Tag Archives: Rashi

B’hukotai: Sing Unto God a New Song

jewish-music-carlebach

This D’var Torah was given at the final Shabbat service of my first year of rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, Jerusalem campus, May 2014.

Shiru l’adonai shir hadash. These words of the ancient Psalmist are some of the most beloved today, especially because of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s beautiful rendition that is now sung worldwide during Kabbalat Shabbat. We all know Rabbi Carlebach from his renowned rejuvenation of Jewish music, but we tend to forget his other accomplishment of helping to bring Chasidic thought into mainstream Judaism. The power of the transformation he affected in our own movement is so clear that his own daughter Neshama recently declared her “aliyah” to Reform Judaism. His ability to radicalize Jewish mystical thought is well attested. Some may even say that he went too far at times.

Once, before leading a community in his rendition of Psalm 96, he asked, “How could it be that with all the Torah that was being studied and all the great luminaries in Europe, this tragic event could have occurred?”

We tend to shy away from answering this question when it comes to the Holocaust, or really any tragedy that has stricken the Jewish people in Modern times. Rabbi Carlebach was not so shy. “Perhaps,” he said, “The Torah being studied there was not good enough. Perhaps we need a new Torah.”

Shiru l’adonai shir hadash.

In our Torah portion this week, B’hukotai, we are regaled with a whole host of blessings and curses based on whether or not the Israelites follow God’s laws. Of course, one must immediately ask which laws. Reliable as always, Rashi jumps right in stating that what the Israelites, and therefore we, are commanded to do is toil in the study of Torah. This study is described by Rashi to be the foundation for maintaining the covenant with God, as he states that one who does not toil over the Torah, will then not fulfill the commandments, which leads to despising those who do follow the commandments and hating the Sages, which itself will lead to preventing others from fulfilling the commandments, and eventually ends with denying the authenticity of the commandments and God as well.

If there’s one thing I really don’t like, it’s a slippery slope argument. Yeah, I know, mitzvah goreret mitzvah, aveirah goreret aveirah, but I’d rather flip Rashi on his head here and declare these things in the positive. To keep the covenant we must toil over Torah, which will lead us to following the commandments, loving those others who also do, and our Sages, and so on and so on, until through our embracing of our tradition we finally see, understand, and accept the omnipotence of God.

By flipping this around, we end up with a totally different relationship to God and the commandments. Our first step, which we have all embarked upon in earnest this year, is toiling over the Torah. We’ve toiled over the Torah of Moses, the Torah of Hazal,  the individual Torah of each individual’s personal experience, and the wonderful Torah brought to us by all of our faculty. Sounds like we’re on our way to some blessings, right? The rest of the path will just flow naturally out of our learning. And, following this, one of the blessings our Torah portion says we will receive for doing as God commands is that God will set up a covenant with us, with God’s people. In Rashi’s interpretation of this blessing, he sees the promise of a new covenant with the Israelites once they settle in their land, studying the Torah that had yet to be fully written.

Funny enough, in the narrative of the Torah, we’re just now ending Leviticus, which means the first covenant has only just now been established. In conjunction with this fact, the Israelites still have two books worth left of trekking before they reach the destination in which this whole blessing and curse formula will take effect. They are still a full generation out of their Promised Land, and are already being dealt out the stipulations for their descendent’s eventual habitation there.

We too are in a similar situation. We’ve just finished the first leg of our journey towards a lifetime of devotion to the Jewish people, and we know that there’s an endpoint to this training somewhere out there, but we may as well have the Sinai desert, checkpoints, border crossings, and all, between us and the endpoints of our programs.

We’ve also received quite a few warnings of blessings and curses that may come during the rest of our long haul in regards to our levels of toiling. Sure, we haven’t been threatened with having our sky turned to iron and our ground to copper like God threatened the Israelites, but I’ve got a feeling that our administration has some serious smiting power. So we’d better be toiling over that Torah. The question, though, is which Torah?

