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Creation, Animals, and Diet: A View from Torah and Soloveitchik

Between Heaven and Earth from Eden to the Flood and Beyond:

a Torah study by Rabbi Rick Brody

Genesis, theology, and the role of humanity in relation to other animalsin conversation with the wisdom of Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik and classical commentaries

[Some material adapted from Rabbi Yonatan Neril and Evonne Marzouk of Canfei Nesharim]

[Translations of Biblical Hebrew adapted by Rabbi Rick Brody]

Soloveitchik citations from: The Emergence of Ethical Man, Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 2005, pp. 31-38

I. The basis for the relationship between human and non-human creatures

בראשית א:כד–ל

כד וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹקים תּוֹצֵא הָאָרֶץ נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה לְמִינָהּ בְּהֵמָה וָרֶמֶשׂ וְחַיְתוֹ־אֶרֶץ לְמִינָהּ וַיְהִי־כֵן: כה וַיַּעַשׂ אֱלֹקים אֶת־חַיַּת הָאָרֶץ לְמִינָהּ וְאֶת־הַבְּהֵמָה לְמִינָהּ וְאֵת כָּל־רֶמֶשׂ הָאֲדָמָה לְמִינֵהוּ וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים כִּי־טוֹב: כו וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹקים נַעֲשֶׂה אָדָם בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ וְיִרְדּוּ בִדְגַת הַיָּם וּבְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם וּבַבְּהֵמָה וּבְכָל־הָאָרֶץ וּבְכָל־הָרֶמֶשׂ הָרֹמֵשׂ עַל־הָאָרֶץ: כז וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹקים ׀ אֶת־הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹקים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה בָּרָא אֹתָם: כח וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם אֱלֹקים וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם אֱלֹקים פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת־הָאָרֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁהָ וּרְדוּ בִּדְגַת הַיָּם וּבְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם וּבְכָל־חַיָּה הָרֹמֶשֶׂת עַל־הָאָרֶץ: כט וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹקים הִנֵּה נָתַתִּי לָכֶם אֶת־כָּל־עֵשֶׂב ׀ זֹרֵעַ זֶרַע אֲשֶׁר עַל־פְּנֵי כָל־הָאָרֶץ וְאֶת־כָּל־הָעֵץ אֲשֶׁר־בּוֹ פְרִי־עֵץ זֹרֵעַ זָרַע לָכֶם יִהְיֶה לְאָכְלָה: ל וּלְכָל־חַיַּת הָאָרֶץ וּלְכָל־עוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם וּלְכֹל ׀ רוֹמֵשׂ עַל־הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר־בּוֹ נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה אֶת־כָּל־יֶרֶק עֵשֶׂב לְאָכְלָה וַיְהִי־כֵן:

Genesis 1:24-30

And God said, Let the earth bring forth animated life, [each] according to its species, beast and creeper, and earth-life, [each] according to its species; and it was so. 25 And God made the earth-life, [each] according to its species, and the beast(s) according to its species, and every ground-creeper according to its species; and God saw that it was good. 26 And God said, Let us make a grounds-keeper (humanity) with our imprint, like our character; and let them have dominion with the fish of the sea, and with the fowl of the sky, and with the beast(s), and with all the earth, and with the entire [range of] creeper that creeps upon the earth. 27 So God created the grounds-keeper with God’s imprint, with the Divine imprint God created it; male and female God created them. 28 And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion with the fish of the sea, and with the fowl of the sky, and with all life that creeps upon the earth.” 29 And God said, “Look, I have given you every seed-bearing herb, which is upon the face of all the earth, and the entire [range of] tree that has a seed-bearing tree-fruit on it: to you it shall be for food. 30 And to all earth-life, and to all fowl of the sky, and to every creeper upon the earth that has animated life in it, [I have given] every green herb for food;” and it was so.

Soloveitchik

Let us be clear that this rule [regarding diet] was not given to man as an ethical norm but as a natural tendency; it is absurd to speak of a law imposed upon ʻevery beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps upon the earth.ʼ …. [T]his injunction was a physiological pattern that dominated manʼs sensory drive. Primordial man neither desired nor was tempted by any food other than of the vegetative realm. The verse concludes ʻand it was soʼ: the ethical norm became a behavior pattern, an expression of the ontic order. Man and animal were not driven toward killing or devouring other living creatures.”

Questions

  1. Soloveitchik points to a similarity between human beings and other animals, a shared place in the cosmic order and a shared reception of a natural tendency. Is the word “species”) / min used in reference to the creation of humanity? Is humanity / adam a “species” in the same way the other creatures are categorized? What might our answer teach us?

    1. God says “Let the earth bring forth…” in regard to animal life, but then the text says “God made.” Then, God says, “Let us make…” in regard to the grounds-keeper, but then the text says, “God created.” What is going on here?

    2. Was God talking to the animals when God said “Let us make adam…”? Do (or did) the animals possess the Divine imprint and character (since God says “our”)? Did the appointing of a grounds-keeper take some of that quality away from the other creatures? If so, is that Divine quality ever available to them again? Can any creature be adam? (See question 3.)

    3. What is the difference between the dietary rules for adam and for the other creatures? Why might this distinction exist and what might it teach us about our relationship to food today?

  1. We know that this (mythic) natural order did not persist, either for human beings or for many other animal species. How might the Torah want us to understand that divergence in real life (i.e. not simply through the flood narrative)? Should we understand that divergence to have occurred similarly for humanity and the other species?

  1. What, then, distinguishes humanity? Is this distinction guaranteed or might it be conditional? Is it fully realized from the start or is it a potential state within an evolving humanity? Is it a distinction that is necessarily limited to the biological species homo sapiens?

