Swan Song

Temple Emanu-El Providence
Shabbat Chazon, 2012/5772

Shabbat Shalom.

A parable: A servant, who has served his King already many years, is promoted in the King’s court and invited to live in the castle. Before he is permitted to move in, however, he is required to meet with the King’s most trusted advisor, who reminds the servant both of his successes and of his failures during his years of service. Why (our sages ask)? Because it was his successes that got him the promotion; it will be the way he overcomes his failures that will allow him to keep it.

We began the book of D’varim this week with the words “אלה הדברים” – “these are the words”. The Rabbis note that usually the word eleh – “these” is used in reference to a text preceding it, but since it is the first word in a new book of the Torah, its use here piques their interest. They conclude almost universally that eleh refers to another kind of words: that is, it implies that the words with which Moshe begins are words of rebuke.

The book of D’varim is particularly interesting to the biblical reader because it is a unique window into Moshe’s own psyche. Finally, we hear truly how Moshe thinks and feels, in contrast to his pervasive silence, as Rabbi Babchuck pointed out last week, regarding the events and dicta he is required to communicate throughout Sh’mot, VaYikra, and Bemidbar. In D’varim, which is essentially Moshe’s swan song and good-bye speech, Moshe spans the gamut of emotions and literary forms, showing us not only his rebuke, but his poetry, his love, his assertiveness, and his anxiety.

Moshe displays anxiety in particular toward his imminent death and toward leaving his people, but there is one anxiety that speaks loudest to me today: that is, Moshe’s anxiety about the impending transition of leadership from him to Joshua. Not only do we witness Moshe’s anxiety over the course of this book; we also witness his acceptance.

Seven times over the course of D’varim Joshua’s name is mentioned. The first two, in Chapter 1 and Chapter 3 of D’varim respectively, are simply Moshe telling the people what God had commanded him:

גַּם-בִּי הִתְאַנַּף יְהוָה, בִּגְלַלְכֶם לֵאמֹר:  גַּם-אַתָּה, לֹא-תָבֹא שָׁם. יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בִּן-נוּן הָעֹמֵד לְפָנֶיךָ, הוּא יָבֹא שָׁמָּה; אֹתוֹ חַזֵּק, כִּי-הוּא יַנְחִלֶנָּה אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל

“God was angry with me because of you. He told me, ‘You will not go there [into the land]. But Joshua son of Nun, who stands before you, he will go. Strengthen him, for he is the one who will secure Israel’s possession of it .'” (Devarim 1:37-38)

After Moshe once again reinforces God’s frustration with him for asking, Moshe reports that as he overlooked the land of Israel from Pisgah, God said to him:

וְצַו אֶת-יְהוֹשֻׁעַ, וְחַזְּקֵהוּ וְאַמְּצֵהוּ:  כִּי-הוּא יַעֲבֹר, לִפְנֵי הָעָם הַזֶּה, וְהוּא יַנְחִיל אוֹתָם, אֶת-הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר תִּרְאֶה

“Look well, for you shall not cross over this Jordan. But charge Joshua, and encourage and strengthen him, because it is he who shall cross over at the head of this people and who shall secure their possession of the land that you will see.’”(Devarim 3:28).

Moshe seems to be treading on thin ice here, not wanting to betray negative feelings for Joshua to the nation, as he knows that Joshua is God’s chosen next leader; it is clear, though, that he’s feeling resentful and perhaps supplanted by this replacement.

Rashi, our teacher, comments that when God commands Moshe to “charge Joshua” that this regards the burdens and the hardships of his post. Rashi continues by quoting Sifrei, saying that God wants Moshe to charge Joshua in particular “with your words, so that he will not be discouraged, saying, ‘Just as my teacher was punished, so will I be punished because of them.’ I assure him [says God] that he will cross over [before this people] and he will make [them] inherit [the land].”

