Is YHVH Everywhere?
January 26, 2023
In Parashat Bo, the 3rd portion in the book of Exodus, Moshe and Aharon continue to plead with Pharoah to let the Israelites go. In this portion, the Egyptians are smitten with the last 3 plagues: locusts, darkness and the killing of the first born.
One of the most “drashed” (interpreted) verses in this portion is the first one: Exodus 10:1: “Then יהוה said to Moses, Come to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them…”
While most translations change בא Bo to “Go”, the literal translation is “Come.” In the craft of interpretation, every word receives attention. If the author of the Torah (be that author human or Divine) had meant to say “Go”, they would have said written it that way. There are plenty of other places in Torah where the word “Go” (Lech לך) is used, such as in the 3rd portion of Genesis, when YHVH tells Avram (not yet Avraham) “Lech Lecha” – Go forth, another highly drashed phrase, oft interpreted as “Go to Yourself.”
Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (better known as the Kotzker Rebbe, 1787-1859) taught that Bo implies that YHVH is reminding Moshe that YHVH is everywhere, and God will be with him when he approaches Pharaoh, as in “Come with Me.”
Another way to look at this, very popular in the Jewish circles I travel and Zoom in, is that God was/is/will be actually IN Pharaoh. This is a very difficult concept to swallow. Easy to say, hard to really believe and live by. What does that mean? What can we learn from such a perspective?
Some believe that God is only Good, or IN the Good. Others believe that God is Everything, or IN everything. I relate to YHVH in all of those ways, depending on the moment, and don’t demand of myself to choose. It can be entertaining and engaging to discuss theology, but what matters is how we live with ourselves and others.
With International Holocaust Remembrance Day upon us (Jan 27), acknowledging that God was in Pharaoh is the near equivalent of saying God was in Hitler. (For me, Hitler is a much tougher character to find God in than Pharaoh. I have empathy for the Egyptian ruler, whose heart was hardened by YHVH). Nevertheless, it’s a thought to sit with, breathe into and notice our reactions.
It is incumbent upon us all to look at the ways we harden our hearts toward others, and first and foremost towards ourselves. I strongly believe (I even daresay I know, from my own inner explorations) that heart-hardening starts within, towards ourselves.
May we all be aware of the ways we harden our hearts, and grow in compassion for ourselves and others.
Coming out of the Narrow Place Singing
January 20, 2023
As is always the case, we begin reading the book of Exodus (Shemot ) sometime between late December and mid-January, 13 weeks after Simchat Torah, and several months before Pesach. We retell the story of our slavery and liberation in detail at the Passover seder(s) every year, reflecting on the ways we are enslaved and the ways we are free.
The Torah portions in the beginning of the book of Exodus, which we began to read on January 14 this year, are packed with essential moments. Moses is born, is rescued by the love and ingenuity of women, grows up in Pharaoh’s palace, awakens to the oppression of his kinsfolk, slays a taskmaster, travels to Midian, marries the daughter of a Midianite Priest, becomes a shepherd, and experiences Revelation. God appears to him in a Burning Bush as Ehiyeh Asher Ehiyeh – “I Will Be What I Will Be.” (We could easily discuss that scene alone for several hours.) Ehiyeh tells Moses to return to Egypt to liberate the Israelites. Moses resists the call, but God doesn’t let him off the hook. God tells him to team up with his brother Aaron, an eloquent speaker. After their first confrontation with Pharaoh, Pharaoh reacts by making the slaves work even harder.
In addition to reading the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim (Exodus) on Passover and during the annual Torah reading cycle in early winter, we are reminded twice each day of our collective Coming out of the Narrow Place, when we chant Mi Kamocha. Torah tells us that this was sung by the Children of Israel after crossing the Sea. We will chant from that portion on Feb 4, on the day referred to as Shabbat Shira, the Shabbat of Singing, in our communal home on Greenleaf Street with a chanting circle led by Itai Gal.
When I was a rabbi in midcoast Maine from 2004-2009, there was a tradition initiated by a family an hour north of the shul, to go cross-country skiing and snowshoeing through the woods and across a frozen lake, simulating the biblical crossing of the Sea. We stopped every 10 minutes along our snowy trek to chant a part of the service, and after “crossing the sea”, we chanted the Song at the Sea (Shirat HaYam) from photocopies of that section of the Torah portion.
I had hoped to do this with Shir HeHarim-BAJC this year, but there is no guarantee of snow on the ground or even a pond that is frozen enough to promise safe crossing. So we will enjoy a chanting service facilitated by Itai, and then those who feel able and inspired will walk down to the stream on our property, and return to our sanctuary to hear the chanting of Shirat HaYam from the Torah scroll.