בראשית רבה ח:יב

:יב וּרְדוּ בִּדְגַת הַיָּם: אמר רבי חנינא: אם זכה, רדו ואם לאו ירדו. אמר רבי יעקב דכפר חנין

את שהוא בצלמנו כדמותנו ורדו, את שאינו בצלמנו כדמותנו ירדו

רבי יעקב דמן כפר חנן אמר: יבא צלמנו ודמותנו, וירדה לשאינו דומה לצלמנו כדמותנו

Bereishit Rabbah 8:12

AND HAVE DOMINION (REDU) OVER THE FISH OF THE SEA (Gen. 1:28).

Rabbi Chanina said: If [humanity] has merit, [God says,] ‘ur-du’ (and have dominion); while if they do not have merit, [God says,] ‘yerdu’ (let them descend) [or ‘yeradu’(they shall be dominated) / they will be taken down / let other [creatures] rule over them)].

רשי בראשית א:כו

זכה רודה בחיות ובבהמות. לא זכה נעשה ירוד לפניהם והחיה מושלת בו

Rashi: If he merits, he rules over the living things and over the beasts. If he does not merit, he becomes subservient to them, and the living things rule over him.

Rabbi Ya’akov of Kefar Hanin said: Of one who is with our imprint and like our character [I say] ‘ur-du’ (and have dominion); but of one who is not with our imprint and like our character, [I say] ‘yerdu’ [or ‘yeradu’].

Rabbi Ya’akov of Kefar Hanan said: Let [the one who possesses] ‘our [Divine] imprint and character’ come and have dominion over the one who is not characteristic of ‘our [Divine] imprint and character.’

Questions

  1. What does dominion here suggest?

  2. What does merit refer to?

  3. What might it mean for other creatures to have dominion over humanity? Is this the same dominion that humanity would have over them?

II. The shift in the relationship

בראשית ט:א–ד

א וַיְבָרֶךְ אֱלֹקים אֶת־נֹחַ וְאֶת־בָּנָיו וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת־הָאָרֶץ: ב וּמוֹרַאֲכֶם וְחִתְּכֶם יִהְיֶה עַל כָּל־חַיַּת הָאָרֶץ וְעַל כָּל־עוֹף הַשָּׁמָיִם בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר תִּרְמֹשׂ הָאֲדָמָה וּבְכָל־דְּגֵי הַיָּם בְּיֶדְכֶם נִתָּנוּ: ג כָּל־רֶמֶשׂ אֲשֶׁר הוּא־חַי לָכֶם יִהְיֶה לְאָכְלָה כְּיֶרֶק עֵשֶׂב נָתַתִּי לָכֶם אֶת־כֹּל: ד אַךְ־בָּשָׂר בְּנַפְשׁוֹ דָמוֹ לֹא תֹאכֵלוּ:

Genesis 9:1-4

And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth. 2 And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon all earth-life, and upon all fowl of the sky, with all that shall creep on the ground, and with all the fishes of the sea; in your hand are they delivered. 3 Every creeper thing that lives shall be food for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things. 4 But flesh with its animation—its blood—you shall not eat.’

Soloveitchik

“Man-animal became a life-killer, an animal-eater. He became blood-thirsty and flesh-hungry.
“Is the Torah very happy about this change? Somehow we intuitively feel the silent, tragic note that pervades the whole chapter. The Torah was compelled to concede defeat to human nature that was corrupted by man himself and willy-nilly approved the radical change in him. ….
“Animal-hunters and flesh-eaters are people that lust. Of course it is legalized, approved. Yet it is classified as taavah [Num. 11:4, 34], lust, repulsive and brutish.
“The real motif that prompts such unquestionable antagonism toward slaying of animals is the aboriginal Jewish thought [that]….man and animal are almost identical in their organic dynamics that is equated with life, and there is no justifiable reason why one life should fall prey to another. Why should a cunning intelligence that granted man dominion over his fellow animals also give him license to kill?”

Questions

  1. According to Soloveitchik, what fundamental distinction exists between human beings and their “fellow animals”?

  2. How far does he believe that distinction should extend?

  3. What other fundamental value does that distinction come up against?

Ramban, Commentary on Torah, Bereishit 1:29 Flesh was not permitted for human consumption until the children of Noach, as our Sages have explained. And this goes according to the plain meaning of the Torah’s text. The reason for it is that mobile creatures have a certain spiritual attribute which in this respect makes them similar to those who possess intellect (i.e. people); they are capable of looking after their welfare and their food and they flee from pain and death. And the verse says, “Who knows that the human’s spirit is that which ascends on high and the beast’s spirit is that which descends below to the earth?” (Kohelet/Ecclesiastes 3:21) …

רמב׳ן, בראשית א:כט

הבשר לא הורשו בו עד בני נח כדעת רבותינו. והוא פשוטו של מקרא: והיה זה, מפני שבעלי נפש התנועה יש להם קצת מעלה בנפשם, נדמו בה לבעלי הנפש המשכלת, ויש להם בחירה בטובתם ומזוניהם, ויברחו מן הצער והמיתה. והכתוב אומר ׳מי יודע רוח בני האדם העולה היא למעלה ורוח הבהמה היורדת היא

… (למטה לארץ׳ )קהלת ג כא

Nevertheless, humanity was not given reign over the [animals’] life-force, for it was still forbidden to eat a limb off of a live animal. At this point it also became forbidden to consume blood, for it is blood that maintains life, as the verse states, “the blood of every living creature is associated with its life-force; tell the Israelites not to eat any blood, since the life-force of all flesh is in its blood.” (Vayikra/Leviticus 17:14). All that was permitted was the body of the non-speaking (i.e. non-human) animal after it has died, but not the life-force itself. This is the reason for shechitah (ritual slaughter); even though it is otherwise prohibited by the Torah to cause pain to animals (Talmud Bavli, Bava Metziah 32b), we nevertheless make a blessing “who has sanctified us with Divine commandments and commanded us regarding the shechitah.

ועם כל זה לא נתן להם הרשות בנפש ואסר להם אבר מן החי. והוסיף לנו במצות לאסור כל דם, מפני שהוא מעמד לנפש, כדכתיב )ויקרא יז יד( ‘כי נפש כל בשר דמו בנפשו הוא ואמר לבני ישראל דם כל בשר לא תאכלו כי נפש כל בשר דמו הוא,’ כי התיר הגוף בחי שאינו מדבר אחר המיתה, לא הנפש עצמה. וזה טעם השחיטה, ומה שאמרו )ב“מ לב ב( ‘צער בעלי חיים דאורייתאוזו ברכתנו שמברך אשר קדשנו במצותיו וצונו על השחיטה

Question: Why would God forbid the consuming of a creature’s life-force? What would such an act do or represent?

  1. After Noah: Continued limitations in the relationship to non-human animals

ויקרא יז:ג–ד

ג אִישׁ אִישׁ מִבֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁחַט שׁוֹר אוֹ־כֶשֶׂב אוֹ־עֵז בַּמַּחֲנֶה אוֹ אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁחָט מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה: ד וְאֶל־פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֹא הֱבִיאוֹ לְהַקְרִיב קָרְבָּן לַהלִפְנֵי מִשְׁכַּן הדָּם יֵחָשֵׁב לָאִישׁ הַהוּא דָּם

שָׁפָךְ וְנִכְרַת הָאִישׁ הַהוּא מִקֶּרֶב עַמּוֹ:

Leviticus 17:3-4

3 Any man from the house of Israel who slaughters an ox, or lamb, or goat, in the camp, or who slaughters it out of the camp, 4 and does not bring it to the door of the Tent of Meeting, to offer an offering to the Eternal before the tabernacle of the Eternal: blood shall be imputed to that man; he has shed blood; and that man shall be cut off from among his people;

Soloveitchik

The implication is clear. Whoever kills an animal for non-sacramental purposes is guilty of bloodshed, of murder; the term shefikhut damim applies equally to the slaughter of man and animal. Under a certain aspect, the life of the animal has been placed on equal plane with that of man.”

The Torah has not yet explicitly allowed for the non-ritual consumption of animal flesh (let alone a completely gratuitous taking of animal life).

דברים יב:כ–כא

כ כִּי־יַרְחִיב האֱלֹקיךָ אֶת־גְּבֻלְךָ כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר־לָךְ וְאָמַרְתָּ אֹכְלָה בָשָׂר כִּי־תְאַוֶּה נַפְשְׁךָ לֶאֱכֹל בָּשָׂר בְּכָל־אַוַּת נַפְשְׁךָ תֹּאכַל בָּשָׂר: כא כִּי־יִרְחַק מִמְּךָ הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר האֱלֹקיךָ לָשׂוּם שְׁמוֹ שָׁם וְזָבַחְתָּ מִבְּקָרְךָ וּמִצֹּאנְךָ אֲשֶׁר נָתַן הלְךָ כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִךָ וְאָכַלְתָּ בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ בְּכֹל אַוַּת נַפְשֶׁךָ:

Deuteronomy 12:20-21

20 When the Eternal your God shall enlarge your border, as God has promised you, and you shall say, I will eat flesh, because your life-force lusts to eat flesh; you may eat flesh, with all the lust of your life-force. 21 If the place which the Eternal your God has chosen to put the Divine name there is too far from you, then you shall slay from your herd and from your flock, which the Eternal has given you, as I have commanded you, and you shall eat in your gates, with all the lust of your life-force.

Soloveitchik

Nevertheless, the Torah again calls a desire for meat ta’avah, lust; while the Torah tolerates it, it is far from fully approving it.”

Questions:

  1. What have we learned about life-force / nefesh?

  2. Could we interpret the permission to consume flesh as contingent upon the continued existence of the Divine name in the place God has chosen (the Temple)?

  3. What might be the relationship between the expanding of borders and the lust of the life-force?

  4. How could we read “expand your borders” metaphorically and creatively—and potentially in a way that differs from or can prevent the lustful results that Deuteronomy anticipates?

 

Face to Face on Purim

“Face to Face on Purim”
Rabbi Rick Brody

The apparent silence of the Divine, such a prevalent undercurrent
in the Purim story of Megillat Esther, is written into our very faces. Our hiding behind masks at this holiday alerts us to the holiness beneath the surface.

There is a very beautiful Chasidic teaching from Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Horowitz (1760-1827), the Ropshitzer Rebbe—in his collection the Zera Kodesh (Holy Seed), vol. II, p. 40a—that I find very compelling as we prepare for the holiday of Purim. Reb Naftali shares two insights that I find relevant. (You can click here for the entire text.)

  1. AlephThe letter Aleph consists visually of a letter vav (the main line that runs diagonally from the top left to the bottom right) and two letter yuds (the small extensions that branch off to the upper right and lower left).

    YudVavYud
    In gematria, the ancient Jewish system of assigning number values to each letter (Aleph = 1, Bet = 2, etc.), the vav (= 6) and the two yuds (10 x 2 = 20) total 26, which is the same value we achieve when we add up the 4 letters of the traditional name of the Holy One,
    Yud Heh – Vav – Heh (10 + 5 + 6 + 5).

    The “hidden” message that emerges from this connection is that the letter Aleph is not even just an abbreviation for God’s name, but is identical in value to expressing God’s name. (But, of course, the Aleph is silent! More on that below.)

  2. The letter Aleph offers another stunning image when we identify its various parts and use a little more creativity. The part that looks like a vav can be compared to a nose, and the two yuds can be compared to two eyes. It’s somewhat of a cubist rendering, but if you tilt your own head to the left and use a little imagination, you can see the contours of a face—two eyes and a nose! In other words, not only is God’s name expressed in the letter Aleph, but it also appears imprinted onto every human face


The amazing thing about both
the Aleph and the human face
(when it’s not depicted with a mouth, as is the case in the description above) is that neither makes any sound. Each one is silent. But a face still has so much power—to gaze, to emanate humanity and divinity, to be in relationship with another, to indicate the presence of soul. How much more significant is that power when we see it as the letter Aleph, the silent letter that mystically expresses God’s name and therefore the Divine essence.

See if you can spot the face in this Picasso and in the other cubist faces that appear below. (Here, it helps to turn your own head to the right while viewing.)

See if you can spot the Aleph in this Picasso and in the other cubist faces that appear below. (Here, it helps to turn your own head to the right while viewing.)

For me, this teaching is an inspiration and a challenge to see God’s presence through active engagement with a face, be it our own or that of another. That engagement can be “pre-verbal,” freed from the complications of language and all the noise we create with our mouths. At our core, we are Aleph, a pristine essence that surely needs sounds added to it in order to participate fully in this chatty world, but that when standing alone—silently—might bring us closer to God. In recent days, I have looked into the mirror to behold the Aleph on my face, God’s imprint of Self that reminds me of being part of something greater than my own individual life. And then I try to see that same holy manifestation in every other human being I encounter.

On Purim, we cover up our faces and we make a lot of noise. We act as though we are fleeing from the holiness of our silent faces, afraid to rest content with the divinity that surrounds us. Like Esther, we hide. So too, in the Book of Esther, God is hidden, never being named or appearing as a character. Indeed, the Rabbis point out (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Chullin 139b) that in the Torah, God says, Anochi hasteir astir panai—“I will surely conceal my face” (Deut. 31:18)—and suggest that this verse is an allusion to God’s absence from the Book of Esther (note the word play with hasteir astir).

But Purim is all about the world being upside down, about things turning out in precisely the opposite way from which they were planned. Through the irony of God’s silence and absence, the Book challenges us to apprehend God’s presence in a complicated world. In reading a story that is so focused on outer beauty, we remember to look deeper into the hidden Godliness that is imprinted on all of our faces.

Perhaps the mouth below the Aleph is the vowel (a kamatz [ah] or a segol [eh]?) that can give sound to the otherwise silent letter. But alas--maybe in sacred paradox--the mouth is closed!

Perhaps, in these two paintings by Fedro, the mouth below the Aleph is the vowel (a kamatz [ah] or a segol [eh]?) that can give sound to the otherwise silent letter. But alas–maybe in sacred paradox–the mouth is closed!  (“High Time“)

When we pretend on Purim to be running from ourselves and from God, we are actually challenging ourselves to run towards God. We can think of it as running in a circle—eventually we catch up to our starting point! By devoting so much joyful energy one day of the year to run and hide, we empower ourselves to move that much closer all the other days of the year towards the holiness of our silent faces. We get closer to the holiness of the Aleph that is God’s name, silently present—just as God’s name is never uttered in the recitation of the Megillah but is still so palpably close; if only we truly look at one another.

This artist, Jerry Schwehm, brilliantly reveals the Aleph most recognizably among the images here–by relying on the face-to-face encounter of two individuals to give the sacred letter its discernible shape. (“The Kiss”)

Chag Purim Sameach—Have a Joyous Purim!

AND DRINK UP!

————
Thanks to Rabbi Or N. Rose, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, and Rabbi Adam Stein–for text, graphics, and inspiration–and to the cubist artists whose work is featured here, courtesy of Google’s image search and the linked websites.

Self-Actualization: Parashat Bo

Self Actualization: Parashat Bo

by Rabbi Rick Brody

The key to bringing about redemption is in the taking hold of it, making it our own.

When do we truly have control in our lives? A recurring word in this week’s parashah draws our attention to this question. In Exodus 12:2, the word lachem (“to you”) appears twice: “This month shall be to you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you.” Lachem essentially denotes the possessive form. The whole notion of “possessive” suggests independence, autonomy, sense of self, ownership, control. These are all qualities the Israelites lack; they are enslaved. They lack the freedom that possession implies. Their first possession, their first gift–with the designation of “the beginning of months,” rosh chodesh–is not a physical gift but rather something that exists in time. Why is this God’s first step towards granting freedom to the Israelites?

S’forno, a medieval commentator, paraphrases God’s instruction: “From here forward, the months shall be yours, to do with them as you wish. But, in the days of enslavement, your days weren’t your own, but were for the service of others and their desire. Therefore, ‘it is the first for you of the months of the year’–for in it, your ‘discretionary existence’ began.” S’forno is emphasizing the elements of choice, independence, and freedom. He understands that God is saying, “Your time is now your own.” Freedom begins with being able to order and define your own reality. Control of your calendar can have a profound effect on that sense of freedom. This is not just a technical change of using a new system of dates. God is offering the gift of a completely new orientation to time as something personal, intimate, free. “It’s your to do with as you wish.” You can now begin participating in the redemptive process, breaking free from the yoke of oppression. Your oppressor will no longer define you. Through your control of your sense of time, you will begin to construct your own freedom.

What comes immediately after this commandment? God shifts from speaking only to Moses and Aaron and now gives the two brothers instructions of what to actually tell the Israelites. What is the first thing the people will all hear regarding this month? “On the tenth of this month, they shall take for themselves (lahem)–each person–a lamb for his household, . . . a lamb for his house” (Ex. 12:3). When Moses and Aaron deliver these words to the Israelites, presumably they will change lahem (“for them”) into the second person plural, lachem (“for you”), reintroducing this same word that carries the message of freedom.

The Israelites will begin to learn the importance of their taking possession of something for themselves. This process begins with the ownership of time, but the first piece of information the Israelites hear as a whole is much more practical, more tangible. You will take a thing into your possession, a lamb. Why not “time?” Although God had shared this concept with Moses and Aaron, this idea is still too abstract for a slave mentality. The Israelites are like children. They’ll need some “time” to absorb those more complex ideas–they need to start with more concrete actions. Note that the lahem in verse 3 is superfluous. God doesn’t need to say, “they shall take for themselves, each person, a lamb.” The text could just as easily have read, “They shall each take a lamb.”

Why the addition? This is the first commandment being prescribed to the Israelite nation as a whole. This begins their relationship with God as a commander. This begins the end of their subjugation to human taskmasters and enslavers. They now have the opportunity to begin to act in service of God and holiness, rather than–as S’forno said–the whim of other human beings. And if we read Sforno’s interpretation closely, we can understand that God is giving the Israelites the opportunity to make this action personal. Presumably, God is allowing for them to decide even if they will do it or not.

