That We Might Walk Humbly with God and with People
After the rains fell so suddenly and then the sun appeared, I quickly got up from my desk and went downstairs, opening the door and stepping outside. As I always do in such times of rain and sun in quick succession, I had come to search for a rainbow. A rainbow is a symbol of peace, of wholeness and harmony. The rabbis long ago taught that the rainbow is the symbol of God’s universal covenant with all of humanity, a promise not to again destroy the earth. In ancient times, an inverted bow was a sign of peace, a hope for reconciliation. As between heaven and earth, so the rainbow becomes our challenge to respond in kind to God’s promise. The rainbow as our witness, we too are then to solemnly swear not to destroy this precious planet, that we too turn all weapons upside down and promise not to use them again.
Searching diligently, I did not see a rainbow on that morning. Walking back up the front stairs, I could see the quizzical look on the housepainter’s face. I explained that I had come to look for a rainbow, sharing my disappointment in not seeing one. The housepainter smiled and offered a beautiful teaching. He quietly said to me, as though to reassure, “somewhere there is a rainbow.” It is such a deep and encouraging teaching, expanding the arc and embrace of the rainbow. Somewhere else, other people are looking up and seeing a rainbow and delighting in its magic and promise. God needs all of us to see a rainbow and be reminded of its promise and its challenge. Simply to see a rainbow softens the heart and opens our souls to greater embrace. The very presence of a rainbow is the beginning of its own promise fulfilled. Touched by wonder, how can we countenance the ways of damage and destruction?
With heart softened and soul opened, we are more able to ask of ourselves and of God, what do you seek of me, what shall I do, how shall I be in this world? It is a question in the weekly Torah portion called Ekev. Moses says to the people, and now, O Israel, what does God your God require of you/mah ha’shem elokecha sho’el may’imach? Only to revere God, your God; to walk in all God’s ways and to love God, and to serve God, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul… (Deut. 10:12). Soon after, the Torah explains what it is to love God, to be as God, for God is one who secures the rights of the orphan and the widow and loves the stranger, to give the stranger bread and clothing. You too shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt… (Deut. 10:18-19). Love of God requires that we love people. That is what God seeks of us.
There is an immediate parallel between these words in our Torah portion and the words of the prophet Micah in the Haftorah, the prophetic reading for the Torah portion Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9). Micah also asks of what God wants and then tells us, higid l’cha adam/it has been told to you, O mortal, mah tov u’mah ha’shem doresh mim’cha/what is good and what God seeks of you/ki im asot mishpat v’ahavat chesed v’hatzne’ah lechet im elokecha/only to do justly, to love lovingkindness, and to walk humbly with your God… (Micah 6:8).
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I feel a particular connection between the verses of God’s seeking in the portion Ekev and in Micah. Ekev is my birth portion, though my Bar Mitzvah was a few weeks earlier on the Shabbos of Balak. Ever since chanting the words of Micah at my Bar Mitzvah, they have remained as a compass in my life, as a rainbow reminder of what God seeks in all the ways of my going. As I always like to share, when I spoke of Micah’s words at my Bar Mitzvah, my mother, her memory be a blessing, asked me to add a few words to Micah’s. Urged to walk humbly with God, so my mother asked me to say, “and with people.” In the portion Ekev, the portion of my birth, my mother’s concern is given voice. If we would revere God and walk in God’s ways, so we are to love the most vulnerable among us, to walk humbly with them as our way of walking humbly with God.
These two portions become as one to me, joined beneath a rainbow’s arc, the Torah portion of my birth and the Torah portion of my Bar Mitzvah, Ekev and Balak. As the housepainter taught, “somewhere there is a rainbow.” With that awareness, feeling the wonder as beheld through another’s eyes, may our hearts be softened and our souls be opened, that we might walk humbly with God and with people.
On the Heels of Our Hearing – Footsteps of the Messiah
There is something delicious in following hints from one holy text to another, like breadcrumbs along the way until coming to a long sought source, a spring of living waters. The search itself is sustaining, entering the gates of holy books as a wanderer in their courtyards, journeying from one to another, intimations of joy in the anticipation of ultimate arrival. It is the way of justice and peace unfolding, each accomplishment a blossom of hope toward the next.
There is much Chassidic teaching on the first two words of the weekly Torah portion called Ekev (Deut. 7:12). I have loved the Chassidic teachings, drawing sustenance from them year after year, but always feeling that they in turn are drawing sustenance from earlier rabbinic sources that I hadn’t seen. Each year I have meant to go out on the trail and search until I came to the source. This year I did, searching well into the wee hours of the night become morning, following the light of Torah, picking up hints from those I met along the trail.
The two words, and adding the third, with which the portion of Ekev opens are v’haya | ekev tish’m’un/it will come to pass | on the heals of your hearing. The small vertical line, one of the ta’amim or trop signs is very important, called a p’sik, serving the function of a rest in music. Placed immediately after the first word, v’haya, we pause and consider, what will come to pass? The Chassidic teachers emphasize that the word v’haya indicates simcha/joy. Holding that for a moment, we take another step along the trail. Ekev means “heel,” and suggests something that comes as a consequence or result of an action, thus whatever shall come to pass will come on the “heels of our hearing.” From the same root comes ikvot/footsteps. The Chassidic teachers speak of ikvot m’shichah/footsteps of the messiah.
The portion Ekev brings us through some rough terrain, bringing us face to face with several harsh passages. I have found through the years a sense of hope and support from the teachings that emerge from the opening of the portion, as though giving us provisions of spirit for the journey. Somehow, if we can bravely engage with all the harshness to come we shall yet find joy in hearing the footsteps of Mashiach/Messiah along the way. Seeking the way of joy in spite of all, I found my way back to a midrash (B’reishit Rabba, 42:2) on the portion of Lech L’cha (Gen. 12:1-17:27), the quintessential portion of journeys, about seeking our way come what may, Avram and Sarai’s journey into the unknown become our own. There in the dark become light, I found the source that the Chassidic teachers draw on. A simple word of grammar, a word of being in time, v’haya/it will come to pass is indeed taken as a portent of joy. Of the examples given to make the point, several look toward Messianic time, of swords turned to plowshares, as from Isaiah (7:21), v’haya ba’yom ha’hu yetz’u mayyim chayyim mi’y’rushalayim/and in that day living waters shall go forth from Jerusalem.
My soul’s thirst quenched by the living waters I imagined drinking in that day, I continued on the way, seeking the footsteps of Mashiach. As the Chassidic teachers draw on the word ekev as messianic allusion, so I found the rabbinic source I had been seeking. It is in the Mishna, starting point of the vast sea of Talmud, at the end of Mishna Sotah (9:15) in a disturbing passage of some length. I made my way, treading through the brush and brambles, wishing for light and living waters. In the midst of so much pain, descriptions of a world filled with brokenness, I came to the source from which the Chassidic teachers draw. “On whom shall we lean,” the rabbis ask over and over again, continuing to remind themselves and us, “on God who is in heaven….” As they know and we know, though, that is not enough. As they make their way in a world that seems so familiar for its brokenness, it is there and then, as for us here and now, that they tell of the approaching footsteps of Mashiach/ b’ikvot m’shicha. It is an allusion drawn from Psalms (89:52), human yearning for wholeness, for an end to violence, joining generations through time, each one listening for the echo of footsteps.
