Archive by category "Torah Thoughts"

B’reishit (Genesis 1:1-6:8)

B’reishit (Genesis 1:1-6:8)

 

A D’var Torah by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

 

It is common knowledge that most rabbis tend to have an underlying theme that they inject into all their sermons. If this is so, then mine is likely to be the combination of scientific knowledge (including new technology and the digital information age) and accumulated religious wisdom in approaching the mysteries – the mystical wonders and connections — of the cosmos. And the wonders of the cosmos are certainly front and center in the Torah portion this week, as we joyfully begin the cycle of our Torah readings all over again, as we begin to peer into the Divine mind of God in terms of God’s power, capacity to design, and will.

At the same time, I am reminded of the questioning words that the famed and folksy author, Mark Twain (1835-1910), puts in the mouth of his literary creation, Eve, in his humorous rendering of “The Diaries of Adam and Eve.”[1]

“I feel like an experiment,” the fictional Eve says on the very day she is created, “I feel exactly like an experiment; it would be impossible for a person to feel more like an experiment than I do….Then if I am an experiment, am I the whole of it? No, I think not; I think the rest of it is part of it. I am the main part of it, but I think the rest of it has to share in the matter”. [2]

If Eve is an experiment, perhaps her mate, Adam, is too. In Genesis 1:27, the Torah portrays male and female as having been created simultaneously: “And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”[3]

The pronoun “them,” has evoked much interest recently in terms of gender identity, especially in the LGBTQ community and in university student groups, such as Berkeley. At the latter, I’m informed, the proper current protocol is to ask a person by which pronoun that person prefer to be addressed (he, she, or they) before you make an assumption about their gender identity.

At the Beit Kulam Jewish study group that I teach twice monthly in Los Angeles, we spent a couple of sessions discussing the six genders that the Talmud identified so many years ago: [4] Zachar (male); Nekivah (female); Androgynous (possessing both male and female characteristics); Tumtum (sexual characteristics indeterminate or obscured); Ay’lonit (identified as female at birth, develops male characteristics at puberty, and is infertile); Saris, identified as male at birth but develops female characteristics at puberty). So “they” and “them,” it appears, are quite appropriate – if experimental — terminology.

Leaving gender identity aside, we note that in the next chapter of Genesis, the story of the creation of human life is told a little differently — God appears to have given Adam the world’s first anesthetic (“So the Lord God cast a deep sleep upon the man; and, while he slept, He took one o his ribs and closed up the flesh at that spot” (2: 21), and then in the very next verse (2:22), he created the world’s first clone (“So the Lord God fashioned the rib that He had taken from the man into a woman; and he brought her to the man). But Adam’s grateful reaction leaves the world of experimentation and expresses so poetically the joy and oneness of human connection – and companionship.

“This one at last

 Is bone of my bones

And flesh of my flesh.

This one shall be called Woman,

For from man she was taken” (2:23).

How different this joining – into one flesh – is from Yuval Noah Harari’s futuristic scenario (a possibility, not a prediction) of the extinction (like the dinosaur) of Homo Sapiens as a species and its replacement by far more intelligent Super-Computers (sophisticated electronic algorithms that keep learning).[5]  Human beings (biological algorithms, to which the same mathematical rules apply) will become mere microchips in the new “God” of data flow, a single data-processing system.  Harari’s new book his called “Homo Deus.” It’s a fascinating but depressing (if you’re a human being, not a computer) scenario.

Fortunately, I also picked up a copy this week of –Peter Wohlleben’s “The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate,” a beautiful book about the connectedness of trees.[6] Reading about these “discoveries from a secret world” it is restorative.  No tree is alone in the forest. Each one belongs to a micro-universe that is part of the Divine plan. (“And God said, ‘Let the earth sprout vegetation: seed-bearing plants, fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it….And God saw that it was good”(Genesis 1:11-12).Reading the Torah is restorative too.

* * * *

 

[1] Twain, M. The Diaries of Adam and Eve. (New York: Prometheus Books,2000).

[2] Ibid., 95.

[3] JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh. The New JPS Translation, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1999).

