Head in the Clouds – Parshat Ha’azinu 5776

Head in the Clouds

You probably already know one of my favorite parts of my day is the time I take to walk.  When I got a Fitbit last year as a gift, it spurred me on even more. Here’s the catch: I don’t walk on a treadmill or on a track in the gym.  Indoor exercise feels lacking to me, especially because I use my walks to clear my mind, brainstorm new programs and sermons, and find myself at peace.  Walking outside all the time can mean that sometimes I’m bundled up, and sometimes I’m seriously sweating it out. In Portland, it often means that my walks happen in the morning fog and clouds that hover over our hilly neighborhood.  Ironically, when I’m physically in the clouds is when I find myself most clear-headed.

Weather plays a prominent role throughout the Bible; consider the stories of Noah, Jonah, and Job. Specifically, clouds and fog are referenced in spots as well.  Mount Sinai is described in the Torah as being covered in a heavy cloud, which represents God.  One imagines Moshe needing to wade through the heavens in order to “find God.”  Way back in Bereshit, the descriptions of the earth mention being covered in a fog-like substance that then swirls and whirls and separates into water and sky before the land takes shape.  Walking in fog can be a surprisingly spiritual reminder of a preformed world.

This week we read the penultimate Torah portion, parshat Ha’azinu, which has the special honor of being the last section of Torah read on Shabbat morning.  Parshat Ha’azinu is a poem which warns of the negative behavior of the Israelites, but reminds us of the blessings that will come to them with the good behavior they are capable of.  The text ends with Moshe ascending the mountain into the clouds as he takes his leave of the Israelite nation.  This parshah is the link between generations, between new and old leadership, and between living on earth (in the land of Israel), and living with God (on top of the mountain in the heavens).  

The parshah begins, “Give ear, O heavens, let me speak; Let the earth hear the words I utter!”  The Hatam Sofer, an 18th century commentator from Hungary, interprets the verse in the following way:  “Listen to me you spiritual people whose thoughts are in heaven, and also you down-to-earth people whose concerns are more material.  This message is meant for all of you.”  As the final Shabbat-read section of the Torah, Ha’azinu not only has the unique designation of being a mini summary of the entire Torah, it also points out that Torah is for everyone. Judaism can speak to your soul and your brain; it can challenge your mind and your body.

Wherever you are, with your head in the clouds or your ear to the ground, there is a piece of Torah for you. As we enter a new year of learning and living, may we find ourselves growing and engaging with our spiritual selves as well as with our physical world, and may the journey be filled with blessing, challenge, and success.  

Another Turning Point – Parshat Ha’azinu/Rosh HaShannah 5774

Rosh HaShannah, the beginning of a new year.  Parts of it sped by, parts seemed to go slowly, but we reach this new year and see the broad expanse of time and possibility spread out before us.  But unlike the beginning of a secular year, this moment in the Jewish calendar is marked by transitional time.  The Jewish calendar is set up for this transition from one year to the next to be not only smooth, but transformative.  From the 17th day of Tammuz, when we enter into a period of 3 weeks of mourning leading to Tisha B’av, to the beginning of this final month of the year, Elul, we are occupied with transitions of the past, present, and future.  It is common Jewish practice to spend Elul in transformation, searching our souls to make changes and make the new year different.  So here we are at the turning point, called Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of return or repentance.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Hebrew language is the way in which the shoresh, the three letter root of a word, can often have several meanings.  For example, the shoresh Nun, Sin, Aleph, spelling Na’Sah, can mean to lift up, to carry, or to marry.  You could spend an eternity analyzing the meaning in this relationship between the words with the matching root.  It should come as no surprise that the holiday we celebrate this week, Rosh HaShannah, has wordplay of its own.

Rosh means head, but that could be the body part at the top of the neck responsible for thought processes, the person sitting at the special spot at a table, or the first day of anything.  Whatever the meaning, we know there’s some type of beginning involved when we see the word rosh.  The second word, Shannah, typically means year, but there’s a little more to it.  The root of the word is Shin, Nun, Hey.  This special shoresh can mean year, to alter, or to repeat, and the slight variation of Shin Nun Nun, even means to teach.

We’ve reached this time in our yearly cycle where we have the opportunity for a new beginning, but also an opportunity for change, for learning, and the chance to perhaps learn from or repeat our prior mistakes.  The question is how will you view this coming year?  At this Shabbat we read the words of parshat Ha’azinu and the beginning of the end of Moshe’s final instructions to the Israelites.  We are reminded about the changes he led them through, the teaching he’s done, and the years of dedication he gave to the nation.

At this turning point, the rosh, the head of a new year, give yourself the gift of change.  Make sure that it includes learning new things, repeating those things that worked in the past, and making changes for the better, toward what will lead you to your dreams.  That will make the year truly transformative.