We, the biblical readers, and presumably Moshe as well, had been introduced to Joshua in the story of the twelve spies (which, despite the fact that we read about it only a few weeks ago, occurred chronologically 38 years prior to entering the land of Israel). When Moshe met Joshua, his name was “Hoshea,” and we are told, in one of the only re-naming stories not initiated by God, that “Moshe called Hoshea bin Nun – Yehoshua / Joshua”. Did this imply some kind of ongoing relationship? Perhaps. It’s unclear. We at least know from this that Moshe and Joshua were aware of each other for thirty-eight years. This also implies, by the way, that Joshua had to have been old enough to have endured slavery in Egypt, whereas that whole generation was destined to be wiped out before the nation could enter the land of Israel. Did Moshe think that he, instead of Joshua, should have been entitled to cross both the Reed Sea and the Jordan River, unlike any others of his generation?

After the verse in Chapter 3, Joshua is not mentioned again until 28 chapters later, in D’varim 31, as Moshe prepares for death. Here, however, Moshe’s tone is very different. He acknowledges his 120 years, and notes that he’s tired of all the “going and coming”. Here, he is more accepting of the reality that his journey will end on this side of the river. He tells the people, then, that God will help them fight their battles, and that Joshua will lead the people. And here, he finally blesses and strengthens Joshua:

ז וַיִּקְרָא מֹשֶׁה לִיהוֹשֻׁעַ, וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו לְעֵינֵי כָל-יִשְׂרָאֵל חֲזַק וֶאֱמָץ–כִּי אַתָּה תָּבוֹא אֶת-הָעָם הַזֶּה, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע יְהוָה לַאֲבֹתָם לָתֵת לָהֶם; וְאַתָּה, תַּנְחִילֶנָּה אוֹתָם.  ח וַיהוָה הוּא הַהֹלֵךְ לְפָנֶיךָ, הוּא יִהְיֶה עִמָּךְ–לֹא יַרְפְּךָ, וְלֹא יַעַזְבֶךָּ; לֹא תִירָא, וְלֹא תֵחָת

“Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel: ‘Be strong and bold, for you are the one who will go with this people into the land that the Lord has sworn to their ancestors to give them; and you will put them in possession of it. It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; He will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.’”

Well, I think it’s obvious why my last Shabbat at Temple Emanu-El might be a time that Moshe’s anxiety about transition speaks to me.

Let me be clear: I do not resent or feel supplanted by the new ritual director. Having spoken with Paul Stouber and having put him through “Ritual Director Boot Camp,” and having left him with an extensive “Ritual Director Handbook,” I am confident in his abilities to serve this congregation competently. In Paul we have found someone who is organized, who cares deeply for the Temple Emanu-El community, who will not merely strive to teach our students but invest in them and enjoy teaching them.

As Moshe’s final words to Joshua, in the eyes of all of the people, were meant to strengthen him and help him prepare for leading this people, I have a few words to share with Paul, though I admit they are not my own. Davin Wolok, ritual director in Chestnut Hill, MA, beautifully composed the following words, which are excerpted from his piece entitled “A Ritual Director’s Hineni”. I hope you, Paul, and everyone present can take them to heart:

O God, I thank you for the miracle of encounter,

for the moment of meeting those into whose path I come.

Teach me to appreciate the importance of simply being there, of being present to those who are seized by grief and whose pain may be felt to be unbearable.

Teach me to support those at an earlier stage who, excited yet nervous,

stand upon the threshold of adulthood within our community.

Teach me to value words, written and spoken, to young and old alike.

For more than wanting things do they desire words of kindness and understanding.

“You matter” means more than objects of matter.

Teach me to value teaching, whether the content taught be a skill

or an idea for the mind – and the heart.

Teach me to sense that the heart desires song.

Let our Torah be chanted.

The meaning of the text and its music are one.

Teach me to value the experience of sharing in the happiness of others.

Let me feel the beauty and dearness of tears of joy.

Teach me to be there and to give to those whom I meet

in the “space” You have created called life.

