Counting the Days

Shabbat Shalom! 

לִמְנוֹת יָמֵינוּ כֵּן הוֹדַע וְנָבִא לְבַב חָכְמָה׃

Teach us to number our days truly, so that we may develop a heart of wisdom.

The confluence of our doubled parsha today, Tazria-Metzora, and this liminal stretch between Pesach and Shavuot, has me thinking a lot about counting days. As you know we are in the period of Omer counting. As of the night of the second seder, those who take on this practice have been observing the mitzvah to count, forty-nine days, seven weeks of days, in anticipation of Shavuot. Bless and count, bless and count, bless and count. Meanwhile, in the parsha this week, we learn of all sorts of occasions for counting days: days of seclusion following childbirth, days of isolation following illness, days of vigil following the discovery of mold or other damage to one’s home.

What does all this counting mean, and are there connections between the days we count in Tazria-Metzora, and the days we count in the Omer? 

What are we doing when we count the days?

To me, noting each day as it passes is a way of holding steady in a sense of purpose. It helps us to see ourselves as part of a larger pattern. Counting the Omer and knowing that Jews all over the world are engaged in the same ritual—that in each of our individual houses, we are saying the same words each night—gives us a sense of scope and connection. We are less alone—even in our individual houses—because Jews in our neighborhoods and around the world are on the same wavelength. Counting gives us a felt sense of a larger project; in counting we feel more like we count.

There is also a quality of attention that counting lends us. Back in my undergraduate days, I took an acting class with a wonderful, eccentric, charismatic teacher, Professor Schweibert. One day, Professor Schweibert called for a few brave volunteers and had us stand at the front of the room, facing the rest of the class. It was incredibly awkward! After a minute that felt more like an hour or two, he put us out of our misery and broke the silence. He huddled us “few brave volunteers” and told us a secret and then—again!—positioned us in front of the class. Totally different experience! 

What was the secret? He told us to count the chairs. Suddenly we were purposeful and calm, and had no difficulty standing in front of our classmates in silence. The chatter in our minds that had made us so uncomfortable in the previous iteration settled, and we could just be. The teaching my professor shared on that unforgettable day was that when you have something to do to focus your energy, it connects you. Counting the chairs was a simple task; in fact, counting out loud is one of the first things a toddler learns to do. Yet the act of counting evoked a profound sense of steadiness whose lesson has stayed with me through many years.

Whether counting chairs or counting days, the practice brings serenity, resoluteness and stability. Almost like a long-form meditation that plays out over a larger span of time, counting the Omer or counting days in response to divine commandment fills us up and generates its own meaning. There is great spiritual potential here, something even more than the steadiness and rootedness of counting. 

We return to the verse from Psalm 90.

לִמְנוֹת יָמֵינוּ כֵּן הוֹדַע וְנָבִא לְבַב חָכְמָה׃

Teach us to number our days truly, so that we may develop a heart of wisdom.

What is this heart of wisdom? What is the wisdom that comes into our hearts through having a clear-eyed perception of the numbered-ness of our days?

In numbering our days truly, we cannot help noticing that we don’t know how many of them we get. Our sense of mortality, of the preciousness and fragility of life becomes more attuned. This, of course, is a lesson that most of us have a complicated relationship with: we want to embrace the importance of our days, to pull the marrow out of each and every experience, and yet we constantly get distracted from what matters most in a thousand different ways, and shy away from the awareness of our own mortality. Truly counting our days can be terrifying; when we allow ourselves to think what it all means, we also get a glimpse of what it could mean to lose it. And yet, if we don’t slow down and pay attention to our lives, if we don’t count the days and treasure each one, what is the point of life? There is existential dread either way, so we might as well embrace life in its entirety!

The reward is even deeper than that, and in articulating it, we can see a subtle connection between the parsha and the Omer. In Parshat Tazria-Metzora, all that counting is in the service of ritual purity. When a woman gives birth she counts off a certain number of days before she can return to full participation in the world of the Temple service. When finally she reaches readiness, she brings an offering to the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, and is welcomed back into communal life. Likewise, when a person is afflicted with one of the many skin diseases described in the parsha, they are obliged to enter into quarantine until the tzara’at has cleared. At that point, they, too, are welcomed into full participation in the central institution of the time: the Temple rite. And so it goes for the various cases of counting. Those transitional periods represent times of disconnection; the counting holds the counter steady until they can return to community.

Likewise, when we count the Omer, we count our way toward Sinai, toward the revelation of Torah recounted (!) in Parshat Yitro. Exactly fifty days after Pesach begins, we find ourselves at the foot of the mountain, assembled all together to receive the wisdom that will form the backbone of our tradition in perpetuity. Counting the days through that interstitial period represents joyous anticipation as well as earnest preparation. One by one, we make ourselves into the people we need to be in order to truly receive Torah. 

And then, the moment of revelation—as we stand trembling at Sinai—becomes a deeply communal one. Twice the Israelites accept the obligation of the mitzvot. In Shmot 19, Verse 8 they say: 

כֹּל אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּר יְהֹוָה נַעֲשֶׂה

All that God says, we will do

And then a short time later, in chapter 24, verse 7, they say: 

כֹּל אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּר יְהֹוָה נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע׃

All that God says, we will do and we will understand

There’s incredible faith inherent in these statements, and incredible unity. While those seven days of weeks were experienced individually, they led Bnei Yisrael to a moment of transformative communal connection. In the moment of accepting God’s gift of Torah, they spoke in a unified voice

We are told in Dvarim 29:13-14, looking back on that moment of revelation, that God makes the covenant not just with the individuals standing there on that very day, but with those who are not there yet but who will come after. 

