Thoughts and Torah
Darkness hovers over this week’s parsha like a plague… the ninth plague in fact! But there is a deeper meaning to this plague of darkness. What is so important about this darkness is what is mentioned right after it:
וַיְהִ֧י חֹֽשֶׁךְ־אֲפֵלָ֛ה בְּכָל־אֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם שְׁלֹ֥שֶׁת יָמִֽים׃, לֹֽא־רָא֞וּ אִ֣ישׁ אֶת־אָחִ֗יו
“And thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days. People could not see one another.”
V’lo ra’u ish et echav. And the people could not see each other. And we see that within the manifestation plague comes the cause of the plague. The Torah teaches us that darkness really comes when we can’t see each other. When we can’t see what our fellow human beings need. When we don’t acknowledge the humanity in each and every one of us.
The words for this song come from Kabbalat Shabbat, Psalm 96. “Beauty and splendor before the Divine, Strength and majesty in God’s sanctuary.” This phrase “Hod V’hadar,” “Beauty and splendor,” is a phase that is found in scripture almost exclusively in relation to God. But in this case it is used to describe sanctuary instead. The words always get me thinking about what it is that creates beauty and splendor, what creates strength and majesty in God’s sanctuary.
The answer came to me in the form of this melody. It is the people who abide in that sanctuary, choosing to see each other and build the sanctuary together. When we see and acknowledge the humanity in each other, we lift ourselves out of the plague of darkness and our eyes are opened up to the beauty and splendor in this world, in each other. If you listen to this melody, you can here the voices building up together throughout the song. At first soft and tentative, it is the coming together that makes them strong.
On this Shabbat, let us use our eyes and our hearts to raise ourselves out of the darkness and see the humanity in those around us. Let us use our voices to build each other up and to pray.
There is story in the Talmud that every Shabbat, two angels accompany us on our way, a good angel and a bad angel. If we come home and our table is set, the candles are lit, and we’ve created space for Shabbat, the good angel will say, “So may it be every week,” and the bad angel must respond, “Amen.” But if we come home to fight, without asking our children how their week was, without pausing to take a moment to be together, the bad angel will say, “So may it be every week,” and the good angel must respond, “Amen.”
Angels are all around us. They manifest themselves in human beings, in the way we look at each other, in the way we see and interact with the world. In this week’s parashah, Vayechi, Jacob asks his own guardian angel to look after his two grandchildren. But we learned from commentators on the story of Abraham and his three angel visitors that each angel has a singular task to do in this world, so how can Jacob’s angels take on the task of guarding his grandchildren once their singular task of guarding Jacob is complete? The answer is in what Jacob does. These two children are blessed together, not one at a time. Jacob’s message is not meant for the angels, it is meant for these two boys. They have to be each other’s angels. They have to protect each other and take care of each other.
We have to be each other’s angels. On Shabbat, we welcome in the angels of peace and rest that accompany the Shabbat Queen. As we do, we turn around to face the entrance to our community spaces. And in doing so, we have a chance to look around the room at each other. Who in that room needs you to be their angel today? Who in your life needs you to be their angel today?
As we gather together this Shabbat and sing these beautiful words, find a way to be someone else’s angel, and hold them extra close.
WAKE UP! SHINE YOUR LIGHT! SING OUT! STAND UP.
Lecha Dodi is a demand. A call to action. Hit’oreri! Wake up! Your light is coming, so shine it out. Especially during this festival of lights, the message of Lecha Dodi calls on us to shine light in the darkness.
I spend a lot of time thinking about the words we sing when we pray. The Hebrew language was crafted with incredible intention, and the words we use at different times often have multiple layers of meaning and significance. Often times the language used in the Torah begs us to ask questions about it. The rabbis and commentators often say that the words of the Torah shout out, “Darsheini!” “Interpret me!” The opening words of this week’s parashah, Miketz, called out “Darsheini!” this week.
“ויהי מקץ שנתים ימים (Breishit 41:1).” This is usually translated as, “And so it was after two years’ time.” But that’s not exactly what they mean. If we were to translate them literally, it might read, “And so at the end of two years of days.”
These words call on us to challenge our concept of time and think instead on impact. How can we make the days, weeks, and years that we have on this earth meaningful? Every day has the potential to be a year in terms of impact. The word “Miketz” means “end,” and serves as a warning for us. It says to us, “Be careful, my friends, that your years don’t pass by like days! Make something meaningful happen every day.”
This Shabbat of Hannukah, let’s learn from Lecha Dodi and Parashat Miketz, stand up, and light up the world with action, truth, and justice.
