The Mighty Nile – Vaera 5780

Twenty five years ago, I was fortunate to be able to travel to Egypt.  One of the touristy things to do in Cairo is to hire a small sailing boat called a felucca to go out onto the Nile River. It was a beautiful day, and a great memory.  At one point, our guide generously offered to make us tea, promising to make the experience even better. So he reached over the side of the boat, scooped up some fresh Nile River water, and set it to boil.

I passed on the tea.

The Nile is one of the great rivers of the world.  Depending on who you ask, it is either the first or second longest river.  For much of human history, whoever controlled the Nile was arguably the most powerful person in the world.

The Nile is the life-blood of Egypt, the source of all its power and strength.  The annual rising and flooding of its waters feeds its people.  The one who rules the Nile is the master of Egypt and all who live there.  It is easy to understand why the pharaohs of Egypt tended to think highly of themselves.  

Much of the action in both this morning’s Torah and Haftarah portions takes place at the Nile. In the Haftarah, it is the year 586 BCE, the end of the First Temple period.  The Kingdom of Judah, about to be overrun by the Babylonians, has desperately aligned itself with Egypt.  The Prophet Ezekiel, knowing that nothing can avert the coming tragedy, prophesizes that Israel will eventually be redeemed, but Egypt is about to be shmeisted.  (That’s a technical term) Listen to how the Prophet describes it:

I am going to deal with you, O Pharaoh king of Egypt, tanin—Mighty monster, sprawling in your channels, who said, Li Ye’ori va’ani asitini—My Nile is my own; I made it for myself.

Ezekiel 29:3

Literally, “Mine is the Nile, and I have made myself.”  The Pharaoh of Ezekiel’s time is a self-declared god, answerable to nobody.  He is personified as a tanin, a mythical sea monster dwelling in the River.  What plans does God have for this Pharaoh?

I will put hooks in your jaws, and make the fish of your Nile cling to your scales; I will haul you up from your Nile, with all your Nile fish clinging to your scales.  And I will fling you into the desert, with all your Nile fish.  You shall be left lying in the open, ungathered and unburied: I have given you as food to the beasts of the earth and the birds of the sky.  Then all the inhabitants of Egypt shall know that I am the LORD.

Ezekiel 29:4-6

Pretty specific.  God will haul out Pharaoh from the Nile and leave his corpse to rot, unburied, in the desert where it will be eaten by scavengers.  That was the haftarah.

Let’s turn now to the Torah portion.  Again, the Nile River is the battleground where God exerts power over an impotent Pharaoh. For the first demonstration, Moses and Aaron appear before Pharaoh and his court.  Aaron throws down his rod and it turns into a… tanin.  Remember that word?  The same word Ezekiel uses to describe the mythical sea monster in the Nile.  It is not the usual word for snake.  That word is nachash. When Pharaoh’s magicians replicate the trick, Moses and Aaron’s tanin eats up their taninim.  The meaning of this demonstration is obvious.

The next confrontation, we read, takes place at the banks of the Nile River, early in the morning.  Why does that Torah go out of its way to inform us of the time of day? A midrash (Tanhuma Va’era 14) offers a colorful explanation.  Pharaoh considers himself a god.  Divine beings, of course, do not need to use the bathroom or wash themselves.  If Pharaoh’s subjects were to see him engaged in such humble tasks, they would doubt his divinity.

So what does he do?  Every day, Pharaoh arises at dawn to sneak down to the banks of the river by himself for his morning ablutions.  That is why God chooses that moment to send Moses and Aaron to confront Pharaoh.  It is to embarrass him and demonstrate his corporeality.  Moses is saying, “I know your secret.”

Keep in mind that the purpose of a midrash is often to use the biblical text to say something about current situations.  That is what the Prophet Ezekiel does.  He hearkens back to an earlier time when the Israelites found themselves dealing with Pharaoh in Egypt.  In the case of the midrash, the Sages are perhaps referring to rulers in their own day, Roman Emperors or other Kings who claim divinity and infallibility. This dawn showdown continues with the first plague.  God gives instructions to Moses:

Say to Aaron: Take your rod and hold out your arm over the waters of Egypt—its rivers, its canals, its ponds, all its bodies of water—that they may turn to blood; there shall be blood throughout the land of Egypt, even in vessels of wood and stone.” Moses and Aaron did just as the LORD commanded: he lifted up the rod and struck the water in the Nile in the sight of Pharaoh and his courtiers, and all the water in the Nile was turned into blood and the fish in the Nile died. The Nile stank so that the Egyptians could not drink water from the Nile; and there was blood throughout the land of Egypt.

Exodus 7:19-21

It is comparable to Ezekiel in its vividness.  The Nile, as the battleground between God and Pharaoh, is a powerful symbol.  It is the source of Pharaoh’s strength and the symbol of his divinity.  He is the Nile’s creator and master.  But he is powerless to prevent this transformation of the the source of his authority into a symbol of death.

Think about what else the Nile represents.  To the Israelite slaves, the Nile has already become a symbol of terror and dread.  Pharaoh’s decree, described in chapter one of the Book of Exodus, to murder every male baby by throwing it into the Nile must have transformed the river, which was seen as the source of life, into a symbol of death—at least for the Israelites.

Except for one.  Moses is different.  Remember, after Moses’ birth, his mother places him in a basket sealed with pitch and floats him down the river.  Maybe someone will rescue him, she hopes. Her wish is fulfilled.  Pharaoh’s own daughter encounters the basket when she is bathing in the river (sound familiar?), and understands immediately that he must be a Hebrew baby.

So what does the Nile mean to Moses?  As the adopted child of the Egyptian Princess, he surely must have had some positive memories of it.  On the other hand, he knows that the Nile is  a place of death to his people.  But, the Nile River also saved him from drowning.  His basket did not sink, and somehow it arrived in the best possible place.  His name, moshe, meaning “I drew him out of the water,” alludes to his miraculous redemption in the Nile.

