5783 Musical Torah Journey
Vayishlach 5783 – Na’ar Hayiti
“I hate confrontation.” Have you ever heard this sentence before? Have you uttered it yourself? Knowing you have an issue you need to confront with another person – be they a family member, a friend, or a co-worker – can bring intense anxiety and fear. Humans in general are afraid of confrontation. We fear being unliked. We fear we may not be able to communicate effectively. We fear the other person may not approach the situation with as much empathy as we hope to have for them. So we try to dance around the issue or approach solutions in creative ways when deep down we know that what we really must do is speak honestly face to face.
There is a Chasidic tale told about Reb Shneur Zalman of Liadi (The Alter Rebbe i.e. the first rebbe of Chabad), and Reb Baruch of Medzhybizh who were in a longstanding and perpetual state of disagreement. Peacekeepers and messengers were sent back and forth multiple times but were unable to repair the relationship, and their rift grew wider and wider. After many years, Reb Baruch said, “We see that when Jacob sought to assuage Esau’s anger, the Torah says,
וַיִּשְׁלַח יַעֲקֹב מַלְאָכִים לְפָנָיו אֶל־עֵשָׂו אָחִי
Jacob sent messengers ahead to his brother Esau (Genesis 32:4)
And the end result? Nothing. A few verses later we read,
וַיָּשֻׁבוּ הַמַּלְאָכִים אֶל־יַעֲקֹב לֵאמֹר בָּאנוּ אֶל־אָחִיךָ אֶל־עֵשָׂו וְגַם הֹלֵךְ לִקְרָאתְךָ וְאַרְבַּע־מֵאוֹת אִישׁ עִמּֽוֹ׃
The messengers returned to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother Esau; he himself is
coming to meet you, with four hundred men with him.”
That is to say: confrontation and war.”
Only when Jacob and Esau finally met face to face were they able to set aside their differences and make peace with each other. From here we learn that with matters of repair we can’t trust messengers – we have to do the work ourselves. And if there is something we must do that we fear, only when we step into the breach and face those fears will we find success.
I wrote this particular song after a shooting in 2014. I don’t often write lyrics in English, I usually prefer to let the words of our tradition speak through my melodies. But these words from the Psalms inspired me:
נַעַר הָיִיתִי גַּם־זָקַנְתִּי וְלֹא־רָאִיתִי צַדִּיק נֶעֱזָב
I was young and am now old, and I have never seen a righteous person abandoned. (Psalms 37:25)
I believe these words are not meant to be said as a fact, but rather as an aspiration. What would the world look like if we didn’t abandon those who need and deserve help? The first step in facing a problem is acknowledging that the problem exists. Then we awaken the desire in ourselves to change, and finally we go out and face our fears.
This week and beyond, I bless us to learn from our ancestor Jacob. May we find within ourselves the capacity to understand our fears, the desire to seek repair, and the bravery to face them head on.
Vayeitze 5783 – Hachamah
First impressions matter. But sometimes we mess them up and just wish we could have a do over. Can you think of an encounter or interaction you had where you said or did something you wish you hadn’t and just want to hit the reset button and try again? This might be how God is feeling in this week’s parsha, Vayeitze. If you remember from a few weeks ago, God totally ruined a first interaction with Isaac, traumatizing him for life. Now God is gearing up for a first encounter with Jacob and just wants to get it right.
So what does God do? God pulls a Nathan Fielder. Fielder, a Jewish comedian, created and released a new show this year called “The Rehearsal.” In it, he helps ordinary people rehearse difficult conversations or life events through the use of sets and actors hired to recreate real situations. The situations can be trivial, like confessing to a lie about educational history, or more complex, like raising a child. He commissions extravagant sets with every detail recreated and hires actors to practice different dialogue trees with his clients over and over again. I recently watched the first episode and it is both incredible and very uncomfortable. It just feels unnatural to rehearse a real human interaction in such a way as to be able to predict and force an outcome.
But back to God. Jacob has run away from his parents’ house and his brother Esau after stealing his blessing. The Torah then writes,
“וְיִפְגַּע בַּמָּקוֹם… כִּי בָּא הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ… (בְּרֵאשִׁית כֹּחַ:יא)”
“And Jacob came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set (Bereshit 28:11).”