Rabbi Carlebach’s question about the Holocaust, and suggestion as to the answer, is rooted in a Kabbalistic teaching about the nature of Torah. According to the mystics, the Torah is to be renewed in every generation. It is remade by the masters for the students in a way that meets the needs of the particular time and place. One reading of his statement about the Torah of Europe prior to the Holocaust is that to make way for a new Torah, the old one had to be destroyed.

If we apply this idea to Rashi’s reading of the new covenant that was to be established should the Israelites follow all of God’s laws, what does this mean about the old covenant? Should we, as Reform Jews, be reimagining our covenant with God not only in terms of continuity with the past, but also to supersede the past? The first Reformers certainly did when they made their big break with the orthodoxies of their time, but what are the Reform orthodoxies of our time that make up our generation’s received, but yet to be renewed, Torah? What are we taking for granted?

I think that this question should be at the very core of each and every one of our minds. Ordained or still in school, part of the faculty or administration, if we are truly a community focused on Reform, the verb and the movement, our relationship to the past and the past’s relationship to the future should be weighed in every programmatic, theological, liturgical, and pedagogical decision we make. Shiru l’adonai shir hadash. Sing unto God a new song. We sing this regularly, often without considering the fact that it is a command. Even someone like me who doesn’t know the difference between soprano or tenor is commanded to sing a new song, in spite of the distress it might cause to everyone else’s ears.

Rashi, although obliquely, said the same thing: Toil over the Torah until a new covenant is made. Rabbi Carlebach said it much more directly: Sometimes the old Torah must make way for the new. Both of these men were ardently traditional, but both saw a path forward not through more of the same, but through the new.

This year in Israel I have been very lucky to be exposed to some wonderful new phenomena arising throughout the country. An attempt to renew the Israeli population’s relationship to Torah is under way. Dr. Ruth Calderon and those like her pushing for a renewal of the relationship of the hilonim to our textual traditions have made great strides. Yossi Klein Halevi sees hope in this renewal through the Israeli music scene, which we were lucky enough to experience first hand with Kobi Oz, System Ali, the rejuvenation of modern piyyutim, and countless other musical expressions of Judaism in Israel’s ever-growing music scene. I heard that some Israelis have even begun calling the people ordained here at HUC rabbis! The battle towards a new view on Progressive Judaism in Israel is underway, even if it sometimes seems bleak. The new Torah of the state of Israel is already being written, some of it right in these hallways.

Rabbi Carlebach’s reading of the Holocaust and its relationship to Jewish history and religion is definitely a radical one. There are many who would protest any such use of the Holocaust within a theological or religious framework due to the extremity and closeness of the event. These individuals would have a strong argument to do so. Regardless of the legitimacy of his thought, he made the statement. He taught new Torah from his heart.

Let us embarking upon a path of Jewish leadership not forget that we too can do this. We too can sing a new song, teach a new Torah. And not only can we, but we must. B’hukotai demands this of us, and so does the world. Let us teach a Torah of inclusion; a Torah of fearlessness in the face of change; a Torah no longer striving to maintain Jewish existence only for its own sake, but striving to make the Jewish people a blessing to all of the nations of the world; a Torah focused on how to bless our lives with meaning, not on a constant looming fear of curses. Wherever there is life, there is new Torah to be learned, and then to be taught. Let us never settle for teaching the same Torah that has been taught before. Let us teach a new Torah, each and every one, for the good of the Jewish people, and the good of the world. Shiru l’adonai shir hadash. Shabbat Shalom

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Vayeira: We Reflect God, and God Reflects Us

This week’s Torah portion, Vayeira, holds many well known and central stories of the Jewish people. The angels visiting Avraham and Sarah, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the Binding of Yitzhak, are all in this one division of Genesis. Literal tomes have been written on each segment of each of the stories that comprise this portion. Usually, we talk about what we can learn from the behaviors of the characters in these stories. Avraham and Sarah’s hospitality for the angels, Avraham’s bravery in arguing for the lives of those in Sodom and Gomorrah, the many difficulties of the binding of Yitzhak – much ink has been spilled using these stories as examples for our own behavior.

Our sages of the past saw that these stories all have a very strong theme in common: God’s relationship to humankind. The human characters interact directly with divine beings, be they angels or God. This is a real rarity in the narratives of the Tanakh, and I’d imagine it was for this reason that our classical interpreters of the text focused on this so intently. Rashi, arguably the most important interpreter of Jewish sacred text, who lived in the first and second century of the second millennium CE in France, focused his interpretation of the story of Avraham’s hospitality towards the strangers (who turn out to be angels of God) on the way that God and the angels reacted to this behavior. His conclusions are quite striking.

In this story, three strangers are walking through the desert when Avraham spots them, runs over to them, and invites them to his tent to relax and eat. Lo and behold, these three strangers turn out to be messengers of God. According to Rashi, the angels and God saw Avraham’s behavior, and their immediate response was to mimic it. In Rashi’s understanding, God later mimics Avraham’s sending of water to them via a messenger, when God sends water via a miracle to the Israelites in the desert much later in the Exodus story.

If we assume that the writers of these texts were trying to reveal a truth about our place in the world and our relationship to God through a story, and that Rashi was also attempting to accomplish the same, we can come away with a very interesting and complex understanding of our relationship to the divine. Most conceptions of the divine are extraordinarily hierarchical. Divinity is above, and we are below. We are at the mercy of God or gods, mere mortals living out small lives. If, instead, we see the relationship carrying some mutuality, as it is apparent that Rashi did, the hierarchy gets turned on its Rashi isn’t just pointing out some similarities between Avraham’s hospitality and God’s. In his interpretation, Rashi is showing us something much more intrinsic to our relationship to the divine. Not only are we reliant upon the divine for what we need (for example, during this visit to Avraham, the angels announce the miraculous pregnancy of Sarah, and the imminent arrival of the new baby Yitzhak), but the divine reflects our own actions back to us. Avraham, consistently cited by those who came after him as the lifeline to God, affected the continuity of his offspring, and ultimately the successful formation of the people of Israel, by displaying his magnanimity to the angels. God reflected this behavior back to the Israelites by gifting them with water in their time of need, while wandering the desert during the formative stage of the newly free Israelite people.

Instead of looking at this text as a mythological narrative simply attempting to explain the roots of chosenness of the Jewish people, which this miraculous birth is so often cited as, maybe we should try to apply these lessons in our own lives. Throughout our liturgy and our history, and actually throughout the rest of the Tanakh from this point on, it has been the tradition to invoke God’s special relationship with Avraham whenever seeking something from God. Traditionally, the deeply troubling story of the binding of Yitzhak is even recited during Jewish morning worship as a way to attempt to convince God of our worth, based entirely on Avraham’s unflinching willingness to sacrifice his son to God. Maybe, instead of just citing Avraham’s deeds as rationale for our own worth, we should instead look at what the story is trying to tell us about his deeds, and why they are special at all.

Rashi’s interpretation of the story hints to us that human actions of kindness reverberate throughout time. By citing this one instance of Avraham’s kindness as the impetus behind God having provided the Israelites, the many generations later grandchildren of Avraham, with the miraculous water that sustained them in the desert, Rashi is telling us that our own acts are similarly important. Were it not for Avraham’s kindness, the Israelites never would have made it into the Promised Land, and we wouldn’t be here to discuss the outcomes. God’s reflection of Avraham’s behavior was the linchpin on which the Israelites’ future hung. By using this example to pattern our own behavior, by viewing our actions as reverberating throughout history as the mutual relationship between us and God, forged initially by Avraham and renewed by every one of us, we can be guided by our tradition towards lives of great meaning. Each action we take can be viewed as having endless consequences based on the value of our works. Rashi and our Torah beseech us to view Avraham not only as the pillar of righteousness that our tradition rests upon, but also as the exemplar for us all to follow to build our own lives into similar pillars of righteousness for the generations to come.

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