Every day we pray for return. We remind ourselves that God wants us to improve, that we want to be better, that the self we have grown alienated from is calling us back. In the prayers of this season, which culminate in Yom Kippur, we keep repeating the mantra:
Adonai Adonai, el rahum vechanun, erekh apayim verav chesed ve’emet, noseh chesed la’alafim noseh avon vafesha vechata’ah venakeh.
“Adonai! Adonai! God, Compassionate and Gracious, Slow to anger and Abundant in Kindness and Truth, Preserver of kindness for thousands of generations, Forgiver of iniquity, willful sin, and error, Cleanser of all.”
Believe it or not, Rosh Hashanah is just three weeks away. The Hebrew month of Elul is in full swing. Early every morning, and sometimes in the middle of the night Jews come together to prepare for the High Holidays by singing Slichot, prayers of apology and repentance.
One early morning this week, as I was wandering the streets of Brooklyn with Manu we were urged into the local Uzbeki synagogue to complete their minyan. When we came out I discussed the concept with little Manu. He’s knows about saying Todah, thank you, to God. Most mornings I’ll ask him…
The great disaster has finally passed. The people can gather once again. New leaders have emerged, new thinkers, new poets, new attitudes. They come together in the streets to see what the ancient wisdom has to offer. The language of the ancestors is chanted. Those who understand the words explain them to those who don’t. The dancers move their bodies to express the secrets hidden in the depths of the words. The musicians blow their horns and strum their lyres, grasping at the truths conveyed. The priests speak the people’s language, uncovering the layers of the ever-present past.
“I was lying there in the coffin with Ben Zakai,” Danny opens, “and they drove those swords through the coffin to make sure we were dead.” Danny, whose family built the first streets of Tel Aviv, tells me how after he was smuggled out of Jerusalem in the first century with Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai in a coffin, they came in front of the Roman ruler. “The governor offered him a wish. Ben Zakkai asked for Yavneh, a small town where the Jews could restart their lives after the Romans destroy Jerusalem. I just kept my mouth shut. …
There are six Hebrew words that almost all Jews, no matter how rebellious, ignorant or God hating know: Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheynu Adonai Echad. We’ve heard or spoken this line almost every time we’ve been to a synagogue. Some of us have heard our grandmothers instinctively exclaim the first two words of the phrase whenever they hear something scary. Some of us love the ritual of closing or covering our eyes when we speak the words. Lots of us know that it appears in the morning prayer, the evening prayer, the prayer before we go to sleep and other places…
“Man is the playground for the unpredictable emergence and multiplication of needs.”
These words of Abraham Joshua Heschel echoed as I looked at my pile of laundry this morning and wondered at the tremendous amount of clothes I own. In the bible a set of clothes was one of a person’s most valuable possessions.
“We usually fail to discern between authentic and artificial needs” Heschel continues, “and, misjudging a whim for an aspiration, we are thrown into ugly tensions.”
Reading the Book of Nechemiah this afternoon I found myself wondering about the connection between what we consider our needs, and…
Israel’s attempt at a local Bob Dylan is the late Meir Ariel. He sang of night watches on the Lebanese border, of kibbutz nastiness, of life as the shed skin of a snake. Late in his career he added a classic which I often sing my boys to sleep with, especially in those times when I can suddenly feel summer calling:
זרעי קיץ נישאים ברוח
זרעי קיץ באים בנחיריים
ורומזים איזה קיץ
Seeds of summer carried in the wind
Waking up little longings
My great grandmother, Menya would go to shul every Shabbat of the year — except Shabbat Korach, which is this weekend. I never met her, so I can only speculate as to her reasons. It seems pretty straight forward when you hear the story:
Korach, one of the Levites, gathers a group of followers and approaches Moses:
“You have gone too far,” they say, “For all the community are holy, all of them, and the LORD is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the LORD’s congregation?”
This question is too much for Moses, and he falls…
A couple weeks ago at his Bar Mitzvah, Henry asked us the following question: Do we owe God anything for passing over the firstborn of our ancestors on the night God killed the firstborn Egyptians. It’s a provocative question, but a curious one. First of all, while some of us take this story to be true, it’s far from a piece of history. The idea that we would owe anyone anything based on a story seems tenuous until you look at the myriad of fictions we base our lives upon. There are borders we agree upon simply because we’ve etched…
During these last 11 days of fighting I have found myself turning to the Book of Psalms. I was looking for emotional support, for insight into the nature of humanity, for echoes of the eternal in the current turbulence, for the poetry of justice. The verses that made me stop, reread, wonder, were those dealing with speech and silence, like these from Psalm 38:
וַאֲנִ֣י כְ֭חֵרֵשׁ לֹ֣א אֶשְׁמָ֑ע וּ֝כְאִלֵּ֗ם לֹ֣א יִפְתַּח־פִּֽיו׃
וָאֱהִ֗י כְּ֭אִישׁ אֲשֶׁ֣ר לֹא־שֹׁמֵ֑עַ וְאֵ֥ין בְּ֝פִ֗יו תּוֹכָחֽוֹת׃
I am like the deaf, who cannot hear,
like the mute, who cannot speak;
I have become like one who does not…