At the midnight hour after Shabbat that precedes Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish community gathers as the Gates of Heaven begin to open to receive the petitions of forgiveness of the community.
Each year we change our Torah mantles to white symbolically revealing the deepest purpose of these High Holidays, to do Teshuvah, to turn away from an alienated life and to return to our loved ones, community, Torah, one’s own soul, and to God.
The moment is pregnant with possibility, as these verses suggest:
This is the midnight hour. / The Psalmist said: “At midnight I rose to acclaim you” (116:62). / We, who are his descendants, would follow this tradition. / For midnight belongs neither to today nor to tomorrow.
It is a moment alone in time. / It is an interval with a magic all its own. / As we grow weary with the weight of the late hour, / We become introspective, / Concerned with the nature of life; / Especially our own.
Time is fleeting. / Midnight becomes tomorrow. / A day is behind us / And the New Year beckons. / How shall we use our days? / What is the meaning of our lives, our goodness, our power? / Shall we use them only for ourselves / Or for the good of others? / This midnight service summons us / to the true purpose of life.
Summer is passing. / The days grow shorter. / The sounds and colors of nature, / The stirring of the wind, / Speak to us of changes in the world, in life, / And in a human being’s course on earth.
Now is the time for turning. / The leaves are beginning to turn / From green to red and orange.
The birds are beginning to turn / And are heading once more towards the south. / The animals are beginning to turn / To storing their food for the winter.
For leaves, birds, and animals / Turning comes instinctively. / But for us turning does not come so easily.
It takes an act of will for us to make a turn. / It means breaking with old habits. / It means admitting that we have been wrong; / And this is never easy.
It means losing face; / It means starting all over again; / And this is always painful.
It means saying: I am sorry. / It means recognizing that we have the ability to change. / These things are terribly difficult to do.
But unless we turn, / We will be trapped forever in yesterday’s ways.
Author of above poem unknown.
Photographs by Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh
In watching Steve Bannon dueling with Charlie Rose on 60 Minutes, I was reminded of this famous Yeats poem and wondered what further damage Bannon and his minions will do to the soul of America.
“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, / And everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned; / The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
William Butler Yeats
“The world is not as worthy as the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.”
So said Rabbi Akiva (2nd century Palestine), who believed that The Song of Songs, a love poem in the Hebrew Bible, traditionally attributed to King Solomon as a young man, is an allegory between two lovers, God and Israel.
The allegorical interpretation of The Song of Songs is why The Song of Songs is read each year on the Shabbat during Pesach, this Shabbat, for it’s then that we celebrate our people’s redemption and liberation from bondage on the one hand and the Kabbalistic idea of the hoped-for-redemption of God within God’s Divine Self on the other.
All that being said, this extraordinarily enriched poetry seems to be a purely secular poem (God’s Name is never mentioned) celebrating young, sensuous and erotic love and the passionate draw of two lovers yearning for relief from their existential loneliness:
“For love is strong as death, / Harsh as the grave. / Its tongues are flames, a fierce / And holy blaze” (Song of Songs 8:6 – Translation by Marcia Falk)
Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook wrote of a higher metaphysical love represented by the Song of Songs in this way (Translation by Ben Zion Bokser):
“Expanses divine my soul craves. / Confine me not in cages, / of substance or of spirit. / I am love-sick / I thirst, / I thirst for God, / as a deer for water brooks.
Alas, who can describe my pain? / Who will be a violin / to express the songs of my grief?
I am bound to the world, / all creatures, / all people are my friends.
Many parts of my soul / are intertwined with them, / But how can I share with them my light.”
Tonight – Friday, April 14 at 6:30 PM, at Temple Israel of Hollywood, we will be celebrating as part of our Kabbalat Shabbat service the Song of Songs with beautiful music set to its verse. We have invited members of our community who are celebrating milestone wedding anniversaries to join us, and we will offer them a blessing. If you are free and would like to join us, please do come.
Shabbat shalom and Moadim L’simchah!
The Haggadah is an exilic document. For Jews, as long as the world is filled with injustice, cruelty, violence, and war, our work is not done.
Judaism teaches that the messianic era will come only when justice, compassion, and peace characterize relationships between individuals, peoples, and nations, when the hearts of parents turn to their children and the hearts of children turn to their parents (Malachi 3:23-24).
