I’ve Looked At Clouds From Both Sides Now

by Rabbi David Zaslow

כִּי עֲנַן יְהוָה עַל-הַמִּשְׁכָּן יוֹמָם וְאֵשׁ תִּהְיֶה לַיְלָה בּוֹ לְעֵינֵי כָל בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּכָל מַסְעֵיהֶם 

For the cloud of the YHVH was upon the tabernacle by day, and there was fire therein by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys.

In Hebrew the same word is used to mean both “eye” and “well” (עַיִן ayin). Which meaning came first? That’s hard to tell, but the metaphor embedded between the difference in meaning between these two words travels both ways. An “eye” is the “well” of a person’s face, and, a “well” is the “eye” of the earth.” For centuries scholars have considered the possible connection between the Hebrew words for “cloud” עֲנַן and “sight” עֵינִי (as in Exodus 40:38 above). Although their etymological relationship probably cannot be proven, they certainly seem like lost cousins when the words are reduced to the two-letter root ע•ן ayin and nun. Just as in English, the Hebrew word for “cloud” is been used to mean both a physical “cloud” and the metaphorical “cloud” meaning “obscure” or “unclear.” We say we have “cloudy vision” both English and Hebrew, or when two people understand each other they are said to see “eye to eye.”1 and there is no reason to think that the Biblical writers did not see this association the two words that have very similar spellings except for the very soft consonant י yod, which is comparable to the English letter “y.” In Hebrew prayer books two יְיָ yods are used to represent God’s name. So, on a poetic level we can say that when we insert God’s name into a “cloud” we have “sight.”

According to the speculative two-letter root studies of Fabre d’Olivet the words for “eye” and “cloud” do have a common linguistic ancestor. In addition, according to d’Olivet, one of the Hebrew words for “sin” also shared this root.2 The word עָווֹן avone is a “sin” that can “cloud” our “eye” from properly seeing. The word עָוֹן avone  is often translated as “iniquity,” and literally means “twisted, perverse, bent, and deviated.” Arising out of a twisted and distorted view of reality an avone is an immoral sin arising from out of control emotions or lust. An avone is often committed out of a weakness in character, and not necessarily in conscious defiance of God. This type of sin is associated with many addictions. The person committing this ind of sin is often self-deluded, and may even believe that he or she has good reason for the behavior. For example, vengeful thoughts and most forms of gossip fall into this category of sin.

The Gesenius Lexicon reminds us that עָנָן anan meaning “cloud” was also used in the Bible to mean “divination.” Was this kind of soothsaying classified as an avone kind of sin by the Hebrews? Or, were the shape of clouds used as a means of divination in Biblical times? It is possible, although Dr. Ernest Klein says that “most” scholars have given up this latter association. However, Dr. Klein then goes on to associate the word for “cloud” to anna, an Arabic word for “appearance” which once again brings in the possibility that the sight of an “eye” is associated to both “cloud” and “divination.”

With a bit of poetic license we can give at the above verse from Torah (Exodus 40:38) a unique interpretation. Here is an example: “when that which obscured the vision of the the people ascended, they could move journey (lit. “pull up their tent stakes”). But when their sight was obscured by cloudy uncertainty, they remained at the same camp.” Besides the moon what brings sight to people during the night? A good fire, torch, or lantern. So even at night the Israelites were permitted to see what was ahead of them. What is the underlying principle of movement and rest during the Exodus? First, the cloud (uncertainty, doubt, obscurity sight) must ascend so that we can move forward. Then at night, we are given a vision of tomorrow by the light God’s holy camp fire. This is what guided the Israelites for all forty-two journeys during all forty years in the wilderness. The Israelites learned how to read the clouds, just as today we are learning how to “read” our emotions. We are learning how to “read” that which obscures us from making clear-sighted decisions as we move forward in our lives.

The Paradox of Clouds

I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It’s cloud illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all

                                                                               by Joni Mitchell

In popular American culture we extend the meaning of clouds to situations that are sometimes negative and sometimes positive. We speak of someone’s thoughts being cloudy (meaning “unclear” or “obscure”). Just look at the idiomatic expressions about clouds that have a somewhat negative connotation. We say that “every cloud has a silver lining” as if the cloud were a entity symbolic of painful situations. We tell someone, “get your head out of the clouds” as if clouds were a symbol of unrealistic thinking. We say that someone is “under a cloud of suspicion,” implying that the opaque nature of clouds is represents a way of hiding guilt.

On the other hand, when someone is happy we say that they are “on cloud nine” or “walking on clouds.” So, what it is? Happiness or obscurity? Although Biblical Hebrew also had this same duel notion in the extended meaning of the word “cloud,” the Torah speaks of clouds in their protective capacity. For example, “And the YHWH went before them by day in a pillar of cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; that they might go by day and by night (Exodus 13:21).” The cloud protected the Israelites in the desert from the heat of the day, just as the pillar of fire warmed them in the cold nights in the Arabian Peninsula. An an equally positive quality of clouds is seen when Moses is told, “Behold, the Glory of the YHWH appeared in the cloud (Exodus 16:10).” In its protective capacity the cloud is identified as a kind of protective covering, or roofing, in the sacred meeting place. The Torah declares, “And the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the Glory of YHWH filled the tabernacle. Exodus 40:44.”

