It was Naso, the longest parashah in the Torah, always read on the Shabbat before Shavuot, before the great wedding celebrating the enduring wisdom given to us because we had prepared in one version and because we did not in another.
Was it a complete gift this wisdom or did we turn ourselves inside out and twisted ourselves into a posture of acceptance some crazy yoga that we submitted to methodically and daily in order to gain the gift: here is your wisdom, nicely packaged it’s now in book form first it came as thunder and lightning but some time into the future after you are done with the telling you will begin the writing then it will be a book then it will return to lightning in digital form and you will return to telling because the words are on the wind in the rain maybe once in a while you’ll project them on a wall or write them in a journal to remind you that the word has shape and also to remind you that the word does not have shape it has sound. The return to thunder.
What a week. Great ascent tempered by a plummet back to reality, ta-da ta-da little sleep and much wrestle with the dreaded mind-slip and the question mark associated with the mysterium: what to do, and the great vulnerability of being a human being alive but fearful of the drift downward. Fear full. Reminder: drift Up.
Then the blessing in its three parts from the book of Numbers, Naso, and great stories from several years ago from this same Shabbos. The way Rashi reads the blessing: material. Blessed will you be with possessions, this from the Medrash.
The way the Mesillat Yesharim reads it: everything is a test. You get good: a test. You get bad: a test. Everything is a test. Mesillat Yesharim, also known as R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, eighteenth century, his story and his writings speak to me and I think I ran into him at the house of study that bears his family name in Venice. He is another who had a maggid that spoke to him – through him invoking the teachings that came from Elijah the prophet, the poor guy was hounded out of Venice to Amsterdam and eventually to Aco where he died in a plague.
From the Sefas Emes the sense of shleimut, wholeness, to be blessed with shalom is to be blessed with wholeness, some sort of inner point of blessing that opens from the one the individual the instance to the many the All the Universal. The Sefas Emes calls this the inner point of truth. The inner point of truth: When you have that you have everything. Peace is a vessel. It contains blessing.
In the Sefas Emes version, the three fold blessing is given in the singular opening onto the plural, one and many, the individual as it opens onto the universal the universal always sheleimut/shalom/l’seim lekha shalom — to bring the blessing from the individual instance to the universal application, the conduit from the one to the many – to break through your skin and live in G*d.
The inner point of truth this is shleimut/shalom the inner is experienced as the universal. Wherever G*d dwells there is blessing, wherever there is blessing there is shalom. I am you and you are me and we are all together.
I love the partial the broken individual incomplete, the fragment the wounded. I love the separate because it integrates and even if not it is whole. I am stunned by this teaching each time I revisit it.
This year Shabbat Naso always the thought of the blessing as we enter the last leg of transformative-gift getting that is the durable wisdom soon soon and sitting in the minyan that night a guy from Thursday night meeting fresh off of heroin and tonight he is fresh on I can generally tell from looking at him. Later that night quietly he lets me know: I used today. I gotta stay close to this, he says. I want this so bad.
You are here with nothing I am thinking Rashi – but your dearest possession right now is your sobriety. Get clean and that one possession will open onto all other blessings, without that blessing – nothing. He knows this. Yeah yeah he says. We are talking in code a language so abbreviated only Rashi and his band of deconstructivists would understand. They spoke in grunts and hand signs, shakes of the head and so do we, they left only a one or two phrase resting place in language for the future.
It’s a test man, all of it, you will be tested daily. Today a test, tomorrow a test, each day a deadly quiz and if you fail it today you can make it tomorrow. One day at a time. Luzzatto. Go home to your Mom’s house tonight and take tomorrow fresh. Do-over, every day new. That’s not a blessing?
With the Sefas Emes we are entirely at home stoned or sober: the trip is internal, find your peace the inner point of truth within don’t forget the generosity of this: each part is a whole, each instance opens onto the All. Only Everything is everything. Find your peace, from the Sefas Emes, the inner point of truth: shalom, shleimut. Humble and opening Up.
