Thursday, October 23, 2014

Message from the Rosh HaYeshiva

Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Noach

The Primordial Sin

What was the sin of the Generation of the Flood?  Rabbi Yochanan said: Come and see how great is the sin of robbery. For the Generation of the Flood had transgressed everything, and yet their final decree was not sealed until they had engaged in robbery." (Sanhedrin 108).

Robbery, or at least its driving force, is perhaps the most basic violation, the evil that leads to all other evils. The act of forcefully taking something that belongs to someone else is about seeing something that you want, and acting to satisfy your desire in disregard of the other person who has a rightful claim to the object. This is at the core of almost all other evildoing. It is the attitude that “there is only one person in the world that matters, and that is me. As long as I don't get caught, I am entitled to do anything I want to do to satisfy my desires, to serve my own interests.” In short, it is about seeing everything outside of yourself as either an object of your desire or as an obstacle to your satisfying that desire.

Let us consider some of the sins leading up to the Flood. In the verse immediately preceding God's decision to bring the flood we are told, "And the benei ha'elohim, sons of the greats, saw the daughters of man, that they were comely, and they took for themselves wives from all that they chose." The women were objects of desire, these men who had power saw what they wanted and took it. What is rape and sexual abuse if not the turning of the other person into an object of your desire, to be taken without concern for the humanity of that other person? And what is adultery if not the treating of the other partner as merely an obstacle to the satisfying of your desires, an annoyance to be disregarded, to be lied to, to be dehumanized?

Going back further, we move from sexual sin to murder. Why did Cain kill Abel? The Midrash tells us that it was about world domination.

What were they arguing about? They said: Come let us divide the world.... One said: The land on which you are standing is mine. The other replied: The clothes you are wearing are mine. One said: Take them off! The other said: Get off! In the course of this Cain rose up against Abel and killed him. (Breishit Rabbah 22:16).

You have something I want, you are in my way, so I will kill you to get it. Now, according to the simple reading of the text, it was not a desire to own the world that motivated Cain, but jealousy of Abel as the favored of God. True, it is not always about property. Sometimes it is about honor, feeling good about yourself, not being made to feel unworthy. It still all boils down to the same thing. This other person is in my way, his very existence is a nuisance and an irritant to me. I am the only person who matters, ergo he must be killed. With such an attitude, Cain, in his killing of Abel, had actually achieved his goal - to live in a world where he was the only person who existed.

Ultimately this brings us back to the Creation story and first sin of humankind. In the Garden of Eden, Adam could have eaten from any tree he chose. Just one tree was off limits, was not his for the taking. The first sin, the primordial sin, was seeing, wanting, taking. "And the woman saw that the tree was good for eating and that it was desirous to the eyes... and she took from its fruit and she ate."

This point was made in a powerful visceral way in the movie Noah, where the image of the hand taking the forbidden fruit was interspersed throughout the film, appearing alongside horrific acts of coveting and violent taking, of rape and of murder.  Appearing, that is, whenever the first, primordial sin was being repeated.

When human beings were created they were given the mandate to "subdue the earth and have dominion over it". To do such is to project ourselves into the world, just as God had done when God created the world. If this is all there is, however, then the world is nothing but us. No one else exists. I fill the world.  It is all here to satisfy my desires.

But creation was more than that. Part of creation was tzimtzum, God's contracting of Godself. Not only was this true before creation, in order to make space for creation to occur, but it was also a feature of the creation as well. When God came to create humans, God pulled back: "Let us create the human in our image." God made this a collaborative effort. And God created something that was not just an object. God created a person, a person who had will, who had free choice that even God could not, or would not, control.

And so it was with the creation of Eve.  For Eve to exist, Adam was forced to make himself smaller, to have a side taken from him.  When we pull back and make space for others, when we treat others as subjects, not objects of our self-gratification, then paradoxically, this pulling back makes us not less, but more. "Thus shall a man leave his father and his mother, and cleave to his wife, and they will be as one flesh." When he cleaves to his wife as an equal, as "flesh of his flesh", as one equivalent to him, then it is not he who becomes one flesh, it is not the integrating of the other into oneself, but rather they who become one flesh. Having made space for the other, they both became a greater whole.

Stealing is indeed the ultimate sin. It is the sin of seeing, desiring and taking. It is the sin of seeing all others as objects. What is the corrective of this sin?  It is to learn restraint; it is to honor the limits set by morality and set by God; it is to treat others not as objects, but as co-equal subjects to oneself.

When the world starts over, God gives commandments to Noach, forbidding murder and the eating of animal blood.  These commandments are meant to curb man's most destructive impulses and to teach a respect for all life, even animal life.  

