9 Kislev 5762
As those of you know who were here on the early side this morning, I leined rishon, the first aliya to the Torah portion of this Shabbat, Va-Yetsei. This is a first for me at BEKI — the first time I have leined anything here but my original Bar Mitzva aliya in Parashat Shelah Lekha. It’s my first step toward entering the BEKI leining rotation. Through the coming year, I harbor the ambition of “leining for the cycle” — leining one aliya for each of the Five Books.
For the novice, repetition is the key. And so I read rishon dozens of times. I also made an effort to understand the text word by word, something I do not ordinarily find accessible. Gradually I focused down within the aliya, first to a few sentences, then to a few words, and finally to one word. And so my Devar Torah is just that — a word of Torah about a word of Torah.
If we turn to page 166 in Etz Hayim, our new Humash, let’s look at the first aliya, which starts at [Genesis] chapter 28, verse 10. In last week’s parasha, upon the instigation of Rivqa, Yitshaq instructs Ya`aqov to head to Paddan-aram to take a wife from among the daughters of Lavan. Now, in compliance, Ya`aqov leaves home. Night falls along the way. Finding himself in barren terrain, Ya`aqov puts his head down on a rock, falls asleep, and dreams. He sees angels ascending and descending a ladder to Heaven. Then God is at his side and speaks to him, saying that He will give this land to Ya`aqov and that his seed will be multitudinous. God will be with Ya`aqov and will bring him back to the land to keep His promise. Ya`aqov awakes and exclaims,
Akhen yesh Adonai ba-maqom ha-ze, ve-anokhi lo yada`ti
Surely the Lord is in this place, and I, I did not know.
I use the double “I” in translation to follow Rabbi Lawrence Kushner in his book by that name. Ya`aqov continues,
Ma-nora ha-maqom haze, ein ze ki im-beit Elohim ve-ze sha`ar ha-shamaim.
How awesome is this place! This is the house of God, and this is the gate of Heaven.
There we have it. Ya’aqov, no longer able to stay home, leaves. Night falls in barren terrain. He puts his head down on a rock and dreams of God at his side. He awakens and declares, “Ma-nora ha-maqom haze, how awesome is this place!”
Let’s look at this word, nora, more closely. Interestingly, we use it all the time, in the familiar triad of Godly attributes in the introduction to the Amida prayer:
Barukh ata Adonai, Elohenu vElohei avoteinu, Elohei Avraham, Elohei Yitshaq, vElohei Ya`aqov, ha-El ha-gadol ha-gibor ve-ha-nora.
Blessed are You, Adonai, our God and God of our ancestors, God of Avraham, God of Yitshaq, and God of Ya`aqov, God the great, the mighty, and the awesome.
We may ask, how does mention of the Divine attribute of nora add to the two preceding ones of gedula and gevura? I would suggest, in essence, that nora is the first to describe God’s nature as relational. To be great and mighty means that One is great and mighty. To be awesome means to be capable of inspiring awe – but no One, not even God, can inspire awe unless there exists an other capable of being inspired. That other is humanity. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes in his wonderful book, God In Search of Man,
The meaning of awe is to realize that life takes place under wide horizons, horizons that range beyond the span of an individual life or even the life of a nation, a generation, or an era. Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the Divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal.
When we grasp, as did Ya`aqov, that God’s awesome nature is manifest in a setting we thought ordinary at best, we come so much more close to the Divine Presence.
If we turn back to the introduction to the Amida prayer, another level of meaning suggests itself, this time in the form of a hidden connection. Consider the two triads, “Elohei Avraham, Elohei Yitshaq, vElohei Ya`aqov” followed immediately by the second, “ha-el ha-gadol ha-gibor ve-ha-nora.” Note the parallel ordering: the descriptions of God as the “God of Ya`aqov” and the “God Who is awesome” each appear third. What, if anything, may we make of this parallel? Nothing, perhaps – unconnected, just a coincidence; but what if all three patriarchs and all three Divine attributes were somehow to correspond? Would that not strengthen the hint we have of connection?
In search of correspondence, I looked around a bit and found an illustration in my edition of the medieval mystical text of the Zohar. The illustration is of the Ten Sefirot – mystical attributes of the one God. The uppermost level, from which all else emanates, is the Divine crown of Keter, the place of more Being than any other being. At the next level appear two Sefirot, Hokhma, or Divine wisdom, and Bina, Divine understanding. At the third level appear two more Sefirot, the first two accompanied by earthly correlates: Gedula or Hesed on the right, Gevura or Din on the left. As pointed out by Daniel Matt in his introduction to my Zohar translation, these represent two opposing sides of Divine personality: free-flowing love and strict judgment, grace and limitation. Associated with Gedula in the illustration is Abraham. Associated with Gevura is Yitshaq. So here we have the other two of the three associations we were seeking:
Elohei Avraham : ha-gadol
Elohei Yitshaq : ha-gibor.
And then there is the third association, which we already noted in our Torah text:
Elohei Ya`aqov : ha-nora.
