Friday, April 27, 2012

The Simplest of Posts

Israel celebrated 64 years of independent statehood this week.

Use this blog to comment on your relationship with Israel and its centrality to the Jewish People worldwide.

Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Jonathan Blake

Friday, April 20, 2012


This I believe: The universe is not calibrated to human notions of fairness.

For if the universe operated according to human standards of fairness, no good and gentle human beings would succumb to cancer before their time.

And if the universe operated according to human standards of fairness, no tsunami, no earthquake, no hurricane would sweep away thousands. No famine, no drought, no virus would decimate millions.

And if the universe operated according to human standards of fairness, even its smallest inconsistencies and injustices would realign to make sense, like the college admissions process or the inexplicable popularity of Seven Woks or why some really great shows get cancelled after one season while Jersey Shore has been renewed for a sixth.

All of this may come off as a ringing indictment of God--for if we are to speak of the rules of the universe we might as well take up our grievances with the chief Rule Maker and Enforcer, best known for really good, reliable rules like the speed of light, the constancy of the number pi, the law of gravity.

Two weeks ago Kelly and I visited the The Scales of the Universe, a 400-foot-long walkway that hugs the glass curtain wall along the second level of the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History. This exhibit illustrates the vast range of size in the universe — from the enormous expanse of our observable universe to the smallest subatomic particles — by using the 87-foot Hayden Planetarium Sphere as a basis for comparison.

I guess the feeling with which I left the exhibit could best be summed up as an overwhelming sense of, “It’s really not all about me, is it?” Or, even more, “It’s really not at all about me.”

God is what God is. In my way of thinking, God and the Universe are Echad, One and the same, and the interconnectedness of all matter and energy is how I understand God. As the Chasidim say: It’s all God. The good, the bad, the everything of everything. Isaiah has written: “I form light and create darkness. I make shalom and create calamity, I am Adonai, who does all these things,” who does everything, who is everything.

I would suggest here that the problem isn’t so much a flaw in God’s universe as it is a flaw in our perception, in our stubborn insistence that we matter most, that what we, frail, little human beings perceive as “fair” ought to be at the center of the considerations for a universe in which subatomic particles and galactic clusters provide the best window into the mind, as it were, of God, into the essence of God’s Nature.

What I am saying is, God’s universe apparently has room enough for mountains and avalanches, honey and beestings, children laughing and cancer cells, and that the forces of creation and destruction play by the rules of their Nature, the Nature of things, heedless of how we feel about them.

We, frail little human beings, are, to be sure, remarkable creatures--capable of art and science, of love and wisdom, creatures of such towering achievement and deep yearning that I believe that even if the Universe were to harbor untold reservoirs of intelligent life we would nevertheless exist unique among God’s staggering variety of Expressions.

But, when it comes to understanding “fairness,” we have it all wrong.

In this week’s portion, Shemini, this story is told:

Two of Aaron’s sons die in the blink of an eye, cut down with fire in the prime of life, as they ascended the altar in their first act of priesthood. They offer what the Torah calls esh zarah, strange fire in God’s presence.

A massive blaze erupts from before God and consumes the young men. Aaron, Israel’s great speaker, Moses’s own mouthpiece, falls uncharacteristically silent. His grief knows no bounds, its expression, no words.

Really, what words can give voice to such terrible fortune? Aaron’s silence is total, a black hole of unanswerable grief eddying around the center of a father’s galaxy.

The Rabbis struggled mightily with this passage. Many tried to account for the deaths of Nadav and Abihu by saying, more or less, it was their fault. They came to the altar perhaps impure, perhaps intoxicated, perhaps with ill intentions.

But my favorite midrashim, my favorite Rabbinic lessons about this passage, are the ones that conclude that, ultimately, there is no higher meaning in their demise. “The same fate is in store for the righteous and the wicked,” says the Bible’s gentle cynic, Kohelet, a line that the Rabbis cite in their discussion of the tragedy of Aaron’s sons.

Even more provocatively, the 3rd Century Rabbi Jochanan said, “This story proves only that it is painful for God, when the children of the righteous die while their parents are still alive.”

We say this still, sometimes, when we must bury a child before the parent. We say, “It shouldn’t be this way, the universe isn’t supposed to work this way, it’s supposed to happen the other way around.”

Here, then, is one answer. If our notions of fairness do not accurately represent the way the Universe works, the way God operates, then we must come to a different understanding of why we, frail little human beings, have such a deeply ingrained--it seems almost genetically encoded--sense of fairness, of what adds up and what violates our sensibilities. We must come to terms about why we have such an intuitive sense of the difference between the way things are and the way things ought to be.