Every day new. Every year another chapter on the story as it winds Up.
You shall not hate your brother in your heart, you shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of your neighbor (Lev. 19:17 ).
You shall not take vengeance, not bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am God (Lev. 19:18).
Two friends are learning in the house of study.
One: what do you make of “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” in context?
Two: You shall not hate your brother in your heart, hmmm, that’s where we begin, cleansing the heart of hatred.
One: Of course, that’s obvious. Brother!
Two: Brother! Like us.
One: You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of your neighbor. Now that we understand it in context, it’s unusual isn’t it, this progression from you shall not hate to you shall surely rebuke, why would you rebuke your neighbor? What has your neighbor done? Say your neighbor is a drug addict.
Two: Oh my God.
One: Stay with me, your neighbor is taking drugs. You don’t approve. You see it, you have evidence, you may have even witnessed it yourself. It’s not a theoretical problem. You remember Benjy don’t you?
Two: Poor Benjy. Nobody knew what to do for him, so we did nothing.
One: Yeah, well that’s what we got going here. You don’t approve, you know something is wrong but you may not even know what it is, but something is not ay-yai-yai so you rebuke your neighbor.
Two: You rebuke him?
One: Yeah, you do something. You tell the truth, even at the expense of relationship, you approach him and say hey, I’m worried about you, you do this, you do that, you don’t put him down but you have got to do something. It’s not a theoretical problem.
Two: You got that right.
One: You rebuke him, because to have that knowledge and do nothing? I’m not using rebuke here in the sense of shaming him but in the sense of saying: stop. Drawing a line. Maybe even getting in his face. Hey – get some help. Or maybe even going to somebody else.
Two: Wow. What a concept. Just like with Benjy. We did nothing, and you know what? When it came down, I felt kind of. . .you know. . .responsible. I really did!
One: Yeah, so did I. You know why? Because we didn’t rebuke him. But the verse continues, don’t think that I came with just this one word to rattle in a bottle like a coin. . .
Two: Oh stop with that stuff.
One: Let’s continue with the verse, you shall not hate your brother in your heart, you shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of your neighbor (Lev. 19:17 ). Not bear sin because of your neighbor, that means, like with Benjy, it was our responsibility to rebuke him, but not to bear his sin. With Benjy, sin means sickness. Because it was, after all, his problem. But there’s the rub: it’s his problem, still we are called to rebuke him, but not to carry responsibility for his sin. It’s his sickness, but still, we are called to do something.
Two: Yeah, wow, I remember with Benjy. When Judy did say something, Judy rebuked him, he turned it against Judy. Who are you, Benjy said to Judy, to get in my face? It’s my business, what’s wrong with you? he said to Judy. So Judy ended up feeling bad, bearing Benjy’s sin, but you know what? That was part of Benjy’s problem: place the responsibility everywhere but himself. I really see it now.
One: Yes, now let’s finish with our verse. Leviticus 19:18, You shall not take vengeance, not bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am God.
Two: We rebuke, but we don’t hate, nor do we bear the sin — it’s Benjy’s problem, not ours — and when he Benjy plays us like he did? We don’t get vengeful. The guy is, after all, sick. Not only do we not get vengeful, but we bear no grudge, we don’t judge him. That’s the hardest part. As a matter of fact, we love him. We love Benjy because only out of love will come the right action. Only through love will the healing happen.
One: You shall not take vengeance, not bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am God. That’s the way of God, to know that if healing is to happen, it has to happen through love. No matter what our history is with each other, we cannot be a source of healing or help or truth or transformation for each other — because that’s what it takes with someone like Benjy, with someone like me, I’m no different from Benjy! — that’s what it takes to be a healing force in another person’s life. No expectations, no blaming, no shifting of responsibility, no avoidance, no revenge, no judgment, only the truth. And love. It has to come out of love. Only love has that kind of power to heal.
