Petirat Moshe – Letting Go

“The Death of Moses” by Alexandre Cabanel

So Moses the servant of the Lord died there, in the land of Moab, at the command of the Lord. He buried him in the valley of Moab, near Beit Peor; and no one knows his burial place to this day. (Deuteronomy 34:5-6)

Readers of the Torah often comment on the seeming unfairness of God’s decree that Moses must die before he can enter the Promised Land. But when we reach the final verses of the Torah, the tone feels anything but untimely or tragic. Rather, God’s treatment of Moses in his final moments hints at a spirit of love and tenderness.

Commentators have made much of the words “al pi adonai” – “at the command of the Lord,” which literally means “at the mouth of the Lord.” In the midrashic imagination, this verse is commonly read: “Moses died…at the kiss of God.” Some have pointed out the poignant symmetry of this image: just as God breathes life into the first human, God reclaims Moses’ soul with through a similar loving act.

The portrayal of God personally “burying” Moses is equally as powerful. The stark anthropomorphism of this verse is striking in the way it invites us to identify with this sacred act of kindness. The mitzvah of burying the dead, in fact, comes from this text. According to halacha, burial of the dead is one of our most sacred mitzvot in Jewish tradition, since it is performed with the knowledge that it cannot possibly be “repaid” by the recipient.

God’s care for Moses in the final days of his life is described in great detail in a famous midrash known as Petirat Moshe. At the end of this classic rabbinic text, God and the angels guide Moses, in a sense, through his final dying process. For his part, Moses seems to almost go through the various Kubler-Ross phases as he pleads with God for his life: i.e., anger, bargaining, denial, and finally, of course, acceptance. Among other things, this midrash powerfully portrays the gamut of Moses’ emotions from the sense of unfairness to his final moment of letting go

When I read this Torah portion a few weeks ago, I remembered that I actually wrote a contemporary rendering of Petirat Moshe in 1992, during my final year of rabbinical school. Here it is below – I’ll resist the intense urge to change and tweak the language of a young rabbinical student and offer it just as it appeared thirty years ago:

By the time Moshe and the Children of Israel reached the Jordan River, it had already been decreed that Moshe should die before he reached the Promised Land. Moshe had already known this, of course, but up until this point he had been a master of denial. Between the sealing of his decree and his arrival at the threshold, there had been too much to do; too much to think about. Anyway, how could such an awful prospect possibly be true?

When Moshe reached the river’s edge, however, God revealed the full extent of the decree. There, with the Land almost in sight, the pain was too much for him to bear. He had been a faithful servant of the Holy One for most of his adult life. He had led the Israelites out of slavery, kept them alive in the wilderness, taught them the way of Torah, judged their disputes. Now, with the Promised Land within reach, he was being cruelly denied. He was not ready to die! How could God deny him the glorious moment of entrance into the Land of Israel? Or even a glimpse?

Moshe finally cracked. He drew a small circle, stood inside it, and looked defiantly out into the expanse of the desert before him. “I will not move from this spot until You revoke my decree of death.” Then Moshe put on sackcloth and ashes and prayed fervently. His plea for his life was so powerful that it penetrated the highest heavens and the deepest foundations of the earth.

Moshe’s powerful prayer was so moving that it caused the angels in the celestial courts of justice to weep for him. But the Holy One said the no angel was to bring Moshe’s prayer before God, because his death decree had already been sealed. God called on the angel Akraziel, the celestial herald, and told him, “Go down immediately and lock every gate in heaven so that Moshe’s prayer cannot ascend.”

Moshe continued with his prayer. “Sovereign of the Universe, think of how much I had to suffer for the sake of the Children of Israel! Can it be that I must suffer with them, and not take part in their rejoicing?”

But God replied, “I am sorry. Your decree has been sealed. To everything there is a season, and a time for everything under heaven.”

Then Moshe began to negotiate. “Please. At least allow me to remain just one day in the Promised Land before I die.”

God held firm. “It cannot be. The decree has been sealed.”

