Sunday, June 10, 2012

Mystery and Power: The Question Marks of Jewish Life - Behaalotekha 5772

My odyssey through Judaism has been peppered with question marks. Our tradition is one of questions.  Everything can be challenged -- that is the Jewish way, the rabbinic tradition of the last two millennia. I would suggest that the most appealing feature, and indeed the central tenet of our intellectual history is the openness of our tradition to what is unknown and can therefore be discussed.  All the more so, what we do not know, what is not concrete, lends to the mystery and power of Jewish tradition.

In 1987, when I was seventeen, I visited Israel for the first time.  I was there for eight weeks on the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program, where we studied Jewish history from ancient times until the present, visiting relevant sites all over Israel.  I matured in many ways that summer -- living away from home for the first time, in a foreign country -- and grew in my relationship with Judaism and the Jewish State.

But the moment that I remember more clearly than any other that summer was my first visit to the Kotel, the Western Wall of the Temple Mount.  I remember approaching the ancient rocks, feeling the July heat radiating forth from the wall, and I remember the tears.  They came from deep down inside, uninvited, unprovoked.  I had this moment of resonance, as if my connection to the past had drawn them up from within me.  I cried and cried and cried.  I looked around me, and all my friends were experiencing the same thing.  Even the tough guys among us (although I can’t say that I counted myself among that group).

Although I may not have been able to express this at the time, what we all experienced at that moment was the power and mystery of Judaism; the qesher / connection with our ancient national stories, our collective relationship with the central historical site where our ancestors worshiped, and where, we are told, the Shekhinah, God’s presence, once dwelt.

Looking back, it occurs to me now that those tears came from the depths described in Psalm 130: Mimaamaqim qeratikha Adonai.  From the depths I cry to You, God.  I recently encountered this verse while preparing for an adult-learning course that I am currently teaching in Great Neck on the Zohar, the 13th-century Spanish compendium of Jewish mystical tradition  These are not the depths of life, says the Zohar, but the depths of the soul, because that is the place from where true tefillah, true prayer comes.

What makes Judaism continue to be a relevant, living tradition is that many of us still occasionally feel the power in Judaism.  We might feel it when reading the words of the Torah or while reciting tefillot.  We may relate to the chain of tradition across generations when fulfilling rituals that punctuate Jewish life.  We might feel the pride and power in connection with the modern State of Israel, the miraculous product of 2,000 years of wandering and yearning.  Even as urbane, sophisticated people, what brings us back to the Kotel, to the synagogue, and the Passover seder and so forth is the desire to feel that mystery and power.  

This is in fact one of the themes that ran through today’s parashah, Behaalotekha.  During their decades of wandering in the desert, the Israelites needed to be reminded from time to time of God’s mystery and power. Where did they find it?  It was right in the center of their encampment -- the mishkan, the portable altar and sanctuary that is described in overwhelming detail in the latter chapters of Exodus.  The mishkan contained the aron, the Ark that carried the tablets that Moshe received on Mt. Sinai (you know, the same one that was featured in Raiders of the Lost Ark).  

We read today that when the Israelites were in camp, there was a cloud that settled over the altar, and that cloud became something like fire at night.  That must have been reassuring; if you ever had a doubt, all you had to do, night or day, was look in the direction of the mishkan, and there was your proof that God was with you.

Well, OK.  So let’s face it: we don’t have visible reminders like this today.  Quite the opposite: everything that happens in our world is explainable according to scientific principles, logic and rationality.  Unnatural, Divine clouds that burn at night don’t appear in your building’s air shaft.  (And if one did, you would call the super.)

Some of you know that before I became a cantor and a rabbi, I worked as an engineer.  I used to design parts of petrochemical plants: pumps, heat exchangers, boiler systems, relief valves, exciting, inspiring stuff like that.  I am by nature a scientific person, a lover of logic and the laws of physics, and as such it is usually difficult for me to get swept away by the mystery and power that our ancestors must have perceived.  I know that I’m not alone here; these are skeptical times.  The fastest-growing religion in America is “none.” More and more of us, Jews and non-Jews, seem not to be actively seeking a connection with God, at least in public.

And yet, every now and then, like my experience at the Kotel, we have those transcendent moments, the moments that open up the depths of the soul and allow us to feel the resonance of ancient wisdom.  

That is exactly where we as Jews need to be.  We have to be explicit about the fact that our stock-in-trade as a synagogue, as a sacred community, is a potential glimpse of the Divine.  This is not only a place to socialize, or to enjoy the qiddush, although these things are of course important and valuable in creating connections among us.  And though part of running a synagogue is the mundane sphere of managing budgets, personnel, maintenance and so forth, its raison d’etre is something far more elusive, and far more lofty.  It’s about people trying to bring some holiness into their lives.  Ideally, this is what synagogues do.

Ladies and gentlemen, many of us live lives that are stretched to the breaking point.  Our waking hours are filled with family, work, recreation if we are lucky, and we are all running a sleep deficit.  We must constantly make choices about where to focus our energies, choices that wear us down and spread our attention too thin.  What is it that will keep people coming back to Judaism?  Is it services?  Bar/bat mitzvah?  Sermons?  Well, maybe not.

What will maintain our connection to Judaism in the future is our ability to make this congregation a qehillah qedoshah, a sacred community, to offer something that you cannot get anywhere else: the opportunity to interact with God, to get a peek behind the veil of the ordinary to what lies beyond.  

What does the word qadosh mean?  We think it means “holy” (qodesh = holiness; qiddush = sanctification; qaddish = being holy, etc.).  But what it really means is “set apart.”  (Some here might know that the opposite of qodesh is hol,  literally, “sand” i.e. that which is commonplace, mundane.  A synagogue, and the qehillah qedoshah / sacred community that resides therein, are set apart from the madness of life outside this building -- our family commitments, our schools, our co-op boards, and so forth.  This is a place where we can have those moments that make Judaism special, where we can share the quiet moments of personal prayer, and sing together with gusto.

We read a passage in the Torah this morning that I remember seeing as a young boy, and which continues to intrigue me to this day.  After describing the cloud over the mishkan, the Torah says the following (and this may sound familiar):
וַיְהִי בִּנְסֹעַ הָאָרֹן, וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה:  קוּמָה יְהוָה, וְיָפֻצוּ אֹיְבֶיךָ, וְיָנֻסוּ מְשַׂנְאֶיךָ, מִפָּנֶיךָ.  וּבְנֻחֹה, יֹאמַר:  שׁוּבָה יְהוָה, רִבְבוֹת אַלְפֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.

Vayhi binsoa ha-aron, vayomer Moshe: Qumah, Adonai, veyafutsu oyevekha, veyanusu mesan’ekha mipanekha.  // Uvnuho yomar, shuvah Adonai rivevot alfei Yisrael.”

When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say: Advance, O Lord! May Your enemies be scattered, And may Your foes flee before You!  
And when it halted, he would say: Return, O Lord, You who are Israel’s myriads of thousands.” (Numbers 10:35-36)

Although the text here is curious (it’s about strength, rather than holiness; perhaps those two things were more closely related in ancient times), what is really fascinating is how it appears in the Torah: it is set off by two upside-down Hebrew letters, two nuns.  (You can see this in the Hertz humash on p. 613.  Coincidence?) This sort of typographic trick does not occur anywhere else in the Torah, nor does any other kind of punctuation.  An ancient editor (possibly God), felt the need to graphically show us that these two verses are different, set apart.  We do not know why or how this appeared in the text identified this way, but for me that only heightens the mystery.  

To this day, we recite these words when we take the Torah out and when we put it away, hinting at the mystery, the big Question, to which those nuns point.  

What makes our stories appealing from one generation to the next is not their concrete nature, but the ambiguities that allow for reinterpretation in every age.  The Torah is not about the period; it’s about the question mark -- in fact, myriads of question marks -- the difficulties detected and explored by rabbinic tradition -- from the Mishnah and Gemara to Rashi and Ibn Ezra and the subsequent centuries of hermeneutic possibilities.  All of Jewish life flows from the question mark.

Maimonides, the 12th-century Spanish rationalist, rejected the wild speculations of qabbalah regarding the nature of God.  And yet he still maintained the mystery by denying that God has a physical form (The piyyut Yigdal, often recited at the end of synagogue services as a closing hymn, is based on Maimonides' 13 principles of faith, and includes the line: Ein lo demut ha-guf, ve-eino guf - God has neither a form nor a body).  God’s “mighty hand and outstretched arm,” which we all know from the Pesah seder, are metaphors, says Rambam; the reality of God is elusive.  Martin Buber, the early 20th-century Jewish philosopher, went even further: God is so beyond description as to be completely unconditional.  Unlike objects or beings, our relationship with God is beyond any possible limit or boundary or presupposition.  That is mystery and power, indeed.

We are the guardians of those ancient mysteries, the inheritors of centuries of rabbinic inquiry and debate.  And therein lies the secret that will maintain Judaism: this is ours.  This rich, varied tradition offers so much to us today, and to our children and grandchildren tomorrow.  That is what being a qehillah qedoshah is all about.  Ledor vador -- from generation to generation -- we pass on that sense of wonder.

It may be that there is no pillar of cloud or fire today, hovering over the mishkan.  But we do not necessarily need to look for this kind of miraculous occurrence; we can be rationalists like Maimonides, and still maintain the mystery and power of Judaism, Jewish life and learning. By doing so, by seeing ourselves as a sacred community that draws on this mystery, we will enable all who enter this synagogue to plumb the depths of the soul, and thereby reach higher.

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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