Divre Harav – September/16

The mystical text of the Zohar contains a notion that the Divine energy that vivifies the world depends on the unification of different aspects of God. Specifically, when God’s divine presence (known as the feminine Shekhina) is joined with the masculine aspect of Tiferet, God energy flows down and infuses the world.

The Zohar teaches:

As long as Torah is found within [Jerusalem], she endures, since Torah is the Tree of Life, standing over her. As long as Torah is aroused below, the Tree of Life does not depart above. If Torah ceases below, the Tree of Life withdraws from her. [Zohar, Pritzker ed., vol. 2, pg. 344]

The Tree of Life/Torah represents Tiferet and Jerusalem represents Shekhina. When we study and practice Torah, Jerusalem and the Tree of Life are in a symbolic union as Tiferet and Shekhina are united. If we should cease to live Torah, Tiferet breaks away from Shekhina. The practical result, according to the Zohar, is the eclipse of God’s blessings, such as rain.

Jerusalem is a city in which the ancient lives beneath the contemporary, the medieval alongside the modern, and innumerable religious streams of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and others worship side by side. It is also a city in which religious differences create tension among her inhabitants. At the Western Wall plaza in front of the retaining wall around the platform on which the Biblical Temple stood, those tensions are between the Hareidi Orthodox and the Conservative/Reform Jews who each want to worship according to their community’s custom. However, the Hareidi chief rabbis of Israel and Jerusalem, appointed political positions, have claimed the entire plaza and forbade any worship that doesn’t conform to their Orthodox standards. Another group comprised of Conservative/Reform as well as Open Orthodox women want to worship on the plaza in a women’s only minyan. A third Conservative/Reform group want to create a new worship space adjacent to the current plaza for mixed worship.

Historically, the Kotel plaza was not a synagogue and people prayed as they wished. In the earlier years of the State of Israel the Kotel was a national civic/religious space. Now, has become a battleground for the right to define Judaism. Egalitarian-optional or strictly gender-segregated. Pluralist or monolithic. These questions are being fought in the legislature, in the courts, and in the press.

I can’t imagine that this is what our sages meant when they asserted that as long as Torah is found in Jerusalem, she will endure. There is a lot of Torah in Jerusalem that is being used as a club to beat down those who live by a different approach to Torah, and that is not the kind of learning and practice that the Zohar encourages. May there be enough loving Torah in Jerusalem to arouse the God’s Presence to unite with Tiferet, and may the Divine energy infuse the city with blessing.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Sefirah/Sefirot (pl) – the 10 mystical aspects of God
  • Hesed – the Sefirah of love
  • Din – the Sefirah of judgment
  • Gevurah – power, another name for Din
  • Zohar – radiance, the name of the late 13th century mystical commentary on Torah

Psalm 150


Let all that breathes praise Adonai. Hallelujah! (150:6)

I love the fact that the book of Psalms concludes with praise that comes from every living creature that draws a breath. Not just human beings, but every other animal joins with us in dedicating that breath to God. Every release of breath gives something back to God. We return carbon dioxide to nourish plant life. We release music to make the world beautiful. We release sounds and words of gratitude.

For some, criticism comes more naturally than praise. But living a life in which criticism comes as naturally as breathing is a recipe for unhappiness. Such people are focused on what is missing from their lives rather than the gifts they have received.

The book of Psalms contains words of people who are deeply afraid, unhappy, persecuted, and sick, reaching out to God for relief. The book concludes, however, with the words of people reaching out God in song and praise. At the end of my life I hope to face death and God with words of gratitude on my lips, for my wife, for my children, and for all that I have experienced in my life. Because we don’t know at what moment we might die, Pirke Avot suggests that we treat each hour as if it is our last (2:10). Consider the last sentence you spoke to a loved one. What if that were your final words? Would your last breath be leaving you carrying praise or condemnation?

Psalms concludes with an exercise in gratitude. How can your every exhaled breath contain appreciation?

I am grateful to God for the wisdom embodied in the 150 Psalms, reflecting the entirety of the range of human experience. I am grateful for the opportunity to engage with the poetry and use the life of the poet as a backdrop against which I have examined my own life. I am grateful to God for giving me the strength and perseverance to complete this project of Psalm reflections. As my thoughts have given me peace of mind, I hope that they have positively impacted other readers.

“May Adonai grant strength to God’s people. May Adonai bless God’s people with peace.” (Psalm 29:11)

.ה׳ עֹז לְעַמּוֹ יִתֵּן, ה׳ יְבָרֵךְ אֶת־עַמּוֹ בַשָּׁלוֹם

Psalm 149

For Adonai takes pleasure in God’s people (149:4)

The Yiddish word for this kind of pleasure is Nahas, coming from the Hebrew Nahat. Although this is not the Hebrew word used in the Psalm, it reminds me of the Yiddish expression, sheppen nahas fun kinder, deriving pleasure from the mere existence of children. Of course, if the children misbehave, refuse to leave the nest and get a job, or get arrested, we’re no longer sheppen nahas! But when they bring home artwork that only a mother could love, work their hardest and struggle to meet expectations, or celebrate Bar/Bat Mitzvah or graduations, the accomplishment itself is a delight.

I imagine that God takes pleasure when we try. We make mistakes and don’t always succeed and often need help. But as long as we put forth the effort, learning and growing over the course of our lives, God is proud of us because we are God’s children. A midrash imagines the questions God will ask us at the entrance to the world to come. I understand the questions as “Have you fulfilled your personal potential, have you been the best version of you, have you done the things in this world that you alone were created to do?”

We will fall short. We will leave things undone. But Pirke Avot (2:16) teaches that we don’t need to finish the work, we only need to make our contribution.

“[Rabbi Tarfon] would say, “It’s not your job to finish the work, but you’re not free to walk away from it.”

Psalm 148

God establishes a law and does not violate it. (148:6)

Every morning when I read this Psalm this verse catches my attention. It suggests that God is self-limiting. God created a world in which apples predictably fall down and skilled pitchers can throw a baseball with a certain spin to make it make it curve over the plate and we can take a walk without worrying that that there will be a temporary gravity outage and we, along with our atmosphere, will drift off into space. We can rely on predicable and repeatable chemicals reactions so our medications function reliably and our bread rises and bakes golden brown. Our physical world functions according to unchanging rules because God created it that way. From the first moment after the cosmic bang or the Divine word saying “Let there be light,” time moved at a steady pace and the physical matter of the universe coalesced and cooled and condensed in order to provide energy and material for life.

Pirke Avot (5:6) teaches that God built certain miracles into the fabric of the world during the first week of creation.

Ten things were created on the eve of the Sabbath at twilight, and these are they:

(1) the mouth of the earth [Num. 16:32]; (2) the mouth of the well [Num. 21:16-18]; (3) the mouth of the ass [Num. 22:28]; (4) the rainbow [Gen. 9:13]; (5) the manna [Ex. 16:15]; (6) the rod [Ex. 4:17]; (7) the Shamir [a worm which cut blocks of stone so iron tools were not needed, cf. Deut. 27:5, I Kings 6:7]; (8) the letters, (9) writing, (10) and tablets [of the ten commandments, Ex. 32:15f.].

Without knowing advanced physics, the ancient rabbis instinctively understood that God doesn’t interrupt the natural order willy-nilly and posited that the exceptions to natural law were pre-programmed into creation from the beginning. Assuming that God is an infinite omnipotent creator who can rewrite the code of the world at any time, the Psalmist asserts that for the sake of humanity God agrees to let the world continue to exist by the original set of rules.

If setting limits and abiding by them is a Divine trait, it is also a trait worth emulating.