Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – October, 2014

I was thinking one morning about why we do the things that we do, and it occurred to me that we can classify three different kinds of motivations:

Some things, we do purely because we want to do them. We might go on a bike ride, go to the beach, go out to dinner with our spouse, or go to a movie simply because such activities give us enjoyment.

Other things, we do only because we have been compelled to do them. Into this category we might put actions like paying taxes, driving the speed limit at all times, and paying for each and every item we put into our shopping cart at the grocery store. We might also add to this category things that we are compelled to do by our biology, like aging, getting sick, or dying.

In between, there are the things that we do because we feel a sense of obligation or duty; we don’t want to do them, but neither is anyone specifically forcing us to do them. This is where we live most of our lives. No one is forcing us to work, but we feel a sense of obligation to provide for our family. Exercise or proper eating, for many people, falls into this category. It’s when you go on the bike ride or the walk or eat your vegetables even when you don’t want to, because you know it’s good for you. No one can force us to make charitable contributions or volunteer our time – we do so because we feel a sense of obligation.

These three categories overlap. There are things we do, such as the act of giving or exercising, that make us feel good while or after doing them.

The number of actions that we are actually forced to do is actually very low – there may be some authority that issues a threat if we take a particular action (speeding), but most of the time we know that we can break the law and not get caught, so it is only our sense of civic responsibility that slows us down.

Where does contemporary Jewish observance fall? I am grateful that it is not in the first category. There are no effective or desirable means to compel Jewish life today, nor should their be. Even our model of synagogue affiliation and dues has moved from the coercive to the voluntary.

What is your motivation for Jewish behavior? What kinds of things do you do purely because they give you enjoyment (Synagogue on Shabbat morning, building a Sukkah)?

What kinds of things do you do our of a sense of obligation (or perhaps guilt)?

If you agree that the pure motivation of desire is a higher level of behavior than the level of obligation; what might you do to elevate your Jewish practices? Can you imagine embracing a fuller Jewish life out of the sheer joy of it? How might you achieve this?


Filed under: Divre Harav - Words from the Rabbi, Embodied Torah Tagged: Jewish Practice, Mitzvah, Obligation

Psalm 60

Give those who fear You because of Your truth a banner for rallying. Selah. (60:6)

The words nes l’hitnoses are translated both by the New (1985) JPS translation and by the newer (2007) Robert Alter translation as “a banner for rallying.” The word nes is known from the Hanukkah story to mean “miracle,” but here means a sign or signal. In this Psalm, as elsewhere, it is often used in connection with war, as in rallying the troops at a specific point to engage in battle.

The attitude that those who identify themselves as God-fearers ought to engage in warfare against others in order to spread their truth is a danger to the world. We can clearly see this not only from the turmoil in the Moslem dominated countries in the Middle East, but also from the crusades of the Medieval European church.

However, taking the military connotation out of the word, let’s understand rally in its peaceful political sense. When we, as religious people, believe we know what God wants us to do, we should rally for our cause. If our religious tradition, for example, tells us that equal treatment of all people regardless of ethnicity or skin color is one of God’s values, shouldn’t we rally in support of anti-discrimination laws? If our religious tradition tells us that sexual orientation should not be a barrier to finding a life partner and marrying, shouldn’t we rally under the rainbow flag?

If the answers to these question is yes, then that creates a dilemma. If our religious tradition tells us that marriage is defines solely as a partnership between one man and one woman, then should we not also rally under that flag?

I suggest that the test of whether or not God is “with” either of these two groups happens when they intersect. If the intersection of the two groups results in shouting, hateful speech, ugly confrontations, or violence, then God is not present. If the two groups can rally opposite one another without hating each other, with no one feeling threatened, then God is present in both groups. That would indeed be a nes, a miracle.

And if you ask me how two opposing views can both be true, all I can say is that I believe that God’s truth is far more expansive than your truth or mine.


Filed under: Ethics - The Embodied Torah of Jewish Behavior, Theology - The Thought that Drives our Practice Tagged: Psalm Project, Psalms

Psalm 61

“Appoint steadfast love (hesed v’emet, literally “love and truth”) to guard him.” (61:8)

A hendiadys is a word pair consisting of two nouns (or sometimes a noun and an adjective) joined by a conjunction, in which the two words modify each other. It is a common Biblical form. See here for a further explanation and examples.

Hesed v’emet or hesed shel emet is a term often used to refer to the work of the Hevra Kadisha, the group that prepares bodies for burial by washing and dressing them in linen shrouds. The “truest form of love” is the love you show for a person without expectation that you will receive anything in return. This certainly applies to the mitzvah of taking care of the dead.

In the case of this Psalmist, who is referring to the circumstances of a King, hesed v’emet, steadfast love, refers to the kind of love that is shown by God to human beings, who can never hope to repay the love to a God has no real need for human favor. It is also a model for the love in a human relationship. If we qualify everything we do for someone we love with the condition that we get something in return, the relationship will inevitably deteriorate. This is as taught in Pirke Avot 5:18:

“A loving relationship which depends upon something, [when] that thing is gone, the love is gone. But [a loving relationship] which does not depend upon something will never come to an end.”


Filed under: Ethics - The Embodied Torah of Jewish Behavior Tagged: Psalm Project, Psalms

Psalm 62

Truly, wait quietly for God, O my soul, for my hope comes from Him. (62:6)

Pure silence can be a beautiful thing, although there are various qualities of silence. There is the awkward silence of two people who don’t know each other well and are fumbling for ways to make conversation. There is the uncomfortable silence of walking into a room full of people you don’t know and watching as conversation stops and all heads turn your way. There is the painful silence of encountering someone who is angry with you and isn’t speaking to you. There is the comfortable silence of taking a walk with someone you know well; you can walk together and enjoy the walking and the silence. There is the inviting silence of a good teacher who offers a questions for discussion and waits until someone is ready to offer a contribution. There is the warm silence of a room full of people in silent prayer or meditation together.

Sitting in silence is a practice. Having the patience to wait does not come naturally. We fidget, we look around for something to do, something to distract us from the silence. Some perceive silence as lonely. To this, I offer – you are never truly alone. You are with yourself, and you are with God. If being alone makes you uncomfortable, ask yourself what is it about you that makes it hard for you to be alone with yourself? That’s not to say that one should seek to be alone as much as possible as a primary activity. I only offer that the times that you are alone can be times when you can most clearly hear the voice of God providing direction in your life. Are you alone too much? Pay attention to the Divine voice and embrace the silence. Then seek out a community that can support you in traveling the road that your inner voice tells you to walk along.


Filed under: Embodied Torah, Prayer - Using one's being to connect with God Tagged: Psalm Project, Psalms

Remarks at the Grand Rapids Solidarity for Israel Rally

Friends, this rally is about peace and I am standing before you to offer a prayer for peace. Peace has a price. Peace means compromise. Peace means that neither side gets all that they want, but they agree to live and let live, to prosper and marry and raise children side by side in safety.

Peace means that the State of Israel is here to stay; otherwise, there is no peace, only devastation.

For over 3000 years, Judaism and Israel have been intertwined. For 2000 years, the heart of the Jewish community yearned to be a free people in its own land once again. For 66 years, we have lived in our homeland and created a proud, moral State that has fulfilled Isaiah’s vision of being an or goyim, “A light among the nations.”

I am here today to say to the anti-Israel protestors, chanting “End the occupation,” chanting “Free Palestine,” that we can talk, peace is within our grasp, as long as you accept reality — Israel exists, and we will not apologize for the fact that Israel is here to stay!

I am here today to say to the terrorist Hamas regime who says that the missiles will stop when the occupation – of 1948 – is over, I say that is not peace. That is a threat against my family, and my family does not take threats lightly.

Here’s the simple recipe for peace, in the words of Prime Minister Netanyahu: “The truth is that if Israel were to put down its arms there would be no more Israel. If the Arabs were to put down their arms there would be no more war.”

I dream of a day when Lo Yisa Goy el Goy Herev, lo Yil’medu od Milhama, nation will not take up arms against nation, when they will no long experience war; when they will no longer teach hatred to their children, when they will no longer send their children strapped with explosives to murder themselves and others, when they will no longer dig tunnels, marvels of engineering, in order to kidnap and kill our citizens. On that day, there will be peace, and for this we pray:

May we see the day when war and bloodshed cease,
When a great peace will embrace the whole world.
Then nation will not threaten nation,
And [humanity] will not again know war.
For all who live on earth shall realize
We have not come into being to hate or to destroy.
We have come into being
To praise, to labor, and to love.
Compassionate God, bless the leaders of all nations
With the power of compassion.
Fulfill the promise conveyed in Scripture:
I will bring peace to the Land,
And you shall lie down, and no one shall terrify you.
I will rid the Land of vicious beasts
And it shall not be ravaged by war.
Let love and justice flow like a mighty stream.
Let peace fill the earth as the waters fill the sea.
And let us say: Amen.