On the other hand, in the great vision of the prophet Ezekiel, just before he beholds the mystical chariot, he describes a cloud that Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan teaches about. Rabbi Kaplan writes that in the Zohar the cloud Ezekiel saw was emblematic of obscurity. The prophet reports, “And I looked, and, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, a great cloud, with a fire flashing up, so that a brightness was round about it; and out of the midst thereof as the color of electrum, out of the midst of the fire (Ezekiel 1:4).” Rabbi Kaplan writes,3 “The Zohar teaches that the ‘stormy wind,’ the ‘great cloud,’ and the ‘flashing fire’ refer to the three levels of the husk that it is root of all evil. These confuse the mind, and serve as barriers to one who would ascend into the spiritual domain.” He continues that the great cloud “…is an opaqueness of the mind, where nothing can be seen or experienced, and it will discourage the prophet if he does not have the will to proceed further…he must work and strive to penetrate the cloud.…While the cloud is an obliteration of sensation, the fire is an overabundance of sensation, which threatens and repels the prophet. The cloud shows the prophet that one who is not worthy will see nothing, while the fire indicates that there can be great danger as well.”

Although in the Book of Lamentations the prophet Jeremiah cries to God that “You have covered Yourself with a cloud so that our prayer should not pass through (Lamentations 3:44)” the prophet Isaiah celebrates the cloud when God proclaims that “Like a thick cloud I have blotted out your transgressions, and your sins return to me as a cloud for I have redeemed you (Isaiah 44:22).” So, we clearly get the the Bible shows us the two sides of the symbolism of clouds. On the one hand it is protective, and creates a covering for the Tabernacle. On the other hand, the cloud represents that which cannot be penetrated, obscuring sight.

Pardon the paraphrase Joni, but I have looked at clouds from both sides now… and it is cloud illusions that I am recalling here. And, I must admit that I too don’t know clouds at all. But I do know paradox, and I think the answer (עָנָה anah) to the secret of the cloud (עָנָן anan) may be hidden in the mystery. Have you ever walked in a misty, foggy field or forest with a friend? Do you remember how quietly your friend could speak and her voice was audible a hundred feet away? Fog, as we know, is a excellent carrier and transmitter of sound. Even our whispers are carried long distances when we enter a fog. Yet, as sound is carried, sight is limited in the midst of a fog. We say “we are in a fog” when we can’t think very clearly. In nature, fog decreases the sense of sight but amplifies the sense of hearing. In the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:4) Moses doesn’t say to the Hebrews, “See O Israel,” but rather, “Hear, O Israel” as if sound were the preferred sense through which to experience the Divine. There is a mystery in limiting sight in order to increase hearing, and so we close our eyes when chanting the Shema.

The mystery seems to have to do with what we perceive as being near and far. Just as the fog conducts sound and obscures sight, so sound seems to brings close that which is actually far. Try listening to someone you care for speaking with your eyes are open. The words you hear may be inspiring or beautiful, but sight creates a sense of the “reality” of your separation from that which is outside of you. When you listen with your eyes open you have what Martin Buber would call an I-It relationship with the person speaking. Now try listening to that same person speaking with your eyes closed. Something mysterious happens to your depth perception. It is more difficult to discern how far away the person is to you without your eyesight. In fact, if you have ever been led in a guided meditation by someone you trust and who has a soothing voice, it can seem as if the words are coming from inside of you rather than from someone else. On a allegorical level Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach taught that this is the reason we involuntarily close our eyes when we kiss someone we love. It’s as if our whole being is saying, “You’re part of me, I’m part of you. We are one. I love you!”

A cloud is a protective barrier in the desert – it is often a welcome sign holding the promise or rain in dry lands. It’s no wonder that the extended meanings of the word “cloud” in the Hebrew mind had to do with “cover” and protection, and did not have the same kind of negative connotation as it does in English. As we said, God appears in a cloud, and the cloud is indicative of the resting place of God’s Presence. Metaphorically, we can say that God appears within obscurity. When we clear we become rational and are a bit separate from the divine in our lives. When we are a bit lost, and unclear there is a greater opportunity for us to sense the Presence of divinity. We think we need God less when there is clarity in our lives, but when something obscures our vision we are drawn closer to the Divine.

