The Burden of Holiness

In nearly every aspect of life, a widely accepted adage is that anything worth having or any accomplishment worth achieving requires an investment of time and effort to be attained. When it comes to acquiring knowledge and learning, we must invest ourselves to reap the benefits. When it comes to success in professional work, long hours are often required to make the difference. When it comes to personal fitness and health, the saying “no pain, no gain” rings true. And while you might not think so, living a religious life also requires that we assume responsibilities, obligations and, yes, even burdens.

We can see this idea within Parashat Naso, the Torah portion we’ll read this week. In Numbers chapter 7, we read:

“Moses took the carts and the oxen and gave them to the Levites. But to the Kohatites he did not give any; since theirs was the service of the most sacred objects, their porterage was by shoulder.” (Numbers 7:6, 9)

The family clans of the Levites—the Gershonites, the Merarites and the Kohatites—were assigned the responsibility of carrying around the parts of the Tabernacle, a portable sanctuary used by the Israelites during the time they journeyed in the Sinai Desert after the Exodus from Egypt. The Gershonites and Merarites were given carts and oxen to carry around the pieces assigned to them. But, as the text tells us, Moses gave no carts or oxen to the Kohatites, as they were expected to carry the pieces of the Tabernacle assigned to them on their shoulders. Those pieces were the most sacred ones, including the Ark of the Covenant.

Why were the Kohatites required to carry their assigned pieces on their shoulders? We can imagine that doing so may have eliminated the risk that they might fall off a cart and either be damaged or disgraced. Perhaps they were told to carry these pieces on their shoulders to show that they were more sacred than, for example, the animal skins that covered the structure. Or, perhaps, they were asked to carry the most sacred pieces of the Tabernacle on their shoulders because when it comes to doing something truly important, something of supreme value and meaning, we shouldn’t take shortcuts. Rather, we should invest ourselves fully in the things that mean the most to us. We ought to invest ourselves, our time and our resources, in relationships, in causes and organizations that we believe in, and in a way of living life that has the potential to give our lives meaning and lead us to make the world a better place. When it comes to living a meaningful Jewish life, we shouldn’t take shortcuts. Sometimes, in order to reap the most meaningful insights and spiritual fulfillment, we need to give of ourselves.

In this era of advanced technology, we still read the weekly Torah portion from a handwritten scroll that is painstakingly prepared by a trained sofer (scribe). Why not put the reading up on a teleprompter or, better yet, play an mp3 recording of the weekly Torah portion that is perfectly sung? That way, we would not have to ask anyone to study or prepare the Torah portion in order to read it from a scroll that contains no vowels or cantillation signs. The answer is that in some things, we shouldn’t take shortcuts or do that which is easier or more efficient.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, the great Chasidic luminary who lived in Poland from 1787-1859, put it this way:

The work of the sanctuary—indeed, all work for any holy cause—requires extra effort. “Their porterage was by shoulder”—one must harness all one’s powers to this work. One does not acquire the least spark of holiness without effort.

Even a small spark of holiness may not effortlessly enter our lives. We have to look for it, work for it, earn it, with every fiber of our being. And when it does enter our lives, after we have given ourselves to the quest for holiness, we can be sure it will grow and illumine our lives brightly.

There Is a God

A Chasidic story tells of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev who told the members of his community one morning that at noon that day he would have an important announcement to make and that everyone should gather in the synagogue to hear what he had to say. The townspeople were abuzz with curiosity and intrigue about what their rabbi would have to say. Would he reveal that he was leaving town and heading to another community? Would he announce that he was ill and in need of treatment? Would he announce that he had written a new book or that he was about to make an important halakhic ruling? At the appointed hour the townspeople gathered in the shul and watched in silence as their rabbi ascended his pulpit. The great rabbi cleared his throat, and said: “Chevre, my people, I called you here today, in the middle of a workday, to tell you that there is a God.” The rabbi did not elaborate or offer any additional insights to his statement. Instead, he turned around and left the shul. The people were dumbfounded. Of course there is a God, they said to one another. But as they thought about what the rabbi had said, they realized that it was something they needed to hear and contemplate. Their bewilderment at having been asked to interrupt their day to hear the rabbi say something obvious was replaced with a sense of awe that he had shown them an important truth.

There is a God. Perhaps that is a statement that not everyone can make with conviction, but it is one that we ought to consider seriously. Countless theological books have been written across time, including books on Jewish theology, and there are numerous views of what God is and how we should try to understand the Divine. All of these theological ideas begin with the idea that there is a God. However we define or understand God, human beings tend to feel an impulse, an intuition, that there is a Sovereign Being who is the architect of life itself. There is no proof that God exists, only circumstantial evidence. The statement “There is a God” is not a point of fact, nor is it an expression of our intellect. It is, rather, an offering of our soul.

Beginning this Saturday night, we will celebrate the festival of Shavuot. Coming exactly seven weeks after Passover, Shavuot commemorates God’s revelation to the People of Israel at Mt. Sinai shortly after the Exodus from Egypt. We celebrate by studying Torah on the eve of the first day, by gathering for prayer and the reading of the Ten Commandments, and by sharing meals with family and friends. Shavuot does not ask us to articulate a theology or express a fully developed idea of what we believe about God. It merely asks us to affirm that which the ancient Israelites understood as they gathered at the foot of a mountain centuries ago, that there is a God. Because there is a God, we will behave differently, living up to expectations and standards that we perceive will strengthen us. Because there is a God, we will seek to behave with compassion and generosity. Because there is a God, we will come to understand that our lives matter now, and after our years in this world have come to an end.

