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In Melbourne Shabbat begins Fri 25 Jan 2019 08:20 PM and ends Sat 26 Jan 2019 09:20 PM
כ"א אלול ה' אלפים תשע"ד
It is faith’s undoing to require proof of God’s existence and His goodness but it is human to hope for, not to say expect blessings and guidance, warmth and protection to be made tangible as a promise of the Psalmist: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me the days of my life.” (Psalm 23:6)
Dwelling with God and pursuing a life of service to humanity should not entail so much suffering. David composed his famed Psalm 23 during one of the most dangerous and discouraging periods of his life. He was a forlorn fugitive, fleeing from King Saul and his army. In desperation, David hid himself in a barren, desolate forest called Yaar Charet (I Samuel 22:5) so named because it was parched and dry like baked earthenware. When David arrived there, the forest had been soaked although no rain had fallen. The grasses and leaves were succulent and there was edible vegetation and fresh water. He used the inspiration of this life experience to comfort all Israel at the saddest of times ever since.
The entire life of the psalmist, King David who said goodness and mercy would follow him, was plagued with misfortune and torment. He was shunned by his father, alternatively treated like a son and hunted as a rival by King Saul, and weathered his son Absalom's rebellion while King of Israel. He escaped his own palace to take refuge at 65 years of age. Yet, he never flinched or complained. Instead, he authored poetry and praise which record every human emotion and is used to validate the readers’ own painful experience, as well as being an aid to finding that inner strength and peace from David’s own faith anthology. Throughout the psalms and in the Book of Samuel that records the events of his life, it is made clear that he never wavered in his attitude of simple gratitude for the life and the status granted to him by God. He was able to accomplish so much good with his time on earth and he sang and made music to help us heal, express yearnings and desires and just get along day to day.
David lived his entire life on borrowed time, as the Midrash embellishes the drama to make the point about David’s faith and impact even more clear. Yalkut Shimoni narrates that Adam was originally destined to live for 1,000 years. Adam was shown all the generations of man (Genesis 5:1) and when he saw that King David was destined to live for only three hours, he requested leave from God to give him 70 years from his own lifetime; Adam lived therefore for 930 years and King David lived for 70. Adam saw that King David was needed to redeem the world in a vital way. It would be interesting to consider that each one of us has a back-story to the necessity and the meaning of our lives.
Psalm 6 was composed when David was bed-ridden with a terrible illness that enfeebled his entire body:
“For the Conductor; with instrumental music on the eight stringed harp. A song of David. Hashem, do not rebuke me in Your anger, nor chastise me in Your rage. Favour me, Hashem, for I am feeble, heal me, Hashem for my bones shudder with terror. My soul, too, is utterly terrified and You, Hashem - how long? Desist, Hashem, release my soul, save me as befits Your kindness. For there is no mention of You in death, in the lower world, who will praise You? I am wearied with my sighing, every night my bed I drench, with my tears I soak my couch. My eye is dimmed with anger, aged by my tormentors. Depart from me, all evildoers, for Hashem has heard the sound of my weeping. Hashem has heard my plea, Hashem will accept my prayer. Let all my foes be shamed and utterly terrified; they will regret and be instantly shamed.”
It is understandable to ask why pain and sorrow would seem to follow those who are trying so hard to live with an open heart to the suffering of others. Examples abound: The Port Harcourt doctor working on a cure or antidote to the Ebola virus who dies of the disease himself, Robin Williams who was such a humanitarian, entertaining the troops in Afghanistan and making nearly the whole world laugh and cry but suffered silently… It is simply so hard to bear the bitter ironies of this world.
It would seem reasonable to walk around wary and fearful that just when life might seem good, something bad is bound to happen. What is it that faith can offer me to say differently? What did King David mean when he said goodness and mercy would follow him all his days?
Our iconic faith-forming story is that of the Israelites in Egypt. They had all but given up hope in God’s promise to Abraham and the promise and oath Joseph had made with their grandparents: “When the appointed time will have arrived and God will choose to redeem you, swear an oath that you will take my bones up with you to the land God had sworn to our fathers to give to us.”(Genesis 50:25) It would be another 200 years of wretched slavery before Moses would enter the scene.
The Midrash on the Book of Exodus states that slavery in Egypt caused men to give up on life, becoming completely depressed and refusing intimacy with their wives. The women used little compact copper slates as mirrors. They dolled themselves up and went to the fields to seduce their husbands and literally saved the Jewish People from extinction! But more than that, these mirrors were held up to reflect the true inner beauty and dignity of the individual, even when brutalized and battered.