We are thus set on a course that will hopefully lead to a better world, to a more just world. This starts with recognizing the humanity of those around us. And what about achieving greater moral sensitivity, learning to respect the property, feelings, privacy and dignity of others?  What about the pulling back that is necessary not because of ethical mandates but because of limits that God has set? The realization of this would have to wait until the next epoch of history, the choosing of Avraham whose mission it would be to spread God's name and to bring God into the world.

Shabbat Shalom!

From the movie Noah (2014)

Friday, October 3, 2014

Entering the Kodesh - Private and Public Intimacy

For those who have a spare hour today (ha!) you are invited to listen to a shiur on Yom Kippur and the Avoda that I gave in the yeshiva, entitled  Entering the Kodesh: Private and Public Intimacy (with source sheets).  The shiur explores the topic of the erotic imagery surrounding the Kohen Gadol’s entering the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, and how this intimate encounter was made available to the entire people. 

Gmar Chatima Tova to all.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

A Thought on Yom Kippur

Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Yom Kippur
The Weight of Sin

Sin and atonement are very abstract, colorless concepts. When we discuss such things, we tend to do so in relation to other abstract concepts: "Sin is an act of transgressing God's will or commandment; atonement is the act of divine forgiveness, or of becoming reconciled and at one with God." All of this is true, but spoken about this way, these concepts remain without shape and form. As such, they often do not resonate viscerally, and we find ourselves at a loss in attempting to think about them in concrete and helpful ways.

Not so for earlier generations. In our liturgy, in the Talmud, and in the Torah, sin is constantly discussed through metaphors. The power of this cannot be underestimated. Metaphors allow us to experience abstract realities on an emotional plane, away from the intellectual, and help us create an inner religious life that is dynamic and alive. Let us consider two metaphors for sin: that of stain and that of a weight.

Perhaps the most prevalent metaphor for sin in our liturgy is sin as a stain. The act of divine atonement, in parallel, becomes an act of cleansing this stain: "If your sins be as red as scarlet, they shall be whitened as snow" (Isaiah, 1:18); "Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you" (Ezekiel, 36: 25).

A stain is something dirty and disgusting found on a person or his garments. Sin, then, becomes something that we should find repulsive, that we would naturally recoil from. But it is not just a piece of dirt or excrement; it is a stain. A stain adheres to something - one's garments or one's own self. Sin as a stain clings to us, sullying our very person and sullying our clothing, the image that we project of ourselves to others and to ourselves. And when one or one's clothing is stained, one is embarrassed to go out in public and unable to appear before people of importance or prestige. When sin soils us, we likewise will feel a sense of embarrassment to be in the company of others who are not similarly soiled, and we will certainly feel such embarrassment to appear before God.

It is hard emotionally to think in this way, but it can also be helpful because it gives us a handle on these realities. It encourages us to think about the ways we have hurt ourselves - our soul, our spirit, our inner religious life - as a result of sin. It makes us see the way that sin and bad past decisions can sometimes make us feel that we are not worthy, not worthy to have certain relationships, engage in certain activities, or make certain life choices: "Those are for people who haven't made the same mistakes that I have, for people who are unsullied."

But we are not stuck in this state. Most stains are not permanent. We can launder our garments; we can bathe ourselves; and we can become clean. This is the promise that teshuva holds out - we can transform who we are. And if we do this, God will cleanse us; God will forgive - or more to the point - wash away our sin, restoring us, and help us restore ourselves, to our original state of purity and cleanliness.

Sin as stain occurs frequently in the liturgy and in Nakh. In the Torah, however, the metaphor that dominates is that of sin as a weight or a burden. In a brilliant article in Tarbiz, Dr. Baruch Schwartz of Hebrew University looks at the phrase nosei avon, literally translated as "carrying sin," which has troubled Bible commentators and academics for centuries. This phrase can be used to describe both forgiveness for sin and punishment for sin. We are told in the Thirteen Attributes of God that we recite during the asseret yimei teshuva, that God is nosei avon, forgiving of sin. At the same time, we read that when a person curses God, vi'nasa cheto, "he will carry his sin" (Vayikra, 24:15).

So what is going on here? How can the same phrase mean one thing and its opposite? The answer, writes Dr. Schwartz, is in realizing how sin was understood. It is not just a deed done in the past. It creates a metaphysical reality. It is a real thing, a thing on the back of the sinner, a thing that will weigh him down, a thing that can crush him, that can bring about suffering and even death.

Hence the two meanings of the phrase nosei avon. This phrase means just one thing: to carry the sin. The question is who is doing the carrying. Initially, the sinner is carrying his sin. But if God chooses to forgive the sin, then God will remove it from the sinner's back; God will carry the sin away.

