"Head, Heart, and Hand"
As I write these words, the candles and days of Hanukkah are waning and I am reminded of the debate between Hillel and Shammai about how to light the candles. Emphasizing that we move higher in holiness, Hillel teaches we should light one candle on the first night and then add another each night until we reach eight. Shammai argues that we should start with eight candles and have one fewer each evening until we end with one, to mimic the way the oil diminished.
As is the case here, Hillel’s viewpoint is accepted in almost all of their debates.
One of the most famous narratives between these two great hevruta (study partners)—Hillel and Shammai—occurs when a non-Jewish person comes to see Shammai about conversion. Having some hutzpah (audacity), the potential convert approaches Shammai, asking him to teach him the whole Torah while the potential convert stands on one foot. Offended, Shammai sends the man away.
Rebuffed by Shammai, the man approaches Hillel with the same request. Echoing Leviticus chapter 19, Hillel states: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor—that is the whole Torah, while the rest is commentary.”
But Hillel does not stop there, encouraging this man to “zil gmor—to go and learn it.” And sure enough, this new Jew does just that.
Following his model, we too should not only summarize the tradition, but also learn it. It is a life’s work. There is no complete mastery of our tradition. We wake each day to continue to journey—to push ourselves to learn and grow.
Judaism sees learning not merely as an intellectual exercise, but also a spiritual one and one that propels a person towards acts of hesed (kindness).
Recently, I have discovered this most beautifully in the Kedushah, the holiest part of the service. The third blessing of the Amidah (the standing, silent prayer) speaks of holiness; when we recite it aloud or repeat the Amidah, it is expanded around three key lines. It is supposed to be the most spiritual moment of the prayer service, where the author of this text wove together verses to describe the most sublime moment of experiencing the Divine Presence.
From the book of Isaiah, the first line is “Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh, Adonai Tz’vaot, melo khol ha’aretz k’vodo—holy, holy, holy is Adonai Tz’vaot (hosts, a hard word to translate), God’s k’vod (presence, also hard to translate) fill the entire world.”
To fully appreciate the power of this line, we should look at the context from which it was taken. Isaiah offers us a vision of heaven and angels turning to one another in praise of the Divine. This was an ancient vision of holiness and sanctity. As the worshipper would contemplate this realm, they would be transported away from this world to an experience of deep spirituality.
Similarly, the second verse is taken from the prophet Ezekiel, who had a vision of the heavenly chariot and God’s angels transporting the divine throne from Jerusalem into the Babylonian exile with the people. This was a comforting vision as it reassured the people after the tragedy of losing their homeland, their capital, and their Holy Temple. It was also a wild image of angels with four faces—one on each side of their heads—and many pairs of wings.
The verse from this text is “Barukh K’vod Adonai Mimkomo—praised is God’s Presence from its place [of holiness];” meaning that we, like these angels, praise God even when God is not in Jerusalem—wherever God is.
Both Isaiah and Ezekiel describe moments when these prophets experienced and beheld God’s presence; they are instances of God’s revelation to an individual. While the original revelation at Sinai was given to the entire Israelite nation, Isaiah’s and Ezekiel’s visions are personal moments of deeply experiencing the Divine. Thus, we are taught that we can experience God collectively or individually. The Kedushah prayer requires a minyan—reminding us of the power of community; however, each person’s experience of it is distinct as Isaiah’s and Ezekiel’s prophecies.
We would expect the third line to continue this motif of praise and it does: “Yimlokh Adonai L’olam Elohayikh Zion L’dor Vador Halleluyah—May Adonai reign forever, your God, O Zion, for generation to generation—praise God.” But what’s interesting is the context of this choice. It is not from another prophetic text or Torah text. The weaver of the Kedushah could have chosen the very similar and popular text: “Adonai yimlokh l’olam va’ed—may Adonai reign forever and ever” from the Song of the Sea at the Exodus.
But that was not chosen. Instead, a verse from Psalm 146 was selected. Why? What message is being embedded in this text?
Psalm 146 differs from Isaiah and Ezekiel; it is not a vision of God nor an experience of revelation. While the Psalm begins with general praise of God, it quickly moves to social justice values. For example, “Adonai shomer et geirim—God protects the stranger and helps the orphan and widow.” Through values such as securing justice for the oppressed and providing food for the hungry, we understand God performs and models for us to emulate.
Again, why would the weaver of the Kedushah prayer choose this text? I believe that he was trying to teach us a deep lesson. While we might have glimmers of the Divine through personal spiritual encounters, it is in the power of connection, of helping each other, of engaging one another, where we experience the full power of the Holy One.
God can be experienced alone or in a group, in nature or in a spiritual encounter, but God is also felt, perhaps most deeply, in our relationships—in how we care for each other.
Thus, the Kedushah is a prayer meant to move the heart, embedding messages in its text and compelling us toward hesed (acts of kindness and love). It is an intellectual experience to unpack its layers, but it should be felt emotionally and spiritually and then it can propel us—our hands and legs to act, to assist others in this world.
Head, heart, and hand: Thinking, feeling, and acting.
That is what our tradition invites us to do and that is what we do at Temple Emunah every day.
In particular, I want to point out wonderful opportunities to engage in these kinds of experiences.
In terms of learning, please join my January Sunday morning class, “Unleashing the Ashrei,” where we will experience the power and hidden meanings embedded in this text. We will also hold our Glatzer Scholar-in-Residence weekend on March 15–16 with Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, the new president of Hebrew College.
In terms of feeling, try our Emunat HaLev programming, including our January 5 Shabbat afternoon of mindfulness, as well as our regular weekly and monthly meditation groups. Come on any Friday night and sing and dance with us as well!
And in terms of action, join us for an amazing Shabbat on January 25–26. Along with Hancock Church and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston (JCRC), we will welcome Shorashim/Judur/Roots—a group of Palestinians and Israeli Jewish residents of the West Bank who are trying to build a new reality of peace. Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger and Shadi Abu Awwad, an Orthodox rabbi and a Palestinian who live on the West Bank, will join us for a special Friday night dinner along with members of Hancock Church. On Shabbat morning, Rabbi Schlesinger will deliver a d’var Torah about peace and co-existence, followed by lunch and a deeper text study. After Shabbat, we will hold a dinner presentation at Hancock Church.
Other “hand” projects over the coming months will include helping Emunah compost, our Social Action Shabbat, and caring for our members through the Hineni Care Team and Hineni Committees. We will also hold Mitzvah Day on February 3 and collect tzedakah to bring to Israel on our trip later in February.
Head, Heart, and Hand—join us!
Rabbi David Lerner