Sunday, May 06, 2012
Sunday Reflection: On Sode
Last week, in this space, I reflected on something I had heard from Rabbi Norman Cohen. The good Rabbi wrote me later, with some explication of the point he was making about a "secret" meaning of scripture, and they were so interesting that I received his permission to post them here:
In the rabbinic paradigm of PRDS, the Sode, secret, is an extremely esoteric understanding that comes to very few. It is beyond the ken of most of us. No Jew whom I know would claim to have access to it, without his tongue planted firmly in his cheek. I am often satisfied (although not as frequently as I would like) when I "get something" in a text, but I always relate it to Remez (the hint that lies beneath the surface, or Drash, the digging that exegesis requires, which still most often regrettably yields eisgesis instead.
Claiming to have access to the Sode usually negates its validity because of the hubris that is often involved, thus sullying the claim. Usually, ultra Orthodox "mystics" claim it, but that is another reason why I see red flags when they speak with their authority. It is very insightful and appropriately humble that Mark in his blog claims that never did he get it "on his own".
Yet, I would still hesitate to call it the "Sode".
One of my favorite thoughts is one ascribed to Professor Louis Finkelstein : "When we pray we speak to God...when we study God speaks to us."
Rabbi Cohen also attached the following Yom Kippur sermon from a few years ago, which I thought was wonderful:
Finding the AHA in the HO-HUM
Kol Nidre 5771
Bet Shalom Congregation
Rabbi Norman M. Cohen
When the Romans conquered Jerusalem, they entered the ancient Temple and made their way to the inner sanctum, the Holy of Holies, into which only the Kohen Gadol, the high priest, was permitted to enter and only once a year, on this day Yom Kippur. They understood that to conquer a people one must lay bare their power, and it was clear to all the other nations that the invincibility of the Jewish people was due to our Holy Covenant with God. How disappointed they must have been when they drew back the curtain in the Holy of Holies, to see only an empty space, no fabulous being, no rare animal, not even an unusual object. There was absolutely nothing in what was supposed to be the center of Holiness. They, like us, expected something spectacular, inspirational, and impressive. Instead they discovered the truth: that Judaism believes that holiness is found not only in the miraculous, the heightened dramatic depictions of the extraordinary a la Cecil B. DeMille. Rather it is when we are in what others may regard as the HOHUM of life that we can experience the most meaningful AHA moments.
Let’s be honest. When we prepared for this evening to come to this beautiful sanctuary, did we not have expectations of holiness? After all, this is Kol Nidre; the building has been cleaned and polished. The clergy are dressed in white, spotless robes. There is an aura of holiness like no other time of the year. It is not just Erev Yom Kippur, the holiest day on our liturgical calendar; it is also Shabbat, that precious gem in the crown of the week. There can be no more holy time than this. Or can there be?
What about those ceremonial moments in the life cycle? We feel especially holy when we celebrate the birth of a new child with a bris or baby naming; when our children stand on the bimah at Simchat Torah, newly consecrated with their own personal Torah scrolls, reciting the shema for the first time; and when we watch with pride as our kids read the Torah and deliver a message about its meaning in their lives at the age of 13, that threshold of adulthood, B’nai Mitzvah. Confirmation is a moment of utmost holiness as those same children, more mature by 3 important years stand on the bimah and talk honestly and openly about wrestling, like Jacob, with our tradition and its demands. Under the chuppah, who feels more holy than a couple and their parents going through a ceremony which is after all, called kiddushin, from the same root as kadosh, the Hebrew root for all things holy. Anyone who has ever been to a conversion ceremony also knows the deeply spiritual atmosphere that surrounds that event from the mikvah to standing in front of the ark reciting the sacred commitments and responsibilities that he or she is taking on. And even in sad moments such as a funeral, there is hardly anything that feels closer to heaven than shoveling earth over the grave of a loved one, tucking them in like a blanket.
Human nature, popular culture, and religious tradition also suggest to us that there are certain places that have more spiritual substance than others. How else do we explain the fascination with the Kotel, the so-called Wailing Wall in Jerusalem? I have climbed the mountain that many believe is Mt. Sinai where the Ten Commandments were first revealed. We arose well before dawn climbed the treacherous path and watched the sunrise. I remember that as a unique AHA moment in my life.
And don’t we also have sacred expectations of certain people. Catholics revere the Pope and Mother Theresa. Many look that way at their religious leaders. At Rockdale Temple in Cincinnati, where I served as a rabbi before Bet Shalom began, Rabbi David Philipson was their senior rabbi for much of the 20th century. He had a long beard and an imposing presence. Many of his congregants thought of him as God or at least God’s rep here on earth. Is there such a thing as Holy people?
