Thursday, October 30, 2014

A Thought on the Parasha

Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Lekh Lekha
Why Avraham?

Why was Avraham chosen? The Torah doesn't say. Without preamble, God commands Avraham and sends him on his mission. "And the Lord said to Avraham, lekh lekha, get yourself out... and go to the land that I will show you" (Breishit, 12:1). This is in stark contrast to how the Torah introduces us to Noach and to his divinely-given task. In that story, we are first told that "Noach was an ish tzaddik, a righteous man, blameless in his generation, and Noach walked with God" (6:9). Only afterwards do we read, "And the Lord said to Noach... make for yourself an ark..." (6:14). God even tells Noach directly why he was selected for this task: "The Lord said to Noach, 'Go into the ark... for you alone I have found righteous in this generation'" (7:1). Noach was chosen because he was righteous, but what about Avraham?

Further comparison between Avraham and Noach begins to yield an answer. Noach was indeed a tzaddik, he did everything he was supposed to do. He was tamim, blameless, never doing anything wrong. He was good at following rules, at keeping on the straight and narrow. That is no small thing. How many of us can say that we are blameless in all of our actions. And yet to do what you are told is not the same as showing initiative. To follow orders is not to be inwardly directed, to be driven by a sense of mission.

The first command that God gives Noach is asei, "make": "Make for yourself an ark of gopher wood..." The verb is repeated over and over again in the paragraph: "... make it with compartments... And this is how you should make it... A light you should make for the ark... bottom, second and third decks you shall make it." God tells Noach to do, and he does: "And Noach did just as the Lord had commanded him" (7:5). The verse describes Noach to a tee: Noach is all about listening and doing, no more, no less.

This is the reason Noach does not try to influence the people of his generation. It is not because he does not care for them. It is merely because God didn't tell him to do so. And it is because he only does as he is told that he needs his orders to be highly specific. Think about all the detail that he received regarding the making of the ark, the number of the animals, the species of animals, the need to take a male and female of each species. One imagines that, for someone else, a simple command to make an ark and save all the animals would have sufficed. But for Noach it all needs to be spelled out.

The image of the ark riding the waves of the flood, buffeted by the winds and the rain, captures the essence of who Noach was: a man who could not navigate through a storm, who could not impose his will against the waves of society. The most he could do was stay safe, to be blameless. He could never act on his own.

Even when Noach showed some initiative and sent out first the raven and then the dove, he did not act on the information that he gathered. He knew the waters had abated, he knew when he removed the cover of the ark that the ground had dried, but he stayed in the ark. He was unable to leave the ark until God told him explicitly to do so!

This realization helps explain why Noach's first act was to plant a vineyard and get drunk. This is often explained as a type of survivor's guilt, but I believe something else is at play.

Noach had the entire world before him. Imagine this never-to-be-repeated opportunity. He could shape world society, its institutions, its values, its sense of purpose, all according to his vision. There was only problem: He had no vision. And without his own vision, and without orders and directions from others, he had no idea what to do with himself. His life had suddenly become purposeless and meaningless.

Now, even people who feel directionless often maintain a sense of momentum and movement, simply because of the society that they are a part of. They wake up and get out of bed each morning if for no other reason than they have a job to go to, bills to pay, and a spouse and children who depend on them. But Noach had none of this structure. With a world full of potential waiting to be built, Noach ironically had nowhere to go, nothing to do. After he had landed, he was more adrift than ever. His one survival strategy was to get drunk, to anesthetize himself, and to sleep through the remainder of his life.

Avraham was the opposite. God does not tell Avraham to do, but to go. Not asei, but lekh lekha. And we don't read that Avraham did all that God had said, but rather va'yeilekh Avram, "and Avram went." If Noach had a task, Avraham had a mission. A task is one particular thing to do. It may be a huge task, but its specifics are known and its details are spelled out. A mission may not have any particular tasks identified, but it has a vision, a sense of where it is going.

Avraham was given a mission: Leave your father's house; go to the land that I will show you. How to get there, exactly what to do - all of that could be worked out later. And for that, Avraham did not need God's instruction. He could figure that out for himself.

Avraham had all the inner-direction that Noach lacked. He had even started heading to the land of Canaan before God had spoken to him. Perhaps that is the meaning of the word lekha. Go "for you" - trust yourself, follow your inner-directed path, let Me just point the way.

If Noach was a boat adrift on the waves, Avraham was a laser beam, an arrow heading straight for its destination with nothing able to stop it or move it off its way. If Noach was helpless in the face of a world waiting to be built, a society waiting to be shaped, Avraham was driven to confront an idolatrous, hostile world and to bring to it the message of a single, ethical God. He would reshape society according to his vision, according to God's vision.

