These Three Things

Alexander The Great Kneels Before Shimon HaTzaddik

There are often times when I am reading or studying a Jewish text, and I want to share it all with you. Obviously, that is not realistic, as Judah HaNasi already redacted the Mishnah, so there is no need for me to jot that down again. Also, I don’t think you would stick around to read such volume in one sitting. On this particular day, at this particular moment, I happen to be reading the Pirkei Avot section of the Mishnah. Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers), is probably the most cited section of the Mishnah, and has many famous quotations. One of those prominent bits struck me in an interesting way as I was reading tonight. 

Pirkei Avot 1:2 gives us a quotation from Shimon HaTzaddik (Shimon the “just” or “righteous”). But first, a bit of a detour. Rabbi Marc Angel’s commentary gives us an interesting anecdote about an exchange between Shimon HaTzaddik and Alexander the Great. Apparently, as the latter was making his way through Eretz Yisrael, Alexander the Great met HaTzaddik and was thoroughly impressed with what Angel refers to as Shimon HaTzaddik’s “spiritual demeanor.” Alexander proceeded to demand that a statue of himself be placed in the Temple; because what better way to honor a sage’s spiritual competence than by commissioning a statue of yourself? I mean, we’ve all done it, right? No? Well, I digress. After ever-so-tactfully explaining to Alexander that statues are not allowed in the Temple, HaTzaddik does something rather smart. He tells Alexander that while he cannot accommodate his statue request, what he can do is have all the children of priests be named Alexander for a year. Better to appease Alexander than to simply tell him “no,” I presume. So, if you know any Jewish people named Alexander, and have thought, that sounds rather Hellenistic, now you know why!

Now, back to Pirkei Avot 1:2. While I usually don’t put the actual Hebrew in my posts, I am feeling a change for tonight. I will put both the Hebrew and I will transliterate for those who do not read:

עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים

“Al sh’losha d’varim haolam omeid, al hatorah v’al haavodah v’al g’milut chasadim”

“On three things the world stands: on the Torah, on Divine worship, and on acts of loving-kindness.” 

These three things that Shimon HaTzaddik has so concisely and profoundly offered us seem to touch every aspect of life in one way or another. When we study and embrace Torah, we are bettering ourselves. We are expanding our minds, learning to open ourselves up to novel ideas, and honing the discipline of our own intellectual inner life. When we worship the Divine, we are fostering a relationship with a force greater than ourselves. We can exit our own minds, and enter into infinite and eternity. When in the act of worship or prayer, we might strive to leave our physical bodies aside for a moment, and look at the human experience from an elevated vantage point. Worship brings us out of any inkling of bookishness and opens our souls to the possibility of being filled with the warm radiance of Divinity. Through “g’milut chasadim,” or acts of loving-kindness, we are able to turn our attention to our relationships with others. Acts of kindness, no matter how perceptually large or small, are all gargantuan. Without human-to-human interaction and application of study and worship, we could become hermetic; and what is knowledge and Divine inspiration without including and serving our fellow humans? The Torah and God are not meant to be kept secret. How can we share with the world? 

Let us reflect for a moment. According to Shimon HaTzaddik of the Mishnah, the world is kept upright through Torah, worship, and acts of loving-kindness. Perhaps you do not read the Torah, worship the Divine, or consciously partake in acts of righteousness. Perhaps it is a good time to ask ourselves some questions. What do you do to feed your mind, and your intellect? Do you challenge yourself with simple reads, or have you tried pacing your way through that more intense piece? Do you take the easier classes that you are less interested in than the classes that might stimulate your mind and interests more effectively? Do you feel challenged enough to gain a sense of accomplishment? Perhaps it is time to find your Torah. I know that not everyone attends Shabbat services weekly, or even at all. Do you have a method of connecting with a power that is far greater than yourself? Do you sense a higher purpose to your life? Have you seen the holiness in the apparently mundane lately? Perhaps it is time to find your soul’s fuel. Finally, what have you done for others? Do you serve others, and not take the time to recognize your own service? Do you spend all of your time studying or worshipping, and lose touch with the world of the living and suffering? Perhaps it is time to directly connect with the people with whom you share your world. 

May we all be blessed to find our Torah, our soul’s nutrition, and the service of loving-kindness within ourselves. If we can work to balance these three aspects of ourselves, perhaps the world will follow suit, and begin to operate more evenly and effectively. If we all search for our versions of these three things, what beautiful equilibrium we could bring to this world. 

In the meantime, no statues, Alex!

L’Shalom,

Joshua

Morning Anxiety? A Jewish Suggestion

Why do I wake up with anxiety? How to reduce morning anxiety or stress -  Insider

We are living during a time when a vast majority of people are experiencing extremely high levels of anxiety. We worry about COVID-19, we worry about the results and aftermath of the elections, we worry about the safety of our children and the state of schools. The list could go on ad nauseam. There is simply no escaping the fact that 2020 (or 5780 and beginning of 5781) has been an anxiety-ridden year. If you are a person who already grappled with the sometimes-relentless clutches of anxiety, this past year has probably done nothing but exacerbate feelings of doom, fear, and dread. 

Many of you can empathize with the feeling of waking up with your heart pounding out of your chest, hypervigilant, overly alert, and panicked for no particular reason. I count myself as one of those who is prone to waking up in this abrupt and disturbing manner. What a way to start the day, right? How can you wake up on the right (or even wrong) side of the bed when it feels as if anxiety has sprung you straight out of it? Anxiety is the alarm that wakes us, and it does not do so with kid gloves on.

What can be done? I can only share what has been working for me, and perhaps something similar might be of benefit to you. Enter the Modeh Ani. I make a conscious decision to recite this blessing every morning as soon as my eyes open. When I feel that anxiety and fear start to rear its ugly head, I immediately begin chanting or simple recitation:

מוֹדֶה אֲנִי לְפָנֶיךָ רוח חַי וְקַיָּם שֶהֶחֱזַרְתָּ בִּי נִשְׁמָתִי בְחֶמְלָה, רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶךָ

Modeh ah-nee lifanecha, Ru-ach chai v’kayam, she-hechezarta bee nishma-tee b’chemlah rabbah emunatecha.

“I gratefully acknowledge Your Face; Spirit lives and endures;

You return my soul to me with compassion; How great is your faith in me.”

