December 16, 2018

Chariot of Fire, March for Our Lives

Last Shabbat was Shabbat haGadol, the Great Shabbat, the last one before Pesach. It was also the occasion for another ritual, that national gathering called the March for Our Lives. Hundreds of thousands of people across the USA took the streets to protest the ubiquity of gun violence, calling for legal and cultural change.

Why do we call this day Shabbat haGadol? The Torah reading is followed by a special haftara, Malachi 3:4-24. The prophet warns that HaShem will come to judge those “cheat workers out of wages and undermine the widow, orphan and stranger” (3:5) and bring peace and plenty to people who have lived well, loving God and their fellow human beings. This will happen on a “great and terrible day.”(5:23) Hence the Great Shabbat.

This is one of those texts on which Messianic hopes are built. The prophet promises that God will send Elyahu haNavi, Elijah the Prophet to herald the day and to “turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents” (3:24), to bring reconciliation at long last.

Who is this prophet Elijah? He is the one for whom we will open our doors on Seder night after beginning the ritual with a call for whomever is hungry to come and eat. Our Tanakh teaches that the prophet entered paradise while alive, that “he went up in a stormwind, Elyahu, to heaven,” (2 Kings:2:11) on a “chariot of fire.” Therefore, Elyahu is understood by our Rabbis and Sages to be a kind of emissary between worlds. In the Talmud he shows up in the heavenly yeshiva and in gatherings on earth. Because of our text from Malachi, he is said to be a herald of the Messiah, that person whose coming will presage the great and terrible day of rectification when everything will be set right. It is said that he often appears on earth disguised as someone who needs a great deal of help, someone homeless or poor. How he is treated when he appears that way indicates how close we are to the Messianic age of redemption. This is why, on Pesach, our liberation holiday, we open our doors, hoping that Elyahu will come to tell us that the whole world is free at last.

What will the Messianic age be like? The great Medieval sage Maimonides, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon taught that, “At that time, there will be no hunger and no war, no envy and not competition. The good will prevail and there will be much justice. All delicacies will be available as dust. And the world will be engaged with nothing but knowing HaShem in their hearts. And there will be in Israel great wise ones, and they will know the secret things and they will attain knowledge of the Creator as much as it is possible for a human being. ”Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim 12:5

The great modern Hasidic teacher, Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman HaLevi Epstein (1753-1825, Poland; also known as the Me’or v’Shemesh named for the book containing his teachings) taught that the Messianic age will bring a radical equality of persons. He compared this condition to that of a perfect circle in which each point is unique and also equidistant from the center. So too will every person remain a unique individual and be equal in their relationship to God. (see Sarah Schneider, Kabbalistic Writings on the Nature of Masculine & Feminine, Aronson 2001).

According to the Me’or v’Shemesh, we are promised this through the prophet Miriam, Moshe’s sister when, after liberation, she led the women in dance on the shore of the sea. Moshe had prophesied first, declaiming the Song of the Sea (Ex.15:1-18), chanting, “I will sing to HaShem!”—future tense. Moshe promised a future of assurance and joy. Miriam’s song begins in the present with the imperative, “Sing! To HaShem,” (Ex 15:21) transported in her vision to that promised time when the world will “attain knowledge of the Creator,” and break out into unstinting praise. Rabbi Epstein links this prophecy with the prediction found in Taanit 31a: “God will make a circle dance for God’s tzadikim.”

Rabbi Epstein, a Kabbalist, links these prophetic hints about a better day to mystic speculations about the creation of the world. According to the Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria, there was, at first, nothing but the Ayn Sof, the infinite, perfect presence of God. Somehow, the Beyond-Being conceived a longing for relationship—for difference. So, the Ayn Sof created Space and Time and extruded differentiated aspects of Itself through the process of conception into actualization—states of being culminating in matter. The Ayn Sof created vessels to contain the Divine energy until it could be transmuted into the physical worlds. But the vessels could not contain these manifestations of spirit and shattered into sparks that fell to the world and became encased in klipot, shells of matter. When we perform acts of kindness or pray or observe mitzvot or study Torah, sparks are released and fly to the Source. Eventually, the world will be healed and whole. This is something like the Messianic age prophesied by Malachi, Moshe, and Miriam.

But Rabbi Epstein adds something special to this idea. He points to old texts that conceive of the aspects of God, the sfirot, not as a linear Tree of Life descending from heaven to our world, but as concentric circles. He suggests that God’s intention was the creation of Circle World, that state of being in which each person is unique, and each is equal in her relationship with God. He suggests that, following the shattering, our world of linear hierarchy is necessary as rectification, as a structure to maintain creation and, with its condition of exile, war, competition and pain, as a kind of boot camp for souls, teaching us to choose goodness when the alternative seems to be so much more practical.

The Me-or v’Shemesh teaches that when we attain a critical mass of goodness, our linear World of Rectification will give way to Circle World. Distinctions of race, class—and gender!—will disappear, and  “Everyone will know G-d in a way that is perfect and unique.”

Understand—we don’t have to take any of this literally. We can understand Kabbalistic mysticism as a system of metaphors, a groping for explanation for why the Infinite would create the finite and imperfect. Because God craves relationship and only creatures who are different from one another and possessed of free will can choose each other and the Creator; can grow, change, and surprise. Further, that we are not condemned to perceive difference as a threat. That equality of condition is not erasure of individual uniqueness but rather the means of its flowering, and social hierarchies are not inevitable and not the will of God—that once and for all, our lives can change.

This previous Shabbat many Jews “prayed with their feet,” as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel did alongside Dr. Martin Luther King generations ago. Jews joined the March for Our Lives, that heartfelt cry to stop gun violence, to change our culture as well as our laws.

Please remember—many of the men who have committed mass shootings recently, from the Pulse nightclub shooter to the Isla Vista shooter to the perpetrator of the Las Vegas massacre were men who were either perpetrators of domestic violence or young men who were infuriated at not receiving the sexual attention to which they had been taught they were entitled. These were men who could not see beyond our linear world of hierarchy to the promise that it can all be different.

We have the option to embrace the promise. To join Miriam’s dance and that of the tzadikim. When we tell our story of enslavement and liberation, we can commit ourselves to liberating all who remain enslaved to economic bondage and to categorical hierarchies such as gender or race. As we open the door to Elyahu, our herald of a new day who presents himself as the poorest of the poor, as we add a cup of pure water, our kos Miryam to Elijah’s cup, we can feel the winds of the future reaching back to us, kissing us with their breath.