Our Clergy’s Thursday Thoughts

Dreams…What do they Mean?

Posted on November 24, 2021

By Hazzan Jacob Sandler

This week we read from parashat Vayeshev which begins and ends with dreams. A 17-year-old Joseph, donned in his signature technicolor coat, begins sharing his dreams with his resentful brothers. In his first dream all his brothers’ sheaves of wheat bow to Joseph’s sheaf. And in his second dream, he sees the famous 11 stars (referenced in the passover song, “Who Knows One?”) as well as the sun and moon bowing to his star. The brothers’ resentment grows into full hatred of Joseph, setting in motion a plot to get rid of him. In the end, Joseph ends up in a jail cell in Egypt, where he interprets with uncanny accuracy the dreams of a cupbearer and baker. 

I’ve always been really fascinated with dreams. They seem to be one of life’s unsolvable mysteries. The Rabbis of the Talmud are also quite divided regarding the nature, significance and veracity of dreams.The Gemara relates: Shmuel, when he would see a bad dream, would say: “And the dreams speak falsely” (Zechariah 10:2). When he would see a good dream, he would say: And do dreams speak falsely? Isn’t it written: “I speak with him in a dream” (Numbers 12:6)? This apparent contradiction is resolved by Rava who states, there are different kinds of dreams. 

It is said that dreams are one sixtieth (1/60) prophecy. It is written with regard to the verse: “The prophet that has a dream, let him tell a dream; and he that has My word, let him speak My word faithfully. What has the straw to do with the grain? says the Lord” (Jeremiah 23:28), the Gemara asks: What do straw and grain have to do with a dream? Rabbi Yoḥanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai: Just as it is impossible for the grain to grow without straw, so too it is impossible to dream without idle matters. In this approach we see that even a dream that will be fulfilled in the future contains some elements of nonsense. The Rabbis use Joseph’s dream of the 11 stars, sun and moon to illustrate this point. The moon represents Joseph’s mother, who had already passed away. The dream was fulfilled, but not in its entirety. 

Elsewhere, Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥmani said that Rabbi Yonatan said: A person is shown in his dream only the thoughts of his heart, evidenced by what Daniel, the other great dream interpreter, said to Nebuchadnezzar, as it is stated: “As for you, O king, your thoughts came upon your bed…that you may know the thoughts of your heart” (Daniel 2:29-30). According to this interpretation, dreams are simply a revelation of one’s own subconscious thoughts and feelings. Much can be learned about oneself from dreams, but they don’t necessarily tell the future. 

Who can tell the difference between a dream which is internally revealing and a dream which has a prophetic element? Daniel states “[God] gives wisdom unto the wise, and knowledge to they who know understanding” (Daniel 2:21). 

In my opinion, whether a dream holds some great word of God to be shared, or a potential clarity in the matters of one’s own heart, it is worthwhile to interpret dreams. As Rav Ḥisda said: “A dream not interpreted is like a letter not read.” However one should be cautious when having their dreams interpreted. The gemara relates a story: “There were twenty-four interpreters of dreams in Jerusalem. One time, I [Rabbi Bena’a] dreamed a dream and went to each of them to interpret it. What one interpreted for me the other did not interpret for me, and, nevertheless, all of the interpretations were realized in me, to fulfill that which is stated: All dreams follow the mouth of the interpreter.” I believe this has to do with the power of persuasion and confirmation bias. When an interpretation is given, the dreamer is more likely to notice elements of the interpretation being fulfilled because it has been brought to the forefront of their mind. The great commentator Ibn Ezra warns vehemently against this, claiming that all interpretation belongs to Hashem, because God can see the future and humans cannot. 

So what do we do with our dreams? Do we allow them to fade into obscurity? Do we seek out interpretations like the baker and cupbearer? Do we separate the grain from the straw in order to learn some deep mystery about the world? Do we reflect on the context of our lives, and attempt to gain a clearer understanding of our own hearts? As you can see, two Jews means three opinions, and it’s ultimately up to each of us how we answer these questions. But if you’re a dreamer like me, and do not know what your dreams mean the sages offer this advice: “One who saw a dream and does not know what he saw should stand…during the Priestly Blessing and say the following (in Hebrew below):

‘Master of the Universe, I am Yours and my dreams are Yours,

I dreamed a dream and I do not know what it is.

