Friday, August 10, 2018

God's Formless Presence is Crystallized in the Form of Every Human Being

       It is a truism, yet one whose truth and its implications is most often forgotten. Not a matter of remote theological musing, but of urgent and immediate challenge, Jews sing of it in prayerful song, in Yigdal, as drawn from Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles, eyn lo d’mut ha’guf v’eyno guf, lo na’aroch elav k’dushato/God has neither bodily form nor substance, holiness beyond compare. It is deeply held in Jewish thought and tradition that God has no body, no physical form. It is for that reason that iconography finds no place in artistic expressions of Jewish faith. And yet…, a small word in whose balance so much hangs, the human being is created in the image of God, b’tzelem elokim (Gen. 1:27). The human being is told to be holy as God is holy (Lev. 19:2), God, whose holiness is beyond compare. It is the human being who carries God’s unformed image in the world and gives it form. That is in part why we are not to create images by which to depict God. God already has an image to represent the Godly in this world, and that is the human being, mortal adam..

        In caring for other human beings, we care not only for God’s representatives in this world, but so too for God’s very likeness, and so we become holy, as God is holy. Beyond perception in itself, God’s likeness is, nevertheless, ever before our eyes. Meant to be cared for, every person carries the precious image of God. Every act that harms another human being is a failure of moral perception, a failure to recognize and acknowledge God’s presence in this world. God has no form or image, and yet over and over and over again, we destroy God’s image, and God weeps with pain. Every word that cuts to the quick of another’s soul cuts to the quick of God’s soul. Every act of callous disregard for the depth of feeling that makes us human is an act of disregard for God’s pleading presence in the world. Every act that harms the body, soul, and psyche of another human being fills the world with cosmic weeping from beyond the world itself.

       Created in the image of God, the human being carries the divine likeness, reflecting God’s image in all the ways of human diversity, refracting God’s light through deeds of holiness. As a focal point of veneration, therefore, images are not to be fashioned either of God or of people. It would be as though to replace, or displace, the human, and so to displace God. It would be to replace who we are as vessels and means of holiness, in all of our eternal essence, with finite images of stone, or metal, or wood. As a thread that runs through the weekly Torah portion Va’etchanan (Deut. 3:23-7:11), we are both cautioned and commanded not to make images. There are some thirteen direct or indirect references to images and to the way of our perceiving things in the portion. There are four specific prohibitions to the making of images, culminating in the second of the Ten Commandments as carried in Va’etchanan (Deut. 5:6-18), You shall not have another God before My Presence. Do not make yourself a representation/lo ta’aseh l’cha pesel, in the form of an image, nor in the form of any other likeness….

It is not only God who is not to be replaced by an image, but the human being. As its own teaching on care for others as rooted in care for ourselves as bearers of God’s image, introducing the Torah’s several warnings not to create images there is a preface with some form of the word shamor/watch over: as in rak hi’shamer l’cha u’sh’mor naf’sh’cha m’od/only take heed and guard your soul exceedingly Deut. 4:9); v’nishmartem m’od l’naf’sho’teychem/so take heed exceedingly for the sake of your souls… (4:15); hi’sham’ru l’chem/therefore take heed to yourselves (4:23). It is in the various forms of this phrase as a call to watch over ourselves that the rabbis rooted a sacred obligation, a mitzvah, to look after and care for our bodies, to regard the body as holy, a sacred vessel worthy of respect and care.

In its joining of respect and care for the human body as a reflection of God’s image and the prohibition against creating what we might call replacement images, so the Torah roots the moral power of that prohibition. Every single human being is irreplaceable, each one unique and precious in their humanness. Of that moral import, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes in a powerfully moving essay in his book, “Man’s Quest for God” (p. 125), “Reverence for God is shown in our reverence for man. The fear you must feel of offending or hurting a human being must be as ultimate as your fear of God. An act of violence is an act of desecration. To be arrogant toward man is to be blasphemous toward God.” Heschel goes on to write (p. 126-127), “What is necessary is not to have a symbol but to be a symbol…. The divine symbolism of man is not in what he has—such as reason or the power of speech—but in what he is potentially…: to be holy as God is holy….” The likeness of God, Heschel writes, “may be defiled, distorted, and forfeited…. The goal of man is to recognize and preserve his likeness or at least to prevent its distortion….”
     As Rabbi Heschel teaches, evil finds its root in our failure to recognize God’s image in every human being. In fierce tension, such is the potential for human goodness and the potential for evil. In our failure to live in accord with who we are and are meant to be, in our failure to recognize ourselves and others as bearers of God’s image, the potential for evil is realized. In a nation, a world, a time of so much violence, of so much disregard for each person’s humanity, God’s image is cut down as though it was so much stone, or metal, or wood.
We are the flesh and blood representation of the Holy One. It is that all-inclusive we of humanity that underscores the barbarity of tearing children from their parents’ arms, of hounding human beings as though they were so much vermin, of speaking in ways to demean and belittle, of wars, of nuclear imaginings, of disregard for the very earth on which we live and strive. And God weeps and mourns for the image-bearers, groaning with the pain of God’s flesh and blood children.

