Torah Speaks Steps

Eavesdropping at the Imaginary Yeshiva

From Kedoshim, 7th portion in the book of Leviticus

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 G*d (Lev. 19:18).


Two friends are learning in chevrusa (traditional form of yeshiva learning, based on studying in cells of two).

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 G*d.

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 Jamie don’t you?

Two: Poor Jamie. 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 to do something. You talk to someone. It’s not a theoretical problem.

Two: You got that right.

One: You rebuke him, because to have that knowledge and do nothing? That’s contributing to the problem. 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. Suggesting how he might get some help.

Or maybe even going to somebody else.

Two: Wow. What a concept. Just like with Jamie. 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: Stop with that.

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 Jamie, it was our responsibility to rebuke him, but not to bear his sin. With Jamie, 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 illness, but still, we are called to do something.

Two: Yeah, wow, I remember with Jamie. When Yudie did say something, Yudie rebuked him, he turned it against Yudie. Who are you, Jamie said to Yudie, to get in my face? It’s my business, what’s wrong with you? he said to Yudie. So Yudie ended up feeling bad, bearing Jamie’s sin, but you know what? That was part of Jamie’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 G*d.

Two: We rebuke, but we don’t hate, nor do we bear the sin — it’s Jamie’s problem, not ours — and when Jamie plays us like he did? We don’t get vengeful. The guy is, after all, ill. 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 Jamie 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 G*d. That’s the way of G*d, 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 Jamie, with someone like me, I’m no different from Jamie — 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 Jamie. 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 G*d: the way of love, the true course.

Two: Phew.

One: Good session.

Two: Yeah, thanks. Be here tomorrow?

One: For sure.














Coming Soon

Maybe she will come to our town.

Who. The Shekhinah?



Or: Tracking the Language of the Sefat Emet

I learned to consult with the Sefat Emet while studying with Avivah Zornberg in Jerusalem. I was a regular attendee at one of her weekly classes on the portion of the week, especially the sessions at the New Age Yeshivah where I had become comfortable attending.

My friend Moshe lived just down the street from the Yeshivah, and that’s how I found it, one summer when I was staying with him and studying the oud.

Avivah was teaching at the New Age Yeshivah. She had acquired a good following and her teachings were always something wonderful. She handed out source sheets that were numbered, usually beginning with Rashi then some of the other classical commentators and often ending with one of the radical English psychoanalysts or Kafka or D.H. Lawrence and then the Sefat Emet. The Sefat Emet was near the culmination of the lesson and something equally surprising or exceeding Kafka or R.D. Laing as applied to Torah.

I figured I should get to know the Sefat Emet; I found the material that Avivah brought down of his stunning.

The Sefat Emet is actually the name of his book, it’s not uncommon to be known by the name of your book, this one the Language of Truth. Yehudah Leib Alter was the rebbe of Ger (near Warsaw). He died in 1905. Avivah had deepened herself in his work and his commentary often appeared in her teachings on the parashiot.

I also used to pray in the synagogue of the New Age Yeshivah on Shabbes, and there Avivah and I were accustomed to nod to each other. I don’t think we ever exchanged words, but we exchanged greetings as if we knew each other. It was a spirited minyan in those days, many of the tunes were tunes from the Shlomo nusach (melody style) that was excellent for the mix of voices in the room.

Avivah began to recognize me at her teachings as a regular, and one evening when her husband who usually took the money was not present she gave me the cash box and asked if I would collect the money.

So I sat at the front table and took the money. There were books for sale, and questions to respond to, and schedules of her teachings to quote. Of course I knew nothing but I scrambled around and figured it out. From that evening on and for the months remaining of my sabbatical in Jerusalem, I sat up front and took the money, sold the books, quoted her schedule. Are you related? Someone asked me. Well, yes, in an elected sort of sense.

Ten years or so passed. I had not been back to Jerusalem. Avivah had written another book. She was on a book tour of the States, and the rabbis in my town were invited for a private session with her as she came right from the airport. We were to meet on the campus of the University, at the Hillel house.

I wouldn’t have expected her to remember me, we had never even exchanged names. I arrived a little late at the Hillel. Just as I got out of my car, she got out of the car of whoever picked her up at the airport and so we were walking across the parking lot towards the building at the same time.

She stopped when she saw me, as if in amazement and said, what are you doing here?

I live here, I said.

She looked confused. I wondered what had happened to you, she said. You live here? Since when?

Twenty years.

This confused her even more.

There’s an expression in the Midrash, jumping the road, k’fitzat ha-derekh. The midrash is often a mythic literature, a character may jump the road as if the intervening time and space do not exist. I never did explain it to her. After all, we really didn’t know each other, but we knew each other. I offered to take the money at the Hillel house too, but they had someone for that. Her driver by the way was a big shot in our community who until that day had paid no attention to me in twenty years. I never explained it to him either.

Sefat Emet on Genesis

There’s a vocabulary in the Sefat Emet that he returns to throughout his work. It appears in the first portion of Genesis, in a teaching about the holy Sabbath, and quoting one of the Friday evening prayers — God spreads out the sukkat shalom, the sukkah of peace – over us. This verb for spreads out is elastic, pores, it can mean several things.

Everything has its root in heaven, the Sefat Emet opens with, then quotes a Midrash: there isn’t a blade of grass that doesn’t have a star in the sky that strikes it and says: grow (Genesis Rabbah 10:6).