Yes, these are all popularly conceived notions of holiness. But Judaism teaches about other kinds of holiness, more common, yet most frequently overlooked. Not the so called AHA moments, but mere HOHUMS.
There are no saints in Judaism. All people are endowed with a spark of God. There is the potential for every person to be holy. Indeed, our approach to death and burial is based on the fact that the body is a vessel in which a sacred soul has lived. This is why we treat the body the way we do. The Bible says that even the body of a common criminal should not be left unattended overnight out of respect for God’s creation.
When we think of those who Jews regard as holy people, we put Moses at the top of the list. Yet this Moses first became aware that he was in the presence of God at a burning bush. If you think about it, there was nothing majestic at all about it. It was just a bush, designed to teach us that God’s voice and presence can be perceived anywhere, not just in the officially sanctioned sacred high places. And the miracle was not that it burned unconsumed, rather that a human being, Moses, could stare at it long enough to realize that it was not being consumed. In other words, it was a demonstration of patience, one of the divine qualities, not so spectacular, that humans are capable of imitating.
This other kind of holiness is not so obvious. It is found in the most unlikely places, until we begin to notice that they are not unlikely at all.
The poem that we read in last week Torah portion, Haazinu, contains a number of beautiful similes: comparing God’s doctrine to the soft rain and the morning dew. This is real insight into the way in which we become aware of holiness. The morning dew appears on a blade of grass, sparkling diamond points of moisture. There is nothing very dramatic about its appearance, no thunder and lightning, no downpour, the dew is just there. Its life-giving power is manifest on the grass where it rests. While we might believe that God only thunders down from Sinai or hovers over the face of the deep at Creation or supervises the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, the morning dew is Jewish holiness at its best.
If you get up early enough in the morning, open your door to fetch the newspaper you may notice it. But it is only there for a brief time. And it is just a little water on the lawn. Yet without that water, things would not grow. They would die of thirst.
And so it is in human experience. We fool ourselves when we look for miraculous supernatural intervention to alter the course of our lives. We defeat ourselves if we remain long embittered when calamity strikes and we curse God. We dull our sensitivities to the grandeur of life if we see only brutality and deny goodness, truth and beauty. God is there all of the time just waiting to be discovered. That is Jewish holiness.
Indeed, it is in mere dust and ashes and ordinary grains of sand that we find the greatest potential for holiness. The Torah, in addition to all the wonderful stories we share with our children, occupies itself abundantly with the sacrifices that were offered in the Tabernacle. The priest was responsible for conducting the ceremony, and afterward he was also the one who changed into special vestments and carried the soot and ash away from the altar to dispose of them in a ritual that was not so ordinary.
The Hebrew word for ash is deshen, dalet – shin – nun, which can also be taken as an acronym for the phrase, davar shelo nechshav, "something without importance." Even the ash of the altar was to be “lifted up” and recognized as something holy.
The truth is that our tradition does not point us toward the extravagant and supernatural for real holiness. We often feel that way because of human nature and popular culture. Jewish tradition more significantly beckons us to find the extraordinary within the ordinary. For Jews, holiness comes when we transform the HOHUM into the AHA.
What may appear trivial is anything but trivial. Rabbi Israel Salanter was in a strange town on Shabbat, and was invited to eat with one of the most respected families. Returning from services, his host noticed to his great horror that his wife had forgotten to cover the challoh. Fearful that Rabbi Salanter would think his house was not knowledgeable about the tradition, the man yelled at his wife for forgetting this most basic act. Mortified and blushing with shame she ran to drape the cover over the bread. When it came time to recite the Kiddush, Rabbi Salanter stopped the man and said, “I am not sure the food in this house is kosher. It is a home that worries more about embarrassing bread than embarrassing people.” Holiness is found in our everyday relationships and how we treat them.
In tomorrow afternoon’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, we have concrete examples of how we can be holy. You shall not steal—not merely property, but also a person’s reputation, by gossip or slander or by false flattery. Do not place a stumbling block before the blind. A blind person can be anyone who is a figure of misfortune, inexperience or moral weakness. That advice warns us against leading people on erroneous ways, giving them bad advice, and the like.
The Bible, in fact, begins with an act of holiness. God clothes Adam and Eve. We can take our cue from that. Let us help to clothe others. We can feed the hungry and care for those less fortunate than ourselves.
The end of the Torah, too, finds God doing holy deeds. We read that God buries Moses. We, also, in attending a funeral and comforting mourners, perform holiness by imitating God. Escorting someone to the gates of heaven is a great mitzvah – for we have no ulterior motive of expecting them to return the favor. To sit in a room as someone takes his or her final breath, to hold their hand, to say goodbye and express gratitude for the gifts of love and guidance and caring they gave in their life to you. That is a holy act. In the Torah, many of these mitzvot are accompanied by the phrase: Be holy for the Lord your God is holy. We cannot be God, but we can be like God. That is the spark of God within every human. God is not out there but in here.
