A few words about Colleyville, TX
by Cantor Evlyn Gould
Last Shabbat, I was singing the Song of the Sea, the triumphant tune we recall each week with Mi Chamocha, the scene of our liberation from slavery in Mitzraim, Egypt, when the events at Beth Israel Congregation in Colleyville were taking place.
Like you, I was upset and disturbed and then somewhat relieved when we heard the hostages had been released, this due to the heroism of their rabbi, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker.
Maybe also like you, I went numb. This is a typical response to trauma. Trauma from the stories of my own family, trauma from the excess of violence in our human history, trauma now embedded in our DNA, as Jews. My friend, R. Irwin Keller, has shown that documents in the Cairo Genizah demonstrate how communal Jewish life in the Middle Ages included frequent fundraising campaigns to ransom Jews being held hostage. And wars we know about, and intimate violence too.
The fact that we assume things should be otherwise is to our credit. We can envision — and even have faith in — the possibility of a peaceful world. And I know many of you work toward that.
Is this event part of a trend in rising anti-Semitism in our country, in our world? Was this a terrorist? Was it someone radicalized or mentally unstable? Does that make a difference? I would not know what to do exactly in such a circumstance.
The celebrated scholar and activist Dr. Deborah Lipstadt, whom we all know as the one who fights Holocaust denial, wrote that all Jews should be in shul this Shabbat. But that’s slightly troubling. I don’t think shul should be defined by trauma. It’s an old anti-Semitic trick: “There are only Jews today because we persecute them.”
But we will go forward and we will go forward together learning what we can, preventing what we can, training ourselves to understand risks, of course. THZ has made great efforts to ensure security and will continue with new funding for security.
But let us also go forward being peacemakers, artmakers, music-makers, healers, therapists, doctors, lawyers and judges, friends and companions to each other. And let’s cultivate, with all our hearts, the peace that is the antidote to the world’s cruelty and the medicine we need to heal. Ani HaShem rofecha. I am G!d, your Healer.
Bereshit 2020 “Beginning Anew at THZ”
by Hazzan Dr. Evlyn Gould
It is Shabbat Bereshit. We are at the beginning or in “beginning-ness.” As we step down from the highs of the Holy Days of Awe, we are just starting to learn to integrate our portions: the lessons we have gleaned and the promises to newness we have made to ourselves. It’s a kind of a Jewish Labor Day, the last break before we begin in earnest to apply our spiritual understandings of the Holy Days to our practical work-a-day lives.
In beginning, or at this beginning of our Torah, creation is set in motion. As the sages of the ancient midrash as well as the medieval Kabbalists and even Rashi tell us, bereshit is not “In the beginning.” This is not the start of creation, nor any first beginning. In fact, midrash says that there were seven worlds before ours created and destroyed, and at the end of this parashah, we see even more worlds of multi-generations and species intermarriage, ending finally in Noah, whose story (about wiping out that generation), we’ll read next week. But in our reshit, our start of the story, light shines and carves sacred divisions into the Oneness of the Void. A kav, or thin beam of light, sets the continuing process of ongoing creation in motion. This beam is a sort of “primitive streak” not unlike the one that occurs mysteriously at conception, at the meeting of an ovum and a sperm, setting in place an internal structure called the “notochord,” the organizing nerve center of the body that will become the spinal cord, and then, branch into neural networks that support the growth of the heart and secondarily the brain. Scientists do not know why the primitive streak occurs. Similarly, we don’t know why the light severed the endless void of darkness at the beginning of time (though this will be the inspiration for Isaac Luria’s Kabbalah of Safed).
What follows in both scenarios are a series of bifurcations: two lungs, eyes, ears, hands (and so on). And in the case of the world, in six days, light divides the darkness, land divides the sea, forming waters below, and waters above (or heavens). Sea creatures give way to air creatures, land creatures feed on plants. There is a wide variety of seeds planted that will not only bear fruit, but continually regenerate themselves, due to mysterious mists arising from this Earth; it is a microcosm of the constant becoming that imbues the whole of the creation.
Humans too follow this binary path of sacred divisions. There are two stories about the creation of earthlings, Adam from adamah: in the first, “Elohim created humans in their own image, male and female created they them” (1:27); in the second, a bi-gendered being clothed in a “skin of light” separates into two figures named Earth and Life (or Adam and Chava). They eat from one of two trees and this causes them to have to leave the Edenic garden where they have been conceived. Now they have to begin to deal with work, suffering, the harsh realities of living and of bearing children, and the fear of death. We could say that in one bite, the spirit of competition is also invented bringing anger, fighting, blaming, envy, selfishness, transgression, and ultimately, the murder of Abel by Cain. Following that, aberrant creatures arise, strange unions of humans with the nephalim or giants. All those who will be wiped out in the great flood coming in the next chapter. So at the end of our portion, G!d even regrets creating humanity: “Rabah ra’at haAdam” we read, great was the “evil or the wickedness” of the earthling whose heart thoughts were no good: “libi raq ra.”
What a shame. Humanity is born with the potential of a newborn, in a newborn universe, with the single requirement that we tend, dress, manage and steward the ever recharging life of the planet. We are avadim and shomrim — we are to serve creation, to guard and protect it. But we’ve taken a wrong turn perhaps in part due to misinterpretations of this very story.
But coming back to our start, “Bereshit bara Elohim et haShamayim v’et ha Aretz.” The Earth was chaos and void with darkness over the face of the deep. But surrounding everything and hovering, merachefet al p’nei ha mayim — hovering over the deep, over the abyss of the void of dark space — is the ruach Elohim, the wind-spirit or air of G!d or the gods. As you know, this creation myth reflects the perspective of the ancient Hebrews who were living during the transition from polytheism to monotheism. It was written during the 6th century BCE, and completed by approximately 400 BCE. This narrative stakes its ground in opposition to the surrounding religious practices that honored multiple goddesses and gods or Elohim. So our Elohim remain plural and at the same time singular. It is “they” who creates.
But notice that the ruach Elohim, the wind-spirit that sustains and suspends the whole of this creation, the air, is not invented, it is the singular substance of Elohim or of Yah, as Rabbi A. Waskow likes to say. For the Elohim will become YHVH in this parashah] Yah may be the unpronounceable name of the Oneness of all that is (in other words). Air does give life to Adam and to every living soul that inhabits the Earth. We breathe in the same air our ancestors breathed, the same air our trees and seed-bearing plants breathe out, that all the COVID sufferers are trying now to breath. But look around, it is not good (or not yet good): Smoke and fires, the pandemic, the suffocating oppression whose reality is at our doorsteps, the grief, the loss, these are making it harder and harder to breathe. No question that the paramount expression of our time is the phrase uttered by George Floyd, “I can’t breathe.”
Whether a knee on the neck, the fires, the record temperatures in India and Australia, the coal-fired power plants, the fossil fuel industries, the melting of permafrost releasing methane, the crops we grow to feed cattle to nourish only the wealthy, or the spread of the virus, something has gone very wrong. Due to our competitive spirit, our appetites, our desires, our selfish habits, and as R. Shai Held holds, our intrinsic tendency toward violence, we are doing ourselves in.
We were made betzelem Elohim, in G!d’s multiplicitous image and likeness. Instead we have designed for ourselves a delusional identification with Omnipotence, especially here in the wealthy, Western world. This temptation to be “like G!d” even while dismissing “G!d” from the acceptable vocabulary of our rational biases, this works against our own interests. Hashivenu HaShem elecha, turn us toward you, toward the new and renewal or even toward the wisdom of our ancient roots in the East, or toward our childhood in Eden. We’ve been singing this over and over these past weeks. To what or where are we planning to return?
I want to bless us all that it is a return to reflection upon and awareness of the Edenic beauty of this creation in order to inscribe in our neural nerve-nets new sacrifices that might help us to help the survival of our planet, of our self-generating and ever creative Earth. Shabbat shalom. May this be the start of a year of new beginnings.
In this light, let us turn our reflections to healing for ourselves, for those in our community who suffer, to those beyond, who suffer from fires, floods, covid, power plants spewing toxic air and polluted water ways.
Erev Shabbat March 22, 2019
by Hazzan Dr. Evlyn Gould
Our Torah portion this week isn’t easy. WHAT TO DO? Again we look at animal sacrifice in the Mishkan and try to discern what we can possibly update in this lesson. The word Tzav means “command,” another difficult concept for modern Jews — but you can hear it in the word mitzvah (a related form of tzav) which means a good deed or a kind act somehow “commanded” or “required” of us. The rabbis of the Talmud also associated tzav with tzava’at, a kind of clamp or joiner, to suggest that the mitzvah is also a way to join our intention to what is holy, to feel a sense of connection. Rather nice, do a mitzvah (a not really random act of lovingkindness) in order to connect with G!d, with others, with what is Divine generally, or with the holy intentions of your own heart.
Still for thirteen centuries, the offering of sacrifices (meaning, sacre-fice, or sacred acts, acts that make holiness), these were our way of worshiping in the mishkan and then in the Temple. In Tzav, the Torah mentions five sacrifice types, the Olah or rising up offering (as in getting an aliyah), the Minkha or gift offering, the Khata’at or sin offering (see al het on Yom Kippur), the Asham or guilt offering (again, hear here ashamnu… we are guilty”), and the Shlomim, the peace or thanksgiving offering. Let’s open our arms in the intention of feeding the whole community.
While some of these offerings are of grain (for vegetarians), and others are eaten by the priests or by the whole community, they each involve life, death, blood and fire. Today we don’t much see death, blood and fire. We don’t often stand at the portal of life and death. And in some ways it could be argued that we, as a culture, are in need of visceral, physical, even frightening reminders of the power of fire to transform life into death or material into ethereal effects, of flesh into spirit.
Luckily the Hassidic rebbes shift without difficulty the images of sacrifice on the altar to images of sacrifice in our hearts. They have no trouble moving beyond what we call the pshat level, or literal translation of Torah. They point out for example that the phrase “And the Eternal spoke with Moses” (vay’daber Adoni el Moshe laymor) is repeated six times in Tzav. The first five times it is mentioned just after an open space of a few inches supposing that first Moses hears a whisper, “Moses, Moses,” calling him to listen. But the sixth time, the phrase is not preceded by a space in the Torah script. This is the only place in Torah where this regularly repeated phrase is like this. No one knows why this anomaly takes place… but perhaps because the commandment, the very hearing of a voice that precedes conscious choice is quiet, internal, in Moses, but if we truly listen, in us all.
Indeed, Rabbi Rami Shapiro translates the notion of being commanded into the idea of being compelled. He writes:
“We need to look at the Torah’s ‘commandments’ as those deeds which call out to us as being ‘compelling.’ In the Judaism of the previous era, a mitzvah is a “command” from G!d. No other rationale is needed. The commanding G!d, however, is no longer part of the emerging Judaism. When one comes to know G!d as Reality, one uncovers certain laws that are intrinsically compelling. One keeps these laws because not to do so invites spiritual, political and social chaos. These intrinsically compelling laws of Reality are the new mitzvot.”
In other words, that which we feel compelled to do, that’s the inner mitzvah, the inner calling to act. This gives a new feeling to the idea of “commandments.” We are encouraged to listen for what is “compelling” for us to do to keep our world alive, the world around us and/or our inner world. What compels our commitment? What are the consequences of not noticing?
To some of us, Tzav may mean that we are commanded by a higher power; to others, it may mean that we are plugged in, joined, and that ours is a deployment from the Holy One (as Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi used to like to say); still others may feel that the whole essence of mitzvot is an opportunity to connect with the whole cosmos — in the middle of our work, in the middle of our transactions — an opportunity to draw close to the sacred.
So I’d like to take a minute and ask you to drop inside… into your heart space and to come with me on a brief imaginal meditation. If comfortable, drop into heart and see there an altar, and on the altar, a flame….
- Think about what compels you in our world
- Now, consider what you are willing to sacrifice in order to complete those deeds or acts you find compelling. Is it time, money, energy, resources, gas? Whatever it is that you are willing to give up or exchange in the service of a mitzvah of the heart, throw it into the flame.
- When the offering is fully consumed see if there is any shmutz remaining, any ashes. For we are bidden not only to bring an offering, everyone for themselves, we are also bidden to empty the ashes each evening.
- So imagine a little chimney sweep with a tiny broom and sweep out your heart. Make a little pile on the bottom. And as you gently open your eyes, blow the dust away.
I want to bless us all that we each gather what we need to continue to fuel the mitzvot of connectedness that ultimately seek to make the world a better place than it is.