This Midrash often appears in what I call my mind with the verse from Micah: what does God require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8).

The Sefat Emet then quotes the verse, God separated the waters that were below the heavens from the waters that were above the heavens (Gen.1:7). The Sefat Emet is setting up a foundation of all mystical thought: there is a correspondence between here and There, so to speak, as it is among human beings, so it is in some cosmic sense.

Each creation below has a corresponding creation above. So on the holy Shabbat, the upper root descends and unites the two forces. This is the meaning of spreading the sukkat shalom, it is a unifying integrating concept, and so when we welcome the angels — the spiritual energies — we are awakening and integrating with the spiritual energies within and we are spreading that integrating notion not only horizontally all over the world, but vertically. As it is There, so it is here. Shalom, shleimut, wholeness in the sense of some grand spiritualized materialized integrative notion, the upper root and the lower root join in a spiritual sense, the upper nature and the lower nature join in a physical sense, and we have the celebration of integratives.

I love this language and it feels like the same notion that we encounter in the Raza deShabbat: the integrative power of upper and lower, the twos that find their way into One.

I wrote the following poem once I picked up the pieces of my mind and spent a while thinking through the implications of that idea.

Everywhere God Dwells Is Whole

I see the workers in the upper and lower waters

gathering the streams into their arms.

Once the divine integration was made in my presence,

delirious you said I love the world,

did you mean all of it or some of it?


I track the ascents and descents,

the upper root and the lower root will find each other

but don’t leave me alone. If the ends have been calculated,

I have not seen them. All my broken bones are whole,

my broken heart too, every shard complete.


I love the partial, the broken, individual, incomplete,

the fragment, the wounded,

I love the separate, you said,

because it integrates,

and even if not,

it is whole.










The Survivors


From the Survivors

Holocaust from holokaustus or holokautus (Gr.) meaning completely burned up,
as in an offering in Leviticus, as translated into Septuagint Greek

I had no intention to tell a Holocaust story. I used to think I didn’t feel up to it because I experienced it one generation removed. I don’t feel that way any more.

Trauma, I feel it and the older I get the more the trauma I feel. It was passed to me in a more oblique way.

I come from a generation in which our parents protected us from that story. There were many survivors in my neighborhood when I was growing up; we knew they were different, we knew they had a story but we didn’t know what it was. It would not clarify until later in life.

There was a seriousness and a sadness about the survivors that I knew in my neighborhood. I felt as if I knew them, but I didn’t know them. There were hidden parts to their lives, I knew this. There was a hiddenness in our world that was different from other people.

Not long ago I helped a family bury their mother who was a survivor of Auschwitz. I didn’t know her, didn’t know her daughter or any of the family, all had relocated out of my town in recent years. The mother was to be buried here so I volunteered to help them out.

In telling me about her mother, her daughter described a scene that her mother often talked about. As a young girl her mother had been in the selection line at Auschwitz and her daughter told me how her mother had described the dreaded Mengele standing at the head of the line making the selection. What was most chilling was non-verbal in the description: the daughter made gestures with her hands that were precise and I am sure just as her mother had communicated them.

They were simple gestures, obscene in simplicity and obdurate judgment. The picture of Mengele making gestures that signified this one lives this one dies was abhorrent. It sowed and planted a ghastly picture in my mind I have revisited many times since I saw it.

In this week’s Torah, the reading connected to the events that we schedule around the Nazi horror memorials, after the death of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu, Moses refers to the surviving sons Elazar and Itamar (Lev.10:12) as survivors. That word survivors, I never noticed it before this year, ha-no-ta-rim. It’s used twice in that verse, once to refer to the sons and once to refer to the remains of the offerings made by fire. This is the book of Leviticus.

There is much written about the clumsy application of fire language and offerings’ language associated with the Nazi horror, thus the controversy over the word Holocaust. This year when I heard the story of the woman I buried, how inadequate the word survivor felt to me. It felt too passive for what this woman lived through; sitting with these people these lives these strangers who existed because she went one way the girl next to her the other way and in spite of the burdens laid on her fragile life she endured.

She endured became a mother and these people — her daughter kids grandkids a great grand child — they are ha-no-ta-rim, alive they thrive out of the devastation of mother’s early life. It seemed to me that’s more than surviving.

More. I recall my beloved teacher who walked out of Berlin just before the War and his response always to the perfunctory: how are you? Sur-vi-ving, in three sing-song syllables that even if you knew nothing about him you recognized a depth of story and triumph and ascent in that three syllabled response. Arbitrary and victorious, sur-vi-ving as in if not for this if not for that, I would not have survived and with a bow to those who didn’t.

Now this Torah, this word applied both to the remnant of the offering burnt by fire, and the two brothers alive ha-no-ta-rim, as against the other two who were not (they brought strange fire in Lev.10:2). Fire and survival, what is that link and what the danger what the aftermath?

And who gets through? Ha-no-ta-rim — we the survivors, the remnant, the rest of us. From the root yud-tav-resh that also gives extra, something from without, something acquired from an unexpected place, something brought in from without so to speak, or something that remains, remnant as if remnant was something inviolable and ascendant.

Ha-no-ta-rim, this year it has a necessity that transcends surviving. It’s a persistence about existence: what continues. What remains. What endures. What thrives.