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.
This track is sponsored by Jane Pollner and David Blumenstein
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)