At the end of a day while in Prague recently, a day when I had traveled to Terezin, one of so many hells on earth where human beings were burned as though wood, or stone, or metal, I prayed at the Alt Neue Shul, most famous of Prague’s synagogues. It is the synagogue where the Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Yehudah Loew, prayed, the place where so long ago he learned and taught and wrote his books. I stood directly across from the seat that had once been his, no longer used since the 15th century in deference to him, still his seat.     It was my father’s sh’loshim, the thirtieth day since his funeral. As I rose to say Kaddish, the memorial prayer for the dead that speaks only of life, so too did the one member of the local community, saying Kaddish as a matter of course for all of those for whom there is no one to say Kaddish. When the man realized that I was a mourner, he lowered his voice and motioned to me in deference. I was overcome with emotion, trying mightily to stem the flow of tears as they rose with the sacred words carried on my voice. As well as for my dad, I realized that I was saying Kaddish for all those nameless souls, there in the synagogue of the Maharal, across from his seat, words rising to the vaulted ceilings and then beyond.
       On portion Va’etchanan, the Maharal wrote on the matter of images, a teaching to remind of what is ultimate, of the human being who is not to be displaced: ki v’tzelem elokim bara et ha’adam/for in the image of God did God create the human, and since the human was created in the image of God, hinei/behold, k’mo she’ha’shem yisborach hu/the human is like the holy blessed one…, she’ha’adam she’hu nivra b’tzalmo hu kolel kol olamo/for as the human is created in God’s image, the human contains all of God’s world… (Gur Aryeh, vol. 5., p. 31).
         Of urgent and ultimate truth, of challenge as immediate as the day’s wrenching news, God’s formless presence is crystallized in the form of every human being. Such is our potential to be vessels of holiness, our choice through deeds of goodness to be reminders of God’s presence. 
Beyond the work of human hands in stone, or metal, or wood, of imperishable essence before the edicts of pharaohs, fuehrers, or presidents, before the fires of hell on earth in which Jewish bodies were burned, every human being is of ultimate meaning. Caring for and honoring the flesh and blood reality of each one’s being, tending to the needs of each one’s soul, so we honor the formless Holy One, source of all life in whose image we are created.

Rabbi Victor Reinstein

Friday, August 3, 2018

The Ba'al Shem Tov and the Skunk

At least twice a week I take a walk with a friend.  We pass a school and often hear laughing children at recess.  We enter a wood that lets out onto a clearing, and the children’s voices fade away.   Occasionally a red tailed hawk is perched on a branch over our heads or soars hunting over the field.        The crows caucus loudly, and I hope for a flock of bluebirds that turn iridescent in the morning light.  Back in the woods there are some houses.  One has an impressive garden in which an orange fruit, perhaps a persimmon, clings to its branches even as the temperatures drop.  Another’s breezeway gives us a glimpse of the ocean we’ll encounter full on a little ways ahead.  Sometimes the waves come over the seawall, the spray chilling our faces with 30 mile an hour winds.  Sometimes we see all the way to the mainland. We walk along a road that winds along a pond. Once we stood there for half an hour routing traffic around a box turtle making its daily pilgrimage from the wetlands on one side of the road to the pond on the other.  But these last few months we’ve been marking the decay of a skunk. 
         At first it shocked us, its blood staining the ground.  The blood seemed still to be running, so freshly dead it was on those first sightings.  Hungry crows eventually carried its viscera and part of its carcass down into the swamp.  But they’d left the skunk’s head, tufts of fur, skeletal detritus and the depression it had made in the ground.  Then the snow covered it all, but we still stopped to talk about the skunk, because there is always a lesson for us.  The snow has since melted, yet we still see the skunk, the pieces, the whole, its shadow.  Three yards on we stand at the edge of the pond counting geese or mallards, marveling at the light, watching a swan feed, looking across to the sea.   

“When you grasp the edge, you grasp the whole,” said the Ba’al Shem Tov.
One lesson of the decaying skunk and the pond beyond:  I can get both into my field of vision at once, or I can focus on only one or the other.  When I focus on just the decaying skunk, I am overwhelmed by sadness, by ugliness and by the pain of seeing another being tortured, even in death.  Sometimes I can see the ecological whole cloth:  the carrion nourishing the crows, the minerals of its bones leeching into and enriching the earth, the fur providing nesting material for birds and small rodents.  This is beautiful, if I can get there.  If I can’t, I am just in pain in the World of Separation. When I am able to capture the picture of the decaying skunk in the same field of vision as the pond beyond, I can begin to fathom the World of Unity. If I can glimpse the world of unity, if I can accept that all sides of the contradictions—the ugliness and the beauty, the pain and the love, the suffering and the relief—are all God-given, I can glimpse the goodness that runs through everything in this world. 

Why do both the World of Separation and the World of Unity exist? 
 The Ba’al Shem Tov, Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, who lived in Poland in the 17th century and is attributed with founding the Hasidic movement of Judaism, teaches that both good and evil are parts of the unity.  He explains through the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt that the goodness of Israel’s redemption from slavery was only made possible by the evil of Pharaoh’s enslavement.  This and This are both true.   
The question for us is: can we see the goodness in the evil?  Can we discern the unity in the separation?  Can we “find sweetness in the heart of the judgment” so as to “find the loving-kindness within”?

We walk along, back into the woods.  Today the snow hangs on the cedar branches.  We have to walk single-file and duck under the branches to stay on the path.  I go first.  When I look back, I see my friend in a sparkling green and white world.  I have been telling her my hurt at feeling slighted by another, my guilt for speaking about another, but now I see her beautiful smile reflecting my own back at me, the hurt having melted into sheer joy and wonder at seeing the beauty of the snow glisten in the sun. I am grateful for the connection between us that deepens and widens every walk we take.    
We are in both worlds, the world of division and the world of unity.  We experience pain and suffering and we have the power to ameliorate them.  Our exile from Eden, from ourselves, from others and from God is the source of the pain we feel.  If we accept that the pain is part of our existence, if we understand in our hearts that God gave us both the pain and the love, we can then perhaps open our hearts to discover the sparks of the Divine within ourselves that can act to ameliorate the pain and suffering.

The Ba’al Shem Tov teaches that the meaning of the verse “’you will love your God with all your heart and with all your soul,’ wherever you are and whatever is going on, counters the pain and suffering.”  Accepting the daily troubles is accessing and connecting with the “spirit soul.” The teaching continues:  “You shall love your God with your God, taking the loving side of God to love the judging side.” By accepting with love the daily challenges we face, the harsh, judging side is cancelled out. 

      She teaches me what it means to sit with people in pain, to receive and hold the pain.  The skunk teaches this to me, as well.  In the early stages of its decay, its odor dominated the air like murder dominates the Metro section of the daily paper.  Walk after walk, I seemed to become more connected with the skunk.  I looked forward to seeing it after a while, because I felt I was seeing a part of me now and how I will become in time.  I have stopped being repulsed and the separation between the skunk and me has begun to dissolve.
Our job is to end the separation between the Realm of Unity and the Realm of Division, within ourselves and within the world.  To do this, we need to “channel the love and the unity consciousness that we have experienced into our daily actions, consciousness and relationships.”  One way we do this is through prayer.  

The Ba’al Shem Tov taught that our degradation is from a loss of faith.  Yet everyone has access to Divine grace.   This comes from sincere prayer, because “God wants to kiss the lips of the man who speaks Torah, [God’s instruction], from trembling and awe.”  Focused, sincere prayer touches God, which leads to repair of the brokenness of this world. 

Today on our walk I had the sensation of absorbing  the shadow of the skunk.  My eyes were doing this funny thing of independently—without my willing it—zooming in and out on the piece of ground on which the skunk had died, like you can make your digital camera zoom in and out of a scene on which you are focusing.  As my eyes were in this process, it seemed to me that I was absorbing the essence of the skunk, along with the essence of the pond beyond, the essence of the phragmites and of the crows that had devoured the carrion.  It seemed as if my eyes were the first part of my consciousness of the absorption, but that the absorption was taking place on many levels and that I, too, was being absorbed.

How do we serve the Divine in this world?  There are some actions in which this is more easily achievable for me, and perhaps you, than others.  In the garden and at my CSA I have no trouble seeing the unity; God is everywhere abundantly.  But it is much harder for me to maintain mystical mindfulness in the mundane and in the momentary annoyances, such as when the phone line is not working at intervals and having to replace the burner on the stove. The Ba’al Shem Tov taught that “God hides behind many barriers and is veiled in many garments.  But what is true is that ‘the fullness of the whole earth is God’s glory.’  Every thought, every movement comes from God.  Everything is made of God’s own essence.  Those who truly understand this know that the walls, towers, gates, gold and castle are only God in hiding, ‘for there is no place devoid of the Divine.’” 

       What keeps coming back into view for me is that I live in both worlds, the world of skunk-Oneness and the world of skunk-Division.  In truth, I’m not sure I want only to be in the Realm of Unity, not yet.  In truth, I’m earthy and lusty.  I know that about myself.  Just watch me eat some time.  The Ba’al Shem Tov honored this.  This is why I think he would honor my belief about where I am right now:  that I can do what it takes to help heal the brokenness, to help bring about repair in the universe, to be with people where they are and help them move closer to God, to love God with all my heart, with all my soul and with all my might, to see the goodness in the evil,  AND also to struggle with the dis-integration, the ugliness, the desire, the brokenness as one who experiences that and feels that and yearns for the Unity of the One but isn’t there yet all the time.  I sit with being in the “both/and” place, the This and This place, and try to be both content with where I am in the World of Separation as I strive to be in the World of Unity.

Rabbi Lori Shaller, guest blogger


Elior, Rachel.  The Mystical Origins of Hasidism.  Portland, Oregon:  the Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2008.
Jacobson, Burt.  Teachings on the Ba’al Shem Tov:
            The Four Core Truths of the Ba’al Shem Tov with texts of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s
                        A Perennial Kabbalist, June, 2009.
                        The Four Core Truths, Shorter Version, sent via email, October, 2009.
                        The Quest for the Divine:  a parable of the Ba’al Shem Tov.