“Well, if I am not to enter the Land, would you at least allow me to gaze upon it before I die?”

But God replied, “The decree has been sealed.”

When Moshe realized that his prayers were not going to work, he decided to get others to pray on his behalf. He addressed the earth: “O earth, I implore you, plead my case before God. Maybe then the Holy One will take pity on me and allow me to enter the Land of Israel.”

The earth replied, however, “How could I possibly plead on your behalf? I am of dust, just as you. Our fate is the same: ‘Of dust you are, and of dust you will return.'”

Then Moshe asked the heavens, “If you please, implore the Holy One on my behalf.” But the heavens replied, “We’re too busy doing the same for ourselves. After all, it was written about us, ‘The heavens shall vanish like smoke.'”

Moshe asked the sun and moon, the stars and planets, the hills and mountains, the rivers: all the elements of nature, but they were too busy pleading their own case. None would help him out.

Finally, Moshe asked the Reed Sea, who responded sarcastically, “You mean to tell me that you, who were able to wave his staff and slice me into pieces is now asking for my help? Ha! That’s a good one!”

Moshe now grasped the full reality of his aloneness. He sat down in his circle, put his face in his hands, and began to weep.

The Holy One saw Moshe and asked him, “Moshe, why are you so sad? You have known about this decree for a long time.”

Moshe replied, “I am scared.”

The Holy One said, “There is nothing to be scared of, Moshe. I will command your nephew Eleazar to accompany you to your resting place on Mt. Nebo. You shall die atop this holy mountain, for death does not mean destruction, but elevation. You will see, Moshe. There is nothing to be afraid of.”

And at noon on the following day, Eleazar went with Moshe up Mt. Nebo. Eleazar was instructed to leave Moshe before they reached the top. Moshe climbed the rest of the the way alone. When he finally arrived at the mountaintop, he found a beautiful golden couch which had been arranged for him by the angels. Moshe lay down upon it as God had instructed.

As soon as he lay down, Moshe beheld a wondrous vision. He say the Temple in Jerusalem in all its luminous splendor, shining forth from its holy mount. Moshe cried out, “I thought you told me I wasn’t allowed to glimpse the Promised Land before I died.”

“Look carefully,” said God.

Then Moshe realized that what he was seeing was not the Temple in earthly Jerusalem, but rather the Holy Temple which sits in the Jerusalem of the Heavens, of which our earthly Temple is but a pale comparison. This was the Temple constructed by God’s hand. It was made of precious jewels, pearls and gold – and it housed the holy light of the Shechinah, which was to be preserved for Israel to all eternity, to the end of all generations.

As Moshe beheld this glorious vision, his resistance began to melt. Yet no sooner did begin to sigh, than the Angel of Death appeared.

Moshe froze up. Terror began to rise from the pit of his stomach. But as he looked on, he realized something odd. The figure wasn’t fearful at all, but bathed in light. Then, as the form turned to face him, he recognized the face of his Beloved.

It was only then that Moshe finally let go. He said to his soul as it left his body, “Return O my soul, to your tranquility, for Adonai has dealt bountifully with you.”

The Holy One thereupon reclaimed Moshe’s soul with a kiss, and Moshe, whose name means “drawn from the water” returned to that vast, limitless Ocean of All Being.

All streams flow into the sea, but the sea is never full. To the place from which the water flows, there it will flow back again. (Ecclesiastes 1:7)

A New Birkat Hamazon/Blessing After the Meal

Chaverai nevarech/Friends, let us offer blessings…

...for the food we have shared. We give thanks for the earth and its goodness, created to feed and sustain all that lives. As we rejoice in the ever-giving blessings of creation, let us commit to spreading your abundance to all who dwell upon the earth. May we forever work to create a world in which hunger is no more, as it is written, there shall be no needy among you. Baruch atah adonai, chazan et hakol – Blessed are you, who feeds us all. Amen.

...for the lands upon which we dwell. May the inhabitants of every land live in safety and security. Let us all strive to be caretakers of the land, that it may yield its abundance to future generations, as it is written, the land will give forth its fruits and you will eat to fullness and dwell in security upon it. We acknowledge that too many of us enjoy the bounty of lands that have been colonized and stolen from their original inhabitants. May we work to bring the day when all who have been exiled and dispossessed know restoration and reparation. Baruch atah adonai, al ha’aretz ve’al hamazon – Blessed are you, for the land and its sustenance. Amen.

…for the vision of a world complete. May this dream become reality soon in our own day, that every land may be a Zion, every city a Jerusalem, every home a sanctuary offering welcome to all. May your world be rebuilt upon a foundation of compassion, equity and justice, as it is written, compassion and truth will meet; justice and peace will kiss. Baruch atah adonai, boneh ha’olam b’tzedek v’rachamim – Blessed are you, who rebuilds the world in justice and compassion. Amen.

…for your abundant goodness. Teach how to walk in your ways: the ways of kindness and decency, graciousness and understanding, now and always. Just as you nourish us unconditionally, so may we learn how to take care of one another with openness and love. For it is written, you open your hand and nourish the desire of all life. Baruch atah adonai, ha’tov ve’hameitiv – Blessed are you, who is good and who bestows goodness upon us all. Amen.

Commentary:

In composing this new Birkat Hamazon/Blessing After the Meal, I maintained the essential structure of the traditional prayer, which consists of four basic spiritual themes or categories. As with the other new liturgies that I’ve written, I seek here to compose Jewish prayers that express a Diasporist ethic; that is to say, liturgy that views the entire world as our “homeland” and resists the influence of modern political Zionism, which has become so thoroughly enmeshed in contemporary Jewish liturgy.

I’ll unpack each section here in turn. For purposes of comparison, a Hebrew/English version of the Birkat Hamazon can be found here.

.Friends, let us offer blessings… This is a simple, shortened version of the zimun – an invitation to prayer – when 10 or more people have just shared a meal.

...for the food: The first blessing offers gratitude to God for providing the food that sustains all creation. In this section, I chose to make explicit the fact that although the earth contains enough abundance to feed all of humanity, we nonetheless live in a world of rampant hunger. Thus, the moral imperative: “Let us …work to create a world in which hunger is no more.” For this reason, I chose to substitute the traditional Biblical verse, Deuteronomy 8:10 (“When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land which God has given you”), with Deuteronomy 15:4: (“There shall be no needy among you.”)

...for the lands: The second blessing traditionally gives thanks for Eretz Yisrael – the land of Israel. In keeping with a centering of the Jewish diaspora over one particular piece of land, I chose to render this wording “for the lands” rather than “for the land (al ha’aretz.) In other words, we give thanks for the many lands upon which the Jewish people have made – and continue to make – their homes.

Although the traditional version was written well before the era of Zionism, many contemporary versions of the Birkat Hamazon use this section to offer thanksgiving for the establishment of the state of Israel. (The Reconstructionist version of this prayer for instance, includes the words, “for the culture, faith and hope of our people alive once more in Eretz Yisrael.”) Some versions also include a prayer for Yom Ha’atzmaut – Israeli Independence Day as well.

The traditional version of this section also invokes the Exodus from Egypt (“you redeemed us from the House of Bondage.”) Here, I chose to universalize this message and render it as a prayerful land acknowledgment. This recognizes the undeniable fact that many who say this prayer for the land will be invoking it on land that was literally colonized and stolen from others. Finally, to recognize the threat of global climate change to the lands upon which we live, I’ve also highlighted the importance of safeguarding God’s abundance for future generations. For a Biblical verse, I chose Leviticus 25:19, which references living upon the land “in security.”

…for the vision of a world complete: The traditional version of the section thanks God for the city of Jerusalem, expressing the messianic yearning for God to re-establish the city and to rebuild the Temple. In composing this section, I transvalued the messianic ideal into a vision of the world “as it should be” – embodied by an era of universal ” compassion, equity and justice.” As the Hebrew word for Jerusalem, Yerushalayim – contains the root Sh”LM, which means “wholeness,” I chose the image of a “world complete.”

I also chose to idealize Jerusalem to represent the mythic “city of peace” in which which we all yearn to live. In this regard, I was particularly inspired by the classic rabbinic notion of “Yerushalayim Shel Mala” or “Jerusalem of the Heavens.” (I personally find this much more powerful than a quasi-idolatrous attachment to an earthly piece of land which, tragically, has rarely known a moment of peace.) For the Biblical verse, I chose Psalm 85:10, which evokes a vision of this universal future with incredible poetic beauty.

for your abundant goodness: This final section was added to the Birkat Hamazon in the aftermath of the disastrous Bar Kochba revolt in the second century CE, reflecting a sense of healing and optimism – and faith in God’s goodness – even in the wake of a cataclysmic collective tragedy. In my rendering, I chose to highlight not only God’s goodness, but the moral imperative to mirror that goodness in our own relationships with one another. For the Biblical verse, I retained the traditional line from Psalm 145:16: “You open your hand…”

I ended this section – and the Birkat Hamazon as a whole – with the traditional blessing, “Baruch atah adonai, ha’tov ve’hameitiv” (“Blessed are you who is good and who bestows good upon us all”). This blessing is traditionally recited at times “which bring pleasure to an entire community” – an eminently appropriate way to end a blessing following a communal meal.

Yotzer Or: Such Exquisite Radiance

As every living thing
bends toward the light,
we turn to you,
sending forth our praise
as you open the gates of heaven,
renewing your work of creation
with faithfulness and love.

Nothing is untouched by your presence:
from the luminaries on high
to the sand beneath our feet –
no boundary can contain your radiance,
no border can hold back your light;
it shines upon us all, 
every ray an angel singing out 
from the heavens:
the whole earth is filled
with your glory!

So let a new light shine upon us –
may it illuminate every corner of creation,
that every land may be a Zion, 
that all may be worthy to bask 
in the warmth of its glow.

Blessed are you, forever recreating our world
with such exquisite radiance.

A Prayer for Reparation and Restoration

America Protests , Paris, France - 02 Jun 2020

photo: Rafael Yaghobzadeh/AP/Shutterstock

To the One who demands justice:
inspire us to become rodfei tzedek,
pursuers of justice
in our lives and in our communities.

Give us the strength to resist power
wielded with fear and dread;
fill us with the vision and purpose
to build a power yet greater,
a power rooted in solidarity,
liberation and love.

Grant us the courage to dismantle
systems of oppression –
and when they are no more,
let us dedicate our wealth and resources
toward the well-being of all.

May we abolish all forms of state violence
that we might make way for a world
free of racism and militarization,
a world where no one profits
off the misery of others,
a world where the bills owed those who have been
colonized, enslaved and dispossessed
are finally paid in full.

Inspire us with the knowledge
that real justice is indeed at hand,
that we may realize
the world we know is possible,
right here, right now,
in our own day.

May our thoughts and our hopes,
our words and our deeds
guide us toward a future of reparation,
of restoration, of justice,
al kol yoshvei teivel
for all who dwell on earth,
amen.

Healing Prayer for a Time of Pandemic

AFP via Getty Images

AFP via Getty Images

May the One who blesses all life bless those who are ill with a refuah sheleimah – complete healing of body and spirit. May they find the strength to move safely through this time of fear and pain, dis-ease and uncertainty. May their loved ones find comfort through the love of their families, friends, and communities.

Let us faithfully support our health professionals who put their own lives at risk to treat their patients. May we do what we must to ensure that scientists and researchers have the resources they need to diagnose illness and prevent its spread.

Let us demand that our leaders and officials honor the public trust we’ve entrusted to them by prioritizing the health of our communities. May we forever fight for the well-being of those whom our government has left behind: communities of color, the poor, the homeless, the disabled, the uninsured.