God, let me know that I am a moment in Your eternal drama. […]

Let me touch and be touched by my fellows, whom You have created. […]

Moshe’s swan song begins with eleh had’varim – “these are the words”. It is not as clear to me, as it might have been to our Sages, that the anomaly of the word eleh implies that Moshe’s first words were those of rebuke. Instead, let us contrast this Moshe, who prepares with this phrase to give a five-week long good-bye speech, to the one who told God at the beginning that he was “k’vad peh ukh’vad lashon” – heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue, that is, not skilled in speaking. Eleh – these words, the words of a man who at once didn’t feel he could stand on his own two feet as a leader. Look how far he’s come.

It has been my privilege to have served Temple Emanu-El these past three years. In line with my favorite mishna in the first chapter of Pirkei Avot, you have made me your teacher, you have found in me a friend, and you have judged me favorably. You have each taught me important lessons, and, as I move forward, I take these with me. Thank God, unlike Moshe’s relationship with the Israelite nation, which ends on the mountain, I can anticipate happily, albeit from afar, an ongoing relationship with Temple Emanu-El, and I hope that many of you will stay in touch.

Shabbat Shalom.


On Light and Memory

Today is the fourth yahrzeit of my grandfather, C. Lawrence (“Larry”) Eisen, z”l. As is common custom, I have completed some Torah study in his memory for today.

But first, some memories.

My grandfather majored in Electrical Engineering at Brooklyn Tech High School, from which he graduated around 1940. He told me that the skills he acquired at Brooklyn Tech allowed him to join not only the manufacturing staff at his subsequent job, it actually allowed him to join the lab, “in which testing was done on that electrical equipment” that was being manufactured: sinine rectifiers (which apparently change alternating current into direct current). When, in 1941, my grandfather was drafted to serve in the American army in World War II, he then joined the signal corps, which involved “telecommunications between various parts of the army.”

I remember that one time when we were kids, Grandpa Larry and Grandma Norma brought us a prism. (It was sometime when we were living in our second house probably before we renovated the kitchen, so it had to have been sometime between 1994-1996, but I can’t remember precisely when.) I will admit that that day I was more amused by the pretty colors that appeared on the wall opposite me rather than wondering about what made the colors appear, but I remember as Grandma and Grandpa patiently tried to explain it to us nonetheless. I remember how happy it made Grandpa to try to get us to understand these concepts. It was that day that Grandpa explained to me how a sprinkler makes a rainbow appear. Maybe that’s why I’ve since loved chasing rainbows. Maybe that bit of understanding has contributed to how excited I am to say the b’rachah prescribed for viewing a rainbow – the more I understand, the more in awe I am of divine Creation.

And in that vein, in my grandfather’s memory, my study this year has focused on light. Particularly, I have focused on the first b’rachah preceding the Sh’ma in the morning service, called “birkat yotzér,” in which we praise God for the light He gives us every day. Commonly, the weekday version of birkat yotzér appears in the siddur as follows (translation adapted from Silverman siddur):

barukh ‘atah ‘adonai, ‘elohénu melekh ha’olam, yotzér ‘or uvoré hoshekh, ‘oseh shalom uvoré ‘et hakol.
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Former of light and Creator of darkness, Maker of peace, and Creator of all.

Okay: God is the Creator of light, darkness, peace, and everything. A good opening. We continue:

hame’ir la’aretz veladarim ‘aleha berahamim. uvtuvo mehaddésh bekhol yom tamid ma’aseh vereisheet. mah rabu ma’asekha adonai. kulam behokhmah ‘asita. mal’ah ha’aretz kinyanekha. hamelekh hamromam levado mei’az. hamshubah vehamfo’ar vehamitznasé mimot olam. ‘elohei ‘olam. berahamekha harabim rahem alénu. ‘adon ‘uzénu, tsur misgabénu, magén yish’énu, misgav ba’adénu.
In mercy You bring light to the earth and to those who dwell in it, and in Your goodness You continually renew each day the miracle of Creation. How great are You works, O Lord; in wisdom You have made them all; the earth is full of Your handiwork. O King, You alone have been exalted from times eternally past, and You will be praised and glorified until all eternity. O everlasting God, in Your abundant mercy have compassion upon us. O Lord of our strength, sheltering Rock, Shield of our salvation, You are a stronghold unto us. 

‘el barukh gedol dé’ah, hékhin ufa’al zoharé hamah. tov yatzar kevod lishmo. me’orot natan sevivot ‘uzo. pinot tzeva’av kedoshim. romemé shaddai. tamid mesaperim kevod ‘él uk’dushato. titbarakh ‘adonai ‘elohénu ‘al shevah ma’asé yadekha. ve’al me’oré ‘or she’asita yefa’arukha selah.
O God, blessed and all knowing, You have designed handmade the radiance of the sun. You, O Beneficent One, have wrought glory to Your name; You have set luminaries around Your strength. All Your hosts in heaven continually declare Your high praises and Your holiness, O Almighty. May You be blessed, O Lord our God, for the excellence of Your handiwork and for the bright luminaries which You have made; all shall glorify You.

It is clear, still, that we are praising God for His creation of the celestial bodies – the sun, in particular. All of these in heaven praise God. Still straightforward. We continue:

titbarakh tzurénu malkénu vego’alénu boré kedoshim. yishtabah shimkha la’ad malkénu, yotzér meshar’tim, va’asher mesharetav kulam ‘omedim berum ‘olam. ‘umashmi’im beyir’ah yahad divré ‘elohim hayyim ‘umelekh ‘olam. kulam ‘ahuvim, kulam berurim, kulam giborim, vekhulam ‘osim be’émah ‘uvyir’ah retzon konam. vekhulam potekhim ‘et pihem bikdushah ‘uvtohorah, beshirah ‘uvzimrah. ‘umvar’khim, ‘umshabekhim, ‘umfa’arim, ‘uma’aritzim, ‘umakdishim, ‘umamlikhim…
May You be blessed, our Rock, our King, our Redeemer, our Creator of ministering angels who, as envisaged by the prophet, stand in the heights of the universe and together proclaim with awe the words of the living God and the everlasting King. All the heavenly hosts are beloved; all are pure; all are mighty; and all in holiness and purity, with song and psalm, all bless and revere, sanctify and ascribe sovereignty…

‘et shém ha’el hamelekh hagadol hagibbor vehanora, kadosh hu. vekhulam mekabbelim ‘aléhem ‘ol malkhut shamayim zeh mizeh. venotenim reshut zeh lazeh lehakdish leyotzeram benahat ruah. besafah berurah uvin’imah kedoshah, kulam ke’ehad ‘onim ve’omerim beyir’ah:
… to the Name of God, the great, mighty, awe-inspiring and holy King. They all pledge to one another to accept the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven and give sanction to one another to hallow their Creator. In tranquil spirit, with pure speech and sacred melody they all respond in unison and reverently proclaim:

kadosh, kadosh, kadosh ‘adonai tseva’ot, melo khol ha’aretz kevodo.
“Holy, Holy, Holy is the Adonai Tseva’ot, the whole earth is full of His glory.”

veha’ofanim vehayot hakodesh bera’ash gadol mitnase’im le’umat serafim. le’umatam meshabbehim ve’omerim:
And the Ofanim and the Holy Beasts, in great sound proclaim to the leagues of Seraphim. They utter praises and proclaim,

barukh kevod ‘adonai mimmekomo.
“Blessed be the glory of the Lord that fills the universe.”

The ministering angels and all of the other celestial beings proclaim God’s holiness and His presence. The text then ties together its previous few paragraphs: beings singing, God is enduring, God combats evil, God is the Lord of wonders, and God made the heavenly lights.

l’él barukh ne’imot yiténu lemelekh ‘él hai vekayam, zemirot yomeru vetishbahot yashmi’u. ki hu levado po’él gevurot. ‘oseh hadashot, ba’al milhamot, zoré’a tsedakot, matzmiah yeshu’ot, boré refu’ot, nora tehilot, ‘adon hanifla’ot, hamhadésh betuvo bekhol yom tamid ma’asé v’réshit. ka’amur: le’oseh ‘orim gedolim, ki le’olam hasdo.
“To the blessed God they offer a sweet song; to the Ruler, the living and ever-enduring God, they utter hymns and make their praises heard; for He alone works mighty deeds and makes new things. He is the Lord who combats evil, sowing righteousness and causing salvation to spring forth. He creates healing, for He is the Lord of wonders and is revered in praises. In His goodness He renews the creation every day continually, as it is said in the Psalm: “Give thanks to He who made new lights, for His mercy endures forever.”

Up until this point, the liturgical text is clearly unified. God’s greatness, ministering angels, celestial bodies. With this in mind, what comes next is surprising:

Or hadash ‘al tsiyon ta’ir, venizkeh khulanu m’hérah le’oro. barukh ‘atah ‘adonai, yotzér hame’orot.
O cause a new light to shine on Zion, and may we all be worthy to delight in its splendor. Blessed are You, O Lord, Creator of Light.

The b’rachah at the end, acknowledging God as Creator of Light, nicely finishes this extended blessing — but where did Zion enter our discussion?

9th-century Jewish Babylonian scholar Saadia Gaon was unhappy with the insertion of Zion into this b’rachah, and omitted it in his siddur. The commentary to this section in the siddur of Saadia Gaon’s contemporary, Amram Gaon, indicates the following (before deciding to include this phrase in his compendium anyway):

Our master Saadia said that it is forbidden to say “And cause a new light to shine on Zion” in this blessing. Why? Because we are not blessing about the light to come in the days of the Messiah, but rather about the light that we see each and every morning. 

Abe Katz, a pre-eminent scholar of tefilah in our generation and the founder of the Beurei Hatefila Institute, included in his commentary on this text the words of Naftali Weider, who apparently found the following in the handwritten manuscripts of Saadia Gaon (Katz’s translation):

“Between all that I heard about the additions and the deletions within the three B’rachot of Kriyat Sh’ma, I found that two of the changes do not fit into the original intent of the authors. The first: there are those who recite the line beginning: “or chadash al tsiyon ta’eer, v’nizkeh koolanu mehérah le’oro.” […] It is prohibited to recite that line. The type of light that was the basis of the B’rakhah was the light of the sun itself and not something else ([i.e.] the light of the [Messiah]).”

Further, the Tur, Orah Hayyim 59, according to Katz’s assembly of sources, indicates that the recitation of this phrase is not recited as part of the Sephardic liturgy. It affirms Saadia Gaon’s position and indicates that Rashi’s position is the same. The Likutei Maharikh, a Chassidic commentary, says, however, that whether one’s inclinations direct him or her to include or omit this phrase, “one should not digress from the custom within his area.” This much-later Chassidic commentary, in fact, reads into the entire previous b’rachah the light of Zion and the Messiah, particularly angled toward its devotion to the Ba’al Shem Tov.

On the one hand, I agree with Saadia Gaon – now that it’s been called to my attention, the acknowledgment of Zion in this passage does seem out of place. Perhaps another example of minhag avoténu beyadénu – the custom of our ancestors is in our hands. While there was a place discuss its appearance in the 9th century, a piece of liturgy at least a millennium in its place feels permanent. However, as we daven in the days to come, it is perhaps important to be aware of the kavanah, the intention, of this paragraph. We thank God for His creating the celestial bodies which guide our days, our calendars, our tides, our sailors, and our lives. In this day and age, it is perhaps even more important that we acknowledge God’s power over the sun as we increasingly benefit from solar energy.

I never really got a straight answer about whether my grandfather believed in God, but it seemed to me that he did. He certainly davened when he was in shul. I do believe that from C. Lawrence Eisen I inherited an ability to see the divinity in physics and in the science of the world around me. God has given us the world to live in, to harness, to make our own, and He helps us embrace it every day. I loved and respected my grandfather with all of my heart; he was my teacher, he was my friend. Four years later, I still miss him, and I was blessed to have him in my family. May his memory be for a true blessing.