Day 2: Resignation

Greif is (often but not always) preceded by either shock, or resignation.

When it’s a new grief, a new loss, shock is what paves the way – surprise over losing something precious. Then the implications of the loss begin to set in (and thus the grief).

But when we are mourning something anew, mourning it again, or mourning something similar to what we’ve mourned before, resignation is what announces that grief is on the way. A melancholy sets in. Oh this. Yes. I know this. I know what’s coming and it’s not going to be fun.

We feel a space open up inside us where once something else was. And at first, it’s just an awareness of the emptyness. Oh yes. I no longer have what I once had. I will soon feel something more sharp than emptiness. All the feels are heading my way.

We brace ourselves; resign ourselves; take a deep breath and sink a little deeper down.

Sometimes, if it’s not a new loss or a tragic loss, we can push through the resignation – maybe even delay the sharper sting of grief for a while. But on the 18th of Tammuz, day 2 of our 3 weeks of obligatory mourning, the resignation is as inevitable as the rest of it. Oh yes. These three weeks have begun. And they won’t be the best three weeks. They will be hard and sad and dark weeks. And then they will be over.

Deep breath. Another step down on the intentional spiral toward Sheol. We are not there yet. Not quite in the depths of The Pit. But we sense it on the horrizon. We feel its chill, its darkness, creeping towards us. And we hunch ourselves against the despair we know is soon to envelope us, and sigh. It’s coming. Soon it will be here. The titlewave of grief. And we will ride it and survive it as we have always done.

I feel the heaviness descending.

I can only pray that, like wightlifting, these burdens will bring me a renewed spiritual strength. As I take another step down.

Advertisements

The Intentional Downward Spiral

This weekend, America celebrates. And with good reason.

But tonight, I was reminded that in another calendar – OUR calendar – the Hebrew calendar – tomorrow night begins a day of fasting. Sunday is the 17th of Tammuz. Tzom Tammuz, or the Fast of Tammuz, recalls the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem before the 2nd Temple was destroyed. But more than that, Tzom Tammuz marks the beginning of an intentional period of collective and communal grieving. Between now and the 9th of Av (Tisha B’Av), for three weeks, the Jewish people spiral downward into grief – on purpose! Though the world is sunny and bright around us, our liturgy and Haftarah portions and fasts and rituals take us deeper into darkness and despair; into Sheol, The Pit. And only as the 9th of Av comes to an end, do we begin to climb back out again.

For someone like me, who has struggled against grief and despair for much of her life (with a disproportionate amount in particular these last 7 years), this idea of an intentional descent into Sheol is both horrifying and facinating. Instead of fighting grief and fighting to overcome grief, we embrace it; we choose it; we immerse in it – knowing that it will not be unending; knowing that at the end of three weeks there will be respite and light and release.

For those of us who know grief well, we know that you never really get to choose when it rears its ugly head, or when it might leave again. Grief is not timebound. It comes when it comes and it leaves when it leaves and you are not in control. And yet, Jewish tradition responds to mourning with timebound structures. You have 7 days to fall apart, and then 30 days to ease back into the world, and then a year to live with one foot in the world of mourning and one foot in whatever else life brings your way. And then an annual day to mark the grief, and remember, before moving on again.

And those of us who know grief, know it’s not that simple. Grief doesn’t follow the Jewish calendar. It doesn’t dissipate just because your 7 or 30 or 365 days are up. And yet, Jewish tradition tells us we have to move forward; choose life; find a way.

Except for these three weeks, from the 17th of Tammuz to the 9th of Av, where we choose grief; choose dispear; choose to spiral intentionally down into Sheol together. And this too, is Judaism structuring our grief – saying yes, the loss of The Temple, or the horrors that our people have endured throughout history – we could mourn them for eternity; we could lose ourselves in the grief of it all. But we won’t. We don’t get to. We get three weeks a year to fall apart and tear our clothes and sit in sackcloth and ashes, and then we have to pull ourselves back together, and pull ourselves out of The Pit. Slowly. Slowly. With comforting liturgy and Haftarot to accompany us along the way as we reeeeeach toward a new year, toward new life.

I’m a fighter. When grief pops up, I want to fight back. Even when it gets the best of me and I’m weeping, weeping in the shower or in the car or in bed, there is always a point where I take a breath and choose to fight and start to dry my tears. I reach for healing Psalms. I call a friend, or my mom. I turn on loud music and force myself to dance. But this period in the Jewish calendar forces me to wonder: what would it look like to embrace grief; to welcome it, for a set amount of time? To allow the Jewish calendar to carve out three weeks where we can weep, unabashedly, about whatever heartbreaks have befallen us along with our people. What if, for three weeks, we just let it all come; let it all come out; let ourselves take up residence in Sheol and just be. For a while. Be with our grief. Accept it. What would that look like?

