THREE Great Lights

Last evening, in the Eastern Sky, we had a full moon and pink clouds:


and, in the Western Sky, the remaining rain clouds and brilliant sunlight were giving us quite a show as well:


On the Fourth Day, “G-d made two great lights; the large light to rule the day, and the small light to rule the night . . . and G-d set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth, and to rule over the day and over the night . . . ”  Genesis 1:16-18.

So, what was the THIRD great light that I saw last evening???

On the First Day, “G-d said, Let there be light; and there was light.”  Genesis 1:3.

But if the sun and moon were not created until the Fourth Day, what “light” was created on the First Day?

The Light of Knowledge, of course …

And I snapped those pictures on my way to an incredibly “enlightening” Torah study …

Last evening, I was blessed with light from THREE Great Lights.    🙂

Baruch Hashem!

“Word World”

My little man was watching a show the other day, and parts of the theme song caught my ear: “Welcome to the place where words come alive . . . . Nothing’s better than a letter, they hold our world together . . . .” The show was Word World, which PBS describes in this way:

Come along for an adventurous romp into a colorful, vibrant world of words with the lovable, legible WordFriends–animals whose bodies are made up of the letters that spell the word they are.
* * * * *
The WordFriends go on comic adventures and face challenges that can only be resolved with the right word. That word is built letter by letter, sound by sound . . . . Once the word is built, it “morphs”–comes alive–into the thing it is!
Word building reinforces the pre-reading concept that letters (and their sounds) make words, and that words have real meaning…and power.

Words having the power to create …

Now there is a great life lesson AND a great Jewish lesson!!

The “magical” phrase “Abracadabra” comes from Hebrew words that mean, essentially, “I create as I speak.” And although Judaism long ago rejected the use of “magic phrases,” the idea that words could be used to create or change our world, in fact, comes from Torah. In the third verse of Genesis, we read that the creation of our world began in this way:

“ג ויאמר אלהים יהי-אור ויהי-אור:”

“3 And G-d said, Let there be light; and there was light.”

And then in successive stages, creation continues with this general formula:

“And God said, … and it was so.”

״ויאמר אלהים . . . ויהי-כן:״

Based on this formula for the unfolding of creation, Sefer Yetzirah, “the Book of Creation,” a mystical Jewish text written between the 3rd and 6th century of the modern era asserts:

Twenty-two elemental letters. G-d engraved them, carved them, weighed them, permuted them, and transposed them, forming with them everything formed and everything destined to be formed.

Matt, Daniel. The Essential Kabbalah, p. 102 (HarperOne 1994).

Thus, the basis of the Jewish concept of creation is that — just as in Word World — things did not exist until their names had been formed with letters, so they could be spoken aloud. The words and the things are inseparable — which is why, I believe, the Hebrew word “d’varim” can mean either “words” or “things”.

And is this not also true for us today? The words that we hear from others, and the words that we speak to ourselves and to others — do they not have the ability to dramatically alter the world in which we live?? Words can break a heart or mend a broken heart; they can bring comfort or pain, create war or peace, increase joy or despair. Our reality . . . for better or for worse . . . is created and shaped by the words that surround us — those we say, those we hear, and those we choose to believe are true (whether or not they are).

The theme song for Word World says: “It’s a beautiful world” . . . and our world can be beautiful as well, if we choose to use, hear, and believe only those words that help make it so.

Baruch Hashem!

“You shall be holy”

This week’s Torah portion instructs: “kedoshim tiheyu — you shall be holy,” and as I was thinking about that phrase recently, I realized two things about it that I hadn’t ever realized before.

First, I realized that phrase is neither an affirmation nor a compliment.

It does not say… you ARE holy.

It says: you SHALL BE holy.

In other words, the holiness expected of us by our covenant with Adonai, our G-d, is not a holiness that we possess just because we exist. Rather, it is a holiness we were created with the ability to become. As Rabbi Rami Shapiro explains:

[O]ur instinct is not for holiness but for self-preservation. Our reptilian brain comes with a single set of encoded instructions: eat or be eaten; kill or be killed. This is not a moral judgment; there is no morality at the level of the reptilian brain. It is simply an observation. Morality comes with the neocortex, the higher brain, and to impose morality on the lower brain is as difficult and dangerous as wrestling an alligator. Just as an alligator squirms to slip out of our arms, so the reptilian brain twists and turns to convince us that feeding its endless hungers is just and good.

Shapiro, Rami. Hasidic Tales: Annotated & Explained at 24 (SkyLight Paths Publishing 2004).

So, that phrase – you shall be holy – is intended to inspire and motivate us to become more than just the reptilian brains that drive us to act always and only to meet our own selfish needs, regardless of the cost to others.

Second, I realized that, as written in Hebrew, “Kedoshim tiheyu” … is not singular. We are not to become holy just as individuals.

Kedoshim tiheyu” is PLURAL, because we are to become a holy community.

Why? Because true holiness – the kind that gives us the power to transform our world – is only possible as a community!

Imagine if one person decides to tame his reptilian brain and begin acting from his neocortex, but then he gets dropped into a pond full of people acting like alligators. That one person has very few choices: he can get “eaten alive” by the selfish people around him, he can leave the pond, or he can stop using his neocortex and just be a selfish alligator.

But if that same one person who decided to act from his neocortex finds himself dropped into a pond full of people who all are striving to act from their neocortexes, in ways that are just and moral and kind, then that one person will thrive and, over time, he will find it easier to ignore the call of his reptilian brain to be selfish. He will find himself more willing to engage in acts of kindness, justice, love, and holiness, and he will become more willing, and more able, to give of his time, of his possessions, and of his Self.

This is why, in various places, Torah assures us that if our community follows the commandments, we will be able to lie down in peace and have no fear, we will always have food, and our debts will be forgiven . . . because, if we truly follow the commandments, then we will not have put those around us in fear, and we will have ensured that others have food, and we will have forgiven others. Then, when we find ourselves in need, others will help us, not just because it is required by the commandments, but because unselfishly helping others will have become their “instinctual response.”

This “system” that our ancestors gave to us … including this “CALL TO HOLINESS” … it won’t work if I am selfish and always looking out for only myself and my family, and it won’t work if I come to understand that the people around me are willing to fight to protect only the interests important to them and their family members. If I am always for me and you are always for you, then we are not a Holy Community … instead, we are nothing more than a bunch of reptiles fighting over scarce resources.

But if we all agree to “fight the good fight” against our reptilian brains, then we increase the likelihood that we will interact with one another in a kind, moral, and just manner. And when others see us interact as Holy People, they may be inspired to fight the good fight against their selfish, reptilian, lower brains . . . not only when engaging with us, but perhaps also when engaging with others in our community. And then, Baruch Hashem, our individual and collective holiness will begin to grow exponentially, not only because more “holy acts” are occurring, but because the “air” in our community will become permeated with an expectation of holiness … of respect, of love, of kindness, and of compassion.

And, when we achieve that kind of holiness, my friends, that is when G-d will build a sanctuary in our midst and walk among us.

kedoshim tiheyu . . . you shall be holy . . .

I cannot reach my highest potential for holiness alone.

You cannot reach your highest potential for holiness alone.

But together we have the ability to create a community that is more holy than any of us could ever begin to imagine . . .

Shabbat shalom, jen

This post is dedicated to The Honorable Evan Goodman who, through his willingness to engage in honest, compassionate, and respectful dialogue so that we (despite our divergent interests) might find a common path forward, showed me what it meant to be part of a holy community.