Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Writing Out, Drawing In

Below is my commentary published by Ten Minutes of Torah - Reform Voices of Torah - D'varim.

There is great power in language, in our words. It draws us in. Every time we recite the words, Adonai Eloheinu, "the Eternal our God," we write ourselves into the Jewish story. Yet, the very same language that writes us in, the very same stories that draw us in, also write others out. There can only be an "us" if there is also a "them." This is the implication of the portion's words, "The Eternal our God spoke to us at Horeb . . ."

There remain some for whom these words are foreign, who are cast aside by them. Hidden within this concept of us are the words "not them"—and the even more painful "not you."

It is these thoughts that continue to haunt me after officiating at a particularly tragic funeral. A young couple asked me to help them bury their child. Because one parent is Jewish and the other Christian, only half the mourners were Jewish. I wondered, was I helping the mourners with the words I recited, especially those said in Hebrew? Were the tradition's words that are our inheritance and bring our people so much comfort instead making half of those present feel excluded?

As we turned to the ritual of placing the shovels full of earth into the grave, I invited all to participate. Some quietly asked me if it would be OK for them to take part given that they are not Jewish. I answered with an emphatic, "Yes, of course." Everyone took turns: parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins; friends, rabbis, and pastors; Jews and Christians. No one stopped until the task was completed and the mitzvah fulfilled.

I smoothed over the earth that now reached the edges of the grass. I thanked all for participating. We were united by the work of our hands.

An ordinary shovel had become an instrument of holiness. A minyan of sorrow had been formed. Perhaps tragedy makes us one. Suffering and pain can draw us together. In that moment, standing at that grave, I discovered that there are moments when there is only us and no them. Such was the gift and teaching of a child now gone.

Words might exclude. Actions unite.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Masei, Jewish Power and Its Agitations

On Passover we sing Vehi Sheamda in a tune that belies its meaning: “This promise has stood us and our parents in good stead. For not only has one enemy stood over us to annihilate us. But in every generation enemies have stood over us to annihilate us. Yet the Holy One keeps the promise to save us from their hands.”

The world is once again convulsing with hatred of the Jews. Israel is fighting an enemy whose stated mission is to destroy us. Synagogues are desecrated in France. Throughout Europe people once again riot against the Jewish state. The distinction that some pretend exists is no more. There is no difference between anti-Israel sentiment and antisemitism. (Loving criticism of Israel does not of course make the critic anti-Israel.)

Amos Oz, a leading Israeli novelist, writes...

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Mattot, Arguments and Destructions

We read this week: “Moses spoke to the heads of the Israelite tribes, saying…” (Numbers 30:2)

It is rare that the Torah addresses the leaders and not the people as a whole.   In most instances the Torah states instead, “Moses spoke to the people, saying…” (Numbers 31:1)  Why in this instance would Moses speak to the tribal heads rather than the people? 

Perhaps the secret can be discerned in the laws detailed in this chapter.  Here we read about the concept of making vows.  The Hatam Sofer, a leading rabbi in 19th century Germany, asks the very same questions and opines that this law is directed at leaders because people in public office are more often tempted to make promises that they cannot keep.  It is as if to say, “Be on guard of the words and promises you make.” 

I would like to suggest a different reason.

On Tuesday we marked the 17th of Tammuz, the fast day commemorating the beginning of the destruction of Jerusalem.  It is this day, nearly two thousand years ago, that the Romans breached the walls surrounding the city.  The city and the Temple were destroyed three weeks later on Tisha B’Av (the ninth of Av).  This period of mourning marks the Jewish people’s greatest tragedy, until the modern period and its Holocaust.  The loss of the Temple, the destruction of Jerusalem and the slaughter then of so many Jews is still remembered even at Jewish weddings by the breaking of the glass.

It was of course the Romans, and prior to that the Babylonians, who destroyed the first and second Temples, but yet the rabbis engaged in what was sometimes wrenching introspection in order to uncover how the Jewish people might have been at fault for their own destruction.  They more often than not suggested that it was because of baseless hatred of one Jew for another.  The seeds of our demise were sown by how we screamed and yelled at each other. 