I think I’m going to try it this year. I’d like to find out.

Not that you’ll find me tearing my clothes. You may not even notice it. Or perhaps you’ll find me a little quieter than usual, a little subdued. Then again, it could be that I will seem more peaceful, more resolved. I’m not sure, I’ve never quite allowed grief to take up residence before and have free reign. But I’m giving it a three-week sublet. We’ll see how it goes.

Three weeks to not appologize for grief. To not hide from it or hide it from view. Three weeks to hold it and know, that all throughout the Jewish world, we are grieving together. Three weeks to not be alone in our grief.

Tomorrow night I will go and watch the night sky light up in celebration. I will marvel with childlike glee at the fireworks, and, I will also start to take steps downward; to let myself sink; to permit a little more despair to take up residence.

It is a little frightening and yet, it is almost a relief.

So I’m giving it a three-week sublet, and we’ll see how it goes.

Solidarity Shabbat: Mourning Our Losses, Celebrating Our Wins

I am daunted by the task of speaking tonight. I feel a great weight on my shoulders.

I feel the weight of nine vibrant lives, snuffed-out. I feel the weight of expectation – the expectations that you, a diverse group with diverse opinions, have of me as your rabbi, the expectations that the Reform Movement – also diverse yet clear in its missions and values – has of me as one of their rabbinic representatives, and the expectations that I have for myself as a rabbi and as a human being.

I feel the weight of Tradition – the Reform Jewish tradition of social activism, of speaking out for justice, and the Jewish traditions that I deeply believe bring meaning and purpose to my life.

I feel the weight of the prophets standing at my back. Men and women of God who took to the streets and decried their understanding of God’s will, whether the people found it popular or repugnant. Who carries on their legacy, if not me?

And I feel the weight of Torah – the yoke of the Law, as it has been called – heavily weighing me down. How do I live with it’s values and its contradictions?  How do I reconcile its ideals with the reality of the world around me?

And finally, I feel the weight of the Priesthood, whose legacy I also carry forward – the legacy of men who enacted sacred rituals and rites in order to comfort their people.

I am daunted by the these tasks. I do not venture into this sermon easily tonight.

In the wake of tragedy, each of us struggles to respond. What are our obligations? What is our role? What are we capable of? What are we not capable of? How do we live in a world that one day is abhorrent to us and the next day inspires us?

Even when I don’t have all the answers, I seek to comfort and be comforted. But in the wake of last week’s inexcusable tragedy, I find myself floundering. Each one of us finds comfort in different ways. Some find comfort through action, while others find comfort in faith, in tradition, or simply in the loving arms of another. For me, each of these responses brings a measure of comfort, and thus, I feel torn as to which path to choose tonight.

I want to act. I am angry.

Religious intolerance, racial discrimination and hate-motivated violence have no place in our society, which aspires to be a haven for people of all faiths, races and ethnicities.

I want to do something – do whatever it takes to repair our world, to bring it one step closer to the dreams we have for it, and for ourselves. I know there are many possible actions and responses to choose from, and none of them is perfect. There are no easy answers. No action, no advocacy, will solve all our many problems. And yet, especially on this historic day of long awaited progress, how can I stand here and say that it is better not to act, even if acting is only one step, is only one problem solved at a time?

I want to preach.

I want to stand up, as my friend and colleague, Rabbi Jill Perlman did, this week, at a prayer vigil at an AME church. I want to teach, as she did, about Moses, who in last week’s parasha, called out to his brother, Aaron, get your fire pan and run – run into the midst of our people. “And Aron ran,” she wrote, “He rushed in and he stood among the people…he literally stood between the dead and the living – Vayamod bein hameitim uvein hahayyim – Aaron stood between the dead and the living in an attempt to stem the flow of blood, to prevent more people from perishing from the advancing plague.”

Rabbi Perlman goes on to teach the midrashic tradition that Aaron fought the Angel of Death on behalf of his people that day. “He stood his ground, he stood between life and death – and the plague was checked.

I want to stand my ground, like Aaron.