Filed under: Israel, Israel - Embodying one's Judaism in the Jewish State Tagged: Hamas, Israel

Psalm 52

Your tongue devises mischief, like a sharpened razor that works treacherously. (52:4)

Our contemporary inability to communicate kindly is not a modern invention. Back in the days when writing was new, I suppose Oggita wrote a note on a cave wall to her girlfriend Uggah, “Og wears stinky hides.” And Og scratched out, “Grogg can’t hit the side of an Elephant with a rock.”

I, like the Psalmist, find it discouraging when people use their power of speech as a weapon. When I read online posts and comments claiming with all seriousness that Israel is responsible for a Holocaust of the Palestinian people, I am horrified that people have so little regard for history and for truth. Easily verifiable facts are simply invented – one can find it stated that Gaza is the most densely populated area on earth, when in truth Gaza is 4 times bigger than Manhattan with about the same population. Truth doesn’t matter when one’s goal is to demonize.

In the online world, debate is not about laying out facts and seeing who can present the most persuasive case. It should be – but too often it is about sarcasm and attacks and making up the facts as one goes along.

The goal in peace negotiations is about coming to a consensus that both sides can live with. The goal in online conversations is about making the most outrageous claims, making the other side look foolish, having the last word.

Facebook as a forum for comments on articles is no paragon of virtue, but the fact that most users are identified by their real name causes most users to moderate their comments, at least on articles posted by a friend. However, when NPR or the HuffPost posts a controversial story which receives hundreds or thousands of comments, the sheer volume of comments seems to provide a layer of anonymity that invites meanness.

Websites which allow anonymous comments are the best example that the speech the Psalmist wrote against thousands of years ago has not changed. Speech was, continues to be, and probably always will be used by some as a weapon.


Filed under: Eyes, Ears, Nose, Tongue and Body - The Embodied Torah of Using our Senses, Text Study - The Embodied Torah of Study Tagged: Psalm Project, Psalms

Psalm 53

Note: After completing one entire year of having a Psalm reflection posted every Monday morning, I found myself on vacation having forgotten to post a reflection. It’s not that I think that there are hundreds – or even dozens – of people waiting with bated breath for the next installment. Rather, I do this because it is a spiritual discipline that adds to my personal growth as a Jew and as a human being. Therefore, vacation or not, here is my reflection on Psalm 53:

God looks down from heaven on humankind to find a person of understanding, one who seeks God. (53:3)

This verse reminds me of the Greek philosopher Diogenes, who wandered around the streets of Corinth at noon carrying a lantern. When asked what he was doing, why he needed a lantern on a brightly lit day, he said that he was looking for an honest man. Both Diogenes and this Psalmist think that human nature is by default dishonest and corrupt. No surprise that Diogenes was also known as Diogenes the Cynic and is considered one of the founders of the cynic philosophy.

If this verse is to be a driving guidepost in a philosophy of Judaism, then we have to believe not only that God wants us to become understanding God-seekers, but in fact that it is possible for the average person to embody that behavior.

To embody Torah is to internalize the lesson that all people are created in the image of God, as we are pulled between our general responsibilities to humanity, animal life, and planet earth; and our particular responsibility as Jews, kol Yisrael areivim ze la’zeh, all Israel is responsible for one another.

If religion has only one function in our lives, it is to continually remind us of our obligations to other people. The central principle of Torah, according to Rabbi Akiva, is to “Love your fellow as yourself.”


Filed under: Embodied Torah, Ethics - The Embodied Torah of Jewish Behavior, Theology - The Thought that Drives our Practice Tagged: Psalm Project, Psalms

Psalm 54

O God, deliver me by Your name; by Your power vindicate me. (54:3)

One of the quirks in my personal practice and teaching of Judaism is that I want our behavior to make sense. By this, I mean that the meaning behind what we do should be logical and should make sense in the real world. Certainly, much of religious tradition involves God and I have never been much interested in whether God’s existence can be philosophically or logically proven (or disproven). But I prefer not to engage in a Jewish ritual whose primary purpose is theurgic, an attempt to manipulate God. I find it non-meaningful, illogical, and offensive when we use God’s name or objects inscribed with God’s name for the purpose of ensuring our protection by or from God.

Case in point: the mezuzah. When I teach the mitzvah of mezuzah, I teach what I understand to be the Biblical intention behind writing certain of God’s words on your doorpost – to be reminded that the home ought to be a place in which God’s words are honored. The rabbinic explication of the mezuzah, that we write the mezuzah in the same way that one writes a Torah scroll (same parchment, same ink), reinforces the notion that one should be reminded that the home is a place of Torah.

A commonly offered explanation of mezuzah is that the letter shin and the word Shaddai (a name of God) stand for shomer d’latot Yisrael, guardian of the doors of Israel, and that the primary purpose of the mezuzah is literally to protect the occupants of the home from harm. To my mind, this is utterly nonsensical. It is theurgic and magical. It serves not to elevate religion and elevate the human soul, but rather to debase the name of God.


Filed under: Theology - The Thought that Drives our Practice Tagged: Psalm Project, Psalms

Psalm 55

It is not an enemy who reviles me — I could bear that; it is not my foe who vaunts himself against me — I could hide from him; but it is you, my equal, my companion, my friend. (55:13-14)

The most stinging criticism comes from those closest to us.

We expect our foes to hate us. No matter what they say, we know that their words are tainted by their inherent bias against us, and therefore we don’t need to listen to them. But is is true that just because we know they they are unreasonable and twist the truth and that we don’t need to pay attention to them, that their words don’t hurt? No, it’s not true. It does hurt. There are people who hate me, and the thought that they hate me sometimes keeps me up at night. But at least I know that the criticism they have leveled against me is unreasonable.

When those who love us reprove us, it is painful, and because the words are coming from someone who cares, there is no way around the truth of the reproach. The criticism hurts precisely because it is reasonable. Criticism which is true is painful because it strikes at the heart of my personal identity. Those who are closest to us and know us the best know our weaknesses and know exactly where our faults lay.

The hardest thing to do is to really listen to our equals, our companions, our friends, as they share a difficult truth with us. But if we refrain from hiding from their words but rather really listen to them, we have the chance to learn and grow.


Filed under: Ethics - The Embodied Torah of Jewish Behavior Tagged: Psalm Project, Psalms

Psalm 56

You keep count of my wanderings; put my tears into Your flask, into Your record. (56:9)

This verse is reminiscent of the central metaphor of Rosh Hashanah – that God keeps a record of our “wanderings.” The Jewish path of behavior is called halakha. I imagine that wandering might represent our straying off the path of halakha.

The High Holiday amidah, in a section called “unetaneh tokef,” suggests that through teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah – repentance, prayer, and giving, we might lesson the severity of the decree against us. The first two items on the list, repentance and prayer, go hand in hand with tears.

In order to repent properly, one has to virtually break one’s heart. If we have committed some kind of harm against another person, in order to make amends we need to absolutely feel the pain that we caused. An apology should be felt in the kishkas … we have to feel as if we caused a rip in the fabric of another person’s universe, which is precisely what we did when he committed the harm. The tears are the tearing of the fabric of our own universe experiencing the pain of the other.

Prayer is only effective for the purpose of lesson a Divine decree against us when it pours forth from a broken heart. Prayer is meant to be a transformative experience. We ought not to ask for a gift on a silver platter, but rather ask the Divine Blessed One to help us realign ourselves and become the person created in God’s image that we were meant to be. These are the tears that I shed in the process of changing my fate, that I’d like to be entered into the record.


Filed under: Celebrations on the Jewish calendar, Definitions, Ethics - The Embodied Torah of Jewish Behavior, Liturgy - embodying a conversation with God

Psalm 57

Awake, O my soul! Awake, O harp and lyre! I will wake the dawn. (57:9)

Would that music had the power to awaken the light! There is deep darkness in our world as the calendar turns around to another anniversary of September 11, the number of murdered by the dictator of Syria dwarfs the number murdered in the attack on the World Trade Center and the two other hijacked planes.

