Ki Tissa 5773 (Why Can’t We Get ‘It’?)

This week I am wondering why it is so hard for us to get ‘it’. By ‘us’ I mean not only the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion, but ‘us human beings’, as well …

In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, we encounter our ancestors’ dramatic plunge into spiritual philandering. One Redeemer, who is not seen for forty days. One Golden Calf, which is constructed. (In a frenzied panic the Israelites feel abandoned by ‘that man, Moses’ and cajole Aaron in to building an idol and facilitating all of the debauchery required by the worshipping of such an idol) That One Golden Calf is destroyed by that One Redeemer. (Moses has none of it, smashes the hot-off-of-the-divine-press tablets of the law into the aforementioned calf, grinds the remainder of the calf to dust and forces the Israelites to drink a Golden Calf cocktail – guaranteed to cause internal and intestinal distress.)

Clearly, the bad guys, the antagonists, the fools in this week’s installment are the Israelites. (Alright, Aaron should get his fair due, as well …) This group of spiritually stunted slaves are just a few minutes (figuratively, not literally) removed from their redemption from centuries of slavery through a series of miraculous natural events: darkness that fills the Egyptians homes, but not their own; death that comes to the first born of their overlords, but to their children; a body of water that splits in time for them to cross to safety and then conveniently un-splits to wipe out the greatest military force known in that corner of the world. Then following their exodus from Egypt, the entire group of them settle in at Sinai for an unprecedented, yet intimate encounter with God. After these events are still in their rear view mirror, despite their current reality (freedom), the evidence (there seems to be some powerful entity who has their collective backs) and the consequences (how about this little ditty from Sinai: I remember the iniquity of those who turn against me until the THOUSANDTH generation) … they still look to Aaron and say: “Hey, you … we’ve got this idea about a calf.”

These people just plain don’t get it! They are dense. They are clueless. They are … us. Yes, I said that they are us. It is very easy to pile on the Israelites at this point. The narrative of the story encourages us to do so … from God and Moses’ anger, to their imbibing of the remains of their sin, to the eventual killing of those who Moses feels do not learn from this incident. I think that we are missing a larger picture if we simply look down our noses at ‘those poor, misguided and ignorant Israelites’ without at least acknowledging a larger truth that is a spiritual reality for you and I. Despite everything our ancestors knew about God and Moses, despite their own experience and despite their understanding of the facts on the ground – it was still exceedingly difficult for them to overcome their upbringing, their slave mentality or the immediate impact that building and worshipping the calf would bring them.

Do you know anyone like that? Someone who knows from their own experience the significance of a certain course of action. Someone, who sees the concrete evidence that suggests avoiding this course of action would be advisable. Someone, who understands the negative consequences that will follow such a course of action. And yet, there are powerful forces – internal and external – that push that individual to decide to act in contrast to all of this experience, evidence and potential harm.

I do – and I do not have to look farther than the face staring back at me in the mirror. I do – and I do not have to look further than stories entrusted to me of families who struggle with addiction or abuse. I do – and I do not have to look further than than politicians and ideologues who cling rigidly to destructive economic or social policies. This reality – as revealed in this week’s story – is one we confront every day in both mundane and monumental moments. Mundane moments when (like in my case) they are deciding whether or not to enjoy that maple frosted donut, again). Monumental moments when they are struggling to not take that drink or trying to express their fear, anxieties or even love in a manner that is not hurtful or destructive.  Whether the moments are mundane or monumental, we can each fill in the blanks.

I do not believe that we should make excuses for our ancestors or for ourselves. We should not be investing our bodies, minds and souls in pursuits – like Golden Calves – that block our way from the Sacred. However, we should not underestimate – when judging ourselves or others – the profoundly powerful forces we confront when reaching for the Divine in our lives. Our ancestors found these forces – on their journey to their Promised Land – to be genuine, real and formidable. We, too, are on a journey and to reach our ultimate destination must honestly acknowledge these forces and unwaveringly commit ourselves to facing them, overcoming them and instead of building calves – to welcome the Sacred and the Divine into our lives.

Tetzaveh/Purim 5773 – Digesting Haman

I am thinking about Haman this week. Purim arrives this Saturday night and Jews around the world will be retelling – in various and sundry forms – the tale found in the book of Esther. Haman, as you may remember, serves as villain to the Jews of Shushan in the story and as the archetypical antisemite in our hearts and minds. His dastardly plans are thwarted by our heroes: Mordechai and Esther. In the end Haman swings (from the gallows) and the Jewish community sings (in celebration).