Whether I have dreamed of myself, whether my friends have dreamed of me or whether I have dreamed of others,

if the dreams are good, strengthen them and reinforce them like the dreams of Joseph.

And if the dreams require healing,

heal them like the bitter waters of Mara by Moses our teacher, and like Miriam from her leprosy,

and like Hezekiah from his illness, and like the bitter waters of Jericho by Elisha.

And just as You transformed the curse of Balaam the wicked into a blessing,

so transform all of my dreams for me for the best.’

And he should complete his prayer together with the priests so the congregation responds amen both to the blessing of the priests and to his individual request. And if he is not able to recite this entire formula, he should say:

‘Majestic One on high, Who dwells in power,

You are peace and Your name is peace.

May it be Your will that You bestow upon us peace.’” (Brachot 55b)

 

“רִבּוֹנוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם, אֲנִי שֶׁלָּךְ וַחֲלוֹמוֹתַי שֶׁלָּךְ, חֲלוֹם חָלַמְתִּי וְאֵינִי יוֹדֵעַ מַה הוּא. בֵּין שֶׁחָלַמְתִּי אֲנִי לְעַצְמִי וּבֵין שֶׁחָלְמוּ לִי חֲבֵירַי וּבֵין שֶׁחָלַמְתִּי עַל אֲחֵרִים, אִם טוֹבִים הֵם — חַזְּקֵם וְאַמְּצֵם כַּחֲלוֹמוֹתָיו שֶׁל יוֹסֵף. וְאִם צְרִיכִים רְפוּאָה — רְפָאֵם כְּמֵי מָרָה עַל יְדֵי מֹשֶׁה רַבֵּינוּ, וּכְמִרְיָם מִצָּרַעְתָּהּ, וּכְחִזְקִיָּה מֵחׇלְיוֹ, וּכְמֵי יְרִיחוֹ עַל יְדֵי אֱלִישָׁע. וּכְשֵׁם שֶׁהָפַכְתָּ קִלְלַת בִּלְעָם הָרָשָׁע לִבְרָכָה, כֵּן הֲפוֹךְ כׇּל חֲלוֹמוֹתַי עָלַי לְטוֹבָה״

 

“אַדִּיר בַּמָּרוֹם, שׁוֹכֵן בִּגְבוּרָה, אַתָּה שָׁלוֹם וְשִׁמְךָ שָׁלוֹם. יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶיךָ שֶׁתָּשִׂים עָלֵינוּ שָׁלוֹם״

Dot…Dot…Dot

Posted on November 16, 2021

by Hazzan Barbara Barnett

This week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, is fascinating, deep and textured on so many levels. In it, Jacob famously wrestles with what is described as an “ish” (man). Is it really “a man,” or is it a heavenly being? G-d? Or a struggle within himself?

After this struggle, G-d changes Jacob’s name to Yisrael, “for you have wrestled with G-d, and with people, and prevailed.” The name can be deconstructed as Yisra-el, the first part of which stems from the word “to struggle” and “el” referring to G-d.

This face-to-face encounter with G-d, panim el panim, as the text says, precedes another face-to-face encounter with his twin brother Esau, this encounter is one that Jacob fears, and for good reason. But rather than run away from what might be a disastrous meeting, Jacob is ready to face Esau. He does not go naively into their meeting but prepares well, keeping his growing family protected—just in case Esau is out for revenge, still seething after Jacob usurped his birthright.

The first meeting between the estranged brothers is interesting. After Jacob approaches cautiously and humbly, prostrating himself seven times at Esau’s feet, The text continues, “Esau ran to meet [Jacob and his family]. He hugged [Jacob], and throwing himself on his shoulders, kissed him. They [both] wept.”

Taken on face value, the text suggests that the years have faded the bitter memory of the stolen birthright from Esau into some sort of acceptance, and rather than bitter, one reading of the Hebrew text suggests some sort of reconciliation—a hug to “forgive and forget.”

But above the text for the word “kissed” dance a series of dots (one on each letter), a scribal oddity, a unique formation that appears only few other times in the Torah scroll. is ambiguous, and as suggested by the scribal uniqueness of the word “kissed,” Above the word וַׄיִּׄשָּׁׄקֵ֑ׄהׄוּׄ (vayi’shakei’hu—”kissed him”) you might notice all the tiny dots.