This translation comes to us via Shefa Gold. I find particularly meaningful the change to “Ru-ach” from its original “Melech.” Ru-ach, meaning “Spirit,” leaves this blessing open to more interpretation than the more narrow “Melech,” which translates to King, and seems a bit limiting and gendered. It makes sense that we would thank the Divine for returning our souls to us, as it is customary to recite the “Hashkiveinu” in the evening. When we recite The Hashkiveinu, we request that God allow us to lie down in a state of peace and wake up with our souls restored to us. I try to look at the Modeh Ani as a direct extension of our evening plea. We ask at night, and say thank you for having our request fulfilled in the morning. 

What is this of our souls being returned to our bodies? Where did my soul go?! Oy Vey! Kabbalah and the Talmud give us some beautiful answers. According to Kabbalistic thought, God (who Heschel always reminds us is longing for human contact) cannot stand to be away from us for too long. When we sleep, at least a part of our soul ascends to the heavens, where our spirits attain a nest egg of nourishment for the next day. We return to our physical bodies with a spiritual thirst quenched just a bit more from our nightly journey. The Talmud tells us that sleep is actually 1/60 of death. Our souls depart from our bodies during sleep, but return upon waking. When we finally die, our souls simply do not return.

We express our thanks to the Divine not only for having given us the gift of another day, but also for having spiritually nourished us during our sleeping ascension to more Divine closeness. Perhaps you are thinking, “When I wake up, I definitely do not feel like I have just ascended, attained any sort of closeness with God, and then returned.” When we awaken full of fear and anxiety, we are back in our earthly bodies, which can often feel anything but perfect and restored. The last line of the blessing, רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶךָ “rabbah emunatecha” actually comes to us via Megillat Eicha, which is more widely known in the English-speaking world as the Book of Lamentations. For anyone at all familiar, this is neither a pleasant nor happy book, in that it deals with the theological crisis surrounding the aftermath of the First Temple’s destruction in 586 BCE. “How great is your faith in me.” We get such an uplifting bit from a book that is anything but. 

What to make of this? Even when we feel down, tired, drained, like we need to lament, or simply cannot get out of bed, perhaps we can take some time to be thankful for just being alive. The 100 mitzvot per day can wait for a breath or two. Sometimes just being present in the moment is enough. When our eyes open, we have our first gift of the day. Since I have begun to chant the Modeh Ani, it has actually brought me a sense of calm that I had a lot of trouble experiencing upon waking prior. Many people try to begin their day with mindfulness or gratitude practice. Perhaps this is just another way of doing so, but in a specifically Jewish manner. 

If you are struggling, give the Modeh Ani a chance, and if it does not work for you, keep trying until something does. Waking up with Divinity is such an amazing way to begin a good day. Even when we don’t immediately feel it, God and His gifts are there. It is our job to seek them, just as the Divine seeks us. Perhaps we can meet in the middle. May your mornings be calm, and your days long and full of light and wonder.

L’Shalom,

Joshua

A Coat or a Fire?

The Story of Noah and the Ark in the Bible - Jewish History

Next week’s parshah brings us to the very familiar story of Noach, or Noah, and his building of the famous ark. While many of us remember the Noah of our youth as someone to be admired, for he was literally the most righteous person on Earth, I would like us to take a closer look at what the story of Noah might teach us about our responsibility not only to ourselves, but to our fellow human beings. In Genesis 6:9, it is written, “Noah was in his generation a man righteous and whole hearted; Noah walked with God.” At first glance this sentence seems like a great compliment. After all, the ultimate word in Hebrew for a righteous individual; the word “tzaddik” is used to describe him. But why the qualifier “in his generation?” According to Rabbi Yohanan of the Talmud, Noah would not have been considered righteous in other generations. Essentially, Rabbi Yohanan is telling us that Noah was the best of a bad situation. “And the Earth was corrupt before God, and the Earth was filled with violence” (Gen. 6:11). In a world full of immorality, horror, and unrest, perhaps Noah passed the individual test in that he kept his nose clean, and stayed out of trouble.

Let’s look at the phrase “Noah walked with God.” Does it clue us in to some of Noah’s failings? We can discover a lot if we look at Noah and Abraham under the same lens. Rabbi Judah tells of a parable of a king who has two sons, one was an adult and the other was just a child. When speaking to the young son, the king said: “Walk with me,” but when speaking to the adult son he said, “Walk before me.” In Genesis 17:1, God says to Abraham, “Because you are whole-hearted, walk before me.” Rabbi Judah tells us that Noah’s spiritual fortitude was meek when compared to the mighty spiritual strength of Abraham. Perhaps, Noah would not have been considered a “tzaddik” if he had lived in the generation of Abraham. Noah walked with, and Abraham was given the privilege of walking before God.

Can we see the shortcomings of Noah in his actions, or inaction? Upon hearing of God’s plan to destroy the earth and all who inhabited it, how did Noah react? God told Noah, “The end of all flesh is come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and behold I will destroy them with the earth” (Gen. 6:13). After telling Noah of His plans, Noah’s response was to do all that God commanded him–no questions asked. When God told Noah of his plan to destroy the entire world, Noah was silent, and did not question in the slightest. Who does question God? Fast forward to Parshah Vayera. God is prepared to destroy the city of Sodom, saying “…their sin is exceeding grievous.” (Gen. 28:20). Abraham’s response could not have been more disparate. Abraham immediately pleads with God for the sake of Sodom. He says, “Wilt thou indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” (Gen. 28:23). Abraham proceeds to bargain with God, eventually convincing God that the city should be spared if even ten righteous people live within the city. Rabbi Levi tells us that Abraham understood that in order for a world to exist, justice could not be too strict. You cannot have overly strict justice, and also a world. God was asked to relent a bit, and He listened.

Let us look at the stark contrast: God is set to destroy the entire world, and Noah is silent in response. God is set to destroy just one city, and Abraham makes a case for the hypothetical righteous residents within. Would Noah have been righteous in Abraham’s generation? The answer seems to be “probably not.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reminds us that Judaism teaches us a “collective responsibility.” Kol Yisrael arevim ze bazeh (“All Israel are responsible for one another ”). If we only look after ourselves, and stick our heads in the sand when wrongs are being done to others, are we truly acting in a righteous manner? We are to aspire to the highest level of justice as we are taught in Deuteronomy 16:18–“Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof – Justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which the Lord your God gave you.” While it is vital that we look after our people, is it not also important that we care for the rights of others? When the flood waters approach our neighbors, or even strangers whom we do not know, do we build our own boat in solitude, or do we reach our hand to help those paddling for their lives? The Chasidim referred to Noah as a “tzaddik im peltz,” which translates to a “righteous man in a fur coat.” This phrase refers to the way in which Noah protected himself. When someone is in need of heat or reprieve from the elements, they can wear a coat, or they can ignite a fire. A coat will only protect you, but a fire can warm a community of people.