Through intention, determination, righteous deeds, and moral activism, our Jewish mission and the essential message of the Passover Seder is, through remembrance that we were once slaves, to address every injustice, every act of cruelty and every insensitivity to bring nearer the day when the prophetic admonishments will no longer be necessary.
My poem “Maror-Bitterness” that follows, is one in a series of d’rashot (commentaries) published this week in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal by a number of Los Angeles rabbis who reflected on the symbols of the Seder (“Rabbis Dish on the Seder Plate – April 7-13, 2017. Pages 36-38 – jewishjournal.com/culture/religion/passover/217641/rabbis-dish-seder-plate/). I recommend them all.
The Almighty called to the children of Jacob:
“I have taken notice of you / And seen your suffering / And sent to you my prophet / To relieve you of your maror-bitterness.
I carried you on eagles’ wings / And shielded you from the pursuers’ arrows / So that whenever you taste the maror / You will remember / Who I am / And who you are / And why you are free.
As I took notice of your ancestors / I call upon you today / The descendants of slaves / Who know the heart of strangers / And their fear and desperation / And do for them as I have done for you / And liberate them / The oppressed and the tempest-tossed / The poor and the discarded / The old and the lonely / The abused and the addict / The victim of violence and injustice / And everyone who tastes daily the maror-bitterness / That you know so very well.
As you sit around your Seder tables / I call upon you to act / With open, pure and loving hearts / On My behalf / And be My witnesses / And bring healing and peace into the world.”
Poem by John L. Rosove, Temple Israel of Hollywood, Los Angeles
As we contemplate the massive refugee crisis and the bigotry and fear that Trump has stoked in his efforts to exclude these tempest-tossed human beings from entering the United States, and as we remember that 36 times (double chai) the Hebrew Bible reminds us that we were strangers in Egypt and therefore (per Jewish tradition) that we must resist becoming cruel, this poem by the African American poet Audre Lorde (1934-1992) speaks powerfully to the heart and soul of every compassionate human being:
“Speak proudly to your children / Where ever you may find them / Tell them / You are the offspring of slaves.”
So often God called Moses. / Three times they met; / at the flaming bush, / on Sinai amidst rock and stone, / and before the Tent of Meeting / that Moses might intuit God’s mind / and soothe God’s heart / as a lover comforts his beloved.
Since creation / God yearned to bridge the chasm / when the Creator pulled away / and opened space / to share the universe.
Yet the Almighty remained alone / exiled within the Divine Self / when the vessels shattered / and matter was flung to the far reaches of space.
The upper spheres were divorced from the lower, / male from female, / the primal Father from the primal Mother, / Tiferet from Malchut, / Hakadosh Baruch Hu from Shechinah, / Adonai from Knesset Yisrael.
Before time and speech, / God appointed the soul of the Shepherd-Prince Moses / to be prophet / and endowed him with hearing-sight, / wide-ranging wisdom and intuitive knowledge.
No one but Moses / had ever been so chosen or / to come so near to God.
Moses saw with his ears / heard with his eyes / tasted with his mind / and remained whole in the Light.
The prophet descended the mountain aglow, / the primordial Light shielding him behind a veil / bearing on his forehead divine ink-drops / radiating and illuminating the earth’s four corners.
Moses descended upon angel’s wings, / weightless and cradling the lettered-stone / inside the eye of raging winds.
Though a Prince in Egypt / Moses’ destiny was as a lonely shepherd / gathering sheep / and drawing the children of Israel to God.
God needed much from Moses – / to bring the plagues / and show that there is no God but God, / and liberate the people, / and bring them to Sinai, / and inspire with the Word, / and create God’s house / that light might abide within every heart / and restore wholeness in the world.
After all of God’s expectations and demands / we might expect Moses’ strength to be depleted, / to be exhausted to the bone and ready to say; / “Enough! O Redeemer – find a new prophet! / I can no longer bear the burden / and be Your voice and create bridges / You are Almighty God / I am but flesh / My strength is gone / My time expired!”
“Nonsense!” proclaimed the Eternal. / “I am not yet ready for your retirement! / My world remains shattered, / My light obscured, / my heart broken and aching. / I need you to teach My people / and all people / and instill in their hearts / a love that heals My wound / for I cannot do this for Myself.”
Alas, the Creator-Redeemer’s needs were clear / to be close to Moses and the people / that the prophet and Israel together / might wipe away God’s tears / and restore God’s heart to wholeness / and heal God’s Name to Itself / and bring peace.
