American Ecological-Anthropologist Roy Rappaport (1926-1997) taught me today that "The linguistic capacity that is central to human adaptation makes it possible to give birth to concepts that come to possess those who have conceived them, concepts like… heaven and hell." This understanding made me smile and gave academic language to that which I heard years ago from my teacher, Reb Shlomo Carlebach (1925-1994; hard not to see the close parallels the years they were both granted life). It is a true gift for me when multiple voices of who I am in the world can find a language to converse with. For today Prof. Rappaport and Reb Shlomo, both of blessed memory, are conversing…
Reb Shlomo suggests that the Olam Ha'bah (the Coming World) is a big movie theater. In one eye we see every moment of our life and how we lived it. In the other eye we see how we were meant to live each and every moment. When we see the same movie in both eyes, he explains, we are living in Heaven; and when we see two different movies simultaneously, we are living for a moment in Hell. As you know me, I had two immediate reactions when hearing this teaching. The first: "Stop watching ‘The Sound of Music’ immediately! You’ve seen it over twenty times (growing up Mariah Van Trapp was my hero, and everything I wanted for myself), and when you get up There, you’ll see it over twenty times again… that should be enough for two lifetimes!" The second thought, a bit more reverent: "Reb Shlomo, one doesn’t have to die to inherit Heaven or Hell. There are moments in my life that I’m in the right place at the right time, with the right people, doing the right thing, and it feels like "Heaven"… and there are moments in my life that I’m with the right person but the wrong time or situation in my life, or in the right place but not the right situation, and that clearly bears with it a distinct feeling of "Hell". I have a sense that you can empathize with these feelings, yes?
This Shabbat feels to me as a moment of Heaven and Hell converging, as I simultaneously embrace a distinct teaching that I always hold in my heart and is drawn from the Ishbitzer rebbe (the Mei Ha’Shiloach, R’ Mordechai Yosef Lainer of Ishbitza, 1800-1854) on this week’s Torah portion, and because this year Tisha b’Av falls on Shabbat.
Moshe Rabeinu, while retelling the story of his leadership recounts in chapter 1 verses 9-13 ‘I can’t do this alone, I shall appoint from among you wise, understanding and known leaders’ but when he appointed them he does not mention that they were understanding, only that they were wise and known. Quoting the Talmud (Nedarim 20b) the Ishbitzer rebbe says that they were not gifted with the gift of Bina / intuitional understanding. For the Ishbitzer rebbe, Moshe, when saying "I can’t do this alone" is really saying, "I can’t do this… but you can…. I can’t beseech God to let me in the Land, but if you ask, if you tell God that you won’t enter the Land of Israel without me, perhaps your prayers will help!" But, based on the Talmud, he teaches that they didn’t understand what Moshe was saying and therefore Moshe leaves out the word "understanding." What is so tragic about this teaching, for me, is the magnitude of their deafness. For the Ishbitzer rebbe this is almost inconceivable, for in his interpretation of Shalch Lecha, only a few portions back, he explains that the original motive of the Spies was to keep Moshe in their midst. For they had knowledge of what would be taught in the Talmud (Avodah Zara 5b) that a student needs forty years to comprehend the depth of their teacher’s knowledge, and knowing, then, that Moshe was their leader in the desert meant that they had to find a way to stay in the desert with him for forty years… The tragedy, and hence the "Hell" in this moment of our parasha is how the Princes of the tribes undertake all that it will take to have Moshe, their teacher, with them for forty years, but at the last moment, here, while standing on the outskirts of the Land of Israel, when he is trying to tell them that he needs them, their prayer on his behalf, they are not able to hear him! They cannot truly understand what he is saying to them! The greatest moment of "Hell" for a teacher… at the end of your journey with your students, to experience how they still don’t understand what you are really asking of them.
The "Heaven" of this Shabbat is that it is Tisha b’Av… as the ninth day of the month of Menachem-Av falls on Shabbat. This year we have the divine gift of being able to celebrate Tisha b’Av with blessings over wine and challah! We have the gift of reciting the Musaf prayer, as appropriate for Shabbat and holydays! And with the truth that much of the destruction happened on the tenth of Av (it began on the ninth and then proceeded into the tenth) we will actually be fasting this year when the Temples were actually going up in flames. This year we are blessed with a taste of ‘Olam Ha’Bah’ – the Coming World – we are blessed with the gift of Shabbat and community, and elements of celebration that are aligned with the promise of the Holyday Tisha b’Av will look like in the future.
This year we don’t have to wait for that future which at times seems so distant and impossible to attain. The gift of the cycle of our divine Mother Moon is that we have a taste of "Heaven" in the form of Tisha b’Av descending upon Shabbat.
I write these words on the night of the ‘Shloshim’ (the completion of the initial thirty days of mourning) for my soul-brother, the loved and brilliant Educator, Rami Wernik. Rami was blessed to learn from Moshe Rabeinu – he made sure to not leave his students side till he knew that they understood what it was that he was saying to them. And for me, while identical to relationships between birth-siblings, there were moments of "Hell" when waiting for him to return a call or email. Beyond that there was not a moment with him, when face-to-face, that wasn’t true "Heaven". I walk in gratitude for those endless visits to "Heaven" together, and return to them on a night like tonight to share with him again, even though separated by a veil between our worlds.
I pray that this Shabbat we create that "Heaven" for and with each other. I pray we sit at a Shabbat table where we feel and experience being understood, and able to express our needs in a manner that can be comprehended. I pray we dwell in God’s House-of-Prayer in true celebration of the Coming-World. I so believe that we can do this for each other!
Shabbat shalom and Chag Sameach!