One of my great teachers and theologians, Rabbi Neil Gilman, once told me that every piece of theological writing was a way for him to work out his own thoughts with an audience. “I don’t write for them,” he told me in his iconic voice, “I write for me, to work out my thoughts and uncertainties, to discover what God-picture makes sense to me, and when others read and give me feedback, it helps me grow.”
After three years of writing these weekly meditations called Torah from Within, focusing on topics of faith, spirituality, and social justice, I find my teacher’s words ringing in my ears again. While I think about you, my thousands of readers and commentators, every time I write – I, like you, am trying to figure it out as I go, groping for answers where maybe none can truly be found. And most importantly, doing what Rabbi Gilman taught me, to develop a working metaphor and myth, or what he terms a “God-picture,” that makes sense to me.
I fully intend to keep on this journey by writing weekly on the Torah portion and other holidays as I leave my pulpit of Valley Beth Shalom after more than thirteen years. Even though my new position as president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles will take me in a different direction, my spiritual life continues. As I write the final commentary on this year’s reading cycle, I feel I should bring to the surface some of the themes that I discovered in our tradition and in myself, many of which are found in Moses’s closing blessing of the Torah in this week’s Torah portion, Vezot Habracha.
What Begins From Without Now Springs from Within. When we come into the world, parents or guardians micro-manage every aspect of our behavior from what we eat to what we wear, when to sleep, and how we act. The radical act of parenting is that of what the mystics call tzimtum, or sacred withdrawal, where every step of the way, more and more agency is given to the children until they leave home and it is they and only they, who make the decisions, informed by the heritage, of how to behave and what they value. We as parents hope that we have put enough of ourselves in our children, that they choose wisely, but ultimately the choice comes from within, not from without.
The same energy is in the Divine relationship with the world. God begins as a Creator (more on that in a minute), becomes a Redeemer, and a Liberator, and finally a Teacher. The Torah itself is a blueprint given by God, and handed to us. The verse that serves as the inspiration for my writings is from this week’s Torah portion, “The Torah was commanded to us by Moses, and given as a heritage to the congregation of Jacob.” (Deuteronomy 33:4) What started as a command now is an inheritance. What begins as a teaching from without is now a Torah from within.
Religion is Art. In our measurable, data-driven empiricist and STEM-focused society, it is no wonder that when we have tried applying this system of science to religion we have found religion to be a failed science. Atheists rejoice in proving false miracles, and the silly magic that religion claims to change the ether of the universe. The failure, however, is in the category of the mistake many modern people make assuming that religion is science, describing facts in the dryness of a college essay. When in truth, God is a poem and not an essay. The role of religion is the transformation of both human beings and society from what they are to what they could be. It’s what motivated the story of creation itself and funds the idea of liberation in the minds of millions. Religion is a system, woven over thousands of years, that helps tomorrow not look like yesterday by breaking the chains of depression and oppression, turning the mundane into the sacred, and the past into the future. Religion is the highest form of art because it chooses as its medium the human soul, and transforms it into a masterpiece. It takes each of us in all our uncertainty, and gives us the opportunity for a life of redemption and tranquility, in a place of abundance where even the heavens drip with dew. (Deuteronomy 33:28)
Love is Covenant. It has been said many times in history that Judaism is a religion of law and other religions are religions of love. For thousands of years this claim has been leveled at Jews, sometimes violently, to prove the supremacy of their religion over ours or their people over our own. In my life, I have found these claims to be less than the sum of their parts. Love is more than feeling forgiven. As many who are in long-term relationships will tell you, a lasting love is more than a fleeting moment under a wedding canopy or a dance at a reception. Love is a basis for so much more. Love creates expectations. Love creates accountability. In this week’s Torah portion, God is described finally and for the first time as Chovenv Amim, or the lover of people. (Deuteronomy 33:3) It is because of that love that God gave the Torah, placing at its center, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18) In this kind of love, sentiment counts for something, but activity counts for everything. Love is what we do for each other, not just how we feel about each other. The Law is the embodiment of God’s love and the covenant is what creates the loving expectations upon us to resist tyranny, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and lift up the poor. (Talmud Bavli Sota 14a)
This is The Blessing. It’s impossible to know exactly what moments matter in life. How do we know whether one moment or the next is considered to be more important? Often we find ourselves caught up in an eruption of drama and lack the language or the foreknowledge to know how to respond. The Torah in its final lines is trying to indicate that this moment, today, right now, is the one that is pregnant with blessing. Judaism speaks of reciting one hundred blessings every day. (Talmud Bavli Menachot 43b) Recognize that you have a hundred moments to express gratitude, to be in wonder, to pour out your heart, and to express your love. This very moment holds within it the opportunity for blessing.
Before we begin again in the eternal cycle of the Torah, I’ll end (for now) where I began three years ago, with God’s blessing over the people.
Blessed shall you be in the city and blessed shall you be in the countryside.
Blessed shall you be in what you create, the produce of the land, the offspring of your herds and the flocks.
Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl.Blessed shall you be in your comings and blessed shall you be in your goings. (Deuteronomy 28:3-6)