Yet another DT
Friday January 11th 2008, 2:56 am
Filed under: Sermons

I don’t know what strange karmic vibration has been unleashed in recent weeks, but after not being invited to do the D’var Torah thing for mucho moon, suddenly the requests have been inundating. Here’s my most recent for Parshat Va’eyra:

This is my visual aid. (said while taping 4 pieces of paper to the lecturn, each with one large Hebrew letter spelling out the Tetragramaton: Yod, Hay, Vav, Hay) If this were truly a synagogue of the 21st century, I’d have it projected big time in PowerPoint slides. But since this is a synagogue of the 58th century, we don’t do electronics on Shabbat. We’re still stuck in paper.

This week’s Torah begins with a most puzzling statement. G*d continues to speak with Moshe. Last week G*d initiated a conversation with Moshe at the burning bush. And Moshe is incredulous; he doesn’t know who this is that’s speaking to him out of the burning bush; He doesn’t know who this is that tells him he’s got some special work to do. And so Moshe says, “Yeah right! I’m gonna go to all these Israelite slaves and tell them that this Gaaad spoke to me and told me to come rescue you! A nectige tog!! The first thing they’re gonna say is, ‘Who is this Gaaad that you say sent you?’ So what am I gonna tell them?”

And G*d replies from the bush and says that wonderful magical mysterious cryptic line, Aheyeh Asher Aheyeh, I will be whatever the heck I want. Don’t try to define me because you’ll lose every time. And then G*d continues and says this name that sounds kind of like Aheyeh. It starts with a Yah and ends with an hhhhhh sound and no one is quite sure what comes in between. Because that’s the name we never pronounce.

Here it is spelled out: Y H V H.

And then this G continues speaking with Moshe and then the conversation brings us to God’s words this Shabbat: I am Y H V H. I appeared to Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaakov as El Shaddai, but I did not reveal my name Y H V H to them.

Now this is a very strange statement. Because it directly contradicts two other statements in the Torah where G*d did indeed reveal his name Y H V H to Avraham. Way back in parshat Lech L’ha; several hundred years before. G*d speaks to Avraham and says, “I am Y H V H who brought to out from Ur Chashdeem to give you this land as a possession.” And when G*d speaks to Yaakov when he has that wonderful dream of the angles going up and down the ladder G*d says, “I am Y H V H the G*d of Avraham your father and the G*d of Yizthak, and I will give the land that you’re sleeping on to your descendents.”

Now, I do not take credit for being the first to notice this seeming contradiction in the Torah. As you might guess, our rabbis noticed it thousands of years ago and managed to explain their way around it. What they said was that even though Avraham and Yaakov might have heard the name Y H V H, they did not yet understand its’ implication. You see, the Torah has many different names of G*d. And according to Jewish tradition, each name of G*d expresses certain specific aspects of G*d:

The Midrash teaches that The Holy One said to Moshe, “You want to know my name? My name derives from what I do. Sometimes I am called El Shaddai, sometimes Zevaot, sometimes Elohim, sometimes Y H V H/Adonai. When I judge humanity, I am called Elohim, when I make war against the wicked, I am called Zevaot, and when I give a man a suspended sentence for his sins I am called El Shaddai; and when I have compassion on my world, I am called Adonai.

The patriarchs had spoken with G*d, they were familiar w/ the name Y H V H, but they had not yet experienced that aspect of G*d. The greatest manifestations of divine compassion in the world, the Exodus of Israel from Egypt and the giving of the Torah at Mt Sinai hadn’t happened yet. So the name Y H V H had not yet been revealed.

It sometimes happens in the course of history that the way G*d appears to us changes. G*d doesn’t change. We change. And so as we change, G*d appears different to us.

I want to ask you a question. I want you to try and remember something for me. Something small. Maybe insignificant. Quite possibly you won’t even be able to remember it. I want you to try to remember the first time you heard a certain expression. That expression is “Jewish spirituality.” Can you recall when you first heard it?

