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

Feb 11 2014

In the Groove

In the Groove
by Rabbi David Zaslow

To be in the groove
means that the needle
rests in total stillness
while the record around it spins.
The turntable turns,
the record revolves,
but the point of contact
requires total stillness.

To be in the groove
requires a complete balance
between stillness and movement,
between diamond and vinyl.
For the needle to do its work
of reading the engraved cuts
within the grooves, it must be still.
Just like us – to hear
what the Holy One has engraved
in the groove of nature,
in the groove of our lives,
we can’t be turning.
We can’t be moving
to get out of the way,
or to get somewhere else.
We have to remain in place.
Totally in place.
Perfectly in place.

It is difficult to be still
when I want to weep
for those whose lives are lost.
It is difficult to be still
when I want to pray
for a future free of fear.
So I say my prayers,
chant the Amidah,
say Kaddish,
and then enter the stillness
like a needle in the groove.

by Rabbi David Zaslow

adapted from the book “Jesus: First-Century Rabbi”

 

Hanukkah and Christmas are two wondrous winter holidays that celebrate the light of God. The spiritual power of these festivals comes from the fact that they celebrate light at the darkest time of the year. For Jews the candles on the menorah represent freedom. After all, the success of the Maccabees in the second century BCE, Hanukkah represented one of the first successful recorded struggles for religious freedom. Today our menorahs are lit as a symbol for all people who struggle to overcome prejudice. Parallel to Hanukkah Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus as representing the birth of a new light that came into the world. Christianity and Judaism, represent two paths celebrating the same light through two uniquely different stories.

The time has arrived when Christians and Jews are beginning to have a new understanding of each other – the darkness of old prejudices is rapidly making way for the light of truth. Do we need to criticize each other’s faith in order to explain our own faith? I hope not. Do we need to “spin” descriptions of our own beliefs when comparing them to each other’s beliefs? I hope not. The word of God in each of our great religions needs no interpretative spin. What we need are more passionate, joy-filled discussions and dialogues with an underlying celebration of what we have in common.

To a Jew, Jesus can at most be a brother; a fellow Jew at the highest spiritual level who was martyred like millions of other Jews; a teacher of a group of devotees who wanted to see the prophetic dream of peace and justice fulfilled in this world. He was a healer in the lineage of Elijah and Elisha before him; a mystic like the Baal Shem Tov after him; an incredible storyteller in the tradition of the Pharisees. He was a good son, a good Jew, and what in Judaism we call a mensch, someone who lived up to his potential.

Yet to a Christian this can never, and should never be enough. To a follower of Jesus he is much more. He is one with his Father. He is the anointed one, the messiah who was spoken of in the Jewish prophetic writings, and he is the incarnation of the God  – both Savior and Comforter. Without him salvation had not been accessible to the Greek and Roman gentiles. With him comes a covenant with the Living God. Through him there is hope for the coming of the Kingdom of God both in this world and in the world to come.

Herein lies the mystery: one Jesus, two understandings. The Jesus believed in and worshipped by the Church is the province of the Church. To a Christian he is seen as both messiah and Savior. To a Jew the messiah is an anointed person and God is the Savior. On these points we will probably always differ. But the historical Jesus, Jesus the man, the Jewish man, the rabbi – he belongs to both of us. Once free of missionary pressure the Jew may learn to see historical Jesus as he was – a Torah observant Jew and a martyr who died because of his fidelity to God and Judaism. But the Christian’s relationship is not based on the historical Jesus. It is primarily with the theological Jesus – the Christ who is mysteriously one with the Father and the the Holy Spirit. How can these two positions be reconciled?

Do they even need to be reconciled? I do not think they can be, nor do I think they should be. The contemporary mindset does not hold onto contradictions very well. We don’t have much room in our minds for mystery and paradox as we once did. We want answers. We pose our questions in black and white, either/or. A pastor once said to me, “Either Jesus is the Savior or he is a fraud.” I asked, “Why? Where did you come up with such a clear either/or choice? Maybe he is Savior to you and ancestor to me, and we’re both right.”

I don’t propose to minimize Jewish and Christian differences. On the contrary, I think it’s time to celebrate our differences. A healthy ecosystem is one where there is eco-diversity. Many of us sense that the same principle holds true between our faiths as well. In a most profound and mysterious way, we need each other. Certainly our theologies differ when it comes to describing Jesus. But this holiday season in particular, the light that seems to be entering the hearts of the faithful is one in the same – the light of tolerance, respect, and celebration of each other’s paths.

Jews and Christians celebrate the same moral light as well. We have a passion for justice and equality based on the prophets that is identical. We have parallel problems and challenges that face us both. We love and serve the same God.  As the prophet Isaiah called out to us, come let us reason together! Though our sins be as scarlet the Holy One of Israel will make them white as snow! May our menorahs and the lights upon our trees shine forth in two directions –  into the world to be a model for others, and into each of ourselves as well.

by Rabbi David Zaslow

In poetry, when an innovation in the use of metaphor or rhythm is first discovered, it is called the breakthrough. After a breakthrough there will others who will do the work of interiorization. For instance, in the late nineteenth-century, the British Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins made a breakthrough in the use of alliteration and rhythm. Yet it wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century that Dylan Thomas was able to interiorize the breakthrough made a century before. Until Dylan Thomas, Hopkins was treated as a kind of novelty poet since his brand of alliteration uses consonance and assonance in an aggressive manner – it and takes some getting used to. Here’s how the process of breakthrough and interiorization works.

In the poem called Inversnaid Hopkins wrote: “This darksome burn/ horseback brown/ His rollrock highroad roaring down/ In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam/ Flutes and low to the lake falls home.” Put the poem’s meaning aside for a moment – what a stunning and original use of sound! In Hopkins’ famous The Windhover he wrote “I caught this morning morning’s minion/ kingdom of daylight’s dauphindapple-dawn-drawn Falcon/ in his riding/ of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding ….” Along comes Welch poet Dylan Thomas who imitates and develops the novel style that Hopkins created. In his classic A Child’s Christmas in Wales Dylan Thomas writes: “All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea, and out come Mrs. Prothero and the firemen.” Beautiful, yes? Can you hear the alliterative connection between these poets? One built upon the work of the other!

The same principle of innovation and emulation is true in religion. In the eighteenth century the Baal Shem Tov made a breakthrough in the Jewish approach to prayer that is still being interiorized today. In the 1960’s Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi made two breakthroughs that continue to transform the Jewish world. The first had to do with the full empowerment of women. The second had to do with an innovative approach to the relationship between Judaism and other religions. Reb Zalman’s breakthroughs are being interiorized, imitated, and developed in Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and Orthodox synagogues throughout the world. Sadly, Reb Zalman and the Jewish Renewal sometimes don’t not get proper attribution, credit, or financial support for the courageous work that is being done on behalf of Judaism. Our shuls tend to be financially poorer because we have chosen the path of creativity, experimentation, and innovation.

Reb Zalman calls Renewal “the research and development department of Judaism.” From explorations in prayer, chanting, drumming, and liturgy you can see the impact of Reb Zalman’s lifetime work in synagogues everywhere. The Havurah is honored to carry on the breakthrough work of Reb Zalman, especially in the areas of joyful services, education, egalitarianism, and ecumenism. In one of his most popular song lyrics, Steve Allen wrote, “This could be the start of something big.” When it comes to Judaism, you really are part of something big!

By Rabbi David Zaslow

Each of the four holy days in our High Holiday season goes deeper and deeper, higher and higher into the hidden realms of the psyche. We begin with Rosh Hashanah, the new moon, and a new year. It is a day of awe as we envision ourselves as being written, God willing, into the Book of Life for a good year ahead. Ten days later it’s Yom Kippur, also a day of awe but on this day the awe is mixed with wonder – we wonder if we will be sealed in the Book of Life for year of health, prosperity, and joy. If we are honest with ourselves we will recognize how fragile our existence on this plane really is, and we simply have to admit that we just don’t know what the year will bring.

The third holy day is really a holy time, seven days of Sukkot, the week of Thanksgiving and the joy of being able to be in community together in our beautiful sukkah. Finally, on Monday evening October 8th. we’ll come together to celebrate Simchat Torah when we’ll read the last words from the book of Deuteronomy and the first words of Genesis and the single breath – all endings and beginnings are connected. The end of one year is the beginning of the next year, the end of one cycle in our lives is the beginning of the next.

Just as Rosh Hashanah marks the time of return, return to ourselves to God, so Yom Kippur marks the time of wonder through an honest assessment of our personal live. We ask ourselves, “have I lived up to my potential this past year?” By the time we get to Sukkot time of return is over, and now it’s the time of being – simply and profoundly accepting ourselves for who we are, knowing that the year ahead is filled with possibility. And when we get to Simchat Torah we hopefully will have arrived at the end of an amazing, awesome inner journey. And what is the end? Joy, simple and magnificent joy. Joy that foretells the good year that lies ahead of us.

The deepest secret is that four  holy days are really one. Awe, wonder, thanksgiving, and joy are all aspects of the singularity, of the One God. On the surface they seem so different like ripples on the sea, but beneath the waves the singularity of the ocean becomes apparent. The season is a movement of return to simple being, and even this movement is part of the greater singularity. There is no being unless there is leaving and returning. There is no joy without the deep, inner work of Yom Kippur which sometimes elicits our deepest and holiest fears and tears.

Judaism is a nature-based faith. Just go outside. There you’ll find the true synagogue. There you will be able to read the true Torah. There you’ll be able to hear the voice of God in every fallen leaf, in every seed ready to crack open to the promise of the spring. As outside, so inside. As above, so below. As you, so me. As us, so God. As nature, so emotion. As spirit, so body. As we chant in the Adon Olam hymn:

וְעִם רוּחִי גְּוִיָּתִי, יהוה לִי וְלֹא אִירָא
As with my spirit my body too. Adonai is with me, I shall not fear.

Each of these four holy days are steps that we take individually and as a community. May we all reached the level of pure and magnificent joy, and come together on Simchat Torah night to dance and chant with the Torah in our arms, saying “L’chaim! To Life.”

by Rabbi David Zaslow

Last night President Obama reminded us that Osama Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader, but a mass murderer of Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Of course, there is no “right” way to respond to the death of such a tyrant. The issue of “rejoicing” over the fall of an enemy like Osama Bin Laden is complex. Many of us are not rejoicing over his death, but celebrating a renewed hope for peace. Rather than celebrating his demise, some of us celebrate the bravery and success of our Navy Seals, and wish to express our gratitude to those who executed this mission and returned unharmed. Many of us are not happy that bin Laden was killed, but are happy for what his death represents in terms of the demise of Al Queda that we hope will follow.

The somber reality of Bin Laden’s death becomes blurred with naturally positive emotions that are embedded in the gestalt of the situation. The Holy One created us with a three-layered brain, and when we look at brain anatomy the response to the death of a mass murderer is even more fascinating. At the level of the brain stem, what Dr. Paul MacLean calls the Reptilian Brain, we respond to a tyrant like Bin Laden in a fight or flight mode – it’s hunt him down and kill him first before he kills again. On hearing of Bin Laden’s death the brain stem responds with relief and a sense of “yes,” which emulates a sensation that feels very similar to joy. But it is not really joy, it is actually a relief that the danger may be over. It is very much like the indigenous hunter’s celebratory sense of victory – not a joy that an animal has been killed, but a sense of relief that the hunt is now over.

In the higher regions of the brain, the Neo-Cortex, we reason that with this death there will be a better chance that terrorism and religious extremism will go into rapid decline. The higher brain functioning helps us rationalize and apply logic to any emotional situation. Mediating between the lower and upper level of the brain, the Limbic Brain responds emotionally, i.e., from the heart. A situation like the news of Bin Laden’s death releases in most of us an odd mixture of fear, anxiety, excitement, hatred, revenge, and the odd sensation that seems to imitate gladness. Again, it is not necessarily gladness that the criminal has been killed, but an adrenaline induced relief that he will not be able to strike again.

If we were family members of a loved one killed on 9/11, certainly a sense of relief and “joy” that justice has been served is a healthy response. As a nation we saw this sense of relief played out at the gates of the White House, at the Philadelphia ballpark last night, in our own towns and cities today, and among some of our Twitter and Facebook friends. An emotional response to the relief of our nation’s pent up anger over 9/11 is natural. If the emotional response is limited and kept in check, it may even be healthy.

Last night our President’s body language displayed relief and a sense of victory without gloating. His words indicated that he believes, as many of us do, that a measure of justice has been served by this carefully executed military action to capture Bin Laden. On a personal level, who is not human enough to have experienced some of each of these emotions in the past twenty-four hours? Who among us can really judge how our fellow citizens are reacting to this news?

Collectively, many of us sense an overriding national unity coming from the news of Bin Laden’s death – an interfaith unity that is the seed of hope for a future free of tyrants, free of mass murderers, free of extremists who hide behind their religions to justify evil. As our cousins in Arab nations are putting their lives on the line for freedom in what some have called the Arab Spring, I am personally trying to lift all my conflicting emotions up to the Holy One. Yes, at the level of my inner reptile I am relieved and “glad” that Bin Laden is dead. I confess I even cheered (limbic brain) last night, and yes, I am making a more sober (neo-cortex) assessment of the whole situation today.

Today in our Omer count it is malchute sheh b’gevurah, the day when we take our G-d given strength, power, and discernment and connect it to the earth and our sense of grounding. Neither can it go unnoticed that Bin Laden was taken out on Yom HaShoah, the day we remember our six million. Regarding Osama’s soul, G-d will have to decide if redemption is even possible for a person who has caused so much destruction. Regarding our response to his death, let us all rededicate ourselves toward making peace in the world – toward being the peace we want to see in the world.

In Psalm 97:10 King David speaks to each of us when he says, “you that love the Holy one, hate evil!” Yes, it’s okay to feel enmity toward those who do harm. It’s unnatural not to hate evil. And on the flip side, it’s dangerous to permit hatred to turn into bigotry. Actions like killing of Osama Bin Laden must not be in the service of vengeance or arrogance, but in the service of G-d’s will, freedom, human rights, and justice for all. Let us not rejoice over Bin Laden’s demise, but celebrate the hope that peace may now be a bit more possible.

by Rabbi David Zaslow
August, 2012

Judaism is not merely a religion, but a nature-based montage of spiritual practices we call mitzvot intended to elevate consciousness, and to help each of us to realize our own Divine essence, and unique destiny. Every lunar cycle is associated with some festival or holy day that helps each of us along our own unique journey toward self realization. To communicate directly with God one needs to go no further than taking a walk in nature. In reality, one needs to go no further than where we already are: sitting in our homes, sharing a meal with a loved one, or doing our daily prayers. God is in the synagogue, but not just the synagogue; God is is in nature, but not only in nature. Judaism celebrates God as being Omni – Omniscient, Omnipresent, and Omnipotent. No limit. No image. No form. Rather, God is imminent and all things at all times.

As we enter the month of Elul, our consciousness shifts with the season. We sense the early urgings of the oncoming Autumn. Our consciousness moves inward, and we begin the process of self reflection that marks the beginning of the high holiday season. As we enter Elul we are not just at the beginning of a new season, but at the beginning of the beginning. So, we ask ourselves “what am I beginning? What am I beginning to begin?”

I hope that the notion that consciousness is embedded in nature, in the season, will inspire each of us to follow the lead that God is showing us in the natural world around us. Our task is to begin to begin. Begin to go inward, and reflect upon the past year, and the new year ahead of us. Elul is coming. Soon we will sound the shofar each morning as a wake up call reminding us that God is as near as the next breath.

Aug 5 2012

Time is a Mystery

by Rabbi David Zaslow
August, 2012

Time is a mystery. Time is precious. Time is a precious mystery.  The unusual word “anamnesis” describes memory as an actual recall of a past event. When I say “actual” I mean that the event in the past is experienced as if it were still occurring in the present. To our Christian friends this sense of anamnesis is experienced at every mass. In Islam it is experienced during the Hajj. In Judaism this sense of actualizing the past is experienced on Friday night when we recite the kiddush over wine, and at our Passover seders. 

With the month of Elul upon us this looking back and looking forward is a natural tendency in each of us. The Romans even thought of the sensation of looking at the past and the future as a god Janus was their god with two faces – one looking into at yesterday and one looking at tomorrow. From Janus we get the name “January,” the month that begins our civil calendar. At this time of year each of us is yearning, longing, and hoping. Yearning and longing for something in the past, and hoping for something wondrous in the future.

May the memory of all that is been miraculous and wondrous in your life be the Ruach spirit that guides us gently into the horizon of 100,000 tomorrows. May the teachings of all our rebbes be the guiding energy that links us in the deepest ways to our communities and to the Shekhinah. May God to bless each of with an incredible, miraculous, transformative, and healing Days of Awe. May the Holy One bless us to remember that memory is a living force; that memory does not die; they life is really light; that life is eternal; that light linked to life makes all our remembrances actual, really actual. May we remember that when we remember it is God’s guiding force moving through each and everyone of us, and that this force is especially discernible and available in the season we call the Fall, in the days we call the Awesome Days. 

by Rabbi David Zaslow

Beloved 85 year old Brooklyn Dodger pitcher Ralph Branca is an active Catholic. Last week he’s told by the reporter who wrote his biography that his mother was Jewish. I get called by the NY Times for my reaction. A small story that’s shaking up the baseball loving corners of the Jewish, Catholic, and old timer Baseball worlds.

At the same MOMENT the call comes into me from the NY Times (believe me, this is not a daily or weekly occurrence in my home) Devorah and I visiting with her cousin Bruce who was a pretty major UPI baseball and football sports photographer for the SF Giants and the Oakland Raiders. Ok, so what’s the big deal? Me and my cousin are discussion religion (he dislikes “organized religion) since he’s a professed athiest. His religion is the photo-shoot and his synagogue is behind home plate where he can get the best shot.

The call comes in to get my reaction to Branca finding out he’s Jewish. “Excuse me Bruce, I have to take this call from the NY TImes.” OK, I’m name dropping to Devorah’s cousin and I know it, but this “coincidence” is all pretty funny. Plus how often do I get to proclaim outloud “I Have to take this call from the NY Times?” This may be part of my fifteen minutes of fame and I do not want to waste it.

Now, the story beneath the story. Ralph Branca is famous for pitching what is called “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” In the final game of the 1951 pennant series Bobby Thompson of the NY Giants got a home run off Branca thus winning the series for the Giants. To us Dodger fans it was one of the worst moments of our lives (the others being when the Dodgers moved to LA and when JFK and MLK was shot). Believe me, his grief at giving up that home run was inconsolable. The moniker “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World’ has haunted him for 6 decades. I mean, it wasn’t just giving up a home run, it was giving up the entire pennant; giving up “our” chance to play the NY Yankees in the World Series. Sounds trivial to a non-baseball fan, but to a baseball nut this is still one of the most famous moments in baseball history. For real! Ask anyone who knows baseball…sixty years ago this October 3, and that one pitch by Branca will never be forgotten. It haunts him to this day. He is 85 years old.

85 and VERY actively Catholic. Was G-d punishing him for giving up that home run? Was this the “cross” he was destined to bear? Was this all a test of his faith? These are questions Branca has asked all his life. And now…now he finds out he’s Jewish. That his mother hid their family’s Judaism from him? That his aunt died in Auchwitz. That his brother suspected they were really Jewish. That the family should have known. Is this part of the “cross” he still bears? Is this part of some Divine plan to inspire the tens of thousands of lost Jews to somehow reconnect to their faith? Poor Ralph Branca. I davvened for him this morning. He must be shaken up to some degree. Jews want to reclaim him. Catholics don’t want to let go. Old time baseball fans are watching and going “wow!”

Here is what Jewish storytelling scholar Penninah Schram wrote to me this morning from NY: “May G-d use this little story for healing!” Here’s what I say, “Amayn!”

Click here to read the original story in yesterday’s NY Times
Click here to read the follow-up article that I was called to give my reaction

Coming soon– Reimagining Exodus: A Story of Freedom

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