If Noach was completely silent, Avraham spoke eloquently and passionately, proclaiming his beliefs, communicating his vision, attracting followers, and influencing all those with whom he came in contact. He was a man driven by an idea, by something he so believed in that he had to share it with the rest of humanity.

The command to go, lekh, indicates not only direction and vision but movement. Noach was static; he was a tzaddik. That is an already actualized state of being. Avraham was dynamic. He was not about what he had accomplished but about what he could do in the future.

In fact, in all the stories of Avraham, he is never described as "righteous" or "perfect" or actually with any adjectives at all. We hear that when he believed in God's promise it was considered an act of righteousness (15:6), but never that he himself was a tzaddik. And far from telling Avraham that he is perfect, God tells him, "walk before me and become perfect" (17:1). To be a tzaddik, to be perfect, is static and boring. To have a mission, in contrast, is to always be working to do righteous acts, always striving to become more perfect.

Avraham was chosen not for who he was, but for who he could become. Not for what he had done to become righteous, but for what he could do to change the world. The Torah, in fact, tells us so: "For I have chosen him [or "singled him out"], that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord, doing what is right and just" (18:19). Avraham was chosen because he could transform the world, because he could educate future generations not just to be, but to do. And not just to do what is right and just, but to follow a path, to keep the "way" of the Lord, to find their own lekh lekha, to pursue a vision guided by God. Avraham was chosen to found a nation that would know that to live a religious life is not just about tasks, not just about obedience, but about living a life of direction, a life of destiny.

Shabbat Shalom!


Thursday, October 23, 2014

Message from the Rosh HaYeshiva

Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Noach

The Primordial Sin

What was the sin of the Generation of the Flood?  Rabbi Yochanan said: Come and see how great is the sin of robbery. For the Generation of the Flood had transgressed everything, and yet their final decree was not sealed until they had engaged in robbery." (Sanhedrin 108).

Robbery, or at least its driving force, is perhaps the most basic violation, the evil that leads to all other evils. The act of forcefully taking something that belongs to someone else is about seeing something that you want, and acting to satisfy your desire in disregard of the other person who has a rightful claim to the object. This is at the core of almost all other evildoing. It is the attitude that “there is only one person in the world that matters, and that is me. As long as I don't get caught, I am entitled to do anything I want to do to satisfy my desires, to serve my own interests.” In short, it is about seeing everything outside of yourself as either an object of your desire or as an obstacle to your satisfying that desire.

Let us consider some of the sins leading up to the Flood. In the verse immediately preceding God's decision to bring the flood we are told, "And the benei ha'elohim, sons of the greats, saw the daughters of man, that they were comely, and they took for themselves wives from all that they chose." The women were objects of desire, these men who had power saw what they wanted and took it. What is rape and sexual abuse if not the turning of the other person into an object of your desire, to be taken without concern for the humanity of that other person? And what is adultery if not the treating of the other partner as merely an obstacle to the satisfying of your desires, an annoyance to be disregarded, to be lied to, to be dehumanized?

Going back further, we move from sexual sin to murder. Why did Cain kill Abel? The Midrash tells us that it was about world domination.

What were they arguing about? They said: Come let us divide the world.... One said: The land on which you are standing is mine. The other replied: The clothes you are wearing are mine. One said: Take them off! The other said: Get off! In the course of this Cain rose up against Abel and killed him. (Breishit Rabbah 22:16).

You have something I want, you are in my way, so I will kill you to get it. Now, according to the simple reading of the text, it was not a desire to own the world that motivated Cain, but jealousy of Abel as the favored of God. True, it is not always about property. Sometimes it is about honor, feeling good about yourself, not being made to feel unworthy. It still all boils down to the same thing. This other person is in my way, his very existence is a nuisance and an irritant to me. I am the only person who matters, ergo he must be killed. With such an attitude, Cain, in his killing of Abel, had actually achieved his goal - to live in a world where he was the only person who existed.

Ultimately this brings us back to the Creation story and first sin of humankind. In the Garden of Eden, Adam could have eaten from any tree he chose. Just one tree was off limits, was not his for the taking. The first sin, the primordial sin, was seeing, wanting, taking. "And the woman saw that the tree was good for eating and that it was desirous to the eyes... and she took from its fruit and she ate."

This point was made in a powerful visceral way in the movie Noah, where the image of the hand taking the forbidden fruit was interspersed throughout the film, appearing alongside horrific acts of coveting and violent taking, of rape and of murder.  Appearing, that is, whenever the first, primordial sin was being repeated.

When human beings were created they were given the mandate to "subdue the earth and have dominion over it". To do such is to project ourselves into the world, just as God had done when God created the world. If this is all there is, however, then the world is nothing but us. No one else exists. I fill the world.  It is all here to satisfy my desires.

But creation was more than that. Part of creation was tzimtzum, God's contracting of Godself. Not only was this true before creation, in order to make space for creation to occur, but it was also a feature of the creation as well. When God came to create humans, God pulled back: "Let us create the human in our image." God made this a collaborative effort. And God created something that was not just an object. God created a person, a person who had will, who had free choice that even God could not, or would not, control.

And so it was with the creation of Eve.  For Eve to exist, Adam was forced to make himself smaller, to have a side taken from him.  When we pull back and make space for others, when we treat others as subjects, not objects of our self-gratification, then paradoxically, this pulling back makes us not less, but more. "Thus shall a man leave his father and his mother, and cleave to his wife, and they will be as one flesh." When he cleaves to his wife as an equal, as "flesh of his flesh", as one equivalent to him, then it is not he who becomes one flesh, it is not the integrating of the other into oneself, but rather they who become one flesh. Having made space for the other, they both became a greater whole.

Stealing is indeed the ultimate sin. It is the sin of seeing, desiring and taking. It is the sin of seeing all others as objects. What is the corrective of this sin?  It is to learn restraint; it is to honor the limits set by morality and set by God; it is to treat others not as objects, but as co-equal subjects to oneself.

When the world starts over, God gives commandments to Noach, forbidding murder and the eating of animal blood.  These commandments are meant to curb man's most destructive impulses and to teach a respect for all life, even animal life.  

We are thus set on a course that will hopefully lead to a better world, to a more just world. This starts with recognizing the humanity of those around us. And what about achieving greater moral sensitivity, learning to respect the property, feelings, privacy and dignity of others?  What about the pulling back that is necessary not because of ethical mandates but because of limits that God has set? The realization of this would have to wait until the next epoch of history, the choosing of Avraham whose mission it would be to spread God's name and to bring God into the world.

Shabbat Shalom!

From the movie Noah (2014)

Friday, October 3, 2014

Entering the Kodesh - Private and Public Intimacy

For those who have a spare hour today (ha!) you are invited to listen to a shiur on Yom Kippur and the Avoda that I gave in the yeshiva, entitled  Entering the Kodesh: Private and Public Intimacy (with source sheets).  The shiur explores the topic of the erotic imagery surrounding the Kohen Gadol’s entering the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, and how this intimate encounter was made available to the entire people. 

Gmar Chatima Tova to all.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

A Thought on Yom Kippur

Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Yom Kippur
The Weight of Sin

Sin and atonement are very abstract, colorless concepts. When we discuss such things, we tend to do so in relation to other abstract concepts: "Sin is an act of transgressing God's will or commandment; atonement is the act of divine forgiveness, or of becoming reconciled and at one with God." All of this is true, but spoken about this way, these concepts remain without shape and form. As such, they often do not resonate viscerally, and we find ourselves at a loss in attempting to think about them in concrete and helpful ways.

Not so for earlier generations. In our liturgy, in the Talmud, and in the Torah, sin is constantly discussed through metaphors. The power of this cannot be underestimated. Metaphors allow us to experience abstract realities on an emotional plane, away from the intellectual, and help us create an inner religious life that is dynamic and alive. Let us consider two metaphors for sin: that of stain and that of a weight.

Perhaps the most prevalent metaphor for sin in our liturgy is sin as a stain. The act of divine atonement, in parallel, becomes an act of cleansing this stain: "If your sins be as red as scarlet, they shall be whitened as snow" (Isaiah, 1:18); "Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you" (Ezekiel, 36: 25).

A stain is something dirty and disgusting found on a person or his garments. Sin, then, becomes something that we should find repulsive, that we would naturally recoil from. But it is not just a piece of dirt or excrement; it is a stain. A stain adheres to something - one's garments or one's own self. Sin as a stain clings to us, sullying our very person and sullying our clothing, the image that we project of ourselves to others and to ourselves. And when one or one's clothing is stained, one is embarrassed to go out in public and unable to appear before people of importance or prestige. When sin soils us, we likewise will feel a sense of embarrassment to be in the company of others who are not similarly soiled, and we will certainly feel such embarrassment to appear before God.

It is hard emotionally to think in this way, but it can also be helpful because it gives us a handle on these realities. It encourages us to think about the ways we have hurt ourselves - our soul, our spirit, our inner religious life - as a result of sin. It makes us see the way that sin and bad past decisions can sometimes make us feel that we are not worthy, not worthy to have certain relationships, engage in certain activities, or make certain life choices: "Those are for people who haven't made the same mistakes that I have, for people who are unsullied."