The rabbis of course believed in argument and especially passionate debate.  They taught that truth can only emerge when we openly argue and debate with one another.  We read: “Any debate that is for the sake of heaven, its end will continue; but that which is not for the sake of heaven, its end will not continue.  What is a debate for the sake of heaven?  The debate between Rabbis Hillel and Shammai.  And a debate that is not for the sake of heaven?  The debate of Korah and his entire band of rebels.” (Avot 5:17)  

There is a fine line between a positive and negative argument.  It rests in how we approach those with whom we disagree.  The rabbis offer us an important insight.  While we might be strengthened by debate, we are weakened by tribal divisions.  When we debate we must ask, are we arguing so that truth might emerge?  Or are we arguing instead to draw divisions between us? 

This is why Moses speaks to the tribal heads.  Our very survival depends on how our leaders argue and debate.  It rests in how leaders speak to one another.   

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Pinhas, Sirens and Children at Play

On Tuesday evening at approximately 10 pm, as I walked home from the Shalom Hartman Institute where I am spending two weeks studying and learning, the sirens sounded throughout Jerusalem. I was midway between the Institute and the apartment I rent in Jerusalem’s German Colony. I had never heard these warning sirens before except to indicate the minute of silences observed on Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron. I heard two booms. I quickened my pace, but still paused to look both ways before crossing the busy thoroughfare of Emek Refaim, finally making it back to my apartment in a few minutes. Then I thought that perhaps I should go downstairs to the miklat, bomb shelter. I joined others in the basement outside of the locked shelter. After waiting there the required ten minutes we said our good evenings and returned to our apartments.

I have since learned that I handled my first missile attack incorrectly. It takes a Hamas rocket approximately 90 seconds to reach the Jerusalem area and so as confident I might have been about my quickened pace I was actually supposed to dart into a nearby building. Now I have read the guidelines issued by the Home Front Command: “When the alert siren or an explosion are heard, it is necessary to complete the process of protection, depending on the time available to you and to act according to the following instructions… If outside – enter the closest building, depending on the time available. If there is no building or cover/shelter nearby, or if you are in an open space, lie down on the ground and protect your head with your hands.” Oops! I have also, much to the JCB staff’s delight, secured a key to the bomb shelter.

Truth be told the threat of injury or harm from a rocket here in Jerusalem is minimal....

This post continues on The Times of Israel Ops & Blogs.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Balak, Zionism, Visions and Fantasies

My teacher Rabbi David Hartman once wrote: “Israel represents the birth of a healthy society that seeks to create a nation like all other nations. The demythologization of the Jewish people is one of the great gifts of Israeli society to the Jewish people.”

And yet at times this demythologization is almost too painful to behold.

Yesterday Jews protested the murder of three Israeli teenagers, shouting “Death to the Arabs.” It is also suspected that as revenge for the deaths of Gilad Shaar, Naftali Frenkel and Eyal Yifrach an East Jerusalem Arab teen, Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir, was murdered. Naftali Frenkel’s uncle responded: “There is no difference between blood and blood. A murderer is a murderer, no matter his nationality and age. There is no justification, no forgiveness and no atonement for any murder.”

Being in Jerusalem during these days I have the keen sense that our nation’s character is being tested. There are moments of great pride and solidarity.

At the funeral for these three teens, President Shimon Peres said, “We prayed, each of us alone and all of us together, for a miracle. We prayed that that we will see them return in peace to their families, to their homes and to us all. Sadly we were hit by the tragedy of their murder and a deep grief enveloped our people. We are an ancient people, united and deeply rooted. Our story is full of tears but the soul maintains the Torah. These three boys exposed the depth of our people and the heights it can reach.”

And yet there are other moments of embarrassment and shame. Rabbi Noam Perel, the leader of the Bnei Akiva youth movement, said, “The government of Israel is gathering for a revenge meeting that isn't a grief meeting. The landlord has gone mad at the sight of his sons' bodies. A government that turns the army of searchers to an army of avengers, an army that will not stop at 300 Philistine foreskins…” The myth and even fantasy of an ideal people is shattered. Who continues to idealize our people and cling to the notion that all Jews are animated by the Torah’s decree that every human being is created in the image of God?

Part of the Zionist project is the desire to be a nation like all other nations. And yet with the achievement of sovereignty comes the painful reminder that each and every day our Jewish character is tested. In the diaspora we wish Israel only to live up to our fantasies, to our images that it unique among the family of nations and always lives up to its founding principles. Israel may very well be unique but it is not always perfect. I wonder, is Judaism up to the challenge of sovereignty?

My teacher’s words ring in my ears during these painful days. A nation of our own means that our values will always be tested and that we will sometimes fall short. That is why David Hartman founded the center here in Jerusalem. In his mind the State of Israel was the greatest of experiments. Can our values be held up to the exposure of sovereignty? Singing Shalom Rav and clinging to the Jewish value of shalom when it was only a messianic dream, when we lacked political power and our lives were entirely in the hands of others was not a great challenge by comparison.

Holding on to life and preserving Jewish lives without negating the lives of others and without even denouncing the humanity of our enemies, is the supreme test that is the State of Israel’s lot. Each and every day this is challenged.

We wish to be a great nation, an example for Jews throughout the world, and even a light to other nations of the world. This is part of the dream of continuing to build up the State of Israel. This place is not only for us, but an example for all. Such is the dream of the nation we call our home as well. Great nations wish not only to serve their citizens but the world.

This is the vision of the Declaration of Independence that we celebrate on July 4th. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

We will continue to be tested. I continue to hope and pray that one day all the world will say along with the prophet Balaam,
“How wonderful are your tents, O Jacob,
Your dwellings, O Israel!
Like palm-groves that stretch out,
Like gardens beside a river,
Like aloes planted by the Lord
Like cedars beside the water…” (Numbers 24:5)

Sitting here in Jerusalem one has the feeling that we may very well hold that judgment in our hands—during these days.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Three Boys

There are certain moments that unite us as a Jewish people. They should as well unite all human beings but sadly even the murder of these three young boys fails to stir the hardened hearts about us.

Yesterday we learned that these three boys, kidnapped eighteen days ago, were murdered soon after they were captured. Their bodies were discovered yesterday in hastily dug graves outside of Hebron. It was announced at 8:30 in the evening here in Israel.

My friends and I were in the midst of a lecture when our phones began flashing news alerts. Still our learning continued and then at its conclusion the sad news was announced to the assembled group. We stood together and as one. A colleague recited El Malei Rachamim and offered prayers for these three young souls. We sang Hatikvah. We stood quietly and then offered each other hugs as well as the occasional tears.

I am thankful to once again be in Jerusalem to renew my learning. I walk the city’s streets in the cool desert evenings and breath in the air of this remarkable and beloved city. But today the air is thick with grief and mourning. There is worry about what tomorrow will bring.

We recall the memories of Gilad Shaar, Naftali Frenkel and Eyal Yifrach. I pray that their families and friends discover some measure of consolation. May our nation one day find peace.

For now our hearts are joined in sorrow and our people united in grief.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Hukkat, Soccer, You and We

The hero of the Torah, Moses, is not allowed to enter the Promised Land. The reason for this is because of what happens in this week’s portion.

The people were once again complaining. This time they were screaming for water. Moses is instructed to order a rock to provide water. Instead Moses hits the rock in anger and shouts at the people, “Listen you rebels!” (Numbers 20) Because Moses did not follow God’s instructions, hitting the rock and screaming at the people he was punished and told that he would only see the dream from afar, that he would not be allowed to lead the people into the land of Israel.

It seems a rather harsh punishment for a man who devoted so many years to leading a rather difficult people through even more difficult circumstances. Then again we can discern a lesson from this: one moment of anger can undo a lifetime of work. On the other hand Moses’ sin might not so much have been about his anger but as some commentators suggest the fact that he separated himself from the community he led. He screamed “you” instead of shouting “we.”

Anger is not always inappropriate. There are many injustices that are deserving of our indignation. Sometimes we can only right wrongs when we sing as one and say, “We shall…” Perhaps Moses was right to get angry but wrong to see himself apart from the community. So much more can be accomplished, and overcome, and even righted when we are joined together as one.

Like many I have been reveling in soccer these past days. (Go USA!) Futbol is a wonderful sport to watch at the World Cup level. Most games are low scoring by our American standards. For a goal to be scored most of a team’s players are usually involved moving the ball up the field (nay, pitch) and then into the net. It is a beautiful thing to see a team of eleven working in concert with another. That is soccer at its best.

This is the reason why the referee can issue a red card if a player hits his own teammate. Such an act happened in a recent Cameroon game. The referee did not see it so there was no penalty, but the sportscasters noted it and replayed it for all to witness. For all of FIFA’s scandals (may the 2022 games be moved from Qatar to the US!) it makes a remarkable statement about the value of teamwork by delineating a penalty for acting so egregiously against one’s own team.

Very little can be accomplished when there is dissension and disunity. Much can be achieved when we restrain our own egos (even the greatest and most skilled soccer players sometimes only pass the ball to the goal scorer; take that LeBron!) and say together, “we.” Leadership must always be about saying what we can do, rather than here is what you must do.

It seems to me that the tone of so many of today’s leaders is more about what the other guy is doing wrong rather than what we can, and must, accomplish together. Too often I hear Moses’ words in the mouths of our leaders, “Listen you rebels…listen you rebels…” We need more to say, “we” and far less to say, “you.”

In the moment that Moses said “you” and not “we” he actually became the rebel and was denied his lifelong dream.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Korah, Revolutions and Altalena Moments

On June 20, 1948 a ship, the Altalena, carrying arms and fighters bound for the fledgling army of the newly founded State of Israel, reached the shore off the coast of Tel Aviv.  There was only one problem.  The arms shipment was arranged by the more radical Irgun led by Menachem Begin and not by David ben Gurion and the Israel Defense Forces.  Begin and ben Gurion had only recently made an agreement to bring the Irgun under the leadership of the IDF.  In addition a truce had recently been brokered between Israel and the Arab armies.

Ben Gurion was adamant that the Altalena and its cargo of weapons and fighters surrender to the IDF.  There could be only one leader and one army during this trying moment in Israel’s history.  Begin refused to compromise.  He insisted that at the very least the arms be guaranteed to the Irgun fighters in their new IDF units.  Ben Gurion believed that such compromises would only create an army within an army.

The IDF concentrated forces on the beach and fired on the Altalena.  One shell hit the ship and caught fire.  Fearing that the ship would explode many jumped into the Mediterranean Sea.  IDF machine gunners continued their fire.  Sixteen Irgun fighters were killed.  Three IDF soldiers were also killed in the confrontation.  The details of this incident continue to be debated; the decisions remain controversial.  Its memories  as well continue to haunt many who struggled to establish the state during its early years.  Yitzhak Rabin was the commander of the IDF forces assembled at the beach. 

I remember meeting an Irgun fighter a year after Rabin’s assassination.  He said in response to my pain about the assassination and what I termed a great tragedy for the State of Israel and the Jewish people, “I will not shed a tear for the man who was responsible for killing my brothers.”

This week we read about Korah’s rebellion against Moses’ leadership.  On the surface Korah’s criticisms appear legitimate.  In essence, he argues that Moses concentrates all the power in his own hands.  God’s judgment is harsh, and even ruthless.  Korah and all his followers, as well as their households, are killed.  “Scarcely had Moses finished speaking all these words when the ground under them burst asunder, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korah’s people and all their possessions.” (Numbers 16:32-33)

Every revolution has such moments of clarity, and yes even of ruthless violence, against one’s own people.  A nation can only be built, a people created if there is a clarity of vision.  Sometimes, history teaches us, such ideals can only be upheld by defending them with arms. Leaders always believe that their decisions are decisive, that they can bend the arc of history, that they, and they alone, are leading their people through such a revolutionary moment and that all who oppose them are rebels.  Who is labeled a rebel and who called a great leader is left to the judgment of history.  It is only looking back through the lens of history that we gain these insights.  In the throes of these moments there is only pain.

Three Israel teenagers were kidnapped a week ago: Naftali Frankel, Gilad Shaar, and Eyal Yifrach.  Despite extensive searches throughout the West Bank and in particular Hebron they have yet to be found.  The Jewish people are united in prayer.  May they soon be returned home to their families in peace and in full health!  And yet I wonder if the Palestinians and their leadership have reached a moment of decisiveness.  The Palestinian Authority Prime Minister, Mahmoud Abbas, directed his ire at the kidnappers and said, “These three boys are human beings like us, and they should be returned to their families.”

And while I recognize and am deeply pained by the celebrations of the kidnapping in the Palestinian street and as well by the unity government formed between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, I offer this tentative hope that this moment can become one of decisive leadership when those who wish only for the destruction of Israel rather than the creation of a Palestinian State are excised from the Palestinian polity, when a clear vision of something beautiful and lasting is offered to the Palestinians and to this conflict filled region.  That would be such an occasion to offer sweets to one another.

Revolutions require such decisive moments. 

I continue to hope and pray that one day I will look back on these days, through the blessing of history, and see today’s moment as the time when the vision of two states for two peoples was clarified and reborn.

