Thursday, May 24, 2012

I have a story: [adapted from Torah Lab, Rabbi Yaakov Haber] It’s about an American soldier who helped liberate one of the Nazi death camps. None of the soldiers were prepare for the death scenes they came across. For the living – well, they were starving … and there were hundreds and hundreds of desperate children. The Americans worked fast. They set up huge pots of soup; the children quickly lined up. One soldier noted a young boy at the end of the line. The child was in for a long wait, but he was patient. The soldier made eye contact with the child. Then, because the child was so hungry and had such a long wait, the soldier decided to just walk up to the boy. The soldier and the boy couldn’t speak to each other – they didn’t know each other’s language. But the soldier spoke the language everyone understands – he hugged the boy. Guess what happened after that? Everyone lined up for hugs! The children were so hungry for human connection that they actually gave up their place in line to eat and waited for hugs! Then they lined up to eat. They got both love and food. What a story. It speaks directly to our deepest needs. Food keeps us physically alive. Warmth and caring … keep our souls alive. Warmth and caring … make us human. … Further, I came across the story while learning about the ritual of the omer… Hmm, nice, meaningful story and archaic ritual – what do they have in common? Let’s talk about the Omer itself. Every year at our evening services, we dutifully rise and count the days that we’re bringing grain offerings to Hashem. We’re going to do that in a few minutes… We’ll read from Leviticus 23: 6: “And you shall count from the next day after the festival, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering; seven shabbatot shall be complete.” We count each and every day between Pesach and Shavuot. We tie the exodus directly to the Giving of the Torah. In the process of counting every day … WE MAKE EVERY DAY COUNT. According to the sages, every day has a quality of its own. The day that is just now passing is the twentieth day of the omer. The sages assigned this day the quality of “foundation within harmony” or better yet, “bonding in compassion.” Why give this a day of its own? Isn’t compassion easy? Compassion on its own is easy – if it doesn’t make demands. Bonding can be hard. Bonding means we feel another’s joys – and pain. We cannot have real compassion if we do not bond with others. When the soldiers set up the food so quickly to feed the children … yeah, that was compassion. But when one soldier took it upon himself to hug a boy – to make him feel like a special human being – that was a deeper component of compassion. And so, when we counted the twentieth day, we could focus on learning to bond and to exercise compassion. Yeah, we should do that every day – but how realistic is that? Torah teaches us that we really must take ONE DAY AT A TIME. Every single day is a special unit And really, we don’t have to go by the mystical descriptions of what each day portends. We CAN FIND one quality that helps us grow. WE CAN find a different characteristic – a focus -- for every single day. Suppose you have a tendency to gossip. Maybe FOR ONE DAY the task could be: watching what we say … and whether our words could hurt someone. Or … for one whole day … remember: I was created in God’s image. And ask yourself: DO I treat other people like they, too, ARE created in God’s holy image? Or … am it looking at the garden and focusing on the weeds. NOT EVEN NOTICING the wonderful plants and flowers coming up. Wouldn’t it be better if for ONE WHOLE DAY, we made it a point to look at the whole picture? We just might find … that we really do have a lot more flowers than weeds. Isn’t it great? Torah OBLIGATES us to make every day special. Let’s see how we can use our tradition to make the coming day – the twenty-first – Shabbat! – special. For this day, we focus on nobility within compassion. Our compassion must be even more than a bonding experience; we must help people in a way that maintains their own dignity. Not even just the needy: for Shabbat, for the twenty-first day of the Omer – we should focus on TREATING EVERY PERSON as if they were created in God’s own – holy – image. As we make every day special – as we use every day for learning and growth – we expand the holiness inside ourselves. We grow towards the Holy One and make ourselves worthy vessels for the Divine Revelation we celebrate on Shavuot. And now, in the spirit of holiness and God’s love – let us rise to count the Omer….
THE Time God Spoke to us The title refers to God’s revelation to the Jewish people on Mt. Sinai – the essence of the holiday Shavuot. However, we have a problem with this. How are we supposed to understand Revelation? Unfortunately, Cecile B. DeMille and Charleton Heston implanted a hollow picture of this into our brains. In the movie, “The Ten Commandments,” we hear the booming voices of both God and Moses/Charleton Heston. It’s not the movie’s fault that so many of us settle for a movie version of the deepest mystery of all religion. Media cannot portray Revelation; this concept defies any possible description. Even the prophets could not fully describe their deepest innermost experiences. Words alone cannot adequately contain the real depth of any experience. Words help. They are important. Words have great weight in Torah. Hashem used words to create the world. However, we must search for the meaning beyond the words. Think about a conversation with your friend. Of course, you listen to each other words. You also listen for voice tone; you watch gestures and body language. The better you know the person, the more you pay attention to underlying issues that might alter her mood. In other words, a real conversation contains the sum of mutual interaction. You can also have a conversation without words, when we sit quietly with someone and give ourselves space to reach full understanding. We can reach our deepest insights in the spaces between the words, in moments of quiet that are built from yearning for the other. Thus we come to Divine Revelation. There are words, and there are the flashes of insight that defy words. Did the Kadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy One Blessed is He, really boom full words from Mt. Sinai? Or … were the people so united in spirit and yearning for His Presence that they understood the fullness of His message? Just as the sages teach that Hashem created the world from ten utterances, they teach that at Mt. Sinai, Hashem revealed Himself to us with ten statements. In doing so, He created the Jewish people – another stage in the Creation of the world. Look at Creation and how much burst forth out of each word. The Torah is not giving us a scientific text on Creation but something much deeper. The words leading to Creation are all Revelations of larger, deeper ideas. Words are garments that lead to trees, grass, beauty, goodness, evil – everything in existence. Do you read fiction? That’s another example of using words to create a world. When you read – or write – a novel, you absorb yourself into an entirely different world. A good writer uses words as instruments of creation. Now, let’s return to the words the Holy One spoke at Mt. Sinai. According to tradition, He gave us the entire Torah by speaking ten words! The Revelation was not about voice or words. Not only did Hashem reveal Himself to us – at the level we could understand – we opened our souls to Him. Our understanding went far beyond anything we could adequately describe. Torah used words to describe and indescribable concept. The words of Revelation contain ultimate holiness. How fortunate that we, as a people, could have such an experience! And how fortunate are we, that every year, we can re-create that experience on Shavuot, the anniversary of God’s “words”—His Revelation -- at Mt. Sinai. More importantly, revelation does not end with the experience of Mt. Sinai! We can listen for God’s “voice.” We can encounter the Holy One. How? We do this through learning, through talking to others or to Him, and in our quiet moments. Sometimes we encounter God in our moments of deepest grief, sometimes in our greatest joys. At the foot of Mt. Sinai, we spent three days preparing ourselves for the Revelation. Thus we came together as a group. However, Revelation also comes to us as individuals. The Kadosh Baruch Hu wants to reach us. He wants this at every single moment of our lives. We only have to open our hearts and souls … and listen. Not for the booming voice, but for the quiet flash of insight. Hashem loves us. Our job: love Him back. To help in this quest, we can take advantage of the time leading up to Shavuot. We can focus on every day with renewed heart. In doing so, we will be ready to hear His voice as we re-enact the Revelation on Shavuot. B’shalom u’vrachah, in peace and blessing, Rabbi Shaina Bacharach