The “I” Gets in the Way
Sometimes we are our own worst enemy. In this week’s parashah, Vayeitze, Jacob runs away from Be’er Sheva, away from his brother Esau, and comes upon a certain place and stops for the night. There he has a famous dream of a ladder reaching to heaven with angels going up and coming down. When he wakes up, he exclaims, “Achen yesh Adonai bamakom hazeh va’anochi lo yadati!” “Surely the Holy One is present in this place, and I did not know it!” Our sages teach us that every single word in the Torah is intentional and there is some meaning behind it. Rav Shimshon from Ostropol taught us to look at the last letters of each of these words: “אכן יש ה’ במקום הזה” The last letters spell the word “נשמה,” “Soul.” Even though the whole world is filled with Divine Glory, the central essence of the Divine is in the soul.
But the key is “Va’anochi lo yadati,” “and I did not know it!” Rabbi Dov Bear, the Maggid of Mezritch, teaches about the verse, “אָנֹכִי עֹמֵד בֵּין-ה’ וּבֵינֵיכֶם (Devarim 5:5),” “I stand between the Divine and you,” I-ness, ego, self-centeredness, is the screen that separates between human and the Divine. If we are able to see through the screen of the ego, of our own self, we open ourselves up to the rest of the world, to what is greater than the self alone.
That is what Rebbe Nachman of Breslov was trying to teach us with the words I have set to this melody. He wrote, “Every person must say to themselves, ‘the whole world was created for me.’ Once I realize that the world was created for me, I must, at all times, seek out ways to do tikkun olam, and to fill up the holes in the world, and to pray on the world’s behalf.”
There are so many layers to this teaching. What stands out to me the most is the fact that not everyone has the privilege of being able to say “the whole world was created for me.” But if you do have the privilege of being able to say those words, IF YOU CAN TAKE YOURSELF OUT OF THE “I” ENOUGH TO COME TO THAT REALIZATION, it comes with the utmost amount of responsibility. To find ways to change the world. To “fill up the holes in the world.” Rebbe Nachman teaches that there are holes in the world that each person is uniquely suited to fill up, and that only we can help the world in filling up these holes.
This Shabbat, I pray that we find our way past the screen of “i-ness,” to find the holes in the world that each of us alone is meant to fill.
When 11 Souls are gone, what lives on?
What can we do, as individuals, as a community, to move forward after 11 souls were taken from us at Tree of Life synagogue last Shabbat? It’s unimaginable, but I looked to our tradition to try to find an answer. This week’s Torah portion is called “Chayei Sarah,” “The life of Sarah,” but it takes place after Sarah has already died. Our rabbis notice that before Sarah, others whose deaths had been mentioned in the Torah did not leave a legacy. About Chanoch it is written, “V’einenah,” “He is no longer,” which they understand to mean that he left no legacy. But after Sarah and Abraham died, they left behind them the entire Jewish people.
For the first time, we see a continuation, a legacy. The Rabbis teach that the Jewish people were left with all of the traits, values, and virtues of their ancestors. And most of all, they were left with the virtue of CHESED, of kindness, of goodness. The rest of the Torah portion is filled with Chesed.
And this is what we must be for the souls we lost in Pittsburgh. We must be a continuation. A legacy. We must stand for what they stood for, and embody their values and virtues.
For Joyce Feinberg, let us remember the importance of warmth and generosity, and the value of reaching out to a friend to say hello.
For Richard Gottfried, let us remember the value of commitment, and the importance of taking care of your community.
For Rose Mallinger, let us remember the value of exuberance, and the importance of waking up in the morning ready to live life with vibrancy and joy.
For Jerry Rabinowitz, let us remember the value of presence, and the importance of a listening ear.
For Cecil Rosenthal, let us remember to laugh, and the importance of welcoming, greeting everyone we know with a smiling face.
For David Rosenthal, let us remember the value of goodness and gentleness, and the importance of faith.
For Bernice and Sylvan Simon, let us remember the value of love, and the importance of holding each other close through good times and bad.
For Daniel Stein, let us remember the importance of family, and the love of a grandfather for his grandson.
For Melvin Wax, let us remember to be kind, and gracious, and to appreciate and be aware of the kind acts of others.
For Irving Younger, let us remember the value of passion and responsibility, and the importance of following through with our values.
Anim Zemirot is the last hymn we sing on Shabbat morning. It is a beautiful love song, a song of yearning to be held. “I will sing melodies and weave songs for you, for my soul longs for you…My soul desires the shade of your palm, discovering your endless depths and mysteries.” But last Shabbat, they never made it to this hymn at Tree of Life. Their prayers were cut short along with their lives. For them, let us continue to sing and to find strength in community, synagogue, and Shabbat.
WE CREATE WORLDS WITH OUR WORDS.