I want to stand next to my friend Jill – stand between life and death – and speak out against the plagues in our own society. The plagues of hate and ignorance, intolerance and complacency. I want to demand that we take more responsibility – not as as a society, not as a government, but as human beings, for providing care and help for those with mental illness, and for providing better education to counter ignorance, and I want to demand that we, as human beings, care more about the right to live than we do about the right to own.

I want to weep.

I want to wrap my arms around the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church community, around those nine bereaved families, around anyone who has ever had someone they love ripped from their arms because of hate, because of ignorance, and yes, because of guns. I want to share words of condolence, such as my friend and colleague, Rabbi Jen Gubitz, wrote this week, when she shared these words:

Dear Mother Emanual, we are so profoundly saddened for your loss. We are so profoundly saddened for your losses. For thousands of years, in Jewish tradition, upon hearing of a death, we recite these words – Baruch Da’ayan Ha’emet, Blessed is the True Judge. And we tear Kriyah – we tear, rip, rend our clothing to expose our hearts. We expose our hearts breaking for you and, dare I say, with you.

I want to write sympathy card after sympathy card. I want to tell them how sorry I am and how sad I am. I want to say that while I will never understand what it is like to be African American, or to be hated simply for the color of my skin, that I do know what it is like to be a minority and to carry the weight of a history of oppression and hatred. My people too, have been enslaved. We have been hunted and murdered. We have been hated for our identity and our beliefs and our bloodlines.

I know what it is to fear that I and my loved ones might be targeted for these things. I know how it feels to want to keep my synagogue doors open and welcoming to the stranger, but to choose to keep them locked instead for fear of another Dylan Roof wandering into our midst – armed and hateful.

I want to turn to Torah and to the Wise Traditions of my people.

I want to learn from this week’s Haftarah portion, where a man named Jephthah makes a terrible vow. Jephtah wanted victory over his enemy so badly – or maybe understandably, he wanted to defend his land and his people, his home – so badly, that he makes this terrible vow: If You, God, will deliver my enemy into my hands, than in return, whatever comes forth first from the doors of my house to meet me when I return, I shall offer it up to You as a burnt offering.

Jephtah’s enemy is delivered into his hands, and when he returns home, it is his beloved daughter who first comes forth from his house to meet him. His daughter, whom he must then sacrifice in accordance to his vow.

The Torah teaches us that we must protect ourselves from those who wish to kill us. But the Torah also teaches us, here, in this story of Jephthah’s daughter, that protecting ourselves, our homes, even perhaps our very lives, can come at a steep price.

It seems almost unfair sometimes, that Jewish tradition holds, above all, the value of pikuach nefesh, the value of life. Our Sages taught: “He who takes one life it is as though he has destroyed the universe”. And yet, it is unfair, because the very same value of pikuach nefesh justifies the decision to arm ourselves against our enemies. He who saves a life, it is as if he has saved the world. How are we supposed to live with this contradiction? How are we supposed to understand it?

I wonder, with deep humility, if the trick isn’t to figure out how to do both – protect life and save life – as safely and as considerately and as fairly as possible.

The right answers are never the easy answers and Judaism has much to say about the cost of one life for the sake of the many, and about when it’s okay to kill another and when it is not. I could write a sermon a week and it would take years to work through it all; to come to some clarity. Torah is not meant to give us quick or easy answers. Torah is meant to be wrestled with; To be studied over time. We must protect life and we must figure out a way to make the world a place where we can safely turn our swords into plowshares.

And finally, I want to find comfort in faith.

I want to remember where Mother Emanuel’s name comes from. Emanuel, in Hebrew is prounounced, im anu El, God is with us. I find comfort in that, even in the darkest of times. Perhaps God can not change this world, but God has given us the ability to change it. And while we struggle to do so, Im anu El, God is with us.

Though last week was terribly dark, today’s Supreme Court decision to make Marriage Equality a reality for all Americans, affirms my faith in our ability to fight for what we believe in and, by doing so, make the world a better place.

Maimonides said, Ani Ma’amin, I believe with a perfect faith. Faith is terribly hard to hold on to, especially in the wake of so many challenging issues, especially when humanity looks in the mirror and is ashamed of what we see. But today we looked better in the mirror – more equal, less hateful. More humane.

And so – yesh li Tikvah – I have hope. And so – Ani Ma’amin – I have faith.

And so, in the end, I will act on my conscience. I will stand up for what I believe to be true and just, but not without first consulting my sacred texts and tradition, and struggling with the complex and sometimes contradictory messaging therein. And in the meantime, I will seek to comfort and be comforted. To cling to my fellow man, and to God – both of whom I believe in, even when they let me down.

