Ha’azinu—Feeling Judaism

We need to feel our Judaism in our kishkes. It needs to be such a part of us that it is our essence.

This is a question for those under 35: What does the word kishke mean?

If you don’t know—go ask an elder. Kishke means the insides. One way it is used is as a meat delicacy, and many who taste it say: “Mmmm…..kischka is delicious.” It also means a place deep inside you—your gut—not your physical stomach, but deep down knowledge that you know is true. When you feel something in your kishkes it is strong, visceral—you just know it—it defines you and is your essence.

This week’s Torah portion teaches that we need to feel our Judaism in our kishkes. It needs to be such a part of us that it is our essence. Our portion begins (p. 1185) with the words ya’arof k’matar lik’chi, ti’zal k’tal im’rati—let my teaching come down as rain, my speech distill as dew. Why rain and dew? Water is life. It is growth. It allows that which is life sustaining to thrive. It absorbs into the ground. We are to absorb the words of Torah, so that they become such a part of kishke that it is with us all of the time.

How does Torah become part of our kishke? You live it. You learn it from elders and teachers. You have experiences that make it real—like camp and youth group—where you say, “This is beautiful.” You study and discover who you are meant to be. You do mitzvah and feel the impact of creating a world defined by bringing values to life. In many ways this portion is a guide book to making Judaism alive in your kishkes. Look at verse 7: (p. 1186) Remember the days of old, Consider the years of ages past; Memory and history told and retold instills those lessons in our kishkes. Ask your father; I would certainly expand that to mother, grandparents, other influential adults. Your elders and they will tell you; Not every elder is full of wisdom—but there is something about having lived a lifetime which provides so much we can learn.

Torah absorbs into our kishkes when we learn its lessons from teachers and elders, who bring it to life through relationship and love. Do you have a teacher or elder like that? If you don’t, let’s help you find it. If you do, nurture that relationship, reflect on the lessons and appreciate them.

In a beautiful book, My Grandfather’s Blessings, Rachel Naomi Remen tells about how her grandfather, an observant Jew, instilled a deep sense of Judaism in her kishkes. She writes that her grandfather was always saying blessings. In her words:

“These blessings were prescribed generations ago by the great teaching rabbis, and each is considered to be a moment of mindfulness—an acknowledgment that holiness has been met in the midst of ordinary life. Not only are there blessings to be said over food; there are blessings to be said when you wash your hands, when you see the sun rise or set, when something is lost or when it is found, when something begins or ends. Even the humblest of bodily functions has its own blessing—my grandfather said them all.”

From her grandfather, Rachel Naomi Remen learned the power of blessings—to this day she blesses others by seeing the divine spark within them. She writes: “When we bless someone, we touch the unborn goodness in them and wish it well.” Watching and listening to her grandfather, she learned that blessings strengthen life and feed life just as water does. And this has become her orienting principle. She writes:

“We bless the life around us far more than we realize. Many simple, ordinary things that we do can affect those around us in profound ways: the unexpected phone call, the brief touch, the willingness to listen generously, the warm smile or wink of recognition. We can even bless total strangers and be blessed by them.”

As he told her stories of the Torah and the Bible those stories and lessons etched into her soul and guided her everyday. That is kishke Judaism. We need our elders and teachers and—if we listen—their lessons etch into our souls.

At this synagogue we have been blessed with an incredible teacher and elder, Rabbi David Teitelbaum. Rabbi Teitelbaum wrote a beautiful autobiography, called As A Mighty Stream, The Life of an American Rabbi, in which he leaves an ethical will—the most important teachings in life—for his family and by extension for us. One of his key pieces of wisdom: “Keep studying.” Those two words are what makes Judaism live in your kishkes. Studying reminds us who we are meant to be and what we are supposed to do. Learning doesn’t simply exercise the mind, it stretches the soul and results in activism. Rabbi Teitelbaum writes about the key values that make Judaism so compelling:

“love of neighbor (Leviticus 19:18); that which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor (Talmud); respect the aged (Leviticus 19:12); pursue justice; be a lover and pursuer of peace (Talmud); humans are not only to rule the earth, but to serve as custodians by preserving and improving the environment (Genesis 1:26); be sensitive to the suffering of living creatures; relieve the suffering of the poor, the deprived, the distressed, the orphan, and the widow; perform deeds of loving kindness; visit the sick; comfort the bereaved; be compassionate; be hospitable; be slow to anger; live with honesty and integrity; and much, much more…..In short, we should each try to be a ‘mensch’; a person of integrity, kind and helpful to others as well as to ourselves.”

Rabbi Teitelbaum not only taught, but he lived a life where these values came alive—and it lives in the kishkes of those who watched, listened and acted with him. When he and Robin went to the Soviet Union to give Jewish books and support to refuseniks, we learned what it meant to care for a fellow person in need. When he marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, we internalized lessons that injustice requires response and inequality and racism can never be tolerated.

And as we heard his story of being detained for a night, under the guise of being protected, we learned that sometimes there is risk involved in doing what is right. As I live the verse from the portion: “Ask your elders and they will tell you” and hear Rabbi Teitelbaum’s stories, I learn that even in difficult and painful moments, meaning can be found and obstacles overcome. He describes that the night of detention was Shabbat and the Jews had a Shabbat service. He writes: “We concluded the service by singing ‘Adon Olam’ to the melody of ‘We Shall Overcome’. It was one of the great spiritual experiences of my life.” His actions were a piece what helped awaken our country. Hearing how faith and mitzvah lead David to courage and risk—the lessons of Judaism absorb in my heart.

There are so many sweet pieces of wisdom in his book: value humans, consider different sides of an argument, work hard at relationships, take care of yourself, keep a journal, value friendships. As we turn to our elders, their wisdom seeps into our kishkes as rain is absorbed by the ground.

One last story: Rachel Naomi Remen’s grandfather was teaching her about Shabbat and how important it is to stop work—so we can shed pressure and worries and be home with people we love and with God. “On the Sabbath, we rest,” he told his granddaughter. He taught her that Shabbat creates joy and we see the beauty and holiness in our world. “Neshamele,” he said, “God has made life joyful.” He reminded her to create moments of joy. That may be one of the most overlooked lessons of Judaism and is reflected in the holiday that will begin on Sunday night—Sukkot—which is called zman simchateinu—the time of our joy. As we sit in the Sukkah, full of gratitude for freedom and life’s bounty, we open our soul to the radiance of life—that wonder is joy—and it stays with us. If you can—build a Sukkah. If you can’t—find a Sukkah to sit in next week. The joy Rachel Naomi Remen’s grandfather spoke about will become real.

Let’s allow the wisdom of our elders, the meaning of mitzvah and lessons of our people settle deep into our kishkes. And each of us will bring our own unique voice to the that which emerges. One commentary on the verse: “May my discourse come down as rain” (Sifrei) reflects that rain produces a variety of vegetation: grapes, olives, palm—some red, some black, some green. Similarly we are diverse in how we express and live our Torah. We take the wisdom of the past and then live it in our own, unique ways. Moses’ last speech is said on the verge of entering the Promised Land. Through our faith, our Torah, our kindness, our study, our openness to the wisdom and stories of parents and elders, we create the capacity to find our own Promised Land—a place of life, love, wisdom and joy. May our journey to that place continue.