Now, God is sending Moses down to the Nile to confront Pharaoh, and doing some pretty nasty things to it.  How does Moses feel about that? Our great commentator, Rashi, notices a subtle detail.  Moses is not the one who actually strikes the water with the rod.  That action is performed by Aaron.

And then, for the second plague, Moses again instructs Aaron to strike the waters of the Nile with the rod.  That brings up the frogs, who hop slimily out of the waters and invade absolutely everything, homes, beds, kneading bowls, and toilets.  Rashi asks why Moses does not perform these first two plagues himself.  After all, he conducts most of the others.

The answer is that these are the only two plagues that are produced by smiting the waters of the Nile, the river which once protected Moses when he was an infant.  That is why Aaron, not Moses, does the smiting for the first two plagues.

We can see Moses’ mixed emotions. This incredible river is the source of life and prosperity.  Its consistent annual rise and fall makes Egypt the breadbasket of the world, and the place of refuge when famine strikes in the days of Jacob and his sons. The very source of life and blessing, however, becomes a means for power, dominion, and cruelty.  In both the Torah and Haftarah, God punishes a Pharaoh and a nation that has become haughty and overly self-assured.  Perhaps that is why Moses is torn at the Nile.  He can see its potential for blessing and curse.  He knows it personally, because he has experienced it.

We have many gifts in our lives.  The choice is whether we will use them for blessing or for curse.  Our tradition is one that fully embraces the idea of free choice.  We are told to choose life.  The Torah’s purpose is to guide us towards treating our gifts in a way that makes them blessings.

I Believe with Perfect Faith in the Constancy of Gravity; or Why We Ignore Miracles – Shemot 5780

What is a miracle?  I’ll offer a simple definition: a miracle is a supernatural event performed by God.  In other words, when something happens that breaks the rules that we expect the world around us to obey, it is a miracle.

If I drop something—this book, for example—I expect that it will fall to the ground.  All of my past experience in life tells me that this will happen.  I would bet money on it.  In fact, I would stake my life on it.

Why?  Because I believe, with perfect faith, in the constancy of gravity.  

If, when I let go of the book, it floats in the air, or flies away, that would be a supernatural event.  It would violate the theory of gravity upon which I have risked my life.  That would be a miracle.

In this example, I have just introduced two words which we typically associate with religion rather than science: faith and miracle. Faith, or emunah, as understood in Jewish tradition, is not how it is typically depicted in the wider society.  When we use the word “faith” in English the focus is on the so-called believer. If I say, “Johnny believes in God,” most people would understand me to be saying something about Johnny and would probably make other assumptions about him.  This is not the Jewish idea of faith.

In the Torah, the term emunah does not refer to the believer, but rather to the object of that belief.  Emunah in God is better described as a sense of God’s constancy.  God can be relied upon to have consistent qualities.   When the Torah says in this morning’s reading vaya’amen ha’am—”And the people believed” (Ex. 4:31)—it is not saying that the Israelites think that God exists.  Rather, the Torah is stating that the Israelites have accepted that God is going to do what God said, namely, bring them out of Egypt.

Emunah in Judaism is the acceptance of the constancy of something, whether it be a quality of God, the reliability of another person, or the authenticity of a prophet.  That is why I feel comfortable saying that I have faith in the constancy of gravity.

If the book were to fly away, I would be faced with a dilemma.  Either my faith in the constancy of gravity would fall apart, or I would find some way to explain my flying book does not actually violate the laws of gravity.

Or maybe I would just pretend that it never happened.  Yeah.  That’s probably what I would do.

Moses encounters the first miracle of Sefer Shemot, the Book of Exodus.  It occurs after he has fled from Egypt.  He arrives in Midian, marries Tzipporah, and joins the household of her father, Yitro.  One day, Moses is out in the wilderness with his father-in-law’s sheep when he notices something unusual, something which seems to violate the laws of nature in which Moses, you, and I all believe.He sees a bush that is on fire without being consumed.  Moses immediately thinks to himself, “there is something wrong with this picture,” and he turns aside to investigate.

You or I would recognize immediately that a bush that burns without being consumed is a violation of the first law of thermodynamics.  It contradicts the principle of the conservation of energy.  Such a thing is not possible in this universe. That, by definition is a miracle.  It is the equivalent of this book floating when I let go.

What would encountering such a miracle lead a person to do?  Well, let’s look at Moses. The Burning Bush certainly gets his attention, “I’ve gotta check this out,” he tells himself.  He approaches, and God’s voice calls out, “Moses, Moses!”

“I’m right here.”

“Stay there.  Take off your shoes.”

I’m paraphrasing a little.  By the way, that’s what I tell my kids when they walk into the house.  

We hear nothing more about the Burning Bush.  It turns out that the miracle was merely to get Moses’ attention.  The real message is that God has decided to free the Israelites from slavery, and Moses is the guy who is going to bring the message. At this point, what response should we expect?  Moses has seen a violation of the first law of thermodynamics.  God just spoke to him.  What should he say?   Something like, “At your service.  Just tell me what to do.” Instead, Moses offers a series of objections, beginning with “Who am I?”  Then, “Who are You?”  Followed by, “What if they don’t believe me?”

God, of course, has an answer to each one of Moses’ excuses. To establish Moses’ credibility with the Israelites, God offers him a few miracles to perform.

Miracle one.  “Take your staff. Throw it on the ground and it will turn it into a snake.  Then grab the snake by the tail and ‘poof!’  It will turn back into a staff.”

Miracle two.  “Put your hand inside your shirt.  When you pull it out, it will be covered with white snowy scales.  Now put it back inside your shirt.  When you pull it out again, your hand will be back to normal.”

Miracle three.  “Take some water from the Nile River.  Pour it on the ground and Voila!  Blood.  Gross.”

God assures Moses: “They’ll believe you after the first miracle.  But if not, they’ll certainly believe you after the second miracle.  But if not, the third miracle will surely do the trick.”