As I made my way through some of the sorrows the Mishna describes as preceding the coming of the Messiah, struggling through thickets of pain, I gasped as I encountered one that was for the rabbis an indication of this utter brokenness: and the people of the border shall wander from town to town and none will show them compassion/v’anshei ha’g’vul y’so’v’vu me’ir l’ir v’lo y’chonanu. These unfortunate ones were people who lived in remote border communities where they were easy prey for marauding bandits. And so they wandered, seeking shelter and safety. I thought of people fleeing their homes today for fear of violence, fleeing drug lords and gangs, social systems so broken that they leave everything behind for the sake of their lives, and, most of all, the lives of their children. In the tread of these children is the echo of the footsteps, the Messiah waiting. God forbid and protect us that none will show them compassion.
And so we make our way, then and now, along trails of tears and time. In that place of pause where the ancient scribes placed a p’sik, a place of rest in which to consider a simple word, v’haya/it shall be, and then to ask “what shall be?” What is it that shall follow on the “heels of our hearing?” Is it the cry of the people of the border, those who wander from town to town, that we are to hear? And following on our hearing, truly hearing, then to respond with compassion, is that what will bring the footsteps of the Messiah? Further on in this portion whose opening echoes with the footsteps of the Messiah, of connections made and remembered, we are told of the way, and you shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt/va’ahavtem et ha’ger ki gerim he’yitem b’eretz mitz’rayim (Deut. 10:19). In the way of our response is the possibility of hope. And perhaps that is the joy to which that simple word points, the joy that we can indeed bring the footsteps of Mashiach. On the heels of our hearing, footsteps of a night journey, so may we come to the source together and greet the light of a new dawn.
Seeking Hope at the Edge of the Abyss
I stood at the edge of another’s abyss, wishing I could just reach down and pull them up. It was a place of deep and utter darkness, choshech afelah/all-encompassing darkness, as the implacable darkness of the ninth plague is described (Ex. 10:22). It is a darkness that seems impervious to light. I was not going to write “that seems” impervious, having intended, rather, to write “that is impervious to light.” In spite of my intention, I clearly needed to offer, to imagine, for myself, for others, at least a glimmer of hope, the hope that somehow light can make its way even into that place of such deep darkness.
From the abyss, a plaintive cry, “is there any hope?” Framed as a question, the question is the beginning of its own answer, “yes, friend, there is hope.” In asking of the possibility of hope, there is an openness to its emerging, an openness to the possibility of light, a slight opening of the eyes to see even the faintest glimmers of light, an openness to letting them in. With each month’s turning, we look to the sky, honoring the moon’s journeys, end and beginning become as one, new light emerging. With Shabbos M’vorchin this week, the Sabbath of Blessing, we announce the new moon of Elul in the week following, month of turning and preparation. At the end of the first day of Rosh Chodesh, offering an ever so subtle smile of hope, the thin crescent of the new moon emerges, barely visible light, a fleeting presence in the western sky, near the horizon in between the light of day and of night. Singing from the narrow places that hold us in, singing Hallel on the mornings of Rosh Chodesh, psalms of praise to mark a festive day, we sing from Psalm 118: min ha’metzar karati kah/from the narrow place I called out to God/anani va’merchav kah/God answered me expansively. The psalmist knew of pain, a universal and timeless reality, part of being human. The psalmist also knew that surcease begins with a great cry, a calling out from the depths, from the narrow place of, so it seems, all-encompassing darkness.
One person’s struggle to find their way out from the pain of soul and psyche is itself both real and a metaphor. It is the way of an illness no less than an illness of the body. To attach stigma to one illness and not another is to impede the way of healing for all who suffer in a broken world, for our selves and each one. It is to our peril that we attach stigma to illness of mind, to the soul-sick and heartsick, to those who have wearied of hope and plummet into the abyss. Whether predisposed in ways inherited, or through the legacy of traumatic experience, or of a sensitive soul assaulted by the brutalities of the world, by all the ways that the world impedes our wellbeing, it could be any of us. Any of us, God forbid, could tumble and spiral down and find ourselves in that abyss of all-encompassing darkness, the plague of choshech afelah. In a world divided against itself, of people from planet and from each other, we come to be divided within ourselves. One person’s illness of soul and psyche is a metaphor for what it means to live in a soul-sick world, seeking hope at the edge of the abyss.
The challenge is to see the glimmers of light that bravely hold the possibility of hope, to reach for sparks that pierce the darkness, light emerging gently as the silvery crescent of the new moon. It is the first word and name of the weekly Torah portion Re’eh. Re’eh/See! (Deut. 11:26-16:17). There is hope if we can open our eyes and see, if we can open ever so slightly, even the eye of our heart, the soul’s eye, especially the soul’s eye, the inner eye. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, one who knew pain so deep, who cried out from the abyss, who knew the all-encompassing darkness, taught from out of his own suffering that we need to close our eyes to really see (Likutei Moharan 1:65). Just as we squint to see more clearly into the distance, just as we close our eyes tightly when in the grip of pain, so we begin to see beyond the pain, even just a little, to receive the beginning of new Torah, teaching of the abyss, then to open and behold new light, even just a little. Re’eh/See! I am setting before you today: blessing and curse. It is not a blessing or curse, but this and also this, each a reality of life, two strands woven together as part of what it means to be human. Scrunching up our eyes to see toward the light, if only reflexively, it is the body’s way of choosing the way of blessing, even if when struggling through “the harsh passages” of life we may feel as though cursed. And yet, the light of love from all of those who walk with us, who look down into the abyss and shine a light, who extend a hand, who receive our tears, remind us that we are blessed, even in darkness.
How to cry out from the depths, let alone to sing? We sing a song of the very depths, even just a groan or sigh. Only when Israel groaned from the weight of slavery could glimmers of redemption shine, stirrings from below awakening those from above/itaruta d’l’tata l’itaruta d’l’eilah. Sing, Rebbe Nachman taught, for his own sake as much as ours, sing, accustom yourself to sing a nigun each day, a soul tune, for a nigun has great strength to raise one up to the Holy One/ko’ach gadol l’hamshich et ha’adam l’shem yisborach (Likutei Eytzot, N’gina 11). In the gathering darkness of what would become the Holocaust, Bertolt Brecht asked: In the dark times, Will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.
In the way of Rebbe Nachman, if we sing a little every day, if we kindle a spark even in the light, we shall know how to sing in the dark times, a song of the dark times. At the end of the portion Re’eh, offering mitzvot/commandments as a way of doing holy deeds, as a lifeline, a pattern of behavior to infuse our lives with meaning, we are told to rejoice, v’samachta b’chagecha/rejoice in your festival. It is the festival of Sukkos/Festival of Booths, joyful coda to the holy days of a year’s beginning. We are to ensure that all are able to celebrate the festival, to find joy in its ways, we are to take care of the orphan, the widow, the stranger, all who are most vulnerable, to ensure that they have food, that they are sustained in body in order to be sustained in soul, then to be able to rejoice. It is a song of body and soul, each with its needs, neither to be diminished, each part of one whole, how then stigma to be attached to either one?
In the tension and challenge held in a commandment to rejoice, a profound connection is made between the first words of two successive verses (Deut. 16:14 and 15), v’samachta b’chagecha… v’hayita ach same’ach/you shall rejoice in your festival…, and then you shall be joyful nevertheless…. The rabbis taught a principle of interpretation, achin v’rakin mi’utin/the words ach and rak serve to diminish, to delimit or modify that which precedes them…. Ach and rak can simply mean but or only…. But, it would not be realistic, in the grammar of life as of language, to be only joyful, entirely joyful on command. Ach serves, therefore, to modify the mitzvah to rejoice, calling us to be joyful nevertheless, in spite of all that would preclude joy. In this way of understanding the Hebrew that Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch brings, we hold the fullness of life, body and soul, the blessing and the curse, the darkness and the light. Standing at the edge of another’s abyss, and so for ourselves, we kindle a light and softly sing a nigun, nevertheless. In the question is the beginning of its own answer. Yes, friend, there is hope.
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