In this week’s Torah portion B’ha-alot’kha (Numbers 8:1 – 12:16) we have a very famous story. The Israelites are camped at a place called Hazeroth. Aaron and Miriam, brother and sister of Moses, are talking to one another about Moses. First a little gossip: “He married a Cushite (Ethiopian) woman!” and then, “God has spoken through each of us, too!” – with the implication that they resent Moses’ high position as leader of the Israelites. The irony of this is that Aaron and Miriam are quite famous in their own right. Aaron is the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest. Miriam is beloved by the Israelites; from other stories in the Torah, we know that the Israelites loved her. A miraculous spring rose wherever she pitched her tent, providing the whole community with water. And yet the two of them are kvetching that Moses gets too much attention! God hears them, and summons the three siblings to the door of the Tent of Meeting. God says to Aaron and Miriam, in front of Moses, “Lookit, you two: I talk to prophets like you in visions, but when I talk with Moses, it’s mouth to mouth! How dare you speak against Moses!” Then God departs in a huff, the cloud rising from above the Tent. When the cloud goes, the three of them are horrified: Miriam’s skin has turned sickly white, and she is covered with flakes. It is the terrible condition tzara’at, which is sometimes (mis)translated as “leprosy.” It is not the same as the illness Hansen’s Disease, also called leprosy. The laws for tzara’at are commanded in Leviticus 13-14, and the essence of them is that a person with the disease cannot stay in the camp. Consider for a moment what that means: Miriam has to leave the Israelite camp. She has to pitch her tent outside the camp, without the protection of the warriors. Wild animals and marauders could get her. Her miraculous spring will not be available to the thirsty Israelites, either. This is a disaster. Aaron, whose skin is unaffected, goes into a frenzy of guilt. “Moses! Don’t hold our sin against us! Please pray for her to be healed!” By asking Moses to pray, he demonstrates that he heard and understood what God said: Moses is closer to God than he. Aaron admits that he can’t do anything for Miriam, but that Moses might be able to help. And Moses does indeed pray for his sister. His prayer is short and direct: “Please, God, please heal her!” And God relents, saying that she will have to suffer seven days of exile outside the camp, and then her skin will clear and she can return inside the camp. The whole camp waits for her, and then they move on. This is an interesting story on many levels. On one of the simplest, it is an illustration of how seriously our tradition takes the sin of talking about another person, even if what is said is true. Aaron and Miriam were envious of their brother – but notice, the sin isn’t their envy, it’s the talk that gets them in trouble. Emotions are natural parts of the human experience. It’s what we do with and about them that matters. Another thing that always strikes me about this story is that even though Moses talks with God “mouth to mouth” (what a curious phrase!) Moses’ prayer gets a rather reluctant response from God. He says, “Please, God, please heal her!” but the illness will still have to run its course. We learn from this that it is OK to pray for sick people, but that it is unrealistic to expect miracles. One thing that people sometimes take away from this story is that illness is a punishment for sin. It’s important to realize that tzara’at is not leprosy, and is in fact not an illness as we understand illness today. If you read Leviticus 13-14 carefully, you can see that it doesn’t behave like a sickness. It is more an outward manifestation of the condition of the soul; only a priest can diagnose it, for one thing. For another, houses and clothing can get it. I read the passages about houses and clothing in Leviticus as a warning to us NOT to mistake it for leprosy or any other regular human illness. Have you ever prayed for someone else to be healed? What is “healing”?
Pikuach nefesh (pee-KOO-ahch NEH-fesh) is a Jew’s obligation to save a life in jeopardy. This commandment is taken so seriously in the tradition that it overrides many other considerations. To preserve a life, it is permissible to remove organs from a dead body (otherwise, Jews are forbidden to disturb a body except to wash it, clothe it decently, and bury it.) To preserve a life, one may travel or otherwise violate the Sabbath.
The obligation is based in the Torah: “Do not stand upon the blood of your neighbor.” (Leviticus 19:16) This mitzvah was honed and expanded through many discussions in the Talmud, and it is carefully spelled out in the codes of halakhah (Jewish law.)
Often when we speak of it, we think of desperate heroic situations: the weeping widow signs off on organ donation after her husband’s death, a sick child is rushed to a hospital on Shabbat, or a teen uses CPR skills to keep someone alive until the EMT’s arrive.
Today I was reminded that it also applies to a situation so mundane we rarely pause to notice it. A friend posted to his facebook timeline:
“Most people don’t get into their cars thinking, ‘I hope nobody hits and kills me today.’ I cannot get on my bike without having that thought.”
It’s not an unreasonable fear. I heard it from my son, too, back when he was commuting on a motorcycle. And what city dweller has not had a close call as a pedestrian? Bicyclists, motorcyclists, pedestrians are what traffic experts call “vulnerable road users” (VRU’s) and recently they have accounted for more than 10,000 fatalities a year on US roads. The average new car weighed 4,000 lbs in 2010. When two tons of steel encounter a fragile human body, there’s no question who is going to get hurt.
Then, of course, there are the other people in cars: despite the tons of steel surrounding passengers, riding in a car is pretty dangerous too. According to a report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there were 32,999 people killed, 3.9 million were injured, and 24 million vehicles damaged in motor vehicle crashes in the United States in 2010. Using the other figure for VRU’s, that leaves 22,999 people in cars who were killed in 2010.
Automobile safety is a pikuach nefesh issue. When we sit behind the wheel of a car, we take lives into our hands. Every glance away from the road is a few seconds in which something terrible can happen. Each item of distraction is a potential desecration of life. I’m not talking about drunk driving, or texting, or other flagrant violations of law. I’m talking about the things we all do that seem “normal” at the time: fiddling with the radio, letting ourselves get impatient with an irritating driver, paying too much attention to anything besides the road ahead of and around us. At any moment of distraction, someone could die. It’s as simple as that.
I wrote about this once before, back in August of 2012, after I had an accident. When I wrote The Freeway Blessing, I was shaken by the fact that I came too close to being a statistic. When it happened I was being very careful: the radio was off and I was wary because the traffic was both heavy and moving rapidly on I-880. Even with all my faculties engaged, I couldn’t react quickly enough to avoid a serious accident.
Today, after the reminder from my friend, I’m renewing my commitment to taking driving as seriously as it deserves. Here’s what I am going to do:
- I commit to giving my full attention to the process of driving.
- I commit to allowing time for careful driving: leaving a bit earlier than absolutely necessary, so that I won’t feel an urge to hurry.
- I commit to getting that eye exam that I think probably isn’t necessary, but it’s time, so I’ll get it.
- Finally, I commit to reminding myself that driving is a sacred activity, because I hold lives in my hands when I do it. I’ll do that by saying a blessing before I drive:
Baruch Atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech ha-olam, hanoteyn l’chol cha-im.
Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time and Space, Giver of life to all.
I invite you to join me in making a new commitment to pikuach nefesh, the preservation of life.
Image by Elvert Barnes, some rights reserved.
May the Eternal bless you and keep you.
יְבָרֶכְךָ יהוה, וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ
Yeh-vah-REH-che-cha Adonai v’YISH-meh-reh-chah
May the Eternal cause His face to shed light upon you and be gracious unto you.
יָאֵר יהוה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ
yah-AIR Adonai pan-AV eh-LEHcha vee-choo-NEH-ka)
May the Eternal lift up His face to you and give you peace.
יִשָּׂא יהוה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם
yee-SA Adonai pah-NAV eh-leh-kha v’yah-SEM leh-KHAH sha-LOM.
This text, from Numbers 6:24-26, is known as the Birkat Kohanim, or priestly blessing. It is one of the most familiar passages of Torah to a synagogue-going Jew. In the synagogue service, traditionally it is pronounced by the adult male kohanim (descendants of Aaron) daily in Israel and on certain days of the year in the Diaspora. (For a video of kohanim giving the blessing at the Western Wall, click this link.)
The priestly blessing is also used for blessings on other occasions. Parents may say it over children on Shabbat evenings, and a chazzan (cantor) or rabbi in the Reform movement may say it on a solemn occasion for blessing, such as a baby naming, a conversion, or a birthday.
It is associated with a hand gesture that is often pictured on the grave markers of kohanim (see photo below).
This text is the content of the oldest Biblical inscription currently known, the Ketef Hinnom inscription, found in 1979 near the Old City of Jerusalem. The words were inscribed in paleo-Hebrew on thin silver strips and rolled into an amulet to be worn on a string around the neck. They are estimated to be from the early 6th century BCE (1st Temple period) based upon analysis of the script.
Vayivra Elohim et-ha’adam b’tzalmo, b’tzelem Elohim bara oto.
God created humans in God’s own image, in the image of God created them. (Gen. 1:27)
May the One who created our ancestors in the Divine image, and blessed them with bodies of infinite variety, bless all who are in distress today.
From Divine Wisdom, Chochmah, grant each of us the Wisdom appropriate to our roles: to doctors, give skill; to nurses, give patience and perception, to caretakers of all kinds, give endurance and the wisdom to know when to seek help and where to find it. Amen
From Divine Understanding, Binah, grant us the understanding to see sufferers as they really are, to perceive the Divine Image within them even when it is hard to see. Whatever our own suffering, grant us the understanding that we are not alone, that sometimes it is in comforting another that we can find some comfort. Amen
From Divine Lovingkindness, Chesed, grant us lovingkindness, to listen to troubles as many times as they need to be heard. Amen
From Divine Compassion, Rachamim, grant us compassion for those who are sick in ways we do not fully understand. Give us compassion for those who are ill in ways that frighten or disturb us. And give us compassion for ourselves, when we fail to meet our goals. Amen
From Divine Kingship, Malchut, grant us the self-discipline to do what we need to do to guard and restore our own health. Grant us also restraint in expressing our opinions: give us the humility to accept that sometimes we do not know what is best for others. Amen
From Divine Strength, Givurah, grant us strength to endure what must be endured, to persist in treatment if treatment is prescribed, to support those who are fallen ill with all of our strength, and finally the strength to accept those things which must be accepted. Amen
And from Divine Beauty, Tiferet, grant us the ability to appreciate the beauty in this world, no matter what troubles surround us. Let us walk daily among miracles with our hearts wide open to one another and to You. Amen
May the One who blessed our Ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel bless all who are sick, all who are troubled in mind, body or spirit, and grant them healing. And we say, AMEN.
Baruch shemo or baruch hu shemo in this context means “Blessed is God’s name.” (Literally, it’s “blessed is his name” but of course God has no gender.) It’s a little addition that some people like to make to the blessing, when the blessing includes the Name of God, or rather, the stand-in for the Name.
The Hebrew name of God, the Tetragrammaton [τετραγράμματον is Greek for “four letter word”] is never pronounced aloud. It is spelled yud-heh-vav-heh, but we no longer have the vowels to pronounce it. Moreover, tradition has forbidden we say the Name since at least the time of the Mishnah (c. 200 CE,) and probably long before that. Instead, observant Jews make substitutes for the Name, and sometimes substitutes for the substitutes:
Instead of the name, in prayer we use the word Adonai (“my Lord” in Hebrew.) Some observant Jews do not use even that name aloud except in prayer, and in normal speech substitute Hashem (“the Name” in Hebrew.) Reform Jews commonly use “Adonai” but still avoid pronunciations of the Name itself.
But what about Baruch shemo? It’s a further way of paying respect to the Name of God. When in a blessing the shaliach tzibbur (service leader) says “Adonai” (the stand-in for the Name, remember?) some individuals may say “Baruch shemo“:
Service Leader: Blessed are You, Adonai —
Congregant: Blessed is God’s Name!
Service Leader continues: Our God, Ruler of the Universe…
In congregations where this response to the Name is common, service leaders often pause slightly for it, so that it will not obscure the rest of the words of the prayer.
Jewish prayer is active and interactive. We sing, we chant, we have choreography, and depending on the custom (minhag) of the congregation, there is room for improvisation. This is one example of the way that Jews make the traditional prayers our own.
…ברוך אתה ה’ אלוהינו, מלך העולם
Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time-and-Space….
Thus begins the most basic form of Jewish prayer, the blessing. We have some tiny little short blessings, like the one we say when we hear terrible news, and very very long blessings, like the Birkat Hamazon, the blessing after meals, which goes on for several pages and includes many smaller blessings. We have blessings for every kind of food we eat, and blessings for surprising things we encounter, and blessings for Shabbat and holidays.
While we often say these blessings rapidly and by rote, sooner or later every Jew finds her- or himself asking, “Why am I blessing God?” Because that is how the prayer begins: “Blessed are You, God.” In there is also the larger question, “Why pray at all?” since really, if God is God, God doesn’t need prayer or anything else we can produce, right?
My favorite answer to this question – why bless? – is that blessings are not “for God.” Blessings are for the person saying the blessing, and sometimes for others who hear the blessing. When I bless the bread I am about to put in my mouth, I am acknowledging that I did not create the bread. I may have baked it, but many miracles and many hands were involved in that bread arriving in my hand. When I pause to bless, I make room for the acknowledgment that I have my place in Creation, but only my place, that I am dependent on daily miracles and dependent on hands other than my own. When I bless the sight of a rainbow, I remind myself what a miracle it is that the rainbow is there for me – and that it is not there only for me. When I make the blessing for hearing the news of a death, I acknowledge that I am not qualified to judge any other human being.
Blessing is about a sacred pause: a pause to notice, a pause to reflect, a pause to appreciate one’s place in creation. This week, as I hurry about my work, doing all my regular work AND the pre-Passover cleaning, those little pauses remind me that these are sacred actions, even though I have to do them rapidly, even though I do not have enough time to do them perfectly. All of life is sacred, even the moment in the bathroom (yes, there is a blessing for that!)
It is when we choose to see the holiness in each moment, to infuse the ordinary with the sacred, that we open ourselves to the possibility of what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement.” Blessings are one door into that state of amazement: may we all enjoy a glimpse of the Holy as we go about the mundane tasks of preparation for this most amazing holiday!
This was going to be the Year of the Garden. When I moved into the new house, I had great plans for a garden of California native plants, plus vegetables and fruits and a few old favorites. So I paid some nice folks to dig everything up, enrich the tired soil with compost, and cover the lot with some wood chips that will gradually decompose into the earth. By the time it was all done, it was clear that we are in the midst of a terrible drought in California, and it is simply not responsible for me to go planting a bunch of tender new stuff that needs gallons of water.
So the California natives and the iris and the day lilies will have to wait for next year. I’m getting ready to plant a little vegetable garden in barrels (easier to protect from wildlife and small peeing dogs) and I’ve got my two new baby figs. They are leafing out nicely, the little leaves looking like tiny hands that uncurl and reach for the sun. I’m glad I ordered the fig trees before I knew about the drought. Soon I’ll have the cukes and ‘maters and okra going, too. I’ll water them by drip and they’ll feed me and my family and maybe a few others as well.
I feel embarrassed to whine much about my little garden, when so many California farmers are trying to figure out how to survive this terrible drought. Water is expensive for them even in good years, and this year it sounds like no amount of money will buy the water they need, because the Sierra has little snow. When I served a congregation in the Central Valley, some of my congregants were small orange farmers. Their families had grown citrus for generations, and it was a beautiful thing to see the labor of the farmers and the natural wisdom of the trees come together to make a harvest of glowing fruit. Now they and others like them in the Valley are having to do a dreadful calculus: how many trees can they afford to irrigate? How many trees will be lost?
Over the months ahead, food will be more expensive for everyone in America, because the farmers of the Central Valley don’t have water. One third of all the produce grown in the United States comes from the Valley, and this year is a drought year. That means that more people in America will eat less, and that much of what they are able to eat will be lower in quality, because fresh fruits and vegetables and meat will see the worst price increases. Drought means that there will be less work in the Valley, where poverty already runs rampant among the farmworkers, the people we all depend upon for our food.
Living a Jewish life pushes me to pay attention to these connections. The movement of the sun across the sky determines times for prayer. The sun sets at a different time every day, but its setting marks the beginning of a new day. From Sukkot to Passover, we pray for rain three times a day; soon we’ll change that prayer to a prayer for dew, which is the most an Israeli or California farmer can hope for between Passover and the High Holy Days. We Jews are tied to the natural world by our prayer cycle and our calendar; no matter how urban our lives, the connection is inescapable.
And that is a good thing, because we – not just Jews, all of us! – need to remember that our lives and well being are linked with the lives of others. When I say motzi before eating a meal, I remind myself that bread doesn’t grow in the grocery store, or in a bread machine. It comes from the earth, it comes from all the creatures that fertilize the plants that went into it, it comes from the people who harvested the plants, it comes from the people who transported it and who worked in the factories that processed and packaged it. It comes from the people who stock the shelves, it comes from the checker who rang it up, it comes from a million parts of creation. Every bite of bread is holy.
So folks, it’s time to pray for the Valley. Time to pray for the people who live there, the people who work there, the bees that pollinate plants, for the earth itself. It’s time to pray that the politicians can find a compromise (that is what they do, when they’re doing their jobs) that will make it possible for find water to route to the thirsty plants before all the fields fall idle. It’s time to pray not just with our mouths, but with our hearts and hands and email and telephones, to insist that ways be found for vulnerable farmers to survive a bad year. It’s time to give money, or volunteer at the Food Bank, because the 49 million Americans who were hungry last year are going to be hungrier this year, because food prices will go up and up and up.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously spoke of “praying with his feet” when he marched at Selma. We are the hands and the feet of God in the world. God is not sitting idle, waiting for the right words to be spoken that will cause magical rain to fall from the heavens. God waits dormant within us, waiting for us to get off our collective tuchus and act.
This is a season of drought. It’s time to take care of one another.