Monday, December 23, 2013

Renounce and Rejoice

by Greg Marzullo

As Moses is standing before God for the first time, the Divine is trying to convince our all-too-mortal hero to take on the mantle of leader. 

In one of Moses' backpedaling moments, he says, "O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue."

God respons, "Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?"

This reminds me of the Isha Upanishad, a beautiful text coming out of India. The Upanishads are a series of works that, as translator Eknath Easwaran describes them, are like snapshots from the edges of expanded consciousness. We can think of the Upanishads as postcard someone sends to the people back home - it whets the homebody's appetite with the promise of exotic locales and glorious experiences. The person sending the postcard from Upanishad-land, however, is sending it from heightened states of awareness to someone just beginning on the spiritual path.

In the Isha Upanishad, the opening lines are: 

"The Lord is enshrined in the hearts of all. The Lord is the supreme Reality. Rejoice in him through renunciation. Covet nothing. All belongs to the Lord." (Translated by Eknath Easwaran)

It's almost too easy to make the obvious interpretation that all things belong to God. We don't actually own anything in our lives; we're all just one or two paychecks from being bereft of any financial support. However, "All belongs to the Lord" can also mean all attributes, all actions we take, all experiences we set in motion.

Feel like you're a fantastic student? Renounce and rejoice!

Proud of that great case you just won? Renounce and rejoice!

Finally got the role you've wanted in that play? Renounce and rejoice!

Nothing belongs to you. You're free of all fetters surrounding ownership, and so is Moses. He has nothing to worry about. So what if he's not the best talker around? God points out that it's not Moses' own words that will have the desired effect - it's the voice of God that will pour out of him. In a similar moment of what God later says to Job, Adonai reminds Moses that nothing he does originates from himself. It all comes from and returns to Ha-Shem.

As long as Moses tries to take the wheel from God, he will feel ill-equipped because he is. His strength lies in his ability to let Ha-Shem roll through him. In fact, it's much later when Moses, in blind anger, disobeys God's command and strikes the rock for water instead of talking to it that God bars his entry into the holy land. 

Renounce and rejoice. Nothing belongs to you. No thing, no person and no ability. You're not in the driver's seat, which means you can sit back and enjoy the scenery. 

Monday, December 16, 2013

Raising the Dead

12 Tevet, 5774
December 15th, 2013

When teaching, my greatest moment of trepidation comes when I say, "the famous commentator XXXX from the 16th century says,"

To which I hear, as if it were said aloud, everyone else thinking, "who the hell is that guy?"

To most people, the names that we rabbis rattle off, "Rashi, Rambam, Ramban, Ibn Ezra," -- these names are flat; they just refer to some guy; those guys could not possibly have understood contemporary life, my life; those guys are not relevant to me.

Let me respond simply: yes, they are; they are quite relevant; don't hold their being dead for a few centuries against them. 

There was a time before they were dry and dusty bones. They had blood in their veins, and flesh on their bodies. They lived; they loved; they got annoyed with their partners and children and held grudges; they weren't always sure what they should do; they believed with conviction; they hated with a passion; they were kind and compassionate. They were real.

And more than that -- these people were possessed of a genius that they toiled their entire lives to develop. Just as the great stars of humanity in our time, they burned brightly too. They were human, just as we are, and they understood what it was to be alive in the greatness of their wisdom. 

God led the prophet Ezekiel into a valley filled with dry bones, and said to be, "human being, can you revive these bones?" Ezekiel cynically responds "You know [the answer to that question]. God says to him, "prophesy over those bones," and, as Ezekiel does, the bones join themselves together, and ligaments and flesh bind them. God says, "Prophesy to their spirits"; as Ezekiel does, those bodies came back to life. (Ezekiel 37)

Be like Ezekiel: do not let the dead stay dead, nor their wisdom buried. When you hear that unknown name, which means nothing to you, build a human being behind it, and then listen again. When you resurrect them, you may be surprised at how clearly they speak to you.

* Start your journey with the story of Rashi - Rabbi Shlomo Yitchaki of Troyes, France - hands down the most important commentator on the Torah and the Talmud. Read more here.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Some Views From Our Pews

Last night we hosted Generation Why? Engaging Millennials in the New Jewish America, a conversation about the challenges and opportunities posed by the Pew Research Center’s recent Portrait of Jewish Americansstudy, and specifically what the survey findings say about millennial Jews and identity.

In conjunction with the event, the Pew Research Center shared with us some of the survey questions it used and allowed Sixth & I to conduct its own survey* with those questions and some of our own.

Over 1,000 people took the survey. We revealed the results last night, offering an informal picture of what Jewish identity means within our local community, and you can now see the results here.

*Note: This is not an official Pew Research Center survey and the results we gather will not be scientific.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The One Where I Don't Belong at the White House

Parshat VaYehi
7 Tevet, 5774
December 9th, 2013

One of the coolest things to happen to a Jewish professional is to get invited to the White House Hannukah party. That invitation carries with it the recognition that one's work has been seen and heard far beyond one's local sphere of influence, beyond the Jewish community, into the national arena.

Which is why I can say to you, here and now: I wasn't invited to the White House Hannukah party last Wednesday. 

Oh, I went to the party, but as my wonderful boss Esther's plus 1. In fact, I was the stand-in for her 8 year-old granddaughter Sadie. Sadie had decided that the event wasn't to her taste.

Thank you, Sadie. It was magical. I enjoyed every second of it. You might have liked the full-sized, papier-mâché dolls of Bo and Sunny Obama, complete with tails wagging. I did.

So I found myself at an unusual vantage point, enjoying the fruits of recognition that were not mine, in this case. Then I posted the evidence on Facebook.

I think it's worth talking about the kind of envy that can arise in the age of Facebook. For many of us, the currency of our lives is not, well, currency – it is recognition. Especially if we work in any kind of public sphere, our relative remuneration is rarely a matter of money - it is the regard of others.

Thus every invitation begets a pool of non-invitees suffering silently, for they were not recognized. And if we are honest with ourselves, we will admit just how many times we have been those people, sitting greenly at home.

What I've noticed is that envy does not disappear with recognition, for there is always someone “more” than you - someone richer, more famous, more Facebook friends, more friends, more in love. It doesn't matter how many times a person is seen, that old emotion still stands ready. Fame is not the cure for envy.

The Torah says about Moshe that he was, "the most humble man on the face of the earth." (Numbers 12:3) Considering that he was the greatest leader ever to grace the Jewish people, I don't think the Torah means that he was really quiet and unassuming; I think it means that he learned to master his envy. In fact there's a scene in the Torah where, through a kind of mishap, two men receive the spirit of God within the actual Israelite camp, and run through it, prophesying as they go. Joshua tries to get Moses to stop them, presumably worried for his teacher's authority. And Moses responds, "Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all HaShem's people were prophets, and that HaShem would put God's spirit in them." (Numbers 11:29) 

I can only imagine the kind, wry smile that accompanied those beautiful words.

As the content of our lives is so easily shared, I don't think the difficulties of our envy will go away. Instead, let's learn to find joy in the warmth of real humility, as our teacher Moshe did. The trick, it seems, is to invest as heavily as we are able in happiness for our colleagues and friends who were recognized even as we recount the ways in which we too are filled with the holy fire. The way to overcome envy is to choose happiness, for others and ourselves at the same time. That joy can yank us from darker places, and at the very least remove jealousy’s sting. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013


6th Day of Hannukah
30 Kislev, 5774
December 3rd, 2013

Every year, with my students, I try to explain our Rabbis’ obsession with light.
It’s one of the physical phenomena on which they spend most of their time. The Torah is interested in earth and sea, tree and stone, thunder and lightning. But for Hazal*, it is voice, water…and light.

What makes this physical attribute such a place of metaphysical concern? It is that light possesses a peculiar property: its effect extends far beyond itself. Even a small flame banishes quite a bit of darkness. Light transcends the meager matter that created it. Every flame illuminates, not itself, but the world around it.

Proverbs teaches, “God’s candle is the human soul,”(20:27), and our Rabbis believed it. To them, there is for every person the possibility of becoming incandescent. The way we live, the way we are – in certain moments we are set ablaze, and those around us bask in the warmth of the light that we shine.

I believe it too. We live for more than just ourselves. When we are enlightened, the world is brightened. Bring light to those you love, to those with whom you spend your life. Never doubt that you have the capacity. Your soul is God’s candle.

Hag Urim Sameah - May your Holiday of Light be filled with joy.

*An acronym meaning, “The Sages, may their memory be blessed.” In Hebrew, “Hakhamim, Zikhronam Livrakhah” – HaZaL
Both the morning and the evening service begin with a long paean to light. For you Shabbes morning shul-goers, check out the El Adon – a Hebrew acrostic found after the Barkhu.