This is the beginning of freedom, and the Israelites’ relationship with God, even though based on commandment, will also be based on the recognition of free will, of human autonomy–something that they have not experienced under Egyptian rule. Lahem (“for themselves”) highlights this idea. We can compare it to the use of the possessive in some more famous Biblical passages, most notably when God says to Abraham, “Lech l’cha–go to a place that I will show you.” The l’cha is superfluous. God can just say Lech (“Go”). But God says, “Get yourself to a place that I will show you,” or as some creative interpretations put it, “Go into yourself.” There is an experience of self-affirmation, followed by deeper self-discovery, when God frames commandments in this possessive way. The Israelites, like Abraham was, are about to begin a journey of self-actualization.

It is fitting that this Shabbat and our reading about the Israelites’ empowerment to take ownership of their freedom falls right before we observe Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The ideal of self-actualization was central to Dr. King’s vision of completely throwing off the shackles of oppression. May we all continue to find the ways to make freedom truly our own, to grasp it in its tangible forms, and to commit ourselves to being active players in the redemptive process–for ourselves and for others.

In The Big Inning: Baseball, B’reishit, and the Quest for Wholeness

In The Big Inning: Baseball, B’reishit, & the Quest for Wholeness

by Rabbi Rick Brody

The National Pastime and the start of our Torah both capture our imaginations with their celebration of the idea of return to our primordial home.

The 2012 Major League Baseball postseason has, so far, been nothing short of spectacular in terms of drama, heroics, and very balanced competition. Today is the eve of the second pair of “final games” in the best-of-five, first-round, “division series.” In the 18 years since the start of the division series format, never before have all four match-ups gone to five full chapters. These games are reminding baseball fans why they love this sport and are injecting great spirit, excitement, and joy (and disappointment) into fan bases in cities across the country. Indeed, as I am finishing this post, the Yankees lead the Orioles in a tight 2-0 score a little more than halfway through the game.

Today is also the eve of Shabbat B’reishit, the Sabbath on which Jews throughout the world celebrate the sacred narrative that contemplates the origins of the universe, of humanity, and of meaning–and their relationship to the Divine. We read from the very beginning of the Torah, the parashah known as B’reishit, also the name (“Genesis,” in English) for the first of the 5 Books that comprise the foundational text of our people.

Baseball fans who appreciate the majesty of the Biblical tradition and its influence on world culture are likely to delight in the pun that appears in the title of this post: We can say that the Torah (in its most common English translation) asserts itself right off the bat (another pun, intended) as a treatise on the holiness of baseball. Its initial words are “In the big inning.”

So, as baseball teams march closer towards the end of their pursuit of a championship and our global Jewish “team” begins its annual journey through our sacred writings, I’d like to reflect on the majesty of this sport and relate it to Torah. How can some of baseball’s qualities inform our quest for meaning and inspire us in exploring our own big innings–and beginnings?

First, I should make clear that I have no intention to attempt to prove that there is anything inherently religious, divine, or magical about a sport. It is a game and it is rooted in competition, a feature of reality that often stands in contrast to cooperation, the latter usually and rightly considered the more proper feature in manifesting holiness . But I do believe that the basic structure of baseball and the way it has evolved, especially in the American imagination, lend itself very well–not unlike Torah–to analogies that we can apply to life more broadly, with uplifting results.

The primary poetic feature of baseball that makes it fit for religious interpretation is the manner in which a team scores. Unlike the two other main approaches to competition–the linear, battlefield approach (one team or player attempts to invade or conquer another’s territory), or the acquisitional approach (opponents are both attempting to reach a goal simultaneously and the victor is the one who gets there first, thus claiming that ground exclusively for herself or her team)–baseball’s approach is restorative: It’s about return, about coming home. Literally, every score in the game is completely the result of a player starting out in a given spot, journeying outwards, and completing a successful circuit (usually with the help of teammates), returning safely to the place of origin. Yet, the safe return bestows upon the team a new status–the accomplishment earns the reward of a run, a unit of transformation that becomes the building block of victory. The only trick is that this team also must play the foil–it must attempt to prevent its opponent from achieving a higher number of successful returns home.

Note that there is no conquest of “foreign territory” and no stealing of something that the other party in the journey has any access to. A runner ventures away from home but for the purpose of making it back. The journey is driven by the idea that the return will elevate the runner and his companions, that–to borrow basic language from this seemingly universal literary device–it will signal some growth or maturity to a new level of being, a greater understanding of self, and a greater fulfillment of purpose that benefits the collective.

These elements lead us to some of the critical features we find at the very beginning of the Torah. The most prominent theme of homecoming is the expulsion of Adam and Eve from their idyllic starting point, the garden of earth and vegetation that exists outside of time (note that baseball, inside its pastoral boundaries, has no clock!). The real challenges to the heroes begin after their acquisition of knowledge, which sends them into a life of toil and hardship and a hope of a future return to the Garden. Our sages teach that our experiences of true joy and connection, most notably under the chuppah at Jewish weddings and in the shelter of Shabbat, are the glimpses of eternity that the Garden symbolizes. They are our homecomings.

Our story has an earlier hero, the Creator (God). We learn nothing from the Torah text of a starting point or home for God. Some theologies might speak of God’s home “in the heavens,” but the Torah tells us that the Creation story is one of the formation of shamayim va’aretz (heaven and earth). God created it All, we are led to believe. The mystics suggest that at the real “beginning,” God was The All, existing before (outside of) time–in absolute, undifferentiated unity. Somehow (here is where mystery reigns), God developed an identity that was separate from something else. The Singular became Plural. And it was from this differentiated plurality that God, still fundamentally singular in Godself, began relating to that which was “not God” and shaping everything that remains “not God.” Yet, for many, the goal on our spiritual journeys is to reunite with that which is fully God, to come home to the Place of wholeness. In fact, the Rabbis of antiquity refer to the Eternal as HaMakom (“The Place”), suggesting that Divinity is the destination of our journeys.

We come upon the Divine journey amidst that which is not Divine in the cryptic and often overlooked second verse of the Torah (i.e. Genesis 1:2), which tells us of the “stuff” that God starts with. We don’t know if these materials existed eternally–either alongside or potentially even preceding the Creator who is the subject of our story. But we do learn that the problem God needs to “conquer” is one of Chaos (tohu vavohu), the unformed nature of this proto-creation. It is all potential, with no defined identity of its own other than being “not God.” God’s own pursuit of home, the Place (“within” God) of Divine wholeness, is challenged by these forces which, like the defenders in baseball, have no coherent goal of their own other than to foil the pursuit of the “other” (in this case, God). God the Creator (somewhat different than God, the Absolute Timeless Unity) has taken on a distinct identity, like a player who separates from her team to begin her journey to “create a run.” The journey takes stages–three bases or six days. The final base and the final day of the process is one of culmination, of return to the whole. We call it home. Or we call it Shabbat. It is a place of transformation and elevation, of complete safety, of the flourishing of our entire being, the emergence of soul.

We, in our journeys, imitate the Divine Creator by making our way through the elements that in their very nature conspire to thwart us. We exercise ingenuity and creativity to find ways to thrive in spite of our obstacles, and our passage through dangerous territory makes our homecoming all the sweeter. Each little return, especially each Shabbat, is an opportunity to feel more connected to a greater collective. It gets us not only a little closer back to the Garden of our human beginnings (big innings), but also engages us in the Divine homecoming, the cosmic repair to the original unity that existed before time.

Rosh HaShanah Sermon: What Do I Stand For?: “Some Nights,” “Psalm 27,” and the Metaphors of Conquest or Connection

“What Do I Stand For?”: Some Nights, Psalm 27,
and the Metaphors of Conquest or Connection

Erev Rosh HaShanah 5773
Rabbi Rick Brody

We are at war. The awful violence last week in Libya reminded us all too well of this sobering fact. Even here in our own country, fanaticism of all kinds and an ugly lust for violence has made our world, wherever we are, a very dangerous place. But there’s another war raging even closer to home—within each of us—a war of confusion, of conflicting feelings of purpose, of remorse, of struggle to be better people. It’s a war in which we try to manage the onslaught of responsibilities, concerns, and challenges that threaten our emotional security or a sense of stability in this life. And it is, in many ways, what the coming days are all about.

In the current popular song “Some Nights,” by the band Fun [on p. 2 of the linked lyric page: please click here], the singer cries out in the third stanza, “This is it boys, this is war,” words that I have put in bold-face. But if you notice in the stanza immediately above and below, the essence of the war he’s fighting is the asking of deep questions—which I have also bold-faced. “What do I stand for?” “Who am I?” These are the fundamental questions that lie before us in our own personal war of purpose and meaning.

The military metaphor—army versus army—is one approach to making some sense of the drama of these Days of Awe. But what’s its end point? First of all, we need to remember that it’s a metaphor—that mostly we’re not talking about real violence or real, physical enemies. Yes, we want to vanquish evil, yes we want to stop those who wish to harm us, yes we want to rid the land of vicious beasts—or, more in the spirit of repentance, to tame those beasts, to bring evildoers out of their darkness into the light of righteous living. But we also contend with existential obstacles that are more difficult– less concrete and more pervasive forces in our lives that prevent us from achieving the fulfillment we seek. We concretize them in the metaphor of a military enemy so that we can see them and face them. 

But even inside this metaphor there are limitations. What can we gain from the face-off? I would suggest that seeing ourselves at war can lead us towards goals of—at least—a feeling of victory that comes with vanquishing an enemy, but perhaps also a sense of security or maybe even a new era of peace—though usually real peace requires some radically different action in order to break out of a cycle of violence. Because when we focus on the vanquishing, the defeating of the enemy—as real as the threats might be from the destructive challenges all around us, physical and symbolic—what we’re still left with is the proverbial “zero-sum game.” We stay stuck in a place in which there’s a winner and a loser. And if we’re trying to be the winner, we need to recognize the grave possibility that we can wind up being the loser. The singer in “Some Nights” seems to suggest that his options are that he can “cash in” his bad luck, somehow get something out of his suffering and not give in to complete defeat; or he can call it a draw—no one wins; or, some nights, as he says, “I always win. I always win.” I can’t help but feel that he repeats this proclamation ironically, realizing that this win-lose-or-draw mentality is a sham. He’s stuck, feeling like he’s lost his soul, traded it in for false promises of fleeting satisfaction.

This view of win-lose-or-draw is not only scary or, to use the language of the season, awe-inducing. It’s also potentially toxic. We need to find alternatives to this black-and-white thinking. As the speaker in our song is suggesting, we need to get beyond “the hype,” “break the rules” that keep us stuck in a conflict-addicted mentality, a thinking that pervades our newspapers and other media—the literal “black-and-white” of twitter-style sound-bytes that trade in stark winner-loser modes of seeing the world.

So, the need for an alternative leads into the other metaphor I want to explore, one that also captures a sense of tension and conflict, but that also offers a greater promise than what we get from the military image. The image is one of intimate, personal relationships—between parents and children, between friends, and of course, between romantic lovers. On one level, these relationships aren’t metaphors at all—they’re very real parts of our lives that define so much of our existence, even more than the military model. But they also point to deeper activity that goes on inside each one of us and in our relationship to the Divine.

While any of these deep, personal relationships will necessarily involve disagreement, frustration, anger, and conflict, each one also offers profoundly rich feelings of connection that give our lives meaning. So, sometimes we find ourselves in conflict that feels like a military face-off of global proportions. But—even as we contend with all kinds of manifestations of real enemies that seek to undermine us, be they other people or just the vagaries of life—we also know that the prospect lies before us for not just protecting ourselves but for entering into warm, tender interactions. These interactions enable us to be more fully human and to discover the beauty within our fellow human beings and with the rest of Creation.

