Religious myth provides people with enduring stories and metaphoric frameworks for making sense out of their lives and the world.
I believe that all religious myths have been created by human beings, as opposed to revealed by a deity to human beings. That doesn’t mean that I think myths have no spiritual truth. On the contrary, myths are deeply important to how we human beings seek to understand ourselves, the cosmos, and the meaning of life. In fact, if we assume that we are intimately connected with the universe around us, then myth also holds the potential of being one of the ways that we express or reflect deeper realities. Acknowledging that myths come from us, and not from “out there” somewhere, simply implies that the impulse and the creativity to see the world in a sacred way is embedded within us. As Jean Houston writes:
“Myth remains closer than breathing, nearer than our hands and feet. I think it is built into our very being. … Myths serve as source patterns originating in the ground of our being. While they appear to exist solely in the transpersonal realms, they are the keys to our personal and historical existence, the DNA of the human psyche. These primal patterns unfold in our daily lives as culture, mythology, religion, art, architecture, drama, ritual, epic, social customs and even mental disorders.”
So what makes a religious myth more or less healthy?
D’var Torah – Shabbat Hol Hamoed Pesach 5769 (2009)
Rabbi Maurice Harris
On Thursday morning this week we read from the Torah verses assigned by the sages to the first day of Passover. The scene is the slave ghettos of Pharaoh’s Egypt just before the arrival of the 10th and final plague, the slaying of the first born of Egypt. Moses calls together the elders of the people and says to them, “Go, pick out lambs for your families, and slaughter the Passover offering. Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and apply some of the blood that is in the basin to the lintel and to the two doorposts. None of you shall go outside the door of your homes until morning. For when the Eternal goes through to smite the Egyptian first born sons, God will see the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, and God will pass over the door and not let the Destroyer enter and smite your home.”
In recent years much has been written about how the Passover story begins and ends with birth imagery, and I’ve talked about this here in the past as well. In the haggadah we used yesterday at the community seder, we read the following (and I paraphrase):
How was the desire for freedom first aroused? By the midwives, Shifrah and Puah, who resisted Pharaoh’s decree to kill every Israelite boy. By Miriam, who watched over her brother Moses to insure his safety as he floated in a basket down the Nile. … In the birth waters and in the Nile, these extraordinary women saw life and liberation. … The waters of freedom open and close the Passover story, taking us from the Nile to the Sea of Reeds.
A baby, Moses, is given life thanks to midwives and then pulled from the water by a princess – the birth imagery is striking. A nation passes through the narrow cavity of the path that God opens through the Sea of Reeds and emerges out the other side, alive and free. Birth imagery again. What struck me as I took a closer look at the Torah verses we read Thursday morning was that I was reminded that we have more birth imagery here in the middle of the story, at this crucial moment, just before the 10th plague brings grief and sorrow to so many in ancient Egypt, just before the Pharaoh finally summons Moses and Aaron and spits out the words, “Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you. Go, worship the Eternal as you said! Take also your flocks and your herds, as you said, and begone! And may you bring a blessing upon me also!”
In that moment when Moses instructed the Israelites to take a lamb, slaughter it as an offering, put its blood in a basin, and then paint the blood on the top and on the side posts of the doors of their homes, we are confronted yet again with a visual image of a people getting ready to pass through a birth canal, out of a holding chamber and into a new existence.
The Torah is full of literary links that tie together these thematic echoes – this is part of
its artfulness and beauty. The text that describes the placing of the lamb’s blood on the doorposts offers us one of these marvelous literary links. The key word is the Hebrew word for basin – saf – spelled with a samech and a final fay. This is the basin that Moses tells the people to put the lamb’s blood in, and out of which they will take up the blood to paint it on their doorposts.
Saf is a somewhat unusual word, and it calls our attention to a key word in the other two moments of birth that I spoke of. In the first instance, which describes baby Moses being placed into the Nile and then drawn out of the water by the Pharaoh’s daughter, the text tells us that Moses’ mother placed the basket containing her beloved child in the reeds of the river. The Hebrew word for reeds is soof, spelled almost identically to saf. In the second instance – the liberation of the Israelites after they cross the divided Sea of Reeds – the word soof appears again – this time as part of the name of the body of water from which they emerged.
D’var Torah – Shavuot 5769
Rabbi Maurice Harris
Shabbat shalom and gut yontiff. As we celebrate our 2nd Shavuot in our new home, I want to ask us all to take a moment to look around. We are so blessed. We have now completed one full cycle of Jewish holy days and sacred seasons, one full year of the cycle of the Five Books of Moses, one full year of ups and downs, controversies and moments of serenity, one full year of mitzvot and of mistakes. One full year of life. There are so many people who worked so hard to make this new home possible, and we have only just begun to discover the ways we can continue to grow as a community in this amazing space. Shavuot is a festival of offering our first fruits, the first fruits of our labor, to God. We, as a community, now can offer one year’s worth of Jewish living to the Eternal One as an expression of our thanks and our desire to bring greater meaning and unity into our lives and into the world.
Over the last 24 hours we have engaged three different texts in our observance of Shavuot. Last night we studied the Book of Ruth, which is traditionally chanted at Shavuot, and this morning we read the story of the giving of the 10 Commandments at Mt. Sinai in the Book of Exodus. Then, Rabbi Yitzhak chanted the assigned reading from the books of the prophets, which happened to be from the first chapter of the Book of Ezekiel.
Ruth, the 10 Commandments, and Ezekiel. Something I noticed about these three readings is where they take place. The Torah reading featuring the dramatic revelation at Mt. Sinai takes place not in the land of Israel, but in the Sinai desert, in the wilderness, in an in-between place that was neither Egypt nor the Promised Land. Ezekiel takes place in ancient Babylon, and tells the story of the visions and activities of a prophet who was sent into exile in Babylon along with the entire leadership of the ancient Israelite community some 2, 600 years ago. That leaves the Book of Ruth. Ruth takes place partly in the land of Moab, just to the east of the Land of Israel, and partly in the territory of Judah, which was part of ancient Israel. It is the Book of Ruth that brings us geographically closest to Jerusalem, as Ruth ends up making her new life as a Jew by choice in Bethlehem, which is only a few kilometers away from Jerusalem. Although the Book of Ruth never specifically mentions Jerusalem, because the city had not yet become the Israelites’ capital, the last words of the book point to Jerusalem. As many of you may know, the Book of Ruth ends with a genealogy that shows Ruth to be the ancestor of King David, and David’s name is the final word of the book. The Book literally points towards a Jerusalem that has not yet been realized, a Jerusalem of the future.
It is that idea – a Jerusalem that has not yet been realized, a Jerusalem of the future – that caught my attention these last days.
The city’s name, Yeru-shalayim, roughly means “they will see peace” or “the inheritance – yerushah – will be peace.” Yet for the last 2500 years, Jerusalem has known so much war and far too little peace. As we all know, Jews, Christians and Muslims all consider Jerusalem to be sacred, and the mythic encounters with the Divine that are so central to all three of the Abrahamic religions intimately involve Jerusalem and the Temple mount itself. Just to illustrate this with one small example: in Arabic Jerusalem is called al-Quds, meaning “the holy.” This is from the same Semitic language root that forms the word kadosh in Hebrew. It’s as if our people had named the city ha-kadosh. And in fact, we have, as one of the city’s Jewish nicknames is Ir ha-kodesh, “the holy city.”
Note: Translated from the Hebrew. All names have been changed.
Officer 1: Let the record note that we’re beginning this interview at 05:44 local time and we are recording this conversation. We have a few questions for you, Rabbi Schechter. Where were you between 19:00 and 20:00 on the evening of June 5, 2018?
Rabbi: At the Beach Plaza Hotel near Haifa.
Officer 1: And what were you doing there?
Rabbi: Officiating a wedding between two Jews.
Officer 1: Who said you could do that?
Rabbi: Well, I’ve been doing it for 35 years.
Officer 2: Answer the question!
Officer 1: No, it’s okay, Rafi. He’s cooperating. Rabbi, can I get you anything? Cigarette? Coffee? Bamba?
Rabbi: No thank you.
Officer 1: Are you sure? There’s nothing like Bamba–
Officer 2: Stop coddling him, Shmulik. Rabbi, why did you do it!? Tell us now or it won’t go easy for you!!
Rabbi: The wedding?
Here’s my recent satire piece published in The Forward. It speaks for itself…
As a liberal rabbi, I am so sick of being ridiculed and insulted by people on the religious right. I get so full of anger that I see red, and all I want to do is fight back. And then I remember traditional Jewish wisdom on giving in to anger.
Here’s Rabbi Jonathan Sacks summarizing several classical rabbinic sources on the dangers of letting anger be one’s master:
“The life of those who can’t control their anger is not a life,” [the sages] said (Pesahim 113b). Resh Lakish said, “When a person becomes angry, if he is a sage his wisdom departs from him; if he is a prophet his prophecy departs from him” (Pesahim 66b). Maimonides said that when someone becomes angry it is as if he has become an idolater (Hilkhot Deot 2: 3). (For the entire piece, visit here.)
The general understanding of these texts, as I’ve been taught them, is not that we should try to suppress or banish the experience of feeling anger; rather, that we should beware of letting it be our guide. We will rarely make good decisions while in an angry frame of mind.