The meaning of the dots themselves wherever they appear suggest that there is something more than meets the eye within the word or words beneath these dots. Perhaps the spelling of the word is not as originally intended (a scribal version of a typo?).

Rabbis and scholars have pondered the meaning of these dots since the time of the Talmud, positing the dots suggest Esau’s kiss was ambivalent at best, or even that it wasn’t a kiss at all, but an attempt to bite (!) Jacob in the neck.

Hmm. So, is “Vayisha’kei’hu    וישקיהו (and he kissed him) really supposed to be “Vayisha’kei’hu    וישכיהו   and he bit him?” Quite a different meaning, eh? The words sound the same, but one of the verb’s consonants is different (noted in bold), and vastly changes the meaning of the passage

One letter entirely alters Esau’s sentiment (and the direction of his heart) from a kiss of reconciliation after years of estrangement, to the betrayal of vulnerability and friendship instead.

The truth is, we don’t know for certain (and that’s often the fun of parsing Biblical text).

To me, those dots above the word suggest Esau’s ambivalence toward his brother, but for this inevitable meeting, he is willing to bury the past, if only for the moment, and later in this portion, to bury, together, their father Abraham. And that all got me thinking about Thanksgiving, gatherings, and getting together with family members with whom we may have (or had) rivalries, bad vibes, and vehement differences of opinion.

This year as many of us venture out beyond the Zoomscape next week to gather in person for Thanksgiving feasts, we’ll undoubtedly meet up with those in our intimate circle for whom we don’t, let’s say, have the kindest of feelings—especially these days. How will we greet them? Yeah, you may be inclined to bite them (metaphorically with a sarcastic snap), but you won’t, and instead embrace (or bump fists or elbows), not wholeheartedly, but in the interest of keeping peace, maintaining civility, and enjoying the moment. Imagine, and then set aside, the dots, letting them fade from relevance, if only for a day.

From our family to yours, a meaningful and joyous Thanksgiving.

The “I” Gets in the Way

Posted on November 10, 2021

by Rabbi Josh Warshawsky

Sometimes we are our own worst enemy. In this week’s parashah, Vayeitze, Jacob runs away from Be’er Sheva, away from his brother Esau, and comes upon a certain place and stops for the night. There he has a famous dream of a ladder reaching to heaven with angels going up and coming down. When he wakes up, he exclaims, “Achen yesh Adonai bamakom hazeh va’anochi lo yadati!” “Surely the Holy One is present in this place, and I did not know it!” Our sages teach us that every single word in the Torah is intentional and there is some meaning behind it. Rav Shimshon from Ostropol taught us to look at the last letters of each of these words: “אכן יש ה’ במקום הזה” The last letters spell the word “נשמה,” “Soul.” Even though the whole world is filled with Divine Glory, the central essence of the Divine is in the soul. 

But the key is “Va’anochi lo yadati,” “and I did not know it!” Rabbi Dov Bear, the Maggid of Mezritch, teaches about the verse, “אָנֹכִי עֹמֵד בֵּין-ה’ וּבֵינֵיכֶם (Devarim 5:5),” “I stand between the Divine and you,” I-ness, ego, self-centeredness, is the screen that separates between human and the Divine. If we are able to see through the screen of the ego, of our own self, we open ourselves up to the rest of the world, to what is greater than the self alone. 

It’s not easy to see through the screen, to turn down all of the noise of everything else in our lives and find a moment of deep connection. That’s what Shabbat allows us to do if we find a time to truly allow ourselves to enter into it. This Shabbat, I pray that we find our way past the screen of “i-ness,” to find a moment of rest, a moment of divinity, a moment of true Shabbat. 

Shabbat shalom.

 

What Makes Isaac Special?

Posted on November 4, 2021

by Rabbi Alex Freedman

Among the Patriarchs, Isaac often stands out as the third wheel. His father Abraham leaves everything he knows to journey to Canaan in pursuit of his relationship with God. His son Jacob has a fabulous dream, wrestles with an angel, and fathers 12 sons and a daughter – the children of Israel. And then there’s Isaac. He gets far less of the Torah’s attention – and verses – than Abraham and Jacob. But Isaac achieves something neither of them can claim: he never leaves Israel.

