How can we sing a song of our God on alien soil?

How can we sing a song of our God on alien soil?

Dear Friends,

The past few weeks have been difficult here in South Africa, as they have been for almost everyone. We said goodbye to cherished friends, family members and congregants who were laid to eternal rest due to the pandemic. As we continue to make sense of the turmoil and disruption this crisis has caused, both close to home and to  society as a whole, I find myself – as I often do – turning to Jewish heritage and tradition to help find meaning in the world around me.

Last week, we marked the 17th day of the Jewish month of Tammuz, the beginning of three weeks of ritual mourning. These weeks follow a path that begins with this anniversary of the Babylonian breach of the gates of ancient Jerusalem and carries us until the anniversary of the burning of Solomon’s Temple and the start of the first exile. That date is marked, along with a great many other Jewish tragedies, including the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans and the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492,  by a fast on the 9th of Av, observed this year on July 30th.

I’m always struck by the liturgy of this period. The words of Psalm 137, By the Rivers of Babylon are exemplary for the profound mourning of our people’s loss:

There we sat,
Sat and wept,
As we thought of Zion…

How can we sing a song of our God on alien soil?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
Let my right-hand wither…

Still, as we read  Lamentations on Tisha B’Av, we find, even in the words of  sorrow, messages of hope and of the possibility of renewal. Even the fast itself is considered a Mo’ed, a  festival. For though it is a day of profound sadness, it is also a day of promise for a joyful future, as the prophet Zechariah assures the people it “shall become occasion for joy and gladness, happy festivals for the House of Judah.” (Zech. 8:19)

These texts and our tradition hold all our emotions that feel so right for this  moment in our world.  We hold the sorrow of profound loss, we sit with  anxieties and fears in this time of transition, and still we find a way to  express our hope for the future.

We need to grieve. We need to name the anxiety and fear that comes with this crisis and we need to lift up hope – hope for what is possible, hope for a brighter future, hope for what we will build together in the years to come. And we need to do all these things at the same time.

I invite you to share your losses, your fears, and your hopes as we continue to walk through this crisis.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Adrian M Schell

By the Waters of Babylon, painting by Arthur Hacker, c. 1888
By the Waters of Babylon, painting by Arthur Hacker, c. 1888
(c) Rochdale Arts & Heritage Service; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Parashat Eikev: Cut away the foreskin of your hearts

Chaverim,

See, the heavens and the heaven’s heavens belong to Adonai your God, the earth and everything on it. Yet Adonai fell in love with your ancestors and God chose you, their descendants, from all peoples, just as today. So, cut away the foreskin of your hearts and stiffen your necks no more. (Parashat Eikev, Dtn 10:14-16)

The reference to cutting the „foreskin of your hearts“ is dramatic, maybe even wince inducing. It is an uncomfortable metaphor for us, and it is meant to be so. Tradition understands this Torah term generally as a call to fast, for example on Yom Kippur, but it is much more than that. There is a notion that we should feel uncomfortable about our reluctance to appreciate life’s gifts we have received, such as jobs, health, food, family and so much more.

With beautiful words, the Torah reminds us that we live in a universe that is wondrous beyond our ken. (What on earth are „the heaven’s heavens“? It can only mean something that is a mystery to our feeble understanding.) Yet, despite our seeming insignificance in this vast reality, we have been given gifts of immeasurable love—life and earth, thoughts and feelings. We should live in perpetual gratitude. So, why do we forget so easily? Why do we dull our minds to the miracles around us and within us?

Moses pleads with us to remember. He extols us to cut away the barrier that stifles our awareness. We are meant to be reminded, uncomfortable as it may be, of the fact that we are made of vulnerable flesh and blood … but we are so much more. We are feeble creatures that, yet, can be joined in covenant with God. We are temporary and transient, yet we can be in dialogue with eternity.

It is five weeks until we will welcome the New Year. May those five weeks be blessed with a deeper understanding of who we are and how lucky we are to have God in our lives.

Wishing you all a wonderful Shabbat.

– Rabbi Adrian M Schell (Source: Jeff Goldwasser )

Parashat Masei: The grass only looks greener from far away

Chaverim,

This week’s portion summarises the entire route followed by the Israelites from when they left Egypt until they were ready to enter Eretz Yisrael. The parsha begins, „Moshe wrote their going forth according to their journeys.“ At the end of that same verse this idea is repeated, but the words are reversed: „And these were their journeys according to their going forth.“ Why is the order switched?

The beginning of the verse expresses how God regarded their travels. Whenever God wanted them to go forth God wanted them to progress to the next step in the plan, to journey toward their destiny. Every stop was custom-made, tailored to help them towards their goal. Each place came with challenges developing the nation’s character. However, the second verse looks at the traveling from the nation’s point of view. The people saw things differently. It is human nature for one to think that he would be much happier and more productive if only he were somewhere else. They would journey simply to go forth, hoping it would be better in their next destination, hoping it would have more to offer, but not because they were thinking of reaching their purpose.

It is common to think, „If only I was in a different school, if only I lived someplace else, if only, if only, if only … I would be so much more productive.“ But, despite all its difficulties, the situation that you are in – right here and right now, is holy, and this is the time and place where you are able to grow. You don’t need to go anywhere else.

Furthermore, the grass only looks greener on the other side because you are looking at it from a distance. You don’t see any of the blotches and cracks since the grass is covering them. All you see is beautiful green grass. Therefore, let us embrace the place and the situation we are, and use them as a starting point to grow for our next step.

– Rabbi Adrian M Schell (Source: Eli Scheller)

Parashat Matot: Thought and action should be unified.

If a man vows a vow to God, or swears an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth. (Bamidbar 30:3)

Chaverim,

Speech is a defining human quality. The ability to articulate our thoughts into specific words is what sets us apart from the animals. Man is thus obligated by their words in a type of a social contract, a necessary institution for a cohesive society. In fact, the theme of the gravity and sanctity of human speech carries through the whole Torah — from the first “Hineni” – “here I am”, expressing Abraham’s willingness to follow God’s instructions to the words Moses is directing to the Israelites in the wilderness.

In our Torah portion, we are introduced to the topic of vows. A vow links words and action in a new way: It binds today’s speech with tomorrow’s action. This is explained concisely by R. Zvi Elimelech Shapira (1783-1841): A person does not feel tomorrow’s evil inclination today. Often, a person knows what they should do, or what they would like to do, and a vow helps them to overcome the human gap between thought and action. When one is unable to reach their intended goal today, they bind themselves to their ability in the future, which is as yet untainted by weakness or temptation. An everyday example is the person who knows he should start a diet; today, he is confounded by today’s yetzer hara, and declares, „Tomorrow I will begin.“ The vow helps defeat the yetzer hara of tomorrow before it rears its seductive head. By using words, which are themselves a Divine tool, man can bring God into the situation, make God an ally; hopefully, that will spiritually fortify the person and provide the strength needed to succeed. 

In other words: Thought and action should be unified. The purpose of a vow is to unite the inner thought, as expressed by words, with actions. When our thoughts become disconnected from our words, or words from actions, we are being dishonest. This dishonesty may or may not affect others in a particular instance, but it always impacts upon ourselves, upon our inner world. When we create consonance between our thoughts, words and actions, when we purposefully and steadfastly work to bring them closer together, we become more like God, whose words, thoughts and actions are one.

– Rabbi Adrian M Schell

(Source: Rabbi Ari Kahn)

Photo by Sean Hurt