And when this pandemic is over – may it happen bimheira b’yameinu – soon in our day – let us commit to building at long last a society that takes responsibility for the health of all who dwell in our midst.

Ken Yehi Ratzon – may this be your will.

Ken Yehi Retzoneynu – may this be our will.

And let us say,

Amen.

For Passover: Opening the Door to a New World

open-door-revelation-3-rbs-blog-image__roan-lavery-776794-unsplash-1080x675

Another excerpt from the seder readings I’m putting together for Passover this year. This one is meant to be recited at the point when the door would traditionally be opened for Elijah:

The door is opened and we say:

And when your children ask you what
was Passover like that year,
you will tell them:

Yes, we shared our meal at separate tables,
in separate homes, behind closed doors
and yes, at times it almost felt like we
were the Israelites huddling in the night
behind their painted doorposts,
hoping, praying that the Angel of Death
would pass them by.

Except it wasn’t like that at all:
there were no Israelites, no Egyptians
no capricious, punishing God;
just all of us telling the story together,
the way we did every year
even if we knew nothing
would ever be the same again.

Then when the time came,
we opened our doors wide
and called out from table to table:
Let all who are broken gather
each another’s scattered, shattered pieces,
let all who seek liberation
find a place at the table
let all who hunger for a new world
come and eat.

Observing Passover in an Age of Pandemic

kadesh

I am currently working on a scaled down seder for Tzedek Chicago to use for Passover (via web conferencing) this year. Here’s a taste of my work in progress: an introduction to be read before the first component of the seder, known as Kadesh (the Festival Kiddish):

From the narrow place I called out to God, who answered me with wide open spaces. (Psalm 118:5)

Before we raise the cup to another Passover, we must acknowledge that this night is very different from all other nights. In this extraordinary moment of global pandemic, we are literally dwelling in the “narrow place” of social separation. Thus, we come to the very first question of the evening: how on earth do we fulfill the mitzvah to observe the Passover seder? Where do we even begin?

Let’s begin here: now more than ever, we must affirm Passover’s teaching that liberation is not only possible, but inevitable. We know from nature that spring will invariably follow winter. We know from history that the oppressed do not remain oppressed forever. So too, we know in our hearts and minds that one day we will eventually make it through this narrow place of pandemic and emerge into “wide open spaces.”

But as we also learn from our Passover story: this emergence never happens easily. It cannot happen without real struggle and hard work. We know that there will be causalities. We know, tragically, that the number of casualties is rising dramatically even as we gather together tonight. And while we know there is a new world waiting for us, we don’t yet know how many of us will make it there – or what that world will actually look like when we arrive.

For now, however, we do know this: like the Israelites of our story, we will not make it through without each other. So too, if the current pandemic has taught us anything, it is the lesson that was learned so painfully by the Israelites in our story: that we are all in this together. That my liberation is irrevocably bound up with yours. And that in the midst of the narrow place, there is no other way but forward.

So as we lift the cup to another Passover, let this be our blessing:

Blessed is the One who shows us how to stand together.
Blessed is the One who inspires us to show up for one another.
Blessed is the One who leads us all toward the wide-open spaces of a new day.

A Jewish Prayer for Nakba Day

Nakba.jpg-keys

Le’el she’chafetz teshuvah,
to the One who desires return:

Receive with the fulness of your mercy
the hopes and prayers of those
who were uprooted, dispossessed
and expelled from their homes
during the devastation of the Nakba.

Sanctify for tov u’veracha,
for goodness and blessing,
the memory of those who were killed
in Lydda, in Haifa, in Beisan, in Deir Yassin
and so many other villages and cities
throughout Palestine.

Grant chesed ve’rachamim,
kindness and compassion,
upon the memory of the expelled
who died from hunger,
thirst and exhaustion
along the way.

Shelter beneath kanfei ha’shechinah,
the soft wings of your divine presence,
those who still live under military occupation,
who dwell in refugee camps,
those dispersed throughout the world
still dreaming of return.