The presence of the first two associations in the Sefirot does not mean they found their way into the Amida via the Sefirot. Since the Amida prayer came first (correct me if I am wrong), that would not be possible. It would be far more likely, though not necessarily so, that the associations found their way into the Sefirot via the Amida. Or perhaps the associations found their way into both from the Torah! In any case, the support for our original suggestion stands – the parallel appearances of Elohei Ya`aqov and ha-nora in the introduction to the Amida are connected; they convey meaning. What meaning? Prayer and Torah text are connected. Sometimes the connection may be hidden in the structure of the prayer. Here, probing the structure of the Amida prayer, we find a clue of a deep way to access the awesome in our lives – via the gateway of our story of Ya`aqov. Who knows how many other places the connection between prayer and Torah text is hidden in the structure of the prayer rather than in its explicit content. Ma-nora! How awesome!
In a sense, I have spoken my word of Torah, but something is missing. I have not yet told you how I picked this Parasha and this aliya to lein, to study, and to teach. Here is the answer. Last year, I missed being in shul for Parashat Va-Yetsei. Why? Because I was in the hospital instead. The night before, with no warning but the symptoms earlier that afternoon, I was diagnosed as having a brain tumor. Three days later, out it came. The diagnosis was confirmed as malignant. Out I was cast from the realm of the normal, my psychological home and refuge. But here is something important and unexpected: cast out though I was into an alien and frightening environment, I did not feel alien or frightened. While I sensed the urgency of the situation, I did not lapse into denial, anger, fear, or guilt. This does not mean that I went through it 100% anxiety-free. I felt my will assert itself, however, from a level deeper than any anxiety. When my best medical alternative quickly became clear, my deeper energies turned foremost to communicating with those around me. In service of this powerful need, I found within me an unusual calm and lucidity. These helped me to reach out to those close to me in special ways both before and after going in for the surgery.
One of those close to me in this drama was God. For the first time, really, a fixed flaw in my relation with God was exposed and pried loose. For so long, without realizing it, my belief in Him and my thanks to Him had been responses to my successes at this, my successes at that. Good health, wonderful family, successful career – thank You, God! I owe it all to You. But as I awaited neurosurgery, for the first time I felt that God did not owe me an uninterrupted high ride to be worthy of my affection. In other words, my illness stripped me of a layer of conditionality in my love of God. Here I was, facing dire possibilities, feeling blessed.
You may ask, where did these feelings, be they odd or counterintuitive or otherwise, come from? Stanley Rosenbaum, our Congregation’s resident anesthesiologist, opined it was from the steroids they gave me. Who knows? Maybe the steroids did help! And, I should mention, I have not remained free of negative feelings for the entire year since. A mixture of feelings, anger high on the list, did eventually creep in. I have spent time working on that, with good results. The main technique has been to acknowledge the feelings and let them pass. But let me return to the first days and tell you what else helped me with my feelings – this Congregation. From so many of you we received an immediate outpouring of expressions and acts of lovingkindness. My family and I felt surrounded with love and support. Thank you all. Please help us again, this time by passing along our thanks to the number of congregants who are away this weekend of Thanksgiving, giving thanks of their own elsewhere.
The morning of the surgery I prayed and learned another prayerbook lesson, this time explicit. At my request, Marsha had brought me a copy of our Siddur, Sim Shalom. Uncharacteristically, I admit, I started from the beginning of the Shaharit, or morning, service. There I discovered a series of readings on lovingkindness I had previously missed or glossed over. I found this one, from Avot DeRabbi Natan, particularly moving:
Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai once was walking with his disciple Rabbi Joshua near Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple. Rabbi Joshua looked at the Temple ruins and said: “Alas for us! The place which atoned for the sins of the people Israel through the ritual of animal sacrifice lies in ruins!” Then Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai spoke to him these words of comfort: “Be not grieved, my son. There is another way of gaining atonement even though the Temple is destroyed. We must now gain atonement through deeds of lovingkindness.” For it is written, “Lovingkindness I desire, not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6).
Here we have a message from God, relayed by the Prophet Hosea through Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, Rabbi Natan, and the authors of our Conservative prayerbook: acts of lovingkindess take the place of sacrifice in our relationship with God. Ma-nora! How awesome!
What does this message about acts of lovingkindness tell us? From the deep past, the voice of the Eternal speaks and tells us: “Be a mensch.” From the near present, the voice of Miriam Benson speaks and asks, “Can you bring a casserole to the Bellers next Tuesday night?”
When I saw the connection between ancient message and current practice, I grasped that our religion lives and will continue to live. The message to be a mensch is not just on paper; it is in our midst. It is part of our living tradition, our living presence, our living legacy. Through acts of lovingkindness it is possible to feel God’s Presence. It is as if each act of lovingkindness were a star in the cosmos and the cosmos were the trailing edge of the robe of God as He passes Moses in the cleft of the rock, letting Moses see His back only. As Abraham Joshua Heschel writes,
Where is the Presence, where is the glory of God to be found? It is found in the world (“the whole earth is full of His glory”), in the Bible, and in a sacred deed.The world, the word, as well as the sacred deed are full of His glory.
Expelled one year ago from my place of complacent self-satisfaction, I set out into barren terrain. Darkness impending, I placed my head on a rock and dreamed a dreamless dream. I awoke and realized something new:
Akhen yesh Adonai ba-maqom ha-ze, ve-anokhi lo yada`ti. Ma-nora ha-maqom haze, ein ze ki im-beit Elohim ve-ze sha`ar ha-shamayim – Surely the Lord is in this place, and I, I did not know. How awesome is this place! This is the house of God, and this is the gate of Heaven.
Thank you. Shabbat Shalom.