God’s Tears

Among the most profound and essential teachings of Judaism is that all human beings are created in the image of God as equals. In texts as early as the Mishna (200 CE), we read these enduring words:

Therefore, humans were created singly, to teach you that whoever destroys a single soul, Scripture accounts it as if he had destroyed a full world; and whoever saves one soul of Israel, Scripture accounts it as if she had saved a full world. And for the sake of peace among people, that one should not say to his or her fellow “My parent is greater than yours;” and that heretics should not say, “There are many powers in Heaven.” Again, to declare the greatness of the Holy One, blessed be God, for one stamps out many coins with one die, and they are all alike, but the King, the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be God, stamped each person with the seal of Adam, and not one of them is like his or her fellow. Therefore each and every one is obliged to say, “For my sake the world was created.”

How did we get to this disheartening place where some seek to dominate and demean others because of the color of their skin? What lies behind the evil that is racism? Surely, we are not born capable of hating others? No, the inclination to hate others because of their appearance is learned from parents and elders, and is woven into the fabric of some communities. It must be said emphatically that Dylann Roof, the racist murderer who took the lives of nine souls studying the Bible in the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, was not sick or demented. Such a conclusion amounts to an unacceptable excuse, a sweeping under the rug of what lies at the core of these killings: pure, unbridled racism.

How can a society heal itself? How can we confront an ugly truth, that our society has never fully become healed from the curse of racism? We must begin by being willing to confront this truth and talk about it openly. We must examine and confront overt expressions of racism that we see around us. (Recently, while waiting in line at the bank, I witnessed an abusive customer openly express a racial slur to a teller from India. I immediately wrote down my name and phone number and gave them to her, saying that I had witnessed this man’s racist rant and would say so given the opportunity. Three other customers who were in the bank then did the same.) And we must confront hidden expressions of racism, the ways in which we express racist tendencies subconsciously or without being fully aware that we are doing so. And we must return to our most basic Jewish teachings and values that tells us that all human beings are equal.

Does God have emotions? There are rabbinic statements that attribute to God compassion, anger, mercy and even loneliness. I’d like to think that there are times that God cries tears of sadness. We provoke God’s tears when we behave badly, when we do disappointing and destructive things. If there was ever a time for God to cry, it would be when a racist enters a House of Prayer, God’s home on earth, and in a violent rage takes the lives of human beings out of an act of hatred. God weeps tears of anguish when such things happen. And when God cries, it becomes our responsibility to wipe away the tears and resolve to never make God cry again. Now is the time for repentance and for meaningful and productive conversation that can bring about healing and wholeness.

This Shabbat morning, Oheb Shalom Congregation, along with congregations from all denominations of American Judaism across the country, will commemorate a “Shabbat of Solidarity Against Racism.” Our guest speaker will be the Pastor Terry Richardson of the First Baptist Church in South Orange. Dr. Richardson will speak during the service (at about 11:20 AM) about “Defeating Racism: Where Do We Start?” I hope that the Schechner Chapel will be full of people interested in hearing his message.

Religious vs. Observant

It can be argued that Halakha (Jewish law) can lead us to a life of holiness. Still, that assertion is widely disputed, or at least resisted, by a great many Jews who either do not understand the scope and nature of Jewish law and its purpose, or do not wish to have their lives restricted by laws they view as obsolete or irrelevant. Many see Jewish law as out of step with what they personally want to do, and out of touch with modern life.

This week’s parasha affords us the opportunity to renew that conversation. The primary narrative in the Torah, the story of Korach and his followers who rebel against the leadership of Moses and are destroyed by God after a showdown, raises the question of what exactly they did that was punishable by death. One hint lies in this verse, a statement made by Korach:

They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! 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?” (Bemidbar 16:3)

Rashi says that Korah’s main complaint was that Moses was monopolizing the leadership roles. He writes:

“All of them heard the commandments at Sinai from the mouth of the Mighty One. If you yourself have taken the kingship, you should not have selected for your brother the priesthood; not you alone have heard at Sinai, “I am the Lord your God;” the entire congregation heard it.”

In Rashi’s view, Korach’s sin was to challenge God’s chosen prophet, in effect challenging God Himself. But other commentators hold the view that Korach rejected God’s laws as a pathway to holiness. Nehama Leibowitz writes:

Note that they do not say: “all the congregation is holy” – as a unit, but: “all the congregation are holy,” “all of them” – each one taken individually… God demanded of them: “You shall be holy,” that is to say: Show yourselves holy by your deeds!… Instead we are faced by the brazen assertion, all the community are holy, all of them so unsupported by realities.

Leibowitz seizes on a subtlety in the language of the Torah, one more apparent in the Hebrew than in the English, which implies that Korach considered every individual to be holy even without following God’s laws given at Mt. Sinai. Her real point is to assert that Halakha is a pathway to holiness. She equates holiness with deeds, not feelings or intentions.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin suggests a similar idea. He writes:

“The conflict between Moses and Korah reflects a tug of war within the human spirit. . . . Korah denies the importance of the laws. He says, ‘Who needs this system of do’s and don’ts, you shalls and you shall nots? We’re holy already!’ Certainly this perspective was attractive to every Israelite who wanted to be left alone. Who wants to be told what to do and what not to do? If I want to commit adultery, who are you to tell me I shouldn’t?”

Many of the commentators on this narrative, Riskin and Leibowitz chief among them, suggest that the sin of Korach was to challenge not Moses but God and His law. Indeed, whether or not law is necessary at all to lead a meaningful and authentic Jewish life is a main point of ideological difference between Conservative and Reform Judaism. Can we not decide for ourselves how to be a good person?

When asked to describe themselves as Jews, many people say “I’m not religious.” When I hear that, I often reply, “You are indeed very religious, based on your values and your caring about Jewish life and Jewish identity. What you may not be is observant of Jewish law.”

I understand and respect that there are many ways to express our Jewish identity. We need diversity in Jewish life. Still, this parasha asks us to consider the ways in which Halakha, Jewish law, can shape our lives and lead us to the very place we wish to be- a life of meaning and holiness.

Fringe Benefit

Here’s one of my favorite Jewish jokes. A man takes his tallit to the dry cleaner. When he picks it up a week later, he’s handed a bill for $150. “Why is this so high? The last time I had my tallis cleaned I took it to a place down the street and I was charged only $10.” The proprietor answered, “Maybe, but I bet the other guy didn’t take all the knots out.”

A tallit is a very special garment. It is much more than a ritual from another time and place. The garment itself, compared to a shelter made of God’s light that envelops us when we pray, helps to make the experience of Tefilah a special and spiritual time. Personally, I wear a large, square Tallit, the kind that is draped over my shoulders and wraps around my body. Others wear a rectangular tallit that extends down to the mid or lower back, and still others wear a tallit that is like a scarf, hanging around the neck. A tallit is often an artistic creation, made of interesting and attractive materials and colors. Of course, a tallit must have four specially tied fringes, called tsitsit (the commandment to tie tsitsit onto the four corners of our garment, incorporated by the Talmudic rabbis into the twice daily reading of the Shema, is found in this week’s Torah portion, Shelach Lecha). The tsitsit are specially tied in a way that symbolizes the 613 Divine Commandments, and often contain a thread of blue, called techelet. A tallit should be personal, something we choose carefully and own for a lifetime. If you don’t have your own, or own one that you cherish, consider obtaining a new tallit sometime soon, perhaps in advance of the coming New Year.

The Tallit, with its tsitsit, is more than a way to make the experience of Tefilah more enriching. Its message extends beyond reminding us to make life a quest for holiness by following God’s commandments. The Tallit also reminds us that human beings are vulnerable to temptation in all quarters of life, in ways that are both tangible and intangible. We may understand what comprises an ideal life, but we often lack the self-discipline to achieve that life. We often want things we shouldn’t have or that are not good for us, but we aren’t always able to resist the temptation to take them.

Along come the tallit and tsitsit to remind us always to strive for self-control. The passage from Shelach-Lecha says explicitly that this is the purpose of tying tsitsit onto the corners of our garments, that we not “go after the things that are eyes see and we crave.” The Torah uses the Hebrew words “lo taturu,” having a connotation of “lust after.” A famous Talmudic passage underscores how the tsitsit are meant to remind us to avoid temptation:

Once a man who was very careful about the commandment of tzizit heard about a certain harlot in one of the towns by the sea who accepted four hundred gold coins for her hire. He sent her four hundred gold coins and appointed a day with her… When he came in she prepared for him seven beds, six of silver and one of gold; and between one bed and the other there were steps of silver, but the last were of gold. She then went up to the top bed and lay down upon it naked. He too went up after her in his desire to sit naked with her, when all of a sudden the four fringes (tzitzit) of his garment struck him across the face; whereupon he slipped off the bed and sat upon the ground. She also got down from the bed and sat upon the ground and said to him, “I will not leave until you tell me what blemish you saw in me.” He replied, “Never have I seen a woman as beautiful as you are; but there is one commandment that God has commanded us, it is called tzizit, and with regard to it the expression ‘I am the Lord your God’ is written twice, signifying, I am He who will exact punishment in the future and I am He who will give reward in the future. The tzizit appeared to me as four witnesses.” (Talmud Menahot 44a)

Most people wear a tallit only during times of prayer, though observant Jews wear a “tallit katan” (a “small tallit”), a simple undergarment with four corners on which tsitsit are tied and that is worn all day long. The purpose of the tallit katan is to extend the power of a tallit from being an enhancement to prayer to being a tool to remind us constantly that we have the power to shape our own lives, to avoid temptation, and to make our days into a quest for the sacred.

Broken, But Useful

The Ark of the Covenant was central to the religious experience of the ancient Israelites. Placed at the heart of their physical and spiritual community, the Ark accompanied the young nation on their journey, reminding them of God’s presence and protection.

And they marched from the mountain of the Lord a distance of three days. The Ark of the Covenant of the Lord traveled in front of them on that three days’ journey to seek out a resting place for them. (Numbers 10:33)

After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., the whereabouts of the Ark became a mystery. To this day, several theories abound as to what happened to it. Based on a verse in the Book of Jeremiah, some say it is hidden deep within Mount Nebo, approximately where Moses is said to be buried. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has long claimed to be in possession of the Ark, but won’t let anyone inspect the place where they say it is. The Lemba people of South Africa claim to have it, and there are theories that it is somewhere in England, Ireland, France, the Vatican and even the United States.

Whatever happened to the Ark, we know that it played a major role in the religious lives of the Israelites. Interestingly, according to some of the commentators, including Rashi, it contained the broken pieces of the first set of Tablets which had been collected after the incident of the Golden Calf. Why would the pieces of the shattered tablets have been collected at all, and why should they have been placed in the Ark? Perhaps they were collected because they were not regarded as garbage but as something sacred that shouldn’t be left scattered with the rest of the rocks and debris of the desert. And perhaps they were collected because they had symbolic value, containing lessons that could still be transmitted despite being broken fragments. Here are three such lessons that they may have offered:

    It is possible to fail and then recover. The shattered tablets represented the failure of the Israelites to remain faithful to God, broken promises of fidelity and loyalty to the idea of the covenant with God. Yet, the Israelites’ journey, and relationship with God, continued. They were able to pick themselves up and move forward. So too, we can experience failure, pick ourselves up, and keep moving forward.

    Things that seemingly no longer have a purpose still have value. In our society, things that seem obsolete to us are often discarded for what is new and novel. The elderly are often treated as if they have no value and need to tolerated rather than respected. Collecting the broken fragments of the tablets reminds us that things and people still have value even if they are not fulfilling a specific function or purpose.

    Tradition is relevant, not obsolete. Often, Jewish tradition is regarded as a relic of the past, something that doesn’t fit into the times in which we live. We quickly dismiss customs and rituals as having no relevance to our own lives. Perhaps we do so because we do not have sufficient knowledge or experience with those practices. But we should take a second look at traditions that have survived millennia of Jewish living in countries around the globe and be reluctant to dismiss them. True, some traditions have no place in our times. But we should be hesitant to dismiss or overlook the ones that can add meaning to our lives and connect us to our heritage.

The broken fragments of the tablets were carried around for the benefit of the Israelites. The message they offered transcends time and now rests with us.