I think that inner cognitive dissonance is actually one place we locate God, and that our human notions of fairness are actually not a description of the Universe but a response to it, a response to the basic Nature of the Universe, to our perception of its overwhelming scale that makes us infinitesimally small.

In fact our evolved sense of fairness may be a way of compensating for the way in which the Universe does not respond to our human needs. We have evolved as a species and as a civilization to impose order on what we perceive to be chaos.

Our Biblical images of God comport with this internal sensibility: In the first chapter of the Torah God takes chaos and darkness and imposes order and light. In the Exodus God tames the raging sea and turns it into a highway. At Sinai God tames the wild wilderness mob and turns them into a nation of laws and discipline.

Some of our ancestors wrote those laws, of course, the same way they composed those images, claiming inspiration from a Source they called God--or, more accurately, from their internal sense that the universe was not a fair place and that if God wasn’t going to come down and make things run right then we, frail (yet spunky!) little human beings, better get on with doing it ourselves.

And so it goes, that almost everything else special about the Jewish way of looking at the world blossoms forth from this generative cell.

Our unique heritage of Law and Order goes back to the origins of our religious civilization and provides the basic orientation of our greatest contributions to world literature: the Torah, the Mishna, the Talmud, the Shulchan Aruch… all works that say, basically, “Yes, life is terribly unfair but here’s how you live so as to make sense of it all. Even more, here’s how you pursue justice in an unjust world.”

And then the Kabbalists, the mystics of the Jewish tradition, took an even wider lens and said, “Really our job is Tikkun Olam, repairing the universe, because it is broken, it is cracked and darkness obscures the light of God.”

The Kabbalists really got it, man, because they understood that the only possible response to the unfairness of life--the cosmic injustice of good people suffering, of people who ought to prosper in fact flailing and falling between the cracks, while miscreants and reprobates feast and flourish--the only possible way to deal with the really hard stuff in the world is to make tikkun -- to go out there and make it better.

Over 19 billion years, the Universe--that is to say, God--permitted frail, little human beings to evolve to such a degree of sophistication and power that we can, working together, make the universe a little better. In assisting in the ongoing creation of the world we actually assist in the ongoing creation of God.

And when life hits us, or someone we love, or someone in need, really hard, we can put our arms around one another, set about improving what we can on this shabby little planet so in need of our help, and say to God, “Now I know why you sent me.”

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, April 13, 2012



For the 7th Day of Pesach, the Sages prescribed a beautiful Torah reading, including the Song at the Sea, as you have heard. Custom dictates that we chant the passage antiphonally, the usual Torah trope or cantillation interspersed with verses sung in a distinctive and joyful melody, leader and congregation singing back-and-forth, as Cantor Abramson demonstrated.

Antiphonal singing is a fancy term for “call and response.” The word comes from the Greek anti-, meaning, “opposite,” and -phon, meaning “voice.” Opposite voice. One voice, or one chorus of voices, mirroring another.

Apparently antiphonal singing was introduced into Christian worship by Ignatius of Antioch who died in the year 107 and who, in a vision, had seen angels singing in alternating choirs.

And the style is very much associated with Gregorian chant.

But much earlier, in the Biblical Psalms and other poems, we find that verses are usually comprised of a couplet of sentences that mirror each other. As in:

Mi Chamocha Ba’eilim Adonai /

Mi Kamocha Nedar Ba-Kodesh


Hodu Ladonai ki tov/

Ki L'Olam Chasdo

This “renders it probable that the antiphonal method was present in the services of the ancient Israelites" (Wikipedia, "Antiphon").

Today seems as fitting as any to reflect on the antiphonal method, on this notion of call-and-response, and not just in making music but in making this thing called life. As we come to this Yizkor moment, this time of remembrance, I think that the idea of Antiphon, of call-and-response, addresses the essence of the hour.

Part of the enduring anguish of a loved one’s death is the deafening silence that accompanies us from the grave through all the remaining days of our lives. We call out and there is no response. We call from the kitchen to the living room where he used to like to sit; we habitually reach for the phone…. Call and no response. Maybe we have even called out to God in our grief and have been met only with silence.

I think that is one reason we come to synagogue, especially for Yizkor, in hopes of receiving some kind of response to our call, even if that response is not our loved one’s voice but the voice of an old familiar prayer, or the voice of the person sitting by your side who shares the kinship of having buried loved ones. And maybe we also come here because in the safety of this sanctuary a loved one’s voice responds still; when we come to this quiet place and clear away the noise and the clutter, the appointments and errands, the day-to-day business and ongoing drama of our lives or our children’s lives, a distant signal comes through strong and clear. Her voice, his laugh, even the wordless response of a tender embrace enveloping us when we call.

It goes both ways, of course. Antiphon, call-and-response: we come here, also, to remember all the ways in which they call to us, to remind ourselves that the goodness and wisdom that they imparted while they yet lived still summons us, still calls out and our lives can be a response to their call.

Last week, Rabbi-Cantor Sklar and I visited the Early Childhood Center Seder which features a class play based on the Exodus, tables decorated with frogs, and all the important ritual foods of Passover like matzah, nut-free charoset and string cheese. Dan and I sang the four questions with a room full of four-year-olds and as they called out the familiar refrain, the funniest thing happened. I heard the voice of my grandmother Sally who taught me to chant the four questions when I was four. The children’s song was the call. Her voice was the response.

And in certain, very real ways that I never could have predicted as a child, my life is a response to her call, to the love of Judaism that she communicated to me when I was very young. Twelve years ago I would again respond to her call. Sally’s final wish, it turns out, was composed in her last will and testament. She had lived just a few months past my ordination and had attended my first high holiday services as a rabbi, dying just a few days before my installation as the Assistant Rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Providence, Rhode Island. A later addition to her will stipulated that I would officiate at her funeral.

Commenting on the antiphonal structure of Biblical verse, tractate Sanhedrin of the Babylonian Talmud quotes Rabbi Joshua ben Levi as saying: “Anyone who utters song in this world will merit to utter it in the world to come, as it is written [in the Book of Psalms], “Happy are those who dwell in [God’s] house; they will praise God ever after’(Ps. 84:5).”

The call of our loved ones echoes eternally. Our lives are a response to their words and their ways, their teachings and their principles. In this way do we and they sing an eternal, antiphonal song.

Some of the best contemporary examples of antiphonal singing are found in the beautiful niggunim, the wordless melodies, of the late Shlomo Carlebach, one of the great Jewish songwriters and composers of the 20th Century. We teach Carlebach melodies by singing a little phrase and then asking the congregation to respond. Cantor Abramson has taught us a number of Carlebach melodies over the years. Little by little, call-and-response, the congregation learns the entire niggun and then off we go.

The story is told that Rabbi Nehemia Polen who is a leading expert in Hasidism and Jewish thought went to a Harvard ethnomusicologist, asking him how it is that the Carlebach niggunim have such power. The expert concluded that he did not find anything special about them. At which point Rabbi Polen said, I think you don't understand...

“You see, every note in a Carlebach niggun looks at the note that came before it and says: ‘Thank you for being my teacher.’ And every note in a Carlebach niggun looks at the note that comes after it and says: ‘I give you permission to be even more beautiful than I am.’”

Ultimately that is what this call-and-response business is all about: understanding that our lives are suspended in this incredible web of interconnection, responding to the call of the ones who came before us and responsible to call unto the ones who will come after.


Friday, April 6, 2012

Chag Pesach Sameach - Wishing You a Happy Passover


This is what it means to celebrate Passover:

It is to see ourselves as part of a bigger story,

A drama that begins in degradation and ends in praise;

That begins in slavery and ends in liberation;

That begins with our ancestors and ends with us;

That begins in the Bible and evolves through the Rabbis;

That begins with Pharaoh and encompasses every tyrant, every Haman and Hitler and historical demagogue;

That begins with us opening the door to our dear ones, invites us to open the door to our heritage, and leads us to open the door for Elijah, prophet of hope and healing;

That begins in Egypt and passes through all time and space;

That begins with four little questions and ends with many great questions:

Why are human beings still languishing in slavery, and what will we do about it?

Who are today’s Pharaohs and how will we destroy their power?

Where is hope found in a hurting world?

What can we do to help Israel continue to become a land of promise?

When will we overcome what divides us and embrace what unites us--as Jews, as Americans, as members of the human family?

This is what it means to celebrate Passover:

It is to see ourselves as part of a bigger story.

It is to understand

with heart and soul and might

that by embracing one another

by embracing the holy, the just, the true, the good

by embracing that great power that binds the universe

do we, frail human beings, become free.

Chag Sameach!

Rabbi Jonathan E. Blake