One of Woody Allen’s classic movies, Manhattan, has a scene where Woody is chided by his friend, who accuses him of playing God. Woody’s reply is a very Jewish one. “Well”, he says, “I have to model myself after someone.”
We should imitate God, in the Divine acts of loving-kindness and holiness. This is the best kind of God complex – not one of the ego, in which we seek control over others, but one in which we truly imitate God in the spirit of kedoshim.
The Hebrew word for holiness, itself, is kedusha, literally meaning sanctification—making special, singling out. Indeed, holiness helps us single out and make special the mundane, ordinary aspects of our lives. We lift ourselves above the usual, the humdrum. We can make holiness within our everyday activities. We can turn the HOHUM into the AHA.
This, I believe, is what distinguishes the Jewish concept of holiness from many others which have that magic aura of tabu. Judaism does not. Many conceive of holiness as dangerous; many define holiness by the place wherein it occurs. Judaism teaches that it is to be welcomed as part of normality. We produce it each time we perform a good deed, every moment when we are aware of the wonders of the universe, in all instances of moral and social involvement.
To be holy does not mean to wait for a determination from God, who will magically grace certain people with that trait, like those who have had hands laid on them by a faith-healer. .
It is a quality people—all people—may have when they act properly. Holiness does not separate that which is holy from everyday life; rather, it elevates everyday life, itself. It is ethical, not magical.
This past week we observed the 9th anniversary of 911. A couple of weeks after the terrorist attack, the dust had finally settled and people started the painful task of cleaning up. One woman stared at her grime-covered windows, when she suddenly paused and took a deep breath. Indeed, it dawned on her that mixed in with that dirt was flesh and blood, human remains. Immediately she called her rabbi.
They decided that she could not merely wipe it away with Windex and a paper towel. The ashes need to be treated with care and properly disposed. Of course, her simple realization was extraordinary. To see in these simple dirty ashes something quite awesome, the remains of a human life or two or three or a hundred gives us pause about such an ordinary act as cleaning a window. She was like the priest who changed his clothes to remove the ashes that were sprinkled with the remains of the sacrifice that could not merely be swept away, not in a bucket, for there was in those ashes trace evidence of holiness. What is often considered menial in human eyes is holy and high in God’s eyes.
The quest for spirituality sometimes leads people to exotic missions taking them to far away so-called holy places, meeting with spiritual swamis and gurus, so called holy people. Spiritual seekers are often narcissistic – wanting to feel God touching them – wanting to feel important. Who doesn’t?
But for Jews, our example should be our forefather Jacob who discovered holiness when he awoke from a dream, sleeping with his head on a simple rock. After picturing a ladder with angels going up and down, Jacob exclaimed, “God was in this place and I, I did not know it.” He had not been seeking God. In fact, he was running away – in that flight, he experienced the Divine. In the process of taking care of what life brings you, you may encounter that spiritual moment. Take notice and appreciate it. It is so elusive when you seek to find it. Instead it is more likely that it will find you.
The holiness we seek can be found in many places. Yes, here tonight at Kol Nidre Shabbat, a combination of two sacred times. It is obvious. But even more abundantly in our ordinary lives in ordinary moments, it can be palpable. There is potential AHA in every HOHUM. Notice it – holiness is everywhere.
Links to this post:
What wonderful words to reflect upon and hold in one's heart before morning mass.
Thank you Mark and Rabbi Cohen for sharing - a message to be held reverently close and reflected upon often...
Thank you Mark and Rabbi Cohen for sharing - a message to be held reverently close and reflected upon often...
Thanks for sharing our friend Rabbi Cohen's thoughts. I have benefitted greatly from reading a number of his sermons.
There are two ways to look at a secret when one happens upon it; a secret is a secret because you cannot understand it (different language or simply not within earshot) when it may or may not have anything to do with you and a secret is secret because it has everything to do with you and the intention is for you to not hear it or understand it. Either way a secret is about that which holds relevance to us personally (in the case of Jewish belief, what the Torah keeps hidden from all, but reveals to each). Once one finds the relevance to them the way it affects them, like Rabbi Cohen so brilliantly explains, then HOHUM becomes AHA. The most interesting lesson I take is one that comes somewhat in reverse...finding God in the most simple facts of life and cherishing it implies that in order to truly see the plain we must first understand the esoteric...the Sode before the Peshat.
Thank you for a wonderful Sunday reflection.
Thank you for a wonderful Sunday reflection.
I love this guy.This sermon is such a gift to us all. These moments when we find the aha in hohum are moments we stand close enough to hear the heartbeat of God,and this is all we ever want or need. One feels light and yet so full of goodness.Post a Comment
Links to this post: