My last words last week to a dying friend:
‘Don’t tell G-d about your troubles, tell your troubles about G-d.’
We just finished reading the book of Exodus, and also the last of the special Torah readings before Passover. This reading, ‘the chapter of the NEW moon,’ begins with the mandate to declare the upcoming month of Nisan, as the first month in the Jewish calendar. This command was so important that the sages said it really should have been the beginning of the Torah. One reason of course is that without knowing when Rosh Chodesh, the first of the month, falls out, we don’t know the correct date for the Jewish holidays. For example, we could be eating bread when it is already Passover, or we could be eating matzah when we are not supposed to. But beyond that reason, what is the import of this mitzvah which depended on the declaration of the court? Though nowadays we have those times fixed into the calendar, originally, the court’s involvement was so vital that the Talmud declares, even if the court had made a mistake in the calculation, G-d so to speak, acceded to the human time.
Why is this so important to know? I think it is because whatever is happening in the world, human beings need to be involved in a constructive way. A prophecy, a divine prediction, even or especially a scary one- is not an invitation to sit back and watch G-d run the movie. It is a call to participate in a pro-active manner. And if we make mistakes while trying to do something good, guess who makes allowances for human nature? The Creator! The Talmud says that four holy people died only because of advice of the serpent, ie, the sin of eating from the tree that made humanity mortal. But surprisingly- these four were not the most influential of Jewish leaders. Some of these did make big mistakes. No risk, no profit- or prophet.
How do people react to troubles, either man made or ‘acts of G-d?’ If we are in denial, or cave under, or even just say, ‘NU’ what can we do, that is not a productive response. But there is another kind of NU- it’s built into a Hebrew grammatical structure.
I am always trying to find ways to ‘freshen up’ my daily prayers. Especially now. Someone pointed out that the primary prayer called the Amida, or Shemonei Esrei, which means 18, actually contains 19 prayers. Also the Talmud says that one should not begin the prayer accept through a ‘weighty head,’ (a stance of respect) called in Hebrew, ‘Kovid Rosh. Put these two ideas together, and what do you get? Kovid-19! Ok, so saying this prayer thoughtfully may be a positive counter act for Kovid19. But how to freshen it up?
It occurred to me that every request in that prayer is not just for an individual; it is for the collective of our people. How do we know this? Because every time we say ‘please something’ in Hebrew…we ask in the plural. For example, ‘heal US’ not ‘heal me.’ Bless US, not ‘bless me.’ How do we know? Because of the suffix to the word Refah, healing and the word Barech, bless. The prayer says ‘Refa’eiNU, and BarcheiNU!! So the NU is the syllable that reminds us we are all in the same boat, no matter where on this planet is our physical location. Of course this has always been true, but now we can feel it and see it more collectively perhaps any other time in history, since, primarily through modern technology, we have become a global village in so many ways.
In fact the rabbis are now saying that there are three primary ways to combat a plague from a Jewish perspective; prayer, 100 blessings, and reciting in particular the passage about the 11 spices that were offered in the Holy Temple. Prayer and blessings are rather obvious, as mentioned. But what is so special about the incense offering? The sages relate that ten of these spices were sweet smelling, but one, galbanum, had a distasteful odor. However, when it was included in the group, it actually made the other ten smell even nicer! They connect this idea to the Jewish law that any congregation that does not include sinners, is not a proper congregation. So reciting and studying this particular Torah passage, teaches us about inclusion.
But what if people are by force isolated and forbidden to attend public services? Here we have a Hassidic teaching that the word for community is TZIBUR- meaning congregation. There were many holy people who for one reason or another, did not attend public services, even when they could and even when the services were held in their own home. The reason they gave is that the word TZIBUR is actually a contraction of three Hebrew words: Tzadik, Benoni, and Rasha, meaning righteous, intermediate, and wicked. One rabbi explained: When I pray with all facets of my character, from righteous to wicked, then I feel I am praying with an entire community of my various ‘personalities.’ So in these times of heightened anxiety and concern, let us try to internalize this NU message, and incorporate in this plural suffix of NU, not only prayers for all people, but prayers for all the multiple components of our individual selves.
Even better perhaps, let us pray WITH rather than just for, since we can feel now more than ever how intermeshed we are in the cosmic field. Finally our mystics teach that when we suffer, the Shechina, the Divine feminine presence is with us in our distress. If we embrace Her in our prayers, they are sure to be answered. So let us present our prayers and cries as a NU offering of faith, hope, and good will for a world sorely in need of a new, all-inclusive perspective.