Similar to the obligation we articulate at the seder—to see ourselves as personally being brought forth from Mitzrayim—counting the Omer in our own time links us to that experience of a shared covenant, a shared destiny.

לִמְנוֹת יָמֵינוּ כֵּן הוֹדַע וְנָבִא לְבַב חָכְמָה׃

Teach us to number our days truly, so that we may develop a heart of wisdom.

Numbering our days brings us to a heart of wisdom by connecting us to ourselves, to one another, and to God. And so I close with this blessing: during the Omer and beyond, may you number your days in ways that bring you meaning, depth, and companionship, both human and divine.

Shabbat shalom!

About Time

I gave this drash at the Walnut Street Minyan on the eighth day of Pesach 5783. The noodge persona I mention in the first paragraph refers to my Minyan job, reminding other people of their Minyan jobs.

The first thing I noticed as I began studying in preparation to write this drash was that the Torah portion we read on the eighth day of Pesach… tells us that Pesach lasts seven days. Hmm. If I were inhabiting my noodge persona, I would fire off a snarky comment or two about fuzzy math and click send. 

Instead, I started to wonder. The Torah reading teaches, among other things, about rituals for remembering Yetziat Mitzrayim. If we take the portion literally, we are reading these words after the holiday has ended. There is a cyclical quality to it, reminiscent perhaps of another flurry of holidays, the one that culminates in Simchat Torah: as soon as we’re done we immediately begin again. In that case reading the story of our people; and in this case telling the story of our people. Torah shebichtav. Torah sheb’al peh

Rather than being a clerical error, though: what if this quirk of structure is a profound comment on the need for vigilance in memory? Or a statement about the importance of this memory in particular? Rashi has taught us the principle, ein mukdam um’uchar baTorah—there is no before or after in Torah—but this isn’t quite that. Rashi’s principle of “timeless” Torah seems mainly to come into play when we need to rationalize or smooth a narrative inconsistency. Our reading today, instructions for remembering what we just finished celebrating, seems to me more a lesson in preservation, attention, and perspective. 

Our text seems to be playing fast and loose with the linearity of time, on purpose. What does it mean? 

I allowed my mind to wander. First stop: Sefer Shmot Chapter 12, wherein God tells Moshe how to instruct the Israelites to prepare to make their daring escape from Mitzrayim. Acquire a lamb or a portion of one, and when the moon tells you it’s time, slaughter the lamb, mark the doorposts. Be ready to go, shoes on, staff at the ready. We know this story. And then, between Verse 13 and Verse 14, there is a jump cut and suddenly God is telling Moshe how to celebrate Pesach, how to commemorate an exodus that has yet to happen. Here, too, themes of memory and anticipation are dizzyingly intertwined, as the narrative places itself in two times at once: working toward and preparing for liberation and celebrating it ritually.

In our portion today, we are told to observe Pesach for seven days 

לְמַעַן תִּזְכֹּר אֶת־יוֹם צֵאתְךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיך
In order to recall your departure from the land of Mitzrayim all the days of your life. 

כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ

The Sages take up these words in the last Mishnah of the first chapter of Brachot. Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria cites Ben Zoma, who reads כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ ritually, using these words as a proof text for recalling Yetziat Mitzrayim in the evening prayers. If it had just said בִּיְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ the exodus would be recalled in daytime davening. The addition of the word כֹּל indicates that memory to be for the nights as well.

The Chachamim, however, are painting on a bigger canvas, one with theurgic implications. They argue that יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ refers to this world, while כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ brings on Moshiach Time. Think of it: if we were to remember Yetziat Mitzrayim each and every day, we could bring about redemption. What is it about that memory that gives it the power of redemption?

The discussion that ensues in the Gemara touches on the relative weight of old memories and new ones, and what happens when we run out of disk space for telling the stories of our people. Do we overwrite the old stories with new ones, or keep the foundational layer as the primary one? The Sages land at a compromise: that other redemptions will begin to take precedence, but that they cannot uproot the primacy of Yetziat Mitzrayim.

Firmly ensconced as I am in the sandwich generation, I’m still stuck on the power of memory for redemptive purposes. Gradually I’m getting used to the empty seat at my table where my college-student son used to sit. All the while, I watch with nauseous optimism as my wonderful father approaches his ninetieth birthday. I am all too aware of the impermanence that pervades every aspect of life. We are often told that the present moment is all we have, and in some ways it’s true. Yet without the wanderings of our minds, we would not have the capacity to remember our children as cherub-cheeked, affectionate toddlers nor to recall our parents living at full speed, unencumbered by the body’s betrayals. We would not be able to look forward to an important simcha nor to hold onto people after they’re gone. 

We would not be able to imagine ourselves liberated when we are not yet there, nor to remind ourselves in the darkest nights, that whatever we are facing, we’ve been through worse. 

In the first of his Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot wrote: 

Time present and time past 
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past. 
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

Perhaps Eliot is right, that time is unredeemable. Once it’s melted into itself, there is nothing that can distinguish it again. And yet, the wandering mind offers twin antidotes. The ability to imagine something better than what is before us gives us energy to continue pursuing it; and the vigorous exercise of the muscle that remembers our hardest times and the extraordinary power that brought us through, is the closest we have to redemption.

Meditations on Manna

Part I: Manna is the taste of in between. 

It came into being at twilight, moments before the first Shabbat. In the breath between chapter one and chapter two of Breishit, something magical occurs. Ten things are created, things of great consequence and mystery. God had already said וְהִנֵּה־טוֹב מְאֹד – Look! This is so good! – but there were finishing touches yet to be made, wonders and oddities that would only be revealed later, of which one is the manna. 

This mysterious substance, likened to clouds and heavenly dust and coriander and your mother’s honey cake, is how God sustained Bnei Yisrael in the wilderness. Forty years our people wandered, liminal in space and purpose. We were neither who nor where we were destined to end up; rather we were fully in between. Throughout that in-between time, there was manna, a provision which eludes concrete description to this day. It appeared for collection each morning, like frost. It evaporated in the heat of the day, and was the first example of planned obsolescence: any amount that wasn’t eaten on the day it was collected became rancid overnight. The exception was every seventh day, for which twice as much appeared, in order to obviate the need of collecting any on the day of rest, which both had and hadn’t been invented.

In the interstices between enslavement and freedom, between Egypt and the Promised Land, there was manna. The manna descended day upon day for forty years, no matter where Bnei Yisrael wandered. It remained with them up to the border of the Promised Land. Upon their arrival, the story goes, they were no longer in between.

Part II: Manna is the taste of Shabbat

Manna is associated with the first Shabbat, twice. Recall that when God rests for the first time after having created the world, manna is among the ten magical afterthoughts. The first human Shabbat comes later, in Beshallach. (Long before the Torah comes, incidentally.) Moshe introduces the idea of Shabbat, instructing the people to plan their cooking ahead of time and making the allowance to leave it overnight in this circumstance. The culture of Shabbat develops in part from what we tell ourselves about manna. The double portion of manna becomes the source for having two challot on Shabbat. And the Mechilte d’Rabbi Ishmael teaches us to stay close to family on Shabbat, not go more than 2000 cubits from home, and to have three meals corresponding to the three hayoms in

 וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אִכְלֻהוּ הַיּוֹם כִּי־שַׁבָּת הַיּוֹם לַיי הַיּוֹם לֹא תִמְצָאֻהוּ בַּשָּׂדֶה׃

And Moshe said: Eat it today, for today is a Shabbat to God; 
today you will not find it [manna] in the field.

Although the Torah has yet to be given at this point in the story, one of its central principles is introduced here in connection with manna. Manna and Shabbat become linked in the Jewish imagination. Like Shabbat, manna comes without our effort and without our merit. It is an inheritance that God grants us despite our shortcomings, no matter how little we deserve it. 

Part III: Manna is the taste of hope  

Manna shows up for the Israelites at a moment of prolonged uncertainty. As the gut churns with questions of what we are doing, where we are going, and whether we are on the right path; as the people wander, err, dissolve and resolve, manna is a constant presence. Manna adapts itself to meet needs both known and unknown: when a person collects too much or not enough, somehow, through some divine alchemy, the amount is made right. 

We learn that Moshe instructed Bnei Yisrael to gather an extra omer of manna, to protect as an inheritance for future generations. This was to be held as an eternal reminder of how we were sustained through those years of wandering, so that future generations can see the heavenly bread God fed us as we were being taken out of Egypt. 

Perhaps forty years of coriander would grow tiresome; according to Ramban, the manna tasted like whatever the person eating it desired. If that isn’t the taste of hope, I can’t imagine what is.

Part IV: Manna is the taste of the divine

There is a Name for what happens when our needs are met. There is a Name for unknowable things that spring from the generations of light. Manna is the very dust of heaven pouring through the open doors, the grain of shamayim raining down as angel bread. If it happened once, it would be miraculous. That it happened day by day for forty years is beyond miraculous. 

Its very daily-ness was a blessing. The Netivot Shalom writes that the manna was a pipeline to the Divine, a way for Bnei Yisrael to remain in close daily contact with God by entrusting their needs to Hashem. In Parshat Breishit, when God exiles Adam and Eve and the serpent from Eden, the humans are cursed to toil for their daily bread, while the snake is cursed to eat dust. The Slonimer Rebbe teaches that the abundance of the earth-dust that the snake eats means that it never looks up, never takes note of a higher presence. On the other hand, the Jews’ awareness of their own human needs turns out to be a blessing, for in this awareness, we seek the presence of God. The manna, as the bread of heaven, is representative of the Holy One’s constant presence; the daily posture of seeking allows us to connect with God.

The Sfat Emet expounds on the omer they were permitted to keep as an inheritance for future generations. He teaches that this rem[a]inder is that which is seen through the eye of wisdom: that true freedom comes when the soul is not entangled in the body. The capacity to transcend our physical needs, and to open our eyes instead to the spiritual, is what we learned anew each and every day in the wilderness, and what we pass along to our children today. The manna offered our ancestors a taste of God’s constant presence; its remainder is still with us.   

Join my Open Circle class Spring 2023!

I have the privilege of teaching another course through Hebrew College’s Open Circle Jewish Learning. Please join the class! See details below.

