THE GUARANTORS

 

THE GUARANTORS

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

 

 

Over the years, many imaginative stories have grown up to fill in the gaps in what the Torah tells us.  As a favorite midrash from the Song of Songs Rabbah (1:4:1) narrates:

“When Israel stood ready to receive the Torah at Sinai, God said to the people: ‘I am giving you my Torah. Bring me good guarantors that you will guard it, and I shall give it to you.’ The Israelites asked God to accept the patriarchs as their guarantors. But God refused. They then suggest that the prophets should become their guarantors. And again God refuses. Finally, they say, “Behold, our children are our guarantors.” And God responds, ‘They are certainly good guarantors. For their sake, I give the Torah to you.’’’

Photo credit: https://az616578.vo.msecnd.net/files/2017/03/12/636248816192228080-588797399_snowstorm.jpg

Personally, I have always had the utmost respect for the prophets who spoke out against the dictums of the Torah being broken. Great prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah all suffered consequences for their honesty, their outspokenness, and their dramatic actions, which, in some instances, rivaled the street theatre of activist Alan Ginsberg and his ilk in the 1960s. These ancient prophets had no television, no 21st century Internet, texting, tweets, or Instagrams to communicate their unpopular messages to the people. They had to use more primitive methods: wearing an ox yoke to symbolize commitment to the Torah, posting messages on the Temple door, or staging what we would call a hunger strike today beside the Chabar Canal. The prophets were indeed guarantors of the Torah. Keep the commandments, they preached in their various ways, and fearlessly they rebuked the Jewish people in no uncertain terms, predicting dire consequences for straying from the covenant. But they also offered hope and consolation to those who returned to the Torah.

Today each of us who identify as Jews are guarantors of the Torah, and hopefully we will have children who will want to be Jewish and to be guarantors of the Torah too. Even more hopefully, we will have sufficient children to guarantee the continuity of the Jewish people. In the final analysis, we — each of us — are what our grandchildren are.

In my most optimistic moments, I like to recall the legend of the Lamed Vavs – that if there are only thirty-six righteous people in the four corners of the world, the world will be upheld, and we will always be alright. As individuals, we can’t always affect the course of history, or uphold the world by ourselves, but we can do little things that add up to a lot. In the spirit of the Torah, we can do little acts of kindness.  

My father believed in the chain of goodness, that if you do a kind thing for someone, that person will do a kind thing for someone else, and thus the chain of goodness continues, unbroken. You are standing at Sinai. In contemporary terms, they call it “paying it forward.”

You are what your grandchildren are.

When I think of little acts of kindness, I often think of the young Hasid who drove me home in a blizzard when I lived in Toronto.  I had bought a home in a mainly modern Orthodox area because I didn’t know if I would like the more straight-laced Toronto after the elegant, exuberant, francophone culture of Montreal, but I did know that I would always be able to sell a home that was within walking distance of so many synagogues. The garden of my house backed onto a lovely park that was very quiet during the week, but on Saturday afternoons, I loved watching the Orthodox families walking together in the park.

One night I drove home from a social gathering around midnight, and, by the time I reached my area, the thickly falling snow had turned into a blizzard. And sure enough, about fifteen or twenty blocks from my street, my car conked out. No way to start it, no how! It was absolutely dead. Cell phones had not yet been invented, so I couldn’t call for help. I couldn’t walk home; it was too far to go in the blinding blizzard, and I couldn’t stay in the car. Without heat, I would freeze.  My windows were already frosted over and my car blanketed with snow.

I was loathe to knock on a stranger’s door after midnight. What to do? I decided to stand outside — in the blizzard — beside the car in the hope that someone would soon drive by on the deserted street. Smart people were inside.

Finally, as I was beginning to shiver and shake with the cold, despite my warm clothing, a black station wagon came to a halt beside me. Driving it was a young Hasid. “Do you need help?” he asked. He tried valiantly to start my car, but it was no use.

“I’ll have to leave the car here,” I said. “I just live a few blocks from here. Do you think you could drive me home?”

He looked uncomfortable, and I realized that he did not like the idea of being alone in a car with a strange woman. He scratched his ear behind his black hat. But, as the blizzard whirled around us, he swallowed his misgivings and said, “Sure. Hop in.”

Very carefully, looking straight ahead through the window and not at me, and not saying a word, he drove me home. As I got out of the car, I thanked him profusely. It was pitch dark outside, but I think he blushed. “Thank you for giving me the opportunity to do a mitzvah,” he replied.

As we looked at one another, two Jews whose backgrounds were so different, our eyes locked in a moment of understanding. A mitzvah.  An act of loving kindness. Of course. We knew immediately that we were witnesses. We had seen one another at Sinai. In the midst of a blizzard, a generation apart, we would be guarantors.

 

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2015. This story first appeared in my thesis, “The Staying Power of Hope in the Aggadic Narratives of the Talmud,” 2015. I have also narrated it at various gatherings.

 

 

 

Postscript to the Garden: Knowledge

Postscript to the Garden: Knowledge [1]

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

 

No temptress made me taste forbidden fruit,

I who bareheaded looked God in the eye

was singly my own seducer.

 

Seven veils vainly cover

my belly’s earthworm’s dance.

Are some things better left unknown?

 

Snaked to the ground,

I hide my vision, stop my ears,

my mouth fills dumbly with dust.

 

Who bid me sleuth mystery

prematurely face to face

before the final encounter?

 

God of wrath, vowed

I have eaten your anger.

Help me rise to receive your love.

 

©️Corinne Copnick Spiegel, Montreal, 1981; Los Angeles, 2017.

 

[1] “Knowledge” originally appeared in Embrace/Etreinte: A Love Story in Poetry (Une Poeme d’Amour) by Corinne Copnick Spiegel. (Montreal: Editions Guy Maheux, 1981), 45. “Embrace/Etreinte is ” a volume of bilingual (English/French) poems, published at a volatile time in Quebec and dedicated to people of both French and English cultures. “Embrace/Etreinte,” can be found occasionally on rare book sites. The poem, “Knowledge, was subsequently published in “Bitterroot,” ed. Menke Katz (N.Y., ca. 1981) an international poetry magazine (1962-1991) showcasing poets with mystical reach.

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.

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[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.

The Calm Before the Storm

The Calm Before the Storm [1]

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

 

Today’s bold headlines, honed in

humanity’s ugliest image,

permeate this peaceful retreat,

stratify the morning mist with

savagery’s ominous shadow,

blaspheme this sacred rock.

 

Here, amidst primeval peaks,

a prophet’s prescient sorrow

waters the pure, thin air, and

frozen, trembling,

shudders the perceptive earth

in persistent, icy warning.

 

Here, shades of old battles fought

stalk children of freedom,

sharing transitory pleasures

while war portends,

unaware carnage beckons

a new generation, multi-hued

and dreamy-eyed, once again

to become its bride and groom.

 

©️Corinne Copnick, Banff, 1990; Los Angeles, 2017. All rights reserved.

[1] The author originally wrote this poem, first titled “Hail Storm in Banff,” at an artist’s peaceful retreat in Banff, Alberta, as newspaper headlines predicted the imminent Gulf War.

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.

 

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[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.