A related paradox regarding sight is that we see farthest at night. We think that light permits us to see, and on one level it does, but light only illuminates that which is close to us. In fact, light actually prevents us from seeing the farthest distances. When can we see stars? At night, when there is only darkness between our eyes and each star. As fog conducts sound, so darkness conducts sight. At night we can see stars that are light years away. During the day the sunlight prevents us from seeing those great distances. The light of the sun obliterates any possibility of seeing the stars. Light permits us to see that which is close to us. As the prophet Joni taught, “It’s cloud illusions I recall.” And in the end I must admit, “I really don’t know clouds at all.”

——————–
1 In Isaiah 52:8 the watchman are said to see ְּעַיִן בְּעַיִן eye to eye concerning Jerusalem.
2 Most etymologists agree associations between all words sharing the ע•ן Ayin-Nun root are not necessarily cognates. Whereas the Hebrew words for “eye” and “well” are cognates, the association between “cloud” and “eye” is speculative.
3 From Meditation and the Bible by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, Samuel Weiser, Inc., p. 39-40. Rabbi Kaplan is citing Zohar 2:81a, 2:203a, 3:123a, 3:227a, and Pardes Rimonim 25.7.

The Way Moses and Rev. King Faced Pharaoh
by Rabbi David Zaslow

Adapted from an essay in Reimagining Exodus: A Freedom Story

Listen to any of Rev. Martin Luther King’s speeches and you hear the voice of Moses and echoes of the Exodus. His prophetic sermon, often referred to as the Mountaintop Speech, was delivered on April 3, 1968 at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple in Memphis just hours before his assassination the next day:

I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will, and he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.

Rev. King, like Moses before him, knew that the oppressed could never be free from the effects of racism until the oppressor was also free from being racist. Moses worked for the redemption of Egypt from its oppressiveness just as King worked for the redemption of White America from its racism. On many occasions King let his listeners know that he was also praying for White American, that they too needed to be liberated.

This same principle is taught by the Dalai Lama and other visionary Tibetans – that the Tibetan people can never be free from the oppression of the Chinese until the Chinese themselves are free from being oppressors. Visionary Israelis and Palestinians also understand this principle in regard to Middle East peace – that Israel will never be free from acts of terror, and that Palestinians will never achieve statehood, until groups like Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Hezbollah are liberated from the hatred that cause them to commit these acts of terror. Israel and the Jewish people must uphold this vision of the prophets and loudly proclaim it’s interdependence with the children of Ishmael, our cousins. When we are angry and think only in binary terms this principle of interdependence is difficult to comprehend. In the mid-1950’s Rev. King taught:

Let us remember that as we struggle against Egypt, we must have love, compassion and understanding goodwill for those against whom we struggle, helping them to realize that as we seek to defeat the evils of Egypt we are not seeking to defeat them but to help them, as well as ourselves.

Pharaoh’s National Repentance Movement
by Rabbi David Zaslow

from Reimagining Exodus: A Freedom Story

Exodus 9:27–28: “Then Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron, and said to them,
‘This time I have sinned; the Lord is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong.
Pray to the Lord! Enough of God’s thunder and hail! I will let you go…'”

When Pharaoh finally sees the error of his ways, it feels like a miracle. But no sooner has he let the Israelites go than he changes his mind. The Torah says, “When Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he sinned once more and hardened his heart … and he would not let the Israelites go” (Exod. 9:34, 35). Many of us, like Pharaoh, have learned the hard way that repentance is not a straight path from sin to atonement. More often it’s two steps forward and one step back.

Rameses II was raised to believe he was the incarnation of the sun god Ra, with power and wealth beyond anything we can imagine. When his ego is challenged by his stepbrother Moses, he must be thinking: who is this Moses that I once foolishly called my brother? A Hebrew from an enslaved people! Not even a real, true-blooded Egyptian! For Rameses’s heart to open again, something tragic will have to happen.

It is only after the tenth plague, when he feels the heartbreak of his own firstborn son’s death, that Rameses yields to the God of Israel and liberates the Hebrews. Yet within a week of their emancipation, he regrets his decision and sends his top charioteers after them. Two steps forward, one step back. He is clearly in the throes of inner turmoil. As we know, the sea parts for Moses, the children of Israel cross in safety, and the Egyptian soldiers drown.

One Midrash suggests that Pharaoh was actually the lone survivor of the charioteers. The famous “Song at the Sea,” chanted with Moses leading the men and Miriam leading the women, includes the words “Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness?” (Exod. 15:11). A Midrash proposes that Moses chanted, “Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods,” but it is Rameses who responds with the second part of the verse, “Who is like you, majestic in holiness?” This is a transformative moment for Pharaoh as he repents for his arrogance right there. In his emotional torment, still mourning the deaths of his son and soldiers, he calls out to God, “Who is like you, majestic in holiness?” He finally recognizes the God of his brother, the God of Israel, as the true Deity. In this Midrash, there is liberation for the oppressed and the oppressor.