Teach Your Children – Parshat Ha’azinu 5773

One of my favorite pastimes is hearing stories about families and their ancestry.  When I was very young, I learned that we have the family tree on my maternal grandmother’s side dating back to 1492 and the Spanish Inquisition, when the name was changed to Auslander.  With that kind of history, there’s plenty to tell about my great-great-grandparents and how my family came to America.  I also take pride in knowing that my husband’s family owned the first kosher bakery in Dallas.  For me, knowing where I’ve come from helps me find my place in our world today.
I am not alone in my love of genealogy.  These days it seems that one of the most popular trends is tracing your genealogy back as far as you can go.  You have probably seen the genealogy.com ads that encourage you to find out where your grandparents or great-grandparents came from, what their occupation was, and where and when they entered the United States.  One of the most well attended sessions at LearningFest for the past two years has been the session that Meyer Denn leads on researching your genealogy.  It’s human nature to want to know where we’ve come from.
The Torah reminds us that family history is an important piece in completing the puzzle of our lives.  So many times the Torah teaches us that we do something because “you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”  While I wasn’t actually there, I’m sure my family knew what it was like to be strangers when they were ousted from Spain, a part of history which certainly helped determine that I would be here today to talk about it.  And I am most definitely fortunate to have had the opportunity to ask my grandparents about this history personally.
This week we read parshat Ha’azinu, Moshe’s final poem to the Israelite people.  In it, he reminds the people of God’s grace, compassion and loving leadership, while at the same time criticizing the Israelites for their lack of faith and understanding.  In this poem we read “Remember the days of old, Consider the years of ages past; Ask your father, he will inform you, Your elders, they will tell you.” As Moshe is moving towards his final farewell to the people, he implores them to ask their elders to clarify laws and to share their stories.
We often think of this mitzvah at Pesach when the story of the Israelites in Egypt is fresh in our mind, but Moshe and God in our parshah tell us that once a year is simply not enough.  In order for our people – and our families – to continue to move forward, we must teach the past.  We have an obligation to educate our children in Jewish history, traditions and observance so that they will share our love and passion.  In a world where we have access to so many stories and so much information, we depend on the past to enlighten their future.
THIS TOO IS TORAH: Graham Nash, who wrote the song “Teach Your Children,” was partly inspired by Jewish photographer Diane Arbus, who captured the iconic image “Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park.”

Your Inside Voice – Rosh HaShannah/Parshat Ha’azinu 5772

I’d like to share one of my favorite poems, “The Voice: by Shel Silverstein:
There is a voice inside of you that whispers all day long
I feel that this is right for me, I know that this is wrong
No teacher, preacher, parent, friend, or wise man can decide
What’s right for you, just listen to the voice that speaks inside.
Around this time of year, we often talk about the voice inside us and listening to our conscience, but each of us also has an individual voice, the voice that we use to speak to one another.  Sometimes it is a sweet, upbeat, light voice, and other times, it is loud, heavy, and angry.  The voice we use can change based on our environment.  When we’re outdoors having fun, we might be giggly and light spirited, but in front of the boardroom or class during a presentation, we try to make our voices firm, grounded and unwavering.  Voices can also make a distinct first impression when we hear someone before seeing them, which is the premise behind NBC’s show called “The Voice.” Our voice can allow others to know what we’re feeling at a given moment and, if we listen, alert us to how our peers are feeling.  The voice is a powerful tool.
We are in the midst of the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, the days that represent not only a new year for the Jewish calendar, but days that require us to take accounting of our own souls, actions and deeds and to take ownership of the wrongs we have done in the past year.  We move quickly through the celebration of the New Year to the Shabbat of liminality, Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of return or repentance that prepares us for Yom Kippur, the day of ultimate judgment.  All the while, we’re expected to use our voices to ask forgiveness, listen to others as they ask for forgiveness and listen to our internal voices as we determine our next actions.
During the unetanetokef prayer of the Rosh HaShannah liturgy we will read this week, we read the words “The great shofar will be sounded and the still small voice will be heard.”  This phrase from the liturgy contrasts the loud and soft voices we’re hearing.  Sometimes the right choice, the right voice, is loud, booming, alarming and in your face like the blasts of the shofar.  And other times, the voice is nearly silent, a whisper, hidden in the thought process that leads to decision making.
Rosh HaShannah serves as this day of calling out and beginning to be in tune with our voices, with our choices, with our conscience.  Finding our voice is as much about what we say as it is about what we hear.  Between Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur we read parshat Ha’azinu, the last portion of the Torah cycle read on Shabbat morning and a poem of Moshe recapping God’s glory.  He begins: “Give ear, O heavens, let me speak; let the earth hear the words I utter.”  Moshe conjures up two listeners: one includes the universe, God and the expanse unseen; the other is the earth, the material, that which happens between human beings.
The voice can connect us in prayer with one another and with God and can just as easily alienate us with violent words.  As we begin a new year, listen to the blasts of the shofar, the alarm of awareness.  Search for your own voice, but remember to “just listen to the voice that speaks inside.”  Only when we are in tune with our inner voice can our voice that is heard aloud truly make a difference.
ללמוד  To Learn: ללמד  To Teach: The parshah this week, chapter 32:7tells us: Remember the days of old… Ask your father, he will inform you.  This echoes the commandment of Passover to remember our past and teach our children.  Trace your family tree and see where you’ve come from.  As a family search for a custom for Rosh HaShannah from this place and try it out this year. http://www.myjewishlearning.com/holidays/Jewish_Holidays/Rosh_Hashanah.shtml
לשמור  To Keep  לעשות  To Do: During the Yamim Noraim pay special attention to the voices you use when talking to different people.  How do you sound?  Are you angry?  Frustrated?  Is this tone caused by the person to whom you are speaking or a separate incident in the day?  Awareness of the voice we use to speak to others can help us move forward with stronger relationships.