Higher and Higher and Higher and Higher – Shabbat Inspiration – April 17, 2015 by Rabbi Yocheved Mintz, Congregation P’nai Tikvah

 As my plane took off from Reno last night, after a day of advocacy at the State legislature in Carson City, topped off by a meaningful ceremony for Yom HaShoah hosted by the governor in his home, a line from a song embedded itself in my brain and wiggled around and has remained there since.  The line goes “Higher and higher and higher and higher”…


Now this is not the song that praised love (as made popular by Jackie Wilson), or the song that glorified marijuana (as made popular by ….well, those who ingested it can’t really remember).  It is merely a snippet from a song made popular by Craig Taubman in his Friday Night Live services….

Of course, it’s no coincidence that those words should be twirling about.  We are in the period of the counting of the Omer, the 49 days between the second day of Passover and the holiday of Shavuot.  It is an interval of successive steps that take us from Z’man Cheiruteinu, the season of our Redemption from servitude in Mitzrayim/Egypt, to Z’man Matan Torah, the holy moment, at which we were witnesses to the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. In biblical times we would mark each of the days of these seven weeks/sheva Shavuot with a barley offering, the Counting of the Omer, as a ritual befitting the agrarian society in which we lived.  As we renew and reinterpret the custom, we now focus each day in a more spiritual manner….concentrating each day on a progressive succession of  sphirah within sphirah of the seven lower sphirot.

Mystical Judaism, Kabbalah, speaks of a system of ten sphirot/emanations or attributes through which the Ein Sof (the unknowable Power to whom we normally refer as G-d) reveals the G-dself and continuously creates both a physical realm and a chain of higher metaphysical realms.  Let us pause to “Count the Omer” for this Shabbat day:

ברוך אתה יהוה אלהינו מלך העולם אשר קדשנו במצוותיו וצוונו על ספירת העמר.

Praised are You, Eternal, our G-d, Sovereign of all Worlds, who has made us holy with your mitzvot and commanded us concerning the counting of the Omer.

היום ארבעה-עשר יום שהם שני שבועות לעמר.

Today is the fourteenth day, making two weeks of Omer, which focuses onמלכות שבגבורה , roughly translated as ”nobility within discipline,” which we interpret as meaning this is a day on which we should concentrate on how we can make discipline, whether that is self-discipline or discipline of loved ones or even students, noble, meaningful, soul-redemptive, positive.  Now, though this might seem to be pretty heady stuff, it can be easily understood as taking the trait of the sphirah and working on it for self-improvement day by day.  Within our own sweet, holy community, we have close to a third of our congregation subscribing to the Omer Thought a Day, and applying the meditation of each day to their own lives.

So, as we take on a new attribute focus each day, we systematically spiritually ascend higher and higher, until we are spiritually ready to figuratively accept the Torah, once again, on Shavuot…which this year we will all do together on the Green at Eagle Hills, on Sunday morning, May 24th.   So, in a very real sense, each day during these forty-nine days, we are going higher and higher.

Those words took on added meaning this week, as the community commemorated Yom HaShoah, first in an incredibly moving commemoration on Sunday, at Congregation Ner Tamid, at which our own chazzan, Cantor Marla Goldberg, sang a meaningful rendition of “Eili, Eili,” and then again yesterday, the words resonated in the more intimate setting of the Governor’s home in Carson City.  During the poems and readings shared by the survivors at both events, and especially by the personal reflections shared by some survivors, I was met with a confluence of emotions.  I know many of the survivors of the Shoah, the Holocaust; and, as a rabbi in this community, I have come to know many who have survived immense traumas within their lives.  Some are forever marked by  their experiences; yet so many are courageously able to look upon the traumas as what may have shaped them, but refuse to allow themselves to be defined by them.

It takes courage to live in the face of such personal traumas—courage and perseverance and determination…and, yes, nobility.

This weekend the United States marks the 20th year since the horrendous bombing of the Murrow Federal Building in Oklahoma City, and this week marks the 2nd anniversary of the bombing at the Boston Marathon.  Yet over and over we hear from survivors such statements, as “our past is just our prologue.”  Amazing.  Higher and higher and higher and higher.

The parashah this weekend in our Torah is Sh’mini, which recounts the glorious  dedication of the Mishkan, shortly afterwards  abruptly describes the horror of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the eldest sons of Aaron, brother of Moses.  The Torah does not expound as to why the Nadav and Avihu are consumed by fire, nor do we read descriptions of the reactions of those present.  What we read, though, is Aaron’s response:  “Va-yidom Aharon/ and Aaron was silent.”

What did his response mean?  Was it, as the Bi-ur (Naphtali Hirz Wessely, an 18th century German commentator, suggests:  patience, resignation, and an inner peach accepting the yoke of Malchut Shamayim, heaven’s sovereignty?  Or was he so shocked, so stunned, so frozen in his place that he was struck silent.  Here he had just sacrificed the prescribed bulls, rams, and goats and then his own sons were so painfully, suddenly, and horrifically consumed by the same fire.

If one lives long enough, it is not beyond the scope of imagination to understand the experience of a sudden, shocking loss of either someone with whom you are closely emotionally tied, or even with the sudden, wrenching loss of a physical or emotional part of one’s self.  We cry out, we moan, we sob, or we, like Aaron, are dumb-struck.  These are all coping mechanisms.  These are also ways of praying to that whom we call G-d.

It takes time…and courage…and inner resolve…and Tikvah (hope) to regain the voice that despair has silenced…and, the psalmists suggest, gratitude and praise for the ability to persevere.  Psalm 30, verse 13 says:  “L’ma-an yizamercha kavod v’lo yidom, Adonai elohai, l’olam odeka/So that my soul might sing Your glory and not be silent, Yah, my G-d, I will forever thank you!”

It is no wonder that it took nearly 50 years after the events of the Shoah for survivors to begin talking about it.  I credit Elie Wiesel’s writings as being the crack in the door that allowed that to happen, but so many second and third generation offspring of Survivors will attest to the fact that some of the events of the Shoah were so traumatic that those who survived them cannot even speak of them to this day.

So, al achat kamma v’chamma, how much moreso, are we to be in awe of those who do share their stories, who participate in the community, and for whom, we as a community, feel a debt of gratitude and support; and, now 70 years post-Holocaust, there are fewer and fewer firsthand witnesses to this communal tragedy, so our support of them is all the more an imperative.

But, we must not dwell on the tragedies of our communal history or our own lives.  We must not let that define us as a people or as individuals.  We must take the lessons of that piece of tragic history or our own personal losses and hopefully apply them to our lives, gaining strength and resolve from those lessons.

And we honor the weeping, the pain, the losses, the silence…even the time and praise the One who gives us the courage, the perseverance, the strength to find our way through broken hearts and shattered families towards embracing life itself and going forward , upward and onward towards fulfilling our G-d-given potential and living the precious gift of life with gratitude and praise.

This Sunday, at 5:00 at the Adelson Educational Campus, we will solemnly commemorate Yom HaZikaron, the day of remembrance for those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for the establishment of the State of Israel.  Next month, we will joyfully celebrate the 67th anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel.

On May 24th, we will gather to observe Shavuot, to hear the Asseret HaDibrot, the Ten Commandments, to witness our own Sabrina Linker, being called to the Torah as a Bat Mitzvah.

And on May 30th, we will don our cocktail regalia, and joyfully celebrate the 10th anniversary of my having the privilege of being your spiritual leader.

And so, we go “Higher and higher and higher and higher.”  And if anyone can later remind me of the rest of the words of that song, I’d deeply appreciate it.  Shabbat Shalom….