After the service we will enjoy a Tu B’Shvat Seder based on the mystical seder created by Isaac Luria (aka the Ari) and his disciples in 16th century Tsfat. The Tu B’Shvat Seder is an ever-evolving celebration, combining
Shabbat Shalom v’Chodesh Tov
Rabbi Amita רב אמיתה
A Shabbat to Remember
January 12, 2023
Last Friday 40 people shared a wonderful evening at the shul. It had snowed all day, but the roads were clear and the planned event with the cast of Fiddler on the Roof took place with excellent attendance. 17 Brattleboro Union High School students and 23 adults came to 151 Greenleaf. 6 more people joined in via Zoom. At least 9 of us (9 that I am aware of) were Jews who had not participated in any activities with Shir Heharim-BAJC in the past, or if so, it had been decades ago.
The students were all attentive, curious, and respectful. Collectively we entered into the sacred time/space of Shabbat when the candles were lit and we all brought in the light 7 times (for the 7 days of the week), from our crowns to the soles of our feet.
Rick Bayer spoke of the transition from experiencing ourselves as “human doings” to human beings. He and I both shared the feeling of Shabbat “coming in” in Jerusalem or Tzfat (Safed)… all the hussle and bustle of preparing for the Holy Day followed by a hush that descends over the city.
The students asked thoughtful questions such as, in a place and time like Anatevka, with no cars or screens (TV, computer, phone), what made Shabbat different from other days? They asked what the ark was, and I explained the symbols on it – including the Tree of Life. The Torah is called a Tree of Life, and the Tree of Life also refers to the 10 Sephirot – emanations of divine energy, which are one schema for the composition of the world, and which are also mapped onto the human body like the chakras. I also explained that the Hebrew letters are understood mystically to be the building blocks of creation, and each letter has its own energy. Stephan brought our attention to the Ner Tamid, which represents the golden Menorah that burned constantly in our wilderness Mishkan (sanctuary/tabernacle).
We sang Lecha Dodi (Come My Beloved to Greet the Bride) – the bride being Shabbat herself, and, as was the custom of the Kabbalists in Tzfat who developed the entire ritual of Kabbalat Shabbat, we all went outside to greet her for the last verse. (They would sing and pray all of Kabbalat Shabbat in the fields. We only sang the last verse out in the cold!)
Before eating, we all did the ritual of Netilat Yadayim. I explained that the Shabbat table represents the altar in the Mishkan. We wash and lift up our hands as the Cohanim cleansed themselves before performing the sacrifices. It’s customary not to speak from the time we do the ritual hand washing until we say HaMotzi, but often people hum niggunim (wordless melodies) during that interval. Being 40 people, it took a good 20 minutes for everyone to do the handwashing. Each student took this so seriously, embracing the opportunity to immerse themselves in the Shabbat experience as they prepare to be the Jews of Anatevka. We hummed melodies from Fiddler on the Roof as well as traditional Shabbat melodies.
There was no talking or eating until everyone had their cup of grape juice and piece of challah. The students agreed that the first bite of bread tastes all the more delicious when you wait so long in silence and bless it together before eating.
At the meal each person introduced themselves and shared who they are in the musical. I had promised that after dinner, I would show them the Torah. A few had to leave after the meal, but most stayed, and were very excited to see the scroll up close. I explained what it is made of, and that it takes about a year to write it, with a special quill and special ink. I know several Sofer Stams (Torah scribes). The one I know best lives in Jerusalem, and goes to the mikveh every morning before he begins to work.
I let them hold the Torah, but when the first young woman felt how heavy it is, she was afraid to try to hold it herself, especially since I told them that if it falls, the congregation has to fast for 40 days (1 person per day). [Later, I read that this is not true. One who drops a Torah is supposed to fast for 1-3 days. The whole congregation does not have to participate in a rotating 40-day fast, although I do know of communities who have chosen to do this].
I love experiencing the Torah and Judaism through the eyes of people who know little or nothing about it, and who are comfortable with their Beginners’ Minds. It’s human nature to enjoy sharing what we love with interested people who have not been exposed to that ‘something’ before, whether it’s a particular trail in the woods, a favorite dish we like to cook, a work of art, a book, or a good friend.
I am extremely grateful to Rebekah Kersten, the theater teacher/director at BUHS, for organizing this with me. I am grateful to all the students, teachers and parents who came last Friday, and to every member of BAJC who was here to welcome them. Thanks to Judith Reichsmann, Teresa Savel, her friend David, Sue Lederer, Kim Effron and Marsha Stern for all their help with set up and clean up, and to Lizi Rosenberg for baking challah. (My sincere apologies if I am forgetting someone who helped a lot!) Everyone brought plenty of yummy food.
On Saturday morning, the fun and learning continued in joyful community with another Yalla Chaverim family service, during which we completed the book of Genesis. After the service, we all ate Chelsa’s delicious challah and amazing rugelach baked by Anna May Seaver. The children learned Hebrew and acted out selections from the Joseph story while the parents had a meaningful discussion about challenging sibling relationships and other sensitive subjects.
I’m always a bit sad when we leave the intimate book of Genesis, with its complex family dynamics, and move on to our collective national story in Exodus. God willing, we’ll all be alive to dive into Genesis again next year.
Chazak Chazak v’Nitchazek – חזק חזק ונתחזק – Be Strong, Be Strong, and May We Be Strengthened (and May We Strengthen One Another).
Rabbi Amita רב אמיתה
January 2, 2023
We Jews live in two civilizations, so although Christmas and the secular New Year are not Jewish holidays, they affect us, and many of us celebrate these days along with our Christian friends, and in many cases family members.
I have never been big on celebrating the secular New Year. I’m grateful for Rosh Hashanah, which holds and offers meaning that the turning of the Gregorian year does not. We can of course choose to insert meaning into the Gregorian new year, e.g. some people make New Year’s resolutions, and some spend the moments just before and after midnight on Dec 31 in meditation.
One question that arises in me as we approach 2023: What is time? How do I experience time? When does time seem to speed up and when does it slow down? How is it possible for the moments to drag and the years to fly by? I remember watching a film about time in a high school physics class that totally blew my mind. It demonstrated that time can actually move backward. (Don’t ask me to explain. Physics is the only class I ever dropped out of).
In Hebrew, the word for time is z’man זמן, which is the root of the word הזמנה –– invitation.
What is this moment, this hour, this day, week, month, year, inviting you to do / feel / express?
Secular time feels linear to me. Jewish time is cyclical. I am especially grateful for Shabbat, which AJ Heschel called a “Palace in Time.” [See elsewhere in this newsletter three Wednesday evening webinars organized by the Shalom Center in honor of Heschel’s 50th Yahrzeit this month].
Even though I do not currently observe Shabbat halachically, I always light Shabbat candles, with the kavanah (intention) to bring light and blessing into each day of the coming week. I don’t shop, I make an effort not to think about finances; I am aware of it being Shabbat from sundown on Friday ‘til the first stars appear in the night sky on Saturday. It’s much easier to feel Shabbat in Israel, especially in Jerusalem or Tzfat (Safed), where every one slows down and a peaceful atmosphere reigns for 25 hours. It takes more intention to create that atmospheric shift in Vermont (especially since it’s generally more peaceful in Vermont to begin with!), but it’s not impossible.
It was a joy being together with many of you for the eight nights of Chanukah this year, some in person, some via Zoom. I always feel sad when the last dancing flame in the Chanukah menorah dies out. And I simultaneously feel tremendous gratitude for Shabbat, with the peace, warmth and light of the Shabbat candles every week.
I hope to see you on Friday evening, Jan 6, to welcome Shabbat and to welcome members of the cast of BUHS’s Fiddler on the Roof, which will be performed Feb 16-18. Please bring vegetarian food to share.
Rabbi Amita Jarmon רב אמיתה
Joseph, Forgiveness, Light
December 23, 2022
On December 17th, we began the Joseph Novella, which unfolds over the course of four Torah portions, Genesis chapters 37 through 56. The characters have greater psychological depth than those in any of the other Torah stories, and the plot is ingenious. Many of us first learned the Joseph story not through the Torah, but from Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber’s telling of it in the musical “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”
I recently listened to Stephen Mitchell’s brilliant, poetic Zen Midrash: Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness: A Story About Letting Go, published in 2019. Mitchell points out the this is the only book in the entire Bible the teaches us how to forgive. Jesus, through the Gospels, speaks repeatedly about the importance of forgiveness, but does not actually teach us how to do it. Joseph’s life is an inspiring example of how to cultivate forgiveness. I highly recommend reading this, or listening to the author’s soothing voice on the audiobook.
In Parasha VaYeishev, Joseph’s innocent self-centeredness, fed by his father’s loving and favoring him over all his other 11 brothers, naturally arouses his brothers’ jealousy. When he, with clueless excitement, shares his dreams, their jealousy turns to rage and they toss him in a pit (in Hebrew, בור). In the mystical understanding of Hebrew letters, aleph א represents God. When an א replaces the letter vav, the בור becomes a באר, a wellspring for Joseph’s insight and transformation.
God does not “appear” in the Joseph story. God doesn’t speak to Joseph as he spoke with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But Joseph realizes while in the pit/well that his predicament is part of the Divine plan / the Great Way. In Mitchell’s retelling, Joseph moves from shock and confusion, to being able to see himself through his brothers’ eyes. He realizes how and why his words and actions affected them, even though there was no ill intent on his part. At first he feels terribly guilty and heartsick, deeply ashamed. Then he is graced with the insight that it’s all part of the Divine Plan/Great Way. With this realization he is able to forgive himself and is infused with Peace.
The reading of the Joseph story always coincides with Chanukah. In both our Torah text and our Solstice season holiday, there is a movement from darkness to light. For Joseph, there is a back and forth from darkness to light. It’s not a straight line. But because of Joseph’s high level of consciousness, even when his situation appears dark, he is able to zoom out and see the bigger picture and the greater Light.
May we all feel and see the Light in ourselves and others during Chanukah.
May we remind others of their light and reflect it back to them when they have lost sight of it.
May we all develop Joseph’s ability to see the big picture and trust in the Great Way.
“Thanksgiving, Rosh Chodesh Kislev, Celebrating Cultures”
November 24, 2022
On Thanksgiving most residents of the US gather together with family and/or friends for a festive meal regardless of country of origin and regardless of religious tradition. Whether one is religious or an atheist, today is a day to pause and give thanks for whatever is good in our lives. In recent years, dozens of books have been published about the benefits of gratitude and how to practice gratitude.
Jewish tradition instructs us to give thanks each morning immediately upon waking. The first thing we say is, “Modeh (masc) / Modah (fem) / Modet (non-gendered) Ani…” “I give thanks before You… for compassionately returning my soul to me … how great is Your faith in me.” I say this each morning in the same way I do it when leading services – bowing to the left giving thanks for the past, bowing to the right giving thanks for the future, and bowing to the center giving thanks for this moment.
Three times each day in the Amidah (standing prayer), the penultimate blessing begins: “Modim Anachnu Lach…” “We give thanks before You…” and ends with “…l’cha na’eh l’hodot,” “It is good/pleasing to give thanks to You.” This particular blessing has us give thanks for the miracles that we experience each evening, morning and afternoon.
It is good to give thanks. By saying these words, we are reminded of what we are grateful for, no matter how challenging our day has been, no matter what is not going well in our lives or in the world, even when we are ill or bereaved.
This year, Thanksgiving coincides with Rosh Chodesh Kislev – the new moon of Kislev.
As Mordecai Kaplan said, we Jews live in two civilizations. This is true today, and it has always been true. We live in Jewish civilization, and we also live in the “host” civilization. In our case, that host is North America, which in itself is a mix of many cultures. In recent years, there is a growing awareness of our responsibility toward the descendants of the First Nations. It is incumbent upon us to learn about the Abenaki, whose bodies and culture were almost completely wiped out by the Europeans who colonized Vermont in the early 18th century. We might individually consider contributing to an organization that supports Abenkai or other Indigenous peoples.
Celebrating Thanksgiving, which may include acknowledging the complexities of this day, is a practice of the host civilization we live in. Looking up and noticing that we cannot see the moon on a clear night when we do see stars, is a practice of Jewish civilization, as is singing a partial Hallel (selections from Psalms 113-118) the next morning.
Last night, I joined a group of eight women rabbis in Israel via Zoom (for them it was already this morning), singing Hallel to celebrate Rosh Chodesh. While I believe it is important for us to support the preservation of Indigenous cultures, I obviously also believe it’s important to preserve our own culture, which includes paying attention to the cycles of the moon.
Each month has its own energy. My friend Mindy Ribner, a student of both Reb Zalman and Reb Shlomo, wrote Kabbalah Month by Month, 2002. She has a great deal to say about each month. Here is some of what she says about Kislev:
“Kislev is about transcending what is logical, actualizing dreams and visions and going forward. Kislev is known as the month of miracles. During the month of Kislev, we become more aware of Divine synchronicity.
Kislev is a time of deepening faith and trust. Living with faith enables us to not be bound by the reasoning powers and limits of the mind. It is faith, not the mind, that opens us to new possibilities and new dimensions. It is faith that enables us to go forward in ways we could not do previously.
The month of Kislev is about learning to more fully trust in the Source of All Life. Kislev is about reclaiming the dreams of the inner child. Kislev is about taking risks to move forward to live more authentically and embody more of our soul potential. In Kislev, we are better able to access the guidance of our very own soul and live with greater confidence.”
Blessings for a day of Gratitude and Joy, Chodesh Tov, and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Amita רב אמיתה