Hallel: out of the depths, we praise

WHAT TIME: Sundays 11am-12:30pm Eastern 
WHEN: February 19, 26, March 5, 19, 26 (5 sessions) 
WHERE: On zoom 
HOW MUCH: $180 for the series
Generous financial scholarships available

Several times a year, we add Hallel, a series of Psalms, to the morning prayers (and, notably, to the Passover seder). Often recited with stirring music, the text is a roller-coaster of emotion, encompassing gratitude, despair, fear, dependence, faith, and more. In this course we will extend our knowledge of the text of Hallel and deepen our individual connections with this profound text and the music associated with it. Over five sessions we will put the ancient words of Hallel in deep conversation with our inner lives and find personal pathways into the text that are both intellectual and emotional. Learners should expect sessions that include close reading, deep reflection, and thoughtful sharing, as well as encounters with beautiful melodies.

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Searching for Joseph

(Dvar Torah on Vayigash for Congregation Beth Israel in Ann Arbor, Michigan)

Shabbat shalom! It’s good to be back! Thank you, Rav Nadav, for the honor of giving a few words of Torah this morning. 

These past few parshiot, we have been deeply engaged with Joseph, that maddening, inspiring, outsized personality whose story looms large over both Sefer Breishit and Sefer Shmot and yet who remains nameless in our liturgy. That in itself is curious, that he gets four parshiot (maybe four and a half) and yet not a word in our daily prayers. I’ll say more about that in a bit. First the inspiration for what we’ll explore today.

When I rolled into town last Sunday, after the hugs and the reunions (shades of Vayigash), I was greeted with a question from my favorite Joseph: my father, Joseph Gurt. In his inimitable way, Dad said, “I’m gonna ask you a question. The Rabbi talked about Joseph yesterday, and I kept wondering. Why is Joseph so important?” 

Good question, Dad. Let’s get into it.

At the simplest level, Joseph is an interesting dude. He has a rich and complicated emotional life and a unique temperament. As a younger man, he tends toward arrogance; who am I kidding, many readers find the Joseph of Parshat Vayeshev insufferable, between his telling tales to Jacob about his big brothers, and his self-centered dreams, and of course, his preening around in his special coat from his father. Like a classic favorite child, he believes his own publicity a little too much and assumes, both awake and asleep, that the world revolves around him. I’m not recommending throwing your annoying siblings into a pit or selling them into servitude, but you can kinda see where the brothers are coming from.

Yet the narcissism is not the only aspect of Joseph’s character. His is a complex temperament with many facets. Even after he becomes a powerful figure in Egypt he continues to seek his father’s approval, as when, after revealing himself to his brothers, he sends them to bring Jacob from Eretz Canaan to Egypt and instructs them to tell him all about his high status in the land of Egypt. His insecurity, despite having been the golden child, is fascinating—and probably a good lesson for us parents about holding boundaries for our children even as we love them unconditionally. 

In Breishit 45:28, just after Jacob receives the news that Joseph is still alive and has reached a position of prominence in Egypt, we read: 

וַיֹּאמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵל רַב עוֹד־יוֹסֵף בְּנִי חָי אֵלְכָה וְאֶרְאֶנּוּ בְּטֶרֶם אָמוּת׃ 

It is plenty! My son Joseph is still alive. Let me go and see him before I die.

The 13th century French commentator Chizkuni notes about the words

רַב עוֹד־יוֹסֵף בְּנִי חָי

“Yaakov meant that when the brothers told him that Joseph was alive, and that he was a ruler in Egypt, the second part of the sentence was unnecessary. As long as he knew that Joseph was alive, he was totally unconcerned with Joseph’s standing politically.” 

It seems that despite all the advantages that his brothers resent him for, Joseph remains heart-wrenchingly human in his insecurity and need to please his father. 

Joseph is also a person of great determination and resourcefulness. Despite the abuses he experiences as a young man, and despite the longing for family, despite the enslavement and the wrongful imprisonment, he becomes a role model in many ways. This is a person who overcomes his hard times and cleverly uses his skills to better himself and improve his position. Joseph, despite everything that has happened to him, never gives up. Even when he’s in jail, his charisma enables him to rise to a position of importance, and he uses his skill at dream interpretation to make himself indispensable. When opportunity strikes, he is Joseph-on-the-spot to take what advantage he can, and to plant the seeds with Pharaoh’s cup-bearer that will eventually lead to his release. 

Once released, he successfully interprets Pharaoh’s dreams and adds advice for how to manage the coming famine. Because his advice is sound, he quickly rises in the ranks and becomes second in command to Pharaoh himself. When opportunity knocks, Joseph opens the door wide. 

And when his brothers knock, he sees the opportunity to test their loyalty. Once satisfied that they have grown up too, he opens the door wide for them as well. In Parshat Vayigash he finally reunites with his family, and rather than holding a grudge against his brothers, he models forgiveness. In Breishit 45:5 he says:

וְעַתָּה  אַל־תֵּעָצְבוּ וְאַל־יִחַר בְּעֵינֵיכֶם כִּי־מְכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי הֵנָּה כִּי לְמִחְיָה שְׁלָחַנִי אֱלֹהִים לִפְנֵיכֶם׃ 

Now, don’t be distressed and don’t blame yourselves that you sold me here, for it was to save life that God sent me here before you. (Breishit 45:5)

Joseph’s ability to level up and take a higher perspective about what happened in the past makes for one of the most moving scenes in the Torah. 

It’s not only the strength of character to forgive. Joseph’s capacity to perceive that even the harshest mistreatment—and the misfortune that followed it—could be composted into a higher purpose is another aspect of his personality that makes him interesting and important in our tradition. His behavior in this scene contains a powerful teaching that echoes throughout our literature and throughout our history. It is not for nothing that one of the most persecuted peoples on earth, a tiny fraction of the world’s population, has produced some of the most important scientific, artistic, and philosophical work. Like Joseph, we don’t give up; thֿat ability to keep moving forward in impossible circumstances is one we can and do emulate.

These, then, are some of the reasons Joseph is so important at eye level. 

Yet he is also important at sky level. The Joseph story, even his brothers’ youthful betrayal, is part of the architecture of our tradition. His being sold (back in Vayeshev) to some passing Ishmaelim into a life of slavery set into motion one of the foundational narratives of our people. 

If Joseph hadn’t gone down to Egypt, Pharaoh wouldn’t have been prepared for the famine and there would have been widespread starvation and destruction; perhaps our tradition would have ended before it started. If he hadn’t been able to forgive his brothers and settle them in Goshen near him to ride out the long years of scarcity, the Israelites would not have gained a foothold in Egypt and grown numerous. If Joseph hadn’t had such a reputation, there would not have arisen eventually a Pharaoh who knew not Joseph, and the entire tradition of liberation and redemption would not be ours.

In simple terms: no Joseph, no Mitzrayim. No Mitzrayim, no Yetziat Mitzrayim.

Indeed the foundations of this architecture are way back in Lech L’cha, when God tells then-childless Abraham in chapter 15 that his descendants will be enslaved in a land not their own for 400 years and that God will redeem them.

Which brings us back to the question of why Joseph isn’t in the siddur. I would argue that he actually is, just not by name. In Mishnah Brachot 1:5, the Sages discuss the commandment in Dvarim 16:3: 

לְמַעַן תִּזְכֹּר אֶת־יוֹם צֵאתְךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ

In order to remember the day of your departure from Egypt כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ (all the days of your life)

The Sages of the Mishnah wonder together about that phrase כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ and whether it implicates recalling Yetziat Mitzrayim in evening prayers, as we now do. Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya notes Ben Zoma’s interpretation: that the כֹּל makes the difference. He says: 

יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ, הַיָּמִים. כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ, הַלֵּילוֹת. 

Yemei chayecha indicates the days. KOL yemei chayecha indicates also the nights.

וַחֲכָמִים אוֹמְרִים, יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ, הָעוֹלָם הַזֶּה. כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ, לְהָבִיא לִימוֹת הַמָּשִׁיחַ: 

And the Sages continue: Yemei chayecha is this world. KOL yemei chayecha in order to bring the Days of Moshiach.

Not only does the story of enslavement and eventual triumph, which has Joseph’s fingerprints all over it, get mentioned in the siddur on a daily and nightly basis, the mitzvah of recalling it has the power to bring about ultimate redemption.

I would argue there is another, subtler way, that Joseph influences our liturgy. Joseph is a big cryer, probably the one with whom the shoresh letters bet chaf yud—to weep—are most associated. Joseph has big feelings, and when he reveals his true identity to his brothers—not as the powerful man in Egypt who holds their very lives in his hands but as their long-lost brother—the river of sadness and longing for family that he’s kept in check all this time overflows its banks וַיִּתֵּן אֶת־קֹלוֹ בִּבְכִי and he gives his voice to weeping. Contrary to 21st century American culture, which regards emotion with suspicion at best, our tradition valorizes it and regards it as a direct pathway to the Divine.

We learn on Baba Metzia 59a that from the moment the Temple was destroyed the gates of tefillah are locked. But, the Sages continue:

ואע”פ ששערי תפלה ננעלו, שערי דמעות לא ננעלו

Even though the gates of prayer are locked, the gates of tears are not locked.

With his resourcefulness, capacity to forgive, emotional openness, and ability to see the bigger canvas, the Joseph of the Bible—annoying Joseph, agonizingly human Joseph, overdramatic, spoiled Joseph—grows up and ends up being our teacher in so many ways, and his influence echoes subtly and profoundly down the generations. 

Lifting our Eyes

(Dvar Torah on Vayeira)

Shabbat Shalom! Sometimes when I look back on my week, a clear theme emerges. Maybe it’s the same with you. 

For me, this week’s theme has been navigating spaces where disagreement is sharp and inevitable. It’s not only the election, although that has been heavy on my mind. It’s also many other situations I find myself in. For example, in one of my internships, I get to work with a small group whose members’ political views vary widely within the group and vary from my own views. And then there’s social media, and other modes of non-face-to-face communication. Sometimes it seems like the deck is stacked with opportunities to separate from one another, to say, “I can’t possibly be in relationship or in community with this person. We are too different.” And yet, this very response is self-perpetuating, leading to fewer and fewer of the connective threads that bind us together. 

The less we interact with each other, the less we see—really see—each other. And the less we see each other, the less we feel safe to interact. It’s a vicious cycle that threatens the stability of our society. The media environment contributes in terrible, cynical, and dishonorable ways. There is so much noise, so much static from overheated news sources that profit by making caricatures of political opponents, making them look more like monsters than actual humans created בצלם ,אלהים in the image of God. Today being Veteran’s Day reminds us of the awful human cost when we stop seeing one another’s humanity, and instead stoke the flames of conflict.

The Rabbis of the Talmud had a discussion on Brachot 9b about how much light there needs to be in order to say the morning Sh’ma, that ultimate prayer of unity. Some of the Sages say there needs to be enough light so we can tell the difference between blue and white; others say, between blue and green. Then they consider maybe the standard is being able to distinguish a dog from a wolf. Others say it’s when there’s enough light that you can recognize a neighbor from a short distance. Our Sages were telling us how important it is for us to really notice the people around us. You can’t love your neighbor if you can’t see your neighbor.

Our Torah portion this week offers a lesson in this kind of openness. The name of the parsha, and also its first word, Vayeira, means, “And Adonai appeared.” At the beginning of the parsha, God appears to Abraham as he rests at the opening of his tent, exhausted and in pain. Yet, when God draws his attention to the form of three approaching strangers, Abraham lifts his eyes וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו and takes in the sight of the three figures, who are typically interpreted to be three messengers from God. 

In this source text for traditional Jewish hospitality, Abraham welcomes the three as honored guests, washing their feet and offering the best food that he and Sarah have on hand. Rather than being suspicious of the new arrivals, he instead made every effort to make them at home. When he lifted his eyes, he truly saw them and welcomed them in.

What’s remarkable about this scene is that Abraham’s hospitality and welcome were unconditional. While he might have had reason to be suspicious or wary of people he didn’t know, he leaned instead into openness and curiosity, becoming a model for our people of how hospitality and human connection can look. 

Later in the parsha, Abraham is in an altogether different situation as he navigates God’s loyalty test for him: the binding of his son Isaac. In this moment, Abraham finds himself in a horrific, impossible situation, having seemingly been instructed by God to sacrifice his own child. Leaving aside the morality of this test—as far as I’m concerned, God has a lot to answer for in this parsha—what I want us to notice tonight is what gets Abraham out of this unthinkable situation. He is literally poised with a knife over his son’s throat when he hears a voice, another messenger from God, calling out his name. And again, וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת־עֵינָיו Abraham lifts his eyes and sees a ram in the thicket, which he then substitutes for Isaac in the sacrifice. Lifting his eyes and seeing his surroundings more clearly prevents Abraham from making the mistake of a lifetime.

The first verse of Psalm 121 contains these words: אֶשָּׂא עֵינַי אֶל־הֶהָרִים מֵאַיִן יָבֹא עֶזְרִי I lift my eyes up to the hills, where my help comes from. There is something about looking and seeing that settles us and calls us into alignment. Perhaps this is why the Sages of the Talmud so insistently emphasize seeing as the condition under which we can call on one another to acknowledge God’s holy presence. In a clear enough light we can see the image of God in our neighbors, and in ourselves.

Which brings us back to the current climate of disagreement and distrust. It could be different! I read an article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal about a convent located near the campus of Neumann University that is dedicating part of its space as a dormitory for undergraduate students. What began as an unlikely but practical solution to a shortage of on-campus housing has turned into a very touching story of people meeting across differences of culture, background, belief and lifestyle. The nuns and the students are now sharing nature walks, knitting lessons, and occasional meals together. The nuns bake cookies for the students and the students order ice cream sandwiches for the nuns. Most of all, they spend time together learning to understand one another’s very different lives. They are breaking stereotypes and preconceptions by lifting their eyes and truly seeing each other. 

What would it be like if more of us lifted our eyes away from our stereotypes, from our habitual ways of seeing the world, from our doomscrolling and sought out God’s image in one another, even—or maybe especially—with people we disagree with, the so-called other side? I want to be clear that I don’t mean this as a solution for out-and-out hate, but rather for not allowing simmering distrust and misunderstanding to fester into hate in the first place. We can only enter into productive relationship that can withstand conflict when we truly see one another clearly. And we might learn something about the world and about ourselves by taking that risk, in curiosity and hope.

Shabbat shalom!

Teshuvah from Where the Wild Things Are

The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another, his mother called him WILD THING! And Max said, I’LL EAT YOU UP! So he was sent to bed, without eating anything. 

These famous first words open up a story that is probably familiar to most of us from childhood—and possibly from parenthood. It is, of course, Where the Wild Things Are, a so-called children’s book by the Jewish author and artist Maurice Sendak; a book that takes us on a fantastical trip to the place where the wild things are. But more than that, it takes us on an interconnected, mother-son journey of teshuvah, from sin and error, to repentance and return. There are theological lessons in this sweet book that are in deep conversation with our Torah and Haftarah readings today, and with the themes of the day itself.

Our Torah reading articulates three main principles regarding our moral obligations: first, that we all—from the elders to the children to the laborers to the strangers—stand together before God, committing to an eternal brit, an everlasting covenant. All of us are implicated, included, invited into this brit. Nobody is immune; the work is on all of us to take up. The Torah says, 

וְלֹא אִתְּכֶם לְבַדְּכֶם אָנֹכִי כֹּרֵת אֶת־הַבְּרִית הַזֹּאת וְאֶת־הָאָלָה הַזֹּאת׃

כִּי אֶת־אֲשֶׁר יֶשְׁנוֹ פֹּה עִמָּנוּ עֹמֵד הַיּוֹם לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ
וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר אֵינֶנּוּ פֹּה עִמָּנוּ הַיּוֹם׃

Not only with you do I swear this covenant and this oath, but with those who stand here with us today before Adonai our God, and those who do not stand here with us today.

Future generations are responsible for taking on the work of Torah, for doing the mitzvot to the best of our understanding and ability. 

Second, as we heard just a little while ago, the work is hard but not impossible. לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם הִוא It is not in the heavens, such that you might ask who will go up and get it for us? No, it’s much closer than that!

כִּי־קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר מְאֹד בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ לַעֲשֹׂתוֹ׃
The thing is very close to you: in your mouth and in your heart, to do it 

The teaching is in our words, and our actions, and our highest instincts. We know what we are called on to do; God lays it out for us in the instruction we call Torah 

Thirdly, the Torah reading makes it clear that we will have choices throughout our lives. God is not making a blanket promise that all we need to do is show up. Rather God sets before us 

אֶת־הַחַיִּים וְאֶת־הַטּוֹב וְאֶת־הַמָּוֶת וְאֶת־הָרָע
Life and goodness, and death and evil 

The choice is ours to make, at each and every moment. The philosopher Victor Frankl, who survived three years in the concentration camps that killed many of his family members, taught about the opening between stimulus and response, sometimes no wider than a slit: our capacity to pause and reflect on how to handle what comes our way is where our moral character is built. No matter how degrading a situation we might be in, there is always the possibility of redemption: ours and that of the people around us. When we make life-affirming choices, things will go well for us, but if we turn to false gods, we won’t last long.

Which brings us back to Max, in the storybook. That night he wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another, he was, as they say in the parenting books, not making good choices. Of course, of course, he was just a little kid and was probably doing the best he could. But for the purposes of thinking about teshuvah, let’s imagine his exile with the wild things is a kind of straying after false gods, and perhaps even—when he becomes king of the wild things—making a false god of himself. To be honest, he enjoys that status for a while: frolicking with the wild things, wearing his “King of the Wild Things” crown with pride and pleasure. He is riding high, the five-year-old who has everything.

And yet, something is missing in his fantasy of a glorified existence. He is isolated and alone, disconnected from what truly matters. All the attention and status and power of being King of the Wild Things turns out to be an empty attainment.

The Haftarah speaks to this disillusionment, addressing a people who have gone astray and crowned themselves king; who have fallen away from God’s holy ideals and gotten embroiled in the daily work of getting ahead. The prophet Isaiah rails at the hypocrisy of making a show of religious observance while oppressing workers and not striving for justice and equality. He calls us to examine not just our rituals but the ethical commitments that underpin them. “Is this the fast I desire? A day for starving bodies, heads bowed, sackcloth and ashes? Is this what God wants? No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock the snares of wickedness, let the oppressed go free, share your bread with the hungry.” 

If we are fasting today to get God’s attention, we are doing it wrong. Rather, God asks us to fast to get our attention. Our fast cannot be an empty gesture, but should lead to action and change. When we observe Yom Kippur with intention and back it with action, when we make choices that affirm our core values, God is near to us. God says, Hineni. Here I am.

Even the God of Unetaneh Tokef, the God Who decides who will live and who will die, has that soft side, for we know that repentance, prayer and charity diminish the harshness of the decree. And that God is slow to anger and ready to forgive. 

וְעַד יוֹם מוֹתוֹ תְּחַכֶּה לוֹ, אִם יָשׁוּב מִיַּד תְּקַבְּלוֹ

And until their dying day, You wait for them.
If only they return, You accept them back unhesitatingly.

What does it all mean? What is God waiting for? The final aliyah that I just chanted moments ago lays out the task: 

לְאַהֲבָה אֶת־יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לִשְׁמֹעַ בְּקֹלוֹ וּלְדׇבְקָה־בוֹ
To love Adonai your God and to listen to God’s voice and hold it close

When Max has his realization that he wants to be where someone loves him best of all, it’s that primary connection that he longs after. This sweet image of a patient God leaving the light on is a beacon of faith and inspiration. Like Max’s mother, the liturgy of the High Holidays depicts God seeing our faults and lashing out with impatience or even fury, yet there is great tenderness in this relationship too. The phrase Avinu Malkeinu which we recite over and over on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur reminds us of that duality—Avinu Malkeinu, our parent, our ruler—the one who both judges us and loves us.

And Max, the king of all wild things was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all. Then all around from far away across the world he smelled good things to eat, so he gave up being king of where the wild things are.

Max stepped into his private boat and waved goodbye, and sailed back over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day and into the night of his very own room where he found his supper waiting for him. 

And it was still hot.

Come learn with me!

One God, Many Aspects: Examining God Metaphors in Jewish Sacred Text (5 sessions) 

Offered under the auspices of Open Circle Jewish Learning at Hebrew College.

Instructor: Naomi Gurt Lind 

Day and Time: Sundays 11-12:30 p.m. Eastern Time 

Dates: October 30, November 6, 13, 27, December 4, 2022  

Location: Online via Zoom 

Tuition: $180 (Generous scholarship support available.)