When Abraham faces a famine in Canaan, he goes down to Egypt to ride it out until things improve. Later, when Jacob’s family endures a famine in Canaan, they too descend to Egypt to live under Joseph’s care. But Isaac has a different destiny. He too confronts a famine in Canaan, but God has different plans for Isaac. Facing the famine, Isaac leaves his home and goes to Gerar – still in Canaan – seemingly about to leave the land. God says: “Do not go down to Egypt; stay in the land which I point out to you. Reside in this land, and I will be with you and bless you” (Gn. 26:2,3).

The Midrash answers our question as to what makes Isaac unique here. The Midrash says: “Rabbi Hoshaya said, ‘God told Isaac, “You are a perfectly unblemished sacrificial offering. Just as sacrifices become ritually unfit if they leave the Temple confines, you too will become unfit if you leave the land of Israel.”’”

To fully understand this teaching, we must remember that animals designated for Temple sacrifices must remain in the sacred space of the Temple. Otherwise they are ritually disqualified. The Midrash claims that Isaac was special, just like a sacrifice is elevated spiritually. Isaac too must remain in the sacred zone, this time the land of Israel.

Isaac does what he is told and remains. He is then blessed by God for his loyalty and devotion. And he is credited for living his entire life in Israel and not leaving for a minute. None of the other Patriarchs and Matriarchs can say the same.

The association of Isaac with sacrifices is intentional. Recall that in Genesis 22, he is physically bound to the altar as part of the Binding of Isaac. It seems that the rabbis take that image and status most seriously and map it onto the rest of his life. Recall that while Abraham is the one who binds his son, Isaac is equally the willing partner, for this grown man allows himself to be bound up.

Interestingly, the site where the rabbis imagine the binding of Isaac occurring is the mountain that would become the Temple Mount – the very same sacred space where animals would be sacrificed to God later on.

Many of us imagine that the trauma of the Binding of Isaac affects him negatively for the rest of his life. I read God’s instruction to him to remain in Israel as a way of God telling Isaac, “You are special and uniquely devoted to Me. It is only fitting that you live out your days in this special and unique land, the land of Israel.”

 

Isaac’s Unique Meditative Practice

Posted on October 27, 2021

 

by Hazzan Jacob Sandler

Once, when I was in high school, I missed the bus home. My sister had after school activities, and my parents were working late so nobody could pick me up to drive me. This perfect storm inspired me to make the ten minute drive home on foot. It took me an hour and half, and there weren’t enough sidewalks, but I really enjoyed the experience. I ended up choosing to walk home about once a week just for fun.

What I loved about walking home was that it provided the time to talk to myself, think aloud and reflect on any number of things going on in my life at that point. I would think about anything and everything, and this proved to be one of my earliest spiritual experiences. I’d often direct my monologuing toward God, who I believe was a deep and thoughtful listener. When a particularly novel idea came to me, I attributed that inspiration to God and my walks home proved to be a deeply meditative exercise.

In this week’s parsha, Chayei Sarah, we have an instance of a word, which is used only once in the entire Tanakh, “לָשׂוּחַ” (la-suach). It appears in Genesis 24:62, the verse reads,  “וַיֵּצֵ֥א יִצְחָ֛ק לָשׂ֥וּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶ֖ה לִפְנ֣וֹת עָ֑רֶב וַיִּשָּׂ֤א עֵינָיו֙ וַיַּ֔רְא וְהִנֵּ֥ה גְמַלִּ֖ים בָּאִֽים׃” — “vayeitzei Yitzchak la-suach basadeh lifnot arev, vayisa einav vayar v’hinei g’malim ba’im.” — “And Isaac went out walking* in the field toward evening and, looking up, he saw camels approaching.” In our Eitz Chayim chumash la-suach is translated as walking. However, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan asserts that this is actually “the very first reference to meditation in the Bible.” He relates the root of שׂוּחַ (suach) to שׂיחַ (siyach) and its derivative שׂיחה (sichah) meaning conversation. We can therefore interpret the Hebrew to mean, “And Isaac went out, to meditate in the field…” Naturally the Hebrew holds both meanings at once, whereas the english translation is forced to choose. I don’t imagine Isaac sitting pretzel-style in the fields, breathing deeply as one might imagine someone meditating today — that is just one form of meditation. I picture Isaac’s experience as looking and sounding more like my meditative walks home from school, conversing alone and with God. This is a great model for individual prayer as well. I encourage you to give it a try! Go out, like Isaac, take a walk and “suach” meditate and see what meaning and inspiration it yields for you.

The Righteous in the City

Posted on October 19, 2021

by Rabbi Josh Warshawsky

We’re exactly halfway through the month of Cheshvan, the second month on the Jewish calendar and one with no holidays in it. From the end of Simchat Torah to Hannukah (9 weeks!) we have no holidays to celebrate. Perhaps that’s why the Torah portions that we read during this time are some of the most iconic, with the most incredible stories and lessons to be learned. The creation story, Noah’s ark, Abraham and Sarah and the adventures of our ancestors all the way through the story of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. 

We listen to and learn the incredible stories of these characters and how they navigated walking through the world in their time. They had so many flaws! Each of them made mistakes along their journeys, but they continued to strive throughout their lives to make themselves and the world better. 

Amidst all of these stories, there are little gems and pearls of wisdom hidden on the pages that our chassidic masters pull out to teach us life lessons. In this week’s Torah portion, Vayera, we see Abraham arguing with God, asking God to spare the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah if God can find just 50 righteous people in the city. And God responds, “Im emtza Chamishim tzadikim b’toch ha’ir… (Bresishit 18:26)” “If I find just 50 righteous people in the city…”

Rebbe Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, a famous chassidic rebbe, zooms in on those words “b’toch ha’ir,” “In the city” and discovers something incredibly powerful. He says, “It’s not enough to find 50 righteous people who are ‘benchwarmers’ in the study hall (i.e. studious rabbis and text learners who study in the ivory tower), rather find people who are within the city, mixed in with all the rest of the people, dealing with the world as it is and even so still remain righteous! Only on the merit of those people will God save the city.” 

It’s easy to be a tzadik, a righteous person, when you don’t engage with the world. It’s much harder to be out in the city, out on the streets, out engaging and interacting with human beings all the time, and still remain a tzaddik. To be righteous is to be able to interact with human beings at our worst and still find love and compassion and warmth in your heart for our fellow humans. As we enter into Shabbat this week, let’s strive to be righteous in the eyes of Rebbe Simcha Bunim and find a little more love in our hearts to spread over the world.

Shabbat Shalom

 

The Spirituality of Routine

Posted on October 13, 2021

by Rabbi Michael Schwab

For many of us, the word spiritual conjures up images of exceptional moments or singular events.  Perhaps we feel that to “be spiritual,” or to “feel spiritual” we need to do something outside the box – something unique and thrilling.  

In fact, sometimes this is absolutely true, like when we experience the birth of a child, witness the sunrise over the grand canyon or touch the Western Wall in Jerusalem for the first time.  Yet, often we pay too little attention to the spirituality of routine – the critical importance that repeated daily actions play in our spiritual lives and which, in turn, shape who we are.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that Immanuel Kant, arguably the most brilliant philosopher of modern times, was famous for his routine. As Heinrich Heine wrote “Getting up, drinking coffee, writing, giving lectures, eating, taking a walk, everything had its set time, and the neighbours knew precisely that the time was 3:30 pm when Kant stepped outside his door with his grey coat and the Spanish stick in his hand.”  Sacks notes that these details, together with more than 150 other examples drawn from the great philosophers, artists, composers and writers, come from a book by Mason Currey entitled Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration, and Get to Work.  As Sacks wrote, “Note the paradox. These were all innovators, pioneers, ground-breakers, trail-blazers, who formulated new ideas, originated new forms of expression, did things no one had done before in quite that way. They broke the mould. They changed the landscape. They ventured into the unknown.”  The same people who created moments of singular greatness lived a life dedicated to a sacred routine.

A great way to understand the connection between these two concepts is to look at the Hebrew word for daily work, avodah. Perhaps not coincidentally this is also the word for “serving God”.  It seems that the Hebrew language is teaching us that spirituality has its roots in meaningful routine and hard work.  

As Sacks points out, the people who change the world “are those who turn peak experiences into daily routines”. That is why Judaism focuses so much on taking our lofty ideals and turning them into a way of life lived in the everyday.  In fact, Jewish law itself consists of a set of routines that shapes the way we view the world and how we act toward each other on a daily basis.

