Current Thoughts from Cantor Greenberg
What State Are You In?
There are two terms repeated again and again in this week’s Torah portion, tamei and tahor. Most often they are translated as unclean and clean.
In Parshat Tazria they are used to describe people, cloth, animals, and even houses before, during, and after they have become infected by a disease known in Torah as Tzara’at.
After the kohen / priest checks the affected area and makes a determination as to whether or not it is, in fact, tzara’at and would render them tamei, a routine procedure of quarantine followed by reintegration commences.
Tamei and tahor is also the descriptive language in ancient Israel that was code for the status of a priests’s fit-ness.
You may know that the kohanim’s main function is the offering of Korbanot / sacrifices and if you were a Kohen you were expected to do this work on behalf of the whole community. However, if you were deemed tamei then you could not do your job.
One could become tamei for multiple reasons, not only the contraction of tzara’at, but also coming in contact with something that has died or is un-kosher, and sometimes that happened unexpectedly.
It was a big deal to go from tahor, fit, to tamei, unfit. It meant your whole life had to get put on hold, you had to be isolated from the rest of the community, you had to stop, regroup, heal, and then once you were declared fit, go through a process of ritual return in order to return to the status of Tahor.
Perhaps that is why I’ve always found it sort of fascinating that these texts are told with such dispassionate clarity given what an ordeal it all is.
It seems to me that the interaction between Kohen and the object, (either a person, animal, or something inanimate like a piece of cloth or the wall of a house), is so intimate, so close, so personal, that the simple and concise language used feels wrong in its lack of emotion.
I am fascinated by how impartial it all sounds while the content seems so extraordinarily nuanced.
True, this quality of distance is enhanced by the fact that in much of Torah, and particularly in the book of Vayikra, the text is narrated by an impartial voice who lays out the information and offers it up to us, the reader.
But I cannot help longing for more, particularly in the moments of interaction between the priest and the person who comes to be examined and waits for their fate to be decided, unclean or clean.
What does it mean that Torah has so little to say? Is the text indicating to us that the priests, the religious leaders of that day were actually cold and distant and they really did not say anything to either the Israelite or to their fellow Kohen when declaring their status? Or is there something else happening here that might speak to an even deeper understanding of humanity?
Anyone that has studied text with me knows that my approach is always to find myself in the text, to ask myself where am I in the story? Here, for instance, It is hard for me not to imagine myself as the fearful and nervous patient, perhaps even a little ashamed, as I wait to be looked over. I hear the words unclean or clean and I cringe at its insensitivity and crass nature.
But I also know that our tradition puts an incredibly high value on the compassionate treatment of others. So I have to ask myself to get some space form my knee jerk reaction and dig deeper.
I can imagine another scenario in which the ancients knew and were incredibly sensitive to the judging heads we human beings have for ourselves and each other. What if the kohen, being so spiritually attuned to Torah’s message of compassion, justice, and unity, remained neutral on purpose, modeling for us a healthier way to evaluate ourselves?
Humanity has always struggled with seeking and living with pure intention. We are so motivated by keeping up appearances, people pleasing, and seeking acceptance that we could easily run our lives into a state of impurity without noticing, where unhealthy behaviors and diseased thinking threaten to break us down and even destroy us.
I can’t imagine the ancient Israelites were all that different form the people we are today, they were human after all.
But perhaps this system of tamei and tahor was a boundary keeper, a kind of checks and balances system of the body and soul. Even the people “in charge”, the kohanim who seemed to carry the rules out, if not make them too, kept an important boundary in place to help people live well, and to help keep the community safe and healthy.
What has, in the past sounded to me like insensitive language, may be the presence of non-judgmental discernment.
For so many of us we live our lives in judgement, we feel it from the outside and we internalize self-judgement too.
Torah is teaching us to notice that life has ups and downs. Sometimes we are of sound body and mind, and sometimes we are not. When we are not well, we must let ourselves get well, heal, and clarify for ourselves and for our community when we are ready to re-enter. Torah wants us to notice that our lives ebb and flow. That is our humanity.
