spiritual disobedience has its limits
When I was younger, and I didn't want to do something that one of my parents had planned for me, they would often encourage me to do it anyway, followed by what I imagine they intended as emotional incentive: "You will be glad you did it!" Over time, I grew to resent this sentiment. Being told I would be glad about something after the fact, undermined my own capacity to know what I actually wanted in the moment. It led to years of indecision and second-guessing. (I'm sorry, Mom, I know your heart was in the right place.)
Sometimes I was glad after the fact, but more often I was disconnected from my own intuition. This led to a kind of exile from my own self-knowing. It manifested in a myriad of ways. I had trouble ordering food off of a menu in a restaurant. Do I really want to eat that or will I just be glad about it after the fact? When making major life decisions about my gender. Do I really want to change my name or have top surgery? What if I am not glad about it after the fact?
Needless to say, I was once a very indecisive person. But that is no longer true. In fact, I recently received the feedback from a professional coach that I am too decisive, which was so appreciated. The pendulum has swung too far!
So you can imagine my natural aversion to what is arguably the most central teaching of this week's Torah portion, Mishpatim. After a series of instructions that read like case law, Moses goes back up the mountain to record all of the Divine instructions. He returns to the foot of the mountain and shares these covenantal instructions with b'nei Yisrael.
וַיִּקַּח֙ סֵ֣פֶר הַבְּרִ֔ית וַיִּקְרָ֖א בְּאָזְנֵ֣י הָעָ֑ם וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ כֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה נַעֲשֶׂ֥ה וְנִשְׁמָֽע׃
"Then [Moses] took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said, 'All that the Holy One has spoken, na'aseh v'nishmah - literally, we will do and we will listen'" (Exodus 24:7).
For most of my adult life, I have subconsciously translated na'aseh v'nishmah as, "You will be glad you did it!" You can imagine my natural aversion to this central spiritual tenant.
Many people cite these two words as the moment when b'nei Yisrael actively received Torah, taking on both the relationship and the responsibility. It is described as a moment of spiritual consent. Additionally, it is often referenced as the reason we might consider adhering to otherwise irrational practices, most notably the practices of keeping kosher and the idiosyncrasies of eruvin. More than consent, it suggests spiritual obedience. Not only am I naturally disobedient, but I also appreciate the very real dangers of religious obedience.
But recently, I have been able to approach these words anew. I remember a teacher telling me years ago, "You cannot know the benefits of davenen three times a day until you have tried it for a month." The same is likely true for many of the mitzvot. We cannot know their real benefit in our lives, if we have not lived them for ourselves. I think this is especially true for mitzvot related to personal practices (prayer, food blessings, etc.), but I also think it applies more broadly to interpersonal mitzvot as well, such as visiting the sick or acts of kindness.
When I reflect on the times when I have been disciplined in saying the bedtime shema, laying tallit and tefillin in the morning, or saying asher yatzar after using the bathroom, I realize there are more moments of presence in my day. As it turns out, spiritual disobedience has its limits.
What if na'aseh v'nishmah actually means, we will do these things and we will gain insight through that experience? What if rather than proscribing obedience, this moment in Torah is describing the benefits of spiritual adherence? Benefits that cannot be articulated because they are born of personal experience. They are uniquely yours to reveal, discover, and live by.
As it says in Leviticus,
...וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֤ם אֶת־חֻקֹּתַי֙ וְאֶת־מִשְׁפָּטַ֔י אֲשֶׁ֨ר יַעֲשֶׂ֥ה אֹתָ֛ם הָאָדָ֖ם וָחַ֣י בָּהֶ֑ם
"You shall keep My laws and My rules, and live by them (v'chaim bahem)..." (Leviticus 18:5).
The mitzvot and mishpatim that fill this week's parsha are meant to bring us greater aliveness. Not to undermine our sense of self, but rather to support our self-actualization.
May it be so.
Rabbi Ari Lev
sprinkles on my challah
I just baked the most awesome challah. I don't know what got into me. I divided the dough into four equal portions, divided each portion into three, and began rolling out the strands for braiding. I then braided three medium-sized challot. As I rolled out the final pieces of dough, I felt compelled to make something of them. It is, after all, parashat Yitro, recounting the revelation of Torah at Sinai.
In honor of the dramatic setting, I thought about making a mountain, but couldn't quite get the shape right. I feared it would bake into a blob and feel more like the midrashim that imagine Torah as a threatening mass of laws that the Holy One held over the heads of the Israelites.
Then I returned to a very ancient wondering. What actually was revealed at Sinai?
According to the school of Rabbi Yishmael, it was not in fact the whole Torah, but just the Ten Commandments that were revealed. In that spirit, I tried to make a bready version of the tablets that Moshe carried, but couldn't quite figure out how. And furthermore, I couldn't decide if I wanted to make the broken tablets that Moshe smashed or the second set that Moses engraved himself. This would make for a very good bake-off challenge!
Then I considered the moment of revelation itself:
משה ידבר והאלוהים יעננו בקול
"Moses spoke; God responded to him in thunder (19:19)."
Thunder and lightning bolts would have been cool, but I couldn't think of how to depict thunder and then it would just be a lightning storm. Which wouldn't account for the kol, the voice, the call. And I realized, isn't that the point? For thousands of years we have been trying to make sense of the ineffable "kol" that called out to us from Mt. Sinai. (The Hebrew here is the same Kol, the same word, that appears in our community's name, Kol Tzedek – A voice for justice.)
What was this Kol? What did it sound or feel like? Did the Holy One use language? Was Moses translating?
And then, as I was holding these three final strands of enriched dough, they mystically and magically emerged as the letter Alef. (I had to double check my block lettering.)
Staring at my doughy Alef, I was reminded of this beautiful teaching from my teacher Rabbi Art Green, who taught in the name of R. Mendel Rymanover, an 18th-century Hasidic teacher in Poland. What was revealed at Sinai, in the "kol" of the Holy One was the very first alef of the very first utterance anokhi (Exodus 20:2). The alef that is itself a silent letter, contains all of Torah. The Holy One speaks in silence. In the still small voice. In our hearts. Everything is contained in the silence.
Rabbi Green explains, "Alef itself, as the Rymanover knew well, is a construct. It is made up of a yod above, a yod below, and an angular vav that joins them. The first yod is ḥokhmah, the inner Mind of God; the second is shekhinah, The Holy One as manifest throughout the world and in our own souls, the God within. The vav, which means 'and', links them together, teaching that the two are one, indeed that there is only One. And that alef is itself the number One."
From the mystical to the mundane, I glazed my alef-shaped challah with egg wash. Long and lanky, it called out for adornment. The thing is, my kids will not eat challah with raisins, sesame seeds, or poppy seeds. (Such a shonda!) But I was committed to making it beautiful. So I reached up into the baking cabinet, grabbed the sugary rainbow sprinkles, and poured them generously onto my three-stranded Alef and thought, now the many are one.
As we enter yet another quiet COVID Shabbat, I long to be surrounded by a cacophony of voices. And I take comfort in thinking about the silence of revelation, and how it too contains all of Torah. May we each find a moment to reconnect to the truth that everything is one, emerging from the primordial Alef revealed from the mighty mouth of the Holy One at Sinai.
Rabbi Ari Lev
this is it!
This past fall I had the chance to guest teach in the 7th grade Torah School class. I invited the students to play a game of "Ask the rabbi?" They asked me questions about Judaism, spirituality, and my own story. The bulk of which were about my relationship to God. There were several questions along the lines of, "Do you believe in God? What do you think God is?" I shared some of my own theology about how God isn't a Jewish word. And some of my favorite names for the Divine that come from Torah. The Ineffable, the Mystery, My Rock, Breath of Life. But even more so, I affirmed the importance of asking the question.
For so many of us, maybe even most of us, believing in God is not organic. It doesn't come naturally. If anything, the opposite is true. We inherit or absorb a concept of God that we davka don't believe in. If we don't know what God is, how can we feel connected, supported, even sustained by such a force/concept/presence? Which is why a moment of spiritual clarity stands out in parashat Beshalach like a signal fire.
The Israelites have been freed from slavery. They have left Mitzrayim and begun their long circuitous journey through the desert. They arrive at the Sea of Reeds, unsure how they will cross. Pharaoh's army is drawing near. Moses raises his staff. One brave Nachson steps neck deep into the waters and the sea parts. The Israelites crossed b'yabasha b'toch hayam, on dry land in the midst of the sea. And as they crossed, they sang!
About this moment, Rabbi Aviva Richman writes, "As the people of Israel witness revelation when the Sea splits, [they] 'point' and exclaim, 'This is my God!'—erupting in the Song of the Sea...To be able to point and identify someone means you must have known them before. How is it possible that the people of Israel already knew God?"
One midrash imagines that while the Israelites did not already know God, some of their children did. Returning to an earlier moment in the Exodus story in which Pharaoh ordered all of the Israelites' baby boys to be drowned in the Nile, a midrash asks (Otzar HaMidrashim p. 305, #17):
How do we know that the sons thrown into the Nile River went up with their parents out of Egypt?
To which the midrash responds:
The Holy Blessed One signaled to the angel appointed over the water and it spit them out into the wilderness. They ate and drank and flourished there.
Rabbi Richman explains, "Unable to imagine that the boys thrown into the river were left behind, this tradition posits a divine hand of love and care that rescued and nourished these children so they could be reunited with their families."
Yet another midrash (Shemot Rabbah 1:13) imagines that these same children grow up and find their way back to their families in Mitzrayim before the Exodus, and then they leave Mitzrayim together with their parents.
Now in this moment of revelation at the Sea, the children recognize God first, because they had already been in prior relationship with God (when they were saved from their death in the Nile!).
וכיון שמתגדלין באין עדרים עדרים לבתיהן...
וכשנגלה הקדוש ברוך הוא על הים הם הכירוהו תחלה, שנאמר: זה אלי ואנוהו.
"When they grew up they would come to their homes, in flocks...when the Holy Blessed One was revealed at the Sea, they recognized [God] first, as it says, 'This is my God and I will glorify [God].'"
Rabbi Richman concludes, "The children 'introduce' God to their parents, as it were. The parents can only see God through the eyes of their children."
This has been my experience as a parent and as a spiritual seeker. Sometimes we can only recognize the Divine through the experiences of others, and so often from children specifically. This teaching comes as a reminder of how ancient and worthy such spiritual interdependence is.
We do not need to develop a relationship to the Divine in isolation. We can rely on each other, we can learn from our elders and our children, we can draw confidence from other members of our community. A belief in God, a knowing so clear that we can point to it with clarity and certainty, can grow when we bear witness to the faith of others.
We live in a world that teaches us to doubt our own truth. May we draw strength from our ancestors, who sang their way across the sea. And may we have moments of spiritual clarity and connection, to be able to point and say, "This is it!"
In the words of the psalter,
Karov Adonai l'khol korav - The Holy One is close to all who call out, b'emet, authentically, in their own way!
Rabbi Ari Lev