Two: That’s what we could have done with Benjy. Here’s the principle: lead with love, always. It seems so simple, but it isn’t easy, and it isn’t obvious.
One: Maybe that’s the deal with these two verses. Notice that we don’t lead with love, but we come to love, after having moved through don’t hate, surely rebuke, don’t bear sin, don’t take vengeance, don’t bear a grudge, but — love. I am God: the way of love, the true course of transformation.
One: Good session.
Two: Yeah, thanks. Be here tomorrow?
Rabbi James Stone Goodman serves Congregation Neve Shalom, and the Central Reform Congregation, in St. Louis, Missouri.
Unwelcome Addition to the Seder
Monday, April 14, 2014
Written in a symbolic Place of Vulnerability
The Haggadah is all about the telling, by Onkelos the teaching, by Maimonides the showing. The story changes and it remains the same. We always have one foot in the personal and one foot in the universal.
Each year we squeeze the story for more of what it means — for the individuals for the community the nation the world — for the concentric circles to which we all belong.
What it means, it’s a good question, but not the only question.
Attached to this year’s meaning is the silent heart of grief, which always precedes the what-it-means question.
The world: still cracked. Hate corrupts, love repairs. We know this. But the first response is always the silent heart of mourning, which is the silent heart of suffering, which is the opening to the heart of wisdom. Some time into the future we will respond by knowing: what to do.
For now: open a moment to the silent heart of suffering, still a part of our story, our story a part of the world story.
Pray for peace in the grandest and most individual ways: the peace of the near and the peace of the far. And healing for the losses, and some sort of comfort for us all.
Make everything holy
Wash yourself clean
Eat something green
Separate physics from spirit
Tell a good story
Get more clean
Bring back spirit into physics
Spit out your hurt
Make an Everything sandwich
Have tea together
Pay attention to endings
Insist on happiness
The Story of Passover
We were discussing the mystery root in Torah n-g-d when those two guys walked down the outer walkway on Saturday morning. They were speaking Aramaic; who speaks Aramaic anymore.
They had been parsing the name of the place we could hear them as they were walking up: neve in Hebrew, from the couple of verses in Isaiah where it appears, a place for animals a kind of sanctuary like an oasis.
Then when we were studying inside later that morning we went on about that n-g-d root. We were in the book of Exodus, Yitro, they mentioned (one of the visitors did) that when we are eating together in verse 12 — before G*d — that when we are eating with heavies the glow of the Shekhinah is present. He was quoting a story from the Talmud, I looked it up it’s Brakhot 64a that Rashi was referring to, and I was getting a little suspicious of these guys how they knew so much Rashi.
Don’t you love the changes that are happening in this story? he asked to no one in particular, because one listens to the other, hears something right, takes it home, takes it inside, and changes everything? I do, I do love that, I said.
And look the other one said, we have these verbs in chapter 19, verse two, the root n-g-d for the word in the next verse: this is what you will tell to the rest of them. The same root in Haggadah, n-g-d, from to be across from, or corresponding to, as if in the telling is always the correspondence between language and the thing itself, but it’s the story, it’s the word it’s not the thing itself so the root is n-g-d in the telling, making the correspondence between what you say and what it is.
There is always that space, that distance between language — all language — and symbol and the thing itself what is symbol-ed we are trying to make that correspondence and that’s why our language is so elastic. Don’t you love it? I said I do, I do love it.
Some time later I was studying with S but I was dreaming about telling the story and when it’s told the necessity to be understood, especially the holy telling of the Haggadah and the Maggid section in the Haggadah the telling and the n-g-d root that is lurking within both those words, that sense that there is a story and then there is what the story is about.
Then on Thursday night we were talking about the telling of our own stories and every time we tell it we squeeze it for more of what it means. There is the story and there is the telling and with every telling there is more truth, more truth squeezed through the telling, the telling and the thing itself. The more we tell it the more we know of what the story is about, the thing itself, so the root is somewhat dual in that sense of corresponding to: n-g-d, and I am loving this root for its essential correspondence of one thing to another and its hiddenness within every story the thing that the story is about and they are not the same. They correspond and we tell it and tell it to coax out the deeper reality(ies).
One night when we were playing music we made that groove where I started talking about my aunt who was married to a gangster and she was the funniest person I knew. Until I met her sister who was living up in the Catskills, and she was the funniest person I knew and by then I was grown up, almost thirty, so my sense of funny had changed I suppose and every time I visited her it was like I was the audience sitting on her divan and she did twenty minutes that was so hysterical I could hardly sit but this was just the way she talked. Maybe she didn’t have anybody to talk to; she lived alone after all in a tiny little place in Monsey.
I told her I thought she was now the funniest person I had every met, funnier than her sister my aunt (she wasn’t my blood aunt but I called her my aunt and she didn’t have much that kind of family) and her sister who I never called my aunt said you think I’m funny wait ‘til you meet my son. I didn’t want to meet her son because he was a professional comedian in what was left up there of the borscht belt and I figured he was just a lot of shtick and it would be embarrassing.
On one of my trips up that way she made a call and said he’ll be right over. Oh my God, she called her son and he was coming over to meet me and I didn’t look forward to it at all. I’m going to have to sit here and listen to his routines and pretend that it’s entertaining that old shtick and he came over — nice looking guy about ten fifteen years older than me — and he did about twenty minutes that was even funnier than his mother and way funnier than his aunt (who I called my aunt) and I was laughing so hard I could hardly stand it. Maybe this is the way they talk to each other all the time I had never heard such funny stuff in my life.
Some years passed and the gangster (who I took to calling my uncle as he was married to who I called my aunt and he was not connected so well to his own people) died and my aunt moved back to Detroit to be with her son (he wasn’t actually her son) and I had heard that she was ill and in a nursing home of some kind in a suburb so I went to find her.
It was Detroit and some time in May I think still in the interminable winter that seized Detroit every year in those days; cold and dark nothing growing no organic matter at all as far as I could tell but I did find a lone crocus at the corner grocery from a hothouse in Canada and I bought it and went searching for my aunt.
She was sharing a room with another lady and I swear I stared at them both for five minutes and couldn’t tell which one was my aunt she had diminished so. They were asleep I guess they call it and no doubt full of the drugs of quietude. It was her hair that gave her away to me; I never in my memory identified anybody by their hair this way but she was so different looking that it was her hair that gave her away.
I sat next to her bedside and she woke up and started talking to me in Yiddish. She thought I was my father and she kept calling me Harry and speaking to me in Yiddish and it was delicious being my father for a while as he had passed some years before.
I was my father for as long as she stayed awake and we talked about all the old people that she was remembering from when she was married the first time to Henry and had a store and so did my Dad and when she went back to sleep I left. I stayed somewhere near over night and came back for the last visit and she awakened again and spoke to me as my Dad and the crocus I had left there had bloomed. I kissed her on her head and said goodbye.
I told this story as we settled into the groove when we were playing music because her next husband – who my mother called a gangster — his name was another word for teaching in our language and that made the crazy segue to the last piece that S had taught this year, something new that tied everything together and came from Onkelos who translated all the Hebrew into Aramaic and made the translation of the n-g-d verb into the Aramaic for teaching.
It wasn’t enough to tell it you had to tell the story in such a way that taught it, so if you told it and it wasn’t understood it was not enough or if you told it in a different language it was not enough; it had to be taught it had to be understood it had to be a teaching with real dialogue. This from Onkelos’s translation into Aramaic.
Because the telling is not enough, you can tell it over and again but if you don’t squeeze it for all it means and it means differently when you squeeze it good then you are not getting at it all the way. You have to teach it as well as tell it, it has to be understood especially by the teller who understands more the more it is squeezed and parsed and examined and turned every which way to release meaning. You have to coax out all the secrets from their hiding places. You have to teach it over and above tell it.
That was new to me and pulled it all together and after I had finished telling the story of visiting my aunt and all of them of so many years ago I felt a great satisfaction pulling it all together as I was about to make my freedom trip so I talked this piece out loud then I wrote it and we settled deeper into the music as throughout all this telling I had not stopped playing quietly on my instrument as if everyone were visiting me in my living room though it wasn’t.
In the end I mentioned that my uncle who was a gangster, his name means teaching, that’s the part that pulls it all together and why I called this piece the story of Passover and it’s important somehow in the deeper sense and I won’t say any more as who knows the Feds may still be interested in my uncle as they swept down on my aunt after her husband died trying to track his untraceable assets and it took me ten years to tell the story at all much less mention any names. So I won’t. Besides, I’m not so clean myself if you know what I mean.
The Problem of Addiction
Rabbi James Stone Goodman
Shalvah, Outreach on Addiction
The death of Philip Seymour Hoffman brings the secret back into discussion. Those of us who live in and around addiction daily are not mystified by his story, we are saddened like everybody, but we understand it. I know dozens of good, talented people who struggled mightily with an addiction, a dependency of one kind or anther, who did not make it.
It’s hard to watch the news because it’s clear from the information sources that so little is understood about addiction, how a person with twenty plus years of clean time could die that way, why couldn’t he just stop, etc., didn’t he have enough help, all these shadow questions that are the wrong questions.
It could happen, it does happen, because addiction is insidious, patient, when you have it bad you have it for life, and it requires vigilance daily, every day, and generally never alone. Few go this road to recovery alone, that’s the first truth, you can’t run and you can’t hide.
You can’t run and you can’t hide from a problem — a hunger, a need — that isn’t entirely physical. An addict has an emptiness within, a hole in the soul, a space inside that we stuff with substances; with booze, with drugs, with sex, with food, with – you name it. Drugs become everything, drink becomes everything, something becomes everything to the addict.
The perennial wisdom of the recovery model is we face the real problem of addiction every morning when we gaze into the mirror. The problem is within. You meet the real problem of addiction in the mirror.
At the deepest level, the only dependable antidote is what we call a program, a plan for living, a deeper dive into the inner world where we fill that emptiness within with something more nutritious and sustaining. We become individuals with lives of value and purpose, we call this a spiritual program, and every recovery model that I know of that helps to change lives changes them from the inside out, so to speak, and we call this kind of thoroughgoing inward transformation a spiritual change. This is old wisdom.
Dr. Carl Jung, an early influence on the treatment of alcoholism and chemical dependency, loved the use of the word spirits to indicate substance. The problem has a physical component, and it has a spiritual component. Some people are physically predisposed, as it were, and all of us are spiritually predisposed. We are getting better with new strategies to encounter the physical need; we have the oldest wisdom on the planet to grow the spiritual response.
It begins with a person taking responsibility. This is my problem and I have to do such and such to begin my recovery. There is plenty of help once one realizes that. No one can do this for me, and no amount of help will do this for me, and sometimes people who live with and around addicts make this harder for the addict by trying to do for him or her what he has to do for herself.
You can do too much for the suffering addict, and when you do, you are contributing to the problem by taking away the very thing the addict has to learn: responsibility. This is my problem, my responsibility, I have to take action. This is my problem, not yours, mine. There is what to do when you live around addicts that will help the addict come to that place; but the person must take action him or herself.
I am sorry for every loss through the dizzy decline into drugs and alcohol, especially those I have known, have worked with, have been on that hard road with. Everyone should understand that recovery from a serious drug and alcohol dependency is one of the hardest inner journeys a person makes in life. It is thoroughgoing and demanding; what we say is: all you have to do is not drink, not take drugs and change your entire life.
Change your whole life. Does that help to understand drug and alcohol dependency? To make the hole, whole, so to speak.
I am making a Kaddish in my heart for every loss, in the John Donne sense; every person’s death diminishes all of us. And my heart aches in the Deuteronomic sense too: not by bread alone do human beings live, but by Everything do human beings live [see Deut. 8:3].
