Thursday, August 16, 2018

Secrets and Sins

There is a lot of talk about secrets these days. Former CIA director John Brennan no longer has access to our nation’s secrets. Omarosa claims she has access to lots of them. People whisper in hushed tones about this neighbor or that. The supermarket tabloids claim to reveal titillating secrets about one movie star after another. Today they are filled with tidbits about Aretha Franklin. (May her memory be for a blessing and her songs continue to fill our hearts.)

I take comfort in the Torah’s words. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God...” (Deuteronomy) No one can truly know another’s secret. No one can reveal another’s truth. Secrets are for the individual to share or for the individual to reveal.

The great Hasidic rabbi, Menahem Mendl of Kotzk, commented: “Other Hasidim perform the commandments in the open and their sins in private. My Hasidim commit their sins in public and observe the commandments in private.” It is a strange, and counterintuitive, teaching. Who publicizes their mistakes? Who reveals their errors? Don’t most people brag about their accomplishments and hide their gaffs?

Apparently Menahem Mendl taught his disciples to talk about their sins and not talk about what they did right. He taught them that you can only improve if others see your mistakes and hear about your errors. Most people don’t want to sign up for such a regimen. I wonder how many followers he actually had. And yet Menahem Mendl does reveal an essential truth.

The only way to grow and improve, the only way to be a better person is to reveal your mistakes and display them for others to see. That is the purpose of the High Holidays. We temper this telling of our secrets by reciting our sins together. The litany of sins are intoned in the plural. “For the sin we have committed…” we repeat over and over again.

Only by coming to terms with our own failings can we bring on redemption.

Menahem Mendl again: “The world thinks that tzaddik nistar—hidden righteous people—are people who conceal their righteousness and their good deeds from others. The truth, though, is that tzaddik nistar are people whose righteousness is hidden and concealed from themselves, and who have no idea whatsoever that they are righteous.”

Righteousness is not newsworthy. It is never something to brag about or hold before others.

But the world depends on each of us doing good deeds—perhaps in secret.

Is Faith as Easy as Relinquishing Control?

My wife and I recently traveled to Albuquerque. In addition to visiting Jesse’s house of Breaking Bad fame, and tasting too many new tequilas, we signed up for a hot air balloon ride. It was the most remarkable of low-tech adventures.

We arrived before sunrise. After driving to an empty parking lot, the gigantic balloon was unfurled. Large fans were positioned by the opening. Volunteers were requested to hold the balloon open as the fans filled the balloon with air. The large basket was positioned on its side and attached to the balloon by four carabineers. Propane burners were lit, and the balloon was filled with hot air. It gently rose off the ground and lifted the basket off its side.

Two men held the basket in place while the pilot climbed aboard. One by one, he instructed the twelve passengers to take their place, positioning us so that our weight helped to keep the basket level. He gave us our safety instructions. With the humor of a Southwest flight attendant, he taught us how to brace ourselves for landing. “Hold on to the rope handles by your side and bend your knees. Don’t drop your phones out of the basket.”

And with that, the burners roared and shot huge flames above our heads, the ground crew let go of the basket, and the balloon lifted gently off the ground. The ground quickly grew smaller....

Friday, August 10, 2018

Baseball and the High Holidays

Every sport has a peculiar set of rules. Soccer has yellow cards. Football a false start. Basketball has a flagrant one and even two. Hockey icing. Australian Rules Football has…I have no idea.

Unique among these sports stands baseball. No other sport keeps track of errors and makes a distinction between an earned hit and advancing to a base on an error. At each game the scorer sits in a box and makes the determination: earned or error. At the end of the game there is a tally: runs, hits and errors. And yet, in determining the standings all that matters are the number of runs. This, and this alone, determines the winner and loser of the game.

And yet there it stands: the team’s hits and the team’s errors. I know of no other sport that tracks errors and mistakes. A team can lose despite earning many hits. And a team can win despite committing a number of errors.

Saturday is the first day of the month of Elul. It marks the beginning of the High Holiday period, a time of introspection that culminates in Yom Kippur on September 19th. It is a forty-day period that mirrors the forty days Moses spent on Mount Sinai communing with God. We are meant to turn inward, examine our deeds and look back on the past year.

We are meant to tally our errors. We are not meant to look at the standings. Our successes are immaterial. On these days it is only the error column that truly matters.

This may seem like a depressing exercise. But the faith of the High Holidays is that you can only get better, you can only improve yourself, if you look at your faults. True introspection is about being honest about our flaws and owning our mistakes.

Here is the hope that tempers this exercise. As the gates of repentance begin to close, in the final minutes of Yom Kippur, all is forgiven.

We may all enter the High Holidays like the Baltimore Orioles (sorry Dad!), but everyone emerges as World Series champions. 

It begins by taking an accurate accounting of our errors.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Remember and Don't Forget

According to rabbinic legend a fetus knows the entire Torah when in the womb. When the baby is born, however, an angel kisses the baby on the lip, producing the recognized indentation, and the child forgets everything. Now this child must spend a lifetime learning Torah. It is a curious legend.

The rabbis imagined that we begin life knowing everything but then immediately forget everything.

Years ago, as my grandmother withered away in a nursing home, we watched her mind become increasingly vacant. Her body remained strong years beyond her mind’s forgetfulness. She felt it happening and understood that she was forgetting more and more. In fact, when she learned that she would soon become a great grandmother she remarked, “What good will that be if I don’t have my mind.” She knew that her dementia was growing increasingly worse. There grew a terror in her eyes. And then she forgot everything.

For our Jewish tradition forgetting is a cardinal sin. We are commanded again and again to remember: zakhor. In this week’s portion, Moses admonishes the people: “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, that you might be tested by hardships to learn what is in your hearts: whether you will keep the commandments or not.” (Deuteronomy 8). We must remember our history, the successes and failures, but especially the trials.

More than any other teacher, Annie Bleiberg, may her memory be for a blessing, taught me about the Holocaust. She colored in the details that the history books could not. She shared her story of survival, which was at times harrowing and other times miraculous, so that others might learn how hatred can metastasize into murder. She always reminded me that we must be on guard against antisemitism. She would say that we must treat every human being as in individual not as a category. This is why she told her story. She remembered the pain and the trials so that others might learn.

For Judaism remembrance is the key to learning.

Remembering is not instinctive. Memories must be inculcated. One can learn from others. But remembrance is best achieved by experience. Perhaps this is the reason for the rabbinic legend. You have to feel and experience to really learn. You have to look back and remember in order to teach.

The great historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi argues that Judaism believes forgetfulness is terrifying. Zakhor, remember, we are commanded. We must always remember the long way we have travelled.

To forget is to be that newborn infant, although touched by an angel, just beginning a lifetime of rediscovering and relearning.

We are the Jewish people because we remember. Our future is dependent on hearing this command and regaining this terror of forgetting. Perhaps this feeling will help us to learn more, to experience more. I forever see it in my grandmother’s eyes. I can still hear it in Annie’s voice.

May my lips never again be touched by an angel.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Over and Over Again

This week we find the Shema and V’ahvata, located in the opening chapters of Deuteronomy.

We read the line: “V’shinantam l’vanecha—and you shall teach them to your children.” On the surface the meaning of this verse seems obvious. Parents are obligated to teach their children everything, in particular Torah. They are commanded to teach their children about their Jewish heritage. They are instructed to teach their children values.

In Hebrew there is a common word for teach, m’lamed. Here the Torah uses the word, shinantam. This word derives its meaning from the Hebrew, to repeat. Why would the Torah use the word, repeat? Why would the Torah command that we repeat these words to our children? Are we to say the words of the V’ahavta over and over again to our children, and even grandchildren?

As a parent I am certain that lessons will most certainly go unheard the moment I have to repeat them over and over again to my children. I say over and over again, “Do your homework. Clean your room. Call your grandparents.” These admonitions are greeted with nonchalance and more often than not go unheeded. Over the years I have learned that my worst parenting moments are when I resort to repeating myself. In that moment I am the only one who is listening to my words.

Then what could the Torah intend? If repetition is the worst teaching method, then what could this unusual word choice mean? The Torah cannot be wrong. An insight must be hidden in its words. This is what I have determined. The best lessons are those that our children see us do repeatedly. Those actions that they see us do are the best Torah we can offer our children. This is what will prove most lasting.

This is what the Torah means by its words, “Repeat them to your children.” The best teaching is what our children see us do, over and over again. If you want your children to be generous, give tzedakah. If you want your children to be learned, then let them see you read and even take classes. If you want your children to be committed to their health, then let them see you exercise. If you want them to find Judaism meaningful then bring Judaism into your own lives.

Over and over, again and again, this is what our children must see us do. They discern what is most important by observing what we do.

“V’shinantam l’vanecha!”

Repeat them to your children.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

History's Warning Lights

Although not widely observed in Reform synagogues, Sunday marks Tisha B’Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar. On this day the first Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. and the second by the Romans in 70 C.E. According to Jewish tradition a number of other catastrophes occurred on this day as well, in particular the expulsion of Spain’s Jews in 1492.

It is a day marked by fasting and mourning. The Book of Lamentations is chanted. In its verses the prophet Jeremiah laments the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. “Bitterly she weeps in the night, her cheek wet with tears. There is none to comfort her of all her friends. All her allies have betrayed her; they have become her foes.”

The destruction of the second Temple by the Romans was even more devastating. Until the return of millions to the land of Israel, and the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty there, in the last century, we forever wandered. For nearly two thousand years, we lost our center. We could no longer worship in Jerusalem’s Temple; we could not pilgrimage there on our festivals. In its place, synagogues were created throughout the lands of our dispersion.

Somehow, we survived, and even thrived. The early rabbis doubted our fortitude. They saw only devastation and destruction. They could not imagine a Jewish life without the central Temple. And so they decreed that a glass be smashed at every Jewish wedding because they believed that our happiness—even that of a Jewish wedding—would never be full again. We defied their worries.

We remade the rituals of the Temple into the familiar rituals of today. We refashioned a new Judaism without one center but instead with many. Our homes came to replace the sacrificial altar of old. There we, like the ancient priests, would wash and sanctify our meals. We turned our creativity into study and prayer. We wrote countless books. We discussed and debated. We looked back at our history and examined our lives. We asked ourselves how this catastrophe could have happened. How could God’s holy Temple be destroyed?

The rabbis answered. It was not the Romans. Sure, that is what history indicates. Look instead within. This is a moment for self-examination. This is an opportunity for self-reflection. We did this to ourselves. They taught: it was because of sinat chinam, baseless hatred. It was because Jews fought amongst themselves, because they called one another traitors. This is why the Romans were able to destroy our Temple and our city. We gave our enemies an opening to destroy us because we were so busy fighting with ourselves.

It is a lesson worth remembering on this day, and in this year.

“The warning lights are blinking red again.”

Thursday, July 12, 2018

The Ocean's Pull

I am meditating on the ocean.  I am thinking about its pull.

Why do we venture to the sea and its shores?

I turn to the ancient rabbis. (That is what Jews do when seeking answers to their questions.)

Rabbi Eliezer responds: “The entire world drinks from the waters of the ocean.” (Taanit 9b). I read on to discover that he and his colleagues were debating where rain water comes from. I am impressed by my ancestor’s understanding of the cosmos. Another rabbi argues with Eliezer. “But the waters of the ocean are salty, whereas rainwater is sweet.” The debate continues. Rabbis!

Perhaps Eliezer means his teaching metaphorically. Our spirit drinks in nourishment from the oceans. Every summer we wait in hours of traffic just to make our way to its beaches. It is calming. The waves are restorative.

The poet, Mary Oliver, offers a teaching. (That is what I also look to when searching for answers.)

I am in love with Ocean
lifting her thousands of white hats
in the chop of the storm,
or lying smooth and blue, the
loveliest bed in the world.
In the personal life, there is

always grief more than enough,
a heart-load for each of us
on the dusty road. I suppose
there is a reason for this, so I will be
patient, acquiescent. But I will live
nowhere except here, by Ocean, trusting
equally in all the blast and welcome
of her sorrowless, salt self.

The ocean is the antidote to grief. It is the answer to what ails us. No amount of tears can ever fill its depths.

Rabbi Judah states: “A person who sees the ocean recites the blessing, ‘Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who has made the great sea.’" (Berachot 54a) We are commanded to say a myriad of blessings. When seeing a rainbow, when eating an apple, when seeing a mountain, when sitting down to a meal, but regarding the ocean the sages offer a clarification.

A month must have passed since lasting seeing the ocean. Most people read this emendation as a warning. You should not say this blessing everyday as you should, for example, the motzi. I of course read it differently.

Don’t let a month go by without seeing the ocean!

Find its waves. Seek out its shores. Touch its waters. Cast your grief to its depths. Our souls require nourishment. Our spirits need renewal.

And it can be discovered a few short blocks from our homes.




Thursday, July 5, 2018

A Zealous Father

I don’t very much like Pinhas. And yet year after year I find him in my Torah.

Here is his story. The people are gathered on the banks of the Jordan River, poised to enter the land of Israel. They have become intoxicated with the religion of the Midianites, sacrificing to their god, Baal, and participating in its festivals. Moses tries to get the Israelites to stop, issuing laws forbidding such foreign practices, but they refuse to listen. God becomes enraged.

"Just then one of the Israelites came and brought a Midianite woman over to his companions... When Pinhas saw this he left the assembly and taking a spear in his hand he followed the Israelite into the chamber and stabbed both of them, the Israelite and the woman, through the belly." The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Pinhas has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I do not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion.’ Say, therefore, ‘I grant him a covenant of peace.’" (Numbers 25) Pinhas' zeal tempers God’s anger. Thus Pinhas renews the covenant between God and the people.

It is a horrifying story. Zealotry is condoned. Murder in God’s name is rewarded.

I recoil at this story. I am taken aback, once again, to discover these words in my holy Torah.

I recall my bris. (Ok, not really. But still I know what was said.) When I was carried into the room the mohel extolled Pinhas’ example. He recited the Torah’s words and repeated its conclusion. “I grant him a covenant of peace.” I would like to think that the Torah’s words were recited because of its concluding promise of peace. And yet I wonder. Is the mention of Pinhas a tacit recognition of the passion and zeal required to perform the circumcision ritual?

Let’s be honest. We hand over our newborn, week old infant, to a stranger and ask him (or her) to remove something from the most sensitive part of his body. The rabbis justify this ritual by adding the notion that in performing the circumcision we are perfecting God’s creation. They argued that God made the world, and human beings, intentionally imperfect to leave room for us to perfect the world, and ourselves. And yet I better recall Ari’s bris.

I remember thinking.

There is only one reason why I am doing this (violence?) to my son. God commanded me to do so. I remembered the Torah’s command. “You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you. And throughout the generations, every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days.” (Genesis 17) I got up early in the morning to do God’s bidding. I did not question. God’s promise was my only reassurance.

Did I become a zealot in that moment?

Perhaps Pinchas is a part of me as well.

And he forever remains in my Torah.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

The Value to Share Meals with Those We Disagree With

This week my thoughts turn to Hillel and Shammai. I am not thinking about these famous first century rabbis because of their wisdom but instead because of their relationship. They stood on opposite sides of virtually every issue they faced. They led competing schools of Jewish thought.

The Talmud reports that their disciples argued for years. In fact, they never resolved the debate about whether it was good or bad that God made human beings. Given that their arguments were for the sake of heaven, a divine voice weighed in and determined that both of their opinions were valid and were apt reflections of God’s living words. Still, Jewish law almost always follows the opinions of Hillel.

Why? It is because, the Talmud reports, he would not only share his own interpretations but first the opposing opinions of Shammai. The lesson is clear. One’s opponents must always be given honor and respect. Perhaps, it was also because Hillel was known to be a nicer, and more open, rabbi. Shammai, in contrast, is described as sterner and given to rebuke.

That is the Talmud’s record of their debates. 2,000 years later we are left with the impression that their disagreements were friendly, and civil....

Friday, June 29, 2018

Sharing a Meal, Sharing a Country

This week my thoughts turn to Hillel and Shammai. I am not thinking about these famous first century rabbis because of their wisdom but instead because of their relationship. They stood on opposite sides of virtually every issue they faced. They led competing schools of Jewish thought.

The Talmud reports that their disciples argued for years. In fact, they never resolved the debate about whether it was good or bad that God made human beings. Given that their arguments were for the sake of heaven, a divine voice weighed in and determined that both of their opinions were valid and were apt reflections of God’s living words. Still, Jewish law almost always follows the opinions of Hillel.

Why? It is because, the Talmud reports, he would not only share his own interpretations but first the opposing opinions of Shammai. The lesson is clear. One’s opponents must always be given honor and respect. Perhaps, it was also because Hillel was known to be a nicer, and more open, rabbi. Shammai, in contrast, is described as sterner and given to rebuke.

That is the Talmud’s record of their debates. 2,000 years later we are left with the impression that their disagreements were friendly, and civil. These days, I wonder if this was in fact true. Did they speak ill of each other in the quiet of their own homes? Was Shammai sometimes given to fits of rage over Hillel’s liberal interpretations? Was his strict mindset unnerved by his opponent’s openness? Was Hillel equally perplexed by Shammai’s propensity to turn people away who wanted to learn? Did he worry that his fellow rabbi might end up leading a congregation of one?

Did they ever sit down at the same table together? Did they ever share a meal?

I do not know. And so, I wonder if the Talmud has softened the tensions between these leading, intellectual giants. I wish I could ask them how they got along. I wish I could seek their guidance for how to maintain a sense of collegiality and friendship with those whom I vehemently disagree.

I worry that if we cannot sit down at the same table, if we cannot discuss the issues and ideas that divide us then the threads that bind together our community, and country, will be forever broken. The most basic of human needs is eating. The most basic of human activities is eating meals together. This is what binds families together. This is what draws friends together.

This is what creates community. Sarah Huckabee Sanders is my fellow American. No matter how distasteful her politics might be she must be allowed to eat in the same restaurant as I do. It may be emotionally satisfying to throw her out, but I do not want to be party to such incivility. Protests, yes. Lots of them. And more to come, I am sure. But breaking bread together—even if at a table’s length—must always continue.

If not, we run the risk of living in a country riven with sectarian divisions. A recent study of millennials indicated that an increasing number would refuse to marry someone from the opposing political party. If a Democrat will not marry a Republican and a Republican will not marry a Democrat, then we have become sects.

It is a tragic thing that our political leaders have forgotten that compromise is what serves us best. Democrats are not meant to be winners. Republicans are not supposed to be victors. Americans are to be the only champions. Compromise heals a country. Politicians’ commitment to their own ideologies, and bases, is what drives their decisions rather than what might be best for the entire country of Republicans, Democrats, Independents and even those who do not vote, or cannot vote.

It requires greater courage to include those with whom we disagree than to throw them out. The Torah records. The prophet Balaam was sent to curse the Israelites. They were a threat to his king and his followers. When Balaam saw them, and met them face to face, he was unable to pronounce curses. Instead he offered blessings. “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!” (Numbers 24)

It a sad thing that President Trump does not seek to unite the country. It is satisfying to shun political opponents. It is gratifying to point out the apparent hypocrisies of opponents. The cheers of like-minded followers feed the insults, the nods of approval confirm our pre-conceived beliefs. But Twitter is not a forum for debate. It does not provide an opportunity to engage with the ideas of opponents.

For that we require the table. For that we require some good wine and some good food. For that we require some laughter and even shared tears. And then can we can begin the arguments for the sake of heaven.

I would like to imagine that Hillel and Shammai shared many such meals.

That, at least, is what I promise always to continue.