Jewish Journal

God Will Meet You Where You Are: Haftarat Tzav, Jeremiah 7:21-8:3; 9:22-23

by Jonathan Zasloff

March 13, 2014 | 3:06 pm

The Haftarah is supposed to reinforce the message of the week’s Parasha, but Tzav seems to do a pretty bad job of it. Jeremiah might be, in the great scholar Harold Bloom’s words, the “bipolar depressive” of the Tanach, but the prophet’s contribution this week is legal, not psychological. And it seems to be a lenient jurisprudence:

Thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: Add your burnt offerings to your other sacrifices and eat the meat! For when I freed you fathers from the land of Egypt, I did not speak with them or command them concerning burnt offerings of sacrifice. But this is what I commanded them: Do My bidding, that I may be your God and you may be My people; walk only in the way that I enjoin upon you, that it may go well with you.

This passage fairly turned subsequent commentators in knots. Doesn’t the Torah itself – in the very portion read this week! – state quite clearly that these sacrifices were commanded in the desert? Rabbi Akiba insisted that while most of the Israelites dropped the sacrifices in the desert, preferring the Golden Calf instead, the Levites remained faithful. (Bavli Hagigah 6b). Nice try, but that dog won’t hunt. The passage from Jeremiah is plain and precise.

Or is it? Perhaps Rabbi Akiba was on to more than he knew.  Our Haftarah says that God commanded nothing about sacrifices “when I freed your fathers from the Land of Egypt.”  The Torah portion (Leviticus 7:37-38) says that God commanded the ‘olah sacrifice “to “Moshe on Mount Sinai.”In other words, we can explain the difference because God’s commands to the Israelites changed.  This hardly steps far outside the halachic box.  Altars outside Jerusalem were allowed before Josian reforms, then they weren’t. Jewish law proceeds on a case-by-case basis, adjusting to changing circumstances. Hillel’s famous prozbul allowing certain debts to be collected after the Sabbatical year, serves as a classic example. (Shevi'it 10:3-4).

Jeremiah’s message contains within it a deeper religious insight, namely: spiritual practices change. I do not mean here to enter into the debate about collective Jewish ritual change: Orthodox and Heterodox authorities have been doing that for centuries and do not need my help on that (at least for now). Rather, Jeremiah points to the possibility that as individuals, our spiritual practices change as our lives change.

My friend Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, who bogs under the handle “The Velveteen Rabbi,” summed it up beautifully in a brilliant essay three years back:

[W]hatever it may be, your prayer life is going to change.
Prayer is an expression of who you are, where you are. Even if you stick to liturgical prayer, using the words on the page as a container for your own thoughts and aspirations, your life is going to change at one point or another, and when it does, your prayer life will change too.
Maybe you're single now: if you become partnered, your ability to immerse in your prayer practice may shift. Maybe you're childless now: if you have a child, your ability to immerse in your prayer practice will definitely shift, especially if you are the primary caregiver, doubly so if you are nursing. Maybe you have kids at home: once they're in school, or once they head off to college, your ability to immerse in your prayer practice will shift. Maybe you're caring for an elder. Maybe you are an elder. Whoever you are, whatever your circumstance, it's going to change. Go into your prayer practice knowing that. Be prepared for your prayer life to shift: that's a natural part of having a prayer life. Don't make the mistake of developing a prayer practice and then assuming that once you've developed it, you're done.

Read the whole thing.

We might extend R’Rachel’s insight into all forms of spiritual life, not just prayer.  And make no mistake: spiritual practice transcends prayer.  For example, the practice of heshbon ha-nefesh, literally “the accounting of the soul,” requires one right before bed, to assess the day in terms of the person’s character. Where did I fall down? Where did I succeed? Why do I think that that happened? How can I set up my life in order to improve? Heshbon Ha-nefesh does not necessarily entail long essays, but it is a demanding spiritual practice. It is, not, however, prayer. Similarly, since "the world stands on three things: study, prayer, and acts of loving-kindness," one's spiritual life cannot be restricted to prayer, however one might define prayer.

R’Rachel’s essay echoes an important teaching of the Ishbitzer Rebbe, author of the great Chassidic text Mei HaShiloah (“Living Waters”).  The Ishbitzer argues that our spiritual life should insinuate itself into every moment of the day, if possible. He observes that while Joseph zealously followed the dictates of the law at all times, for Judah, the father of the Jews, the practice was different.

The root of life for Judah is to look to the Blessed God regarding the course of every action. Even though he sees where the judgment [applicable Jewish legal precedent] leans, still he looks to the Blessed God to see the depth of the truth of the matter . . . not to act in a way that is simply habitual. Even though yesterday he acted in such a way, yet today he does not want to rely on his former response, only that the Blessed God should illuminate God’s will into him anew. (Mei HaShiloah, Parshat VaYeshev).

As risky as it may seem, I have to humbly dissent from one aspect of the Ishbitzer’s teaching. He could be read as allowing our spiritual practices to change from day to day.  That’s a little too much, in my view.  We want our spiritual life to be flexible, but we don’t want it to be erratic. Quite often, one needs to keep going in a spiritual practice even when it isn’t working in order to get to the next level. There are going to be hard places, plateaus, long times of frustration in just about any practice in any phase of life, be it personal, professional, spiritual, anything.

How, then, can we distinguish between a time for a change and a wall that needs to be broken through?Well, we can’t, really, but Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi has a handy rule of thumb: try any new spiritual practice for 40 days and then take stock. The number 40 is obviously evocative of Jewish tradition. The Great Flood lasted for 40 days and 40 nights; Moses spent 40 days on his first trip up Mount Sinai. if it is good enough for Hashem and Moses, then it should be good enough for us.

So what might these spiritual practices be? Let me suggest place to start.  Look at one of the relatively hidden gems of modern Jewish scholarship: Yitzhak Buxbaum’s Jewish Spiritual Practices.  The title sums up the book well: it is a detailed and comprehensive catalogue of practices derived primarily from Chassidic texts.  The book enormous value lies in its simplicity: Buxbaum makes no claims to abstract thought about practices.  He just carefully and lovingly combs through literally hundreds of texts, masterfully organizing into coherent categories.  You want tachlis? You got tachlis.  Coming in at more than 750 pages, it certainly does not lack for suggestions.  It certainly includes traditional activities, such as meditation, hitbodedut (talking to God), repeating holy sayings, Torah and Mussar study, and methods for nullifying bad thoughts. But it also comprises hundreds of pages on things not normally thought of as spiritual, such as behavior at work, exercising, sex – even behavior in the bathroom.  I particularly like this volume because it is so firmly grounded in traditional Judaism.

There is no way, of course, that a person can engage in all of the practices Buxbaum compiles – and Judaism does not expect that people will. Instead, try to find those practices that resonate with your soul.  What works for you?  What brings holiness into your life? What makes you feel connected to God?

Just as importantly, there is no need to feel discouraged or non-spiritual if the practices that you try do not work for you and do not connect you to God.  As my teacher Alan Morinis, the founder and executive director of The Mussar Institute has noted, every soul has its own spiritual curriculum. That means that each soul starts at a different place and moves on its own path.  And as Jeremiah explains in this week Haftarah’s, that is perfectly okay. God will meet you where you are.

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Jonathan Zasloff is Professor of Law at the UCLA School of Law, where he teaches Property, Land Use and Urban Planning Law, Legislation, and Talmud, and a ordination candidate...

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