Judaism - Torah

It’s Going to Be Okay | Erev Rosh Hashanah 5779

In the middle of the night on June 18th, 1947, on Pan Am flight 121 from Calcutta, India to New York City, an engine stopped working.[1]

Which caused the other engines to overheat, which in turn caused a fire.

Which caused a panic.

While the pilot attempted to land the plane, the 25-year-old co-pilot unbuckled himself.

He left the cockpit, going back into the main cabin to help with the passengers.

He saw a young woman who was alone, crying in fear.

He sat next to her, and told her it was going to be okay.

He told her this as out the window, he watched the engine continue to burn.

He told her this as he watched the engine fall from the wing.

He told her this as fuel lines became exposed, as fire overtook the aircraft, and as the plane pitched downward.

“It’s going to be okay.”

He told her this knowing that every single person on that plane was about to die. Continue reading “It’s Going to Be Okay | Erev Rosh Hashanah 5779”

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Judaism - Torah

Our Long-Nosed God – Parashat Vayikra

Despite my family’s French heritage, I’m not what you would call a sophisticated wine drinker.

I enjoy a glass of red every now and then, I know the difference between a Malbec and a Cabernet, and I’ve even recently rediscovered that white wine has its merits. But if you asked me to pair a wine with a dish for dinner, I would be totally lost. I can’t really discern overtones from undernotes, and I certainly have no idea why someone would want to drink a wine that is described as tobacco-like.

Having said that, I do know something about some of wine’s other well-known characteristics. If you have you ever come home after a long day of work, exhausted; perhaps stressed the tasks still remaining to be done, and poured yourself a glass of wine to help alleviate some of that stress, then you know, as I do, that a glass of wine can be quite relaxing.

Now I’m not advocating that we all turn to wine to solve all of life’s problems. But if you are familiar with this experience, I want to say: congratulations, you’re in good company.

Even the Creator of the universe, our rabbis teach, knows the value of a relaxing glass of wine.

Whoever becomes more relaxed after a glass of wine, says Rabbi Hanina of the Talmud, has an element of God within them, since God acted similarly after smelling the sweet aromas of a sacrifice. (BT Eruvin 65a)

Remember the story of what happened to Noah after the flood?

Noah and his family emerged from the ark, and Noah offered a sacrifice to God. The sweet aroma of the burnt offering rose up to God, and, our rabbis tell us, God was relaxed, and said: I won’t ever again curse the ground because of humanity” (Gen. 8:21).

It’s as if, after a particularly stressful day (of nearly wiping out humanity) God sits back, inhales the sweet scent of Noah’s sacrificial offering, and just… mellows out. The smell of Noah’s gracious offering is just as potent as drinking a glass of wine.

This pleasing sent – a ריח ניחוח – is a frequent motif throughout the Torah. After Noah, it appears a total of sixteen times in the book of Leviticus, which we begin reading this Shabbat. And it will appear seventeen more times in Numbers. In total, God is pleased by a ריח ניחוח thirty-six times throughout the Torah! God, clearly, likes to kick back and relax after a hard day of being the Master of the Universe!

But what is it about the ריח ניחוח that acts so potently upon God?

Have you ever smelled a scent that acted upon you immediately? In particular – have you ever smelled a scent that spirits you away to another place, triggering ancient memories?

Marcel Proust was one of the first to suggest that smell is the sense most linked to memory. In Remembrance of Things Past, Proust writes:

“When nothing else subsists from the long-distant past, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered…the smell… of things remain poised a long time, like souls… bearing resiliently, on tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence, the immense edifice of memory.”

The scent of musty corridors of an old building triggers for me vivid images of exploring the cellar of my Great Aunt’s house as a five-year-old, trying to find the deep-freezer, so I could pick out an ice-cream treat.

When I smell my scented beard oil, I am immediately whisked away to my grandparents’ house in Hamilton, Ontario, and filled with memories of playing pine-walled home where my father grew up.

And every autumn, the smell of biodegrading leaves and fresh mud takes me back to years of playing in the farm fields where I used to go to school.

What do your memories smell like?

God, we are taught, also responds emotionally to scents.

“The sense of smell, in the Holy [Hebrew] Language,” writes Rabbi Moses Mendellsohn, “corresponds to the power of memory in the soul, for the idea of memory is the remaining impression in the soul, after the tangible experience has passed. That is the unique property of scent… one which will provoke the desired memory before God.”

I wonder what God is thinking about when smelling the pleasing scents of the ריח ניחוח?

One idea is that God is remembering the promise to be compassionate toward humanity that God made to Noah.

There’s a great clue to this: in the Torah, we learn that one of God’s attributes is ארך אפיים – which we usually translate as being “slow to anger.” You might be familiar with this from Rosh Hashanah or other chagim, as we recite a list of the thirteen attributes of the Holy Blessed One.

But ארך אפיים doesn’t literally mean “slow to anger,” it actually means “long-nosed”! Why does the Torah have this imagery of God with a long nose?

Perhaps because it is through this metaphoric nose that we arouse God’s compassion. A longer nose equals more smelling power!

It’s a powerful, very human metaphor: God’s patient, gentle attitude toward us is triggered in a way remarkably familiar to us – by these powerful, pungent scent-memories that Proust spoke of.

The ריח ניחוח are the result of what we call sacrifices, but the English word “sacrifice” is not an adequate translation. In Hebrew, they are called korbanot – which comes from the root “to draw near.”

Just like scents can bring us remarkably closer to past memories, the ancient Israelites’ sacrifices were an attempt to get closer to God, to arouse God’s compassion, and remind God of memories of our covenantal relationship.

We don’t offer sacrifices anymore. But we still live in covenant with God, and we still want God’s compassion. And we still emit things into the world.

The things we send out into the world – both literal and figurative – can have both creative and destructive power.

You might think about this environmentally: is what are we emitting sustaining the world, or harming it? Is it pleasing, or polluting?

Or you can think of it emotionally: does the attitude we send out into the world create room for others to draw nearer, or does it close off?

You could think of this spiritually, as our ancestors certainly did: are the prayers and blessings we offer to God perfunctory, or do they come from a place of serious intention, of a desire to elevate our spirits and brings us closer to the holy and the transcendent?

Just as everything we “give off” here on earth is received physically and emotionally by others, we have an image of a long-nosed God who acts similarly. Everything we “give off” can either push us away or draw us closer to God.

How might we work to ensure that what what we put out into the world draws us nearer to God and to each other?

These ריח ניחוח, these pleasant aromas, were not pleasing to God because of their smell alone, but because of the intention of the person performing the sacrifice.

Just as scents are only the tiniest, microscopic of particles of something much greater, the ריח ניחוח were just the tip of the iceberg, a small hint of something much larger.

The ריח ניחוח are a taste – or scent, as it were – of the depth of intentions that each person brought to their offering. And that’s why this idea is so powerful – our offerings to God have always been a just a small taste of something more to come.

They point to something much greater than ourselves.

My Bubby Jeanne, zichronah livrachah, used to make classic French dishes for Shabbat dinner. My favourite was her Coq au Vin – chicken and wine, a classic French dish. I’m sure that there are many dishes in a restaurant that might smell or taste just as good as hers. But hers, I know, was made with love and care for me and my family.

When I walked into my grandparents’ home every week for Shabbat and smelled the sweet scents of the chicken cooking, I knew that I would be surrounded by the loving embrace of our family’s Shabbat celebration.

And it is that love, encoded in a scent, that has become fixed in my memory, drawing me closer to her memory.

The idea of sacrifices might seem ancient, backwards, irrelevant or even inhumane when compared to how we pray today. But the korbanot – these acts of drawing nearer – have built into them a very human idea.

The ריח ניחוח serve to remind God, and us, of basic human desires that we all share: we want to live and thrive, we want to be loved, and we want to do this in sacred relationship with each other.

Perhaps this is the lesson of these smelly sacrifices – to send out love and compassion, and to receive those “scented” offerings with a long nose.

Judaism - Torah

One Minute of Wonder

While researching my rabbinic thesis, I came across what is now, by far, one of my favourite teachings from the Talmud. I might be obsessing a bit over it – I’ve written about it here and here. I find its philosophy to be such a relevant antidote to our hyper-partisan age.

I’m thankful to have be asked to share a quick window into it on video, as part of the CCAR’s One Minute of Wonder series.

One of the Talmud’s ideas about pedagogy is that innovation is vital to the Jewish understanding of Torah education.

Anticipating the anxiety of every Bar and Bat Mitzvah student, the Talmud poses a brilliant question: if there are seemingly limitless interpretations of Torah, how could we ever learn it all? And moreover, what happens when different interpretations disagree?

The Talmud’s answer is simple, yet sublime: sucks to your anxiety. You need to listen to everyone. And you need to do it empathetically with love and care.

Of course, this is not an “anything goes” idea. We can (and should) have foundational beliefs and practices – things upon which we’re willing to stake ourselves. But that doesn’t absolve us of the duty to listen to others – even when we fundamentally disagree.

Judaism - Torah

Parashat Noach: No Dress Rehearsal, this is Our Life

It is difficult to speak of biblical flood stories when there are those still suffering from literal flooding in Texas, in Florida, in Puerto Rico, in the Caribbean.

It is difficult to speak of a mass natural disaster, when thousands are homeless, ravaged by fires in California and earthquakes in Mexico.

It is difficult to speak of mass human death, when we are still reeling from death in Somalia; in Niger; in Las Vegas.

But here we are this week at parashat Noach – one of the most famous of Torah stories, one that we must acknowledge, is filled with destruction and death.

How are we to work towards repairing the very real death and destruction around us, if we are just up against a God who permits such devastation?

Continue reading “Parashat Noach: No Dress Rehearsal, this is Our Life”

Judaism - Torah

Fierce Chesed

Here we are in the aseret y’mei t’shuvah – the ten days of repentance. After spending long hours in synagogue praying, reflecting, and attuning ourselves to the holy, we are back for Shabbat. Given the grandeur and majesty of Rosh Hashanah, it might feel somewhat anticlimactic coming down from those great heights.

The soaring melodies, stirring poetry, and deep worship of Rosh Hashanah helps us do that ever-important soul work. But now, it’s a little more quiet. What are we to do now?

Here’s the truly great thing: Maurice Lamm teaches that God is not just a Rosh Hashanah God. Holiness is available to us, if we acknowledge it, every day. God’s majesty cannot be contained within a synagogue ark, or squeezed into the stone walls of Jerusalem, or locked tight in the 25 hours of Yom Kippur.

Continue reading “Fierce Chesed”

Judaism - Torah

Emet v’Teshuvah: Truth and Reconciliation

In 1940, at the age of eight, a young boy named Russell Moses was forcibly removed from his home. Ripped away from all that he knew, he was relocated by the government to one of many re-education schools. The government stripped him of his identity and gave him a number that was sewn onto his clothes.

Robbed of his name, forbidden to speak his native language, subject to harsh physical punishment, and deprived of love, Russel suffered enormously.

Born in 1932, Russell Moses was a member of the Delaware band of the Six Nations of the Grand River, an indigenous Canadian territory in what is now the province of Ontario. The story of his life – like many of the indigenous peoples of this continent – is one that includes discrimination, poverty, and tragedy.[1]

Russell’s story is just one of hundreds of thousands. Each similarly unconscionable, each more tragic than the last. They are uncomfortable truths that many would rather ignore than dredge up. We tell ourselves that we have evolved, that we are better, that these injustices are a thing of the past. Such attitudes ensured that until recently, most of these stories had never seen the light of day.

Continue reading “Emet v’Teshuvah: Truth and Reconciliation”

Judaism - Torah

Come From Away: Parashat Tazria-Metzora & Spiritual Exile

 

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Credit: Come from Away

The town of Gander, Newfoundland is one of the most remote towns in all of North America. Built in the late 1930s as an airport town linking North America and Europe, it is found on the northeast tip of Canada, surrounded by trees and rocks; rivers, an abundance of wildlife, and the immensity of the Atlantic Ocean. Gander’s population is remote, but diverse. The people who live there are mostly government, health care, and education workers. Their municipal website has an online complaint box, where answers are promised within a day. It is about as far away from my home New York City, as you can get.

On September 11, 2001, thirty-nine wide-body airplanes made emergency landings at Gander International Airport, as the world changed forever. Nearly 6,600 people were stranded there for a week, in a town whose population at the time was around 9,000.

The story of Gander, and the 6,600 unexpected visitors who inundated the town, is being told in a new Broadway show, Come from Away, which I had the privilege of seeing this past week. The play captures the depth of emotions from that bittersweet time, as a town opened its arms and doors to thousands of anxious individuals. In a time when we are surrounded by talk of closing borders and building walls, the show tells a story of acceptance, and welcoming diverse people from all over the world.

Filled with joyful and stirring chords of Newfoundland Celtic rock, Come from Away explores some of the deeper questions of our lives: what happens to us when we’re forced away from home? How does our sense of home change, when we welcome others into it? Why are some of the most transformational moments in our lives those that take place in these in-between places?

Continue reading “Come From Away: Parashat Tazria-Metzora & Spiritual Exile”