Poem composed by Rabbi John L. Rosove
Notes about this poetic Midrash:
The first word that appears in this week’s Torah portion Vayikra (vav – yud – kuf – resh – aleph – “And God called Moses…”) ends with an unusually small aleph. This anomaly in what is called the k’tiv (written text) gave rise to much rabbinic interpretation over the centuries.
Rashi explained that the small aleph teaches the humility of Moses. Others said that the aleph is an introduction to the Levitical laws of sacrifice, which requires humility. A Midrash suggests that when Moses descended from Mount Sinai carrying the tablets of the law, he emitted a keren or (“a ray of light”) compelling Moses to shield his face with a veil because the people could not look upon him in such a state. The source of that ray of light was divine ink left over when Moses wrote a small aleph instead of one of normal size. The Midrash explains that Moses had sought to lessen his own stature by using a small aleph, but God restored the extra drops of divine ink by placing them upon Moses’ forehead.
The Midrashic literature comments at length about Moses’ experience meeting panim el panim (lit. “face to face” – metaphorically “soul to soul”) with God. Moses was first among God’s prophets. Though each prophet spoke God’s words, there never was another prophet like Moses nor, as the Torah explains, was there ever again a more humble human being on earth than Moses.
I am not normally an envious person. However, I have always envied the experience of the prophet and most especially Moses’ meeting with God on the mountain. It is my unquenchable yearning to know and my fascination with prophecy itself that inspired me to write this Midrash.
For those of you wishing more insight into Biblical prophecy, I recommend Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “The Prophets” – publ. Jewish Publication Society, New York, 1962.
In the black night
the river runs cold
slowly passing me by
over formerly sharp-edged stones
worn smooth by centuries of churning
as if through earthy veins
and I Jacob, alone
shiver and wait
to meet my brother
Will there be war?
Will the angels carry my soul
up the ladder
leaving my blood
to soak the ground?
And I struggle
as if in my mother’s womb
and my dreams.
We played together as children
my brother Esau and me
and I confess tonight
how I wronged him
and wrenched from him his birthright
as this Being has done to me
between my thighs.
I was so young
driven by ego and need
blinded by ambition
my mother’s dreams
and my father’s silence.
I so craved to be first born
adored by my father
to assume his place when he died
that my name be remembered
and define a people.
How Esau suffered and wailed
and I didn’t care;
Whatever his dreams
they were nothing to me
my heart was hard
his life be damned!
I’ve learned that Esau and I
is a palga gufa/half a soul
without the other
as two souls separated at creation
in a great spiritual sea
the yin missing the yang
the dark and light never touching
the mind divorced from body
the soul in exile
without a beating bleating heart
and no access to the thirty-two paths
to carry us up the ladder
and through the spheres.
It’s come to this
To struggle again
To live or die.
I’m ready for death
protect Esau and your servant
my brother and me
and return us to each other.
El na r’fa na lanu!
Grant us peace and rest
I’m very tired.
Poem by Rabbi John Rosove originally was published in the CCAR Journal: Reform Jewish Quarterly, Spring, 2010, pages 113-115
I wrote this poem a few years ago based on the story of Isaac as it appears in this week’s parasha. I read it again today and found it somehow comforting and hopeful in these days, and so I offer it again.
My father Abraham set out alone,
Leaving everything he knew,
seeking a better place
where he’d never been
because God promised him
a blessing and a future.
But my heart is broken.
I yearn for solace.
My mother is dead
because my father stole me away
while she slept.
Her servants reported to her
that he placed me
upon the pyre
as a burnt offering
to his God.
But an angel saved me.
How she loved me,
filling me up
like a goblet
And now I am alone
amidst the wheat and rocks,
beneath the sun and stirred-up clouds
like disturbed angels.
Can You hear me –
Comfort me now
and bend Your word
that she may return
as we were.
I see a camel caravan
and people walking
like small sticks in the sand.
There is my father’s servant Eliezer
and a young girl.
Lasuach basadeh –
I pray and weep
beneath the afternoon sun
and swirling clouds,
and angels singing.
Rebekah to Eliezer –
‘Who is that man
in the field?’
‘He is my master Isaac,
your intended one,
whose seed you will carry
as God promised his father.’
Vatipol min hagamal –
“And she alighted from her camel”
and veiled herself
for a wedding.
I entered her
in my mother’s tent,
and she comforted me.
