I was honored to deliver the “Shabbat U” (short for “Shabbat University” – main learning) at Beth Jacob Oakland this past Saturday. Here’s a summary and sources:
Back from my 3rd summer of tour guiding through almost 5000 miles in the pacific north and south west, there are so many good things about travel, and one of them is definitely people watching; just to step aside from our own story and look at another. I notice the family next to me, arguing in fluent Japanese, maybe, with their teen daughter about being in the family portrait; the Indian, maybe, grandparents with their grandchildren trying to match their pace on the walk; the Dutch, maybe, father, with his daughter at the checkout stand the American dad with his sons, roasting marshmallows on our campfire with an amazing “marshmallow fishing pole” for perfect flavor and consistency. And somehow, they all look extremely familiar: They are parts of me and I could have been each and every one of them.
In those moments, the Kabalistic way of seeing the world needs no further proof, and is all right there. It’s obvious that we are part of a One; that “soul matter” spilled into different, separate “vessels”, and that those are artificial boundaries we strive to overcome. Hence, we yearn to go “back”, we yearn to “connect”.
In that sense, the Torah can be viewed as a very binary manual: it tells us about ways to connect – with G-d and other humans, whether individuals or community; and ways by which this connections is severed. In this week’s Torah reading, Matot, we see Moshe struggling with a new disconnect he’s never seen or imagined can happen when two tribes decide to “disconnect” and stay in the eastern side of the Jordan, rather than go into The Land. Throughout the Torah, there is a lot of talk about “knowing”, “not knowing”. “Knowing” – lada’at – is a form of connecting – and we see that in the first use of “knowing”, when Adam “knew” Hava, in Genesis 4:1, having the deepest connection with his wife, and she bore him a son.
But connecting is often obstructed. At times, interactions between humans are like a meeting between two porcupines, trying to find a soft spot… In the Jewish calendar, the three weeks we’re in, are a special time to look at our communal interactions, judgments, per-conceived notions and so on, and the negative ways they have impacted us in the past and present. In conjunction, we have learned the following Talmudic story, where we come across two famous rabbis, each a leader in his won right, who nevertheless, need to learn the lesson of what helps and what harms – making real connections.
The story can be found in Baba Kamma 117a-b: Rav Kahana, who lives in Babylonia, gets in trouble with the law. His teacher, Rav, who is the head of the academy and also happens to be his step father, advises him to go to the Land of Israel, to Rabbi Yochanan’s yeshiva. Rav makes one condition: that Kahana should not get into arguments with Rabbi Yochanan. Interestingly, and not so different from our modern era, we see that already then, Eretz Yisrael was considered a refuge and haven for someone in trouble, and that those outside assume themselves a little greater in learning.
Rav Kahana goes. He gets into some arguments with Rabbi Yochanan’s students so the latter “warn” their master with the words: “A lion has come up from Babylon; you should prepare your lesson well”. When Rav Kahana comes to class the next day, he is seated in the honorable front row, but as he keeps his promise and silence, he is moved all the way to the back, where the “bad students” sit. Yochanan now smirks, saying: “That lion turned out to be a fox!”, and so Rav Kahana starts asking his questions, moving up front row by row, and then eventually, Rav Yochanan has to get off his pillows, until they sit at the same height (yes, physically and symbolically).
Rabbi Yochanan asks to see this man who is asking such poignant questions, and as he is old, his students prop his eyes open with silver pincers. He see Rav Kahana’s lips parted in a sort of smile, and assumes he (Yochanan) is being mocked by the Babylonian. His (Yochanan’s) mind weakens and he causes Kahana to die. The next day, he realizes his mistake when his students tell him that this is the way Kahana’s face is, with his lips slightly parted, so Rabbi Yochanan goes back to Kahana’s grave-cave to bring him back to life.
But at the cave, a snake (yes, more symbolism) is coiled on the door. Rabbi Yochanan says: ‘let the master come (see) the student!’ but the snake doesn’t move. He tries again: ‘let the colleague come (see) his colleague’ – and again, nothing. Last, he says: ‘let the student come (see) the master’, where upon the snake moves, and allows Rabbi Yochanan to enter and revive Rav Kahana. Rabbi Yochanan’s beautiful, humble, statement then is – ‘had I only known (that this is how his face is)’…
I’ll add two more to this mix – each a very different, yet in some ways similar reminder to focus on what brings us together, rather than that that tears us apart:
The first is Yehuda Amichai’s poem – Tourists:
פעם ישבתי על מדרגות ליד שער במצודת דוד. את שני הסלים הכבדים שמתי לידי. עמדה שם קבוצת תיירים סביב המדריך ושמשתי להם נקודת ציון. “אתם רואים את האיש הזה עם הסלים? קצת ימינה מראשו, נמצאת קשת מן התקופה הרומית. קצת ימינה מראשו”. אבל הוא זז, הוא זז! אמרתי בלבי: הגאולה תבוא רק אם יגידו להם: אתם רואים שם את הקשת מן התקופה הרומית? לא חשוב: אבל לידה, קצת שמאלה ולמטה ממנה, יושב אדם שקנה פֵּרות וירקות לביתו.
Once I sat on the steps by the gate at David’s Tower,
I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists
was standing around their guide and I became their reference point: “See
that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch
from the Roman period, just right of his head.” But he’s moving, he’s moving!
I said to myself: Redemption will come only if their guide tells them,
“You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it,
to the left and a bit down, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”
And then, there’s the Chasidic teachings of Menachem Nahum of Chernobyl, a student of the 17th century Ba’al Shem Tov which I find in a brand new book, “Me, Myself and God” by Rabbi Jeff Roth that miraculously came into my life along the way:
“What is the world? The is G-d, wrapped in robes of G-d so as to appear to be material. And who are we? We are G-d wrapped in robes of G-d and our task is to unwrap the robes and thus dis-cover that we and the entire world are G-d”.
And with that, shavua tov /a good week to you and yours.