Later, these little mirrors were donated to make the brass wash basins that cleansed the hands of the priest before making their offerings on the Alter (Exodus 38:8). This life-affirming act was validated by God. The Midrash states that Moses questioned the gift and God told Moses that these brass slates used to beautify the women were far from being profane. God considered that this was the holiest and most altruistic donation of all.
In the Exodus story, the fate of the Israelites seemed to go from bad to worse as the baby boys were decreed by Pharaoh to be murdered. When Moses came back from his encounter with God in Midian, he showed the Israelites his little snake trick and they were so immediately impressed by Moses and Aaron, they let them go and intercede with Pharaoh on their behalf. Subsequently, they were punished by having to gather their own sticks and make their own bricks!
What had given Aaron and then the Israelites that momentary faith and courage to convince them to allow Moses to stir up trouble that surely would be in store for them, as could easily have been predicted? Had they suddenly become star struck fools?
Moses had said a magic phrase as dictated to him by the Almighty. He used the exact phrase that echoed the directive of Joseph hundreds of years earlier concerning returning his bones to Canaan. That phrase would have been known only to elders of the People and only in a murmur. Moses told Aaron first and then the Israelites in Joseph’s code words: “The time for the forecast and expected redemption has finally come!”
For a moment there, they believed in a sign of hope! They probably surprised themselves that they were prepared to take a risk to better themselves.
Moses sees the suffering of the people and charges God with cruelty. “Now, You see what has happened to Your people since I came to intercede for them. It is worse for them than before!” God tells him essentially to hang in there and watch the unfolding of history. God relays that the unfolding of history is far more complex than any mortal can understand. People who have entered paradise and come back to explain how God’s justice and mercy work in this world are very few and wouldn’t be believed anyway.
This is the story that ends happily! Yet, we must read about all the bumps and bruises along the way. I glean from this that faith has to do with how we will respond and what our attitude will be concerning situations beyond our own control. This factor alone will distinguish us and create our legacy and stature in this world. Believing hurts, hoping builds up an expectation that we will be rewarded for all of our hard work and optimism. External circumstances can dash our hopes, as the unfolding of history that ultimately sees the righteous be rewarded is slow and the process can progressively force us to shut down. The Psalmist begs us not to do that!
The third book of Psalms leaves aside the lives of individuals and opens with universal themes. The psalmist, Assaf, addresses those plagued by indecision and doubt. He counsels us not to dwell on the pain but rather to let our hearts overflow with gratitude:
“A song of Assaf - Truly, God is good to Israel, to the pure of heart. But as for me, my feet were nearly turned astray, like nothing—my steps would have been washed aside; for I envied the madmen when I saw the peace of the wicked….Had I said, ‘I will tell how it is’ behold, the generation I would have betrayed.”
(The editors of the Artscroll Tanach Series, Tehililm vol II, page 916, interpret that Assaf is saying that if he had revealed to others the full extent of the crisis of faith concerning righteous men who suffer, he would have made the masses turn into traitors upon hearing his confession.)
“And when I reflected to understand this, it was iniquity in my eyes.”
(When he allowed himself to ponder these perplexing questions in the privacy of his mind, all of his mental faculties still could not justify God’s ways.)
“Until I entered into the sanctuaries of God then I understood their end…..But I am always with You. You grasped my right hand. With Your counsel You will guide me and then with glory you will receive me. Whom have I in heaven? And beside You I wish for nothing on earth. My flesh and my heart yearn—Rock of my heart and my portion is God forever. For behold, those far from You shall perish, You cut down all who stray from You. But, as for me, God’s closeness is my goodness, I have put my refuge in my Lord, Hashem/Elokim, so that I may relate all of Your mission.” -- Excerpts from Psalm 73
In the story from the Scroll of Esther, we don’t see any prophetic prediction of redemption. The scene is set for the genocide of the Jewish People and there is nothing overt in the text to say to Mordechai or Esther, “Just hang in there and history will unfold in a way that vindicates the righteous and issues a crushing blow to evil.”
Mordechai’s argument to Esther for risking her life by interceding with the King on behalf of the Jews was “do this or you will not live up to the legacy of our ancestors.” No assurances. We have to go on no matter what and do what must be done. We must act with grace and optimism until the bitter end or be lost in every sense.