[4]Fonrobert, C.E. “Gender Identity in Halakhic Discourse,” Jewish Women’s Archive, accessed 5/25/17.; Kukla,Rabbi Elliot., Sojourn blog; Mishna Kiddushin 1:7.

[5] Harari, Y.N., Homo Deus: a Brief History of Tomorrow (USA: Harper Collins), Kindle edition.

 

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2017. All rights reserved.

Chol Ha-Mo’ed Sukkot: (Exodus 33:12 – 34:26)

Chol Ha-Mo’ed Sukkot: (Exodus 33:12 – 34:26)

A D’var Torah by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

My daughter, Laura, just sent me an academic article detailing scientific research that shows via percentages that “religiousness” (attending services, prayer, and behavior in adherence to a moral code) and “spirituality” (meditation and mindfulness practices) have positive effects on health outcomes. [1] The reverse is also true. Maybe larger numbers of Jews should attend services more often than on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Especially this week when we can pray with family and friends and imaginary guests in a leafy Sukkah!

What especially interested me in this article was the distinction made between “religiousness” and “spirituality.” You can be “spiritual,” I suppose, without being “religious,” but can you be truly religious – exalting God and adhering to religious moral codes — without also being spiritual, without feeling close to God? Perhaps the answer is right there in Exodus 33. As one of my favorite sources, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, wrote last year (5777) about the Jewish religion:

“Between the lines of Exodus 33…we sense the emergence of one of the most distinctive and paradoxical features of Jewish spirituality. No religion has ever held God higher, but none has ever felt Him closer. That is what Moses sought and achieved in Exodus 33 in his most daring conversation with God.”[2]

Photo credit: http://www.chaijewishspirituallifecoaching.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/ocean-846084_1920.jpg

 

Exodus 34 takes us a step further – higher and closer at the same time – by enumerating the attributes of God in language human beings can understand in two famous verses:

“The Lord! The Lord! – a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations” (JPS trans., v. 6-7).

When we Jews are told that we are created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, these are the attributes we are supposed to emulate.

Spoiler alert! In this case, surprisingly, it is Moses Maimonides – the same Moses that tradition tells us there was no one like since the first Moses who led the Jews out of Egypt. Maimonides, of course, was known for his rationalist approach to religion. In his Guide for the Perplexed, [3] he is also known for his doubts. These positive attributes in verses 6 and 7 describe only the essence of the Divine, he explains, but not its entirety. Taken literally, they reduce God to the level of mankind.

Generally speaking, it’s best to take the spoiler’s words in the spirit in which they are given. Take Ecclesiastes, for example, who warns that while we are are celebrating Sukkot with joy, it shouldn’t be with an excess of joy because everything comes to an end. Of course, Ecclesiastes’ words were much more eloquent. He wasn’t being a sour puss, raining on the parade, though. Rather, the Hebrew word he uses, “hevel,” is translated poorly as “vanity” – all, all is vanity — in most English translations. A better translation is “breath,” which is ephemeral. All the substance, all the beauty and joy of God’s creation, is ephemeral – it vanishes, takes different forms, like the breath of our lifetimes. Enjoy every moment of life while you can!

And if we heed Rabbi Mark Saperstein’s recent warning in his erudite D’var Torah for the Reform Movement [4], that unless Jews have children at an earlier age than they tend to do now; unless the Jewish birthrate goes up; and unless many more self-identifying Jews do not simply categorize themselves as “spiritual but not religious” — or as “secular” or “cultural Jews” — but instead actually join, support, and attend their synagogues or minyans in North America, in a hundred years the strong Jewish community we take for granted in this beautiful land may cease to exist. It will be “hevel.”

In the meantime, take ten deep breaths and have a joyous Sukkot!

 

B’tzelem Elohim [1]

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Inlay Your two hands

directly on my single soul,

impress Your mystic caress

right through the translucent

veil that keeps me from You.

Hand-clasp my pen-in-hand

prayer that this poem, Yours

for the asking, mirrors mutely

the cadence of a nameless Receiver.