Gather them mei’arbah kanfot ha’aretz
from the four corners of the earth
that their right to return to their homes
be honored at long last.

Let all who dwell in the land
live in dignity, equity and hope
so that they may bequeath to their children
a future of justice and peace.

Ve’nomar
and let us say,
Amen.

Le’el she’chafetz teshuvah,
to the One who desires repentance:

Inspire us to make a full accounting
of the wrongdoing that was
committed in our name.

Help us to face the terrible truth of the Nakba
and its ongoing injustice
that we may finally confess our offenses;
that we may finally move toward a future
of reparation and reconciliation.

Le’el malei rachamim,
to the One filled with compassion:
show us how to understand the pain
that compelled our people to inflict
such suffering upon another –
dispossessing families from their homes
in the vain hope of safety and security
for our own.

Osei hashalom,
Maker of peace,
guide us all toward a place
of healing and wholeness
that the land may be filled
with the sounds of joy and gladness
from the river to the sea
speedily in our day.

Ve’nomar
and let us say,
Amen.

Feeding the God of Compassion

brain-01

In the Torah portion, Parashat Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11 – 34:35), we find Moses on the top of the mountain and the Israelites growing restless. They’re not sure if Moses will ever come back, so they pressure Aaron into helping them build a Golden Calf that they can worship (“that will go before us.”) God inevitably becomes infuriated and threatens to wipe all of the Israelites. Though Moses eventually talks God off the ledge, God later sends a plague upon the people as punishment.

A little later on in our portion however, God appears to have reformed completely. When God passes by Moses on the top of Mt. Sinai, God’s divine attributes are described as: “compassionate and slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin.”

So which one is the real God? The punishing authority figure or the unconditionally loving parent? The angry warrior who demands that we dislodge and destroy the inhabitants of Canaan or the compassionate exemplar who commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves?

As I grapple with this question, myself, I’ve come to accept that whether we like it or not, both of these “Gods” are a part of our tradition. As much as we’d like to, we can’t wish away or surgically excise the nasty God from our sacred texts. On the contrary: if we really intend to be serious about incorporating Biblical tradition into our spiritual lives, we need to be prepared to own and confront the “everything” of that tradition.

For me that means asking this question openly and unflinchingly: if the Torah teaches us that human beings are made in the image of God, which image of God will we proclaim? The God of anger or the God of forgiveness? The God of hatred or the God compassion? The God of harsh judgement or the God of loving acceptance?

Needless to say, classical Jewish tradition has had a great deal to say about these questions throughout the centuries. You may be interested to know that contemporary neuroscience has been exploring these issues as well. Over the past decade or so in fact, physicians have been investigating the ways in which spirituality is rooted in the biology of the brain. By combining the fields of neuroscience and religious studies, they’re helping us to actually understand how our neurological makeup influences the ways we experience God.

Several years ago, Dr. Andrew Newberg, the founder of the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania, explored these issues in his book, “Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief.” This was Dr. Newberg’s basic premise:

Every event that happens to us or any actions that we take can be associated with activity in one or more specific regions of the brain. This includes, necessarily, all religious and spiritual experiences. The evidence further compels us to believe that if God does indeed exist, the only place (God) can manifest (God) existence would be in the tangled neural pathways and physiological structures of the brain.

For me, the most amazing findings of this research demonstrate the way God has evolved neurologically over the centuries. In a later book, “How God Changes Your Brain,” Newberg posited that different experiences of God actually correlate to the development of the human brain. Neurologically speaking, researchers have located the angry, authoritarian God in the limbic system, which houses the oldest and most primitive structures of the brain. This includes the amygdala – the little almond-shaped organ that generates our “fight or flight” response.

