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Wednesday, October 24, 2012


Dvar Torah For Kohelet/Shabbat Hol Hamoed 5773.

“And in the end, the love you take
Is equal to the love that you make.”

Paul McCartney and the Beatles ended their iconic White Album with this seemingly irrelevant couplet of poetry that was part of a song called, appropriately, The End. What fascinates me is how memorable these two lines have become in the history of music and musical lyrics, as if their words were somehow the most important wisdom ever taught to humankind. Apart from their catchy tune, the Fab-4’s cute little harmony, and the one-finger piano work that backs them up, the words of this little poem actually pack a whole cosmos of ideas into very little verbal space.
Think about it. In sixteen words, we are taught that in the final analysis, the wisdom to end all wisdom is this: the quantity of love you, or I, or the world receives is directly related to the quantity that we give. Underlying such a grand idea is the even grander idea that all love and hate, peace and war exist in an almost karmic balance of cause and effect that is the result of free human initiative. You and I are at liberty to put out however much love we choose, and it is a firm universal law that we will get back what we gave in equal measure. The Beatles are perhaps unconsciously echoing here the classic Talmudic concept of middah k’neged middah, measure for measure.

These are great and powerful ideas, but their truth value is limited. The truth is that there are people who take plenty of love and a whole lot more from plenty of other people, yet who give very little love back; and there are lots of people in the world who give lovingly and unstintingly of themselves, yet who still get abused, neglected, or exploited by others. Love does not work its way magically into everyone’s heart, and relationships are often the settings for terrible heartbreak when the person who loves is repaid with selfishness and dismissiveness. Love is a fickle fellow, whether in the realm of romance, friendship, or life in community. It often needs to be balanced by other human endeavors and qualities to insure that in its absence people don’t get hurt. The end of the book of Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, that we are about to chant offers us its own final-analysis wisdom about how to achieve this balance. Look with me briefly at the very last verse of chapter 12, on page 78 of your Megillah books. There we read:
The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: revere God and keep His commandments. For this applies to all mankind.

This verse, which you can see repeats verse 13, ends this biblical book that for a full twelve chapters counsels the reader that all human endeavor is vanity and worthless striving, and that there is ultimately no difference between humans and beasts. In the end we all will go to the same place: our deaths. Some Bible scholars assert that this verse was placed at the end of the book as a kind of pious conceit. The author or editor of the book knew that his ideas were threatening to his audience, so he pitched the book as a story about a man named Kohelet whose ideas were depressing and cynical. At the end of the book, the narrator comes back to tell us: “Whatever Kohelet said about life, in the end what really matters is for you to be a good person who does what God wants.” In this way, the author is able to distance himself from the same ideas he is trying to teach by placing them in Kohelet’s mouth and allowing the narrator to end the book on a note of simple, traditional faith.

Let me suggest that this ending of Kohelet can be understood in another way, as more than an appeal to simple piety. Having considered all of Kohelet’s tortured ruminations about the purposelessness and injustice of life, the narrator sits back and tells us the following: in the end, all of Kohelet’s ruminating might be very enlightening, but taken to excess it is paralyzing. Yes, life often is meaningless and cruel, yes, we humans are no different in some respects from all other animals with whom we share mortality. However, dwelling on these truths for too long doesn’t bring us any resolution, it just causes us to waste time that we could be using to make the best we can of the lives that we have. Moreover, while it sure would be nice for everyone to just love one another in the manner suggested by the Beatles, this is not going to happen because love is a fickle emotion that does not always translate into good behavior. In those moments when love is absent, fear God by doing what God wants and needs us to do to be menschen, decent human beings. In those moments when you don’t feel loving or loved, you still have to treat yourself and others properly because that is what it means to be created in God’s image.

This truth applies to all mankind.


Dvar Torah For Parshat Breishit, 5773.

Balloons are one of the most fun and instructive of educational tools that I like to use. To elucidate one important teaching from the Torah this morning, permit me to blow up this balloon…. Obviously, were I to tie the end of this balloon, you and I could bounce it around and marvel at its lightness and liveliness until it ran out of air. With Helium inside, our lowly balloon could soar into the air effortlessly. Now, watch as I let go of the opening…. Obviously, balloons deflate when their air or Helium is let out, and they return to being mere pieces of cheap synthetic rubber or plastic.

Now, let’s take our balloon analogy one step further. I invite you, if you would like, to close your eyes for just one moment…For the briefest moment, pay attention to your breathing, the simplest, most miraculous thing that healthy human beings do reflexively every few seconds…Inhale and feel your lungs inflating, filling with air….Exhale and feel your lungs deflating, being emptied of air…At their simplest physiological levels, we and our lungs appear to be no different from balloons… But that is where the comparison ends…The air that we breathe is energy that feeds every last atom of our intricate, miraculous bodies and minds…The carbon dioxide that we exhale is the end result of processes too complex and too numerous to even try to describe…Best of all, we don’t deflate into lifeless, cheap balloons…For the duration of our lives, we continue to breathe, to live…Our breath is energy, divine in origin, human in execution…Our breath is the breath of God.

This idea that our breath is a miraculous wonder whose source is God’s breath is found in the second version of the story of the creation of human beings, which we read in our Torah portion. According to the Torah, (Genesis 2:7), “The Lord, God formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living thing.” In crass, popular consciousness, this verse may evoke scenes of rabbis creating Golems or scientists creating Frankenstein beings, but in classic religious writings it is a touchstone for talking about the miracle of life and the uniqueness of human consciousness. The Targumim, the two ancient Aramaic translations of the Torah, interpret the words, “living thing” to refer to humankind’s unique ability to speak; Rashi explains this verse to mean that God created human beings with physical characteristics from the earth and with divine characteristics, particularly the ability to think; Nachmanides waxes eloquent and at length about the utter uniqueness of humankind in having been brought to life directly through the efforts of God, who directly breathed divine breath or life force into that first human. Later commentators on specific early morning prayers that emphasize the miracle of the body and the soul, allude to this verse when they write at length about the amazing nature of our bodies that manage to hold our spiritual essence –represented by God’s breath – inside of us through the duration of our lives; several commentators explore the complex, dual nature of humankind in that we share overt characteristics with all other animals here below on earth, while we are also heleq Eloah mi-maal: an enduring part of God above.

It is not clear if the traditional commentators on this verse of the Torah believed that God literally breathed enlivening energy into us at the beginning of time, and that each of our breaths is literally God’s breath flowing in and out of us. What is clear to me is that one need not take this verse’s claim literally at all in order to take it very seriously. This one verse and its interpreters represent the Bible’s and Judaism’s worldview and values at their best. They teach us that to be human is to be a daily miracle: we live and breath, actions that are so reflexive we do not need to think about them at all; yet not to think about them at all also puts us in the dangerous position of forgetting how miraculous being alive really is, and how critical preserving and respecting life truly is. This verse and its commentators also reflect brilliantly upon how complicated it is to be human. We are animals, not angels: we have animal needs, animal impulses, we live and die like all other animals. Yet, we are so much more than animals: we use speech, a trait that according to many anthropologists is the most important thing distinguishing us from all other species, and that has allowed to evolve in the way that we did; we possess consciousness and the capacity for moral choice that present us with challenges and glories no other animal could contemplate; we come as close to being divine as we can without actually being God;. Finally, this verse and its commentators constantly warn us that, no matter how special the human species is, we are not the center of the world, for we are not the Creators of ourselves, God is. In his comment on how God formed the first person from the earth, Rashi quotes an ancient teaching that God took earth from every part of Planet Earth because it is the medium in which we are buried after we die; but earth was also the material used to build the holy altar of the Jerusalem Temple, upon which offerings would be made to ask God’s forgiveness for human sin. Rashi is saying here that we human beings come from and return to the greatest symbol of our mortality and our humility. We will not live forever, and hopefully we learn over time that we are not the center of the universe, only the God of eternal life is.

This mortal life of ours at times looks, feels and maybe even is as fragile as the filling up and deflation of a balloon. That is worth our humble consideration when we lose perspective and allow the all-too-human capacity for arrogance to dominate us. However, this wonderful life of ours is also a precious creation of God whose own spirit resides in us, animates us, and propels us forward to do the incredible things that humans do best. Yes, we share much with all other species, but we are also profoundly different, in the most miraculous ways, from our most complex thoughts and actions, to our simplest breaths. This is why Jewish tradition teaches us to awaken each morning with simcha atzuma, literally “gigantic joy”, and express our deepest gratitude for simply being alive at that very moment. It is why we celebrate the birth and naming of baby or the wedding of two people who love one another: they are opportunities for us to stop rushing through this miraculous life relentlessly, so that we can look at and add to the rich tapestry of experience love that all began with that first breath of God which awakened our ancestors and began this great narrative we call being human.