Open Closed Open: The Living Waters of Jewish Spirituality

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Thursday, September 17, 2015 /4 Tishri 5776


On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, a small group of us met at Fanno Creek at 7 pm to observe the custom of Tashlikh, a ritual of transference and release. We also utilized Neveh Shalom’s new full color tashlikh booklet that contains some guided readings.

If you couldn’t make it to our first public gathering, I hope you will consider joining us this coming Sunday, for our taskhlikh bike ride along the Willamette.

During Tashlikh, we symbolically transfer on to bread crumbs those actions and failings that no longer serve us, just as our ancestors transferred their sins on to the “scape goat” of antiquity. Over the last twenty years or so, this minor custom has seen a major revival in many communities. While I’ll leave it to sociologists to study why this is so, I see a few reasons for its increased popularity.

First, it is a Jewish communal prayer act that takes place outside.

Second, there is an element of fun in it that attracts families and children.

Third, it is very different in character from the rest of the high holidays.

When engaged in with some seriousness, it can offer us more than a refreshing moment outside. We need to take actions to make our intangible hopes in to tangible goals and commitments. Some individuals do this by marking their bread so that each slice “holds” the behavior they wish to release; others verbally confess over each piece of bread before tossing it into the water, just as we do during the public vidui prayer.

Regardless of how we approach tashlikh, the more energy we invest in our “transferrence,” the greater our sense of release. If you can’t join us this year in our public observance, I hope you will dedicate a few quiet moments this week, visit a body of water, and “cast your sins into the depths.”


Most years, my personal spiritual highlight during the high holiday season comes during the neilah service. The image of the gates “locking” resonates for me, and pushes my prayer to a higher pitch. One of the customs that I brought to my last congregation, and which I was happy to learn has been a recent innovation at Neveh Shalom as well, is to invite people and families up to the ark during neilah for a few precious moments in front of the Torah scrolls. Many people who embrace this custom of the Oriental Jews find it surprisingly powerful as they make requests for their families, pray for health or business success, or ask for forgiveness.

While I have not been successful in tracking down the full historical sources of this venerable practice, it calls to mind Moshe’s experience of meeting God “face to face.” I also hear an echo of the high priest, who once a year would enter into the kodesh k’doshim, the Holy of Holies or innermost sanctum of the ancient Temple. Finally, while Ashkenazic Jews have an ark (aron), the Jews of the Orient stored their sifrei Torah in an antechamber or Heichal. Heichal in Hebrew means a hall; heichalot literature, refers to inward journeys undertaken by Jewish kabbalists who sought mystical union with God. On Yom Kippur, one doesn’t need to be a mystic to seek a more elevated connection. As you come to the ark, please do so quietly and leave a wide berth around Cantor B. She needs to remain extremely focused as she carries us all during this final period of prayer.

A Pre-kaddish Meditation

As many of you now know, I often bring forward some sort of poem before we recite the mourner’s kaddish. Finding poems that are accessible, direct, and that somehow connect us to the themes of mortality, memory or loss is not easy, and most of the poems I read don’t make the grade for this purpose. If you have come across poetry that you find meaningful in this way, I would be grateful if you would share your jewels with me.

In the last week, I translated two stanzas of a longer poem by the late and great Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai. I had hopes of using it as a pre-kaddish meditation during the holidays. In the final assessment, it doesn’t seem appropriate for that purpose, but Amichai does provide some vivid imagery about how we think about the past, and how we approach the future. Those themes are on all our minds at this season of introspection during our new year, so I offer you it as a small gift.


I am a prophet of what was. I read the past from the palm

of the hand of the woman I love.

I am a forecaster of the winter rains that have already fallen,

and an expert of last year’s snows.

I am a conjurer of dead words that once were in the world,

a prophet of the day before yesterday.

I am an architect drafting a house after it is destroyed.

I have a vision of a small room in which there are a few furnishings:

a towel suspended on a drying rack and one chair

and a large arched window

as though in love.



I am a prophet of the past.

And how does one see and prophesy the future?

Like a man in the street, and in front of him

walks a woman with a beautiful body.

He stares at her with longing.

But she doesn’t turn his way;

still, she straightens her skirt a bit,

pulls down her blouse,

flips the hair from her neck

all without a twist toward the staring man,

and speeds up her gait. That’s the future.

Yehuda Amichai

Translation by David Kosak, © 2015

Parashat Vayelekh – Shabbat Shuvah
September 19, 2015 – 6 Tishrei 5776

Moses officially transfers his position of leadership to Joshua. Moses writes down the Teaching and tells the people to read it publicly on Sukkot once every seven years. God assures Moses that the Israelites inevitably will break the covenant and that God will hide God’s presence from them. Moses is asked to write a poem to teach the Israelites of this likelihood. Moses relays God’s prediction to the people, and prepares to recite the poem along with Joshua.

Theme #1: Hide and Seek

Then my anger will flare up against them, and I will abandon them and hide My countenance from them. They shall be ready prey; and many evils and troubles shall befall them. And they shall say on that day, “Surely it is because our God is not in our midst that these evils have befallen us.” Yet I will keep My countenance hidden on that day, because of all the evil they have done in turning to other gods. (Deuteronomy 31:17-18)

Perhaps an absent God is a scarier proposition than an angry God.
Is God dead? It is a question that tantalizes both believers, who perhaps secretly fear that he is, and atheists, who possibly suspect that the answer is no. Is God dead? The three words represent a summons to reflect on the meaning of existence. No longer is the question the taunting jest of skeptics for whom unbelief is the test of wisdom and for whom Nietzsche is the prophet who gave the right answer a century ago. … — Time Magazine, April 8, 1966
“I will conceal my face” as if I do not see their distress. — Rashi on 31:17

The gematria of the final letters of [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][this verse: 95] is equal to that of the name Haman. This is in accordance with what our Sages have expounded in the Talmudic tractate Hulin: The phrase “but I will surely have concealed” (Deuteronomy 31:18) is an allusion to Queen Esther. — Ba’al HaTurim

Questions for Discussion:
The famous Time article from almost 50 years ago is bandied about today, perhaps more than ever, considering the surveys which indicate growing numbers of atheists and agnostics in the United States. Do committed Jews have a responsibility to talk openly about the place that God has in their lives? Is it essential for them to emphasize that Judaism considers many views of God to be valid? Can a legitimate Jewish struggle to understand God include pondering whether there is a God at all?
Rashi claims that, in the scenario described in our portion, God’s face will be hidden not only so that people won’t be able to sense God’s presence, but also so that God won’t see the harrowing fate of the people. Does this threat depict God as passive-aggressive? Does it depict God as particularly harsh? Or does it seem to be a threat commensurate with the people’s lack of faith and obedience?
Ba’al HaTurim connects the threat in this verse with the story of Purim. Is the book of Esther a reasonable example of God turning away from the Jewish people? Might it help explain why God’s name is not written in the book? If this is a good analogy, is it fair to say that God is teaching modern generations to solve our own problems rather than waiting for God to swoop in and save the day?

Theme #2: Parchment-back Writer

When Moses had put down in writing the words of this Teaching to the very end, Moses charged the Levites who carried the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord, saying: Take this book of Teaching and place it beside the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord your God, and let it remain there as a witness against you. (Deuteronomy 31:24-26)
God’s written word provides not only instruction for future generations, but testimony for generations that disobey God’s will.
Oral tradition alone is not enough. Memory is not only to be “in their mouths” but also to be written “on your hand.” The Lord instructs Moses directly to “Write this for a memorial in a book.” Along the way, “Moses wrote all the words of the Lord” on the mountain, inscribed “the words of this law in a book,” and not only wrote down the words of a song but “taught it to the children of Israel”. To his long list of roles, Moses can, then, add “song leader” and “social director.” — Aaron Wildavsky, Moses as Political Leader
The only place in Deuteronomy where direct claims are articulated of Moses’ having acted as a scribe is in 31:24-25 where Moses is reported as writing the words of “this law” (or “this teaching” or “this torah”) on a scroll, and the scroll is placed in the ark of the covenant. The definite “this” is unambiguous. It refers to the material Moses has just been giving to the Chosen People in his long speeches. Some of it is already written down (as reported in Deut. 30:10), which implies that Moses is reading from a scroll already in existence and now he writes down the rest of what he has been telling the people. Therefore, in total, all that is being suggested about Moses as author is that he recorded something about the children of Israel in the wilderness and that he wrote out parts of the teachings that are found in Deuteronomy. It is not a strong case for ascribing the first five books of the scriptures to Moses … — Donald Harman Akenson, Surpassing Wonder
Rabbi Yohanan said in the name of Rabbi Banaah: The Torah was given in separate scrolls, for David declared, “Then I said, I, who am alluded to in a scroll in the book of Torah, am come” (Psalms 40:8). But Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said: The Torah was given as [one] sealed [book], for it is said, “[When Moses had finished writing the words of this Torah in a book, to the very end, Moses commanded the Levites], ‘Take this book of Torah.'” — Gittin 60a

Questions for Discussion:

Wildavsky depicts Moses as doing everything in his power to ensure that the Israelites would understand God’s expectations, and not just expect them to remember all the words of a long speech. When we present ideas for an audience, what are the best ways for us to ensure those present will take them to heart? Are visual presentations and hands-on activities necessary to supplement oral lessons? Does this mean that congregations ought to re-evaluate the effectiveness of the sermon as the best way to teach Torah to its parishioners?

Akenson challenges the notion that Moses wrote down every word of the Torah, as much of rabbinic literature would have us believe. Whether or not we believe that all the words of the Torah were communicated literally by God, should it matter whose hand actually transmitted them into print? Do your thoughts on Moses’s role in the writing of the Torah impact your understanding of him as a leader of Israel and a prophet of God?
Gittin notes that even the format of the written Torah is unclear, and that it is possible that each book of the Torah may have been written down in separate scrolls. Would seeing each book of the Torah as an individual entity change the way we see the respective philosophies of each book? Is it worthwhile to compare and contrast, say, the books of Exodus and Numbers? What lessons might we learn from such an exercise?