The story evolves as it should – people who value justice, compassion and peace should always stand up to those individuals and institutions who seek to limit, hurt or destroy these values and the people who hold them dear. Such epic confrontations make great stories and teach important ideals. So, why do we first defeat him and then eat him?

The Jews of Shushan defeat Haman and foil his plans. When we tell the story each year we gobble up Hamentaschen – Haman’s Ears. Am I being too literal? Perhaps taking this story and its accompanying snacking a little too seriously? I love a Hamantaschen as much as the next guy (make mine poppy seed, please), but seriously what are we doing? Are we – in a symbolically barbaric manner – signifying our success by eating the spoils of victory or attempting to display our dominance over the defeated foe?

There has got to be more to Haman and his role in the story (and our metaphorical ingesting of his ears). When we read and engage with our sacred texts, we don’t stop on this initial level. I wonder if this story is about Haman and the consummate evil he embodies or if this story more about us and the way we respond to the Hamanesque people and institutions in our lives?

There is part of the story on the book of Esther upon we often do not focus. After Esther confronts Haman and the King agrees to have Haman killed, there is still the small problem of the decree that Haman ordered to destroy the Jews of the kingdom. Since this decree cannot be rescinded, the king puts Mordechai in Haman’s post and gives the Jews permission to bear arms and defend themselves. The ‘defense’ that ensues produces more than 75,000 deaths of those who were foes of the Jews and a ‘pachad hayehudim – fear of the Jews’ – that falls across the kingdom. (Don’t believe me? — Look it up: Esther Chs. 8-10).

After fighting the injustice, hatred and intolerance promoted by Haman … the Jews kill tens of thousands of people. They become feared by their fellow countrymen and women. Was killing and instilling fear the most effective way to confront Haman? Was such a result inevitable in fighting evil? What happened?

Perhaps when we tell the story each year – the whole story; and, when we eat the Hamantaschen each year, the whole Hamentaschen – we have an opportunity to remember the trials, tribulations and pitfalls of fighting the Hamans in our lives. The danger exists that we may end up internalizing (eating, ingesting) what we fight. We might find ourselves, our ideas and even our actions tainted by the methods we choose to defeat that which threatens us.

When we tell this particular story of ours, we are bidden to name and acknowledge the Hamans in our world AND pay attention to how we confront them. Hamans take many forms – they might be corrupt and immoral political leaders; they may also be other important figures in our lives; they may be institutions that have influence over our lives; they may even be physical, emotional or spiritual maladies that threaten our well being. Whatever form these Hamans take — when we confront them just as Esther and Mordechai did – we must remember that how we fight them may be as important as defeating them.

You Shouldn’t Have, Really! – Terumah 5773

What got me thinking in this week’s Torah portion is: What God was thinking? … but I’ll get there in a moment.

As the calendar winds around towards Valentine’s Day and and even though it is not a big day on the Jewish calendar, there is a spiritual aspect of relationship that this ‘Hallmark’ created day brings to light. In preparation for Valentine’s Day Couples are considering what to give or not to give to one another. In the actual exchange of gifts between the millions of people who do so on Valentine’s Day, the odds are that a fair percentage of these millions will deal with unmet expectations. After all of the proper and polite responses and expression of gratitude for what the gift in question may be – the receiver of said gift will turn inward and internally ask the age old questions: What was she/he thinking?! If she/he knows me at all, if she/he loves, then how or why would they choose this gift for me?  You shouldn’t have! No really, you shouldn’t have.

Shallow, you say? To be so ungrateful for such gifts from another? I believe this happens to us all of the time in the course of relationship … and in deeper ways than the exchange of elegantly wrapped doodads. We look to others to meet our expectations and our needs … and often decide only within the narrow confines of our expectations and needs the proper measuring stick of our loved ones response. We keep a scorecard – not necessarily with malice – but a tally of how they respond. The metric may be time, words, gestures, decisions or even actual wrapped gifts. And often as we review this ongoing scorecard, we find ourselves far behind in this game we play.

