Torah in the High Castle

“You may not understand this. I live by a 5,000 year-old book. I ask it questions as if it were alive. It IS alive. It tells me you have a purpose. It says a superior person in an inferior position, accepting a task graciously, brings good fortune to all.

We must all have faith in something, Miss Crain. We cannot see ahead alone.”

Nobosuke Tagomi
“The Man in the High Castle”

Facing Anger

On the eve of Yom Kippur, as I walked from my hotel to Beis Chabad, I felt the presence of Hashem in a remarkable way. I was filled with joy but not terribly surprised. It was, after all, Yom Kippur, the email flow had moderated to a tiny trickle, and it was a comfortable – if not glorious – Fall afternoon. I felt peace with Hashem and the universe, and nothing interfered with what felt like a direct signal to Him, though I could still feel a distance.

The feeling stayed with me until I was suddenly distracted by the driver of a large, luxurious BMW who had parked athwart the walkway in such a manner as to force me into dangerous traffic on my walk. I felt a shot of fury.

I quickly shook the fury off, but the connection with Hashem was no longer as clear.

It hurt. Almost physically.

The lesson could not have been more plain to me at that moment. We are instructed by Torah, the Sages, and the Chofetz Chayyim to refrain from speaking words of baseless hatred. But if we truly desire a connection with the Divine, we must recognize that angry thoughts, the very emotion of hatred, invites the yetzer hara and displaces the Holy Spirit.

Lesson learned. But it gets better.

Sitting in the Sukkah on the first night of Sukkoth, Rabbi Shimon Freundlich stood and gave a talk about anger. He said to us almost exactly what I felt on Erev Yom Kippur, but he went even further: when we get angry at our situation, we are fundamentally questioning the way G-d has made things to be. Anger is, therefore, is Chillul Hashem, a desecration of the name of Hashem.

The hair on the back of my neck stood up. There are, after all, no coincidences.

I felt the connection anew. And I heard the Admonishment of Heaven.

I’m heading back to my hotel now, and I’m going to spend some time this evening studying the story of Moshe Rabbeinu striking a rock. Perhaps this is the lesson Hashem wishes me to learn this year.

Seven Reasons I’ll Be On Trump’s Muslim Registry

Donald Trump’s policy advisers are discussing plans to establish a registry for Muslim immigrants in the US, a man believed to be a key member of the President-elect’s transition team has revealed.

Source: Donald Trump team ‘discussing plans for Muslim registration system’ | The Independent

If the president-elect goes ahead with this plan, we must each choose how to address it. Some will support it, and in the case of some, their reasons will be both understandable and rational. Others, including myself, will resist it in different ways. We could send our checks to the ACLU, but I think that this sort of thing demands more than a well-funded court battle: it demands a bit of moral sabotage.

As a Jew, I will be placing my name on that registry, as, I think, should every clear-thinking descendant of Abraham in the United States.  I will do it:

  1. To remember the Holocaust. We will not feed our fellow Americans into that same kind of nightmare.
  2. To remember all of the brave souls who, at the risk of their position or their lives, resisted Nazi oppression to help save Jews from the Holocaust.
  3. As an act of peace toward all Muslims everywhere, to show that whatever our disagreements, we are all brothers.
  4. Because in doing so we openly defy a government act that is at odds with the Constitution.
  5. Because I need to show my son that we are never powerless in the face of injustice.
  6. Because if we don’t, we’re next.
  7. Because G-d is Great.

 

Beyond History

A rejoinder I frequently offer to those who would discredit our faith on the basis of a perceived conflict between religion and science:

Speaking for Judaism, the truth in Torah lies at levels far deeper than its objective historicity.

Thirteen Petals in Autumn

Doing some reading before shul on the High Holy Days, I set aside the Torah a bit to start Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s seminal gateway to the Zohar, The Thirteen Petaled Rose. Let me qualify the following by saying that this was the first reading of any kind I had done on Kabbalah aside from some rather removed and clinical introductions.

Rabbi Dov Muchnik, schlicha of Chabad of Oxnard, spoke on Rosh Hashanah about R. Steinsaltz, and I renewed my resolve to delve into the works of that great master of Torah. The Thirteen Petaled Rose was my first stop.

I had always believed that for a person like myself – born into a barely observant Reform household and not even Halachically Jewish, Zohar would be like jumping into medical school without studying biology. And, to be truthful, I remain unconvinced that I’m wrong in this.

Rabbi Steinsaltz does a superior job at making the essence of Kabbalah clear to the tyro. But on every page, in every paragraph, even as I felt awed and uplifted by the profundity of the truths, I heard a patient but insistent voice inside my head calling me back to Torah and Talmud.

I reached page 10, unable to continue. I was overwhelmed not so much by an inability to comprehend, but of a sense of deep spiritual inadequacy.

“You have just restarted your journey of learning and teshuvah,” I audibly reminded myself. “Don’t make the same mistakes you made last time and place yourself on the path of ba’al teshuvah syndrome.”

The great work was returned to its honored place on the shelf, and, awe still with me, I picked up my Machzor, my tallis, and my kittel, and walked the rest of the way to shul, head, heart, and spirit swimming, but, B”H, not drowning.

America’s Choice

My wife and my 14 year-old son were discussing the election yesterday. And my wife said that this proves that we cannot put our faith in man or in Earthly institutions. We must put our faith in Hashem. 

She’s right. And it reminded me of a passage from the Tachanun:

And David said to Gad, “I am exceedingly distressed. Let us fall into Hashem’s hand, for His mercies are abundant, but let me not fall into human hands.”

We can trust people to represent us, but we cannot trust them to always have our best interests at heart, and, indeed, about all we can expect is for them to operate in the self-centered manner that economists call “rational.”

Do not put your faith in your leaders, elected or otherwise. Grant them a highly conditional trust at the very most.

Teshuvah and Joni Mitchell

“We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the Garden.”

— Joni Mitchell, “Woodstock”

Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” has been covered by many artists at different times, but to me there is no more moving rendition than the one sung by Joni herself on the remastered version of her “Ladies of the Canyon” album.

It’s just Joni and an electric piano, and it’s played slow, with the gentle insertion of backup singers. Listen to it with headphones on and in the dark. Joni’s notes are sheer beauty, and you will never hear the song the same way again.

Stunning.

Professor Shai Cherry credits the beautiful lyrics of the song to “Rabbi Joni Mitchell.” It’s tongue-in-cheek, naturally, but he invokes Joni in a discussion about teshuvah. She captures in a few words, he notes, the essence of the modern interpretation of teshuvah as framed by Rav Kook (Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kuk). We are an essential part of the universe, we are made in the image of Hashem, and our lives are built around bringing ourselves closer to Hashem.

Yes, we need to get back to the garden. Which garden is Joni singing about? And which one should we be seeking? Those thoughts stopped my brain literally in midair (flying between Los Angeles and Tokyo).

One other thing did occur to me as I listened to the song again on a quiet Beijing morning.

Mitchell’s tone in the song, the downbeat tempo, the simple delivery (instead of a wall of sound) conveyed a sense of mourning. I could not help but hear something deeper in her delivery. Was Joni singing a lament to the failure of the 1960s to bring us back to the garden? Was Woodstock simply the climax of a sort of secular spiritualism that shattered just months later? And is the song somehow an acknowledgement that the true path back to the garden lay on more ancient stones?

To suggest that this is what Joni meant to say 40 years ago is stretching it. But those of us who watched the promises of the 1960s die, who continue to try and understand why, and who did discover that path of ancient stones, cannot help but hear, behind the Wurlitzer and the Canadian contralto, the echoes of a generation that lost its way for all the right reasons.