For more details on the Altalena Affair visit the Jewish Virtual Library.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Shelach Lecha, Wild Things and Faith

“And the wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws.” (Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are)

And ten of the spies sent by Moses to scout the land report: “The land that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers.  All the people that we saw in it are men of great size; we saw the giants and the children of giants, and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” (Numbers 13:32-33)

Max, the hero of Sendak’s book, overcomes his fears, and in particular his anger, by imagining that he is their ruler, that he is their master.  Imagination is a powerful tool.  Within it we discover the secret of our success.  Within it are the sparks of creativity.  This is exactly the wisdom of Judaism’s insights about the yetzer hara, often translated as the evil inclination.  Within this we discover, for example, desire and drive.  These traits can lead us toward passion, commitment and love, or lust. They can move us toward invention and achievement on the one hand, or jealousy and vengeance on the other.   The creative spirit hovers between these extremes.

We learn as well that imagination can conspire against us, creating fear in our hearts.  That is part of the lesson of Maurice Sendak’s brilliant book.  The line between fear and hope is thin.  It is also the lesson of this week’s portion.  It is hard to believe that there were in fact giants who ruled the land of Israel.  The evidence of this truth are the Torah’s words: we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves.  Faith is about how we perceive ourselves.  Ten of the spies lacked faith in their assigned task and in their ability to achieve their destined goal.  This is why the people are condemned to wander for forty years before returning to this crossroad once again.

Only Joshua and Caleb believed that the people would succeed.  They scouted the same land and saw the same sights and yet they returned with a message of hope.  Curiously the details of their report are not found in the Torah.  We only read: “Caleb hushed the people before Moses and said, ‘Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it.’” (Numbers 13: 30)  Perhaps they, like Max, mastered their emotions, summoned their faith and overcame their fears.  Perhaps the men of the land were indeed giants, but Joshua and Caleb nonetheless did not see themselves as grasshoppers.

Although Hebrew offers the term emunah for faith, the tradition more often uses yirah and in particular yirat hashamayim.  This phrase can be translated as fear of heaven or as I prefer, awe.  Yet the lesson remains. Fear and awe are near to one another.  Faith is a matter of how we regard heaven, of what we believe our relationship is to God, of how we imagine ourselves in regard to the Almighty.

It is true God is a giant by comparison.  And yet this does not mean we must see ourselves as puny grasshoppers. 

Fear, and faith, are a matter of how we see ourselves.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Shavuot and All Night Study

This evening begins the holiday of Shavuot.  Although it celebrates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, it is not widely observed.  Why?  Unlike Passover with its Seder and four cups of wine and Sukkot with its booths and four species (the lulav and etrog), Shavuot offers little more than an all-night Torah study session.  That is to be honest a difficult sell.

And yet what could be more defining than the study of Torah?  More than anything else Talmud Torah, the study of Torah, is what makes us a Jewish people.  This act has allowed us to breathe new life into an ancient text for generations.  It is not an easy task of course.  Study is challenging.  The meaning discovered in these words can sometimes be elusive.  But we continue to pour over the words of Torah.

Year after year we read the same portions.  Generation after generation we uncover new, and different, meaning in the Torah’s words.  This is what Shavuot celebrates.

The freedom we mark on Passover discovers its true importance when wedded to the gift of Torah.  This is why the date of Shavuot is given in a different manner than all other holidays.  We count from the second night of Passover seven weeks (shavuot) until arriving at the holiday of Shavuot.  The holiday’s name intimates this important connection.  Even the wandering we celebrate on Sukkot is given fuller meaning by the celebration of the fact that as we wander we continue to carry the Torah in our arms. 

What we most prize is a book. 

It is not just the act of carrying this book, even though throughout our history, and in too many instances, we did so under duress and even threat of persecution.  It is not simply holding this book close to our hearts and carrying it from one place to another, or even lifting this scroll into the arms of our children, but instead pouring over its words and wresting meaning from its pages.  True, study can be difficult and challenging, and sometimes because of the Hebrew and the verses’ ancient constructs, appear off-putting and uninviting.  And yet Talmud Torah remains defining.  The study of Torah leads us to everything we must do, to everything we are required to do, to all that we envision for our most noble selves.

The Talmud teaches: These are the things that are limitless of which a person enjoys the fruit of the world, while the principal remains in the world to come.  They are: honoring one’s father and mother, engaging in deeds of compassion, arriving early for study, morning and evening, dealing graciously with guests, visiting the sick, providing for the wedding couple, accompanying the dead for burial, being devoted in prayer, and making peace among people.  But the study of Torah encompasses them all. (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 127a)

For the Jewish people it begins and ends with the study of Torah.