One of the keywords of the Torah portion of Va’etchanan is shema, listen. Famously, of course, this is the parasha of the prayer known as the Shema: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4). But shema appears many other times in the parasha as well:

“Now, Israel, hear the decrees and laws I am about to teach you.” (4:1)

“Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” (4:6)

“Then the LORD spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice.” (4:12)

And, in its most concentrated presentation: “When you heard the voice out of the darkness, while the mountain was ablaze with fire, all the leaders of your tribes and your elders came to me. 24 And you said, “The LORD our God has shown us his glory and his majesty, and we have heard his voice from the fire. Today we have seen that a person can live even if God speaks with them. 25 But now, why should we die? This great fire will consume us, and we will die if we hear the voice of the LORD our God any longer. 26 For what mortal has ever heard the voice of the living God speaking out of fire, as we have, and survived? 27 Go near and listen to all that the LORD our God says. Then tell us whatever the LORD our God tells you. We will listen and obey.” (5:23-27)

This emphasis on hearing is counterpoised with the strong emphasis against idolatry of not only this parasha, but of Deuteronomy in general–idolatry, which is most acutely manifested in the visual sense: “You saw no form of any kind the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, 16 so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, 17 or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, 18 or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below. 19 And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars—all the heavenly array—do not be enticed into bowing down to them and worshiping things the LORD your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven.” (4:15-19)

All of which prompts us to reflect on listening, and what makes it distinct from sight. To be sure, listening can be just as susceptible to idolatry as sight: Words can themselves become static forms, taking on the fixity and seeming permanence of a visual idol. Thus Rashi’s famous statement on the last line of the Torah: “God said, ‘Yishar kochacha,’ well done, for breaking the tablets.'” (Rashi Deut. 34:12) Moses demonstrated that even the words of the Ten Commandments themselves must be living, not set in stone. The powers of speech and listening retain an elasticity, a dynamism and power of change, that sight, with its feeling of greater permanence, lacks.

This informs the commandment to parents at the Passover seder: “In the future, when your son asks you, “What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the LORD our God has commanded you?” 21 tell him: “We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. 22 Before our eyes the LORD sent signs and wonders—great and terrible—on Egypt and Pharaoh and his whole household. 23 But he brought us out from there to bring us in and give us the land he promised on oath to our ancestors.” (Deut. 6:20-23) Here the parent is to engage the child’s sense of hearing, while appealing to the power of the sense of sight. That is, the parent evokes in the child a sense of visual memory–a powerful, striking memory. But ultimately the parent does not present the child with a picture, but rather with words. It is up to the child to interpret and re-member the memory in his or her own uniqueness.

Maggid, the central story-telling section of the Seder, is preceded by Yachatz, the breaking of the middle matzah. Ouankin observes: “That breaking is an invitation to the reader to enter the text to say his own word there. That is why the following part is called Maggid, ‘he tells,’ rather than simply ‘the account.’ The reader of the Haggadah is not merely the keeper of the text, but also its co-author. The reader is not the dazzled or bored spectator of a story made elsewhere, with which he or she has only a distant relationship. The text speaks to us, about us, and about our own history.”

Education begins with education. “The embarrassed cannot learn, and the haughty cannot teach,” said Hillel. To listen requires humility, a willingness to be broken, to forgo the false security of permanence and idolatry. Listening is not simply the copying of one person’s meaning into the heart of another–that is an impossible task. Rather, the challenge and the enchantment of human communication is precisely that we must put together the meaning of the words of another, even of God, in good faith and true listening. Shema Yisrael.

Shabbat shalom.

One of the striking features of the Book of Deuteronomy is the very fact of Moses’s speech: Eleh hadevarim asher diber Moshe, “These are the words that Moses spoke” (Deut. 1:1). What makes this striking is that Moses describes himself early on in Exodus as precisely not a man of words: lo ish devarim anochi, “I am not a man of words” (Ex. 4:10). Yet here we have an entire book of Moses’s words.

This leads us to ask: Are these really Moses’s words? What does the Torah mean by saying that they are his? The Sifrei, a midrashic collection on Deuteronomy, is sensitive to this. In virtually every instance where Moses introduces his remarks with the preface, “And I told you, saying,” the Sifrei comments, “I did not speak it of my own accord; rather it came from the mouth of God.” Perhaps the Sifrei means that God spoke through Moses. Or perhaps it means that the words Moses spoke were given to him by God. Or maybe it means that Moses thought of the words, and that God agreed with them. At the heart of the matter is the question: How do we know when God is speaking?