Yes, sometimes living a life of what I like to call, “sacred routine” could seem boring compared to the extraordinary experience of a singular thrill.  But, as Sacks writes, “that is all they are: experiences. They linger in the memory, but they are not part of everyday life. They are not woven into the texture of our character. They do not affect what we do or achieve or become. Judaism is about changing us so that we become creative artists whose greatest creation is our own life and that needs daily rituals: Shacharit, Mincha, Maariv, the food we eat, the way we behave at work or in the home, the choreography of holiness  . . .” Routine and spirituality are not categorically separate terms.  Rather, sacred routine lays the groundwork for spirituality, prepares us to see the sacred dimension of daily life and gives us context to enhance those unique moments we do experience and incorporate them more meaningfully into the rest of our lives. 

Cheshvan: The Pause Between the Notes

Posted on October 6, 2021

By Hazzan Barbara Barnett

Chodesh Tov, everyone. Today is the second day of a two-day Rosh Chodesh—the beginning of the Hebrew month Cheshvan. Sandwiched between the marathon-like hustle and bustle of Tishrei with a full month of holidays and festivals and Kislev during which we celebrate Chanukah, Cheshvan provides a pause of sorts in the year. A transition point, a liminal space in time. It is neither fall nor winter; many of the leaves are still green, the weather is still mostly warm enough for shirt sleeves (particularly this year). We are still in Daylight Savings Time, about to thrust into the darkest part of the seasonal calendar in a few short weeks.

Although in a more micro-sense, this pause in time reminds me of a calendrical occurrence set by the Torah, the shmitta year. We only just entered a shmitta year on Rosh Hashana. The shmitta year is (among other things) essentially a Shabbat for the land—a year in which we are commanded to let the land lie fallow, not to harvest and to leave the land to rest, recover, recuperate.

It’s a lesson in environmental protection thousands of years old, still relevant today in ways way beyond harvests and crops and field.

But it’s also a lesson much more personal to our own lives in the 21st Century with its non-stop news cycles, social media gone insane, too much to fill each and every hour we’re not sleeping (and in those when we should be but cannot.)

Shmitta is breathing space writ large. A pause for the entire nation: a year of peace and quiet for all. The way it is written in the Torah, there is no private property, no oppression, no privilege, no entitlement. A reset and reboot.

We get a more intimate, smaller version of this each week as we hit pause—get off the treadmill—for Shabbat, however we observe it. A time to shake off ordinary weekday life and witness the extraordinary.

Which brings me back to Cheshvan. Cheshvan, with its absence of holidays and observances, is, in my opinion, intentional. A month of intense introspection, self-examination, atonement and then the energetic burst of celebration—it’s a lot to absorb, and to me, Cheshvan is the perfect time—the perfect pause—to absorb all of that. It’s a stop, a pause between the notes. As Jazz legend Miles Davis put it, “In music, silence is more important than sound.”

Bitter Cheshvan? Not to me? For it is between the pauses in the notes where the beauty, the art, the real music resides.

Chodesh Tov!

Are People More Like Animals or Angels?

Posted on September 27, 2021

By Rabbi Alex Freedman

The secular scientist says to G-d, “Listen, G-d, we’ve decided we don’t need You
anymore. These days we can clone people and do all sorts of things that used to be
considered miraculous.”

G-d replied, “Don’t need Me, huh? Let’s see if You can make a human.”

“Fine,” says the scientist. He bends down to scoop up a handful of dirt.

“Stop!” says G-d. “Not so fast. Get your own dirt.”

The Book of Genesis is all about beginnings. Let’s take a closer look at G-d’s two
ingredients, as it were, for making humankind: “The L-rd G-d formed man from dust of
the earth – Afar Min HaAdamah – and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life –
Nishmat Hayim. So the human became a living being” (Gn. 2:7).

We see that humanity is formed from both lower matter – dirt – and upper matter – G-d’s
breath of life. As it turns out, this dual-origin of humanity is unique among creatures.
And this duality preserves a delicate balance in the universe.

Here is Rashi’s insight on our verse: “G-d made Adam from the lower world and the
upper world – a body from the lower with a soul from the upper.” In fact, this duality
exists in every day’s act of creation, highlighting the uniqueness of human beings.