My colleague Rabbi David Widzer wrote today, “The work of equality, in all realms, is never done. We both mark its darkest moments and celebrate its triumphs with the faith that we are always called to the pursuit of justice.”

I want to do all these things. I want you to do them too.

Yir’defu Zedek – Let us pursue justice unabashedly.

Yir’defu Yichud – Let us pursue solidarity, remembering always that our commonalities are far greater than our diversities.

v’Yir’defu Shalom – And through both our pursuits of justice and solidarity, let us come to finally know peace.

Kein Yehi Ratzon. May it be God’s Will.

A Eulogy for Today

This day makes me sad

Friends mourn children

who never came to be while

others

turn their children into monsters

such that we celebrate their death sentences.

How can I mourn

for murderers

while Jewish potential died on train tracks

this week?

The world is filled with those who hate

(and those who love, surely)

while the innocent are

buried

under rubble

so much human waste

and I know which side I’m on

but I fear

I fear

that when I tell my teenage sister

“sometimes love just isn’t

enough”

I’m not merely speaking about her latest boyfriend drama

it’s the human drama I fear

Hate is in the lead today

I don’t believe in vengeance and yet

I sometimes wonder what it would take to get the world

(humanity)

the clean slate we so desperately

need

 

If I could immerse us all in a mikvah…

dress us all in pure priestly white and make us

observe

the Yom Kippur fast…

 

Ah, but I can’t even fill my own pews.

 

We all fall. We all fail.

I know with morning there will be joy

(the Psalmist tells me so)

and hope

and new children

But today makes me sad

 

I know You’re out there

but I feel You not.

Come back to us.

Help me make it through this day

through the darkness and back into the light

Help me have the strength to lead others even when I know not where we’re going

Help me to find my way back to hope and faith in humanity

(faith in You is so much easier than faith in Us).

 

Help me to remember that today, too, has been given a death sentence

So that tomorrow might be better.


-EKG’15

Debbie Friedman, Hachnasat Orchim & Radical Hospitality

Debbie Friedman was my hero. But she got really mad whenever I tried to tell her that.

Even though she was incredibly famous and influential, she never really liked people to acknowledge it. She was humble – unless you were singing her music incorrectly, and then she would pull rank and take you to task. The music was much more important to her, than the fame.

Although my earliest in-person encounters with Debbie were the kinds of stories you tell about meeting someone famous that you admire, I was lucky enough to get to know her when she came to teach at Hebrew Union College in my last two years as a student there.

For the first few months, I watched her from a distance, still star-struck and hesitant to approach her. I didn’t feel like I could just walk up to her and strike up a conversation. Lucky for me, my friend Adam had gotten to know her after he gave a sermon that she had particularly loved. She reached out to him and invited him and his boyfriend Shalom to come to her house for Shabbos. It became a regular thing, and when I shamelessly expressed seething jealousy, Adam nabbed me an invitation.

For me, being invited to Debbie’s house was a dream come true, but for Debbie, it was really no big deal. She lived alone, and she liked to have company over. She especially liked to host on Shabbat. Even though she was an extremely private person, she would stretch her comfort zone to include others so that she would be less alone on the Sabbath. In extending an invitation, she was doing something momentous for me, even if she wouldn’t acknowledge it, and because it was such a big deal to me, I didn’t realize it at that time, but she was also doing something momentous for herself.

We are taught that the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, welcoming or inviting guests, is one of the most important values in Judaism. Rabbi Yehuda Loew of Prague said, “Rising early to study Torah is the way we honor Torah, but when you welcome a guest, it is tantamount to honoring God. For when one brings a guest into their home and honors him because he was created in the image of God, then it is as if they are honoring the Divine presence, which is greater than honoring the Torah.”

The inspiration for hakhnasat orekhim goes back to our first patriarch Abraham, who would sit outside waiting for the opportunity to invite dusty wayfarers into the shade of his tent, and then run to prepare a meal of the choicest ingredients for them. Thus, our religion is full of traditions and teachings relating to inviting someone into our homes. During the Passover Seder, we invite Elijah the prophet, and we are supposed to invite those in need of a place to eat as well; Our wedding chuppot are open on all sides to symbolize our commitment to inviting others into the new home we are creating; And on Sukkot, we are supposed to invite both real and symbolic guests into our temporary dwellings.