If we accept the possibility of Pharaoh’s survival, the question arises: if he did live, why does the Torah never mention him again? A second fascinating Midrash suggests that after the incident at the Red Sea, Pharaoh flees Egypt to later become king of Nineveh, the Assyrian city God would later be sending Jonah to. Dr. Raphael Zarum teaches: “When the prophet Jonah showed up, Pharaoh immediately led a national repentance movement….Thus Pharaoh becomes the paradigm of change that we read about and learn from every Yom Kippur.”

Unlike Amalek, a character whom the rabbis deem as the archetype of unredeemable evil, Pharaoh is considered the model of a bad person who is capable of change. In his moments of passion and emotional wavering throughout the Exodus story, he reveals an inner torment that is recognizably human. The Midrashim of his atonement tell a parallel tale of metamorphoses from tyrant to liberator, and ultimately to leading a national redemption movement. These interpretations, as farfetched as they may seem, reflect back to us the remarkable possibilities of rising above our own limitations.

The Seder As a Template
by Rabbi David Zaslow

Excepted from Reimagining Exodus: A Freedom Story

On Friday, December 30, 1994, I drove to Canterbury, a beautiful 48-acre Episcopal retreat center in Oviedo, Florida, to what promised to be a historic gathering between Jews and Christians inspired by my teacher, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. It was just months before my rabbinic ordination, so I was especially eager to observe my mentor interacting with Christians in an intimate, weekend-long retreat. Reb Zalman was co-leading with his wife Eve Ilsen and Father Edward G. Zogby, who was vice president of Fordham University in New York City. The retreat was called “Dance around the Midnight Pole; Happy Birthday, Jesus”—a title typical of the wry humor and fearless innovation that Reb Zalman always brought to his work.

On the Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran calendars, January 1 is a special holiday called the Feast of the Circumcision. Count eight days from December 25, the day Jesus’s birthday is celebrated, and you arrive at January 1, the date Christian tradition assigns to Jesus’s ritual circumcision (brit milah). The day we celebrate the secular New Year is actually a commemoration for Christians of Jesus’s first religious ritual as a Jew. Reb Zalman had proposed this Sabbath retreat many months before, planning to use the sacred technology of the Passover seder to enhance the celebration of the New Year at midnight on Saturday. He believed a commemoration of Jesus’s brit milah on New Year’s Eve would offset the secular tradition of a party based on merriment and drinking.

The plan was that on Saturday afternoon the Jews would teach the Christians the structure of the Passover seder: the four questions, the telling of the Exodus story, four glasses of wine, a festive meal, and lots of singing. In this retreat, though, the story told would be about the birth of Jesus, and how the Gospels helped change the world. The four questions would relate to Jesus’s life, and the four cups of wine and festive meal would be integrated into a formal Catholic Mass commemorating the body, heart, mind, and the spirit of Jesus indwelling in every Christian. The Mass itself would begin at midnight, followed by an all-night study, prayer, and meditation vigil in the manner of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The vigil would culminate with a traditional Jewish morning worship service at sunrise led by Reb Zalman.

There were approximately two hundred participants— Jews, Catholics, Episcopalians, and Methodists. After welcoming the Sabbath with traditional blessings over the candles, wine, and bread, Friday evening was spent chanting and singing songs from the Psalms in Hebrew, Latin, and English led by Reb Zalman and Father Zogby. It was magnificent. But after a long day of traveling we retired early knowing that they next day would be mysterious, long, and filled with surprises. We would not be disappointed.

After a morning service of Jewish prayers and Catholic chants, Reb Zalman read from the Torah portion that describes Moses’s intimate encounter with God at the burning bush. This was followed by deep teachings from Reb Zalman and Father Zogby on the Jewishness of Jesus and the birth of Christianity. We were then asked to take some time alone to contemplate how we might overlay the template of the Passover seder onto the story of Jesus’s birth in a way that was authentic and respectful of the key differences in each of our religions. We all sensed the historic nature of the weekend. This was clearly not just a meeting with brothers and sisters of another faith, but an unexpected encounter between ourselves and God.

When we gathered again in the afternoon it was time for the Jews to teach the Christians about the structure of the seder and how we blend rituals and symbols into the telling of the Exodus story. Then the Christians would collaborate with us on how to incorporate the story of Jesus into their own Haggadah (a booklet that tells the story) that would be read that night as part of the Midnight Mass. Of course, the sacred task of creating an authentic Christian seder took many hours. We had a light dinner together and retired to our own rooms for rest, knowing our Midnight Mass with seder would last until sunrise.

When we came together at 11:30 pm it was with a sense of anticipation and awe. We knew that in the 2,000 -year history of the church and the synagogue, no rabbi or priest had dared to create this kind of ceremony. This was not a hybrid or fusion, but rather a “new thing” like the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah had spoken about, lending one religion’s template to the telling of another religion’s sacred story.

We started slowly, easing into the ritual with Hebrew songs from the Psalms, as we had the night before. At midnight Father Zogby, who by that time we were addressing affectionately as Father Ed, began leading the mass. Our role as Jews was not to participate, but to be sacred witnesses to the ceremony of our Christian friends. At Reb Zalman’s request the Mass was chanted in Latin with line-by-line English translations.

Father Ed: In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Christians: Amen.

The Mass continued with the doxology known as Gloria in excelsis Deo, a powerful ceremony of confession, and then we reached the canon.

Father Ed: Dominus vobiscum. May the Lord be with you.
Christians: Et cum spiritu tuo. And also with you.
Father Ed: Sursum corda. Lift up your hearts.
Christians. Habemus ad Dominum. We lift them up to the Lord.
Father Ed: Gratias agamus Domino Deo nostro.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
Christians: Dignum et iustum est. It is right to give thanks and praise.

Then Father Ed fell silent. He had been leading the service in Latin from memory with no missal (prayer book) in his hands. The silence grew until everyone knew something was wrong; the priest didn’t know what came next. There was a kind of collective bewilderment as we waited for him to recover. It occurred to me since he was now an administrative priest at Fordham, he wasn’t leading Mass on a daily, or even a weekly, basis. This could be a long pause.

Suddenly another voice rang out, “Pax Domini sit semper vobiscum. May the peace of the Lord be always with you.” We all stared as Reb Zalman, sitting next to Father Zogby, smoothly supplied the next line. The Catholics chanted back, “Et cum spiritu tuo. And also with you.” It was as if the whole room let out a breath of relief, and then we all laughed at the wild wonder of this moment.

The evening continued with the reading of the new Haggadah the Christians had created to tell their story. It was glorious and unforgettable, but what stood out most in all our minds was the miraculous instant when the rabbi sang out the Mass to help his friend, the priest.

Later that night, I leaned over to Reb Zalman and asked, “How did you know what to say?” He explained that decades earlier he’d memorized large portions of the Mass in Latin as a tribute to his deep respect for Catholicism beginning in the 1950s and his personal friendship with Thomas Merton, with whom he used to take summer retreats at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky in the 1960s. With a twinkle in his eye he leaned in and whispered, “Baruch Hashem! Blessed is God! It sure came in handy tonight!” I laughed, feeling grateful again to have this courageous, once-in-a -generation rabbi as my teacher. The weekend ended with a sunrise service in Hebrew, and as we left on January 1, we said goodbye to each other with “Shana tova, Happy New Year.”

Responding to Anti-Semitism
By Rabbi David Zaslow

Anti-Semitism, like all prejudices, is an equal opportunity yetzer ha-ra, “ evil inclination.” Today it afflicts people on the far left as well as the far right. This has, in fact, been the historical pattern of prejudice against Jews. Before World War II Stalin and the Communists claimed that the Jews were capitalists trying to take over the world. Hitler and the Nazis claimed that the Jews were communists trying to take over the world. The language is a little different today but the beliefs coming from both extremes of the political spectrum are the same.

Two years ago our synagogue put in an alarm system and cameras surrounding the building because of threats we perceived to be coming from anti-Israel activists in our town. For the past 15+ years I have seen an uptick in anti-Semitic attitudes arising from the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanction) movement that we’ve heard so much about especially on college campuses throughout the country.  Threats from the radical left really doubled in 2015, mostly as threats to the safety of Jewish students on college campuses. According to AMCHA, nationally there were 467 anti-semitic incidents in 2015, and 618 in the election year of 2016. In 2017 so far 97 incidents have been reported. From news reports in recent days it seems that another 200+ threats and incidents have yet to be recorded for this new year. There has been a clear increase in the number of incidents of threats, grafitti and cemetery desecrations in the last few months. And there was a clear underreporting of incidents in recent years because the incidents were focused on Israel rather than directly on Jews and Judaism, as we are witnessing today.

As a rabbi I don’t care where the prejudices are coming from –  hatred is hatred, and hatred breeds more hatred. Yet it’s important to understand the roots of anti-Semitism. As Easter is approaching many of us recognize that the Passion story told on Good Friday in almost all churches squarely puts the blame for the crucifixion of Jesus on the Jewish people – the New Testament clearly says of the Jewish people that Jesus’s “…blood is upon us and our children.” The scapegoating of Jews can be traced farther back to the story of Esther that we’ll read about on Purim. Haman was upset by immigrant Jews who were living in the Persian Empire.

In the book of Exodus Moses was being trained by God to realize that the emancipation of the slaves from oppression was not enough. More than seven times God expresses concern to Moses about the liberation of the Egyptians from their oppressiveness. The liberation of the oppressor and the liberation of the oppressed go hand-in-hand. This is the very same teaching that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. adopted in the civil rights movement. He taught that it wasn’t enough for African-Americans to be freed from oppression, but that white Americans needed to be also freed from being oppressive.

On May 17, 1956 in NYC at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City Rev. King declared:

“Let us not despair. Let us not lose faith in man and certainly not in God. We must believe that a prejudiced mind can be changed, and that man, by the grace of God, can be lifted from the valley of hate to the high mountain of love. Let us remember that as we struggle against Egypt, we must have love, compassion and understanding goodwill for those against whom we struggle, helping them to realize that as we seek to defeat the evils of Egypt we are not seeking to defeat them but to help them, as well as ourselves.”

In a wonderful book written for Christians called Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, the authors offer these wise words:

“Peacemaking doesn’t mean passivity. It is the act of interrupting injustice without mirroring injustice, the act of disarming evil without destroying the evildoer, the act of finding a third way that is neither fight nor flight but the careful, arduous pursuit of reconciliation and justice. It is about a revolution of love that is big enough to set both the oppressed and the oppressors free.”

I can’t begin to tell you how inspiring these words are to me. We must act on behalf of of the immigrant who wants to come to the United States to be part of a democratic society. We must act on behalf of minorities who are mistreated; on behalf of the LGBT community; on behalf of transgender youth; on behalf of our police who risk their lives to serve us; on behalf of African-American young men; on behalf of women’s safety and rights; on behalf of our environment; and on behalf of our own Jewish community that is now being threatened much more than in the recent past. But let’s not settle for easy scapegoats. Let us analyze the situation today with nuanced analysis rather than simplistic, easy answers that we get from the internet.

In the past three months I’ve been chanting the words from King David to a melody by Rabbi Menachem Creditor – olam hesed yibaneh, “the world is built from love.” Olam hesed yibaneh does not mean that we are not to be activists, but it means that our activism must be informed by prayer; must be informed by kindness; must be informed by compassion and love. This is what Moses taught. This is what Martin Luther King taught. This is what the Dalai Lama teaches. And this is what I am trying to practice myself.

Oct 8 2014

Peak Experiences

Peak Experiences
by Rabbi David Zaslow

Just as there are certain times in our lives when we have peak experiences, so there are certain times of the year when nature affords us the opportunity to have exalted spiritual experiences. In Judaism, we think of lifecycle events as turning points that represent a pinnacle in our lives. Brit milah, naming ceremonies, bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, and memorial services all represent times when our physical existence reaches to the heights of our souls. In our communal history we can think of Mount Sinai as the “peak” experience (pun intended) of the Jewish people.

A few years ago Debra and I were performing a wedding in Vermont. When we checked into the hotel in Burlington the concierge pointed out that we just missed the peak of the autumn leaves by two days. In New England the change of leaves from the green of summer to the yellows, oranges, and reds of autumn is measured and marked with precision. Autumn foliage, in that region, is a tourist attraction. Scientists can tell you the exact day that the trees in a particular town or forest are at their peak. From Canada to New England, and south into New York and Pennsylvania, the changing of the leaves makes a descending wave, leaving in its wake some of the most gorgeous colors exhibited by nature anywhere in the world.

Although we missed the peak in Burlington by two days, the autumnal scenery was spectacular anyway. The next morning as we drove south to the wedding  on Highway 100 we passed through the very woods where Robert Frost wrote some of his most famous poetry. Later that day as we checked into our hotel in Pittsfield the desk clerk informed us that the peak colors would be arriving on Wednesday. We told her that sadly we were only staying through Monday.

So there we were in Vermont – two days late for the peak in Burlington, and leaving two days early for the peak in Pittsfield. So, I figure that somewhere on the drive from the north to the south we must have driven past the elusive “peak.” Of course we were so busy enjoying the beauty of the ride that we never said “oh, look, this must be the peak.”  No road signs announced, “You are now having a peak experience, don’t take this moment for granted. Soak in the colors in front of you, behind you, to your left, and to your right. You won’t see colors like this again until next year.” No, Debra and I were so busy enjoying the experience that we never knew it was happening.

What a metaphor for life! While traveling from north to south each of us is certain to pass the peak. The concierge in the north might tell us we missed it, and the desk clerk in the south might warn us that if we check out too early we’ll miss it there as well. Yet if we’re living life fully, in joy, with gratitude to God and each other, does it really matter if we’ve marked the peak?

Certainly, rituals are markers help us recall our communal peak experiences, which is part of the beauty and power of our Jewish tradition. But what matters most is our ability to simply be in the moment when the experience is happening, whether we know the exact moment of the peak or not.  Maybe now, as you are reading these words you are at a peak in your life because of the deep inner work you did during Yom Kippur last week. There is no need to capture it or even note it – just enjoy it and give thanks! May the Holy One bless you to enjoy the colors of autumn, and the opportunity to dwell in the Sukkah in the days ahead.

Israel: Hatikvah – Singin’ the Hope
by Rabbi David Zaslow

Dedicated to the holy work of Evan J. Krame

At the Reb Zalman Shabbaton on May 4, 2014 I spoke of the PTSD that impacts most of the Jewish community around the world. From the pogroms in Eastern Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries, to the Holocaust that took one third of the Jewish population, to the ethnic cleansing of Jews from their ancient homes in places like Iraq, Iran, Syria, and throughout North Africa which occurred after World War II. These massive population movements and traumas cannot have anything but a negative impact on the soul of the second, third, and fourth generations born after these events.

This trauma impacts the way we see ourselves. Two thirds or more of the Jewish population really want very little to do with “organized” Judaism, and I have great empathy and compassion for this segment of our population. In my early 20s I was part of the post Holocaust generation that rejected the stiffness, formality, and lack of spirituality in the synagogues we grew up in. I ran as far away from Judaism is possible. I was fortunate to have found a way to back to my faith and heritage when my daughter was born in 1981. But many of my friends remained, and remain, alienated from the rich heritage of our spiritual practices and culture.

In fact, it is so sad to see a small segment of this population not just passively alienated from the traditions of their birth, but actually antagonistic to it. This, many of us believe, is a direct result of the PTSD suffered from the traumas of the twentieth-century – and this PTSD plays itself out in a number of ways. Right now I just want to deal with the issue of Israel. The United States, European nations, and Israel share a common heritage that can be called “Western democracy.” I like to call it “the best of the West.” Naturally, there are flaws, and terrible errors  made through bigotry and corruption in all Western democracies. America, for all its greatness, was born out of the yearning for religious freedom for Anglo-Europeans, but was built upon the genocide of many Native American tribes and the enslavement of millions of Africans. Yet as we reach “toward a more perfect union” we acknowledge that our “union” is not perfect. We’ve come a long way in dealing with civil rights, but as recent news events have shown we have a long way to go. And, we will go “toward” that “more perfect union.” From women suffrage, to the union movement, to the civil rights movement, to the environmental movement, to the gay-rights movement it clearly is two steps forward even when there is one step back.

Israel is no different. Would you like a laundry list of all the errors that this nation has made in its 66 years? Just ask any Israeli of any religion and they’ll gladly fill you in.  But right now let’s just say that Israel, too, struggles to better itself every day. People protest, people go to court, people form activist political groups of every sort, and have the right to redress their grievances to the government. That’s all Israel promises. Not perfection. But a process of elections and judicial access. Who are the people who are most critical of Israel? It’s Israelis themselves! That’s their civic duty. But their criticism comes as insiders; as citizens who love the nation and simply want to see it get better and better.

A word of caution to outsiders who criticize Israel. Don’t be an outsider! Love Israel first, come inside, and then your comments and critiques, lawsuits, civic activism will have an impact. And another word of caution: before your criticize, express your gratitude. Say what you like about Israel first. Sing Hatikvah with the rest of us, not because Israel is perfect, but because Israel needs your voice of hope in song, anthem, prayer, and protest alike. Now, I realize that this is challenging for those of us who are struggling with the real effects of PTSD. And I’m telling you from my own experience the best way to begin healing PTSD is to breathe, pray, sing, and express gratitude. Be part of the community you disagree with. Debate, yes, but stand up for all that is good in Israel. Be grateful for its diversity, its environmental movement, its gay-rights movement, its unbelievable religious tolerance and diversity, and its unbelievable technological genius that is helping change the world. Don’t let Israel’s flaws steal from you your sense of gratitude and love.

So long as still within our hearts the Jewish soul is true,
So long as still towards the East to Zion looks the Jew,
Two thousand years of hope not lost to be free in our land –
To be a free people in our land. The land of Zion and Jerusalem.

Apr 27 2014

Max and Mutte: A Poem

 

Max and Mutte
by Rabbi David Zaslow

In 1958 I was about to meet Max and Mutte.
My mother told me,
“If you see numbers on their arms,
don’t look. Don’t ask. Don’t say a word.”
I was twelve but I understood.
There was something sacred there.
A sacred object carved on flesh
that I dare not look upon.
Enter with humility.
Like Moses, go barefoot – avert the eyes.
But Mutte knew that it was time
for her to talk.
It was thirteen years after that Event.

They were released, stateless,
and lived in camps for the stateless
another five years.
Five more years
until, in 1950,
they came to America.
Mutte,
everyone calls her Mutte, mother.
Even my mother calls her Mutte –
rasied Christian, married Max
and converted to Judaism.
They kept her in a special camp
because her eyes were blue.

Today her deep blue eyes
draw from Miriam’s well
and from the flames
of that unspeakable Place,
Today, in remembering,
Mutte speaks easily.
Max, God rest his soul,
never uttered the Amidah
without remembering,
but not so easily.
Mutte speaks easily though.
She knows the inner meaning of memory.
It is not something from the past,
it is her air.
The air of a German blue sky
and the rising smoke filled with ashes.
She permits us to to breathe
this air today,
so that we might remember,
and know it when we see it
in Rochester, or Brooklyn, or Ashland.
To know it when we see it
and not deny it, or run from it.
To know it when we see it,
and to never permit it to be forgotten.
To know it when we see it,
and never let it lose its sacred meaning.
To know it when we see it,
and never let it happen again.
Never again. Never again.
With God’s help,
through our eyes;
with God’s help through our voices,
never the silence again.