Day 1. Shamayim Va’Aretz, Heaven and earth. Both upper and lower.
Day 2. The Rakia firmament in the skies. Upper.
Day 3. The dry land and the seas. Lower.
Day 4. The sun, moon, and stars. Upper.
Day 5. The sea animals. Lower.

How can one more product – humanity – be created while preserving this equilibrium
between upper and lower?

Day 6. Adam is created from dust of the earth – lower – and G-d’s breath of life – upper.
This unique fusion maintains the pristine balance, even as it highlights the uniqueness
of human beings.

What does it mean for humankind – then and now – to possess these two origins?
Let’s consider three ideas. The first is from Rashi himself. The lower part of the human
is the body. We are indeed composed of organic matter. While the upper part of the
human is the soul. Each of us is more than a body. We all have a Guf and Neshama, a
temporary body and an eternal soul. As the Etz Hayim Humash notes, “After death, the
body returns to the earth, its source, and the soul to G-d, its source.”

Second: People must take care of lower needs and higher needs. “Lower” needs
include the things we must do every day to survive: to eat and drink, to find clothing and
shelter, to sleep, to create families, to socialize, to do the things many other animals do.
But life is about more than surviving. We must also attend to “higher” needs every day,
things unique to people: education, spirituality, community, ethics.

Third: Each of us has the capacity to be an animal or an angel. The range of human
potential spans from earth to heaven. Our individual actions can lower us to the level of
animals – dust of the earth – or elevate us to the level of angels – G-d’s breath of life.
Every day we are faced with choices, small or challenging. How do we respond?
When we make decisions – specifically challenging decisions – we place ourselves on
the ladder of humanity which ranges from contemptible to commendable. From low
character to high.

Are we humans born to be more like animals or angels? Both. To follow instinct or
ideals? Both. So let’s aim high.

Bring Your Own Spark

Posted on September 23, 2021

by Rabbi Josh Warshawsky

In 2013, I spent Sukkot in Los Angeles for the first time. I had moved to LA a month earlier to start a job as the artist-in-residence of a large Conservative synagogue and was living in a house directly behind the shul. Unlike Chicago, Los Angeles actually has the right temperature for a Fall, outdoor holiday with celebratory evening dinners. It’s just like the ancient Israelites would have celebrated it!

I had grown up building a sukkah every year with my family, but this was the first year I would have a sukkah of my own. I was so excited, and decided I was going to design it myself and build it out of PVC pipes and tarps. I took measurements, mapped it all out, and went to Home Depot to pick up all of the supplies. A friend came over and we spent the whole day putting it all together. We were so proud of our creativity, independence, and handiwork, and I was especially proud of my design. 

The next morning, I woke up and went to take a look at my beautiful sukkah, and it was in shambles on the ground. It had been a very windy night and the sukkah had blown over! The PVC pipes I had purchased were too narrow, and weren’t able to hold up the wooden beams and bamboo mats we were using for the roof. I was disappointed but undeterred. I went back to Home Depot and reinforced the side poles and put down sandbags to anchor the structure. 

And it held! Seven nights and days of celebration ensued, with sukkah hops, teen programming, 20s and 30s meals, study sessions, and more. I loved getting to welcome people into my sukkah. In the Torah we read about Sukkot, “Kol Ha’ezrach b’yisrael yeishvu b’sukkot (Leviticus 23:42), Every citizen of Israel should dwell in sukkot.”  The Ba’al HaTanye, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, taught that the word “ezrach,” citizen, really comes from the language of “zericha,” shining. Every person shines and sparkles and lights up with all the goodness and the beauty. And every spark of holiness and the radiance of the mitzvot – that’s what we should bring into the sukkah. 

One of the other names for Sukkot is “Z’man simchateinu, The time of our joy.” Our sages teach that “Z’man,” time, really comes from the language of “zimun v’hazmana – summons and invitation.” In this holiday we invite in joy to last us the whole year.

This Shabbat will be my first monthly visit to Beth El. I am so excited to begin this journey together this year – a journey of music, prayer, Torah, learning, and growth. I invite you to join me this Shabbat at Beth El as we celebrate the double joy of Shabbat and Chol Hamo’ed Sukkot together. Bring your individual holy spark, bring your singing voice, and we’ll create the joy of z’man simchateinu together.

Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom