The Place

This week was exhausting existentially in our homeland. Ideology and fundamentalism became tools of violence in a land so desperate for peace. These were not external threats, but internal zealotry born of an arrogance and certitude that should make us pause, wonder, feel immense shame and anger and then take a painful look inside.

One of the names of God in Hebrew is Makom; God is a place, the ultimate place, so to speak. Makom is an odd way to refer to a Divine Being, but there is something about it that signals both grandeur and solace. When it comes to spiritual shelter, what matters is location, location, location. Many biblical verses refer to God as a refuge or place we hide to escape from our troubles when we feel ill at ease or afraid.

Stamped on many psalms is not the idea that God is a place as in a scenic vista or a magnificent sweep of landscape but a place we can go to when there is nowhere else to go. "Deliver me, O Lord, from my enemies. I take refuge in You" (Psalms 143:9). Continuing the theme of protection, we read, "For You have been a refuge to me, a tower of strength against the enemy (61:3). God not only shields us. God is a tower when we are feeling small and powerless. "You are my hiding place. You preserve me from trouble. You surround me with songs of deliverance" (32:7). Not only do we hide in God, when we do so, we are surrounded by the loving cradle of song to sooth us. Sometimes we need to hide and do not know how. Then, too, the psalmist calls out to God, "Hide me in the shadow of your wings" (17:8).

Elsewhere, in the book of Isaiah, we have God as place using visual cues in nature: "Each will be like a refuge from the wing and a shelter from the storm. Like streams of water in a dry country, like a huge rock in a parched land" (32:2). God offers a place for us to hide when we are at our lowest and most fragile, and we suddenly grasp sight of a rich oasis. The problem is that we cannot always hide nor should we.

Turning to a more modern view of place, we study the living words of Israeli poet Tuvya Ruebner, who was awarded the Israel Prize for his poetry in 2008. Ruebner came to what was then Palestine from Czechoslovakia in 1941 during the British Mandate. He came alone. His family eventually perished in the Holocaust, but Ruebner's different path saved him. He became a member of Kibbutz Merhavia and a schoolteacher.

His poem, "When I arrived the place was," appears here in an English translation by Oded Manor.

When I arrived the place was
Filled with dust. No signature 
Of grass. Not
A single blade. A few grey trees
Stood here, there, shrouded
In sackcloth and dust. In my dream I saw
The rivers of my youth, the nights of my forests. Nowadays
Everything is green. In my dream I see
Filled with dust.

Sometimes we dream of a place that is lush and verdant but the reality turns out not to match the welcoming vision. Hardly anything is growing. Everything is covered in a film of dust that mars the deep green of nature. That happens to places when we have great expectations that are not met, when our disappointments become a storm cloud of reality.

When we speak of God as "Makom," we don't mean just any place. We mean a place of safety, of joy, of triumph, of home. Our homeland, too, has to feel like that makom, that place of vibrancy and shelter for all who live there if we take the mandate to live in God's image seriously. Because if it is not a makom - a safe and loving space - for all who live there now then it will cease to be that one day for any who live there. Let the repair and the healing begin.

Shabbat Shalom

When the Earth Shakes

The earth is utterly broken; the earth is split apart, the earth is violently shaken.
— Isaiah 24:19

Every day, the radio and newspapers dish out more despair. The mounting death toll in Nepal is shattering; the crushing reality of people trapped under collapsed buildings and towns shaken to their foundations cannot be ignored and can have serious theological repercussions. Where is God in all this rubble? 

Natural disasters were not uncommon in the ancient world. Sacred texts often captured the wonder and fear that storms, hurricanes and earthquakes created. Isaiah's earth was violently shaken. Isaiah observed that, "the earth will be shaken out of its place, at the wrath of the Lord of hosts in the day of His fierce anger" (13:13). Job understandably regarded earthquakes as God's anger: "He who removes mountains, and they know it not, when he overturns them in anger, who shakes the earth out of its place and its pillars tremble" (9:5-6). This same view is shared in psalms: "Then the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations of the mountains trembled and quaked because He was angry"(18:7). 

We find ourselves slightly off-balance when reading these verses, as if we are ourselves reeling and rocking slightly. The world's pain is our pain. In the ancient world, weather was never just weather. Rain felt like God's tears. The earth quaking felt like God's wrath. 

What are we to make of all of this destruction at God's hand?           

This question is further enhanced elsewhere in the book of Psalms: "You have made the land to quake; You have torn it open: repair its breaches, for it totters. You have shown your people desperate times..." (60:2-3). God, if you destroy, You must also repair. If You force people into desperation, then you must create solace and comfort for them through the reconstruction effort. 