Would that the harp and lyre had the power to open up the human soul to the power of love and acceptance! Instead, what we see is a growing movement of radical Islamic oppression. The world would live in darkness when the freedom to worship God according to one’s own spiritual path is denied, when one is murdered for worshipping Jesus or denying Muhammad.

Music has the power to bring people together, singing in harmony, but the music of much of the Middle East these days is not an inviting melody.

An old proverb of uncertain origin goes, it’s always darkest before the dawn. A version of this first appeared in print in 1640 in a travelogue by the English theologian and historian Thomas Fuller entitled, A Pisgah-Sight Of Palestine And The Confines Thereof.

How sad that he wrote this when traveling through Israel; and that more than 370 years later, the dark clouds still loom over much of the region.


Filed under: Embodied Torah, Israel Tagged: Psalm Project, Psalms

Psalm 58

The righteous man will rejoice when he sees revenge; he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked. (58:11)

Really? What a horrible image! I can’t imagine what terrible things this Psalmist experienced that caused him to rejoice in revenge.

To most moderns, revenge is an evil word – we prefer justice. Revenge is loaded with passion and anger, revenge is something we do to satisfy an emotional need to get back at someone who wronged us.

The better word is justice. Justice is fair, balanced, unemotional. Justice has no anger. In fact, justice can and should be mixed with mercy. Justice is something that should be dealt out only reluctantly.

What is wrong with the speaker in this Psalm, what trauma did he endure in his life? Apparently, he has been badly abused and understandably sees the people who abused him as irrevocably evil. He wants so badly to believe in a just God, but the only way that will work for him is if he personally witnesses the suffering of the wicked.

This kind of faith in God is doomed. If you only believe in a God who visibly punishes, you are likely to go through life unsatisfied and angry. Rather, I suggest envisioning God as compassionate, giving every person the chance to transform.

Virtually every person who has done wrong as the potential to change. If human beings didn’t have the free will to be evil and then turn away from their evil nature and embrace goodness, they were never good to begin with. The only way to truly be good is to know that one could be evil, and make the choice not to.

God’s compassion understands that the person who bullied you in grade school may very well have been acting out of a behavior learned at home. The person who behaves badly at work, criticizing, condemning, complaining, taking without giving, may very well have been taught a twisted sense of human relations principles from his or her parents. We do well to learn God’s compassion and act with it in our own lives. Don’t embrace the anger of this Psalmist – embrace the compassion of God instead!


Filed under: Embodied Torah, Theology - The Thought that Drives our Practice Tagged: Psalm Project, Psalms

Psalm 49

Do not be afraid when a man becomes rich, when his household goods increase. (49:17)

The second paragraph of the Shema (Deuteronomy 11:13-21) speaks of material blessings, but typical of such Torah material, it speaks about the recipient of such blessings in the second person plural, rather than singular. The community is blessed with rain and fertility, not the individual. There might be many reasons that an individual may become wealthy: Intelligence, business acumen, hard work, family connections, and just plain good luck. An individual who fails to prosper might be making poor choices or business decisions, might not be working hard enough, or might simply have run into bad luck. It is not the case, nor should it be, that God micromanages the economy so that good people consistently accumulate more wealth than bad people.

Why, though, does the Psalmist say, “Do not be afraid …”? What is there to fear? The Psalmist is sharing with us a very useful tidbit of theology … do not be afraid that your relative lack of prosperity compared with your rich neighbor is a sign that God loves your neighbor and hates you. Individual prosperity or success is not in and of itself a sign of God’s blessing any more than individual poverty or failure is a sign of God’s curse. A world in which one could easily rank people’s relative worth in God’s eyes based on their pocketbooks would indeed be a world to fear. It would be no different than the Nazi’s ranking of people’s relative worth based on the color of their skin and eyes, with blond-haired, blue-eyed aryans on top.

When a person becomes rich, heavy with household goods, that is the time to rejoice in your neighbor’s good fortune and hope that the community, its cultural and religious and social institutions, its hospitals and libraries and schools, and its communal celebrations, are the recipients of tzedakah (charitable) contributions!


Filed under: Embodied Torah, Theology - The Thought that Drives our Practice, Tzedakah/Gemilut Hasadim - The Embodied Torah of Giving Tagged: Psalm Project, Psalms
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