This is not super reassuring.  But to be certain that Moses is convinced, God has him actually perform the first two miracles, right there on the mountainside. At this point, would you be convinced?  Moses isn’t.  “I don’t talk good.  Please pick somebody else.”  Moses does not seem to be very impressed by these miracles.

What about the Israelites?  When Aaron and Moses go back to Egypt, they perform the miracles, as instructed.  The Israelites believe… for a little while.  As soon as Pharaoh increases the workload, their faith collapses and they turn on Moses and Aaron, cursing them.  And who can blame them, really. Moses then starts complaining to God, again. So much for miracles.

Why are these supernatural suspensions of the laws of the universe so ineffective?  Are Moses and the Israelites simply unfaithful and ungrateful?  Not at all.  They are human.

Maimonides, the great twelfth century rabbi, philosopher, and physician, offers an explanation as to why these miracles are so unconvincing.  (Yesodei Torah 8:1) Whoever bases his or her belief on miraculous signs, Maimonides suggests, will always retain some doubt in their heart.  Maybe it was just a trick performed through sorcery or witchcraft.  We will find some way to explain away the miracle to preserve our worldview.   Moses’ credibility is not established through miracles.  After all, the Egyptian court magicians are able to replicate these opening miracles, as well as the first few plagues.

Maimonides continues.  The only miracles that do instill some degree of faith in Moses’ leadership are those that come in response to some necessity.  The Sea of Reeds divides so that the Israelites can escape Egypt, and it crashes back together in order to sink the pursuing Egyptian chariots.  The manna is sent to prevent the Israelites’ starvation.  The rock gives forth water to satisfy their thirst.  The earth splits open to swallow Korach and his followers when they rebel. All of these miracles come in response to a crisis.  The greatest of the miracles in the wilderness, however, is the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.  The Israelites hear with their own ears and see with their own eyes the presence of God on the mountain, and witness the sound of God communicating with Moses face to face. It is not until that moment, says Maimonides, that the Israelites become fully committed to Moses.

Why then?  What is needed to make them believe?  Personal experience.  That is the point that Maimonides is making.  The mere witnessing of a supernatural event can only lead to a hollow faith.  True faith emerges only from lived experiences.  Trust in the wisdom and authenticity of another person only results when we have been through something together.

As I said before: I believe in the constancy of gravity.  I don’t really understand gravity, mind you.  But I have loads of experience with it.  And I trust the really smart people, those who do, in fact, understand something about gravity, when they insist that it is real.  I have so much faith in the constancy of gravity that I am willing to jump up in the air, believing with all of my heart that I am not going to go hurtling off into space.

Why do I trust the scientists who tell me that gravity is constant?  Because of education.  From a young age, I was taught that science is credible and important.  Like all of you, I learned about the scientific method in grade school, and went through my share of biology, chemistry, and physics classes. That training instilled in me a trust in scientific study and an appreciation of those who dedicate their lives to it.

Religious belief is a bit trickier.  As Jews, we are asked to accept the authenticity of Torah and the authority of those who interpret it.  Life has meaning and purpose, and the Jewish people have a role to play in the redemption of the world. None of these can be demonstrated by a scientific proof or empirical evidence.  I cannot prove to you that God exists, Moses lived, humans have souls, or even that there is such a thing as good and evil.  

But we are not asked to merely believe blindly.  The Jewish notion of emunah does not rely on miracles or proofs.  It does not ask for leaps of faith.  Emunah is developed over a lifetime and is built upon experience and community; on trust in each other and our shared experiences; on our common history and on the lessons passed down from parents to children.

The Head & Not The Tail, The Top & Not The Bottom – Ki Tavo 5779

Rosh Hashanah is coming, and with it, an entire menu of culinary treats.  Apples and honey.  Those are obvious.  The challah is round—to symbolize a crown; and filled with raisins—for a sweet new year.

But there is more.  The Talmud recommends a number of foods to eat on Rosh Hashanah, such as beans, leeks, beets, and dates.  The Aramaic names for each of these foods form puns.

For example, rubia—”beans,”sounds like yirbu—”increase”, as in “May our merits increase.”

Karti—”leeks”—sounds like yikartu—”cut off”.  Silkei—”beets”—sounds like yistalku—”removed”.  Tamrei—”dates”—sounds like yitamu—”finished”.  All three of these can be eaten as if to say, “May our enemies be cut off, removed, or finished.”  Take your pick.  Or eat all three.

Other foods have been added to the list.  Rimon—”pomegranate”—”May our mitzvot be as numerous as the seeds in the pomegranate.”  It also happens to be symbolic of fertility, so interpret that as you will.

But the best food to eat on Rosh Hashanah—actually, this is debatable—is the head of a sheep or fish.  Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg would eat the head of a ram, to symbolize the ram that was sacrificed instead of Isaac, which we read about on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.

Does anybody here follow this custom?  In my house, we buy gummy fish, cut them in half, and eat just the head.

What do we say when we eat the fish head?  Nih’yeh l’rosh, v’lo l’zanav.  “May we be like the head, and not like the tail.”

It is a strange expression, and it comes from this morning’s Torah portion.

In Parashat Ki Tavo, Moses describes a covenant ceremony that the Israelites will perform as soon as they cross over into the Promised Land, which they be doing without him.  As an entire nation, they renew their commitment to God.  During the ceremony, they recite a litany of blessings and curses which will befall the nation as a consequence of whether the people follow God’s commandments.

The blessings are what we might expect: Abundant rain in the right season.  Successful harvests.  Prosperity.  Victory against enemies.  The other nations of the earth will stand in awe of Israel.