God created the universe with words. “And God said, let there be light, and there was light.” Words have power, and the words in the Torah are filled with intention. People have searched through the words of the Torah to find meaning and inspiration for thousands of years, and there are hints in the words that are used in the Torah that teach lessons only to be discovered generations later.
“אלה תולדות השמים והארץ (Genesis 2:4),” “This is the chronicle of heaven and earth.” That same word “toldot,” “chronicle,” is used two chapters later when all of the first generations of humanity are listed, “זה ספר תולדות אדם (Genesis 5:1),” “This is the chronicle of humanity.” Why is that same word used? The Chasidic commentator Degel Machaneh Efraim (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Efraim of Sudilkov) teaches that it is to show that just as God spoke and the world was created, so too can we create worlds with our words. And not only that, he says, but the Torah itself requires us, in every single generation, to interpret and understand the Torah “לפי מה שצריך לאותו דור ולפי שרש נשמתן של אותו הדור,” According to what that generation needs at the time, and according to the root of the soul of that generation.
So what does our generation need at this time? What is the soul of this generation? This week we start the cycle of reading the Torah anew. Now is a time of rebirth, a time of renewal. This story, our story, is one of triumphant justice, of a people in pain being heard and marching to freedom. Let the words we read this Shabbat and this year inspire us to create a new world built on light, truth, justice, and love.
What do you do the day after you thought the world was going to end?
We made it through. We’re on the other side of the High Holy Days. Look around. Now is when the real work starts. We always are told to live each day like we are dying, But is that really what we should be doing? My mother told me a story she learned from Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann, about a man who turned 60 years old and wanted to learn the violin, but decided not to, not knowing how much longer he would have. He died at the age of 97, and could have been a virtuoso. It is never too late too begin.
Live like today is the beginning! Tomorrow is the first Shabbat after the holidays. Our first opportunity to sing, to chant, to pray, since we left the Divine Holy Court. Jews sing all the time, but there is something particularly special about getting to sing together on Shabbat. The word in Hebrew for a song is “Shir”, but a song we sing on Shabbat is called a “Zemer”. Hebrew words and letters hold holy and mystical significance. Words were formed with intention, and can be reformed and reinterpreted to deepen meaning. Zemer, read backwards, is Remez, which means “hint”. A shir is a song that we sing anytime, but a Zemer on Shabbat hints at something more. It hints at the Divine Presence, at the comfort and love of Shabbat. Yah Ribon is a zemer.
Taking time to be in Shabbat gives us the strength to continue the work we need to do in this world. Sing your way into Shabbat with this zemer, Yah Ribon. Sing it with friends. Sing it with family. Sing it in your heart.
May the voices which chant and pray on this Shabbat be voices of kindness and truth at all times. May we deepen our concern for all your children, and renew our devotion to our people and our faith. On this Shabbat which we share together, help us to feel your presence, O Source of Life and Love.
After months of work and collaboration with very dear friends, and with the support of so many of you, I am proud to share the first track off of my new album, “Chaverai Nevarech.” Every two weeks, I’ll share a new piece of music, along with a teaching to accompany it. All of the videos will be available on my website, along with sheet music, chords, and other resources to share with your communities.
So here is some Rosh Hashanah Torah for the first song, “Emet.”
Rosh Hashanah is not only the birth of a new year, it is the birthday of the entire world. When God began to create the world, all of the angels began to argue with each other. The angel of Chesed (loving-kindness) said, “Holy One! You should create humankind, as they are filled with loving-kindness!” The angel of Truth said, “O Holy One! Do not create humankind, as they are filled with lies!” What did God do? God lifted up the angel of Truth and threw it to down the Earth, as it is written, “And Truth was hurled to the ground (Daniel 8:12).” The angels immediately began shouting, “Holy One! What have you done? You have thrown your holy seal of Truth to the ground!” And the Holy One replied, “Truth springs up from the Earth (Psalms 85:12).”
There is no such thing as absolute truth; inflexible, unalterable. Truth does not come from on high. Ever since the moment that God threw Truth to the ground, truth must be found in humanity. Which means it is up to us to recognize truth and to use it for good. This is a huge responsibility, and the Holy One knew that it was the right to give this responsibility to humanity. After God created humans, God looked and said “v’hinei tov me’od,” “and it was very good.” What is it that is very good? What is it that is tov me’od? It is Adam. The letters Mem Aleph, Daled (Me’od), also spell Adam (Aleph, Daled, Mem). The hidden truth is that there is goodness, very goodness in fact, in each one of us. And the goal of this season of repentance and introspection is to see it in ourselves and find it in each other.
This is what it means to seek out truth. To bring out the tov me’od in ourselves and in those around us, and strive to fill the world with a little more emet, and a little more tov me’od. May 5779 bring us more of both.
(Adapted from Bereishit Rabbah 8:5)