The midrash contains numerous reflections on the moment of revelation, many of which focus on the paradoxical nature of revelation: God speaks to the Israelites at once, and everyone hears the voice appropriate to them. “Here is how the Voice reached Israel: each according to his capacity to hear. The elderly heard according to their capacity, the young men according to theirs, the adolescents according to theirs, the children according to theirs, etc.” (Tanhuma 25). The Talmud interprets the verse, “Moses spoke and God answered him in a voice” to mean that God spoke to Moses in Moses’s own voice (Berachot 45a). All of which is helpful, but also confusing: How do we know when the voice we’re hearing is our own, and when it is the voice of God?

Since I landed in America from Israel on Wednesday morning, I have been helping to lead the training for our first cohort of AskBigQuestions fellows. In a few weeks, a total of 13 Hillel professionals will supervise 60 undergraduate fellows working on 13 campuses across North America as they convene diverse groups of people for conversations that matter. Later in the fall we will roll out a nationwide campaign to bring ABQ conversations to colleges and universities all over the continent.

The training has been exceptional. Our facilitators, Yarrow Durbin and Karen Ehrlichman of the Center for Courage and Renewal, have masterfully led this diverse group in developing our habits and skills of listening, creating space for diversity, and managing the reality and potential of paradox. The supervisors and fellows are learning how conversations about life’s big questions can build community, develop trust, and deepen connections among diverse groups of people.

At the heart of the work are some phenomenally difficult questions: How do we truly listen? How can a diverse group all share a sense of belonging? How do we speak our own personal truths while acknowledging that larger truths can exist?

Go back to the midrash: These are not new questions. As I told the fellows when we began, what we’re doing with AskBigQuestions is radically old. We are, to borrow a phrase, pouring old wine in new casks. We are doing what the Torah has invited and challenged us to do for 3,000 years: to create a home for one another, and to create a home for God in the world.

When Moses speaks, God talks through him. A question for us is: Can we listen to the voice of God in others and in ourselves?

Shabbat shalom.

Parashat Emor continues the discussion of holiness that has preoccupied much of the book of Leviticus. Unlike last week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, it focuses not on a wide range of discrete subjects, but on a few large issues: relationships, sacrifices, and time. The parasha begins with the instruction to the priests that they are generally prohibited from coming into contact with a human corpse, but they may do so for immediate relations. It then discusses the physical completeness—perfection is an apt, but more loaded translation—necessary both for the priests and the animals offered as sacrifices. Finally the parasha takes up holiness in time, namely Shabbat, the festivals, and Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

What links all of these pieces together is the emphasis on kedusha, holiness or separateness. The Torah insists on kedusha in all of these dimensions: relationships, space, material objects, and time. On one level, this is a radical notion, that we can apply such a mental or spiritual construct throughout the Creation. There is nothing inherent in anything created that would suggest that it is different or special or holy. Kedusha is in the eye of the beholder—you have to believe it to see it. So when the Torah tells us that holiness applies across all elements of the world, we have to recognize what a bold claim that represents.

On the other hand, perhaps it isn’t so radical after all. As infants we begin to categorize and recognize along the lines of sameness and difference. All of language, the mental space within which we inhabit the world, is predicated on our ability to call something by a name. And our sense of awe or wonder is evoked when we reach the limits of that ability, when we encounter the ineffable, the unnamable, the holy. Abraham Joshua Heschel writes that “we have a certainty without knowledge… In moments of sensing the ineffable, we are as certain about the value of the world as we are of its existence.” This is as basic to us as recognizing the people and objects in our lives, even if we have forgotten how to recognize such a moment itself. In Heschel’s telling, everyone is capable of experiencing radical amazement, of encountering kedusha—we simply have to open our eyes to it and nurture our ability to sense it.

Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner, in his Pachad Yitzhak, teaches that the covenant of with Noah and the covenant of Sinai do not contradict one another. Sinai is rather an elaboration of the covenant with Noah, except in one respect—our relationship with time. Rav Hutner cites the verse, “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease” (Gen. 8:22), and in particular its final words, lo yishbotu—here translated as “will not cease.” But he links these words with the Jewish legal prohibition to a non-Jew of fully observing Shabbat: lo yishbotu means, They may not make Shabbat. Thus when the commandment is given to the Israelites at Sinai to make Shabbat, an element of the previous covenant with Noah is overturned. This is distinct. While Noahides are enjoined not to murder, not to steal, not to practice idolatry—all items which are reaffirmed in the covenant at Sinai—in the area of time something fundamentally shifts at Sinai. The idea of kedusha, of sacredness in time, becomes a unique Jewish heritage.

In this lies one of the basic animating tensions of Jewish life, both today and throughout history: the extent to which our practices and rituals are rooted in basic human realities on the one hand, and are total innovations on the other. According to Heschel (and others like Rudolf Otto), holiness is a pre-cognitive truth of human life: all human beings can sense that which is beyond words, that which is holy. But for Rav Hutner (and, to be fair, for Heschel as well) there is a uniquely Jewish aspect to kedusha, particularly in time, but also in all the other dimensions to which it applies: space, relationships, the material world. Kedusha, in our holidays, in the land of Israel, in the city of Jerusalem, in our relationships with other Jews both within and beyond our immediate families, is the unique aspect of our language as Jews. As its name implies, it is what makes us unique and special—not better, but unique.

Shabbat shalom.

Dear Sara,

You wrote to me this morning asking for guidance about how to respond to the death of Osama bin Laden. I’m glad you asked this question, and I’m glad you have the moral sensitivity to engage it.

It’s important to remind ourselves of who Bin Laden was and what he sought to do. Bin Laden was a mass murderer on an enormous scale. He was a man of hate, and he caused untold death and destruction to human beings around the world, let alone to America itself. There is no eulogy for him.

So our first response is that of the Bible’s Book of Proverbs which states, “When the wicked perish there is song” (Prov. 11:10). To see wickedness removed from the earth, to see evil stopped, is a joyous thing. We are thrilled, just as the Jews were thrilled when Haman was stopped, just as Americans were thrilled on V-E and V-J day. Our response is one of thanks and gratitude and joy.

At the same time, as your question itself suggests, something feels weird about celebrating death. It feels somehow unseemly to many people, a violation of the spirit in which we removed the wine from the second cup at the seder just two weeks ago. As the midrash recounts, as the Israelites sang at the sea after the drowning of their Egyptian enemies, the angels were about to start singing when God reproved them saying that God’s own children were dying. This impulse evokes another line in the Book of Proverbs, “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles” (Prov. 24:17).

Yet I think here it is important to remember two things. First, as a colleague of mine reminded me, the enemy in question in the verse may not be an Osama bin Laden type of person—it is more likely your neighbor with whom you bicker, or your roommate who you can’t get along with. Butchers of the variety of Bin Laden are in a different category. We can sing at their downfall.

Second, the standard of not singing recorded in the midrash is a standard for the angels, not for us. Neither God nor Moses gets angry with the Israelites for singing. Quite the opposite: Moses’s sister Miriam is the one who gathers the women and exhorts all the children of Israel to sing. The midrash is making a theological statement about a reality that may exist in the mind of God. But as the Rabbis state many times, the Torah speaks in the language of human beings. It responds to human realities and human emotions. God and the angels do not have to deal with death the way that humans do. There is nothing wrong with celebrating the death of those who seek to kill us.

Christianity has given us a radical conception of love, and I would refer you to my Christian colleagues about how their tradition shapes their response to Bin Laden’s death. Jewish tradition acknowledges that evil exists in the world, that evil people exist in the world, and that we must be unflinching in countering them. There is no room for moral paralysis when fighting a man like Bin Laden.

You point out that this news comes on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and you ask, rhetorically, what our reaction might have been to the death of Hitler. There is no question there. Bin Laden was not Hitler, but not for lack of ambition. We celebrate his end—not necessarily with parades and balloons, for his demise cannot bring back those whose lives he ended. But we are happy that a man who perpetrated such gruesome crimes against our nation, and sought to do so against our people and all of humanity, is no longer among the living.

Sincerely,

Rabbi Josh

Rabbi Josh Feigelson, Rev. Jason Harris (Reformed University Fellowship) and Associate University Chaplain Tahera Ahmad discuss religion, suffering, and violence at a fireside at the Cultural and Community Studies residential college on January 24, 2011. Moderated by Prof. Nathan Hedman. Click here to listen.

The word shir in Hebrew has a double-meaning, or a double-translation, in English: A shir is both a song and a poem. Whereas we make these two distinct, though often connected, experiences, in Hebrew they remain fused, ambiguous.

It is with that understanding that we begin to think about Shabbat Shira, the Shabbat of Song whose names comes from the most prominent song of the Torah, the Song at the Sea. Or perhaps it is the Shabbat of Poetry, from the Poem at the sea? Our association with song, with music, is so strong that already in the act of translating Shabbat Shirah we slip and don’t give poetry its due.

But let’s think about poetry for a little bit. Poetry is a different way of communicating, a different way of thinking. Prose is powerful because it is linear, because it can lay out an argument and prove it. But poetry has other powers, powers of persuasion that appeal to a different part of our beings. Vladimir Jankelevitch helps us think about the uses of poetry (and music) by contrasting them with the linear, scientific ways of prose: “One would criticize a mathematician or a civil code for saying the same thing twice when saying it once is sufficient. But one does not reproach a Psalmist for repeating himself—because he aims to create religious obsession in us and not develop ideas.”

The Shirah, the Poem-Song of the Sea, does not speak in straight lines. It is built on repetitions and cadences, it is sung to a special tune. Its purpose is not to make a point through logic, but to arouse our passion and speak to our imagination. Foreshadowing the midrash on Revelation we will read next week, the midrash this week memorably states that, at the Sea, a handmaiden saw more than the  prophet Ezekiel. The experience of salvation was prophetic; it was not logical. And so its expression is in poetry and song, not in the linear forms of prose.

Poetry is something of a lost and misunderstood world for most Americans these days. Even in our Torah learning, we look for historical, scientific, rational explanations, and we can feel a bit displaced (or even freak out) when the understandings we explore do not jibe with the rules of science. But to try to explain miracles like the Splitting of the Sea according to science is missing the point; it is using the wrong language.

Parker Palmer writes that the inner truth of the heart “is not well-served by the language of science, social science, or management theory. Inner truth is best conveyed by the language of the heart, of image and metaphor, of poetry, and it is best understood by people for whom poetry is a second language.” What is poetry, he asks, “if not, among other things, an instrument that helps us take readings of our own hearts?”

As we talk this week about how to talk better, how to understand one another, how to be a more civil society, perhaps we should also be considering what poems we can read, what songs we can sing, and what other forms of communication we can explore to express ourselves and understand one another.

Shabbat shalom.

Years ago I spent Shabbat at an orthodox yeshiva near Ashkelon, along the southern coast of Israel. The yeshiva was affiliated with Kibbutz Hadati, the religious kibbutz movement (a bit unusual, as most kibbutzim had their roots in labor Zionism, a distinctly secular movement). The singing at the yeshiva was wonderful throughout Shabbat—serious and rich, beautiful and harmonious. It was what I had come to know and expect from the musical ouvre of religious Zionism.

When it came time for havdalah on Saturday night, the students at the yeshiva (all young men) gathered in a circle to sing songs of farewell to Shabbat. And then they did the havdalah ceremony itself. And up rose the familiar tunes of, of all people, Debbie Friedman (sing along if you know it): “Yai dai, dai-dai-dai-dai dai dai dai, dai dai-dai-dai-dai dai dai dai, dai dai-dai-dai-dai dai daidai , dai dai-dai-dai-dai dai.” The melody soared, the bachurim (yeshiva students) embraced and swayed, and havdalah went on for a good long time, a last, longing embrace of Shabbat.

Later that night I was talking with one of the students. I asked him (in Hebrew) if he knew that the melody was written by an American Reform woman song leader. “No,” he said. “But what does that matter? It’s beautiful.”

I have found myself going back to this story over the weekend, as news spread on Friday of Debbie Friedman’s critical illness and then her death. I didn’t know Debbie, and as I didn’t grow up in the Reform movement, I haven’t been as inside her music as many of my friends and colleagues who did. But, remarkably, Debbie’s music has transcended denominational lines. At the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, the Orthodox synagogue where I interned during rabbinical school, Rabbi Avi Weiss leads the kahal (congregation) in singing Debbie’s Mi she-Berach as they pray for healing. At the Jewish Baccalaurate Ceremony we have held for years at Northwestern, Rabbi Dov Hillel Klein of the Tannenbaum Chabad House and I join everyone in singing Debbie’s Lechi-Lach. And as my story from Israel demonstrates, Debbie’s havdalah tune is universal.

Debbie Friedman’s music brought people together. It opened a whole new world of liturgical possibilities for a generation. The Reform movement, and American Judaism, are richer for it. May her memory be for a blessing.

As all this was unfolding, of course, I was trying to digest the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. The first word I got of the Tuscon shooting was from, of all places, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, which sent out an email bulletin just after Shabbat, saying that Giffords, the first Jewish representative from Arizona, had been shot. We still have many questions: Was this solely the work of a very sick soul, or did the political climate have something to do with it? How did such a mentally unstable person acquire a semi-automatic weapon? And many others.

But for the moment, I find myself sitting with the contrast: On the one hand, a woman whose music transcends lines of division and denomination, whose byword is blessing and whose songs sing of healing; on the other, a crazy man’s hate-filled violence, whose acts have robbed families of loved ones and the public of courageous servants.

At school on Friday my son Jonah’s teachers said that Debbie was sick. Over Shabbat he couldn’t stop singing “Miriam’s Song,” Debbie’s composition about the singing of Miriam and the women of Israel after the crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 15:20-21). It seems that Debbie held on long enough that the Torah portion we read during the week of her death is that very portion, Beshallach, which recounts the Israelites’ journey through the sea.

The Israelites’ task on the other side of the sea, which will become their eternal mission, is to weave together a sacred community in which God can live. The exodus from Egypt, the revelation at Sinai, all the lofty narratives and events of Jewish history, ultimately find their expression in the building of the Tabernacle: “V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham,” “Build me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). The shooting in Tucson is a reminder to us of how far we can stray from that vision, and a calling to do teshuva, to return to care, concern, empathy and civil disagreement. The life and music of Debbie Friedman show us what it can be to weave together such a community, to sing together, to pray together, to find healing and renewal.