Then, after these tangible blessings have been pronounced, there is one additional blessing that seems less specific.  Un’tanekha Adonai l’rosh v’lo l’zanav; v’hayita rak l’ma’alah v’lo tih’yeh l’mata.  “The Lord will make you the head, not the tail; you will always be at the top and never at the bottom…”  (Deut. 28:13)

The curses, beginning a few verses later, are the inverse of the blessings, and then some.  Included among the curses is the declaration that the stranger “…shall be the head and you shall be the tail.”  (28:44)

This is clearly where the Rosh Hashanah practice of eating the sheep or fish head comes from.  But what does it mean?

On its face, it seems fairly straightforward.  It is a metaphor for the economic and political success that Israel will experience if it behaves righteously.  Even today, we use the term “head” to refer to a leader, or the person at the top.  The “tail” is the follower. There is internal evidence in the Torah that the term refers specifically to being a creditor nation, rather than a debtor nation.

Mystical interpretations, however, identify hidden, spiritual meanings in the words of the Torah.  The Chassidic Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, author of the Torah commentary Kedushat Levi, suggests a deeper meaning.

He begins his commentary by asking why the Torah bothers to include the “tail” or the “bottom.”  Shouldn’t it have been enough to have said Un’tanekha Adonai l’rosh; v’hayita rak l’ma’alah—”The Lord will make you the head and you shall always be at the top”?  Adding “and not the tail,” and “never at the bottom” is superfluous.  And the Torah never wastes ink. Here is the hidden meaning.  Please bear with me.  This is kind of esoteric.

Reality, for human beings, is made up of three domains:  1.  The domain of abstract thought; 2.  The domain of speech; and 3.  The domain of action.  

Although Levi Yitzchak does not describe it this way, think about human consciousness.  Our experience of reality is no more than electrical signals passing between neurons in different parts of our brains.  For those electrical signals to be translated into awareness, what we might describe as thoughts or feelings, we need to perform an act of translation. My mind compares these patterns of electrical signals with my previous experiences of electrical signals.  At its most basic level, that is what language is.

I see a creature moving.  It has four legs, fur, and pointy ears.  It makes a noise.  My mind tells me, “this is a dog.”

Why doesn’t my mind say “cat?”  Not because I have seen this particular animal before, but because I have previous experiences with other creatures which have been defined as dogs. Language is the act of defining abstract experiences by comparing them with previous experiences.  Language also enables me to communicate my memory of those experiences to someone else.

After I have translated my abstract thoughts into language, I can then act.  I can manipulate the physical world around me.

We operate in all three domains at all times.  

The mystic sees the first domain, that of abstract thought, as the highest.  The essence of God lies somewhere beyond, but it is the closest a human being can become to God’s domain.  In Kabbalah, God’s essence is described as the Ein Sof, which literally means, “there is no end.”  Or, it cannot be defined.  God is completely abstract.  No word will capture God’s essence. The ultimate goal of the mystic is to attach oneself to God.  This can only be accomplished through the first domain, that of abstract thought.

Now we come back to the head and the tail, the top and the bottom.  Each of the three domains has a head and a tail.  A person who ascends to the head of a lower domain touches upon the tail of the next higher domain.  This is how Levi Yitzchak understands the Torah’s language of head and tail, top and bottom. When the Jewish people is at its best, it approaches the head of the highest domain, abstract thought, and is closest to God.

Let’s bring this back down to earth.  Through our actions, our speech, and our thought, each of us has the capacity to be better.  Actions, speech and thought are related.  As we improve one, we begin to improve the next.  

I work on my physical actions with the world around me: How I treat people, how I earn and spend my money, how I express compassion.  When I achieve success with my actions, it then leads to my speech.

My spiritual health is also about the words that come out of my mouth.  Controlling speech can be even more difficult than controlling behavior.  How hard is it to not gossip: to use language that builds people up rather than puts people down; to only read words online that make me grow?

When I purify my speech, that is when I can begin to purify my thoughts.

Moses describes the ultimate spiritual blessing:  “The Lord will make you the head, not the tail; you will always be at the top and never at the bottom…”  When the Israelites fulfill their covenantal obligations, they will achieve the closest possible relationship with God. Rabbi Levi says that this is not only a lesson for the nation, but for each of us.

As we approach the new year, we are taking stock.  It might be helpful to understand ourselves as being comprised of these three domains of thought, speech, and action.  The religious goal, indeed the human goal, is to improve on all three.

At the Rosh Hashanah meal, whether we eat a sheep’s head, a ram’s head, a salmon head, or a Swedish Fish head, may it symbolize for us that the year to come will be one in which we are the head, not the tail, and always at the top, never the bottom.”

Falling Into Prayer – Ekev 5779

At the end of Parashat Ekev, as Moses is exhorting the Israelites to remain faithful to God and the covenant, he makes a speech that may sound familiar:

וְהָיָ֗ה אִם־שָׁמֹ֤עַ תִשְׁמְעוּ֙ אֶל־מִצְוֹתַ֔י אֲשֶׁ֧ר אָנֹכִ֛י מְצַוֶּ֥ה אֶתְכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם לְאַהֲבָ֞ה אֶת־י-ְהוָֹ֤ה אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם֙ וּלְעָבְד֔וֹ בְּכָל־לְבַבְכֶ֖ם וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁכֶם:

“Now it shall be, if you listen to my commandments which I command to you today, to love the Lord your God, and to serve Him with all of your hearts and with all of your souls…”  (Deut. 11:13)

We know this passage as the second paragraph of the shema.  It is the one that we usually recite silently.  Notice that it is not the language of prayer at all.  It is Moses telling the Israelites to listen to and serve God.  If they do, they will be rewarded with abundance.

So how did it come to be included, not just in our prayers, but in the Shema, which serves as the central biblical passage of Jewish worship, the anchor of our service?

The answer is found in the Talmud (BT Ta’anit 2a).  The word avodah, meaning service, usually refers to the Temple rituals: Priests and Levites offering daily animal sacrifices. But here, Moses modifies the usual expression when he speaks to the Israelites: וּלְעָבְד֔וֹ בְּכָל־לְבַבְכֶ֖ם — “to serve Him with all of your hearts.”  He is not talking about Temple rituals and animal sacrifices.  The Talmud cites this phrase and then asks: Eizo hi avodah she-hi ba-lev?  What kind of service is performed in the heart? Hevei omer: zo tefilah.  You must say that this is referring to tefilah — prayer.