©️Corinne Copnick, Jerusalem, Israel, 1989; Los Angeles, 2017. All rights reserved.

 

* * * *

[1] Aldwin, C.M., Park, C.L., Jeong, Y.J. & Nath. Differing pathways between religiousness, spirituality, and health: A self-regulation perspective. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality © 2013 American Psychological Association 2014, Vol. 6, No. 1, 9–21.

[2] Sacks, Rabbi Lord Jonathan. Ki Tisa: The Closeness of God. Covenant and Conversation. www.aish.com/tp/i/sacks.html.

[3] Maimonides, Moses. Guide for the Perplexed,  www.amazon.com. Kindle edition (see chapters 53-60).

[4] Saperstein, Rabbi Professor Mark. The Sukkah and the Jewish Experience: Chol Ha-Mo’eid Sukkot. (Exodus 33:12-34:26.) Union for Reform Judaism, October, 2017.

 

Aharei Mot (Leviticus 16)

Aharei Mot (Leviticus 16)

A D’var Torah by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

“Aaron shall take the two he-goats and let them stand before the Lord at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and he shall place lots upon the two goats, one marked for the Lord and the other marked for Azazel” (Leviticus 16: 7-8).

“Aharei Mot,” the title of this parasha, means “after the death,” referring to “the two sons of Aaron who died when they were too close to the presence of the Lord” (JPS translation) [1]. These words are a time reference as we continue the great biblical story to the Day of Atonement we call Yom Kippur, a set day to be kept forever. All of Leviticus 16, in fact, is devoted to the expiation of sin and consequent purification. Great detail is given as to how the priests prepared for this time of atonement, which Jews all over the world honor (even if it is the only time they go to the synagogue). Scrupulous attention is paid to the priestly white linen attire and a host of other atonement rituals, including the choice of a bull for sacrifice and a pair of he-goats. Of the latter, only one is chosen by lot to be sacrificed. The second, marked for Azazel, is to carry all the sins of the Israelites into the wilderness. Like casting our bread crumbs into natural waters at Rosh Hashana, sending Azazel into the wilderness is reminiscent of the banishment of Cain and of Hagar and Ishmael as well. Cain eventually found respite in Edom, where he and his descendants prospered. Hagar and Ishmael were comforted that God would make of the Israelites two great nations.

Photo credit: https://i.pinimg.com/originals/0e/6c/0c/0e6c0c048d3d5f42af08f872b04dd737.jpg

But what of Azazel, who symbolically carried all our sins away? Did he find respite on the mountain that some think was near Mount Sinai? Different rabbis of old have different explanations. The one that I like best is that of Ibn Ezra. “According to Saadia [Gaon],” he writes, Azazel is “the name of a mountain, so called because it was precipitous”[2].  Possibly the goat driven into the wilderness would eventually stumble on the rocky cliffs and fall to its death, but it would not be slaughtered as a sacrifice. Other commentators explain that “Azazel” is a compound word (more common in Aramaic than in Hebrew). Thus “az azel” means “the goat went” [3]. Rashi, however, translates Azazal as meaning “to the goats;” in other words, the goat was released alive into the wilderness, presumably to dwell among the other wild goats. The “el” at the end of the word is simply a grammatical suffix. I am comforted by Rashi’s explanation [4].

I was born in January, you see. My astrological sign is the goat, a designation with which I was never comfortable until I visited Arizona, Scottsdale to be exact, where a single, dry, brown mountain dominated the arid landscape. As my stay there grew longer, though, I began to discern shapes on the rocky mountain. Animals, living being of different kinds. And the most agile among them were goats. Surprisingly beautiful to my newly opened eyes, they were mountain goats. One of them stood high on a cliff, looking out beyond the mountain, protecting the flock below. I began to think that being a mountain goat was perhaps a wondrous thing. To me, it signified that Azazel was cast by lot to be a survivor, a goat that could withstand the barren wilderness and create a family there. Perhaps, in overcoming the sins with which it had been burdened as a form of sacrifice, the biblical goat had also endured.