In this connection, I would like to dust off the extraordinary short story of “Gimpel the Fool” by Isaac Bashevis Singer. In it, I saw and was touched by the message that even the “cockeyed optimists” of this world really have an advantage over skeptics. It is a very powerful story of a baker who is constantly tricked, made fun of and taken in by everyone he knows but he triumphs because he feels love and a sense of duty and purpose. He raises another man’s six children and sacrifices what seems like all his happiness because he appears to put complete stock in the word of others, even though he has seen their deceit with his own eyes. It is as if he refuses to believe in evil at all! He asks the rabbi for advice and the rabbi tells Gimpel, “It is written, better to be a fool all your days than for one hour to be evil. You are not a fool. They are the fools. For he who causes his neighbour to feel shame loses Paradise himself.” Of course, none of the wisdom the “rabbi” gave him is really written anywhere but it forces a point: Living without hope and trust may protect you from hurt but also will cut you off from love and life itself. There is no paradise in living in constant suspicion and fear. Gimpel, in the end, had a better life as a believer than those who tried to fool him.
The treatise and major work, Nefesh HaChaim, by the Gaon of Vilna’s primary student, Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, postulates interesting mystical theories regarding the nature of the human soul. The tradition of these 18th century rationalist presenters of Kabbalistic ideas laid out the belief that the soul of a human has enormous power to affect the upper worlds by connecting through positive thoughts, words and deeds. The minutest action of a human being could bring the divine essence closer and bring on the Messianic redemption or polarize the fabric of the universe and prevent the Messiah from coming altogether. The connection between earth and heaven is likened, in Reb Chaim’s analysis, to a cord. We climb that cord up to heaven and bring down wisdom and inspiration. When we enact goodness, an impression is made on high through means of this cord. It is as if, depending on how we tug on that cord, we bring the worlds into alignment or alternatively cause deep discord.
Going deeper into his theory, he states that the souls of the evil people in this world have no real substance, make no real impression and exert no real influence on the upper worlds. They are just cruelty personified. For instance, concerning Nebuchadnezzar II, the cruel king of Babylonia who destroyed the First Temple, Reb Chaim declares that his actions affected only the most superficial layer of existence. How could this be possible? Nebuchadnezzar brought about untold misery and caused the most horrific deaths and destruction to the Jewish People that rival the worst chapters in all of our history!
How can evil have no real substance? I don’t deny this is a very perplexing concept but people, as they harden to that extent, seem to stultify their souls and the normal connections don’t work anymore. And further, I believe this is to tell us that evil is somehow not an ultimate reality. Adversity is stuck into the fabric of life inevitably and must be resisted and overcome by something deeper, something that never can be destroyed: hope, love, beauty, joy, music, kindness, forgiveness and resolve to see beyond the fear and pain.
Ultimately, at the end of the Exodus story, the Children of Israel get to witness a one-off showcase of the saving strength of Hashem.
“And Yisrael saw Mitzrayim, dead on the seashore.And Yisrael saw the mighty hand that Hashem put against Mitzrayim;Therefore, the people feared Hashem; and they believed in Hashem, and in Moshe his servant.” (Exodus 14:30-31)
The Daat Mikrah commentary makes the point that the first "seeing" was concrete. The second seeing was a religious conclusion that the people arrived at by an experience of revelation. They did not actually see the hand of Hashem. The “seeing” turned into believing by a leap of faith. When God wants to let you know that He is active in the world, your eyes will have to be opened. The evidence will be overwhelming to the recipient of a miraculous sign. These miraculous occurrences are personally very significant and real to the subject but can be completely imperceptible to the rest of the world. A personal example was when I heard my mother’s favourite song playing in the hospital corridor just minutes after she had died. I had sung it for her just before she passed away - true story.
So often what we are looking for, what our eyes prepare to find, is the misfortune that we are sure will befall us. We fail to see the profound goodness and godliness right before our eyes.
Next, let’s look at the revelation at Mount Sinai. We read this portion of the Book of Exodus as the culmination of the story of our salvation and the inauguration of our own covenantal mission as we are dubbed The Chosen People.
“And all the nation saw the sounds...” (Exodus 20:15)
Here, at this singular revelation, there was a sound and light show, accompanied by the sound of a Shofar getting louder and louder. The presence of God is so perceptible in this scene. Hashem himself descended onto the mountain amidst thunder, cloud, smoke, fire and earthquake. These are signs of K’vod Hashem - God's closeness, His power and glory that fill the earth.