But this assumes that it is indeed God's anger at us that creates disasters. You will often hear clergy spouting such views, sadly assuming that they know the exact reason a terrible natural disaster occurred. If God is angry at anything, I would argue, it is at human apathy, at creating a manmade world that is not thoughtful of nature. It is as if God said to us, "You are my partners in creation, and your job was to steward your planet. You have disappointed me. You must keep us your side of this covenant."

 Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his forthcoming Nine Essential Things I've Learned about Life asks how we can find the willpower to face great challenges and answers:

I find God not in the test that life imposes on us but in the ability of ordinary people to rise to the challenge, to find within themselves qualities of soul, qualities of courage they did not know they had until the day they needed them. God does not send the problem, the illness, the accident, the hurricane, and God does not take them away...Rather, God sends us the strength and determination of which we did not believe ourselves capable, so that we can deal with, or live with, problems that no one can make go away.

Thinking of determination and strength, I happened to be with Ruth Messinger, head of the American Jewish World Service, when the tremors in Nepal were still taking lives. At the special event we attended, she was clearly preoccupied and quickly took a sheet out of her bag with information on Nepal: "There's going to be a huge Jewish response, Erica. You'll see." She said it confidently. There was no question that we as a people would come to the rescue in some way. She expressed her absolute faith in our people to go outside of ourselves and give until it hurts because someone else is hurting.

As we go into Shabbat - our day of rest - let us feel that we at least reached out to our human family across the globe and eased the pain and amplified the hope. To donate online, click onto to their earthquake relief fund. Start helping so others may start healing.

Shabbat Shalom

Trust Twice

Personally, I am brimming with the belief that God will not abandon His people and that our national existence in this Holy Land is secure.
— Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstien

This week, as we ran the gamut of Jewish feeling from Holocaust Remembrance Day to Israel's Independence Day, a towering scholar in Israel passed away at 81. Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein co-headed one of the finest academies of Jewish study in the world - Yeshivat Har Etzion - and he stood for a sophisticated type of commitment to tradition that was nuanced and complex. His lectures  - for those who could fully understand them - were filled with quotes from world literature, philosophy, rabbinic texts and Jewish modern and ancient thought. He was an elegant spokesman for religious Zionism and commitment to Israeli military service and the winner of the prestigious Israel Prize, the State's highest honor. In his memory, we will study one of his teachings.

In a stunning article called "Trust in God" in his book By His Light, Rav Aharon - as he was fondly called - offers us two notions of faith or "bitachon" in Hebrew. One level of trust "is expressed by the certainty that God stands at your side and will assist you." This is, in his words, an approach that is fundamentally optimistic - "saturated with faith and hopeful expectation for the future." This type of faith gives those on the battlefield the energy to soldier on, those trapped in the darkness of  a concentration camp the belief that redemption will come. Ani Ma'amin - I believe with a perfect faith... 

But this is not the only faith that can sustain an individual in crisis, since optimism may prove to be naïve or unfounded. When circumstances sour, the person with this type of faith alone will lose all trust in God and others. This second type of trust "does not attempt to scatter the clouds of misfortune, try to raise expectations, or strive to whitewash a dark future." It is a trust grounded in realism; "it expresses a steadfast commitment - even if the outcome will be bad..." This can be a challenge for modern human beings, nourished on empowerment and high self-esteem. It is spiritually demanding: "This approach does not claim that God will remain at our side; rather, it asks us to remain at His side." 

Rav Aharon marshals sources to demonstrate both kinds of trust and then relates it to sacrifices made to build our people and the State of Israel after the ashes. He writes that the first kind of trust is "endangered by our continuous accomplishments." He believes that religious Zionism as understood and taught by the State was successful at filling us with certain values: redemption, hope and expectation, "but neglected to teach the values of loving trust, of cleaving to God without hesitation under all circumstances. We did not fortify our children or ourselves concerning the possibility of crises..."

Even though so many in Israel made and continue to make personal sacrifices for our homeland, it was done "riding a wave of optimism, that all would work out because the process of redemption was unfolding." It is here that Rav Aharon inserted the quote above. He was not giving up, God forbid, on the importance of personal faith. It was a faith in the eternity of the people and land of Israel that he would never abandon. He was, instead, offering a more mature complementary approach to faith, "to trust during suffering" and to realize that this kind of deeper trust, when coupled with faith and love, may be the most trust that ultimately shaped and will shape our people.  

Above many a Torah ark is a verse from Psalms, "I have placed God before me always"(16:8) - what Rav Aharon called "God's constant overarching presence."  The word "always" implies not only when it serves our needs or confirms our beliefs, but even when life flies in the face of them. Rav Aharon taught generations of students to understand and deepen God's holy presence through rigorous study, through commitment to the army and through the modern State of Israel that we celebrated this week. He challenges us still to see and to say this verse as we ask ourselves: is God before me always?

May his memory be for a blessing.

Shabbat Shalom