As Noah wore his fur coat, we see the ultimate righteous act in Abraham’s kindling of fire. Silence is an answer, and Noah made his answer clear.

In our world today, we see injustice taking place every day. We are still fighting for equity and equality in all facets of our society. As Jews, is it not our responsibility to speak up for the sake of humanity and its survival? Do we not have a responsibility to Tikkun Olam, or to repair the world from whatever sort of bruises it has endured?

Will we wear a coat as Noah did, or light a fire as Abraham did? Will we insulate and isolate ourselves or ignite the flames of justice and righteousness whenever and however we can? The choice is ours as Jews, and as decent human beings living amongst one another. Let us hear the words of great Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook, “I don’t speak because I have the power to speak; I speak because I don’t have the power to remain silent.”

May we all be blessed with this gift of gab. May we all challenge appropriately, and understand that God truly is in search of man and humankind. It is our responsibility to make our voices heard. The world depends on it.

L’Shalom,

Joshua

President’s Message

Rosh Hashanah was different this year. I am very engaged in the virtual service! Forgive the askew tallit!

**Below, I share my President’s Message that was given to my congregation on Erev Rosh Hashanah. It is short, and I believe the message to be true for all of our Jewish communities, as we are one family, or mishpachah. I wrote it down, so I wanted to share it here for those who could not attend, and also for the general reader.

I want to wish you all a “Shana Tovah U’Metukah, ” Or a good and sweet New Year. Thank you all for being flexible and adapting to Temple [Insert Schul/Synagogue Name] via Zoom. The past 6 or 7 months have been strange to say the least, and at times, most difficult and sad. I am beyond honored to represent the Temple as President during a time of great challenge; but I have also been able to be a part of witnessing the beauty of the true spirit of our congregation. The body of Temple [Name here] might be on “Main Street in Anonymoustown USA,” but the soul of the congregation manifests in all of you here, and also in those unable to be today. 

We have been forced to look at the world differently, but still with positivity amidst obstacles. Those who know me well know that I am an avid fan of the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and I would like to share one of his many beautiful quotes: “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement…get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” 

And amazed I have been. I have been amazed by our ability to keep Temple [Redacted Specific Name] not only alive, but thriving. Our Friday evening services are well-attended and invigorating. Our Religious School is buzzing with the constant excitement of Jewish learning, and our weekend Midrash and Torah study classes challenge and enliven our spirits. To put it frankly, Temple has never closed, nor should it ever. We have, as the Jewish people have always done, adapted. 

What has also remained unchanged is our need for your help. During these difficult times, and as we work to re-enter our building in the future we will be in need of funds for required deep-cleaning, ensuring that our Temple has proper ventilation, and a number of other costs that we never could have imagined incurring less than a year ago. Your help, as always, is not only appreciated, but needed now, perhaps more than ever. We will not stop offering, and we hope you do not either. 

Famous Medieval Torah Scholar Maimonides claims that contained within the sound of the Shofar is a personal message. It is a time to awaken from whatever respective slumbers have kept us from moving forward. The blast of the Shofar contains new beginnings. As we begin the year 5781, perhaps we should all listen to the same blast that pierced the air during the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai so many years ago. As we create new beginnings, I urge you to do so with Temple [Name Again] in mind. Like the blast of the Shofar, our goal is to continue to ring out through the generations as a center of vibrant Jewish life. We can only do so if we support one another, and our small Jewish community. 

I wish all of you and your families a sweet and happy New Year, and a meaningful Yamim Noraim. Todah rabah and thank you very much!

L’Shalom,

Joshua

Back to Love

The Month of Elul | My Jewish Learning

We find ourselves in the middle of the moth of Elul. This sixth month of the Jewish year immediately precedes the Norim Yoraim (The Days of Awe), or what is commonly known as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, respectively. In Hebrew, Elul is spelled “aleph, lamed, vav, lamed,” which is often viewed as an acronym of the phrase “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li”, or “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” These romantic words come to us from the Song of Songs, which we can find in our tradition’s canon thanks in large part to Rabbi Akiva, who saw in the Song of Songs more than just a love poem. He saw a proclamation of love between God and His people. If God is our beloved, what does it mean in a modern manner, with our contemporary set of sensibilities, to love God? This is a question for reflection that we can all ask ourselves during the contemplative month of Elul. As I have personally been studying Torah, pondering my own life, and the lives I see and hear of all around me, I have come to a realization: There is a Divine plan at work, but we tend to resist following it.

We can see history of this resistance of Divine wisdom if we look at this past week’s parshah, Ki Tavo. God tells the people, “And I have led you forty years in the wilderness; your clothes are not waxen old upon you, and thy shoe is not waxen old upon thy foot…” (Deut. 19:4). God tells the people that he has led them in a roundabout manner for forty long years, not because it was the most direct route to the Promised Land, but because He knew that the people of Israel needed time to learn before they were to enter Canaan. There is an Aggadic anecdote in the Talmud that speaks to this exact plan. God took care of the people’s basic needs (see the clothes and shoes above), so that they would have time to study Torah, and take to heart the words of God without the worries of what psychology’s Maslow would refer to as the most basic of physiological needs. The Talmudic story gets interesting due to the fact that it claims that when the Canaanites first caught wind that the people of Israel were about to enter into the land, they burned newly planted seeds, uprooted trees, and destroyed buildings. Essentially, the Canaanites were akin to an angry tenant who, upon notice of eviction, figured they would trash the place. God of course knew of this, and decided to lead the people of Israel on a forty-year trek that would force the Canaanites to repair and rebuild what they had damaged. After all, God had promised Abraham for his descendants “eretz z’vat chalav u’dvash”—a land flowing with milk and honey.

As we can see above, God had a plan to make the lives of the people of Israel better, and He wanted to keep his promise. Not only was He working “behind the scenes,” but He was also using the allotted time to guide and educate the people. If you read the Prophets of the Nevi’im, you are quite aware that God’s teachings were not always first and foremost on the minds of the people once they got comfortable in their new milk and honey-laden digs. God often expressed his abandonment pains through the Prophets. After all of the teaching and the warning, the people still were led astray by false prophets and idols.

Fast forward to today. We are living in a divided society wherein the warnings and teachings of the learned are ignored, and false prophets fill the airwaves. We are distracted by bumper stickers, flags, and the colors of a party. We are worshipping empty heads, and people have found their gods in the senseless noise of it all. Back to our original question; what does it mean to love God? I believe it is our responsibility as Jews to step back and seriously consider this query. If you believe, as the Kabbalists (and myself) do, you know that Divinity is in every person, affixed there during the thunderous shattering of creation. When a pharaoh sits on the throne and stokes the fires of hatred in order to dim inner lights, we must resist.

I grew up, as many, or at least most of us, probably did, believing in our land as the greatest in the world. There is no doubt that drastic changes have occurred. We have become distracted, led astray by the yetzer hara (evil inclination) that has been pushed to the forefront of the body politic by a boy-king who worships only himself. It is time for us to remember why we were led through the wilderness for all those years. If loving God is loving the world that God created, and every thing that God created, why are we falling short? Today, there exist many gods that one can worship, but the relationship with the gods of the monetary and material will always be unidirectional; they will never love you back. Is it time to hold a mirror up to ourselves, and truly reflect (pun intended).

 Can we find our way back to God, whatever He or She means to you? I believe we can, but only if we are willing to find our way back to love, for there will we find Him or Her—and there will we find the purpose that is hidden just beyond the profane. I challenge all of us–dare to delve into the holy this New Year, and we can begin to change the world. There is a plan, and I pray that we allow Divine work to be done. As the ancient cry of the shofar rings out this month and beyond, may we pray that it cuts through the noise of our current world, and may we answer its call with reflection which leads to redemption and reconciliation with the true nature of the Divine.

L’Shalom,

Joshua

Open Schools? Tisha B’av Says “No!”

The mystery of why Jews fast on Tisha B'Av - World News - Haaretz.com

This week, and possibly when you are reading this, many Jewish people around the world are mourning and fasting on what is the most sorrowful day on the Jewish calendar. We have arrived at the 9th of Av, or Tisha B’Av. So many tragic and devastating events are reported to have happened in history on or around the 9th of Av, explaining the reason for the mourning. The two most prominent events associated with this date are the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, with the first being destroyed in 586 BCE by Nebuchadnezzar (Babylonia), and the second in 70 CE by Titus (Rome). This date is also associated with the formal defeat of Bar Kochba’s rebellion, and the subsequent Roman recapture of Jerusalem. Let’s keep going. The 9th of Av (in the year 1290 CE) was also when Edward I strongly urged, via an edict, that all Jews leave England. Many people think of the year 1492 as the year that “Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Well, on the 9th of Av in 1492, the Jews were expelled from Spain by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Oh, and World War I began on the 9th of Av in 1914. Enough already, right?

What did the sages think? Just to scrape the surface a bit: Rabbi Akiva, one of our Talmudic stalwarts, said that whoever works on the 9th of Av will never see a sign of a blessing, while some other sages believed that the joy of Jerusalem will never be renewed if one does not specifically mourn for Jerusalem on the 9th of Av (B. ta 30b). The Book of Lamentations (which is traditionally read on Tisha B’Av) says, “She weepeth, yea, she weepeth in the night” (Lam. 1:2). Rabbi Yohanan thought that the “double weepeth” represented the First and Second Temples, respectively. Tisha B’av is a tragedy–There is no joyful break the fast a la Yom Kippur. In fact, Jews are urged to maintain a serious tone throughout the day, displaying the gravity of what is being represented. 

How is this relevant right now? Unfortunately, Tisha B’Av 5780 is beginning to look foolishly grim, and I feel it must be addressed. As we all know, we are living in what has become the time of COVID-19, and what a confusing tsuris-laden experience it has all been thus far. We are faced with a time that will be looked back upon by historians as tumultuous and dangerous, to say the least. As individuals squabble over the most basic protection (a facemask!) against an airborne illness, people are dying in great numbers. As of this moment, over 150,000 Americans have died of COVID-19. The number of those who have died does no justice to the fact that each of these “statistics” was an elaborate and beautiful “Etz Chayim” or “Tree of Life,” which, if you believe anything about Kabbalah, contained sparks of Divinity within them. With each life lost, we lost a bit of ourselves and the “Echad” or Unity that holds us all together in a macro sense. 

Now, we are standing on the precipice of what seems to be a terrible mistake. Is this an error in judgment by so many, or something else? Honestly, it feels a bit sinister. During a time when we must admit that we know very little about COVID-19, especially its long-term impact, we are considering opening up schools and sending in our precious children, their teachers, and many staff members who could so easily become ill themselves, or spread this deadly disease to vulnerable others. How can we expose our children, who trust us to protect them from harm, to a virus that could kill them? Are we so lost? Many people talk of the financial strain that will be placed on them if school does not open up. School is not a child care center, and our teachers are not babysitters. Our schools are supposed to be places of exploration and learning, and our teachers–the educators and guides leading our greenest citizens on the journey of discovery in a safe environment. Yes, school has not always proven to be 100 percent safe (the horrible reality of school shootings, bullying, etc. do exist), but do we ever consciously place our children in harm’s way? Our society is about to knowingly take advantage of the inborn trust of our children, and risk their lives for the sake of what is perceived as convenience. We might struggle financially while we wait for the pandemic to conclude in some form or fashion; but we can recover financially. How can we emotionally recover from the loss of a loved one due to decisions that were made with full knowledge of the lethal potentialities?

I am reminded of a Talmudic writing regarding the binding of Isaac. According to this Aggadic writing, Satan went to Isaac’s mother Sarah, in the form of Isaac himself, while he was bound by his own father, Abraham. When Sarah saw her son, she asked, “What did your father do?” He answered, saying: “My father took me, led me up hills and down into valleys, until finally he brought me up to the summit of a high and towering mountain, where he built an altar, set out the firewood, bound me upon the altar, and grasped a knife to cut my throat. Had not the Holy One said to him, ‘Lay not thy hand upon the lad,’ I would have been slaughtered.” It was said that before Satan even finished telling the story, Sarah’s soul left her (Tanhuma, Va-yera 23; Eccles. R. 9:7). 

Whenever a new “plan” for a school opening comes out, I feel a bit like Sarah from the story–I want to jump out of my own skin. Are we collectively prepared to lead our children, who follow us as Isaac so willingly followed Abraham, to a crude altar to be sacrificed? Are we prepared to tell that story, and have that be written and told by others? I am praying that the Holy One will intercede at the last moment again, and we will know that we have all been tested as Abraham was. However, if Judaism teaches us anything, it is to pray for things as if they depended on God, but to act as if everything depends upon us–our Mishkan T’Filah siddur tells us to do so come every Shabbat. 

While mourning on the 9th of Av or Tisha B’Av, I have decided to do so with hope in my heart. There is still time to do the right thing, to make corrections, and follow through with sensible and safe decisions. I pray that we can all look into the eyes of our children, and know that we are not sending them into what we know to be danger. I feel the pull in the collective air between yetzer ha-tov and yetzer ha-ra, or our good and evil inclinations. Let the good overcome the evil, and let our children be safe, even if it means inconvenience and financial struggle in the short-term.

If we have free will, and the Divine is awaiting our next move, I hope that we decide to save lives that we have the power to save. Some part of most of us must know that distancing desks, mandating masks to six-year-olds, and staggering schedules is equivalent to setting a room on fire because we think it will clean up spilled water. Yes, action is being taken, but the place is now burning. Sometimes doing less is the answer. We need to clean up the mess in the correct fashion, not create more devastation and chaos. 

I pray that this 9th day of the month of Av will not consist of actions that lead to an outcome that will be added to the list of tragedies surrounding this day. Let’s be smart, and protect and love one another.

L’Shalom,

Joshua

Talmudic Realities Underline My Points

What Is the Talmud? Definition and Comprehensive Guide - How and ...

While reading some Talmudic and Aggadic writings, I came across a section from Pirkei Avot that I simply could not ignore. Now, for those not familiar, Pirkei Avot, (meaning “Ethics of our Fathers”) is a section of the Mishnah, which is the first text of the oral Jewish law. The writings of Pirkei Avot are mostly aggadic, and do not contain halakha (or law). What we have in this Jewish text are the thoughts and ideas in the collective consciousness of the rabbis at the time of the Mishnah. These writings would be dated around the beginning of the Common Era. We are talking about thoughts from the great rabbinic minds of approximately 2,000 years ago. It might be easy to write off such mature texts as antiquated or obsolete. The question becomes–does human nature ever truly change? 

Let’s look at Pirkei Avot 5:7

According to this chapter and verse, there exist seven characteristics in a person whose mind is imperfectly developed, and seven in a person who is wise. What are the seven characteristics of one who is wise? According to the rabbis:

  1. A wise man does not speak before one who is greater than he in wisdom.
  2. A wise man does not break in on the words of his fellow.
  3. A wise man is not hasty to answer.
  4. A wise man asks what is relevant and answers what is appropriate.
  5. A wise man speaks on the first point first and on the last point last.
  6. A wise man says of that which he has not heard: “I have not heard it.” 
  7. A wise man acknowledges the truth.

I do realize that I utilized the words “wise man.” I used “man” as opposed to “person” because this verse catalyzed a visceral reaction in me as it relates to one particular man. I am confident that by the time you are finished reading, I will not have been mistaken when thinking that it was unnecessary to even type his name on the page. 

It is not a secret that our country is sick and in need of r’fuah sh’leimah, or a complete healing. As the global pandemic continues to ravage the citizens of our nation, we are also at a time of reckoning in terms of this country’s long-surviving systemic racism. While it would be unfair to expect any one human being to possess the capacity to single-handedly fix the multitude of issues and injustices of this country–it does not seem as if anyone is asking for such prolificness. What am I asking for?

I am asking for someone who defers to, and especially does not denigrate, the foremost expert on infectious diseases in the country during a deadly pandemic–someone who does not speak before one who is greater than he in wisdom. I am asking for someone who, when faced with opposing viewpoints, let alone simple fact-checking, does not angrily stop an interview–someone who does not break in on the words of his fellow. I am asking for someone who does not “tweet” or speak before considering the aftershock. Yes, anti-semitic, racist, and hurtful and baseless statements do matter–someone who is not hasty to answer. I am asking for someone who when faced with the largest public health crisis in a century, and during a time of unspeakable pain and outcry from people of color, does not hold a dangerous and irresponsible rally where he talks about how well he drinks water and walks down ramps–someone who asks what is relevant and answers what is appropriate. I am asking for someone who, when faced with the aforementioned significant issues and direct questions, does not deflect and discuss the artificiality of media or the water in a dishwasher–someone who speaks on the first point first and on the last point last. I am asking for someone who, instead of assembling and deferring to a qualified team of experts, talks of possessing a “mind of extreme intelligence and stability”–someone who says of that which he has not heard: “I have not not heard it.” I am asking for someone who simply does not lie, especially an approximated 23.8 times per day–someone who acknowledges the truth. 

According to the rabbis of two millennia ago, the reverse of these seven characteristics portray a mind that is imperfectly developed. This is not a political post, but a post of great concern for the welfare of the country that I was told was “tviz’ot goyim,” or coveted by all the nations. For those who would follow this particular man as if he were a sage or a prophet, I would urge you to be wary. The Talmud seems to be speaking to you as well. Rabbi Judah said in the name of Rav: “When a man boasts, if he is a sage, his wisdom departs from him; if he is a prophet, his gift of prophecy departs from him” (B Pes. 66b.) What “boasts” do I speak of?

“No one is more conservative than me.”

“No one is stronger on the Second Amendment than me.”

“No one respects women more than me. No one reads the Bible more than me.”

“There’s nobody more pro-Israel than I am.”

“There’s nobody that’s done so much for equality as I have.”

“There’s nobody who feels more strongly about women’s health issues.”

“Nobody knows more about taxes than me, maybe in the history of the world.”

I truly pray that everyone in this country be granted peace and good health. The wounds are deep right now, and we need a steady hand to steer the ship during these especially tumultuous times, not a clouded mind rife with imperfection and boastfulness. It does not take 2,000 year old texts to see this–but in case it does, you can read again from the beginning. And, wow, there is certainly so much more where that came from. 

I pray that we cross over this river and enter the promised land as a society sooner rather than later. We do not need a sage or a prophet. We just need clarity and decency. Stay healthy and be well. 

L’Shalom,

Joshua

P.S. Did you get the wink in the post’s title?

Flowing With Milk and Honey

A Land Flowing with Milk and Honey - Eikev Art - Parshah

When G-d speaks to Moses in Exodus 3:8, He says, “…and I am come down to deliver them out of the hands of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey.” G-d talks of the Promised Land of Canaan as a land flowing with milk and honey, or “eretz zavat chalav udevash.” The characterization of the Promised Land as a land “flowing with milk and honey” is found frequently throughout the Torah. G-d uses this phrase to juxtapose the fertility and freedom of the unknown land of Canaan with the harsh conditions of Egyptian servitude. The phrase “eretz zavat chalav udevash” is later used in the Torah in ironic fashion during the mutiny of Korach and his followers. While questioning the leadership and decision-making of Moses, Dathan and Eliab ask Moses, “is it a small thing that thou hast brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness…” (Num. 16:13). After all of the horrors of slavery in Egypt, Korach and his followers actually refer to Egypt as “eretz zavat chalav udevash.”

There are many interpretations and opinions concerning the exact meaning of Canaan being “a land flowing with milk and honey.” In Deuteronomy 33:13, it is said, “And of Joseph he said: Blessed of the Lord be His land.” The Talmud explains that Joseph’s land (the Promised Land) was the most blessed of them all. This was a gorgeous land irrigated by springs, open to the sun and the moon, full of abundance, and not lacking a single blessing (Sif Deut. 353.) In Jeremiah 3:19, the Land of Israel is referred to as “tziv’ot goyim,” or a land “desired and coveted by all the nations” (MTeh 5:1). Throughout the Tanach, it is made abundantly clear that the land of Israel was a place of abundance of land and spirit. When compared to the physical, mental, and spiritual slavery of Egypt, why would some turn their backs on “eretz zavat chalav udevash?”

It seems that we arrive at a set of issues, rather than one. Let us now look at the current state of affairs in our own country. For Black Americans and Americans of color, is modern America as Egypt was to the Israelites? We have spoken of the terrors of anti-Semitism and gender inequality, among other social issues. What it seems we desperately need to touch upon is not only the prevalent racial inequality, but the imminent danger that coincides with being black in America. While Reading Yossi Klein Halevi’s “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden,” I was moved when he spoke of removing his kippah to hide his Jewishness while in the Palestinian-controlled West Bank. But what if the kippah is permanent and irremovable? There is no “‘passing” when the target of hatred against you is what happens to be your shade of skin. Many have spoken of the “American Dream” as some modern vision of “eretz zavat chalav udevash.” The systemic racism so ingrained into American life has hopefully given pause to those who would turn a blind eye to the extreme plight of their neighbors. as Ibram X. Kendi, Director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, tells us, many people are living an “American Nightmare.” Kendi, in his piece for The Atlantic, writes:

“While black Americans view their experience as the American nightmare, racist Americans view black Americans as the American nightmare. Racist Americans, especially those racists who are white, view themselves as the embodiment of the American dream. All that makes America great. All that will make America great again. All that will keep America great.”

In an America built largely upon the backs of slaves, how can we face the hardened Pharaoh’s heart of our past with the desire to be a modern land flowing with milk and honey? We can never be this notion of some idyllic nation when we do not treat our fellow human beings with love, dignity, and respect. To honor and love one another is the Jewish way. Our sages of the Talmud would likely be disturbed with the state of race relations in our contemporary society. Ben-Zoma said: “Who is honored? He who honors his fellow man” (Avot 4:1). Rabbi Eliezer said, “Let the honor of your fellow be as dear to you as your own” (Avot 2:10). The sages are clear, not only should we be treating one another honorably, but we should actually take how others are being treated very personally.

We cannot be a land flowing with milk and honey when black men are killed defenseless in the street. We cannot be a land flowing with milk and honey when a black woman is shot in her bed by police. We cannot be a land flowing with milk and honey when “jogging while black” is a crime punishable by death. We cannot be a land flowing with milk and honey when black parents must talk with their black children about how to survive being outside their houses.

It is our responsibility as Jews to not only “not” be racist, but to be anti-racist. This distinction is made clear in the Talmud: “He who joins himself to those who commit transgressions, though he does not do what they do, will nevertheless receive punishment as one of them” (ARN 30.). We cannot sit idly by to avoid the problem. Silence is compliance. We must listen to those who are being victimized, and we must act accordingly, in whatever way we are capable. According to the Talmud, The Holy One said to Israel: “My children, what do I seek from you? I seek no more than that you love one another and honor one another” (TdE 26.) How simple the words seem, but how distant the reality that they represent appears to be.

It is our duty as Jews to tackle issues that impact our fellow human beings– our neighbors on this earth. First, we must admit that we do not currently live in a land flowing with milk and honey. Perhaps we can learn something from the people of Israel’s trek through the wilderness in the Torah. As true allies and anti-racists, we will be faced with moments that are uncomfortable. We need to face these moments and not turn back. We need to reflect on ourselves without diverting our eyes. When the wilderness of change begins to feel disagreeable, we might long in those moments for a return to the tolerable ignorance of Egypt. Perhaps we will become as Korach’s followers and say, “…thou hast brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness.” Deep within, we will know that we never lived in a land flowing with milk and honey. There has been no “American Dream”; there cannot be when so many are living an “American Nightmare.” We must always have hope coupled with action. If we work toward a future of equality, love, respect, honor, and dignity, we can start discussing the horizon. The horizon where we truly are “tziv’ot goyim,” or a land that is desired and coveted by all nations– “eretz zavat chalav udevash.” If we desire a land open to the sun and the moon, irrigated by springs, and not void of a single blessing– there is certainly much work to be done.

I would like to leave you with an excerpt from the poem Let American Be America Again by the great Langston Hughes:

Let America be America again.

Let it be the dream it used to be.

Let it be the pioneer on the plain

Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—

Let it be that great strong land of love

Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme

That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty

Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,

But opportunity is real, and life is free,

Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,

Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

May we all be blessed to live in a world that inches closer to freedom, even if ever-so-slightly. A world where we can at least begin to taste the savory sweet milk and honey of the Promised Land of equality.

Shalom,

Joshua

The Show Must go on: The End of a Beautiful Life

Kiss of Death | My Jewish Learning

It is very likely that these words you are about to consume have been largely influenced by my current choice of reading material. My Grandfather’s Blessings by Rachel Naomi Remen M.D. is a work full of spirit and hope. Dr. Remen spends much of the book talking about how much she has learned not only from life as a physician who treats many terminally ill patients, but also how much she has learned from death. Dr. Remen writes of how many of us avoid death as subject matter altogether, or how we often rely upon a myriad of coping mechanisms in order to try and skirt around the sometimes-taboo topic. Our own Torah ends with the death of the greatest prophet of all–Moses. In Deuteronomy, or “Devarim” in Hebrew, we read of the end of a wondrous life. As Dr. Remen often saw death as a learning experience, and sometimes even a blessing, we can examine the last bit of Torah in order to uncover so many beautiful lessons from the life and death of the one and only Moses.

Talmudic Rabbi Tarfon famously wrote, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either” (Pirke Avot 2:21). In Deuteronomy it is written, “And Moses went up from the plain of Moab unto mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, that is over Jericho. And the Lord showed him all the land…” (Deut. 34:1). We continue in 34:4 with, “And the Lord said unto him: ‘This is the land which I swore unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, saying: I will give it unto thy seed; I have caused thee to see it with thine eyes, but thou shalt not go over thither’.” The Lord leads Moses up to the top of a mountain only to examine with his own two eyes the promised land in all of its glory. Now, Moses is already aware that he will not enter the promised land, but has kept the journey afloat with all of its trials and tribulations for many years nonetheless. In Numbers 20:12, G-d let both Moses and Aaron know that they would not be permitted to enter the promised land. Due to a sin that seems to be of unknown origin, G-d says, “…you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” Moses knew he would never cross the Jordan to step foot on the soil of the promised land, but he did not desist from the work. Moses, the great prophet that he was, knew that this divine task was not about ego or hubris–this journey was not about him at all, but he was a part, albeit a very vital one, of something much greater and holier than himself.

How many opportunities to serve do we pass up in our own lives because we are convinced that we may never see the fruits of our labor? Do we stop feeding the hungry because we may never see the end of hunger? Do we cease from caring for our planet because we may perhaps be gone before climate change becomes truly devastating? The work never ends, and we can only hope to live our lives as an actionable example to those who will pick up right where we left off. Have we prepared our own Joshua for the work that lies ahead? It is written, “And Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom; for Moses had laid his hands upon him” (Deut. 34:9). Moses had been preparing Joshua to continue the work that must not desist. Joshua would lead the people of Israel across the Jordan and into the promised land. “No sooner did the sun of Moses set, than the sun of Joshua rose” (Talmud via Hertz p. 916). for those who know “the showbiz,” here is a little analogy: Moses had originated the role in the show, his contract was up, but the run was not over. Joshua stepped in immediately, and, as they say, “the show must go on.” And go on it did. How appropriate is it that we read of Moses’ death on Simchat Torah, which celebrates the end of the Torah cycle of readings, and the beginning of the next? We do not stop reading the Torah, as it never truly “ends.” We go back to “In the beginning,” and pick up without missing a beat.

Moses and his death also teach us that he was extraordinarily ordinary. Moses was not to enter into Canaan because he, like all other human beings, had lived a life of imperfection. Yes, Moses remained beautifully loyal to G-d throughout his life, but he often questioned, doubted, and even cried out. Moses needed help, whether it be via his Midianite father-in-law or the aid of seventy elders. If we look back on Moses’ earlier life, we recall that Moses actually might have had a speech impediment. “Oh Lord, I am not a man of words…for I am slow of speech, and slow of tongue” (Exodus 4:10). Rashi seemed to believe that Moses actually had a severe impediment, such as a lisp or a stutter. There is a Midrashic tale wherein it is said that an angel had saved baby Moses from the wrath of Pharaoh by putting a hot coal in his mouth, creating impeded speech. Whatever the exact nature of Moses’ speaking ability might have been, he was clearly not presented as a gifted orator. This topic is made even more interesting due to the fact that the last sefer of the Pentateuch is “Devarim,” which translates in English to “words.” Moses has relayed G-d’s words to the people, and they have endured for generations, and will for many to come. We are also unsure of the burial site of Moses. It is widely believed that any indication of Moses’ burial place could cause pilgrims to visit and make a deity of him. Moses was a human, not a deity, and Jewish thought is very careful in this way.

“And there hath not risen a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face” (Deut. 34:10). Face-to-face or “panim el panim.” It is important to recognize the importance of these “devarim,” or words. Moses was an ordinary man who took on extraordinary tasks, and he is largely considered the greatest prophet to have ever lived. Still, just to drive the point home, he was human. How often do we hold ourselves to standards that are nearly or completely impossible to fulfill? Even more importantly, how often do we forget that we are human? By that, I mean:

What do we as human beings truly require?

In Dr. Remen’s book, she spends much time relaying to the reader anecdotes about people who have regrets about the manner in which they have lived their lives. People who felt close to death often told Dr. Remen that they had spent all of their time working, traveling for business, or climbing some sort of corporate ladder. At the end of their lives, or when faced directly with their own mortality, these people almost always wished that they had spent more time on the work of the heart and soul; cultivating relationships with family, serving others instead of currency, and the like. When reading of Moses’ death before ever entering the promised land, the immediate reaction for many people is to feel sad. Looking more deeply into this moment, we see a man who has lived a life of complete purpose. This is a man who has lived a life in service of G-d and his people. Moses still had this purpose until his last breath of life– “His eye was not dim” (Deut. 34:7). If you look into someone’s eyes, you can often see the “life,” or lack thereof. Moses, through all of the hardships he had been at the forefront of, still had the light of life in his eyes. In Genesis 12:1, G-d says to Abram, “Go forth (Lech L’cha!) from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” The Lord literally shows Moses the promised land previously sworn unto Abraham a moment before his death. Moses was able to see the fruits of his labor, and this alone seemed to be a true blessing from G-d. What initially seems a melancholy moment of a goal not realized, when viewed through the lens of a blessing, turns into a touching story of realization and reflection on a life well-lived.

I speak a lot about legacy, and what we pass down to the future. Moses’ death, which causes us to reflect on his life, can teach us many things about our own legacies. Just as Dr. Remen’s patients wished to live more blessed and meaningful lives, so probably do all of us. Moses’ death teaches us that we can be human, and still be great. We can be human, and have an intimate relationship with G-d. We can stumble over our words, and continue to speak. We can be unsure and scared, but still lead. We can see our blessings, but we must look.

“Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad–Hear O Israel! The Lord is God, the Lord is One.”

There is one God who already exists. We have been trusted to repair and better the world, and we will not always do so perfectly. If we continue the work with devotion to righteousness, we will truly live a blessed life–a life that will permeate generations as a spark of light. What is beautiful is that we do not have to journey alone. Let us continue the work, and not desist. We will find in the living of our lives with attention to holiness a bounty of blessings.

Chazak, Chazak, V’nitkazeich–Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another.

Shalom,

Joshua

Tohu Vavohu

Tohu VaVohu-Formless and Void, Chaos - Jewish Art Quilts

“Bereshit barah Elohim et haShamayim v’et ha’aretzIn the beginning G-d created the heaven and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). 

Most of us are very familiar with the above words, as they are the first 7 of the 79,847 words that make up the Torah. This is also the first verse of the 5,845 verses that result in the complete Torah. We find these words in Genesis, or, Bereshit, which translates in Hebrew to “in the beginning.” The beginning of the Torah tells us of the six days during which G-d created all things of heaven and earth. G-d is referred to as “Elohim,” a plural word, not to indicate anything other than oneness, but likely to show a mighty ability to bring together all forces, poles, and things imagined. G-d is the ultimate Creator. Interestingly enough, G-d did not seem to have a blank canvas to work from. The Torah tells us: “Now the earth was unformed and void…” (Gen. 1:2). Unformed and void, or tohu vavohu.” Out of this unformed, void, dark canvas, “G-d said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light” (Gen. 1:3). There is certainly much to unpack here, and the greatest of sages have made many attempts to find all of the minutiae hidden in these simple, yet complex and powerful words. 

There are matters addressed in this script, and the thoughts and ideas surrounding it, that seem to be relevant to our contemporary lives. First, why and how was the earth “tohu vavohu”– unformed and void, or sometimes translated to “worthless and waste,” before G-d began to adorn the world with all of His majesty? Many scholars have compared “tohu vavohu” to some sort of unimaginable and indecipherable chaos that existed before it was given proper form and function. There is a parable in the Talmud told by Rabbi Eleazar that compares “tohu vavohu” to the site upon which a king has built his palace. In this story, a king has constructed his palace on a site of sewers, dunghills, and waste matter. Should someone happen to come along and say, “this palace was built upon a site of sewers, dunghills, and waste matter,” perhaps one might value the palace less (P. Hag 2:1, 47c; Gen R. 1:5). Rabbi Eleazar actually promoted the idea that we should not look too deeply into the reason why G-d created the world on a canvas of “tohu vavohu,” as perhaps people would value creation less. Rabbi Eleazar implied that we should perhaps not pry into things too deeply all the time or examine matters beyond our mind’s grasp. 

While Rabbi Eleazar might have had a point, it is quite difficult to turn away from challenging questions, and simply stick our nose in the commandments and halacha. Let us look at where we are now as a society, and as a world. As the days seem to sometimes saunter on, we do not know if and when we will be able to resume or restart. Orders from one governmental body directly contrast another’s recommendations. We see a portion of the population outside at restaurants, or walking down the street, sometimes in groups that defy suggestions or mandates. Some are wearing masks covering their noses and mouths, some are wearing masks covering only their mouths, which deems them useless. Others are not donning any sort of face shield at all. Many states have “re-opened,” while others are in a seemingly unending series of nebulous “phases” that indicate when participation in certain activities will be “safe” based upon possibly arbitrary measurables. We are unsure when we will be able to physically hold our loved ones and dear friends once again. As our own Days of Awe (Yamim Noraim), Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, loom largely on the fast-approaching horizon, we do not know if we will be able to congregate in any physical fashion at all. The world as we once knew it has changed. We now live in a world that feels “tohu vavohu.” We are living in a present that feels unformed and sometimes even void. Perhaps it feels as if the newest version of our world has yet to be created. If it has, we do not seem to be in on the plan, and Rabbi Eleazar begins to feel more relevant in his commentary. The answers truly do seem to be beyond our reach, and overwhelming to consider. 

During a time that feels chaotic, unformed, and void, many look to the Torah, or their respective traditions’ scriptures for answers. I had a conversation today wherein I was asked, “How do we know that G-d even exists?” I would like to introduce to you another story from the Talmud. In reference to the creation of the world–a man came to Rabbi Akiva and asked, “This world–who  created it?” Rabbi Akiva replied with, “The Holy One, blessed be He.” The man asked Akiva to “Show me clear proof.” The next day when the questioning man came back, Rabbi Akiva asked him, “What are you wearing?” The man replied to Akiva, “A garment.” Akiva said, “Who made it?” After the man answered with, “A weaver,” Rabbi Akiva said, “I don’t believe you. Show me clear proof.” The man seemed to fumble, saying, “What can I show you? Don’t you know that a weaver made it?” Akiva replied, “And you, do you not know that the Holy One made His world?” Rabbi Akiva’s students, hearing Akiva’s point, still asked him, “But what is the clear proof?” in reference to the G-d’s creation of the world. Rabbi Akiva answered, “My children, even as a house proclaims its builder, a garment its weaver, or a door its carpenter, so does the world proclaim the Holy One, blessed be He, that He created it” (B. Tem. 3). This answer seems to imply that just as we know that a weaver created a garment, we know that G-d created the world. This answer seems to require quite a bit of faith. We can witness a weaver make a garment, or a carpenter build a door. 

Can we witness G-d create the world? 

To attempt to answer that question, I promise only one more Talmudic reference! It is written that Emperor Hadrian told Rabbi Joshua b. Chananya, “I desire to behold your G-d.” Rabbi Chananya told the Emperor that this was impossible. As the Emperor kept pleading, Chananya asked him to gaze directly at the sun, which was high in the sky of the summer solstice. Hadrian replied, “I cannot,” to which Rabbi Chananya quickly replied, “You admit that you are unable to look at the sun, which is only one of the attendants upon the Holy One, blessed be He; how much more beyond your power must it be to look at G-d Himself! (Chul. 59b et seq.) According to the Torah, G-d created the “luminaries,” which included the sun and the stars on the fourth day of creation. If human beings are unable to look at even one of these creations, why should we be able to gaze directly at G-d?

If you believe that creation is a never ending process, which can be seen in all matters of nature, I would say, maybe yes, we can witness G-d create the world. 

Perhaps our specific beliefs about the nature of the Divine are not always the most important or pressing matter to consider. However you believe that the universe came to be might be a very personal experience. What we do know is that we are here; in the thick of what has been and is being created, in the here and now. In terms of Torah, I tend to agree with our Mishkan T’filah when it says, “The more we devote ourselves to it, the more it grows and gives” (p. 29). As we read the Torah, we notice that directly following the disorder of “tohu vavohu”, we read–”And God said: ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light. And G-d saw the light, that it was good…” (Gen. 1:3-4). G-d seemed to utter, with words, the world into existence. As we wade through our own unformed world, what words are we saying to ourselves and others? Are they positive or negative? Optimistic or pessimistic? If we were truly created in a Divine image, how powerful are our words? Can we create small universes with our words as G-d created our entire canvas from which to work? I believe we can. 

Since we are all human, and we will be challenged with moments of discouragement, always remember that when the earth was “tohu vavohu,” G-d spoke light into existence, and saw that it was good. The light after the chaos is good. If we can speak to the unknown with a sense of wonder and excitement, perhaps our day-to-day lives can become even a bit more joyful and filled with hope. 

May we all be blessed to accept as Rabbi Eleazar, have faith as Rabbi Akiva, or marvel as Rabbi Chananya. Or, if we are unsure and questioning, may we simply find a bit of comfort and hope for the good light while we navigate the “new Bereshit” that we must all make our way through. 

Shalom,

Joshua