Holiness – kedusha – means separation and transcendence. There is nothing special to be seen in transcendence. This is why it is so hard to perceive it. The commentators say that the souls of the people at Sinai separated from their bodies and that Hashem returned them. They all had a near-death experience. Their senses were mixed and heightened.
To replay this culminating moment, we cover our eyes and recite the Shema: “Hear, O Israel…” We shut out that which our eyes see and focus on our values that are really “not of” this earth! We stand at the Kedusha during the Chazan’s repetition of the Amidah, we hear the choirs of angels and we rise onto our toes at the words of Isaiah’s vision: “Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh - Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts, the entire word is filled with His glory.” (Isaiah 6:3)
The Israelites were given as near to a utopian and surreal existence as possible. But the suffering and the cataclysmic salvation that led to the covenant at Sinai left a deep impression that gave us sensitivity to human suffering. In order to approach any understanding of God’s justice and mercy and get a higher and broader glimpse of life,
the Israelites had to experience God’s care and physical connection personally through the redemption from Egypt and then the omnipotence, holiness and source of ultimate truth that completed this picture of God at Sinai. We could say that the aim of the Sinai experience was to learn the intrinsic value of every human life and after all the pain they had experienced, they would be powerfully moved to help the weak and make the needed repairs in the world as God had saved us.
As a consequence of our covenant and our experience, our daily petitions to God for personal and national needs should aspire to reach a level of transcendence over our primal concerns. We can and should be able to see the wider world as the stage where we can have an impact, by aligning our will with that of the divine and by welling up with love and sensitivity to situations of people, both those we know and those distant from us, who are suffering as we have, whether as a People or as a product of our direct experience living in this broken world. We can exert that powerful desire, born of our own tragedy, to beckon a dawn of peace over the entire world.
"And now, if you will listen to my voice and keep my covenant, you will be to Me a treasured nation of all the peoples, for the whole world is Mine. And you will become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." (Exodus 19:5-6)
Alongside a Torah reading in which the people went through this dramatic revelation and declared as one "all that Hashem speaks, we shall do," we read in the prophetic portion from the Book of Isaiah whence comes that famous quote from the Kedusha. There, Isaiah says: “Woe is me for I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.”(Isaiah 6:5) An angel touches his lips and Hashem charges Isaiah with the power to speak for Him to the people. Hashem despairs of the vast majority of the people, their inability to grasp that which they have experienced so directly. When the glory of Hashem is so present in Yerushalayim but the people had become so hardened. Yet the holiness and purposefulness is attainable by those who can still be touched, whose hearts are still open enough to cry out, even to sing, to soothe, to heal and to live out their own legacy, no matter what comes.
Isaiah had some awful things to say to the people. Hashem in essence charges them with idiocy! He says to Isaiah, "Go, say to that people: 'Hear indeed but do not understand; see indeed but do not grasp.' Dull that people's mind, stop its ears, seal its eyes -- lest, seeing with its eyes and hearing with its ears, it also grasps with its mind, and repents and becomes healed.' (Isaiah 6:9-10)
Hashem goes on to tell Isaiah that the people would have to suffer exile and that "it shall be ravaged like the terebinth and the oak, of which stumps are left even when they are felled: its irremovable stump shall be a holy seed." (Isaiah 6:13)
We, who sometimes walk around as victims and survivors, are called to realize that even though we are but stumps left over after having been felled, we are each a holy seed. This means that our lives have ultimate, kinetic meaning only if we scrape ourselves together and use what we have left constructively, joining hands with each other and with the Creator who loves us and is as close by as we let Him be.
On each morning of Rosh Hashanah, we read Psalm 47 seven times along with the Baal Tokeah (Shofar blower) during the Shofar Service (review Artscroll Machzor, Page 432-438).
The psalm bursts out proudly: “Let all the nations clap/join hands. Sound the shofar to God with a cry of joy.” (Psalm 47:1)
Then we begin to read responsive verses starting with this verse: “Min HaMetzar - From the straits did I call upon God; God responded by giving me expansiveness. (Psalm 118:5)
We do not understand why God shows us so many conflicting signs. There are so many ups and downs. There are no seatbelts on our seats in this rollercoaster!! We must hear that still small voice inside ourselves telling us that no matter what else is happening, our lives have meaning. We create a huge impact for the good when we can feel hopeful and we can cause untold and very real damage when we can only despair.
We need to live intentionally and find joy in our existence and spread it as far and wide as possible. This is the call of the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah.