Thursday, May 17, 2018

On Shavuot's Torah and Gaza's Chaos

On Shavuot we are commanded to study Torah.

We reaffirm our commitment to the centrality of this book. Around the study of its words our lives revolve. That is how the tradition most certainly sees it.

So important is the Torah that the rabbis teach it preceded the world’s creation. They imagine that the Torah was the blueprint God consulted when fashioning the earth and seas, animals and human beings.

The Midrash teaches. (The Midrash is a collection of stories from the early rabbinic period.)
It is a common practice that when a human king builds a palace he does it, not according to his own conception, but according to that of an architect. The architect, in turn, does not work off the top of his head but uses plans and diagrams to figure out where to put the rooms and the doorways. Thus did the Holy One, Blessed be God, consult the Torah when creating the world.
I continue to observe the world so as to uncover this blueprint. I continue to study the Torah so as to understand the world.

The Zohar adds. (The Zohar is the foundational text of Jewish mysticism, namely Kabbalah.)
Once the world was created, it could not have been sustained had it not occurred to the Divine Will to create human beings, who would engage in the study of Torah, for the sake of which the world would be sustained. Now, those who delve in the Torah and engage in its study are as if they sustained the whole world. Just as the Holy One, blessed be God, looked into the Torah and created the world, human beings look into it and sustain the world. The entire world is thus both made and sustained by the Torah. Therefore, happy are they who engage in the study of Torah, for they are upholding the world.
The world is certainly in need of more sustenance.

Perhaps the Torah is the sustenance we require.

Regarding the ongoing crisis in Gaza a few thoughts.

While I am deeply pained by the deaths of other human beings, even though many of those Palestinians killed were rioters rather than protestors, I continue to believe that Israel has every right to protect its borders and guarantee the safety of its citizenry. And while Hamas deserves the largest share of blame for the appalling conditions in the Gaza Strip, it is not in Israel’s interests (both its security and moral interests), to live alongside two million people trapped with a mere four hours of electricity per day, inadequate sewage treatment, debilitating food shortages, severe water problems approaching an emergency, and 60% unemployment among those under thirty.

Again while Israel is not largely to blame, it is also not entirely blameless. A humanitarian crisis marked by starvation, thirst, and disease lurks around the corner. Israel cannot fence out these problems. I understand that people have lost faith with Palestinian intentions. Yesterday, when Hamas turned away Israeli medical supplies bound for those injured I similarly lost faith. People are charging the border shouting their murderous intent to kill Jews. With whom is Israel supposed to make peace? Certainly not with Hamas. Then again, if not with its avowed enemies then with whom?

I continue to believe in the necessity of the two-state solution if for no other reason than I see no other way out for the Israel I so love—or perhaps because I remain stubborn about matters of faith. I wish for the State of Israel to live up to the dream of its founders. I wish for Israel to remain both Jewish and democratic.

Rabbi Hillel teaches: “The more Torah, the more life.”

And that is the faith I most refuse to give up on.

I study the world so as to uncover God’s blueprint. I study the Torah so as to uncover how to approach the world.



Friday, May 11, 2018

Some Talmud in Memory of Rabbi Aaron Panken

“Be of the disciples of Aaron….” And the Aaron I knew would have laughed. “My disciples? That sounds so pretentious.” He saw his work as forever unfinished. So how could others see themselves as his disciples? He would laugh and also say, “Pirke Avot is the best you can do.” But for now, this is what we are left to do. Be his disciples. And so what follows is this Shabbat's offering of remembrance and learning.

At most Shabbat services we often discuss the portion of the week. This week we read the concluding chapters of Leviticus in Parashat Behar-Bechukotai. At other Shabbat services we discuss the pressing issues of the day. This week, in fact, we learned that the Trump administration is not re-certifying the Iran nuclear deal. Seems like a moment for a rabbi to weigh in. I have argued that contemporary politics find voice within the verses of the Torah. On this Shabbat, however, I wish to speak about none of the above. Instead I wish to honor my friend, classmate and colleague, Rabbi Aaron Panken, who died last weekend while piloting a plane. Aaron only recently became the president of the Reform seminary. We knew he was just beginning to steer the Hebrew Union College in new and even greater directions.

Aaron loved Talmud. In fact he taught Talmud. And so on this Shabbat I decided that the best way to honor my friend would be to teach Talmud. I therefore looked to Daf Yomi. This is the project in which people read a page of Talmud every single day in order to complete the study of this vast Jewish text. It takes seven years to complete the project. The Talmud is no ordinary book. It is the compilation of rabbinic discussions and debates spanning the formative years of Jewish life, from the first to fifth centuries CE. Imagine rabbis who lived in different centuries and who at times even lived in different towns arguing on one page. The Talmud is a cacophony of opinions. Although I call it formative it would be a mistake to call it a law book. It is filled with tangents. It is riddled with technical and cumbersome language. Moreover it is written not in Hebrew but Aramaic, the lingua franca of the early rabbinic period. At one point you think you are learning about Shabbat when all of sudden you find yourself at Rabbi Hillel’s feet discovering what he believed to be the essence of Judaism. “What is hateful to you do not do to any person.”

I take occasional tours through its pages. I find it at times maddening, and often baffling. My friend did not. This was his home.

And so on this day the assigned reading for the Daf Yomi project is Zevachim 28. Of all the tractates of the Talmud it had to be this one. Zevachim is all about the sacrifices. This would almost certainly be the last of the tractates I would pull off my shelf. I am more comfortable with the discussions in Brachot, blessings. Avodah Zarah, the book on idolatry, is filled with some fascinating debates about how we draw lines between who is a Jew and who is not, about what is Jewish and what is not.  But Zevachim 28 is today’s charge. I quote from the opening lines: “The tail of a sheep sacrificed as a peace offering is burned on the altar rather than eaten. But if so, one who slaughters the sheep with intent to consume the skin of its tail the next day has intent to shift its consumption from consumption by the altar, i.e., burning the offering, to consumption by a person.” Sound confusing and daunting? It is.

Let us unpack its meaning. It is a curious thing that the rabbis would spend pages and pages discussing rituals that they could no longer do or even hope to do. The Temple, where we once offered these sacrifices, was long ago destroyed. Why would they even bother to debate its intricacies? Perhaps one might argue that they still held on to the belief that when the messiah comes the Temple cult will be rebuilt and we will again be able to sacrifice animals to God. Although they, like Jews throughout history, hoped that the future will be better than the past, (that is an essential Jewish belief) I am skeptical that they pored over these details so that they could be ready for the messiah’s arrival. I think there were other interests at play.

The more likely reason is that they wholeheartedly believed in machloket l’shem shamayim, arguments for the sake of heaven. They honed their argumentation over the seemingly mundane and inconsequential. I think this is the root of the Talmud. If you can argue about things that really don’t matter then you can learn how to better argue about stuff that really does matter. Here is an entire tractate devoted to what appears unimportant. Let us argue about it. Here, in the safety of the Talmud, we can debate. Perhaps all our divisive times require is a page of Talmud.

But my friend Aaron saw even more. The rabbis may have ostensibly been talking about sacrifices and the skin of a tail, but don’t let that tail distract you. (Aaron would have made any number of jokes about that tail.) What the rabbis are really asking is, “Does intention matter?” Does the intention of the person offering the sacrifice transform the sacrifice? If you intend to eat part of the animal then is the sacrifice no longer acceptable? Is your devotion tainted because you are looking at the sacrifice more like a barbeque than an offering? The discussion goes on for pages and pages. It is exhausting. I do not have my friend’s patience.

In some ways we have never really solved that question. Does intention matter? Do I have to pray with all my heart? Does my tzedakah donation have to come from a place of really wanting to give or just because I want to get off the phone as quickly as possible? When push comes to shove the rabbis always deferred to the following answer: it is better to do the right thing with poor intention than waiting around for good intentions that they worried would never materialize into actions. Better to just do what is required even with an empty heart than do the wrong thing even if that wrong thing is with a heart full of good intentions.

And yet in the Talmud you discover the rabbis’ uncertainty. You find their debate. You uncover their inner doubts. You think they are talking about the sacrifices that we will never again offer but really they are talking about the whole system and the very foundations of our belief. What if I am here in this synagogue but my heart is in another place thinking about tonight’s dinner and the steak I plan to order?

That is what I discovered today when I opened a page of Talmud in honor of my friend. But my reading remains incomplete. Because you can really only study with someone else. You have to sit across from a chaver, a friend. It’s never just about reading a page. It is always about discussing and debating what’s on the page—with a friend. That is how we have always moved forward.

One page at a time.

And my friend was right. In this book is the secret to how we could live in any place and in any time. In the Talmud is the secret to why we are still here.   

         

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

The Path of Friendship: In Memory of Rabbi Aaron Panken

I spent the better part of an evening rummaging through closets, shelves and trunks, searching for the photo album from my first year of rabbinical school in Jerusalem. I longed to find a photograph of my classmate and friend, Aaron, who died in a small plane crash this weekend. Although I discovered a number of pictures from my children’s younger years, I never found the album or a picture from the year in Israel. When Aaron and I first met, some thirty years ago, we did not photograph every minute of every occasion.

Still, I wanted to uncover a picture to add flesh to my memories. One day in the not too distant future, I am sure I will find that album and its collection of photos. For now, I am left with the images imprinted in my thoughts.

I recall the New Year’s Eve party I hosted at my Jerusalem apartment. We had no TV on which to watch the festivities in Times Square and the ball drop. Aaron improvised. He lifted the large paper lantern that adorned many of our apartments and slowly dropped it from the ceiling as we counted down to a new year. And then he offered that mischievous grin and that signature laugh which approached a giggle.

It is a strange thing that this is the memory that continues to play over and over again in my mind....


Thursday, May 3, 2018

The Holidays' Fruits

This week we read about the holiday cycle. "These are My fixed times, the fixed times of the Lord, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions..." (Leviticus 23:2)

The following holidays are described: Shabbat, Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. Notice that our favorites of Hanukkah and Purim are not mentioned. These, it should be noted, are nowhere to be found in the Torah. This is why they are accorded minor status, despite our fondness for them and especially our children's love for them.

During biblical times our holidays were constructed around our people's agricultural sentiments. For farmers the year began with the spring and was marked by the holiday of Passover. With the exception of Shabbat there were no holidays during the winter. Sukkot marked the end of seasons, and the conclusion of the harvests, in the fall which is why it was the most important holiday called, "he-chag," the holiday. Shavuot marked the summer's first fruits. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur rather than being the most important days of the year were instead a prelude to the concluding holiday of Sukkot.

As the Jewish people moved farther away from the land, and in particular from farming the land, the calendar shifted. Rosh Hashanah became the season of personal introspection and repentance. The holidays of Passover, Sukkot and Shavuot came to emphasize their roots in the Jewish history of slavery, wandering the desert and receiving of Torah rather than their agricultural themes. Passover was once connected in particular to the beginning of the barley harvest, Shavuot the first fruits and wheat harvest and Sukkot the conclusion of the farming season.

We of course live in a time when we are disconnected from the agricultural calendar. Our children have little sense of connection between the foods they eat and the seasons that give rise to particular fruits and vegetables. They have no idea that strawberries, and blueberries, are summer fruits. In our supermarkets you can find strawberries all year round. They are imported from other countries or grown in hothouses during the fall, winter and early spring. We can now enjoy summer fruits all year round.

Something is lost as consequence of our detachment from growing our own food. It is obvious what we have gained. (I love blueberries and strawberries!) We are losing a connection to the natural world. We have become keenly unaware of nature's ebb and flow; we no longer see ourselves as dependent on the vicissitudes of the natural world. How many have stopped eating lettuce, for example? If the lettuce crop in Arizona becomes tainted we import it instead from California.

We have to reclaim our connection to nature. I know very few are going to become farmers, (I certainly am not) but perhaps a vegetable garden might restore something to our lives. Or it could be as simple as walking to a friend's house rather than driving. Take in the blooming trees on this walk. Slowly breathe in the natural world. Then again it could be as easy as reclaiming our holidays' roots in nature's seasons. The holidays were attached to the seasons because our lives were once dependent on the fall, spring and summer crops.

Just as we depended on the season's crops so too we depend on the holidays. We desperately need to recover a consciousness about nature. It's not only about the summer fruits I so often crave, but instead about our dependence on the world and its seasons.

The purpose of our tradition's blessings is to remind us of this connection to nature. Every blessing for food speaks of how the food is grown. For wine, we say, "...who creates the fruit of the vine." And for cantaloupe (I anticipate the local harvest this summer), "...who creates the fruit of the earth." For bread, we recite, "...who brings forth bread from the earth." Imagine that. Bread does not emerge from the earth. And yet we insist on emphasizing God's ingredients rather than the baker's craft.

Most people do not know that the shehechiyanu blessing is said to mark a new season and in particular when eating its fruit for the first time. In an age when you can eat every fruit in every season we no longer need to say this blessing for food. It is now only reserved for joyous occasions. But it is the perfect expression of what should be our wonderment in the natural world. "Blessed are You Adonai our God Ruler of the universe, who gives us life, sustained us and brought us to this very time."

Have you ever gone strawberry picking? Have you ever eaten berries off the vine? Sure, you can buy more strawberries at Costco; sure you can buy the super-size pack of blueberries. They will not taste the same. The experience will not feel the same. If you were to go berry picking, there in the field, with the sun beating on your back, you can savor those beautiful, and delicious fruits planted by our hands but nurtured by God's earth.

That is the sense our holidays must recover. An appreciation of the natural world is what the holidays were also intended to inculcate.


Thursday, April 26, 2018

Natalie, Speak Out

Below is a letter I penned to Natalie Portman.

Dear Natalie,

Let me first say what a big fan I am of yours. I have followed your career from one of your very first movie roles in “Heat,” the best cops and robbers film of all time. I thought your portrayal of Jackie Kennedy in “Jackie” was haunting. Your role as Rebecca in Israeli director Amos Gitai’s film “Free Zone,” was amazing even though the movie was strange. “Star Wars” was Star Wars. And congratulations on your director’s debut in the film version of Amos Oz’s autobiographical novel, “A Tale of Love and Darkness.”

I am not writing, however, about your film accomplishments. I am instead writing about your decision not to attend the Genesis Prize ceremony at which Prime Minister Netanyahu would be speaking. The committee selected to give you this award in recognition of your dedication to the Jewish community. Other recipients were Michael Bloomberg, Itzhak Perlman, Michael Douglas, Anish Kapoor, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

You shared your reasoning on Instagram (not the best forum for intellectual discourse I might suggest):
I chose not to attend because I did not want to appear as endorsing Benjamin Netanyahu, who was to be giving a speech at the ceremony....
This post continues on The Times of Israel.


Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Can You Have a Peaceful Shabbat Without Fences

The ancient rabbis taught: “Build a fence around the Torah.”

It is a strange and curious notion. Erect a fence around a book?

Does the Torah require such safekeeping? Are we meant to lock it within the Holy Ark? While the Torah scroll should be safeguarded, its essence does not require such protection. It is meant to be lived. The Torah is intended to be brought into the world.

It is brought into the world wrapped in a hedge.

We are to build fences around the Torah’s biblical laws so that we do not transgress its commandments.  On the Sabbath, for example, one is prohibited from spending money. Better not to carry it, the rabbis reasoned. Don’t even pick up your wallet. One fence was constructed–and then even more and yet more.

The day of rest was walled off from any inadvertent work....

Thursday, April 19, 2018

A State Like All Others!?

I am sure that many were as excited as I was when the May issue of VeloNews, the premiere cycling magazine, arrived in this week’s mail. Most of this month’s edition is devoted to analyzing the upcoming Giro d’Italia, the 21 day grand tour cycling race. Who is most likely to win? Chris Froome, last year’s Tour de France winner? Tom Dumoulin, last year’s Giro winner? Or, Fabio Aru, the victor in the 2015 Vuelta a Espana?

I am certain that you are likewise poring over the magazine’s details. Does this year’s course favor sprinters or climbers? Who leads the strongest team? Is Team Sky cycling’s New York Yankees? Will Chris Froome even be allowed to compete given his negative doping results? Should I continue?

The most exciting of all the features are of course the details about the course and the tour’s opening three days. There, portrayed on two pages, are the descriptions of the 9.7km time trial in Jerusalem, the second 167km stage traversing the coastal roads from Haifa to Tel Aviv, and the third 229km stage through the Negev desert and traveling from Beersheva to Eilat. This is followed by a travel day. The Giro then continues to Italy with stage four in Sicily where the cyclists will climb Mount Etna.

And then it occurs to me. I discover, amidst what I fear appears to many cycling mumbo jumbo, an essential truth about Zionism and the modern State of Israel. The dream of Israel’s founders was that it would be a state like all other states. It would be a nation like all other nations.

VeloNews reports:
Stage 3 crosses the Negev Desert, running by several landmarks dedicated to David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founder and first prime minister. The route then runs through Ramon Crater, a sizable pit in the desert formed by erosion. Its 40-kilometer diameter makes it the largest such geographical feature in the world. A very steep, 1,200-meter climb leads the peloton out and toward the expected sprint finish in Eilat, a seaside resort on the Red Sea.
What an ordinary description. Change the details and this this could be a description of a route through any country. VeloNews affirms our earliest dreams for Israel. We want to be like everyone else. We want a country we can call our own.

And that was of course Ben-Gurion’s vision. The early Zionists believed that what ailed the Jewish people was its lack of a nation-state. And now, 70 years later, we have it. Israel is a country like all others. It has geographical features and resorts. It has monuments to its heroes and prime ministers.

And yet I am not nearly as enthralled by stage four as I am by three. Sicily exerts little pull on my Jewish soul. Israel serves as a home for the homeless Jewish people.

It serves as refuge for Jews fleeing persecution. If the bonds to the countries we call home become tenuous we can rest assured that one place would open its doors. Israel was founded to be like all other nation states. And yet we believe it to be unlike others.

Israel is a nation like all others but then again it is not. It figures prominently in our dreams.

Zionism was meant to secure our Jewish future by ensuring that all will be able to call at least one place home. Israel aspires to be more than a refuge. It tugs on the Jewish spirit.

I could love Rome, and love visiting there, and I could dream about watching professional cyclists sprint to this year’s finish outside its fabled coliseum, but I will remain forever in love with Jerusalem.

Israel may very well be a country like all others, with problems and imperfections like every other nation state throughout the world but yet I sense it is more. Jews throughout the world attach themselves to its achievements. They lament its failures.

It is like every other country. Then again it is not.

It is our other home.

We rejoice in 70 years of statehood.


Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Holocaust Memorial That Reminded Me of Each Life

This article also served as my sermon this past Shabbat evening, when my congregation marked Yom HaShoah.

This past week the Jewish community marked Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Commemoration Day.

I have often pondered how we can possibly give voice to the enormity of our people’s loss. Six million Jews were murdered. Of that, 1.5 million were children. Centers of Jewish learning were destroyed. Entire villages, and towns were decimated. Prior to the war, the Jewish population of Poland was the largest in Europe, with approximately three million. 9.5 million Jews lived throughout Europe.

I realize once again that two thirds of Europe’s Jews were murdered. It is impossible to comprehend the magnitude of the loss. These numbers are staggering. How can we take to heart the Holocaust’s devastation? These are numbers that intoned each and every year. They do not convey the human costs.

On two occasions in recent years I traveled to Europe. The first trip was to visit Budapest, Vienna, Salzburg and Prague with my wife Susie and children Shira and Ari. And the second was this past summer’s trip to Amsterdam. Throughout these cities, one can find small bronze plaques, no more than a few inches on each side, neatly tucked into the pavement of streets. We encountered them as we walked the streets of these European cities....



Thursday, April 12, 2018

History's Trauma

Central to the Passover seders we recently celebrated is the telling of our people’s slavery in Egypt. We proclaim, “We were slaves.” We are to imagine that our ancestors’ experience is our own.

One might think that the experience of some 400 years of slavery would have traumatized our people. One might imagine that dwelling on our suffering, and recalling it with such vivid symbols, such as bitter herbs and charoset, would traumatize everyone gathered around the table. One might think as well that recalling this story year in and year out would scar our children.

This is most certainly not the case. Instead our remembrances ennoble us. The Torah makes the intention of these rituals clear. “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23) We remember so that we might uplift lives.

At the seder, even the deaths of our enemies are muted.... 

Friday, April 6, 2018

Creating Disorder in the Seder Invites Questions

This past week Jews throughout the world gathered around their Passover Seder tables. The intention of this elaborate dinner is the telling of the Jewish people’s going out from slavery in Egypt to freedom. We read: “In every generation one is obligated to see oneself as one who personally went out from Egypt.”

We recall our slavery so that we might identify with the suffering of others. At the Seder we try to identify with the liberation from Egypt so that we can discover its meaning for our own generation. The asking of questions is central to this ritual exercise. The Seder leaders are supposed to do things that prompt questions. It is how we teach the holiday’s important message. It is how we convey the meaning of our remembrance.

Moses Maimonides, a medieval scholar and among the greatest of rabbis, offers this advice: “One must make a change in the Seder on this night so that the children will take note and ask, and say, ‘How is this night different from all other nights?’ How does one make a change? By distributing candy or by grabbing the food from them before they are able to eat, or by snatching things from people’s hands.” This appears to be outrageous counsel. We are accustomed to rituals that follow a prescribed order. In fact, the Hebrew word Seder means order. And its most prevalent custom is for the youngest child to sing the four questions.

Long ago these questions were not prescribed....