Thursday, June 21, 2018

Bizarre Rituals and Ethical Commands

I am thinking that the Torah does not matter.

I spent the better part of the morning reading the day’s paper. I read in detail about the struggle of immigrants on our country’s southern border. Despite the fact that President Trump issued an executive order ending the practice of separating families caught sneaking across the border, over 2,000 children remain separated from their parents. How can we remain indifferent to those running away from persecution and poverty? Whether people entered the country legally, or illegally, there must be a better way.

We are a nation of immigrants. We have offered the promise of better lives to countless generations. Securing our borders, and protecting our citizens, must go hand in hand with the vision of hope and idealism our nation provides the world. My grandparents journeyed here and built better lives for themselves and their families. I wish for others to have similar opportunities.

I turned to the Torah and to this week’s opening lines. “Instruct the Israelite people to bring you a red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid. You shall give it to Eleazar the priest. It shall be taken outside the camp and slaughtered in his presence.” (Numbers 19) What follows are the inordinate details surrounding the ritual of the red heifer.

I sought comfort. I longed for answers to our contemporary struggles.

I found instead a stupefying ritual. Where is the Torah for today?

The red heifer is a ritual that is no longer performed. Since the destruction of the Temple we no longer offer sacrifices. The red heifer was nonetheless a peculiar ritual. It, and it alone, offered purification for the ritually contaminated. Because it is today inoperative no Jew can find such purification. This is why some authorities prevent Jews from walking on the Temple Mount, and where the Dome of the Rock now stands, for fear that they might walk on where the Holy of Holies once stood.

It is a bizarre ritual. “The cow shall be burned in his sight—its hide, flesh, and blood shall be burned, its dung included—and the priest shall take cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson stuff, and throw them into the fire consuming the cow.” Commentators suggest that this ritual defies rational explanations. Searching for explanations lead to only one possible conclusion. This is a commandment because God says it is commandment. Its meaning is discovered in affirming that God knows better.

Are these the spiritual insights I crave? Where are answers addressing our contemporary concerns? Offer me wisdom. Offer me guidance. Let the Torah grant me teaching. Let it lead me to learning.

I read on. The details of the ritual are concluded. A reminder is offered. “This shall be a permanent law for the Israelites and for the strangers who reside among you.”

I recall. Amidst the Torah’s ritual obsessions I discover the reminder of another. Again and again it commands that there shall be one law for citizen and stranger. Why? Because we were slaves in the land of Egypt. Because we know the feelings of the stranger.

The Torah is clear. Our memories of enslavement are to make us more compassionate. Our memories of suffering are intended to make us draw the stranger in.

I take comfort in the Torah’s words. It speaks to today.

I continue to draw inspiration from the Torah’s laws.

“There shall be one law for the citizen and for the stranger who dwells among you.”

Until tomorrow’s challenges.

Remembering the Immigrants Who Believed in America

I am thinking about my grandfather, Papa Bill.

He came to this country in 1906 at the age of two. He was accompanied on this journey by his mother Leah and older sister Hannah, age six, and brother Grisha, age four. They traveled by train from Katrinaslav, a city in Ukraine, to the port of Hamburg. There they boarded a ship for the ten day trip to New York.

I am imagining my grandfather as a toddler. He clutched his mother’s hand for the two week journey. She held him in her arms when he became sea sick. She chased after him when he started crawling away from her on the train. She comforted him when he cried from hunger. I imagine his mother’s fear. Would they be allowed to enter? At the time, the United States was allowing able bodied men, and their families, into the country, but turning away those showing any signs of illness. People were, in particular, terrified of tuberculosis.

Leah wondered. Would she be turned away before being reunited with her husband, Moses?  It remained a possibility...

Friday, June 15, 2018

Debating Not Attacking

This week’s portion, Korah, details the great rebellion against Moses and his authority. Korah and his followers gathered against Moses saying, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (Numbers 16)

One can understand their complaints. It is easy to imagine what people might have been saying about Moses. “Can you believe this guy? He keeps telling us he talks to God and that everything is going to be wonderful. He is so full of himself. The land is so beautiful, he keeps saying. But when are we going to arrive there? How much longer are we going to wander around this barren wilderness? Day after day we eat this manna. Day after day we keep walking and walking. And then we walk some more. Every day is the same. And then this guy Moses seems to change his mind and points us in other direction.”

One can be sympathetic to their grumblings. On the surface the criticisms appear legitimate. Examine the Torah’s words. Judaism does indeed believe that everyone can speak to God. Our religion requires no intermediary. Moses is not holier than any other human being. Yet Korah and his followers are severely punished. Why?

The Midrash suggests an answer. It imagines Korah asking Moses these questions: “Does a tallit all of blue still require blue fringes? Does a room full of Torah scrolls still require a mezuzah?” In the rabbinic imagination Korah’s questions are brimming with disdain. His words suggest that he questions the entire system. Because Korah is so disrespectful he is punished.

We often do the same. We highlight inconsistencies in our religious systems, and in our political systems. We seek not to correct but instead to mock. It is of course far easier to make fun of something rather than to affirm. It is far simpler to make ad hominem attacks rather than criticizing in order to improve.

We live in an age when too many have become Korah. We seek to amuse. We mock those with whom we disagree. We even call those with whom we disagree traitors. Our culture measures an argument’s winner not by the merit of the ideas offered but by the reactions of participants. If someone is made to cry or stammer then they have lost the argument, even better if they are made to do so on TV.

We no longer debate ideas. Instead we attack others.

We have become Korah. And for this we should ask forgiveness and mend our ways. If we are ever going to make it to our promised land and improve our society we must not attack each other. We must instead debate and argue about ideas that might change our world.

What Korah failed to understand we as well fail to grasp. We are all in this together. And we are all in the wilderness. We had better master debating the ideas that matter without seeking to undermine the entire system. We had better figure out a way to argue with each other while not shouting at each other words of hate.

Of those who left Egypt only two made it to the Promised Land.

I imagine Joshua and Caleb missed their brethren. I also imagine that they understood why they stood alone.

A nation cannot be built in the wilderness. A nation can only be sustained—first by love and then by debate.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

My Nana Was So Tall

If the books of the Torah were named for the content of their stories then the Book of Numbers would be called Complaints. The Jewish people spend the better part of this book complaining, and even rebelling.

“The whole community broke into loud cries, and the people wept all night. All the Israelites railed against Moses and Aaron. The whole community shouted at them: ‘If only we had died in the land of Egypt. If only we might die in this wilderness!’” (Numbers 14)

What precipitates their griping? It is not the demanding conditions of the wilderness with its lack of water. It is not that they have to eat the same meal day in and day out (manna!). It is instead that the scouts have just returned from reconnoitering the land.

All but Joshua and Caleb offer a negative report. The scouts cry out: “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size…and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” Here the people’s complaining reaches a crescendo.

God loses patience. It is at this moment that a brief journey is transformed into forty years of wandering. God decrees that the generation who went free from Egypt must die in the wilderness. Only those who were born in freedom will be privileged to cross into the Promised Land. Joshua and Caleb are the only exceptions because they bring a positive report.

The people, however, are terrified: “’Why is the Lord taking us into the land to fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be carried off! It would be better for us to go back to Egypt!’ And they said to one another, ‘Let us head back to Egypt.’”

Can a slave ever truly appreciate freedom? Do memories of persecution and terror overwhelm their psyches? God’s response suggests that such memories are impossible to overcome. The people see overwhelming odds and respond, “We should go back.” Let us turn around. Let us go back to yesterday.

How many times do we fall victim to mythologizing the past?

It was so much better when the Jews lived in the shtetl. There, everyone, was certain about their Jewish identities; everyone attended synagogue on a regular basis. Then the Jewish people were not divided by ideologies.

Once I asked my beloved Nana about her memories of her shtetl outside of Bialystok. “It was awful,” she responded. I continued my query. (Imagine that!) “Yes, I know you had little food, but didn’t everyone get along better because it was such a small town.” And my Nana looked at me as if I was crazy but she would never shout at her grandson and say, “Are you nuts?” Instead she said, “Steven, we were fighting for food. And we were always nervous that the Cossacks might come and kill us. That doesn’t bring out the best in people.”

And no matter how delicious the meal or how expensive the restaurant, she always offered this report: “It was tasty.” That’s what food meant to her. Meals did not earn stars or accolades. She would of course offer praise for my mother’s cooking but that was more about praising her daughter than the taste of the food.

The memories of trouble and deprivation had forever diminished her taste buds. She could never become a foodie.

And yet she never wanted to go back to that shtetl. She never wished to turn back the clock. She never sought to return to the land of her childhood.

This is why. As petite as she was, she never saw herself as a grasshopper. And thus the most remarkable of all the Israelites’ gripes are the words “And so we must have looked to them.”

The reason why the memories of persecution did not overwhelm my Nana is because she never thought much about how others saw her. Success is really about self-image.

Realizing your promise is really about how tall you see yourself.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Judaism Commands Us Not to Cry Alone

Last week I encountered old words that suddenly struck me as new.

I opened my Bible to the prescribed weekly reading. I skimmed through the familiar opening. “The Lord spoke to Moses…”

These same words are read every year. That is the ritual of the Torah reading cycle. That is the demand that we never skip chapter or verse, that we read this central book from beginning to end in one’s year time. After decades devoted to this practice, the words often appear all too familiar and sometimes even tired and worn. I read again and again. “The Lord spoke to Moses…”

This year, however, they appeared different....

This post continues on The Wisdom Daily.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Where are the Lamb Chops?

Have you ever walked around at a party’s cocktail hour and said, “What no lamb chops?” Or exclaimed, “Where is the sushi table?”

The Torah portion strikes a similar tone: “Then the Israelites wept and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!’” (Numbers 11)

It is remarkable that people can be so ungrateful. It is remarkable that we are oftentimes ungrateful. The Israelites are unaware of the many blessings they have. They just earned their freedom, and yet all they wanted was to go back to Egypt. They complained and complained, and then complained some more. They could not see their blessings but instead what they no longer had. They could not see their freedom. They grew nostalgic for the foods of yesterday. How quickly they forgot the sufferings of their enslavement.

Freedom is of course an enormous blessing. We often forget that freedom comes with enormous responsibility. At times this responsibility overwhelms the blessings. We rebel under the weight of our duties. We complain, “I have so much to do…”

Abraham Joshua Heschel called this the “insecurity of freedom.” He wrote about our responsibility to speak out against injustices. Freedom is not about doing whatever you want. It is about doing what needs to be done. It is about being inconvenienced to vote in even the most mundane of elections. It is about stopping to aid those less fortunate than ourselves. Give some manna to the hungry and poor! It is about speaking out against Syria’s atrocities (or Syria being named chair of the United Nations Conference on Disarmament).

It is about doing what the world needs you to do. It is rarely about doing what you want to do.

Let us look more at what we have rather than what we do not have. Let us affirm our many blessings each and every day, rather than curse the few things we have not yet achieved. Let us live up to the responsibilities of freedom.

Then we will never say, “What! Where are the lamb chops? Where are the cucumbers or the melons?” You can look at the world like the Israelites did. Or you can look at the world and the many things you still have to do and count them as your blessings. Our blessings are many. Our blessings are especially plentiful when you look at all the things the world needs you to do. Then you will say, “Wow look at the many blessings I can achieve by virtue of the responsibilities God gave me.”

Then nothing is a burden and everything looks to be a blessing.

The 19th century poet and preacher, Phillip Brooks, wrote: “Do not pray for easy lives; pray to be stronger men [people]. Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers; pray for powers equal to your tasks. Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle, but you yourself shall be a miracle. Every day you shall wonder at yourself, at the richness of life which has come to you by the grace of God.”

The world requires some heavy lifting. There is no one but you to do the lifting. There is no one but those granted the responsibilities of freedom.

It is up to you whether you see this lifting as a blessing or a curse.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Just Do It

This week’s Torah portion contains the nazir’s vow. What is a nazir? A Jewish ascetic. As a measure of extra piety a person pledged to abstain from alcohol, not cut his hair and avoid contact with the dead. The most famous nazirites were Samuel and Samson. Samuel anointed David as king. Samson’s long hair was the source of his strength (and an inspiration for a number of songs). If not for Delilah’s seduction…

Today Judaism has by and large excised such ascetic sensibilities. We do not idealize denying ourselves worldly pleasures. The hallmarks of our holidays are kiddush wine and festive meals. What Jewish event does not have great food? Still I wonder about making vows, oaths and promises.

People offer promises all the time. There are the familiar New Year’s pledges of promising to lose weight or work out more. I promise to eat less, or to drink less. I pledge to give more tzedakah. I vow to learn more, or attend services more often. Whatever forms these personal vows take, the central question is about their efficacy and value. Let’s be honest. More often than not such promises quickly become empty and soon go unfulfilled.

We make far more promises to ourselves, our family and friends than we keep. Of course we have good excuses why we could not achieve what we pledged. This is why Judaism actually frowns upon making vows. Our tradition values words. It worries that when words are offered they might soon become false. In fact in traditional circles when someone makes a promise, they will say, bli neder. This phrase means it is not really a vow.

By saying this, our promise is not made to God or using God’s name. If we were to inadvertently make a pledge to God that we do not fulfill we would transgress something greater, namely the third of the Ten Commandments: You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord. This is also the origins of the beautiful Kol Nidre prayer. It serves to nullify unwitting vows.

This is our tradition’s concern. Our words matter; they can shape reality. In our contemporary age when words have become abbreviated in the flurry of text messages, or tossed around so cheaply on Facebook and Twitter, we would do well to recall this message. Be careful of what you promise. Be careful of your words.

Rather than making promises, perhaps it would be better to get out and do stuff. People become disheartened by good that is promised and remains unfulfilled. People become discouraged by good words that never materialize into actions. Our lives, and the lives of those around us, are enriched by goodness that is performed. That and that alone will sustain us.

Forget about making promises. Instead, to borrow a phrase from long ago, just do it.

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....