Now onto: What was God was thinking? This week’s Torah portion is called: Terumah – from the book of Exodus. Following their direct encounter with God at Sinai, the Israelites accept the terms of the commandments that Moses offers them on God’s behalf. God now wants the people to ‘Make Me a Sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them.’ Through Moses, God instructs each person to bring a Terumah – a gift – for the construction of this place where God will dwell among them. So, they are building a pretty important place. A place for the deity/entity/being who just kicked some serious Egyptian butt and saved them from generations of slavery. A place that will serve as a conduit for them to maintain a connection to this deity/entity/being who at their Sinai rendezvous revealed to the people an opportunity to glimpse at the mystery and reality of the universe. Speaking of expecting some pretty serious gifts …

And yet, the expectation for the gift is not so high at all (or maybe it is). The Torah describes that the gifts shall be accepted from those ‘who hearts so move them’. It is not simply that God does not expect incredible gifts from everyone, it is that God does not expect gifts from everyone? (Not even a thank you note!) God only expects what each person would genuinely give. Even if that gift is way less than what they should give. Even if that gift is no gift. It is only an acceptable gift – no matter its quantity or quality – when it comes from one whose heart so moves him or her.

Perhaps it is something worthwhile (and challenging) to consider, as we look to those we love and through our needs and expectations determine what ‘gifts’ we expect from them. In the process of building a place where divinity dwells, the only expectation – was in essence – the willingness to receive whatever was wholeheartedly offered. In building the Sanctuary, it was more than enough … in our lives with those we love, can it be the same for us?

The Duality Reality – Mishpatim 5773

What got me thinking in this week’s Torah portion – Mishpatim – is something said toward the end of the portion. Most of the portion is Moses communicating ‘mishpatim’ – laws for the people to follow. As the end of this long list. Moses goes before God and the Torah says that to Moses, God was an ‘all consuming fire’. Literally, an ‘eating’ fire. What got me thinking is that there is another little more known instance of Moses communicating with God – their first encounter at the Burning Bush – God also appears to Moses as fire. However, the Torah tells us that this fire was the exact opposite — it was a non-eating fire, it did NOT consume the bush (or Moses for that matter).

What gives? If we seek to disprove the immutability of the text or search for evidence of the ongoing historical game of ‘telephone’ that lies behind the Torah, then the appearance of these dual, opposite God-fires may offer helpful evidence. These are not my goals — my goal is take this small snowball of a question and then push and prod it down the slope of my mind and see where it goes …

So, what about all of the dualities in the world? What about the constant parade of two ideas/feelings/natures that seem to live on opposite ends of important spectrums in my life? Often I find myself with a strong affinity towards one and an equally strong indifference or aversion to the other. This constant dance along these spectrums of opposites take place in the realms of the intrapersonal and extrapersonal. Take the consuming and non-consuming fires of introversion and extroversion. Wherever we each fall along this spectrum, we must admit the dynamic tension between the two is essential to our lives. If you would label yourself as ‘introvert’ — it is not only to upon you to be aware, honor and cultivate the strengths that come from that way of engaging the world – but to welcome the spirit of extroversion into your life, as well. Complete with the gifts and challenges it offers. When you, as introvert, encounter and engage with the extroverts in your life it is upon you to do so with understanding and appreciation as to how both of you bring essential aspects to one another and to the larger whole that is the dynamic of life.

I think about the way that the Jewish mystical tradition understands the interplay of such opposites. Within one of the mystical blueprints of reality – known as the Sefirot – there are two distinct and different sides. The interplay of the energies of each side is essential to the forward progress of all aspects of life. Not unlike the introvert and extrovert model, one side exhibits the power of restraint and the other the power of embrace. The energies of these two sides of the blueprints come together toward other energies that can only be harnessed by such a union. It is a spiritual Venn diagram of how the dialectic of life grows and progresses.

Too much wordy, foggy, ambiguous mystical language? Think of it this way … Think of light and water. How completely different they are … in how they are experienced, their make-up. And yet, there are times when as different as they are … say right after a thunderstorm wraps up, they join together at some intersection on their spectrum of differences … and wow, it’s a rainbow.

Duality seems to be a reality. The reality of duality might be two-fold — just like the two God-fires – they may or may not consume you. These internal or external opposite poles energize and enervate. They intimidate and elevate. They motivate and frustrate. So, pay attention – for these fires can both burn you and bring you light.