No wonder it’s so easy for people to reject God. They’re rejecting El Shaddai, the powerful big God in the sky of the ancient imagination. Perhaps they’re even rejecting Elohim, a personal God who seems to have to the power to manipulate nature. But how could any of us, if we really look deep into our heart of hearts and soul of souls ever reject YHVH, this overwhelming Love and Compassion that miraculously, mysteriously, emerges and sustains us moment to moment, that contains the knowledge of all the secrets and miracles of the universe, of all that is—a knowing that is so much more than any of us, that it totally humbles us before it’s Awesome Loving Presence. That kind of Knowledge is built into our matrix, our spiritual DNA, and most of us just haven’t found a way to acknowledge this deepest Truth that defies all reason. That kind of Da’at, of Knowledge is Real! It is the most Real kind of Knowledge there is, in fact. May we embracew this Da’at, this knowledge of the heart and knowledge of the spirit in our lives. May we come to understand that th is kind of Knowledge, while defying reason, is not simplistic nor will it lead us to fundamentalism. Rather, this knowledge can exist in harmony with all intellectual reason and critical doubt—in fact, Da’at ennobles all intellectual knowledge that we can amass. May we come to see that only with Da’at, can we approach all intellectual knowledge with Wisdom, and use what we know for good, for compassion, for justice and for peace. May we all find this Da’at of YHVH, may this Ultimate Knowledge transform our hearts and transform the world.

[i] Adapted from Hasidic Tales, Translated and Edited by Rabbi Rami Shapiro, 2004, p. 119

[ii] Everyday Miracles, Howard W. Polsky and Yaella Wozner, 1989, p. 181.