The benevolent, compassionate God, on the other hand, can be found in our frontal lobes, and particularly in a structure known as the anterior cingulate. These are the parts of the brain most primarily associated with our experience of compassion and empathy. Compared to the ancient limbic system, these structures are the most recently evolved parts of our brain and they appear to be unique to human beings. This is how Newberg put it:

Something happened in the brains of our ancestors that gave us the power to tame this authoritarian God. No one knows exactly when or how it happened, but the neural structures that evolved enhanced our ability to cooperate with others. They gave us the ability to construct language and to consciously think in logical and reasonable ways…Without these new neural connections, humans would be limited in their ability to develop an inner moral code or a societal system of ethics.

To be clear: this is not an argument for doing away with our brain stems. We obviously cannot survive without them. And we cannot deny that there may well be times in our lives when anger, fear and vigilance are warranted. The problem, of course, is that we can too easily let our limbic systems run wild. Indeed, neurological research demonstrates that whenever we let our anger or fear overpower us, brain activity in our frontal lobes gets shut down. When this happens, our “fight or flight” response is generated, and it spreads rapidly throughout our brains.

We’ve long known that excessive anger or fear can cause problems like high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. Studies also show that extreme anger can permanently disrupt structures in both our brains that control basic functions like memory storage and cognitive accuracy. In other words, when we indulge our anger, we feed the more toxic and destructive manifestations of God.

In Jewish terms, this research remindes me of the famous dynamic between the Yetzer Hara (“the bad inclination”) and the Yetzer Hatov (“the good inclination.”) The rabbis made sure to point out that the Yetzer Harah was an essential aspect of our humanity. The conventional translation of ra and tov as “good” and “evil” is not tremendously helpful in this regard. The sages, in fact take pains to point out that we need them both. Whether we like it or not, these impulses are a part of us – much like our limbic system is an essential and necessary part of our brain. The point is not to deny or repress our Yetzer Hara, but to channel and master it. As the verse from classic rabbinic text Pirke Avot teaches: “Mi hu gibor? Mi’she kovesh et yitzro” – “Who is mighty? The one who masters one’s yetzer (hara).”

So how do we do this? By consciously channelling our “fight or flight” impulses while exercising those frontal lobes. Or another way of putting it: by keeping our baser instincts in check while nurturing our capacity for kindness. And believe it or not, science itself is proving that compassion and empathy can be neurologically contagious. Studies demonstrate conclusively that there is increased activity in the compassion center of the brain whenever we perceive others as being sensitive to our needs. Scientists have also concluded through research that the more positive contact we have with members of other different religions, cultural, and ethnic groups, the less prejudice we tend to harbor in our brains.

So to return to our portion, I’m struck that it when God witnesses the Golden Calf episode, we read an all too human description of a limbic system run amok. Interestingly enough, it is Moses himself who serves as the frontal cortex in this case, keeping God from indulging the impulses toward annihilation.

I can’t help but think there is a profound neurological/ethical lesson for us in all of this. Given the precarious nature of our 21st century reality, I’d suggest we need to heed this lesson now more than ever.

Sealing the Gates of Heaven

sealed_gate

According to an order from the most high
the first day of the month shall be a sacred occasion
when the shofar is sounded the gates will be sealed
and all roads will be closed to you.
You shall not you leave your homes
nor work at your occupations.
lest you and your kin be put to death.

Like fires lit on ancient mountaintops
the announcement spread throughout the land;
when the new moon came the wall was locked tight
so the people could gather in their houses of prayer
to greet another new year.

And the Chazan sang:
As a shepherd numbering his flocks
passing his sheep under his staff
thus I count you off one by one,
marking your every move, noting your every thought
writing you down in my Book of Life
that I may decree
who shall live and who shall die.

Day after day they sent out
fearful prayers into the dark dread
of a year they did not yet know,
desperately hoping their lives would be spared
by the merciful judge on high.

For today it is written
and in ten days it will be sealed
who will be taken in the dead of night
and who shall sleep until morning
who will die and who will be born
into this cruel and pitiless world

When the festival came to an end
the great shofar was sounded
and a still small voice was heard:
The gates of heaven are sealed;
they will not open to your prayers.