Maimonides summarizes the matter succinctly, as usual.  He declares that “It is a positive commandment to pray every day, as it says: and you shall serve the Lord your God”  (Ex. 23:25).  He then cites this passage in the Talmud to explain that the service in question is the service of the heart; that is to say, tefilah.

The Torah is silent regarding the specific content of our prayers.  Nowhere does it say that we need to recite these particular words that appear in the prayer book.  Our siddur is the product of human beings striving to express themselves to God.

So what is tefilah?  What is prayer?

There are a few examples of prayers in the Torah.  As it so happens, one of them appears earlier in this morning’s Torah portion.

As Moses continues his recounting of the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness over the previous forty years, he comes to the episode of the Golden Calf. As you may recall, the Israelites encountered God at Mount Sinai.  That is when they received the Ten Commandments.  We read them in last week’s parashah.  The first two commandments are:  I am the Lord your God.  You shall have no other gods before Me.  And, Don’t worship idols.

Forty days later, there is a bit of confusion about when—or whether—Moses is coming back.  So what do the Israelites do?  The obvious thing: build a statue of a golden calf and start worshipping it.

For those keeping track, they have just broken commandment numbers one and two.  Not a good start.  It sure didn’t take them long, did it?

Now, Moses has to intercede on the people’s behalf to prevent God from annihilating them.  He describes what happened in his own words:  וָאֶתְנַפַּל֩ לִפְנֵ֨י יְהֹוָ֜ה — “I threw myself down before the Lord like the first time; forty days and forty nights, bread I did not eat, and wine I did not drink, on account of all your sins that you committed…”  

The Torah likes to the play with language.  It is full of puns and patterns.  Hebrew is built on three letter root words.  Most verbs, nouns, and adjectives are constructed by manipulating those three letters in various ways.  In this case, the root for אֶתְנַפַּל is נפל, which in english means “fall.”  אֶתְנַפַּל makes it reflexive and forceful – I threw myself down.  

While נפל is a pretty common root word in the Bible, אֶתְנַפַּל is not.  Moses did not just fall to the ground.  He threw himself to the ground.  But there is more.  God was also furious with Aaron for his role in constructing the Golden Calf.  Moses again describes his courageous actions: וָאֶתְפַּלֵּ֛ל גַּם־בְּעַ֥ד אַהֲרֹ֖ן  — “Then I prayed on behalf of Aaron…”

Here, the word is אֶתְפַּלֵּל.  Sounds a lot like אֶתְנַפַּל.  But with one letter different.  Instead of נפל, the root is פלל, which in English means “intercede” or “pray.”

A few verses later, Moses recites the actual prayer that he had used to intercede for the Israelites and for Aaron.  Again, he pairs the words אֶתְנַפַּל and אֶתְפַּלֵּל.  “When I threw myself before the Lord… because the Lord was determined to destroy you, I interceded to the Lord and said…” and so on.

The Torah, very deliberately, juxtaposes these two nearly identical words to tell us that there is a connection between praying and throwing oneself on the ground.

It is clear, from this and other passages, that tefilah involves directing one’s words to God.   Looking at the various prayers that appear in the Bible, they tend to involve consistent themes.  The worshipper praises God, reflecting on God’s power and might.  Usually God is addressed as compassionate and forgiving.  Those are the qualities the worshipper is hoping to awaken.  After praise comes request.  The worshipper asks for something: a child, healing, mercy, victory.

In this passage, Moses asks God to have mercy on the Israelites and Aaron and forego the plan to destroy them.  But with the added element that he physically throws himself on the ground.

What does throwing oneself on the ground mean?  It is the most extreme form of bowing: full prostration, which nowadays we only perform during the High Holidays. It is a physical expression of humility: to lower oneself as close to the ground as possible.  It would certainly convey that message to the recipient of the prayer.

Think also about the effect that it would have on the worshipper.  How is the meaning of Moses’ words enhanced by him saying them with his face in the dirt, as opposed to if he had been standing tall?

To really pray, we have to first become aware that we are, in fact, powerless before our Creator.  The true act of service of the heart, real prayer, can only come from a position of losing oneself, of putting everything on the line, honestly and openly.  

Moses’ throwing himself on the ground is his way of praying with his whole self.  Literally, his entire body.  His physical posture contributes to his emotional state.  Ironic that, in order to most fully serve God with his heart, he has to also use his body.

Just Beginning to See – Va-Etchanan 5779

In my high school Humanities class, I remember being very impressed when I learned about the Socratic Paradox: “To know what you do not know, that is true knowledge.”  In fact, I discovered recently, Socrates never said such a thing.

The idea may come from a passage in Plato’s Apology.  Socrates gets into a discussion with a man who is reputed to be wise.  He walks away from the encounter disappointed.

“I am wiser than this man,” he muses, “for neither of us appears to know anything great and good; but he fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, so I do not fancy I do. In this trifling particular, then, I appear to be wiser than he, because I do not fancy I know what I do not know.”

In Greek philosophy, the the hero of wisdom is Socrates.  He is so wise, because he knows that he does not know anything.

The Jewish equivalent is, of course, Moses.

At the very beginning of this morning’s parashah, Va’etchanan, Moses describes to the assembled Israelites how he tried to convince God to change the verdict against him.  He pleads to be allowed to enter the Promised Land.

Moses’s formal request begins with praise.

אֲדֹנָי יֱ-הֹוִה אַתָּה הַחִלּוֹתָ לְהַרְאוֹת אֶת־עַבְדְּךָ אֶת־גָּדְלְךָ וְאֶת־יָדְךָ הַחֲזָקָה

“My Master, Adonai, You Yourself have begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand”

Why does Moses include the word, hachilota—”you have begun.”  He could have just said. “You have shown Your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand.”  Since no word in the Torah is superfluous, it must add something important.