Perhaps we can glean from the way the priests conducted this ritual of discernment that our ancestors were not nearly as enmeshed as we are with the idea of being perfect all the time, or maybe this was a way of teaching us how to get there, but either way there is a felt love in this text by it’s pure and simple truth. Tamei or Tahor.
And so I offer some questions for us all as we enter into this Shabbat inspired by the ancient system of boundary setting and ritual return.
Where am I today and what do I hope for myself for tomorrow? Do I need to set myself a part for a time so that I can get well? Am I ready to be part of the community in a holistic way? Is there something I must do to communicate to myself, to my community, and to the Mystery that I am ready to re-enter?
These are the questions that we can confront when we notice the reality of the state we are in.
At just the moment where ending comes into being something new has already emerged.
This cycling manifests spectacularly in the interfacing of the natural world with the spiritual one. We humans especially feel it and are invited to honor it when we become willing to pay attention to a certain set of carefully marked patterns known as our calendar. Yes, I said calendar. I know that sounds strange but there is great holiness to be known in the seemingly mundane stuff of life. Our Hebrew calendar holds great treasures within if only we allow our hearts to know and experience it through each new cycle. As we live through our daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly patterns, we are drawn into the true majesty within the ordinary. Our lives move forward as the calendar shifts around us. We live here on the ground while the moon cycles above us from nothing to everything and back to nothing again, and we are guided by her light.
This week the incredibly beautiful weaving together of endings and beginnings, evil and goodness, dying and rebirth, all within the natural and spiritual worlds, abound.
We might not have realized that we are almost exactly 6 months down the road from the personal and communal spiritual reckoning that we all engaged in on Yom Kippur when we were commanded to look honestly at our reflection from the year past and say, “S’lach na, forgive me, S’lach lanu, forgive us. ” Yes, it was six months ago already occurring in the seventh month of Tishri.
And now that we are six months down this path we find ourselves in the month of Adar which is the final month of the Hebrew calendar, (actually 13 months long this year). It is almost Spring, and as the Jewish year comes to an end we celebrate this uniquely named Shabbat, Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath of remembering. This Shabbat is there to wake us up and remind us to notice where we are and where we had hoped to be by now.
The Tradition teaches that at the Shabbat before Purim we are to engage in the exercise of intentional remembering. An additional section of Torah is added to the regular cycle in which the text demands of us, “ Zachor, Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey after you left Egypt. How, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.” ( Deuteronomy 25:17-18).
And as we wind down to the final holiday of the Hebrew calendar, that of Chag Purim, the holiday in which the best and worst of humanity is represented, the tradition intuitively knows that by this time of year we have likely forgotten to remember. Amalek was a bad, bad guy that took advantage of a situation where no one was paying attention to the vulnerable, to the “stragglers” and so he pounced. But Amalek as a spiritual metaphor is a part of all of us. It is the part of us that creeps and crawls around going unnoticed and growing in thoughtlessness and carelessness. It is the vulnerable parts of our internal lives that are straggling behind, needing desperately to be investigated. Our tradition says, it is almost the end of the year, six months to go before the spiritual new year arrives again, where do you want to be then? What can you do right now to notice what needs remembering and what needs attending?
As the falling away of another year comes closer and closer may we be filled with awe for the beauty of this life we have been given. May we have honor for the past that has tenderly preserved the treasures of our tradition for us, guiding us toward remembering. And finally, may we be strengthened by the memories of last Yom Kippur, when our hearts were filled with the hope of a world redeemed and the promise that one day we will be made whole.
A teaching by Cantor Greenberg
Last week I spent another full day at the Hebrew Union College in a program of study I have been a participant in for nearly two years called B’chol L’evav’cha/ With All your heart. It is an intensive study in the practice of Spiritual Direction.
Spiritual direction explores a deeper relationship with the spiritual aspect of being human and helps in the practice of listening in for the sparks of holiness in ones’ life.
This month we learned with Rabbi Joshua Lesser, an advocate, and activist for LGBTQ people and the Spiritual Leader at Beit Chaverim, the first Gay and Lesbian founded Synagogue in Atlanta.