How does sin as weight differ from sin as stain? We may first note that a weight is something external to a person. As such, sin as weight is more about the sin than it is about the sinner. It is about how what we have done has become a real thing that is now outside of us - a thing that doesn't go away just because we have changed and done teshuva. We thus find that in verses that refer to sin as weight, the sin is never eradicated. It can be lifted off of our back, it can be put on the back of the scapegoat and sent far away, but it will always exist. When we do teshuva the stains on our selves, on our person, can be completely washed away, but that which was done in the past was still done; it can never be fully undone.

Although this is true, teshuva is still effective. Such a teshuva must be focused on the sin as well as the sinner and must be directed to minimize the lasting impact of one's past deeds. If we have shouldered our responsibility for what we have done, then it will no longer have to continue to burden us - the weight will be taken off our shoulders.

Talking in these terms is also difficult. It is hard to face up to how our actions have affected others, not just ourselves. But this can also help us fix it, to correct, to the best degree possible, those hurtful things that we have done. Too frequently we hear of people - often abusers, but also people such as Bernie Madoff and the like - who declare that they have done teshuva and want to be welcomed back into the community. Thinking of sin as a weight that exists in the world reminds us that teshuva is not just about the person; teshuva requires fixing the damage done by one's actions.

This also points to a productive path for teshuva. In the Torah, sin is a weight that can only be removed by the offended party - be it another person or be it God. This should be enough. But sometimes even after we have made amends, we continue to beat ourselves up for what we have done in the past. We are burdened by guilt and self-criticism. We let the sin crush us and hold us back, hold us back in our relationships, our career, our religious and emotional growth. If we have already done the work that we need to do, then it is time for us to remove that weight from our own back.

The Dubner Magid tells a parable about a pauper who was carrying the heavy load of all his earthly possessions on his back and making the long, slow trek from one town to the next. A wagon driver rides up next to him and offers to give him a ride to the next town. After a few miles, the wagon driver looks back into the wagon and sees the man sitting there, still carrying the load on his back. "Why are you still carrying your load? Put it down in the wagon!" he says to him. The pauper replies, "Dear sir, you have been so kind to offer me a ride. I cannot possibly impose upon you to ask you to carry my heavy load as well."

God carries the whole world, says the Dubner Magid, and still we think that we have to carry our own load. "Cast your burden unto the Lord and He will sustain you" (Tehillim, 55:23). We can let God carry our burdens. Whether our burdens are due to worry or whether our burdens are due to sin, God can manage it. We don't have to carry them alone.

As Yom Kippur approaches, the difficult task of thinking about the concrete realities of sin can help us think about the concrete ways to do teshuva and to move forward. Let us do the work that we need to cleanse ourselves and to remove the impact of our past harmful actions from the world. And once we have done that, let us learn to remove the weight from our shoulders, to turn to God who is nosei avon, to trust in God's promise that we will be forgiven so finally we can learn to forgive ourselves.

Gmar Chatimah Tovah!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A Thought on Rosh Hashanah

Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Rosh Hashanah
The Teshuva of Kingship

As Rosh Hashanah approaches, many of us are preparing for this Day of Judgment by engaging in the traditional process of teshuvah, of repentance. This process, as described by the Rabbis, is one that is focused inward. It involves serious self-reflection: assessing our behavior over the past year, truly regretting our sins and misdeeds, and committing to act differently in the future. This approach to Rosh Hashanah and teshuvah is the dominant one, but it has become so dominant that it has overshadowed an equally important dimension of the day and the process of teshuvah.

Rosh Hashanah is not just a day of judgment. As a day that commemorates creation, it is also a day of malkhut, of God's kingship. The centrality of this theme can be seen in its being one of the three major sections of the Musaf Shmoneh Esrei,together with those of remembrance and shofar blasts. Additionally, our regular ha-El ha-Kadosh blessing in every Shmoneh Esrei is transformed into the blessing ha-Melekh ha-Kadosh: "Blessed are you, God, Holy King." Kingship is also the theme that appears in the blessing of the sanctity of the day of Rosh Hashanah in every Shmoneh Esrei and in Kiddush: "Blessed are you, God, King over the entire world, Who sanctifies Israel and this Day of Remembrance." The message is clear: The day of Rosh Hashanah is equally a day of God's kingship as it is a day of being remembered by God.

For many years, I treated kingship as a secondary aspect of Rosh Hashanah, as a prerequisite to making it a day of judgment. To stand before God in judgment can only take place after we recognize God's sovereignty over the world and over us. It was kingship in the service of judgment. But what would kingship mean as a theme by itself, as a primary identity of the day?

In considering this question, we should first note that on Rosh Hashanah we speak of God's sovereignty not only in terms of the past (God created the world) or the present (we recognize God as King on this day), but most significantly in terms of the future ("And then the righteous will see and rejoice... and all evil will fade away like smoke..."). It is about cultivating a messianic vision. It is a day when we imagine what a more perfect world, a more holy world, could look like, a day when we strive to envision a world in which God's presence is more felt and more manifest.