To understand the p’shat, the plain sense meaning of the expression, we have to look at this passage in its context.  Earlier in Sefer Devarim, the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses has recounted the Israelites’ travels through the wilderness over the previous forty years.  He has already used variations of the word hatchalah, meaning “beginning.”

The Israelites’ conquest has begun on the Eastern side of the Jordan River.  They have been victorious over King Sihon and the Amorites, as well as King Og and the Bashanites, capturing their lands. Two and a half Israelite tribes step forward, requesting permission to settle in the newly acquired lands:  Reuven, Gad, and half of Menashe.  This territory will become part of the new nation.  God instructs Moses.  Re’eh hachiloti—”See, I begin by placing Sihon and his land at your disposal.”  Hachel rash!—”Begin the occupation; take possession of his land!”

As Etchanan opens, the conquest has already begun.  The Israelites, with God’s blessing, are on a roll.  So Moses is thinking, “The Lord must be in a pretty good mood.  Now would be a good time to ask for my punishment to be lifted.” He signals this hope in the language of his prayer:

My Master, Adonai, You Yourself have begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand, for what god is there in the heavens and on earth who could do like Your deeds and like Your might?  Let me, pray, cross over that I may see the goodly land which is across the Jordan, this goodly high country and the Lebanon!  (Deut. 3:24-25)

Moses sounds really hopeful.  He is not asking for much; just to look at the land, to see how good it is.  He is not going to touch anything.  Promise.

Even this is too much.  “But the Lord was wrathful with me because of you,” he tells the Israelites, “and he did not listen to me.  And the Lord said to me, Rav L’kha—Enough for you!  Do not speak more to Me of this matter.  Go up to the top of the Pisgah, and raise your eyes to the west and to the north and to the south and to the east and see iwth your own eyes, for you shall not cross this Jordan”  (Deut. 3:26-27)

Such a disappointing answer for Moses.

Reading this passage out of its context, the Baal Shem Tov, the eighteenth century founder of Chasidism, teaches a deeper lesson about Moses’ request.  

“You Yourself have begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand.”

Moshe Rabeinu was the greatest of all prophets.  Not only does he receive the Written Torah at Mount Sinai, he also receives knowledge of every single innovation that future scholars are destined to discover.  As it says in the Talmud, “There is nobody greater in good deeds than Moshe Rabeinu.”  (BT Berachot 32).  Despite all of this, Moses still stands at the very beginning.  So he says to God:  “You Yourself have begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand.”

Moses is not referring to the conquest of the land.  He is referencing something much greater: the mysteries of creation, the wonders of the universe, the nature of good and evil, the purpose of human existence.  Moses, the greatest of all prophets, has only caught a glimpse.  Nearly 120 years old, he still stands at the beginning.  Adayin hu omed bahat’chala.

Here is Moses, at the end of his life, acknowledging to God, “I have only just started learning these mysteries.  I want to know more.”

God responds, perhaps not with so much anger: rav l’kha—”it is enough for you.  There is a limit to what the human mind, even yours, can comprehend.  Ascend the highest peak, and look in every direction.  You will see everything that you are capable of seeing.  But you cannot cross over.”  In other words, you cannot increase your wisdom.

Moses is the paradigm for the ideal human beings.  He lives for 120 years, which the Torah identifies as the upper limit of human life.  He achieves the greatest wisdom of which human beings are capable, and he demonstrates the highest imaginable levels of virtue.  

His struggles, as creatively interpreted through Jewish tradition, are universal human struggles.  Here, at the end of his life, he realizes that he is just starting.  There is so much that he does not yet know.

This humility about the limits of knowledge is so important.  It is what drives scientists to uncover how our universe works.  It is what drives curiosity and growth.  Someone who thinks he or she has all the answers, ironically, has none.

Moses: A Man Of Words – Devarim 5779

Today, we begin reading the last of the five books of the Torah.  Sefer Devarim, the Book of Words.  It is a fitting title.  Unlike the previous books, there is not much narrative that takes place.  The Israelites do not travel.  Nobody challenges Moses’ authority, or defies God’s instructions.  No idolatrous nation attacks the Israelites.  Devarim is just a book of words, speeches.  Speeches by Moses, in fact.

This is the only book in which the narrator is Moses himself, speaking in the first person.  The other four books are written from the perspective of an unnamed, anonymous third person speaker.

Devarim takes place on the Eastern banks of the Jordan River, in sight of the land of Canaan.  Moses is nearly 120 years old.  He knows the end is near.  This is his final opportunity to prepare the Israelites for what will come next.  Sefer Devarim is Moses’ swan song, his “valedictory,” as described by Jeffrey Tigay.  But there is mysterious contradiction in the opening of this book.

What do we know about Moses as a person?  The Torah describes him as the greatest prophet to ever live.  He is the ideal human.  Practically perfect in every way.

The Torah specifies just a single flaw in Moses.  He identifies it himself, at the very beginning of his career.  At the burning bush, when God first appears to Moses and gives him his commission, Moses tries to get out of the job.  This is how the Torah describes it:

Moses said to the Lord.  Please my Lord, I am not a man of words, neither yesterday nor the day before that, nor ever since Your speaking to Your servant, for heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue am I.  (Exodus 4:10)

Lo ish devarim anokhi, “I am not a man of devarim, words.” Now listen to the opening verse of Sefer Devarim, the Book of Words:

These are the words that Moses spoke to all of Israel on the other side of the Jordan, in the wilderness, in the Aravah between Suf and between Paran, and between Tofel and Lavan and Chatzerot and Di Zahav.

Eleh ha-devarim asher diber Moshe, “These are the devarim, the words, that Moses spoke.” Moses, who is not a man of words, has now become one—an incredible feat for someone who is heavy of mouth and tongue. How does he make such a transformation?

A Midrash explains that “when [Moses] became worthy of Torah, his tongue was healed and he began to speak devarim.” The mouth that said “I am not a man of words” at the burning bush is the same one that now fills a book with words. If that is the case, why have we not heard about it until this moment?  After all, Moses received the Torah on Mount Sinai nearly forty years earlier.  He should have already become a man of words.

In fact, says the fourteenth (1320-1376) century commentator, Nissim ben Reuven of Girona, known as the Ran, Moses was not healed until this moment. The Ran teaches that, until now, Moses had not been an eloquent speaker.  This was deliberate, to ensure that everyone knew that whenever he spoke, he was not using his rhetorical skills, his “glib tongue,” to trick them.  It could only be that the Shechinah was speaking through him.  The content of his words came directly from God.  His disability proves his authenticity.

But Sefer Devarim is different.  God barely speaks in this book.  It is all Moses.  For this, rhetoric matters.  He needs to speak with eloquence if he is going to convey a message to the children of those who left Egypt.  These are people who did not experience first hand the miracles of the plagues, the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, and the revelation at Mount Sinai.

For this task, Moses’ speaking difficulties will be a detriment.  That is why God waits until now, the end, to heal him.  We might even say that Moses did not become fully worthy of the Torah until this moment.

Verse 5 recapitulates the opening line of the book, “On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, “Moses expounded upon this Torah.” He begins with history.  He describes what has happened for the previous forty years, since the Revelation at Sinai.  Moses reminds us of the mistakes we made, and encourages us to remain faithful to God.  He lists the commandments that we are to follow as covenantal obligations.  All with devarim.

This is an important step.  The previous books describe God’s revelations to Israel through Moses, as they are happening.  Now, Moses must translate those previous revelations for a new generation, in language that they can understand and in terms to which they can relate.

That is the meaning of DevarimDevarim are not merely words.  Words, or language, is merely a tool that we use to transmit ideas to one another.  For this, a successful communicator or teacher must always take into consideration the particular needs of the listeners.

This is the transformation that Moses undergoes on the Eastern banks of the Jordan.  He expounds upon the Torah to future generations of Israel.  Perhaps this is the moment when he earns the title Moshe Rabeinu, Moses our teacher.  

Ever since, we have been a people of devarim.  What I am delivering right now is called a D’var Torah.  A “word of Torah.”  It is not merely reading from our sacred text, as the term “word of Torah” might literally imply.  The purpose of a D’var Torah is to translate God’s revelation into words that speak to us today, in this moment. That is why, when we publish our chumashim, we typically include commentaries along with the sacred text itself.  The text of revelation must be interpreted.  

We always read Parashat Devarim on the Shabbat before the fast of Tisha B’Av.  This year, today is itself Tisha B’Av, so we push its observance forward by one day. It is a day of memory and mourning.  We recall the destructions of the first and second temples, the expulsion from Spain, the fall of the Warsaw Ghetto, and many other tragic events of our people through the millenia.

We remember these events through devarim.  The primary devarim that we use is the Book of Eichah, LamentationsThese evocative words were written by Jeremiah to describe the horrible devastation and suffering of our ancestors during the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Babylonians in 586 bce.  But the words are crafted so artfully that they could just as easily be describing any of the later tragedies of our people.

It is through devarim that we remember.  Each year, we read the same devarim, but they mean something a little different.

Tonight, as we chant Jeremiah’s devarim, we think not only about the tragedies of the past, but also of the present.  This year, we have mourned brothers and sisters of the Jewish people who were murdered in Pittsburgh and Poway al kiddush hashem, in sanctification of God’s name.  And dozens of other senseless victims taken in the last week in Gilroy, El Paso, and Dayton.

We know how important it is to remember.  Memory enables us to make meaning of our lives, and to be better. It is a lesson that we learned from Moshe Rabeinu, who taught us, before we entered the promised land, the importance of remembering the tragedies along with the blessings.  Tonight and tomorrow, we will remember the tragedies.  May we also remember the blessings.

The Thirteen Attributes of Parenting (On the occasion of my son’s Bar Mitzvah) – Ki Tissa 5779

It is a special privilege and joy to officiate at my son’s Bar Mitzvah.  Over the past year, as we have been preparing for today, Solly and I have learned a lot about each other.  I have learned about myself.  I hope you feel the same.

This experience has made me reflect a lot on being a parent.  Specifically, how to be a better one.

The Torah is filled with stories of parents and children.  The ultimate purpose of the covenant is for parents to pass down peoplehood to their children, including: religious practices, historical memories, cultural traditions, and language.  And yet, they so often have trouble understanding each other.  

The Torah also makes us face the Ultimate parent-child relationship:  that between God and human beings.  God, the parent, wants us to just behave and do what we are told, already.  From the very first humans, Adam and Eve, we can’t seem to quite live up to those expectations.  That is what you spoke about, Solly.

God places demands on us, but we also place demands on God.  Our demand, our plea, is for God to accept us for who we are, rather than for who God wants us to be.  

As Parashat Ki Tissa begins, Moses has been up on Mount Sinai for forty days and forty nights.  He has left the people at the base of the mountain under the care of his brother Aaron.  Thinking he is gone, some of the Israelites build and worship a golden calf.  God wants to wipe out the people in response to their lack of faith and start over with Moses.  Moses successfully convinces God to forgive the Israelites.  On a role, Moses goes for it.  “Hareini na et k’vodekha,” he says to God.  “Please show me your glory.”

What is he asking for?  Moses wants to know more about this unseen Being whom he represents.  He wants to understand something about the essence of Divine nature.

“Nobody can see My face and live,” says God.  “But I’ll tell you what.  Stand in the cleft of the rock.  I’ll cover you with My hand.  Then, I’ll pass all of my goodness before You.  After I have passed, I’ll remove My hand and you can see My back.”

Face, hands, back.  God sounds a lot like a person.  

Rabbi Yochanan, in the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 17b), finds it hard to believe that God could be described this way.  “Were it not written, it could not have been said.”  But it was written, so Rabbi Yochanan imagines the scene further.  The Holy One is wrapped up in a tallit like a shaliach tzibbur, a prayer leader.  God then recites the Thirteen Attributes.  They might sound familiar:

Adonai, Adonai – The Lord, the Lord.

Eil rachum v’chanun – God of mercy and compassion

Erekh apayim v’rav chesed ve’emet – Patient, full of kindness and faithfulness

Notseir chesed la’alafim – Extending love for a thousand generations

Nosei avon vafesha, v’chata’ah – Forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin

v’nakeh – and pardoning

Rabbi Yochanan continues imagining the scene:  “Whenever the Jewish people sin,” God tells Moses, “let them recite this prayer.  I will forgive them immediately.”

These qualities are all about kindness and forgiveness.  Of course the Rabbis would gravitate to these words.  They establish the recitation of these Thirteen Attributes of God on the High Holidays, when we come together to pray for forgiveness.  It was so popular that seventeenth century mystics added added it to Passover, Shavuot, and Succot, but not Shabbat.

The only problem is, the Rabbis have cut off the quote in mid-sentence, completely distorting its meaning from its original context.  Here is its continuation.  You may recall that the last word is v’nakeh – “and pardoning.”  But the following words are:

lo y’nakeh – “He does not pardon”

poked avon avot al-banim v’al b’nei vanim al-shileshim v’al ribe’im – but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.

This changes things.  While God may be kind, compassionate, and forgiving, God also holds us accountable for our actions across generations.  This is a covenantal text.  It makes sense here, as Moses has just successfully argued God down from wiping out all of Israel.  Instead, only those who are guilty will be punished, while the rest of the nation is spared.  God sticks to the covenant.  There is both compassion and justice.  Carrot and stick.

But the Rabbis don’t feel like bringing up the stick.  They cherry pick only those attributes that they want.  What gives them the right?

Well, they are not the first.  The Bible itself misquotes the attributes—frequently.  The first Temple Prophet Joel, offering comfort to the people, reassures them that God will accept them if they return, because God “is compassionate and merciful, patient and full of kindness…”  (Joel 2:13)  No punishment mentioned.

The anti-Prophet Jonah, who disobeys God’s instructions to prophesize to the sinners of Nineveh, explains his reasoning.  “This is exactly what I said would happen.  I ran away because ‘I know that you are a God who is compassionate and merciful, patient and full of kindness…’  (Jonah 4:2)”  Notice that Jonah cites the exact same Divine attributes as Joel.  Only, he is angry that God is not behaving more vengefully.  He wants the Ninevites to be punished.

Several other biblical texts treat the attributes similarly.  It is not sloppy editing.  These numerous texts simply do not want to invoke a judgmental God.  They want a God who will accept them with their imperfections.  They know that they have screwed up and probably do not deserve it, but they want forgiveness anyway.

When the Rabbis incorporate only the first thirteen attributes into our worship, leaving off the punishment, they are in good company.  Rabbi Yochanan even goes so far as to claim that God is the One who first came up with the idea of uprooting the text from its context.

The Thirteen Attributes are among the most memorable prayers in the liturgy.  Perhaps it is due to the music, or the threefold repetition in front of the open ark.  Behind all of the aesthetics of how we recite it is the message that it conveys:  we want our God to give us a second chance.  Just like we want our parents to give us a second chance, and sometimes a third, and a fourth.

Human beings have a need to be seen.  When I visit the Nursery School students, they rush over and say “Look at me.  Look at me.”  Although most of us stop being so blatant about it as we mature, the essential loneliness of “Look at me,” persists.  We all want to be seen.  Most of all, I think, by our parents.  As we mature, though, we become aware of our faults and struggles.  That knowledge can complicate our desire for acknowledgment.  What if they see my imperfections and reject me?

When we turn to God, we only mention the compassionate and forgiving qualities because we fear that God might not accept us with our imperfections.

I think children want the same thing from their parents.  A child becomes Bar and Bat Mitzvah precisely at the time when the centrifugal and centripetal forces are most intense.  They want to create distance—to differentiate from us.  But it is also a time of great vulnerability, when the need for assurance and acceptance is strong.  These forces that attract and repel us from each other can be exasperating, to both sides.

I am going to read the 13 Attributes again.  Only this time, don’t think about them as Divine qualities.  Think about them as the qualities that children want from their parents, especially when they are 13.

The Lord, the Lord, God of mercy and compassion, patient, full of kindness and faithfulness, extending love for a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, and pardoning.

Solly, I don’t get it right all the time, but that is what I strive for.

One of the fun parts of being a father is watching how your kids think through problems to find solutions.

You are a person with strong opinions and convictions.  I have tried to convey that answers in the real world are typically not as straightforward as good and bad, right and wrong.

That was the problem with the first set of Tablets of the Covenant, as you explained to us earlier.  The Israelites needed a lawgiver like Moses who understood that it is possible for two people with different opinions to both have a point.  And who could look beyond simple right and wrong answers to guide imperfect people towards the right path.

That kind of patience is an important quality to cultivate.  It applies to our relationships with friends and classmates, teachers, parents and siblings, and religion.

As much as I may want to dictate to you the commitments that you are going to embrace in your life, I know that it would not be appropriate, or even possible, to do so.

Solly, as you grow into adulthood, I hope that you learn to recognize the nuances in life.  The Torah is not central to Judaism because it is true or false.  It is central because generations of Jews, going back thousands of years, have committed their lives to studying it and living by it.  By embracing that tradition, you pursue a life of meaning side by side with your ancestors.

As your father, I pray that you will find your path in Jewish life through learning, commitment to Jewish practice, and involvement in Jewish community.

Mummy and I have tried to surround you with meaningful experiences in our home and with our community.  Keep at it.

Mazel Tov.