Registration Link: 

This course examines the many images and metaphors of God that are found throughout Jewish sacred text. For example, in the first blessing of the Amidah, God is referred to as: king, helper, savior, and shield. Elsewhere, we see God described as a shepherd, a builder, a bearer… even a moth. Sometimes God is described as compassionate, sometimes jealous, sometimes righteous. What do these images and descriptions mean within the context of the literature, and what do they mean for us as we construct a theology for our lives? Which God-metaphors are rich and robust for us? Which are troubling? Which leave us cold? In each session we will examine a handful of God-metaphors in their context and in conversation with our own lives and concerns. We will draw on Biblical sources and supplement them with commentary from our sages and from modern thinkers and poets. 

A Kippah in the Trader Joe’s Parking Lot

“Excuse me. Excuse me. Excuse me!

I turn around. It’s pandemic springtime, and the Trader Joe’s parking lot is bustling. What does this stranger want from me?

“Do you always wear … [gesturing at my kippah]?” Aged perhaps in his mid to late 60s, friendly but not smiling, he speaks with an Israeli accent. 

“I do. I mean, not while I’m sleeping, but yeah. I wear it regularly.”

“Can you tell me why?”

I have been wearing a kippah daily for over a year. In all that time, I’ve never been asked this question so bluntly. People have commented that they noticed, but never asked me to explain myself. 

I stammer a moment.

Why indeed?

And why is he asking?

Lacking any ability to size him up or assess his motivation for asking, I plunge in awkwardly. “I wear it to remind myself that there’s something much larger than me, to remind myself that this is God’s world, not mine. שְׁכִינָה לְמַעְלָה מֵרֹאשִׁי [God’s presence is above my head, BT Kiddushin 31b] you know?”

“That’s… interesting,” he says, not walking away. He clearly wants to talk. 

“There was another attack on a rabbi recently. Why are you tempting fate, wearing a kippah? Are you scared,” he asks. 

“I sometimes think I should be, but so far, I’m not.”

When the Chabad attacks happened, I thought about stopping, about putting it away for a while. When the Colleyville synagogue attack happened, I again considered changing my habits, but for now I’m holding steady. I don’t want to be fearful, and I don’t want to lean on the privilege to hide what makes me a potential target, when so many people can’t hide what makes them targets. I am not a Jew of convenience. This is who I am. 

A few weeks back I had been in a different part of the country, in a semi-rural area, and I thought long and hard about whether to put it away for the sake of not riling up people I thought might be anti-Semitic. In the end I didn’t, and I’m glad. The locals were friendly and respectful. It taught me something about stereotyping and how it goes both ways.

“What about respect for the tradition?” When his Holocaust-survivor mother came to visit from Israel several months ago, he wanted to show her how it really is here, so he took her to a local Conservative synagogue. She was so offended by the sight of men and women sitting together, all wearing tallit and kippah, that she didn’t speak to him for a week. 

“Are you offended by my wearing a kippah,” I asked him. 

“No, but my mother probably would be.” 

What would she think about me, a woman pursuing rabbinic ordination? Would she even have a box to put me in? I am not Jewish the way she is Jewish, his story made that clear. My kippah would be the least of her objections, or maybe the most. In her world, I am perhaps barely Jewish — a novice Hebrew speaker, who doesn’t know how to keep kosher and who routinely watches a family movie after Shabbat dinner for the sake of sh’lom bayit. She and I have gender in common, and motherhood, but what would we find to share about our respective Jewishness? 

“There’s a group of women,” he said. He invoked Sarah Silverman so he could leverage my familiarity with the comedian to refer me to her sister, Rabbi Susan Silverman. He seemed surprised when I was familiar with both Silvermans. (I didn’t blow his mind by saying that one of Rabbi Silverman’s children had once babysat mine.) “It’s provocative, who do they think they are, coming to pray, disrupting the men’s prayers?” 

He asked if I would come to the Kotel to pray, and I said yes. “Would you come with the disrupters?” 

“Of course. I want to pray with my people.” 

“But that’s what the women’s section is for!”

I started to wonder about the power of religious symbols. When I wear a kippah, what it means to me and what it means to others varies widely. Who gets to own the meaning of these symbols? Who owns that pile of golden stones, the last surviving wall of our people’s ancient place? Who gets to say who prays there?

We are family and perhaps fellow believers, but we are not having the same conversation, most of the time.

I also wonder, why am I freer to be the kind of Jewish I am, here in the US than I would be in the Jewish Homeland?

“Listen, I hate the ultra-Orthodox,” he says. “Most Israelis do. But let me tell you. If you go to Jerusalem wearing a kippah, they will stone you. Believe me. I’m not even kidding. They will stone you.”

Where does stoning fall, in the rubric of klal Yisrael, I wonder.

If most Israelis hate the ultra-Orthodox, why don’t they speak up? Why doesn’t he speak up? He warns me about them, but he wouldn’t stand up to them for my right to be Jewish the way I am Jewish?

Who’s in and who’s out?

Would he stand up against a non-Jew in my defense? Where are the places where we are the same? What’s the boundary of peoplehood, and does it shift according to who’s issuing the threats?

And what does he expect from me? Do I have a say, since I am not in Israel, facing the dangers that Israelis face on a daily basis?

The man and I have a long conversation, right there in the Trader Joe’s parking lot. Midway through, a friend I hadn’t seen in many months approaches and gives me a hug. “So good to see you!” “So good to see you, too! It’s been a long time.” 

I consider saying Shehecheyanu, just to see how he would respond.

I turn back. He’s still there.