Watching God’s creatures, the nimble goats, I was so moved at the time that I wrote a poem about this experience. I called it “Born in January,” like me. Now, with a little more humility – fitting for Yom Kippur — I am giving it a new name: “Azazel.”

 

Azazel [5]

Mountain goats in their whiteness

clamber up the stony cliffs,

scale rocky heights,

melt age-old snowcaps

with heated vision.

Flock protected beneath his

Fortress, a monarch stands

alone atop the tajo.

Azazel.

 

[1] Aharei Mot, JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1999) 244.

[2] Ibn Ezra. Quoted in Michael Carasik,

[3] Michael Carasik, 120

[4] Ibid., 121.

[5] First published in the 10th Anniversary Issue of “Voices Israel,” Haifa, Israel, 1982.

 

©️Corinne Copnick, Toronto, 1974. All rights reserved.

For those who would like to read a story about a spiritual awakening related to the Book of Jonah, which is usually read the afternoon of Yom Kippur, please see my earlier posting, “Kiss a Whale and Lick Cancer,” in the section headed “Musings.”

Ha’azinu

HA’AZINU

A D’VAR TORAH: BY RABBI CORINNE COPNICK

In the brilliantly evocative Song of Moses that appears as Ha’azinu at the end of the book of Deuteronomy, Moses assures the Israelites that all of Creation is indeed God’s work. The language and imagery is passionate: It was I, God says, “Ani, Ani,” that did all this. In Hebrew, the language is even more gripping, and when God finally says, “I, Anochi,” you know God means business. It’s a word that it used in the Bible, but not in rabbinic times, and it refers only to God.

In this unforgettable passage, we are assured of all the good things that will happen if we follow the moral path divinely outlined for us: feasting on the yield of the earth, honey from the crag, oil from the flinty rock, curd of kine and milk of flocks, the best of lambs, rams, and she-goats, the very finest of wheat, and foaming wine from grapes. This was fantastic fortune in an agricultural society. But then we are warned about the catastrophic things that could happen if we do NOT cleave to God’s moral path: consuming fire and misfortune, wasting famine, ravaging plague, deadly pestilence, fanged beasts, and so on. God will reduce us to naught. The whole catalogue is terrifying.

In a world that has been so recently beset by disasters both natural and man-wrought, these biblical consequences seem dangerously close to us: economic woes, earthquakes, famine, disease, fire, oil spills, floods, tsunamis, nuclear contamination, revolution, chemical attacks on one’s own people. But there are also courageous volunteers who risk their own lives in small boats to save others they don’t even know.

Photo credit: Arel Mishory

 

The Song of Moses is undoubtedly a passage about the distinction between good and evil, and the consequential choices our free will allows us to make. This passage clearly presents good and evil as both coming from the hand of God in response to moral or evil behavior. It is certainly something to consider during the week of Selichot, as we deeply reflect in preparation for Rosh Hashanah, the New Year to come in only a few days, when traditionally we recite the “Una Tana Tokef” prayer, often to soul-stirring music. Life or death. Choose.

If we are basically good people, we reflect, if we try to follow a good life, then why, as has been repeated so many times, do bad things happen to good people? As we read scary news headlines and listen to and watch horrendous media reports, it’s something we can’t help thinking about. If God is good, as the Jewish tradition teaches, if the created world is good, as the Bible tells us, then why is there evil?

That is why I was so interested to read a lengthy interpretation by the noted scholar, Jon D. Levinson, called “Creation and the Persistence of Evil,” but very disturbed by its pessimistic tone.[1] Why does evil persist? His article has a somewhat gnostic feel to it, suggesting that evil is a separate, adversarial force.

Even though God promised Noah never to flood the world again, that promise is not so easy to maintain; it requires God’s vigilance. “The world is not inherently safe,” Levinson asserts; “it is inherently unsafe…. Creation endures because God has pledged in an eternal covenant that it shall endure, and because he has also in an eternal covenant, compelled the obeisance of adversarial forces. If either covenant comes undone, creation disappears.”