When I was a student at the Hebrew Union College a few dozen years ago, that was an expression no one ever used. Never. And all through the dozen plus years that I functioned full time as a rabbi, back in the late 70’s, early 80’s that was a phrase that no one ever used. Back then the Jewish world was very focused on issues: supporting Israel, rescuing Soviet Jewry, social justice here in the US. We dealt with most of the same hard issues we deal with now: strengthening Jewish education at every level, working to help Jews stay Jewish in every way we were able. We might have done a few experiments with making worship more contemporary, more in tune with peoples’ modern sensibilities. But we never did get talk about, “How do we increase the level of Jewish spirituality of the Jews we work with; or of ourselves.”

I wrote a book on the subject. Writing it was one of the greatest accomplishments of my life. It came out about 15 years ago. It’s kind of dated now. But it sold a few thousand copies. Got a dozen wonderful reviews in very obscure publications. It’s out of print now, but copies are still available out of my garage. And used copies can be found on Amazon or eBay for a couple of bucks.

The book was as it’s subtitle proclaimed, “A guide to Jewish spiritual growth.” To my knowledge, it was the first or second modern book that had the phrase “Jewish spirituality” in its title. When it came out, a lot of people furled their brow and said, “What is Jewish spirituality?” Do we have that?

And now it’s 15 years later, and when you pick up the monthly periodical of the United Synagogue, almost every issue features an article that talks about “How do increase the level of Jewish spirituality among our Jews?”

But when you ask almost anyone (not anyone but almost anyone); almost anyone in any official Jewish capacity, rabbis, educators, executive directors, “What do you mean by Jewish spirituality?” more often than not, you still get a furled brow and a puzzled look.”

Well, after many years of study, exploration, writing, writing, I don’t think the question is all that complex. Jewish spirituality is what goes on inside of us whenever we do anything Jewish. It’s pretty easy to sit here on any Shabbat morning and think about what you’re going to do later on in the day or think about what you did last night. Or when we’re reading the Torah, it’s pretty easy to think about just about anything on earth OTHER than the words of Torah.

So many of us grow up learning to do Jewish things by rote. We are taught how to light candles, how to prepare our food, how to celebrate our holidays, how to learn from our ancient texts, how to say the prayers that let us talk to G*d. And we learn to do them by rote pretty well.

Jewish spirituality is the opposite. Jewish spirituality is experiencing any Jewish activity you can think of with your mind and your heart focused on the activity as you do it. With all your heart and with all your soul; “b’khol nafshekha u’vhkol m’odekha.” Even if you’ve never it before. Or even if you’ve done it a thousand times already. Raising Jewish spirituality is about how to do those same Jewish things we do all the time anyhow. But doing them deliberately. With focus. With intensity. With feeling. As though they’re the most beautiful, the most exciting, the most ennobling things you can possibly spend your current moment doing.

Do you want to increase the Jewish spirituality you experience? There any many processes, many experiences out there that can help you do that. My friend Debbie Brown offers a Shabbat morning meditation experience designed to help you open up, to experience your Jewish experiences more intensely.

Here’s another one. Now we’re back to my visual aid. Four Hebrew letters. Y H V H. The ineffable, unpronounceable, mysterious, all powerful name of G*d that implies infinite compassion.

Take a deep breath; and as you do, focus your awareness on the Yod. And hold your breath for just a moment and as you do, focus on Hey. Let go and exhale on Vav, and let your lungs empty out all by themselves. And then relax on Hey. Yod/inhale; hey/hold your breath a second; vav/long exhale; hey; relax into stillness. Now you do it yourself. Let your breathing be long and deep and gentle and let its rhythm spell out this name of G*d for just a few moments by yourself.

Do you know what I’m saying here? You can practice this little breathing exercise any time you’re stuck in traffic. Or any time you’re on the phone on hold. Or any time you’re waiting for anything to be over already.

This is Shabbat. This is our moment each week, to take time out time. To allow ourselves to experience the world just a little bit differently. To experience G*d just a little bit more intensely. To experience the infinite compassion of Y H V H.

Once upon a time, G*d spoke to Moshe. And G*d told Moshe, those qualities of infinite mercy and boundless compassion were not manifest to Avraham and Yaakov. But soon they’ll be manifest to you and to the people of your generation. You will experience the meaning of Y H V H. Your level of Jewish spiritual experience with move up a notch.

It happened for Moshe. Maybe it can happen for us.

Shabbat Shalom.

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