Our tradition celebrates both of these approaches to the Days of Awe. Over the course of my sermons this season, I want to look at various images and expressions of these metaphors—in our own sacred texts, in popular songs, and in the wisdom we discover in our own lives. My hope is that we can feel more fully engaged in the drama of the High Holidays in ways that can be relevant to us and that can connect us—not only back to our living heritage but also more deeply to ourselves, to those around us, and to God.

There’s an extremely popular teaching that connects the name for the Hebrew month that we’ve just completed, Elul, to a beautiful and very famous verse from Song of Songs. The verse is “Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li”—“I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine”—and we can make an acronym from those 4 words to spell the word Elul—Aleph Lamed Vav Lamed.

The message is that the month leading up to Rosh HaShanah, to today, is one of courtship and bonding between God and God’s beloved—us. But this isn’t a new relationship—we have some history with God. So the rekindling of connection requires the work of reconciliation, of coming back, of return—which in Hebrew is t’shuvah, the same word we use for repentance and which is one of the main buzz words for the season. Rosh HaShanah begins Aseret Y’mei T’shuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance, culminating of course in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement—which is a great English word that comes from the idea of “at one”-ment, meaning that’s when the reconciliation is complete, when we’ve fully arrived back into the relationship that we’ve—ideally—been actively seeking throughout the past month and that becomes more and more real to us over the coming days.

Yet, alongside this romantic metaphor—even with the recognition that it’s not all lovey-dovey but rather contains very difficult challenges—we also find much more violent imagery.

The Rabbis of long ago established that starting at the beginning of Elul—through this new month of Tishrei until the end of Sukkot—we would recite, each morning and evening, Psalm 27. [You’ll find the text to this psalm on p. 3 here.] Notice the first few verses, which immediately mention the fear the Psalmist might have in the midst of attack by wicked enemies who mount a war against him, seeking to destroy him, to devour his flesh. The really startling element here is that despite these grave threats, the speaker clings to a faith in God’s protection. Of course, the underlying emotional truth for him could be more a case of “the lady doth protest too much, methinks”—that he is so concerned about being alone and vulnerable and forsaken that all he feels he can do is express faith, even without any evidence to support it—an exercise in wishful thinking. How very human. We have no guarantees, but we can adopt an attitude of strength as a matter of choice.

And with this faith in Divine protection, we can develop images of contentment—images that are the polar opposite of the war we feel raging upon us and of the abandonment of loved ones that can add insult to injury: This contentment is captured in the image of dwelling in the presence of Divine shelter, of seeing goodness, of being moved to offer celebratory song as a sacred gift, of shofar blasts that express our unbounded joy.

In fact, I’d like to suggest that in verse 6, where the Psalmist begins imagining these reactions, that he’s describing a shift in his own consciousness. He is very deliberately and concretely moving his focus away from the military threats to a disposition of gratitude. He says, “my head rises over my enemies all around me,” meaning, in my interpretation, “I’ve gotten over them”—my consciousness has transcended a cycle of fear and has entered Divine space, God’s tent, where it now is overcome with joy. Even the shofar, which just as easily could be invoked as a clarion call on the battle field or an alarm of impending doom, is instead introduced as an instrument of expressing gratitude. Our minds and the tools all around us can all be transformed as we step out of harm’s way and into the shelter of the Divine.

But even that confidence is fleeting, because in the very next verse he returns to petitioning God and asking for assurance that he will be safe. His faith, like ours, is a precarious one, subject to the realities of living in a complex world where one wish or request does not magically dispel all fear. It’s an ongoing battle.

And it seems pretty clear as we move towards the end of the Psalm that just as the speaker might fear for his physical life or wellbeing, so too he struggles with a sense of being recognized, accepted, welcome. “Don’t forsake me, don’t abandon me like my parents did…” Like the singer in “Some nights,” he’s scared of being forgotten again, of being “half as liked” despite trying “twice as hard,” of being without friends, of not being understood, of his song being a “swan song”—a dying shofar blast, perhaps—of dying “alone, all dried up in the desert sun.”

I believe the Psalmist and the singer in our pop song both want to be in the presence of love, even though neither of them uses that word. They want not just protection but comfort and connection. These are basic human needs, and when we feel that they’re not being met, we can feel terribly vulnerable, like we’re being attacked by an army.

So, how do we achieve this sense of connection, this feeling of dwelling with the Divine? Obviously, there are no easy answers, and the struggle takes a life-time. But the great wisdom of our tradition, especially as it relates to this time of year, is to ask the big questions of ourselves. To engage in the process of cheshbon nefesh, an accounting of our souls. The Psalmist asks God to point him on the right path, but it’s up to each one of us to use our own faculties to see and hear God’s instruction, to figure out where we’re going, to make sense of the questions “Who am I? What do I stand for?” In the song “Some Nights,” beginning with its introduction [on p. 1 here]—the singer says, “I never look inward, try not to look upward, But some nights I pray a sign is gonna come to me.” The suggestion, as I hear it, is that the hard work is one of inner reflection or of developing an actual relationship with God.

But if you think you do that by literally looking upward or even of thinking and praying for some sign to come, you’re likely to be disappointed. In the Psalm, the request is “Horaini darkecha” show me your path. The root for “Horaini,” show or instruct, is the same one we find in the word Torah, the sum total of all our sacred instruction. There is a path we need to walk in order to get to God’s tent and it takes discipline and commitment. It’s not going to come as a flash from the sky to solve all our problems overnight.

Nor do we have to “stare at the calendar, waiting for catastrophes.” Fear of the worst isn’t the only shofar blast available to us to wake us up out of slumber and remind us to live more meaningful lives. It’s not just that we’re being pursued by our enemies or that we realize we might drown or burn in the coming year—“Who by fire? Who by water?” we ask as a way to scare us into change.

There’s probably a place for that approach in the grand palette of options for jumpstarting renewal and transformation, and we’ll dramatically engage that approach tomorrow morning and on Yom Kippur with “Un’taneh Tokef.” But “Some Nights” and Psalm 27 seem to be suggesting that it might not be the best way, and the psalm definitely presents an alternative of not living in fear but rising above it.

The singer in “Some Nights” is also struggling to find something more than what he currently has. And in some respects he’s gotten more specific than the Psalmist in introducing the big questions about his own place in the world. Of course, he’s still trying to avoid asking these questions, relying on some martyr to take away his worries, but I believe he’s being ironic, that he sees that this isn’t a solution. “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” After all, the words that follow are “But I still wake up.” It’s as if he’s saying, “I can’t sleep in blissful contentment—life is not so simple. I do hear the shofar call that stirs me from complacency and I do see ‘your ghost.'”

Is the ghost himself, an image of what he could have been and still could be, the soul he has lost? Is it the fleeting, intangible “You” with a capital Y, the Divine presence that continues to haunt us into asking the essential questions, that draws our attention to what we still don’t know: “What do I stand for?” The key awareness on this first night of the new year is that we are standing, and we’re actively engaged in the search to figure out why.

The Psalmist suggests our search is about walking the Divine path and that the walk will ultimately lead us to God’s presence, where we can live in contentment. But even then, there’s an uneasiness: He wishes to dwell in God’s house all the days of his life but then also wants to visit in the palace of the Eternal. He knows that as much as he’d like to be completely with God always, he’ll need to step out and step back in, making regular return visits that can keep the relationship fresh and renewed.

The singer in “Some Nights” has a similar feeling of a push-and-pull in his relationship. In the Intro, he says, “there are some nights I hold you close, pushing you to hold me.” Pushing someone in a relationship doesn’t usually get the other person to hold you, to pull you back in. We struggle for our own space—“it’s for the best we get our distance” is the sad way “Some Nights” ends. “It’s for the best you didn’t listen. It’s for the best we get our distance.” But we know he wants to be heard and wants to be held. Even as he pushes, he yearns for the loving pull—for presence, for connection. The Psalmist wants the “You” he’s addressing to listen—“Hear my voice!” he calls. He knows he won’t always be in the safety of God’s space, but he wants to be able to keep coming back, wants to have a clear path of return that he can walk.

Perhaps we’ve spent a lot of energy pushing away our loved ones and pushing away the Divine presence in our lives. Perhaps we’re afraid no one will listen, or that those who listen won’t understand us, and that we’ll be left all alone. These are important fears for us to recognize. The beauty of Rosh HaShanah is that, through the holiness of time, we have entered Divine space. We are on a sacred path that can lead us deeper and deeper into the pleasant chambers of God’s presence, into the assurance that we will be heard, we will be understood, we will be held close. Perhaps walking that path begins with the welcoming calls of the shofar that we’ll hear tomorrow, God’s answer that we are free to enter—or perhaps even God’s cry of wishing for our presence. It’s an invitation to arise, to figure out what we stand for—and maybe to just start walking even before we have it all figured out, but to not stop asking the question, as long as asking it doesn’t paralyze us.

Many nights we can feel confused and stuck. “Most nights I don’t know,” the singer laments. This night, our tradition says, on Rosh HaShanah, we can rise—we can stand with the confidence, or at the least the hope, that we are on a journey back towards a loving embrace, a holding, a connection, back to our own soul and into the shelter of an even greater Soul that not only keeps us safe, but that leads us to joyful, shofar-blasting jubilation.

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Coming Back to You: Leonard Cohen and Elul

Coming Back to You: Leonard Cohen and Elul Rabbi Rick Brody This post is mainly a shell, since I don’t have time at the moment to write a full interpretation or reflection. In many ways, the brilliant songwriter’s lyrics (found … Continue reading

Prayers for Rain?

I was just asked about whether Jews, especially here in Texas during this brutal drought of record-breaking heat, do or say anything to acknowledge the need for rain.  While my congregation, Kol Halev, has not done anything formal in that regard, the question prompted me to reflect on the ways Jews do encounter, daily, the idea of rain in our liturgy.

1) A series of blessings recited three times daily on non-Sabbath days includes a specific petition that God “provide blessing upon the land and satiate us with Divine goodness, blessing our year like the good years (of old).”  In the winter (the rainy season in the climate of the Land of Israel), the blessing is amended to say “provide dew and rain for a blessing upon the land…” — so, for part of the year we ask for rain explicitly.  The idea behind the seasonal distinction is that rain wasn’t expected during the summer months in a Mediterranean climate that is different from ours here; but for us, we know we need rain during the summer in order for us and the land to be blessed fully with Divine goodness — so clearly, our expectation is that the good for which we pray will require rain.  Thus, implicitly, we still ask for rain at this time.

2) Every morning and evening, Jews traditionally recite (as the second paragraph of the Sh’ma) Deuteronomy 11:13-21, which expresses the idea that if we are true to God’s ways, we will be blessed with rain that will grant us abundance, enabling us to eat and be satisfied; but that if we stray from that path, following “other gods,” God will close up the sky and there will be no rain, spelling doom for us all.  While many (perhaps most) of us in today’s world don’t subscribe to a belief in a quid-pro-quo relationship between human actions and natural occurrences (or “acts of God”), we can remember two ideas.  First, there is certainly evidence for a human role in fostering current climate change patterns, and that crisis ought to drive us towards an examination of our lust for the false gods of wealth, power, comfort, and convenience that have contributed to the natural effects we are now experiencing.  It is possible that becoming more judicious in our consumption and more respectful of our ecosystem could restore balance to our climate.  More significantly, though, is the basic idea of how much we have always valued rain and how much of a blessing it is.  Even if it can’t be earned through our thoughts, prayers, or actions, our tradition reminds us how central it is to living a healthy and fulfilling existence.  Receiving this reminder every day through the ritual recitation of verses of holy text allows us to reorient our priorities towards what really matters — a functioning ecosystem that allows for all life to flourish.  This, in its own way, is also an ongoing prayer for rain.

May it come soon.