But we are not stuck in this state. Most stains are not permanent. We can launder our garments; we can bathe ourselves; and we can become clean. This is the promise that teshuva holds out - we can transform who we are. And if we do this, God will cleanse us; God will forgive - or more to the point - wash away our sin, restoring us, and help us restore ourselves, to our original state of purity and cleanliness.

Sin as stain occurs frequently in the liturgy and in Nakh. In the Torah, however, the metaphor that dominates is that of sin as a weight or a burden. In a brilliant article in Tarbiz, Dr. Baruch Schwartz of Hebrew University looks at the phrase nosei avon, literally translated as "carrying sin," which has troubled Bible commentators and academics for centuries. This phrase can be used to describe both forgiveness for sin and punishment for sin. We are told in the Thirteen Attributes of God that we recite during the asseret yimei teshuva, that God is nosei avon, forgiving of sin. At the same time, we read that when a person curses God, vi'nasa cheto, "he will carry his sin" (Vayikra, 24:15).

So what is going on here? How can the same phrase mean one thing and its opposite? The answer, writes Dr. Schwartz, is in realizing how sin was understood. It is not just a deed done in the past. It creates a metaphysical reality. It is a real thing, a thing on the back of the sinner, a thing that will weigh him down, a thing that can crush him, that can bring about suffering and even death.

Hence the two meanings of the phrase nosei avon. This phrase means just one thing: to carry the sin. The question is who is doing the carrying. Initially, the sinner is carrying his sin. But if God chooses to forgive the sin, then God will remove it from the sinner's back; God will carry the sin away.

How does sin as weight differ from sin as stain? We may first note that a weight is something external to a person. As such, sin as weight is more about the sin than it is about the sinner. It is about how what we have done has become a real thing that is now outside of us - a thing that doesn't go away just because we have changed and done teshuva. We thus find that in verses that refer to sin as weight, the sin is never eradicated. It can be lifted off of our back, it can be put on the back of the scapegoat and sent far away, but it will always exist. When we do teshuva the stains on our selves, on our person, can be completely washed away, but that which was done in the past was still done; it can never be fully undone.

Although this is true, teshuva is still effective. Such a teshuva must be focused on the sin as well as the sinner and must be directed to minimize the lasting impact of one's past deeds. If we have shouldered our responsibility for what we have done, then it will no longer have to continue to burden us - the weight will be taken off our shoulders.

Talking in these terms is also difficult. It is hard to face up to how our actions have affected others, not just ourselves. But this can also help us fix it, to correct, to the best degree possible, those hurtful things that we have done. Too frequently we hear of people - often abusers, but also people such as Bernie Madoff and the like - who declare that they have done teshuva and want to be welcomed back into the community. Thinking of sin as a weight that exists in the world reminds us that teshuva is not just about the person; teshuva requires fixing the damage done by one's actions.

This also points to a productive path for teshuva. In the Torah, sin is a weight that can only be removed by the offended party - be it another person or be it God. This should be enough. But sometimes even after we have made amends, we continue to beat ourselves up for what we have done in the past. We are burdened by guilt and self-criticism. We let the sin crush us and hold us back, hold us back in our relationships, our career, our religious and emotional growth. If we have already done the work that we need to do, then it is time for us to remove that weight from our own back.

The Dubner Magid tells a parable about a pauper who was carrying the heavy load of all his earthly possessions on his back and making the long, slow trek from one town to the next. A wagon driver rides up next to him and offers to give him a ride to the next town. After a few miles, the wagon driver looks back into the wagon and sees the man sitting there, still carrying the load on his back. "Why are you still carrying your load? Put it down in the wagon!" he says to him. The pauper replies, "Dear sir, you have been so kind to offer me a ride. I cannot possibly impose upon you to ask you to carry my heavy load as well."

God carries the whole world, says the Dubner Magid, and still we think that we have to carry our own load. "Cast your burden unto the Lord and He will sustain you" (Tehillim, 55:23). We can let God carry our burdens. Whether our burdens are due to worry or whether our burdens are due to sin, God can manage it. We don't have to carry them alone.

As Yom Kippur approaches, the difficult task of thinking about the concrete realities of sin can help us think about the concrete ways to do teshuva and to move forward. Let us do the work that we need to cleanse ourselves and to remove the impact of our past harmful actions from the world. And once we have done that, let us learn to remove the weight from our shoulders, to turn to God who is nosei avon, to trust in God's promise that we will be forgiven so finally we can learn to forgive ourselves.

Gmar Chatimah Tovah!