Only Everything is everything.
Rabbi jsg runs a program called Shalvah, “serenity” in Hebrew, that meets every Thursday night at Congregation Neve Shalom, 7 PM. It was founded in 1981 by Rose Mass and jsg.
Jones hungers in a way that cannot be
filled. It waits an active waiting its eyes
tracking you wherever you go.
Jones is an emptiness. A space a
hunger a bottom-less-ness.
Jones will not be filled by drugs by
booze by love by success by food by –
You may try to fill Jones with all or
some of these. Jones can only be filled
Until you encounter Jones — its
unformed and empty-ness — until you
fill Jones with something more
nutritious, sustaining, full — Jones waits
patiently and poised to spring.
You can spot Jones every morning in
the mirror and you will need to.
You will learn not to wrestle Jones; you
will learn to be bigger than Jones.
Jones is hovering and you are called to
How Do You Know Jones
Does it matter? I could tell you but it’s
I know Jones. What difference does it
make – how?
I see Jones every morning in the mirror
and Jones knows me.
I have come to know Jones better, I
think, than Jones knows me. I have the
It’s not much of an edge but that’s all I
need — an edge.
The edge keeps both Jones and I on
our toes. Nimble. That edgi-ness.
It’s a matter of degrees, edges;
Absolutes? No way.
Jones loves absolutes, will try to
distract you with them –
Do not be distracted.
Stay on the edge. Keep the edge. The
edge, baby, the edge is everything.
The Dragon Jones
You need a lot of friends to elude that
dragon. Friends and talk. Talk talk, then
Jones insinuates itself within, the
dragon Jones. The dragon will try to
engage you in conversation. Do not. No
talking with the dragon.
Talk to your friends.
Talk to others who know the dragon.
Make it daily. First today, then
tomorrow, the next day, etc. Every day
the dragon perches.
Every day is the day to meet the
dragon. Today, for example.
Take your friends with you until you
understand. We have to be together on
Alone — we are lost.
Near Jew-town in Cochin, there is a restaurant, near the water, nice location and well equipped, that was once a large home. This is still obvious from the street.
It once was the home of one of the sustaining families of the Pardesi synagogue, our guide said, where we read the Torah on Shabbat. The Koder family were prominent Jews, the patriarch Samuel started an electric company and a chain of department stores. The home is built on a Portuguese model, some of it even gabled in Europe, three floors, one for each child. The Koder family came to Cochin from Iraq in the early nineteenth century, the home dating from the early years of the twentieth century.
Ralphy had brought kosher chickens, frozen, with him from Mumbai and gave them to the chef at the restaurant. At the restaurant, they have all the old recipes of the family that once lived here, said Ralphy, and on special occasions they prepare them. Ralphy, always conscientious and respectful, knew the Shabbat preparations were not complete without the [kosher] chickens. So he packed them up and checked them through IndiGo, Indian domestic airlines to Cochin.
We had Friday night and Saturday afternoon meals at the restaurant, called Menorah, featuring the recipes of the family that once occupied the house. The chefs were delighted to serve the meals honoring the predecessors of the restaurant. Who once lived there lives again through the family recipes featured in that house. The restaurant is named Menorah.
There were many courses. They were excellent and often a surprise. There was a dark chocolate gelatinous dish, for example, I had never experienced before, not a pudding not a jello, something startling and wonderful. And, of course, the kosher chickens from Mumbai, prepared in the deep roasted tandoori style.
We made the blessings in the melodies I had heard in my heart at the synagogue, reviving the melodies in some approximate form that are bled into the stone floors, the walls of this home now restaurant, honoring the social ritual religious spiritual physical nexus in eating with a nod to memory that the restaurant, the neighborhood, the street, the synagogue maintains. Respect and rooted gestures have a place, even in a restaurant.
It was the week in Torah when we rise to the top of the mountain, see G*d, and have a little something to eat and drink (cf. Exodus 24:11). Amen.