Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Friday, February 15, 2019

The Light Within

Last weekend, Zach and I travelled with 12 temple teens to Washington DC to participate in the Religious Action Center’s L’taken Seminar. We’ll tell you more about that on March 1. What you need to know now is that the weekend culminates in the teens crisscrossing and then infiltrating Capitol Hill to meet with their representatives in Congress.

As we walked around the Hill, the kids noticed the humanoid statues on top of the Supreme Court, the Capitol dome, and the other marble structures that populate the environs. “Who’s that?” a kid would ask. We pulled out our phones, did a quick google search and said, “oh! That’s Truth!...oh hey, there’s Freedom on top of rotunda!”

It felt a little silly to say, being that statues representing virtues aren’t so in vogue right now. Not to mention, it’s not very Jewish to have such statues of goddesses and muses, but cie la vie.

And speaking of French, the goddess of Freedom makes an appearance in another important spot: yup, you guessed it, in the New York harbor as the Statue of Liberty.

These famous statues stand as a reminder of our country’s communal aspirations, symbols of the values that should guide our democracy. A while it’s possible that every American could name these values, it’s the next part that’s hard: that is, applyingthose values to the laws of the land. As much as we can agree on what they are, its nearly impossible these days to agree on what they mean for policy. It’s great that Truth stands on top of the Supreme Court, but is there such a thing as objective truth? What, or who, is truly free in the land where Freedom raises her hand high?

Symbols are powerful namely because they are interpretative. Symbols – either physical or descriptive – are shape shifters. Sure, they mean something, but just what that is depends on the person encountering the symbol.
For example, John Cunningham, an American historian, clarifies that the Statue of Liberty was not conceived or built as a symbol of immigration, but it quickly became such as the immigrant ships sailed under her outstretch arm. She was actually supposed to be an abolitionist symbol. She was conceived by the president of the French Anti-Slavery Society who was a prominent and important political thinker of his time. He, and others, saw freedom and democracy actually blooming in America with the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery.

It wasn’t until Emma Lazarus’s sonnet, New Colossus, was penned and donated to an auction – the proceeds of which would help fund construction of the stone pedestal – that its freedom-as-applied-to-immigrants symbolism was cemented.

The poem famously reads:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles.
From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

When applied to this week’s Torah portion, “A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame/Is the imprisoned lightning” is particularly powerful. Tetzaveh opens with the command to bring clear, beaten olive oil to light the lamps of the community menorah. The lamps must remain ablaze regularly, all day long, for all time, throughout the ages. The eternal nature of this holy light is emphasized no less than four times in two verses.

But why does God need the light to burn continuously? Well, firstly, it’s a potent symbol. It can symbolize the warmth of God’s presence or the light of Torah in our lives.

Midrash (Exodus Rabbah 36:2) highlights that God, the Source of light, doesn't need the light we produce with eternal light. Rather, the ner tamid is for the people so that "you can return light to Me as I give light to you."[1]

This is where I think the light’s symbolism runs deeper. While the ambient light of the Divine is always present, it’s not always detected. We humans need a reminder of the holiness around us. Furthermore, the lights of the menorah need to be kindled by human hands – a lesson that without our hard work and good deeds, God’s light may diminish, even disappear, from Earth. The Torah teaches us that we must be curators of God’s light. We provide the fuel, we nurture its vitality.

Certainly this metaphorical torch has been passed through the generations. We kindle God’s light to this day, not just in our ark’s ner tamid, but in our Sabbath candles, channukiyot, campfires and yartzeit candles. The light evokes memory, the melodies of our lives that buoy us in difficult moments. We light candles at justice-driven vigils, symbols of being a “light unto the nations” and those who tend to the light of God on earth.

But what about the light’s dark side? Think of the olives, crushed violently into oil by human hands? That is destruction in the name ofcreating light. How many times in human history have we justified crushing buildings, trampling fields, pummeling lives in the name of illumination?

A Chassidic saying picks up on this complexity in the oil’s metaphor: “When one speaks crushing words of rebuke, it must be with the sole purpose of enlightening, illuminating and uplifting one's fellow. Never, God forbid, to humiliate and break him.”

So what does it mean to harness God’s light? As Emma Lazarus puts it, the Statue of Liberty is a mighty woman with a torch of imprisoned lightning. This is like the ancient menorah, burning with the light of life and the astonishing blaze of God’s power.

Yet what does it mean to imprison the lightning? Are we so haughty to believe that we can keep it chained?

So here, the metaphor of the eternal light shifts. While the light is a symbol of God, it is not God itself. We are not harnessing God’s power to use it as a light saber, zapping all of our opponents. Or, to mix my George Lucas metaphors, think about how this was the fatal flaw of the Nazis in the Raiders of the Lost Ark. In the storyline, the Nazis want the ark of the covenant so that they can use it as a weapon of war. This arrogance leads to their demise.

The eternal light of the tabernacle, of the temple, of Judaism today is, in fact, just a reminder. It is a bright message for eternity, a sign of our partnership with God. The word Tetzavehmeans "to command," but it also means "to connect" and "to bond." Thus the verse can also be read as God saying that the light’s radiance implants a spark of the Divine in all who gaze upon it.[2]It’s about those who kindle the light, not just the light itself.

Proverbs 20:27 says it this way: “The candle of the Eternal is the lifebreath of a human, it sheds light on one’s inner being.” The eternal light not only represents the infinitude of the Divine, its fiery dancing and spectral flame mirrors the Divine life-light inside each of us. It may burn brightly, it might be hidden away, but it inside, it is still glowing. Barukh Ata Adonai, borei shel haor b’toch– Blessed are You, Eternal One, creator of the light within.




[1]Rabbi Jerome P. David - https://reformjudaism.org/spiritual-power-light


[2]Thought is based on a teaching from the Or HaChayim: The word tetzaveh, "to command," also means "to connect" and "to bond." Thus the verse can also be read as G-d saying to Moses: "And you shall bond with the Children of Israel." For every Jewish soul has at its core a spark of the soul of Moses.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Creating Space - Parshat Va'era, post-Israel

There’s a question that has haunted me since my youth. A deep one, perhaps unanswerable, perhaps the greatest existential mystery of our time: when it comes to the 10 plagues of Egypt…what was so bad about the plague of frogs?

Seriously. We’ve made cute songs out of the plague of frogs. We hop around like frogs. We giggle at the idea of Pharaoh waking up with frogs on his head, frogs on his bed. Frogs here. Frogs there. Sure, frogs are slimy, but they’re also cute! What’s so bad about the plague of frogs?

It would seem that the rabbis had the same question about this week’s Torah portion, Va’era. In diving into the issue, many of the rabbis conclude that the word is really not frogs but crocodiles. Now, crocodiles make a lot more sense. If we’re talking about plagues that afflicted the Egyptians, natural disasters that threatened their lives, crocodiles certainly fit the bill.

There’s also the explanation that when the frogs died, they lay everywhere – rotting, stinking, incubating maggots and helping start the next plague: lice. That makes sense too.
Furthermore, a quick dive into midrash offers another explanation for why the frogs weren’t so cute to sing about. The language of the Hebrew passage is peculiar: the word for frogs is actually in the singular. God (through Moses) says to Pharaoh: “If you refuse to let the Israelites go, behold, I will smite all your territory with a frog.”

So how did one frog become a plague? The rabbis explain that indeed one frog did come up from the Nile first – and when the Egyptians tried to smash it (in order to kill it), it just spewed out more frogs. In their blind anger, the Egyptians kept smashing the frogs, which led to more frogs, inciting a crazy game of whack-a-frog that ended in Egypt being overwhelmed by amphibians.

The issue wasn’t the frogs, the rabbis teach, as much as it was the Egyptians’ rashness, their inability to take a deep breath, evaluate the situation and plan calmly. This was in fact their problem all along beginning with going along with Pharaoh’s plan to enslave the Israelites before they could rise up.

Moses was guilty of this impulse as well. He rashly struck down the Egyptian taskmaster and killed him. In fact, it is Moses’ rashness later in the story – striking the rock to get water, instead of speaking to it – that prevents him from entering the Promised Land.
Fear and anxiety are able motivators. They can drive us to impetuous action. And if there is one thing our society fears most these days, it would be empty space. It takes a great deal of inner strength to sit alone for any amount of time before picking up a smart device to swipe and scroll the emptiness away.

I for one always have music on in the background. And, let me confide something in each of you – a horrible confession – I have a really, really hard time during the silent prayer. It is nearly impossible for me to turn off my brain for the 60 seconds where we sit in quiet. I’ve tried deep breathing. I’ve tried just delighting in the quiet moment. I’ve tried saying a prayer. None of it works. Outside of that time, if you’ve noticed, I’ve almost never asked you to close your eyes and meditate because for the love of God, I just can’t do it.

Yet there was an experience on our recent trip to Israel that disrupted the complacency I had in regards to this fact. We visited many places in Israel. There was little time for quiet – there were sites to see, people to chat with on the bus, giant breakfasts to eat. Yet, our itinerary took a great route. From the bustling metropolis of Tel Aviv, we drove south into the Negev Desert. As much as we have “made the desert bloom,” most of it is still untouched rock formations, hidden wadis, and wind-hollowed caves.

One morning, we hiked near Avdat – a breathtaking hike past an ancient pistachio tree, a rushing waterfall, and up a canyon. The serene beauty of the environs seeped into our skin. I feel so alive, so connected to my ancestors in the Negev.

In the afternoon, we visited the Ramon crater – a geological wonder in the belly of Israel that was formed over 220 million years ago when oceans covered the area. We made two stops. The second was just off the road alongside a small wadi. It’s the rainy season, so there’s water in a small pool, surrounded by gravelly rock mounds and small cliffs.

There’s a rock by the entrance to the spot that has three Hebrew words on it: even, ruach, mayim. I turned to members of our group, and with a sarcastic laugh, I explained that it is the most profound rock I’ve ever seen. It says: rock, wind, water. Duh! That’s all that’s there!
The spot was beautiful. The best that nature had to offer. But imagine my horror when I heard the words start to come out of our tour guide’s mouth: now I want everyone to find a spot by themselves. We are going to sit quietly in this space.

Ugh. I’m thinking, I’m the group leader. I really should follow the instructions. Fine. I’ll find a spot, but I won’t meditate.

I climbed up to a small peak that jutted out. I had a good view of the group – a wonderful mess of people who by now I had been getting to know even more deeply. I looked at the rocks – beautiful strata of time. I watched the water – rippling with the wintertime’s abundance. I tried to do everything but close my eyes – but then the wind came whipping around the bend. I sat cross legged, I closed my eyes, I breathed. The wind kept flowing, swirling around my head like a concentrated vortex. And even doubtful ol’ me had a profound moment of blissful, sacred emptiness.

Rock, wind, water. It did not need to be more complicated than that. God’s creation exists in ways to remind us that we do not need to fill every moment up with words.

Wind in Hebrew is ruach – the same word for spirit. In the second line of Genesis, we learn that “the earth was formless and empty, darkness lay over the surface of the deep, v’ruach Elohim m’rachefet al p’nei hamayim, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”

We don’t know how long God’s spirit rustled around the void before it became time to start bending the light, forming the stone and splitting the waters – before all the processes of creation and evolution slowly got underway. Yet we can get snapshots of what it was like – the quiet peace of basic elements unmuddied by words and screens and wars and things.
And if we just let ourselves – allow ourselves the space to sense it, we might be surprised by the ease in which the peace can come rolling in.


Closing

In the beginning
there was a formless void in the heart of the Infinite –

vacant and hollow,
strangely heavy…
considering it was empty.

So after millennia of barrenness 
and eons of void,
With a desperate heave of distressed energy
one miniscule, puny, sub-atomic particle lightly tapped another
and an explosion cleared out the dark.

And even though millions of years would still pass
before the first conversation between man and Creator would occur,
every epoch felt as a day…

…as the sun sprouted and the moon beamed
the bacteria split and the algae bloomed
roots soaked in water and flowers ballooned
fish grew legs that trudged into mud
and the chimps cackled their call,

And just as the bounty seemed enough to make the void a distant memory,
A baby cried,
And the spirit of God moved briskly into the garden to calm him.

If God has the patience to make the space, even knowing what wonders are to come, then certainly we can aspire to pause, make the room, and allow the future to unfold in its due time. Shabbat Shalom.