This week’s Torah portion begins with a rather simple phrase which carries with it significant opportunity for discussion. Vayiggash Eilav Yehudah, “Judah came near to Joseph.” I have interpreted this phrase in the past in many ways but today, I want to use it in a different way inspired by several commentaries which offer this idea.
By coming near to Joseph, Judah in fact may be viewed as crossing a line, intruding upon Joseph’s space in a way that protocol would not allow for someone appearing before a person of power. By coming near, Judah reaches beyond his space and, in a sense, forces Joseph to confront him.
It is reasonable to consider whether Joseph would have revealed his identity at this moment had Judah stayed in his place. Perhaps he wouldn’t have. Perhaps Judah crossing the line forced the issue and led to Joseph’s action.
Ramban, Nachmanides, offers a beautiful interpretation of the phrase that we say prior to beginning the silent Amida. Adonai Sifatay Tiftach: “God, open my lips and my mouth shall speak your praise”. He says that the word sifatay can be understood not only as “lips”, which is the p’shat, the intended meaning, but as related to the same Hebrew word which is used for “the banks of a river”. He says that we must widen our banks and reach beyond what we perceive as our limitations and must break through barriers if we are to truly find new and meaningful ways to praise God.
Over the past five months, the first months of my retirement, I have been doing many classically rabbinic duties. I have been teaching here at Beth Israel and in Detroit and planning for scholar in residence opportunities. I have also had the sad duty of officiating at funerals here at Beth Israel. But, in addition to all these, it has been Ramban’s interpretation which has inspired me over the past few months and will hopefully, God willing, in the years ahead.
I have had the opportunity to reach beyond some boundaries which the full time rabbinate present in order to seek new ways to respond to the spiritual yearnings which sometimes can get shunted aside when doing the critical, meaningful day to day synagogue work that must be done.
I’ve found that meaning by taking some time to learn more about subjects that interest me through online courses in classical music and art history. I have taken time, and this has been easier since the baseball season ended, to do some reading and studying on subjects which have interested me from a spiritual standpoint in recent years: areas of science such as astronomy and genetics and considering how these affect my concept of faith in God. I’ have also pursued a bit more deeply an interest in an area which has fascinated me since I was a teenager: the phenomena that are referred to as “paranormal experiences” and to more seriously consider whether our minds and our “consciousness” can actually cross boundaries that we might have thought impossible.
But, through it all, one experience has meant the most to me and any of you who are Facebook friends of mine or who have asked me the simple question: “What are you doing these days?” and seen my face glow when I share the answer know full well which experience I’m referring to.
I have the greatest volunteer job I could ever imagine. I have become an exhibit guide at the Toledo Zoo, working mainly in the primate exhibit. Who hasn’t dreamed of working at a zoo? And, the other day when a young girl asked her mother a question about one of the animals while I was standing nearby and the mother said; “I don’t know, why don’t you ask the zookeeper?” and pointed to me, I almost cried.
I can not cross the boundaries set up at the zoo to protect the visitors and the animals. I still stand on the outside. But. by visiting often and helping those who come to the zoo to understand the animals better and to help them enjoy their visit, I am able to celebrate a spiritual experience of a different kind once a week.
Watching these animals, in particular, the gorillas and the orangutans, has left me absolutely ecstatic at times. I love watching the two babies, Wakil, the 3 year old orangutan and Mokonzi, the gorilla who recently celebrated his first birthday as they explore their limited world and interact with the others in their family grouping. But, while they’re funny and delightful, there is something else going through my mind.
I think about the sense of wonder that they display- and that I’m feeling- and realize that some of that sense of wonder has been dulled over the years by the routine of daily life and this experience has reignited in me that sense of childlike awe in God’s creation. Abraham Joshua Heschel said we should live our entire life in awe and wonder. I like to think I have fulfilled that instruction to a degree. But, I know it hasn’t been as prominent in my mind as it should have been and I’m glad to let these animals inspire me to remind me of the wonder of the world.
And then, there is Leela, the favorite animal of many frequent Toledo Zoo visitors. Leela is a 15 year old orangutan and she is beautiful. But, what is most important about Leela is that she interacts with visitors. When I comes to visit her, she comes over and sits down and knocks on the glass, sometimes offering what looks like a kiss, and graphically shows me the food she has partially eaten which I take to be a gesture of friendship.
Frequent visitors and volunteers know that Leela is fascinated with cell phones and loves to watch videos, staring intently at the pictures. But, what has astounded me is that when I look into her eyes, I feel like I’m crossing some kind of boundary between my world and hers.
I sit on the little bench against the glass where she often sits and I talk with her and I believe she listens and maybe even understands. This isn’t unusual as I feel that way about looking into our dog, Sami’s eyes and, when they let me, our cats’ eyes as well. But, I didn’t expect it from an orangutan and it has touched me in ways I can’t describe.
Each time I go to the zoo, I say a bracha which our siddur tells us we should say when we see a creature of outstanding beauty: Baruch Atah..Shekacha Lo B’olamo, “Blessed be God who has provided such beauty in the world”.
This is a critical bracha because it reminds us that we should not relate to God only as the God who gives the Torah but also as the source who created the world, in whatever way we imagine that.
There is a beautiful commentary on the phrase from the creation story when God says: “Let us make the human being in our image according to our likeness”. The plural, say some commentators, indicates that God was talking to the animals asking them to contribute the physical characteristics to the creation of the human being.
Usually when we think of crossing spiritual boundaries, we think of reaching further away from our physical bodies and reaching to more “heavenly” realms. I do think that way, of course, but I have also found that the opposite, reaching out to build a relationship with these and other animals, our physical relatives, has touched me on a deeply spiritual level that I didn’t not expect.
As much as I love Torah and cherish that which distinguishes us as Jews, I also cherish the world around us and I embrace that which unites us with all other people and the animals which surround us. My trips to the zoo as well as my reading on scientific issues focus my mind on the God of creation and I find that tremendously spiritually satisfying.
None of this is meant to imply in any way that I have given up working with human beings. I love to teach and study Torah and I have begun to work on a second book which I know Leela will not be able to read.
Still, there is something about those eyes that have helped me look more deeply into my soul and for that I am deeply grateful.
There is an ancient Jewish text called Perek Shirah, which suggests a Biblical verse for each element of the natural world, sun, stars, plants and, of course, many animals.
For example, the book teaches that the elephant says words from the Shabbat psalm, psalm 92: “How great are your works O God, how profound are your designs”.
The Lion says: God will go forth like a mighty warrior.
And the final animal mentioned in Perek Shirah is the loyal dog who says words we recognize from Mah Tovu: Come let us prostrate ourselves and bow down.
The book does not contain a verse for a gorilla or an orangutan. But, I will suggest one word: Vayiggash, “He came near”.
I came near and in doing so, something significant was revealed that might not otherwise have been.