Friday, November 20, 2009

Wonders, Great and Small


Parshat Toldot
3 Kislev 5770
November 20th, 2009

After the Other* went over to the wicked culture, he asked Rabbi Meir, “what is the meaning of the verse, gam zeh leumat zeh asah elohim, ‘Also, God made one thing as well as the other?’ (Kohelet, 7:14)” Rabbi Meir said to him, “Everything that the Blessed Holy One made, God also created something in relative to it: God created mountains, and created hills; created seas, and created riviers...”
Talmud, Masekhet Hagigah 15a

      Every time I come to Washington D.C., I end up taking the tour of the city’s finest conference rooms. So this time, when I came back for our Moishe House East Coast retreat, I promised myself I’d see some of the sights of an extraordinary city.
    So that’s how I found myself at the Lincoln Memorial, looking up at the Gettysburg Address written in gold upon the walls; feeling deep emotion in words whose cost in blood is staggering; remembering the history that brought them to be, and also the history they made come to pass.
    As I read those words, “last, full measure of devotion,” “of the people, by the people, for the people,” I said a blessing for the fact that my sense of wonder at our world hadn’t yet dimmed from my eyes, even at a monument that now functions as a TV news backdrops.
    So what does this have to do with Moishe House? It wouldn’t make sense to compare Moishe House to the Lincoln Monument, nor vice versa. But know that both my days in D.C. were days with wonder, each on a different scale. I do feel wonder in the possibilities that Moishe House brings. I especially feel wonder at all of you; that you come together of your own will to live in Moishe houses, to plan programs, to bring others into your communities, to engage in Judaism, Jewish identity, God, Torah, Israel - the works.
    These two very different wonders remind me of a verse from Tanakh (the Bible), from Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), which I quoted above: gam zeh leumat zeh asah elohim, “Also, God made one thing as well as the other.” (Kohelet 7:14). Rabbi Meir’s (one of the biggies) explanation, that God made both mountains and hills, is not plebian, as it might seem, it is subtle and brilliant: God created both Mt. Everest and the hill on the Mall on which I now sit out of the same cosmic stuff: and though Everest is infinitely more grand, the fact of the hill is no less wonderful.
    To explain further, there is often a sense in the great forum of our world that certain realities dwarf everyday life: how can one be happy when hundreds of thousands of people are dying in Darfur? How can one be proud of a world that allowed the Holocaust? But the Torah of zeh leumat zeh teaches us that wonder exists in microcosm just as it does in the macrocosm, in the small as the large. And though small wonders are eclipsed in size and momentousness by events that shake our world, they in no way lose their significance.
    This concept includes the modest wonder of being able to be with all of you, for one day, to think about this revolution of ours. It is a small revolution, to be sure, affecting a small part of the world, but great in its importance and its promise to whomever it touches.
    I bless us all with the Torah of zeh leumat zeh, that we should never be taken from wonder, big or small, wherever it is to be found.

Shabbat Shalom.

*How Rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah got the name Aher, or "The Other" is a very interesting story, one to which many of us will relate, that will surely make its way into a Moishe's Torah someday soon. But if you're impatient, read the amazing historical novel about him - As A Driven Leaf, by Rabbi Milton Steinberg.

תלמוד בבלי מסכת חגיגה דף טו עמוד א
שאל אחר את רבי מאיר לאחר שיצא לתרבות רעה, אמר ליה: מאי דכתיב +קהלת ז'+ גם את זה לעמת זה עשה האלהים? - אמר לו: כל מה שברא הקדוש ברוך הוא - ברא כנגדו, ברא הרים - ברא גבעות, ברא ימים - ברא נהרות.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Age - Parshat Hayyei Sarah

Parshat Hayyei Sarah
26 Heshvan, 5770
13 November, 2009

And this is the life of Sarah: 100 years, 20 years, and 7 years, the years of the life of Sarah.
Bereishit 23:1

    I turned thirty over the summer. It’s been, frankly, a little crazy to watch as I climb out of my twenties. I once promised myself I would never be thirty. Whoops.
    But the transition into actual adulthood, something I once strenuously avoided, has been a surprising pleasure. Jobs and relationships have gifts of stability and satisfaction that hit you sideways, and you finally realize what the hell your parents were thinking.
    And one of the really fascinating pieces of growing up is that you realize that you never really leave behind the age that you have passed by; rather, we carry with us the flotsam of years past, qualities, attitude, opinions, habits that are a mark of earlier time. I had figured that we were all complicated enough already, but it seems that there’s always more to add.
    This parsha is Hayyei Sarah, “The Life of Sara” - and I suppose its true, in a way. But it begins with the death of Sarah, the age at which she died, to be specific, letting us know that she reached 127. The Torah’s way of expressing her age is unusual, however, broken into parts - 100 years, 20 years, 7 years - and the verse has always been a place where commentators spend time.
    “When she was 100 years old, she was like a  20 year-old in beauty, and when she was 20, she was like a 7 year old in innocence.” (Yalkut Tehillim 37)
    Sarah’s blessing is that age was never her prison, it was the sea in which she swam. Though she laughed, she bore a son past her 90th birthday. And, as we learn here, she carried beauty and innocence with her far past the age where such things would be fashionable.
    Sarah’s message to us is that the pieces of ourselves we carry from when we were younger are treasures, not detritus. But also that growing older simply increases our store of those precious objects. To see age as more than an emptying hourglass, that is Sarah’s teaching.