What would happen if we prepared for Rosh Hashanah by working to internalize this vision? What would happen if our prayers of Rosh Hashanah were infused with a yearning for such a future world? The answer is obvious: We would be driven to try to do something about it. We would strive to model this imagined future in our own lives and in our interactions with others. And we would seek out opportunities to make a real difference in the world, to bring the world just a little bit closer to a world that is more perfect, more Godly.

This striving for a more perfect world and working to actualize it can itself be considered a form of teshuvah. Just as there is a teshuvah associated with Judgment, there is a teshuvah associated with Kingship. It is not a teshuvah motivated by a fear of judgment. It is not even a teshuvah that is about judging oneself. It is a teshuvah motivated by a vision. It is a teshuvah about human dignity, characterized by belief in our capacity and in realizing our potential. It is a teshuvah that points not only inward to oneself, but also outward to the entire world.

In his famous work Orot Hateshuvah, Lights of Repentance, Rav Kook describes this teshuvah in metaphysical terms, as a cosmic yearning of the entire world to achieve a more perfect state. This teshuvah, according to Rav Kook, is of a much higher level than the "practical teshuvah" which focuses on past deeds and remorse for sin. This is the teshuvah that preceded creation, and which infuses all of creation with an impetus to achieve its fullest potential.

In a moving passage from chapter five of Orot Hateshuvah (Ben Zion Bokser, trans.), Rav Kook writes:

Every removal of sin resembles the removal of an obstruction from the seeing eye, and a whole new horizon of vision is revealed, the light of vast expanses of heaven and earth and all that is in them. The world must inevitably come to full repentance. The world is not static, but it continues to develop, and a truly full development must bring about the complete state of health, material and spiritual, and this will bring repentance along with it.

The spirit of repentance hovers over the world, and it is that which endows it with its basic character and the impetus to development. With the scent of its fragrance it refines it and endows it with the propensity to beauty and splendor.

In his powerful and poetic way, Rav Kook paints a picture of a dynamic world striving to achieve perfection. The key themes in this passage are those of potential and sight and vision. The spirit and the fragrant scent tempt us. They pull at us and hold out to us the promise of something greater that exists just below the surface. They are the potential that is inherent in creation, a potential that can be smelled and tasted by us if our senses have been properly trained.

And the first sense that we must train is that of sight, or more accurately, vision. This Kingship teshuvah calls on us to see differently, to envision a more perfect world, to refuse to accept all the problems of the world, all the problems in our communities, all the problems in our personal lives, as unfixable and as givens. It demands that we "remove the obstructions from our eyes," that we see new horizons, that we see the world not as it is but as it can be.

This teshuvah is self-directed as well. It asks us to look at our own self-focused work in a different light than that to which we have been accustomed. Do not start by asking what you have done wrong and how you can stop yourself from repeating those actions. Start, rather, by closing your eyes and by envisioning what the ideal you looks like. Not what a great tzaddik looks like, but what you, the real you, with all your talents and all your shortcomings, could ideally be. What is the potential within you that has not been actualized? How would the ideal you interact with others? What life choices would this ideal you make - in parenting, in your career, in your education?

Cultivate this vision, and then work to achieve it. Having the vision is key. No one ever achieved their full potential without being driven by a vision. If you don't know where you are going it is unlikely you will ever get there. A vision inspires and focuses. With one's eyes fixed on that end goal, one will be able to work toward it, slowly perhaps, at times only taking one step forward with many steps backward. But with commitment and focus, it will become a reality.

Florence Chadwick was one of the greatest swimmers ever, male or female. She had a vision of herself as a champion swimmer and she worked tirelessly to achieve it. She became the first woman to swim the English Channel both ways, setting a time record each way. She later attempted to swim the 26 miles from the California coastline to Catalina Island. When she was within a half mile of her goal, a heavy fog set in. Despite urging from those in the boat accompanying her, she was unable to complete the swim. Later she said, "I'm not trying to make excuses for myself, but if I could have seen the land, I think I would have made it." A few months later she tried again. And again a heavy fog set in. But this time, she made it to Catalina. She said that what enabled her to finish was a mental image of the shoreline that she kept in her mind the entire time. With a clear vision, a person can even see through the fog; a person can remain focused and directed even in the midst of life's uncertainties.

Let us make this Rosh Hashanah a Day of Kingship. Let us devote our work to a teshuvah of Kingship. Let us envision a more ideal world and a more ideal self. And let us spend the next year keeping that vision fixed before our eyes, working slowly and surely to achieve it. Let us help bring the world one step closer to that day when vi'hayah Hashem li'melekh al kol ha'aretz, that day that God will be one and God's name will be one.

Shanah Tova!