The tradition is that for each night of Sukkot we should invite one of seven “exalted men of Israel” to take up residence in the sukkah with us. On the first day of Sukkot we are meant to say, “I invite to my meal the exalted guests, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David.” On each day, a different one of these seven is singled out, in the order in which the invitation lists them. It has also become popular in liberal circles to invite the matriarchs and other important women of Israel – Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Miriam, Abigail, and Esther – either paired with the men or on their own.

Each of the patriarchs traditionally invited into our sukkot represents uprootedness. Abraham left his father’s home for the land God promised, Isaac left home during a famine, Jacob fled from his brother Esau, Joseph was sold to merchants and taken to Egypt, Moses fled to Midian after killing an Egyptian, he and Aaron wandered the Sinai for forty years, and David also spent time in the wilderness,  when hiding from King Saul.

But the real people we invite into our homes on Sukkot, and at other times, need not be physically lost or wandering. At many times in our lives, we will find ourselves emotionally lost and spiritually wandering. The year that Debbie first invited me to her home, was one of the hardest years of my life. She had no idea what was happening in my life, or that her invitation would be a much needed ray of joy in a very dark time, but that’s what it was.

Let’s look to our invited matriarchs as an example. Sarah and Rachel both suffer from infertility; Rebecca’s favorite son has left home and she’s feeling the emptiness of her nest; Leah’s husband loves another woman; Miriam has spent the day caring for those who are ill and she is exhausted; Abigail is leaving one marriage for another; and Esther feels she has to hide her true identity to feel safe.

When we invite someone into our homes, we don’t really ever know what baggage they might bring with them, and we can’t know whether feeling welcomed by us will make a difference to their silent sufferings or spiritual wanderings, but in all likelihood, most often, being welcomed and being with others instead of alone, does make a difference, whether you are aware of it or not.

It is because of this power of inviting, that Maimonides admonishes us that anyone who sits comfortably with his family, within his own walls, and does not share with the poor is performing a mitzvah, not for joy but for the stomach.  The tradition of welcoming guests on Sukkot however, has, over time, given way to making a donation of funds as a substitute – opening our homes symbolically. While this is a nice idea, it distances us from meaningfully connecting with other human beings in person.

Ron Wolfson, author of The Spirituality of Welcoming, teaches about the narrative in Genesis where Abraham welcomes the three messengers who come to deliver good news. Wolfson points out that the text itself feels like it’s in a hurry, using many words relating to quickness. Abraham, runs, hastens and runs again. He rushes three times and fetches four times.

The traditional commentators have different opinions about what Abraham was doing before he saw his guests approaching. Some say he was healing after his circumcision, which the Torah recounts just prior to this exchange; some say he was reciting the morning prayers. But neither pain nor prayer prevents Abraham from jumping up and running to engage in hospitality.

Wolfson also teaches that Abraham doesn’t know anything about the strangers. “They could be wealthy donors and community big shots,” he writes, “or they could just be beggars off the street. (Abraham) has no idea they are angels…” It is from Abraham’s example that the Talmud derives the teaching: “Welcoming guests is greater than receiving the Shechina, the Divine presence.”

So what do we learn from Abraham? Firstly, we shouldn’t just engage in Hachnassat Orchim, inviting people into our homes, but we should hasten to do it! We should start doing it immediately!

We also learn that it doesn’t matter whom you invite over, or whether or not you know them well or know anything about them – “just invite them over!” the Torah implores us.

Ron Wolfson calls this kind of invitation, one in which we push ourselves outside our comfort zones and invite people into our homes – even if we don’t think we have the time or energy, even if we don’t really know them very well – “radical hospitality”.

In writing about radical hospitality, Wolfson teaches that, “the spirituality of welcoming elevates both the guest and the host. (It) eases the unspoken anxiety a guest feels (while ) for the host, the act of hospitality is a gesture of spiritual generosity, uplifting the soul. It is an offering of oneself, an invitation for connection between human and human and, in that meeting, between human and God.”

This applies to us as both individuals and as a temple family. Wolfson writes, “the first step in transforming a congregation into a sacred community is to create an ambiance that overflows with the spirituality of welcoming, with radical hospitality.”

In answer to the question, “Why is hospitality so important for synagogues?” Wolfson responds: “We live in a time and culture that seems to work against the very thing we hope to create: a synagogue of relationships. Relationships begin with a since greeting – a handshake, a smile, a good word.” Furthermore, he writes, “we are in danger of losing the art of hospitality. We don’t welcome strangers anymore – we entertain at restaurants or clubs. We don’t greet people on the street, we avoid them. We don’t even answer our phones without first checking caller ID to see if it is someone we know or want to talk with.

What is happening to us?” Wolfson asks, “When we lose the art of hospitality,” he writes, “we lose a part of our souls. For kindness to others is not simply an imperative to improve the lives of those who seek welcome. The act of hospitality improves the lives of those who offer it. Welcoming, serving, and feeding others embody the value of generosity of spirit, of sharing what we have, of caring for others when they are in need.”

Some of you have heard me bemoan the size of my dining room. I use it as an excuse not to host people for Shabbat dinner. But really, the truth is, I feel overwhelmed at the thought of hosting a meal before services. It involves finding time to reach out to someone and invite them, clean my home, go grocery shopping, cook, set the table… it feels like a chore. But in light of Wolfson’s teachings, and the teachings of Jewish tradition, I am reminded that feeding other people’s bodies will feed my soul, and provide me with an opportunity to get to know them better and to share a little of myself with them in return, while ensuring that neither they nor I spend Shabbat alone, or neglect to make Shabbat dinner special because we have no one to share it with or to model for us how to do so.

The story of Abraham and the messengers reminds me that I can’t keep making excuses. I have to run toward the mitzvah – I have to do it now.

So, “Family X”, would you like to come over for Shabbat dinner sometime? (“Family X” accepts!)

There. Now, if I can do it, you can too. And I hope that you will, because all too often, people mention to me that they don’t know another person or family in the community, whose name has come up, but they never – to my knowledge – do anything about it.

There is nothing preventing us from knowing one another other than us not having attempted to do so.

Sometime tonight, or this week, please reach out to someone in our temple community, preferably someone you don’t know very well, and invite them over for a Shabbat meal or invite them to join you at a Shabbat service and go out for dinner, coffee, or drinks with you afterward.

If you know everyone who is here tonight, then go to the website, download the membership list, find a name you’re not familiar with, call them, and ask them if you can get to know them by having them over for dinner sometime, or if you could meet them here for Shabbat one week so that you can sit together and get to know one another.

We can list a million excuses why we can’t do this, but the less we know about each other, the less connection we feel to this community, which leads to a decreased desire to serve the community with our time and energy, and a decreased desire to support it financially. Eventually we no longer desire to be a part of it at all.

I pray that will not happen, and I believe that it all starts with hachnasat orchim. And chachnat orchim begins with YOU.

This week, may we invite radical hospitality into our lives and invite others into our homes; may we push ourselves to do something momentous for another, and in doing so, discover that we have done something momentous for ourselves – as individuals and as a community.

Kein Yehi Ratzon. May it be God’s Will.

Birch Trees, Harvest Moons and A Little Boy With A Big Temper

Two things you should know about me: I have always been moved to talk to God when sitting or walking beneath willow trees, and also when I see a Harvest Moon hanging low and orange in the sky. I have also been moved to commune with God by certain birch trees whose white bark makes them stand out noticeably from the trees that surround them.

So that’s three things.

None of which is to say that I pray to trees or to the moon. Rather, there is something about particular trees and Harvest moons that catches my attention and moves me to want to connect with the Divine.

This week, somewhat against my better judgement, I went to see the new Exodus movie. It’s been getting a lot of press, mostly bad, focused on the inaccuracies, the dialogue, and the British accents.

But one of most discussed topics relating the movie is Ridley Scott’s choice to depict God as a young boy.

This is a big departure from other Hollywood renditions of the story of the Exodus. Kim Masters, writing for The Hollywood Reporter, reminds us that, “Choosing a voice of God is (a) tricky proposition. When DreamWorks Animation made The Prince of Egypt in 1998, some at the studio considered (using) a voice that would morph from man to woman to child, but they abandoned the idea as likely to generate backlash. The job went (instead) to Val Kilmer, who also played Moses.”

DreamWorks was taking a page out of DeMille’s book, as Charlton Heston, who played Moses in The Ten Commandments, also voiced God in the movie’s Burning Bush sequence.

In other movies, God has been played by a dignified Morgan Freeman, a motorcycle-riding George Burns, and a screaming Alanis Morissette. But, as one article in the NY Times points out, “none of those films were as ambitious or rooted in overall biblical narrative” as Ridley Scott’s current film.

The Times remarks that, “Mr. Scott uses an 11-year-old British actor…to give voice and visage to his Almighty, rather than concealing the deity behind a pillar of fire, too terrible for the eye of man, as Cecil B. DeMille chose to do”.

Scott told The Hollywood Reporter that, “sacred texts give no specific depiction of God, so for centuries artists and filmmakers have had to choose their own visual depiction,” and he was also quoted in the New York Times as saying, “I want to avoid the clichés…a voice from the clouds was never an option.”

In an interview with Jonathan Merritt, a reporter for religionnews.com, Scott was asked: Why did you use a child for the figure of God? To which he replied: “Not figure of God. “Malak” means messenger. So “Malak,” to begin with, is the messenger of God. If you’re going to represent God in many shapes and forms…the biggest form of all is probably nature.That’s his power, that’s his base, that’s his beauty, that’s his threat. And occasionally when you want to communicate with someone, it’s very easy with His power to chose a messenger. Or some more popular word might be “angel.” But I didn’t like the idea of an angel associated with wings. I wanted everything to be reality based….Of course…[Moses] also could be talking to his conscience. So Malak could also be his conscience.”

Ridley Scott also told The Hollywood Reporter that “Malak exudes innocence and purity, and those two qualities are extremely powerful.”

During the interview with ReligionNews, Christian Bale, the actor who plays Moses, jumps to Scott’s defense and asks, “How would you have represented God, if you were in Ridley’s position? ‘Cause it is very easy to pick apart someone’s choice for a depiction of God, you know, but if you’re actually in Ridley’s shoes, it’s an immensely difficult thing. How on earth do you do that?”

Of all the things Christian Bale has been quoted as saying in relation to this movie, this statement is by far the most profound. His questions are important ones to consider. How do we decide how to envision God? And why are we so quick to pick-apart someone else’s depiction?

My initial response to the little boy depiction of God, or rather, God’s messenger, was that it was bizarre. But the more I think about it, the more it starts to make sense.

One the one hand, as another online reviewer points out, “no depiction of God could be more wrong. God in the Old Testament is like an invisible, all fire, all power, all violent… stormbringing (kind of God). He is anything but humble and childlike. The Old Testament God of brutality and might is exactly the kind of entity that the humbled, degraded, shackled Hebrews need on their side. Who else could help them defeat the greatest empire on Earth at the time?”

And yet, as another reviewer pointed out, in the Torah, particularly in the Exodus narrative, “God IS (acting like) a petulant child…whacking people left and right for not worshiping him, or for “disobeying” him.”

Even our rabbinic sages acknowledged this behaviour, teaching that God often manifests in the ways in which we most need. For a fledgling nation, quick to rebel against authority, God needs to present Godself as easily angered and vengeful – not the kind of God you’d want to cross.

For the Israelite generation, God used fear to motivate their adherence and devotion. Over the course of human history, our tradition teaches, the tactics have changed, just as a parent changes their parenting tactics as their child ages from toddler to child to teenager to adult.

So there is some merit to Scott’s choice to depict God’s messenger as a child. Even more so, if we consider the point made by Gary Rendsberg, a professor of Jewish studies at Rutgers, who was interviewed for the New York Times review. In it, Rendsberg said, “that he could immediately think of only one (biblical) reference that might support the notion of God as a young innocent. (A) very brief reference in the first Book of Kings, Chapter 19, in which God speaks to Elijah in what is described as a “still small voice.”

A third possibility, is that Moses is seeking God in a way that makes sense given the context of his life. Just prior to the episode with the Burning Bush, we learn that Moses has become a father. Is it so surprising then, that what would seem most miraculous and divine to Moses is children, specifically a young boy reminiscent of his own son?

Each of us relates to the Divine differently. I imagine most parents can relate to seeing God’s presence in their children. Some of us see God in art, or hear God in music or laughter. Others sense God when they are in nature. Some, like Reb Nachman,  feel God’s presence when out among the trees. Others, like Muhammad and Abraham, are moved to connect to the divine when they see, or are on top of, a mountain. For Moses, there was also a connection between God and mountains, and indeed, Moses also saw God in fire, and arguably, also experienced God through water, as did his sister Miriam.

The context of our lives, and our skill-sets and talents often affect where we seek out and see divinity. Doctors may find God through the miracles of medicine and scientists might find God in the order and structure of the world. An artist might see God in a painting or a sunset, and a musician might hear God in a symphony or a soft song. Someone who is sick might see divinity in someone who is a picture of health, and someone who is lonely might see divinity in the loving gaze of two people, who themselves might be experiencing love as something divine.