The day was focused on strengthening our individual awareness and sensitivity for people who may come to be in Spiritual Direction with us and have differing gender identities and sexual orientations.
Studying with my Chevra and with Rabbi Lesser was inspiring but not in the way I had thought it might be. As we studied and shared I realized that I wasn’t taking in any brand new or even alternative information, although the insights of our mentors and my peers are always wise and rich, instead I was sensing the profound universality of this learning and how it is applicable to every life.
I kept hearing a strong and clear message within…THE ultimate and essential point of connection that links every heart is in our feeling of “otherness” and through sincere spiritual practice, we can strengthen our ability to be vulnerable together.
People who are made to feel marginalized or even invisible exist in all kinds of places and for all kinds of reasons. The spectrum of who doesn’t “belong” is vast and unfortunately, cruelty never seems to dry up.
It takes very little for someone to be called out for their “differences” and one attack on someone’s humanity can, and often does, make a lasting impact. But it is exactly there where the learning can take hold and transform us. All of us have times that we are or have been in hiding from our true selves, and all of us have had to decide when we will finally come out of hiding.
Please understand that people who are living their lives on the fringe of accepted societal “norms” are especially targeted and threatened in unjust and often aggressive and violent ways, and I do not mean to diminish that reality, but what is so astounding to me at the heart level, is how the essential point of connection that exists in all of us regardless of whether we are perceived by others as “fitting in” or not, is a shared experience.
Rabbi Lesser mentioned that last week he had taught about the Golden Calf episode in Parshat Ki Tissa and suggested that the biggest problem with the idol was that, at its essence, it was absolute and fixed, a thing which is precisely what God/Mystery/Adonai is not and can never be. God is the unending, the Eyn Sof, Ehiyeh Asher Ehiye, always in the process of becoming. Therefore if we are made B’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image, and God is the und-ending, un-seeable Mystery and cannot be made or fixed or sculpted, then why should we not also aspire to that fluidity of Self, that becoming, that is our truest Self?
Those human beings that still pursue truth of Self and truth in their relationship to the Divine Spark within, despite everything and everyone around them saying “You do not belong if you are not knowable us”, are the ones to follow. They embody the Torah’s message of “In God’s Image”. Absolutes are not God, truth, and love are.
In last week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vayakhel, Moses continues to direct the Israelites in the creation and formation of the move-able tabernacle, the Mishkan. In it over and over again they are alerted as to who is an “acceptable” contributor.
It says nothing of gender expression or sexuality, it says nothing of status or “norms”, it simply says that ones’ heart must be what inspires them and if the heart is wise it can be trusted.
We are living God’s will, says Torah, when we hear the message of love and compassion presently and fully and when we reject the fearful impulse to fix or concretize existence.
The message in our Torah is a universal one even as we walk it in our particularistic Jewish way.
We listen into these commandments, reaching out to us from Millennia ago, and ask ourselves how we can become, along with God’s becoming, and live this wisdom more fully.
Moses summoned the Israelites who were ready with their hearts, and so too, are we being summoned to do the work of building our Mishkan, our home, our world in this way. May we build it with insight, inspiration, and wisdom.
A teaching by Cantor Meredith Greenberg
This week we read Parshat Mishpatim/Laws.
In it, Moses accepts the laws on behalf of the Israelites and then passes them on to them one Mitzvah at a time. First, he communicates the “Big Ten” from last week and then in this week’s text many more on a variety of subjects. Everything from, “Let your fields lay fallow every seventh year” to “ Sorcery will not be tolerated.” The sages have much to say about the minutia of these laws, and why they all appear together here in this list, but for me, the really enlivening part of the text is what the Israelites say in acceptance of them.
When Moses first ascends to Mount Sinai God commands him to tell the people that if they accept the covenant, God will make them a “Kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). Upon hearing these words, the people respond, “All that God has said, Na’aseh/we will do” (19:8).
Simple enough. Moses is communicating the two sides of the covenant and they respond without question, we will do it. Even though they do not yet know the specifics of the laws that they will need to uphold, they are willing to do it in exchange for this eternal partnership with God, namely the promise of becoming “Mamlechet Kohanim”, a nation of priests.
Yet, in this week’s Torah portion, their words of acceptance are less simple. A kind of transformation seems to be taking place.
As Moses begins to relate specific Divine rules to the people, they initially repeat the response, “All of the things that God has said, “Na’ase/we will do” (Exodus 24:3), but then a few verses later, after Moses writes and reads aloud the words of the Torah, and the Mitzvot are fleshed out and more thoroughly related, the phrase changes… “ Naa’se”, “We will do” they respond, “V’nishma…And we will hear” (24:7).
Nishma is the word in Hebrew made up of the Shoresh/Root Shin Mem Ayin, as in the word Lishmoa, to hear or to understand, and as in the first word of the essential text, often referred to as the watchword of our faith, Sh’ma/Listen!
The Israelites begin this covenant with the words and the commitment to act, but then they make an additional promise to continue the process of uncovering meaning in these very behaviors. To not just blindly do what they are told, but to engage in it, to hear it, and to strive to understand it.
As modern adults we have few instances in our lives where our society expects us to say that we will do something first if we have yet to hear what the “it” is, not to mention understand its implications. Our civil law takes great pains at making sure when one is being accused of a crime, for instance, that one fully hears, understands, and then acknowledges all of the details of their rights so that there is never any question as to their having been misled.
We see this as our right and our privilege and so did our ancestors. They too found it hard to understand how the ancients could have just said alright without having more information. Indeed, they did imagine a scenario where coercion was at play in one rabbinic debate.
One Talmudic interpretation suggests that when the people stood at Sinai, God actually lifted the mountain above their heads and said, “ If you accept the Torah, fine; if not, here shall be your grave”. (Tractate Avodah Zarah 2b)
Even for the Sages 2000 years ago it was hard to believe the Israelites would agree before hearing all the details.
For me, the change from Na’aseh, we will do it, to Na’aseh V’nishma, we will do it and we will hear/understand it, is a demonstration of the Israelites beginning the process of maturity, spiritually speaking. They had experienced real trauma and knew intuitively that they could not receive revelation directly, and so they asked Moses to be intermediary, but then they began to trust themselves a little bit more, one Mitzvah at a time. They began to see that once they had accepted Torah they were already on the path, but that the doing was only one part of the equation and was not going to be enough. In receiving these laws, they sensed a great opportunity to find answers for themselves as to the nature of becoming full human beings in relationship to The Mystery.
The doing of our everyday lives is something we all share. From the moment we decide to wake up from our sleep state we are in the mode that says, Na’aseh, we will do it. We do our lives because we want to and because we feel we have to, but the choice to wake up from that sleep state is not only in the physical world. When we say Nishma we are also making the choice to wake up in the world of our interiority and to seek to find moments of deep learning and understanding so that we can listen into our lives for the real message of becoming.
Our text teaches that God reveals the Torah through Moses to us in every generation…But then what? After we commit our lives to “doing” Torah we have to begin to notice more is being asked of us. When we can honestly say Na’aseh V’nishma it means we are really living authentic, awakened lives, and our ancestors are showing us the way.
May we walk on that path together, and may we merit the privilege of saying whole-heartedly, Na’ase V’nishma.
I look so forward to strengthen my own connection on that path with all of you this Shabbat. Shabbat services begin at 6:30 pm on Friday night (Tot Shabbat at 6 pm). Saturday morning sacred Chanting Circle begins at 9 am. Shabbat Mishpacha, a Family friendly Shabbat celebration begins at 10
A teaching by Cantor Greenberg
I treasure living in this area. With its pluralistic community, I have many friends and neighbors who celebrate and identify with a wide range of cultural and religious traditions. I love being welcomed into their families’ homes on joyous and often sacred occasions. I feel included and enriched, even when I act as a witness and the celebration isn’t really “mine.” I love our conversations about how each of our traditions navigates life uniquely and meaningfully.
But I have to admit that I sometimes feel a kind of inner tension when I choose to celebrate a holiday that was “originally” rooted in another faith tradition, even if now those traditions have, for all intents and purposes, been replaced by secular ones.
It might be easier if I felt the same way about them all, but to be honest, I am fairly inconsistent.
For example, I don’t mind celebrating Halloween. Even with its clear Pagan beginnings it has, over time, become a night that everyone in our family looks forward to. Candy, dress up, parties, it’s just a good time for kids and adults alike, no tension there.
On the other hand, on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s day, which I suppose should be much less of a trigger, I have some discomfort. It isn’t exactly intense but it is persistent. It usually manifests in a kind of nagging obsession to always phrase my greetings to people with extra special care at that time of year saying things like, “Happy Secular New year!” or “Happy 2019!” Instead of just “Happy New Year!”.
Is it just nonsense or is there something of value here for me to learn from?
Valentine’s Day is another good example of some brewing inner turmoil that has changed over time.
When I was a child I loved Valentine’s Day. Candy, hearts, people sharing their love for you, with you, and of course secret revelations of crushes resulting in the big question, “Will you be my valentine?” It never occurred to me then to ask what the roots of the holiday were, (which, if you google are actually sort of horrifying, but I will let you find out for yourself), and I don’t ever remember feeling any other way except part of things - part of the fun, the excitement, and the group.
However, at some point, fear, or at least worry began to creep in. Might participating in a holiday other than a Jewish holiday be inauthentic? Might it even create a distance between me and my Jewish identity?
I think these questions began at the point where I became more “serious” about my Judaism. I started to struggle with these holidays that had previously been just fun to join in on in their uncomplicated way but now felt either empty or worse, threatening.
If Rosh Hashanah was MY New Year then what was January 1? If Purim was the day Jews dressed up in costumes then how could I also do that on Halloween? The big questions of whether I could do it all, be it all, enjoy it all, started to gnaw at me. It felt disingenuous to deeply seek within for my most authentic Jewish Self and also take part in these alternate days of celebrations and acknowledgment. Could I be “really” Jewish and also be part of what everyone else was doing?
At first, I went in one extreme, no Halloween, no Valentine’s Day, and though I changed the year in my checkbook, New Year’s Day was the first of Tishri in my heart and soul.
I could get very self-righteous in fact and at one stage I even began to claim that my refusal to celebrate secular holidays that were a “construct created by greetings card companies” was due to my rock solid Jewish value system. Yikes!!
But the truth is that it isn’t ever that one-sided. The “All or nothing” solution has never been right for me and was more of a temporary weigh station than a true path forward.
I am a Jew and I love my Judaism for all it brings me, for the spirituality, cherished values, community, love, responsibility, commitment, connection. But my life is also lived in the greater world of my town, my country, and my universe. I am me because of the influence of all of it and refusing to notice the whole is not where I want to be or what I want to be.
When I (still) curate my words for my New Year’s greeting or (still) refuse to put scary decorations out front during Halloween even though my children protest and plead, or purposefully avoid going out on Valentine’s Day because of the exorbitant price increases (on this point I have softened), I could convince myself that I am doing all of that “for my Judaism”, but it’s just not so. Being a devoted Jew is about so much more.
The honest story is that I am conflicted about it all and that is my authentic Self-talking. I want to feel that I am a part of the whole community just like you, and I want to be accepted and respected for the “all” of me. I want to belong and I want to own my uniqueness.
From year to year, and maybe even from day to day, I may not feel the same way about these issues. I may make choices today that I would have vehemently disagreed with five years ago, and I may change my mind again.
Does this mean I have no convictions, or does it mean that I no longer need to pretend that I have all the answers today?
Jews have always lived among people with varying traditions and indeed, have always figured out a way to not only live out their Jewish ideals if that is what animates them but to thrive. It seems the key to meaningful integration of all the inside and outside influences begins with a quiet hope for truth.
My real goal with any observance or holiday celebration, whether religious or secular, is to seek, and hopefully find some movement toward wholeness.
If my heart is open to it I can discern whether there is holiness to be found there. Sometimes the place is obvious and sometimes surprising.
Calling January 1 a “New Year” isn’t on its own a problem at all. The tension develops in me only when I lose my connection to what the newness of the year can bring me. January 1 is more than 3 months after Rosh Hashanah, a look back on the year thus far and a genuine check in on how I am doing is actually a great thing.
Does January 1 threaten Rosh Hashanah? If it does then the problem is much bigger than saying Happy New Year in December and January!
And if on February 14th, assuming it isn’t the ONLY day I tell the people that I love the most just how much they mean to me, it doesn’t make me inauthentic or a Hallmark holiday ninny either, to share with them, it just makes me smile and hopefully them too.
As long as the path is consistently an honest one, where I give myself room to become and allow God to accompany me in that becoming then I can feel the freedom to explore, to celebrate, and to turn and return again and again.
A teaching by Cantor Meredith Greenberg
How do plagues manifest in our world?
In this Week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vaerrah, we hear many times that Pharoh’s heart was hardened and that, despite Moses and Aaron’s pleas, he would not let the Israelites be set free. His inability to have empathy for their plight set into motion the onslaught of the magefot, the Plagues beginning and ending in blood. First, the water is poisoned, made undrinkable by its high levels of toxicity, killing all the wildlife that relied on its nourishment, and ending with the death of the firstborn of all the children of Mitzrayim, stopping the blood in their veins from flowing to the places it is needed to keep one’s physical life intact.
The plague of Dam, blood, and its imbalance in the lives of those in our ancient story, is the story of either too much or not enough and brings to mind the question of how plagues work in our lives and whether perhaps what tips an experience over into something worthy of the term plague has to do with the inability to restore balance to the environment the plague is manifesting in.
People that suffer from addiction, for instance, are experiencing a kind of plague. Their addiction drives them to make choices that can, and often do, hurt their families, disintegrate their physical, emotional, and spiritual health, and sometimes even result in death. What starts, perhaps, as a habit created to compensate for some real or perceived imbalance in their life transforms into a plague that devastates everyone and everything they touch.
Lashon Harah, or gossip, is another kind of plague when out of balance. The Sages teach that when we gossip it is like a three-way murder, the one who gossips is killed, the one who has heard the gossip is killed, and of course, the one who is gossiped about is killed, too. What might have started out as a need to vent frustration or even a momentary desire to tell a joke at someone else’s expense, can easily escalate into a kind of plague, hurting all kinds of people and virtually impossible to undo and set back into balance.
Abuse, neglect, selfishness, arrogance, worry, fear, all of these and so many more can become the plague of today when we are unwilling to attend to what really is, one might call that self-awareness.
This Shabbat I hope we can explore together what is at the essence of the plague narratives and how we might draw from the experience of our ancestors as Torah recounts it to us.
If we can learn to live with a semi-permeable heart, one that is neither so wide open that there is nothing left to protect us, nor a closed and hardened one which restricts anything from getting in, then we might be able to begin to understand how we are manifesting plagues in our world.
Join me as together we reflect and pray on Friday night at 6:30 pm for our Kabbalat Shabbat service. Join us at 9 am on Saturday morning for our Sacred Chant practice and at 10 AM for our morning Shabbat Minyan.
A teaching by Cantor Meredith Greenberg
Where does blessing flow from?
I am thinking especially this week, as we prepare to end the final chapters of the Book of Breishit/Genesis and are drawn into the dramatic close of Jacob’s life in Parshat Veyechi, of the place of giving and receiving blessing in our lives.
In his final moments of life in the physical world, Jacob uses his energy to speak individually to each of his children, beginning first, with Joseph’s sons, Ephrayim and Menashe, his grandchildren. We are brought close to him, where he is resting, Joseph beside him.
“And he said, ‘Bring them, I pray thee, to me, and I will bless them.’ “
The word for blessing in Hebrew, Bracha, comes from the root, Bet Resh, Chaf, which is also the root of the word Knee, Berech. In ancient days it was the practice to prostrate ones self and so we, seeking to keep alive the connection to our tradition, sometimes bend our knees together in prayer, embodying the desire to humble ones self to The Source of that blessing.
One of the moments we engage in each year that draws us all in through spiritual invitation is during the Yamim HaNoraim, the Days of Awe, when, at the close of the silent prayer, I call the ancient words of the Y’varech’cha, the oldest known blessing in our tradition, out to you, and you echo them back to each other and the Universe/God/Mystery. This beautiful practice is an example of what I think can happen in a community when blessing is understood as a fluid source.
Also too, blessing happens around the Shabbat table on Friday night. Jewish homes across the world set aside a few precious moments to offer blessing, given and received, and in some homes, those same ancient words of blessing that close our Silent Prayer during the holidays, is offered between parents and children, just as Jacob did with his grandchildren Epharyim and Menashe, and the rest of his children, in his final moments of life
Like many of you, I cherish these few seconds where my children are still, my hand on their heads or around their shoulders. As they have matured they have begun to wriggle away from me less and less, and now, it almost feels as though they are waiting in anticipation for the blessing, even if they would never admit it!
But what is really happening in this moment of blessing and are we human beings really empowered to give them?
I have contemplated this question many times over the years. In fact, in one of the communities where I served as an intern while still in Seminary, there was one particular Shabbat where we were making Brachot at the close of services, and I decided to spontaneously invite people to close their eyes and receive a blessing from me in the form of the Priestley Benediction. The practice of parents offering the blessing to their children was not Minhag Hamakom, the custom of the place, there, nor was it offered communally as we do at Ner Tamid, but I remember that I felt inspired and I was filled with a desire to share that with them. I was also looking for creative ways to bring more of my own spiritual exploration and theological journeying into my leadership of services and so I went for it.
A few days later, the Rabbi in the community who had been there that evening brought me into his office and told me in no uncertain terms that, “We do not give blessing, only God does. “ He was troubled by the way I introduced the offering and that I assumed the role of giver. Of course we, human beings, offer blessings all the time, but somehow it sounded to him as though I had taken up too much space here, and had left God out of the equation.
I’ve thought a lot about that ever since. How much, if at all, do we need to remove ourselves from the role of “giver of blessing “ for a blessing to be given authentically? How much room do we need to make for God, or is God always there if blessing is there? And if for you, God is not in the equation, is it possible still to offer blessing? From where does the blessing flow?
When offering a traditional blessing with the words Baruch Atah Adonai, Blessed are You, which is our “blessing formula” there is an automatic tension formed. What those words seem to indicate is that humanity not only has the power to bless each other but to bless God also.
Many commentators take issue with that, and I don’t blame them. I mean what could God possibly need from us in the form of blessing? God doesn’t need us to bless God, right?
But maybe our tradition knows something we are only slowly beginning to understand. Perhaps it is not the exact translation of the words Blessed are You that matters at all, but the intention, and what happens to us internally when we say “Blessed are You “.
For me, the opening words are like a mantra, like a pre-amble, the offering of them automatically move me into blessing space that is emotional and spiritual, and my souls’ compass says, “I am blessing”. The real gift within the offering of blessing is how we, the giver, become a vessel for the offering and then goodness flows into the world. The spaciousness that the blessing creates in us allows for that flow, and it is good for everyone, including God.
When we offer words of blessing we are trying to do something special with our words and with our deeds. Whether you believe the source of blessing is coming from God or not, something is flowing in and out, and as we inhale to form the words, we slow down, we take in, we delve deeper into our becoming, aware and awake to the blessing of our aliveness and from there, we share the hope, the prayer.
Jacob chooses to speak with each of his children and his grandchildren not with statements but in an offering, a blessing. He intuitively knows that through blessing he will connect more deeply into the good within him and that is how he would like to complete his journey on the earth.
I pray that we may all give ourselves permission to be a vessel for offering and receiving blessing, and like Jacob, to know that the source of blessing is as close as the very air we breathe.
A teaching by Cantor Greenberg
We die and are reborn again and again in this life…
And they (the brothers of Joseph) went up from Egypt, and came to the land of Canaan to Jacob their father, and told him, saying, “Joseph is still alive”, and that he is ruler over all the land of Egypt; but his (Jacob) heart rejected it, for he could not believe them. However, when they related to him all the words that Joseph had spoken to them, and he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to transport him, then the spirit of their father Jacob was revived. (Genesis 45:25-27)
The question of what exactly happens to us on a biological level when we experience something that so alters our understanding of our present reality has fascinated deep thinkers for thousands of years. In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vayigash, Jacob’s sons reveal to their father, who has believed for many years now that his beloved son Joseph was dead, that he is in fact, very much alive and well.
His immediate reaction to this news is described in one short phrase, “Vayafog libo”, translated above as “his heart rejected it” (the news). Still, different commentaries vary, some say his heart ceased, others still, his heart went faint. The word in question, Vayafog comes from the Hebrew root Fay-Vav-Gimmel, translated in the Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon as “grow numb”. Commentaries on the phrase vary as well.
Rashi writes, Vayafog libo - his heart was changed so that he could not believe. That is to say that his heart could not take notice of the things (that Josef's brothers had spoken). The usage is similar to that which is stated in the Talmud Tractate Beitza 14a (concerning the permissibility of grinding spices on Yom Tov in the usual fashion) that spices lose their flavor ("mefigin ta'aman") if ground ahead of time. It is also similar to the verse in Eicha/Lamentations 3:49 that "my eye(s) shall flow (tears) and not cease, without respite ("hafugot").
However, the Ramban disagrees.
…Rashi's derivation is incorrect, for the matter of "fuga" is cessation and cancellation…Here too, the expression means that his heart stopped beating and his breathing ceased. The action of his heart stopped and it was as if he was dead. This phenomenon is well documented in situations where sudden and unexpected joy occurs. For the elderly, hearing this kind of news could, for many of them, cause them to faint away under such circumstances. Their hearts are suddenly expanded and opened and the body's natural heat is transferred to the extremities, leaving the heart with insufficient warmth. The old man (Jacob) fell down as if dead.
So what is it that happened to Jacob upon receiving this news? Did his heart actually stop beating/cease from functioning, did he become emotionally “numb”, or was this a kind of intellectual rejection of the news?
As a pastoral caregiver I sit with many people in both their distress and in their joys. I am consistently amazed at peoples ability to encounter the holiness of the moment in the joyous times, to really take in the beauty of love and gratitude. But perhaps because I have not had major trauma in my life, I am literally baffled by and inspired by the resilience that people have within them to heal after their hearts have been broken. For some it takes days or months and for others practically a whole lifetime, but I have been a witness to people returning to their hearts and it is a truly mysterious and magical happening.
The Chassidic tradition teaches that this kind of return is called Teshuva. That, over the course of one’s life, and not only because of traumatic events, one lives many lives in the same body but in very different states of spiritual/emotional/psychological aliveness. As people grow and change, often at moments of significant events like graduating from a course of study, setting yourself apart for another as a life mate, the birth of a child, and as is the case here with Jacob, in the experience of grief and loss when a loved one dies, one’s own life ends and begins again.
Jacob’s life had many moments of Teshuva in it, of death and rebirth, of endings and beginnings, just like ours. His heart broke and then mended, changed forever but repaired. What Jacob never expected to happen was for him to regain the life he had once had before Joseph was gone. Perhaps this is the true essence of Vayafog libo. All at once the life he had birthed anew was ripped from him. The heartbeat of that life force shut down, reversed. The need for that new reality was erased and so for a brief moment, all went numb, frozen in time. The heart rejected the life force it had needed to sustain through the death of Joseph and the rebirth of Jacob.
It is important to say that this fairy tale ending is exceptional for Torah. Very little of the “Hollywood Ending” is found in our ancient texts. Instead, our sages want us to know we are not alone in our lives, in our pain. Our ancestors lived them too. But Jacob and Joseph do get their happy ending, perhaps as a reminder that sometimes our wildest hopes and dreams can come true? I am not sure about that, but I for one am glad for it. It is a loving and tender kiss from Torah.
And so, as we prepare for Shabbat we take in the fullness of this life, we learn to hold all of it with love, though lightly. We die and we are reborn again and again.
I look forward to being with all of you soon. Friday night services begin at 8:00 pm and our Kabbalat Shabbat Band will join us once again. Shabbat morning we will practice sacred chanting together at 9:00 am and then continue on for our main service at 10:00 am.