The Midrash teaches that the Holy One caused the sun to set earlier than its proper time in order to speak with Jacob privately. Like a parable of the lover of a king who comes to visit the king occasionally, and when the lover arrives the king says, “put out the lights! Extinguish the lamps! For I would like to speak with my lover privately.” (Breishit Rabbah 68)
God sets the stage for the perfect date. Almost like God has been practicing this encounter every day like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. We humans don’t have the luxury of doing this, but we do have a similar opportunity every week as we prepare for Shabbat. Every week the Shabbat Queen arrives in our homes and communities, and we can choose how we greet her! The more we can prepare for the moment, the better we’ll feel when she arrives and the more we can take advantage of all Shabbat can offer. Instead of just letting Shabbat hit us where we are on Friday afternoon, tired, worn out, and frazzled from a long week of work, what if we were able to freshen up, dim the lights, and go out to greet her with our family and loved ones, and enter into Shabbat the way we truly WANT to enter into Shabbat.
That is what this poem by Chayim Nachman Bialik reminds us to do. It fits liturgically right before Kabbalat Shabbat, and we sing this melody (composed for this text originally and then set to Lecha Dodi) to set the tone and the mood for our ideal encounter.
Each week we are lucky enough to approach this same moment again, how will we greet it? This week (and every Shabbat that follows), I hope we can each find a way to make Shabbat be what we need it to be for us.
Toldot 5783 – Elohai Netzor
What is Tefillah supposed to “do”? For me, prayer is all about figuring out how to be the best version of myself every single day. What do I need? How can I be prepared? Can I set an intention for myself every day to strive to be the best Josh Warshawsky I can be today? What is daily prayer if not an exercise in self-discipline and self-reflection? If it is doing its job, prayer awakens us to walk a life of honor, honesty, goodness, and truth.
This idea is expressed most clearly through the prayer that Mar son of Ravina would use to conclude his Amidah prayer according to the Talmud. The prayer itself was so meaningful that it was placed in almost all siddurim after the Amidah for every pray-er to say three times a day:
אֱלֹהַי, נְצוֹר לְשׁוֹנִי מֵרָע וּשְׂפָתַי מִדַּבֵּר מִרְמָה, וְלִמְקַלְּלַי נַפְשִׁי תִדּוֹם, וְנַפְשִׁי כֶּעָפָר לַכֹּל תִּהְיֶה. פְּתַח לִבִּי בְּתוֹרָתֶךָ, וּבְמִצְוֹתֶיךָ תִּרְדּוֹף נַפְשִׁי.
My God, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking deceit. To those who curse me let my soul be silent, and may my soul be like dust to all. Open my heart to Your Torah, and may my soul pursue your mitzvot. (BT Brachot 17a)
In reading through this week’s parsha, Toldot, it almost seems as if Jacob is aware of this particular prayer as well. He struggles with his mother’s instruction to lie to his father. Jacob, the simple Torah scholar, knows this is wrong. In response to his father’s question, “Who are you, my son?” The Torah says,
וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֶל־אָבִיו אָנֹכִי עֵשָׂו בְּכֹרֶךָ
Said Jacob to his father, “I am Esau, your first-born” (Bereishit 27:19)
But Rashi and other commentators throughout history notice the seemingly unnecessary words, “to his father” and read the verse differently. Instead, they say that the verse should be punctuated like this:
וַיֹּאמֶר: “יַעֲקֹב”, אֶל־אָבִיו: “אָנֹכִי. עֵשָׂו בְּכֹרֶךָ”.
And he said (in a whisper so his father could not hear) “Jacob” and to his father, “I am. And Esau is your eldest”.
In this reading, Jacob’s words remain truthful though they still yield a deceitful outcome. Does this change how we should view Jacob? The rabbis do their best to make us think so, but I’m not so sure. Though Jacob’s tongue has not spoken “evil”, his lips are still creating deceit.
A lie of omission is still a lie. What must we learn from Jacob? Each day provides a new opportunity for us to walk through the world as a decent human being. In the end, the choices we make are ours alone to make. Though we may be pressured by outside forces (be they family, coworkers, or celebrities), though we may stumble and fall, the choices we make are ours alone to make.
