Parshat Va'eira For the Cantors of 2017
What a week to be gathering together here. Many of us have spent the last few months in fear and anxiety – checking our news feeds every few minutes looking both to confirm our fears and somehow find hope that something incredible might still happen to save us from… well, everything.
It is completely overwhelming and can even be debilitating.
I know that I have lost hours of productive work time because moving my focus away from all of “it” can prove to be impossible.
Still – is there any choice but to keep pushing on through the choir rehearsals, b’nei mitzvah lessons, committee meetings, staff meetings, pastoral meetings, meetings about meetings, and other things that fill our work and personal lives? Obviously not.
So – how to navigate it all? How to keep from normalizing the increasingly perverse situations of our government and accept that “that’s just how it is now” while still functioning and even thriving as cantors – sacredly attuned spiritual, musical and communal leaders?
I tend to lean on my fundamental belief that every Torah portion comes precisely at the right moment. It has, literally, never let me down. So – I open the book again – this time to Va’eira – and since I’m not really one for hanging out alone by myself I brought along a friend – Rabbi Shlomo Hakohen Rabinowitz, the Radomsker Rebbe, sometimes also known as the Tiferet Shlomo.
He noticed that the beginning of this week’s parashah is a bit odd. Frankly, it seems entirely out of place.
At this point, Moses has already come back to Egypt from his time in Midian, has already been re-introduced to the Israelites and their slavery, and has already gone to ask Pharaoh to “let my people go” for the first time. Pharaoh’s response back, as you all know, was to make the Israelite’s work even harder bringing Moses, at the end of last week’s parashah to say:
אֲ-דֹ-נָ֗י לָמָ֤ה הֲרֵעֹ֨תָה֙ לָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֔ה לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה שְׁלַחְתָּֽנִי:
God – Why did you harm this people? Why did you send me?
God’s response – “עַתָּ֣ה תִרְאֶ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֶֽעֱשֶׂ֖ה לְפַרְעֹ֑ה “
“Just you wait and see what I’m going to do” – seems like enough of an answer – but sort of strangely, the beginning of this parashah, still, seemingly, right in the middle of God speaking, starts off with
וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר אֱ-לֹהִ֖ים אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֵלָ֖יו אֲנִ֥י יְה-וָֹֽ-ה:
Now – the Wissenschaft Bible Scholars among you will tell me that this is obviously an “E” interpolation into an otherwise “J” text – and you might even be historically correct – but the Tiferet Shlomo and I think that there is something else going on here.
This opening paragraph – God’s pep-talk like monologue to Moses – fails to inspire the people when Moses passes the message on.
וְלֹ֤א שָֽׁמְעוּ֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה מִקֹּ֣צֶר ר֔וּחַ וּמֵֽעֲבֹדָ֖ה קָשָֽׁה:”
The Radomsker asks – why is it that the people did not hear Moses now when just about a chapter ago -
וַֽיַּֽאֲמֵ֖ן הָעָ֑ם וַֽיִּשְׁמְע֡וּ כִּֽי־פָקַ֨ד יְהֹ-וָ֜-ה אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל”
The people turned so fast – what is it that made them give up the hope they had just enthusiastically affirmed?
Starting flames of holiness requires that initial divine spark that descends into the common world. In times like these, when we seek to elevate entire worlds – we need to begin by drawing down some divine light to give us the strength to rise up above. This is, for example, according to the Radomsker, the purpose of Kabbalat Shabbat.
This is also why each and every day a person says “Elohai N’shamah” in the morning. The origin-point of our worship of God is that part of the soul which can wake us up – it is our inner divinity, as if it is the morning dew which God has planted inside us. Think back to Genesis:
כִּי֩ לֹ֨א הִמְטִ֜יר יְ-הוָֹ֤-ה אֱ-לֹהִים֙ עַל־הָאָ֔רֶץ וְאָדָ֣ם אַ֔יִן לַֽעֲבֹ֖ד אֶת־הָֽאֲדָמָֽה
God did not send rain upon the earth because there was not a person to work the soil – and then:
וְאֵ֖ד יַֽעֲלֶ֣ה מִן־הָאָ֑רֶץ
A spring rose up from the ground.
כי בכל הענינים צריך להיות האתערותא דלתתא ואחר כך מתעורר למעלה.
For with all things – the awakening begins below and only afterwards do the upper realms awaken.
Now – this might put some into a difficult position. How can we pray when we can’t find that initial spark – when the divine part of our soul seems hidden from us – when the lower awakening just refuses to come?
This is where the tzadikim come into play – for one of the special aspects of a tzadik is that they don’t wait to receive that divine light – they draw it down themselves and just get started.
King David wrote in Psalm 88 - “ וּבַבֹּקֶר, תְּפִלָּתִי תְקַדְּמֶךָּ”
In the morning – my prayer will precede you. – meaning that he would bring himself to that prayer-awakening every morning.
Or, as in Psalm 57 - אָעִירָה שָּׁחַר – I will awaken the dawn (rather than the dawn awakening me)
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were all such self-starters – each of them preceded God’s divine inspiration in their own way – this is built into the history of our people.
Looking back at our parashah, this entire passage and its retelling of the history of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the covenant with God is all there to remind the people that the divine spark is already there with them. But it failed.
The people did not believe in themselves – did not believe that they could possibly stand at a level where they could awaken the divine flow.
So – when words fail what is left to do but act – and that is when God sends Moses back to Pharaoh – and the stage for the plagues is set.
Why would the Torah include such a failure? What helpful message can we glean from the failure of God’s own words to Moses?
Surely, our words are much less divine than God’s and we, though only slightly lower than angels, are not Moses.
My work as a cantor centers on a single fundamental belief that music accesses parts of human beings that are otherwise unreachable. Consciously, unconsciously, spiritually – unspiritually – the manipulation of sound is nothing less that אתערותא דלתתא – a lower awakening that can stir the very heavens.
We must be the tzadikim who don’t wait for the perfect moment of inspiration or clarity to arrive. אָעִירָה שָּׁחַר – we must bring the dawn because it is entirely unclear when it will rise for us.
This sacred gathering is filled with business and budgets, with strategies and policies – but it must also be about the central question posed by the Radomsker – what do we do when the people can’t see their own ability to draw the light of heaven down into the world?
What we do is get up and start doing the task God has asked of us and for which God has uniquely given us gifts.
The days ahead promise to be harder than any most of us have known – and holiness may feel ever farther away.
May we, each of us, succeed in continually reminding ourselves of the divinity implanted within us – and may we each learn something of that aspect of the tzadik to use our own spark to elevate worlds, inspire communities, to awaken ourselves and to therefore also awaken God’s salvation.
Kein Y’hi Ratzon.