Is there a God? I can’t describe God, tell you of God’s origins, or understand God’s capabilities. But with every fiber in my being, I believe there is a God.

Listen up!

It could be argued that most problems between people are the result of an inability to communicate effectively.  Or, at least, problems between people are exacerbated by the inability or unwillingness to listen to one another.  The need for sensitive and compassionate listening is an insight that can be gleaned from this week’s Torah portion.

In Parashat Bechukotai, the second of the two portions read this Shabbat, we find these verses:

And your threshing shall last to the time of vintage, and the vintage shall last to the sowing time; and you shall eat your bread to the full, and dwell in your land safely.  And I will give peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid; and I will remove evil beasts from the land, nor shall the sword go through your land. (Leviticus 26:5-6)

Always responsive to apparently redundant wording in the Torah, some of the commentators ask why, after saying “you shall dwell in your land safely,” the text finds it’s necessary to follow that phrase by saying “And I will give peace in the land.”  Don’t these two phrases say essentially the same thing?  One commentator answers that the first phrase “you shall dwell safely in your land,” refers to internal peace, peace between individuals and between communities, while the second phrase, “I will give peace in the land,” refers to the absence of conflict, in the sense of war and violent struggle.

Whether or not any of us would understand the phrase “getting along safely” to mean that we have peaceful relationships with one another and listen to each other with sensitivity, we certainly can agree that compassionate listening is essential to good relationships.  Rabbi Avraham Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, goes one step further by suggesting that an open, honest exchange of views between people increases wisdom.  What we may perceive to be conflict is actually a necessary an enriching, refining process of thinking through our ideas by debating them in a respectful manner. He writes:

It is precisely the multiplicity of opinions that derive from variegated souls and backgrounds that enriches wisdom and brings about its enlargement. In the end all matters will be properly understood and it will be recognized that it was impossible for the structure of peace to be built without those trends that appeared to be in conflict.

I find Rav Kook’s perspective very uplifting and insightful.  We need to exchange our ideas with others.  We need to confront one another with opposing views.  When we do we can achieve greater wisdom and clarity.  This is true for individuals as well as communities.  One can only imagine what the world would be like if we listened to one another, unafraid to share our views, and willing to listen open mindedly to others.  It’s something so simple to do, so why not try?

It’s About Time

“There is a place where time stands still. Raindrops hang motionless in air. Pendulums of clocks float mid-swing. Dogs raise their muzzles in silent howls. Pedestrians are frozen on the dusty streets, their logs cocked as if held by strings…For this is the center of time. From this place, time travels outward in concentric circles, at rest at the center, slowly picking up speed at greater diameters.”
— Einstein’s Dreams, by Alan Lightman

Isn’t this passage an intriguing fantasy about time?

The idea behind it, and Lightman’s book, is that in 1905 Albert Einstein was working on his theory of relativity, which would one day revolutionize the way we think about time. He was so obsessed about his work that at night he would dream about different worlds where time worked differently than it does in our own universe. In the book, we read about a world where time runs backwards, where creatures grow younger day by day until they become infants and then disappear into their mother’s wombs (somewhat like Benjamin Button). There is a world where time runs in circles, where everything that happened happens again after a certain period. And there is a world where time passes more slowly at high altitudes, and the rich buy apartments on mountaintops so they will live longer than they would if they lived in the valley. And there is the passage cited above about a world where time stands still and nothing ever changes. Do you sometimes feel like you want time to stand still? Would you like to push the “pause button” on your life to catch your breath and gain a little perspective?

Time is our most precious commodity. We assign value to our time just as we do to our more tangible resources. The Jewish tradition not only values time, we sanctify it. Shabbat is our weekly pause button, our opportunity to make “time stand still,” and gain perspective on the complex and frantic pace of our lives. This week’s parasha, Emor, includes a detailed description of the seasons of the Jewish year, the Jewish calendar of sacred celebrations. These occasions are not a burden or an obligation. Rather, they are opportunities to celebrate our tradition and our values and add meaning to our lives. And we are now in a season of the year known as the “sefirah” (counting), the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot, the holiday that recalls God’s giving of the Torah to the people of Israel at Mt. Sinai. In keeping with the Torah commandment, found in Parashat Emor, we count each day of these seven weeks in a ritual known as “Counting the Omer.” The primary reason for counting the omer is to create a spiritual link between the freedoms won on Passover a life of purpose guided by Torah. But the counting also serves the purpose of highlighting the potential and power of each single day of our lives. In short, counting the omer enables us to add a dimension of sanctity to each of our days.

Oheb Shalom Congregation recognizes the importance and value of time. We recognize that each of our members can make choices about how we use our time, and we are grateful when you give some of your time to help build and strengthen our congregation. We have dedicated this Shabbat morning service to honoring our many volunteers and expressing appreciation for the gift of your most precious asset—your time. I hope you will join us at this special service, both to be thanked and to express thanks for all those who have given, with full and willing hearts, to enrich our community.