Thank You, God!
After God created the heavens and the earth, tragedy struck in a catastrophe that has never been forgotten, a tragedy now ingrained in our DNA and repeated in every generation.
The tale of Cain and Abel is a story of envy, despair, and evil that has stained the human condition (Genesis 4:1-15).
As dramatic as this story is, in only fifteen verses does the episode unfold and resolve. The narrative gives only bare details of Cain’s and Abel’s lives and their fates. Abel (Havel) was a keeper of sheep. His Hebrew name means “vapor,” reflecting his short and purposeless life.
Cain was a farmer and tiller of the soil, the same ground that he polluted when he murdered his brother and his brother’s blood soaked the earth.
We learn that the brothers each had brought to God offerings. Cain was first – Abel followed. God rejected Cain’s gift and received Abel’s joyfully. Cain felt humiliated and shunned by the God he yearned to serve.
Why did God reject Cain’s gift? We don’t know. God, however, seemed surprised by Cain’s strong reaction and asked: “Why are you so upset? Why has your face fallen? Is it not thus: If you intend good, bear-it-aloft, but if you do not intend good, at the entrance is sin, a crouching-demon, toward you his lust–but you can rule over him.” (vs 6-7) [An enigmatic ancient poetic passage – see below]
A shame! Instead of sympathy God gave Cain a lecture. Yet, we can’t really blame Cain for his distress. He felt rejected and utterly alone. Even Cain’s parents were missing from the scene, so he struck out against the one closest to him – the only one there – his brother Abel.
Cain and Abel had spoken or argued, but we’re not told about what. The rabbis offer several explanations.
One said that the brothers had agreed to divide the world. Cain took all the land and Abel took everything that moved: but then they fought out of greed for more.
Cain said: “The land upon which you stand is mine. Get off – you may fly if you like, for I don’t own the air. But the land is mine and not for your use.”
Abel shot back: “The clothes you wear are made from the wool of my flock. Strip down. Walk naked. You’ve no right to the product of my sheep.”
A second sage said that each brother owned both land and movable property and that they fought about on whose land the Temple in Jerusalem would be built.
“The Temple should be built on my land,” said one.
“No. It must be built on mine,” said the other.
Their battle thus became a religious war each claiming that God was on his side.
A third rabbi said that Abel had a twin sister, a magnificently beautiful and alluring woman, and since there was no other woman on earth, each wanted her.
Cain argued: “I must have her because I am the first born.”
Abel too felt entitled: “She’s mine because she was born with me. Together we must stay.”
The rabbis regard Cain and Abel as symbols. Each explanation is an argument for what drives people to hate and kill each other; materialism, religious fanaticism, and sexual obsession.
“Cain rose up against Abel and slew him.” (v 8)
The Midrash claimed that Abel was the physically stronger man, and as he was about to kill Cain, Cain pleaded for his life: “We are the only two in the world. What will you tell our parents if you kill me?”
From fear or perhaps pity, Abel lowered his weapon, and at that moment Cain murdered him.
After the deed (as if God didn’t know), the Almighty asked: “Where is Abel your brother?”
Cain was cold and disengaged: “I know not; am I my brother’s keeper?” (v 9)
God expected moral accountability, but as he had turned on his brother, so too did Cain turn on God:
“You hold watch over all creatures, and yet You demand an accounting of me! True, I killed him, but You created the evil inclination within me. It’s Your fault! Why did You permit me to slay him? You slew him yourself, for had You looked favorably on my offering, I wouldn’t have had reason to envy and kill him.”
God emphasized to Cain the heinous significance of his murderous act, but Cain didn’t understand.
God said: “The voice of your brother’s blood(s) cry to Me from the ground.” (v 10)
The Hebrew for blood (dam) is written in the plural (damim) meaning that killing one human being is equivalent to the murder of every generation to come, of an entire world, genocide. And given that Cain killed his brother, murder is also fratricide.
As tragic as this tale is, the ending is abruptly positive. Adam and Eve chose life again and bore their third son, Seth, in the place of Abel. We are considered Seth’s descendants (v 25) and neither carry the legacy of victim or aggressor. That is for each of us to decide.
Note: The above is a creative compilation of the Biblical text and rabbinic commentary. The translation of the poem – vs 6-7 – is borrowed from Everett Fox’s translation of The Five Books of Moses – The Schocken Bible: Volume I.