I wept when I read Jon Levinson’s views because at a time when an evil force like ISiS, with its many variant names, is infecting the world with a fanatic ideology, or when neo-Nazi ideology is re-infecting the globe, it is indeed possible to conceive of the world breaking down to the extent that chaos results, that we, we may return figuratively to the tohu va bohu, the void.

My own view, however, remains more optimistic. As moral human beings, as Jews continually renewing the Covenant, I do believe with all my heart that – together – we can dismember the mythical Leviathan representing the forces of evil, and that we can bring the beneficent side of God that represents love and compassion firmly back into our world.

Last week’s parasha emphasized choosing life. In this week’s portion, the choices are set clearly before us. As God’s partners in creation, we have the gift of free will. We have been taught to remember that, with Divine help, we survived Pharaoh, and we will survive, as best we can, whatever comes our way. This Rosh Hashana, 5778, it’s up to us to transcend the headlines; we must continue to choose life, and all that it requires from us to maintain a world that is inherently safe because we work hard to make it so. And because we have faith that it can be good.

[1] Levinson, J.D. Creation and the Persistence of Evil: the Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994), pp. xxxiv + 182.

Nitsavim/Va-Yelekh

NITSAVIM/VA-YELEKH

A D’var Torah by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

 

“Choose life,” the Torah tells us in Nitsavim, “if you and your offspring would live – by loving the Lord your God, heeding His commands, and holding fast to him For thereby you shall have life and shall long endure upon the soil that the Lord swore to your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give to them (Deut.30:19–20).” These verses are with me always, and they have been more deeply implanted in my heart and soul each time I visited Israel.

It was July, 1989, before the first intifada had begun. I was walking through the Shiloah underground water tunnel at the City of David, Jerusalem (constructed by King Hezekiah to link the Gihon Spring with the pool of Siloan, 700 BCE). The tunnel was still open then, before it became too dangerous for Israeli authorities to allow tourists to venture through this narrow, historic passage. Our guided group walked in darkness over slippery stones in almost knee deep water to get to the other side. Only a single candle, protected by my hand so that it wouldn’t blow out, lit my way. And then, midway, the passage widened to reveal the meeting place where an inscription in rock was once inscribed in the ceiling. Even though the ancient rock is now in a museum, my skin tingled then with the appreciation of what was once there, and with the knowledge that, as Jews, we must never forsake the Covenant, nor to strive for peace.  

Photo credit: http://assets.messianicbible.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Hezekiahs-Inscription-11.jpg?8767bd

Soon after we reached the other side, I was inspired by this exhilarating experience to write the following poem. Today, as Selichot approaches, I choose life in anticipation of the peace and joy that might be – one day — on both sides of the tunnel. Choose life.

 

DESTINATION

A slim, green candle,

purchased from a village waif,

held low against the draught,

 

lit my way through

this winding, cool, wetted

chasm where once,

 

deep beneath the ancient stones,

 

inscribed in rock, a

joyful, dripping message

recorded the meeting of

men, toiling to touch,

centuries past. Clear spring

waters flowed as they fused.

I niched my candle

in the rock; its light

still grows and burns

inside me, always.

You have shown me

your wineglass,

blessed city that wishes

the world what it might be.

O Jerusalem, for me

you plant new vineyards

in the cloudless sky.

 

Although what I have been describing here happened long ago, and I am in my eighties now, I am heartened – and excited – by the statement in Va’yalech – it’s a comvined portion this week — that Moses was a still a vigorous 120 years old — “with eyes undimmed and with vigor unabated” (Deut. 34:7) before he passed on the leadership to Joshua. It was time for a new generation in the land. And for that new generation, in turn, to explain the Covenant to their children. “Take to heart all the words with which I have warned you this day. Enjoin them upon your children, that they may observe faithfully all the terms of this teaching. For this is not a trifling thing for you; it is your very life: through it you shall long endure on the land you are to possess upon crossing the Jordan” (Deut. 32:46-47.)

As for me, I am tickled pink by the fact that God also chose to create a beautiful poem at this time of entering the Land, and that Moses wrote it down. Today we call it “The Song of Moses,” which appears in the next Torah portion, “Ha’azinu..”

 

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2015. All rights reserved.