Let us keep the words of this prayer close to heart and strive each day to be a better version of ourselves than the day before.
Chayei Sarah 5783 – Eilecha
Sometimes we get lost in the noise of the world around us. This is especially true now as the world feels like an increasingly scary place, and also true when we’ve been through something traumatic. Prayer allows us to tune our frequency to what is happening within and open up our hearts to possibility and hope. We don’t know how much we need this. When Isaac goes out to pray in the field, he is in a state of shock. The last time we heard his voice was when his father Abraham was about to sacrifice him. Since that time his mother Sarah has died and now he is alone. He goes out into the field filled with heartbreak. I imagine him sitting amongst the tall grasses, humming to himself, searching for comfort.
But perhaps he was not completely alone. In the Torah we read,
“וַיֵּצֵ֥א יִצְחָ֛ק לָשׂ֥וּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶ֖ה לִפְנ֣וֹת עָ֑רֶב וַיִּשָּׂ֤א עֵינָיו֙ וַיַּ֔רְא וְהִנֵּ֥ה גְמַלִּ֖ים בָּאִֽים׃
And Isaac went forth to pray in the field towards evening, and he lifted his eyes and saw, and behold, camels were approaching.” (Gen. 24:63)
The word “su’ach”, “prayer/conversation,” can also be read as “si’ach” “shrub”. Rebbe Nachman teaches that Isaac’s prayer was accompanied by every bush and shrub in the field, waving and swaying and giving strength to his prayer.
Only when Isaac felt that strength and support elevating his prayer was he able to lift up his eyes and truly see what life could look like beyond the pain of his mother’s death and his father’s betrayal. As Rabbi Naomi Levy writes, “But prayer is not an end in itself. It is a beginning. An opening up.” The words of this daily prayer from Psalm 30 are a calling out, an initiation of a conversation. And only once we open our hearts are we able to imagine and embrace what a response might feel like.
“אֵלֶיךָ ה׳ אֶקְרָא וְאֶל־אֲדֹנָי אֶתְחַנָּן׃ שְׁמַע ה׳ וְחנֵּנִי ה׳ הֱיֵה־עֹזֵר לִי׃
I called to You, Holy One. To You I reached out for connection. Hear me, Holy One, receive my call and connect in return.” (Psalms 30:9, 11)
What would it look like for us, like Isaac, to awaken our prayer and the prayers of those around us as a vision of hope for the future? To call out for connection and to answer the call of those reaching out for connection in return?
Vayera 5783 – Barcheinu
עָזְרֵנוּ וְהוֹשִׁיעֵנוּ שֶׁנִּזְכֶּה תָּמִיד לֶאֱחֹז בְּמִדַּת הַשָּׁלוֹם, וְיִהְיֶה שָׁלוֹם בֵּין אָדָם לַחֲבֵרוֹ וּבֵין אִישׁ לְאִשְׁתּוֹ. וְלֹא תִהְיֶה שׁוּם מַחֲלֹקֶת בֵּין כָּל בְּנֵי מִשְׁפַּחְתִּי
Help us continually hold onto the attribute of peace. May there be peace between a person and their fellow, and within our own families, and may our family not be selfishly divided.
The end of the Torah service at a typical Conservative congregation often feels like it drags on and on: A prayer for the congregation, a prayer for our country, a prayer for Israel, a prayer for peace, etc. Growing up, I would recite them along with the congregation by rote memory. But a few years ago, I was directed towards an additional prayer sitting nestled at the end of this long series, simply titled, “a personal meditation. The prayer is attributed to Rabbi Nathan Sternhartz, who was the scribe and chief disciple of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.
The words are a prayer of hope and intention, not directed towards the community but towards the individual. At first this individual prayer seemed like an outlier after all of these communal prayers. When I looked more closely, however, I realized that this prayer is actually the ideal way to end this series: it is directed at the individual to realize the responsibility and autonomy each one of us has to actualize these prayers. It is up to you, to me, to each one of us to make sure these prayers come to fruition – God can’t do it alone.
This is what God is telling us and telling Abraham in this week’s parsha, Vayera. Abraham pleads with God not to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah if God can find 50 righteous people within the city. God agrees. The Chassidic rebbe Rav Simcha Bunim of Peshischa focuses on these words, “within the city,” “בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר”. He says,
לֹא דַּי שֶׁיִּהְיוּ צַדִּיקִים חוֹבְשֵׁי סַפְסָל בֵּית הַמִּדְרָשׁ, אֶלָּא צַדִּיקִים שֶׁהֵם בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר
It is not enough for these righteous people to be “benchwarmers” in the Beit Midrash, rather find people who are within the city, mixed in with all the rest of the people, dealing with the world as it is and even so still working and remaining righteous! Only then will God save the city on their behalf.”
Righteousness is not a state of being that one achieves and maintains forever, rather it is a constant effort that can only be actualized through the continuous work each one of us does in the world. This is how we create a more just world, a world filled with peace and companionship and unity. It is up to us to work towards this vision. Today is election day – one of many opportunities to engage in this process of making our country and our world better. Please vote! Don’t be a benchwarmer, be a human who lives and engages “within the city.” Be someone who makes this world worth saving.
Lech Lecha 5783 – Elohai Neshama
אֱלֹהַי נְשָׁמָה שֶׁנָּתַתָּ בִּי טְהוֹרָה הִיא. אַתָּה בְּרָאתָהּ אַתָּה יְצַרְתָּהּ אַתָּה נְפַחְתָּהּ בִּי
Elohai neshama shenatata bi tehorah hi. Ata b’ratah, ata yatzartah, ata nafachtah bi.
My God, the soul that You have given me is pure.
You created it, you formed it, you breathed it into me.
Habits are hard to change. And when you are so used to something that you do it by rote and then something changes, the feeling can be jarring. But it also can help us experience something with new eyes. Recently I was praying with the Rabbinical Assembly’s new(ish) Lev Shalem siddur and I discovered that the order of two opening prayers had been flipped. In the Sim Shalom siddur, the blessing for the gift of our body, asher yatzar, precedes the blessing for the gift of our soul, elohai neshama, and in the Lev Shalem siddur the prayer for the soul comes first.
I asked myself why? There must be a reason! Perhaps the editors of this siddur were hoping to help me understand that without a soul, I am just a body, just flesh and blood. It is only through recognizing that I have a soul – a soul that has been restored and re-energized and returned to me each and every day – that I can then acknowledge the body and container in which this soul resides. A body on its own cannot recognize such a gift.
And that’s what it is – a gift. It is a gift to be alive. A gift to experience the world anew every single day. Abraham was someone who epitomized this. He looked out at the world and said, “this world of beauty, of nature, of creation, can’t just exist here on its own.” He looked to the stars, to the sun and moon, to the angels and gods of every little thing, until he realized that the answer lay within all along. For a holy spark is present in each and every thing. And within each one of us is a piece of the Divine – our soul – given to us as a gift. This was the true beginning of his journey. So when God says to Abraham “Lech Lecha”, the Chasidic Ukranian Rabbi Avraham Khein teaches that God is really saying “לֵךְ לְעַצְמוֹתֶיךָ” “go to your essence”.
Each morning we have the opportunity to go to our essence – to search within and to acknowledge the miraculousness of our existence. As our bodies and souls wake up we sing these words. The floating, searching melody lifts up and roots down, tethering us to earth and heaven as our soul awakens to a new day.
What would it be like if we could remember to start each day like this?
If we took this prayer seriously, how would it change the way we live our lives?
A few months ago, my music page on facebook was somehow flagged and taken down. I appealed to no avail, and a few days later I went online and the whole page and all its contents were gone. I know it may seem trivial as all social media does, but in some ways, that page had been a record of my musical and rabbinic journey over the last fifteen years.
So I’m starting anew. Every week on my new page I will explore a piece of music I’ve written in connection to and conversation with the Torah portion and where we are holding in the story of the Jewish people. Through this journey, I hope to find deeper meaning in these melodies, stronger ties to our tradition, and true relevance to the work we are doing in the world today. I’m not exactly sure where this journey will leave, though I hope it will lead to new conversations, new ideas, new relationships, new inspiration, and new music. I’d love to hear your thoughts along the way.