I’d like to take Ridley Scott to task for the inconsistencies in his depiction of the Exodus, and yes, perhaps for the British accents, but not for his depiction of God.

I see God in harvest moons and willow trees and in the faces of my best-friend’s children. I feel God when I hear certain pieces of music and in my dreams and in the mountains, and in moments of intense connections with other people. Who am I to say that Ridley Scott should not depict God or God’s messenger as a child? Isn’t the important thing that he sees God at all and wanted to engaged other people in a conversation about what it might be like to see and experience God?

In my humble opinion, the vehicle we take to connect with God, is not nearly as important as the destination, or as the journey.

This week, may each of us see or feel God manifest in our lives; may we each connect with God in ways that are comforting, challenging and meaningful for us as unique individuals; and may we each affirm God’s presence in our lives by naming God when God is seen, or heard, or otherwise experienced.

Kein Yehi Ratzon.

He Maketh Me Lie Down in Green Pastures

I only ever read Psalm 23 during funerals and shiva minyanim, and sometimes on a hospital visit or at a deathbed. When I am experiencing my own moments of turmoil, there are other Psalms that I reach for – those who sew in tears will reap in joy, joy comes in the morning, my mourning will be turned to dancing – basically anything Debbie Friedman ever set to music. But the 23rd Psalm is one that I only reach for as a Rabbi. It’s for others. It’s for the masses. It’s comforting because it’s familiar.

But I wonder how many of us ever really think about the words themselves. We murmur it. Relaxing into it like an old friend. And we wait for the line – yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death – and we emphasize it. That’s what it’s all about, right? God, is with us in our darkest moments. God is walking next to us through whatever terrible valley we find ourselves wandering. It implies that God will help us out of the valley as well.
But what about the rest of it?

Lately, I’ve been paying more attention to the earlier lines. God makes me lie down in green pastures. God leads me beside still waters. God restores my soul.

What’s that all about?

Aren’t green pastures and still waters places we’d want to be voluntarily? Why must we be made to walk there? Why must we be led?

Last week, I spent a lot of time thinking about the merits of being forced to pray in moments when prayer is uncomfortable – maybe even infuriating. It felt like Prayer was the green pasture, and the still water – a peaceful place where I wasn’t sure I deserved to be. Or maybe I didn’t feel God deserved it. But when God led me to prayer and made me participate, I found that I was grateful. That the place I was avoiding, thinking it would be a painful place, turned out to be a welcome respite. A green pasture. Still waters.

He maketh me lie down

Sometimes we don’t know what’s best for us. We are over-tired children whose parents must force them: Go to bed!. We fight it. We cry. We scream. And in the end, a good night’s sleep was just what we needed, and even if we don’t know how to express it – even if we don’t recognize it – we are grateful.

He maketh me lie down

Is it even a good translation? I look it up. The Hebrew used in the verse –yarbitzeini – is from the verb l’harbitz, which means “to hit” or “to strike”. But wait a minute. That can’t be right? He strikes me in green pastures? He strikes me down in green pastures? Surely that can’t be it! Even if I’m a cranky baby who needs to go to bed, my parental diety certainly wouldn’t slam me down into my crib!

A quick call to a respected friend and colleague reminds me that there is parallelism in the Psalms. The Lord is my shepherd.  Shepherd. Shepherds use sticks to guide their flocks. They hit them (gently) to direct them where they need to go – to the green pastures; to the still waters. The Lord is my shepherd. I am a sheep. In my darkest moments, I don’t know how to take care of myself. I can’t see through the pain of the moment to know where I need to be. I can’t find the green pastures. I can’t find the still waters. So God shepherds me there – to the pastures and waters, so that my soul can be restored.

In the Vally of the Shadow of Death – or in any of the spiritual valleys we find ourselves in during our lives (opposite the spiritual peaks) – in those places we have no control. We are at the mercy of fate and grief and anger and fear and loss and hope. And so we cry out for a shepherd to guide us through it – even to prod us along if necessary – until we’re feeling more in control; back on our feet. Until we can smell the fresh water for ourselves and find our own way out of the valley and into the pasture.

The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for He is with me. His rod and his staff they comfort me.

They comfort me.

Some days we are the shepherd. We reach for the words that will comfort another. We offer outstretched arms and advice and a friendly listening ear. We bring food. We give hugs. Some days we are the Shepard.

And some days we are the sheep.

And when we are, a little prayer that some shepherd will come along to guide us through makes absolute, perfect sense.

I think I’ll read Psalm 23 more often.