Mutte says, “The question
is not ‘Where was God?’
The question is ‘Where were our friends?’”
Never again?
Mutte says, “Don’t say
‘God willing.’
Ask, ‘Am I willing?’”

Passover: Our Festival of Leaping

by Rabbi David Zaslow

The Jewish Exodus story was used as a template for the first Europeans who came to America in search of religious freedom. Subsequently it was used by the first Mormons who fled Illinois in search of their religious freedom and the promised land for their people. In our time it was the freedom story used by Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement. The Passover story teaches that there are many levels of freedom. One person is free on the outside and bound on the inside. Another is bound in chains yet free in her soul. Passover in Hebrew is “pesach” and the word has its etymology in the leaping or skipping movement of lambs. The translation “Passover” is the simple definition but “The Festival of Leaping Over” might be a more accurate translation for our springtime liberation festival.

Leaping implies that the obstacle is still there. The journey from here to there, from slavery to freedom is one that we all make, and sometimes we don’t eliminate our obstacles, we simply leap over them. Maybe the term “a leap of faith” comes from this notion. How do I get out of my chains, habits, negative attitudes? How to I remove myself from the forces of the Pharaoh that are within me?

In Hebrew Egypt is “mitzrayim” which means “tight, narrow places.” So, the spiritual question that we ask ourselves during this season is “how do I get out of my private Mitzrayim?” The answer may be in our biologies. Birth requires the infant to make his first major journey. From the womb into the world of gravity the infant must travel through her first narrow place. From birth on, movements and changes will not be so easy. Yet the remembrance of our birth will shape our destiny; will be a determinant factor in the way we handle problems and challenges throughout our lives.
Pesach, the season of our liberation. All the stories in the book of Exodus come into play during the springtime. We want to get outside. We want to be free. We yearn to fall in love. The festival of Passover is a marker for what is already happening biologically and in nature. The seder dinner is not just a reenactment of a historical event, but a dress rehearsal for what we are each going to do in our lives the morning after the celebration.

During Yom Kippur we dwell on our sins. We chant “ahl chayt – I have sinned.” We take inventory of all that is inside. We mark each internal item with a label, “keep,” “discard,” “change.” We make new vows, dissolve the old ones, and methodically make a file of all transactions. Not so during Passover. Pesach requires action NOW. The angel of death will ride over our homes at midnight. Quick. Clean the house. Quick. Take the lamb of our innocence and streak its blood (our own anguish) on the doorposts. Quick. The dawn is coming. We leave in a hurry. No time for inventory and careful filing or analysis. Now is the time to make the leap, to make the skip.

Have a problem? Skip it! Have a old habit that you want to change? Skip it! Have a negative behavioral pattern? Skip it! The concept of the “Almighty with an out sretched arm and a Mighty hand took us out of Egypt” is an extraordinary template for new possibilities. So, when the moment comes at midnight of the next full moon when our people collectively hear G-d’s voice say “make the change,” there is only one response – LEAP! Blessings to each of you for a kosher and transformative Passover.

Apr 4 2014

Pentecost: A Poem

Pentecost: A Poem
by Rabbi David Zaslow

Passover and Easter: two moon linked sisters
who long ago stopped speaking to one another:
linked to the fullness in our hearts
and the fullness of God’s grace.
The moon of Sister Miriam desires freedom –
to rescue her people from the cruelty of Pharaoh,
by the outstretched, mighty hand of Adonai:
a hand of salvation reaching down from heaven,
and passing through my nation,
and down through yours,
and then to each and every one of us – so may it be!
The moon of Mother Mary desires to give her light
so that each man and woman might know
the power of the resurrection,
and the soil of death that holds the seeds of rebirth within:
a resurrection reaching upward,
passing through all nations and up to God Almighty!
Two celebrations: two women: Miriam and Mary,
who don’t even know they have the same name –
one in Hebrew and one in Greek –
yet inexorably linked to a single full moon.
And then we each begin to count:
we both count to fifty –
beyond the forty days of Moses on Mt. Sinai
and Jesus in the wilderness.
We go beyond, one cycle further:
to fifty, Shavuot, the Pentecost.
Ours to the revelation of Torah at Sinai.
Yours to the revelation of the Holy Spirit.
Freedom and resurrection. Revelation and revelation.
Twelve tribes and twelve disciples.
One moon, two traditions.
Two covenants, One God.
Shavuot and Pentecost: two cousins
who have just begun to speak.
And King David is singing to us
from his tomb today:
“Teach us to count our days
that we may open our hearts to Your Wisdom.”
Some of us, thank God, are listening

Coming soon– Reimagining Exodus: A Story of Freedom

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