Thursday, January 18, 2018

Writing on Sand and Stone

Make up your mind Pharaoh. First you don’t want to let the people go. Then you decide to let them go. And then you change your mind again, and won’t let them go. Finally, you let them go. This back and forth is punctuated by the verse, “For I have hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” (Exodus 10) The Hebrew would be better translated as “I made his heart heavy” or perhaps “I weighed his heart down.”

What is the meaning of this unusual phrase? What does it mean to harden our hearts?

The Hasidic master, Rebbe Eliezer Hagar of Vizhnitz offers the following commentary. This phrase, he writes, hints at a verse from the Book of Proverbs: “A stone is heavy and the sand weighty; but a fool’s wrath is heavier than both.” The rebbe continues. It is hard to write on a rock, but after something is engraved on it, the writing will last forever. In the case of sand, on the other hand, one finds it easy to write whatever he wishes, but the writing can be erased in an instant.

The difference between the two is clear. Writing on a stone is like someone who finds it difficult to understand something, but once he understands it does not forget it. Writing on sand, on the other hand, can be compared to person who finds it easy to understand something, but soon forgets it. Pharaoh had both disadvantages. He found it hard to understand, and he forgets easily. Immediately after he said, “Let the people go,” he changed his mind and did not allow Israel to leave.

Typical of the Hasidic masters this negative notion of hardening the heart is transformed into one that has positive potential not only for Pharaoh, but for each and every one of us. Had Pharaoh heeded Moses’ words he would have learned a hard and difficult lesson. Pharaoh would have learned something that could be written on stone and would have left an imprint for a lifetime.

He would have taken to heart the lesson that you must never harden your heart to others. You must never harden your heart to their suffering.

At times our hearts are open. Other times they are closed.

Sometimes our hearts are weighed down by sorrow. And other times by pain. Sometimes our hearts are hardened by stubbornness. Other times by ideology.

To what do we harden our hearts? What weighs our hearts down? What stands in the way of learning lessons that will last a lifetime?

What do we write on sand?

What do we engrave on stone?

Thursday, January 11, 2018

What Takes God So Long?

What takes God so long? After 400 years of slavery God responds to the Israelites’ suffering and says to Moses, “I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant.” (Exodus 6) 400 years!

Why now? Why wait for the Israelites to suffer for so many years? Did the slavery become that much worse? Was God indifferent to their pain? Impossible! Still the question remains. Why did God wait so long?

Interestingly God’s response to the Israelites’ suffering mirrors Pharaoh’s daughter’s response to the infant Moses. In last week’s portion she hears the cries of Moses. “When she opened the basket, she saw that it was a child, a boy crying. She took pity on it and said, ‘This must be a Hebrew child.’” (Exodus 2) My newfound hero, the unnamed Pharaoh’s daughter, is the first to show compassion to the Israelites.

Perhaps this is what God was waiting for. God waits for us.

There are other traditions that suggest as well that God waits for human beings to act before responding. The most famous of these is the story of Nachshon who according to legend jumps into the Sea of Reeds thereby prompting God’s involvement and concern. When the waters reach his neck and he is about to drown God splits the sea.

Others suggest that the messiah sits at the gates of Rome bandaging the sores and wounds of lepers. The messiah waits by performing compassionate acts. There he waits for God to send him to redeem the world. These traditions suggest that God is not the first to act but instead waits for our compassion. God’s concern is not in response to suffering but instead in response to our compassion.

In our Torah portion God appears to respond to Pharaoh’s daughter. Not only does she not have a name but she is also not Jewish. Moreover she is the daughter of the story’s arch enemy. The Rabbis ask why she would go to the Nile to bathe herself. She could have sent her slaves. The Talmud suggests that she opposed her father’s policies from the start and went to the river to purify herself of her father’s sins.

It was there that her heart was stirred to rescue Moses thus leading to the redemption of an entire people. According to legend she also accompanied the Israelites when they left Egypt. In that moment Pharaoh’s daughter left the trappings of the palace and forever pledged herself to the fate of the Jewish people.

Is it possible that her heart awakened God’s concern?

I still recall the few days of volunteering following Hurricane Sandy. We ventured to the South Shore to help a family tear out their water soaked dry wall and wood flooring. There we met other volunteers. One volunteer left a deep impression. He was a young man from Wisconsin who gave up his weeklong vacation. He drove here following Hurricane Sandy to help out. He slept most nights in his car. Here was a Christian man from the Midwest helping out Jewish New Yorkers.

Compassion comes from unexpected places. It often does not even bear a name.

Nonetheless my hope and prayer remains the same. May our compassionate acts stir God’s concern. May they awaken God’s compassionate heart.

And even if God fails to respond, the wounds will be bandaged and the homes repaired. And healing will reach into at least one heart.

Monday, January 8, 2018

A Holocaust Hero's Newly Found Poem

Hannah Senesh is best known for her uncommon bravery. After moving to Israel in 1939, she volunteered to parachute into Nazi occupied territory in order to help rescue her fellow Hungarian Jews. She was quickly captured, mercilessly tortured and eventually killed.

Her poem, “A Walk to Caesarea” is familiar in Jewish circles. It is more commonly called, “My God, My God.” She writes:
My God, my God,
May these things never come to an end:
The sand and the sea, the rush of the waters,
The crash of the heavens, the prayer of people.
We often sing its melody as we stand on the beach and revel in the ocean’s waters. I recently heard its words as I looked out on the Mediterranean from Tel Aviv’s gentrified port. The poem’s meaning crystalized in my thoughts.  Senesh clearly intended the poem to point toward the Zionist attachment to the land of Israel.  It was this sand and this sea she was speaking about.  And yet more and more people see its meaning to be about the beauty of nature in general.

Perhaps that is the power of a poem....

This post continues on The Wisdom Daily.

Friday, January 5, 2018

What to be Named

Parents deliberate for months, and even years, the names they select for their children. For whom should they name their child? What if the baby is a girl? A boy? What should be the child’s Hebrew name? Do the origins of the name matter? What are the associations with the name?

Will the name influence their child’s future character?

The most significant book of the Torah begins in a similar fashion. “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah; Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin; Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher…” (Exodus 1)

And yet the story of the most significant person in the Torah begins without naming a single person. Take note of how the Torah frames our hero Moses’ beginnings.
A certain man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw how beautiful he was, she hid him for three months. When she could hide him no longer, she got a wicker basket for him and caulked it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child into it and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile. And his sister stationed herself at a distance, to learn what would befall him. The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the Nile, while her maidens walked along the Nile. She spied the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to fetch it. When she opened it, she saw that it was a child, a boy crying. She took pity on it and said, “This must be a Hebrew child.” Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a Hebrew nurse to suckle the child for you?” And Pharaoh’s daughter answered, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will pay your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, who made him her son.

She named him Moses, explaining, “I drew him out of the water.” (Exodus 2)
No one is named in this entire story until its conclusion, and until Moses is grown. The Torah records no names for our actors until this brave young woman gives it to our hero, and the Torah’s central character. Moses is named not by his mother or even his father. Instead he is named by Pharaoh’s daughter.

Imagine that! The daughter of the very man who sets in motion the need to hide Moses in a basket so that he will not be killed by Pharaoh’s henchman not only saves Moses but names him. (By the way Pharaoh is a title not a name. It is most akin to when we hear “The White House said…”)

The Book that begins with names and is in fact called in Hebrew “Shemot—Names” introduces its greatest hero with the words “A certain somebody from an important tribe married another certain somebody from the same community and then gave birth to a beautiful boy…” This is remarkable!

And so the question remains: why would the Torah that will later be called “The Five Books of Moses” introduce its hero in this way? Why would it want to make clear that his beginnings are not based on lineage?

It is because his story must instead be based on merit, on actions, and on his accomplishments. Moses’ name in fact suggests the first of many such actions. It comes from the Egyptian meaning “to draw out.” We have a hint of his most important accomplishment. He will become the man who draws the Israelites out of Egypt.

Our most important names are not those that are given to us by our parents. They are instead the names we earn.

Are we called compassionate? Are we named honored? Are we called generous? Are we named kind?

What is the name we strive to be called?

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Weddings and Destiny

Every wedding at which I officiate there is always a hint of beshert. Even in this age of JSwipe I hear fate’s echoes. “I did not think anything would come of it, but he would not stop texting me, so I figured I would meet him for drinks and that would be it. And then on that first date we could not stop talking.” He adds, “She is so intelligent and beautiful. We soon realized that we share the same values.”

How can one not believe in divine providence when looking at a young couple standing beneath the huppah? The Baal Shem Tov teaches, “From every human being there rises a light that reaches straight to heaven. And when two souls that are destined to be together find each other, their streams of light flow together, and a single brighter light goes forth from their united being.” Their smiles illuminate. That single light shines.

This love must be more than mere happenstance. It is evidence of God’s hand.

And yet I often teach that we do not believe in destiny. The High Holidays would be meaningless if we did not believe that people could rewrite their future. Over and over again we profess our belief in the promise of repentance. Everyone can make amends and change. No one’s fate is sealed. The huppah suggests otherwise.

The Torah concurs. Before Jacob dies he gathers his children around him to offer blessings. “And Jacob called his sons and said, ‘Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come…’” (Genesis 49) Simeon and Levi, who kill the inhabitants of Shechem, are forever tainted. Jacob states, “Cursed be their anger so fierce, and their wrath so relentless. I will divide them in Jacob, scatter them in Israel.” Their past actions seal their destiny. Their future is written.

Fate is again illuminated. And our theology shadowed.

I recall the huppah.

Yehudah Amichai comments:
Joy blurs everything. I've heard people say
after nights of love and feasting, "It was great,
I was in seventh heaven." Even the spaceman who floated
in outer space, tethered to a spaceship, could say only, "Great,
wonderful, I have no words."
The blurriness of joy and the precision of pain —
I want to describe, with a sharp pain's precision, happiness
and blurry joy.
I look to the couple, standing beneath the huppah. God’s hand materializes.

Perhaps things can never be as precise as theology and philosophy suggest. We carry that moment when the stars appear to align, forever.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Why Religion Stays Relevant

Google Maps and Waze have transformed the way we drive. No longer do we have to listen to 1010 on the ones. No longer do we have to check News12 before leaving the house. Now our iPhones make instantaneous calculations and then reroute us around traffic.

Of course, you have to trust the phone. You have to have faith in its algorithms. You have to let go of all that accumulated wisdom gained from years of driving around the New York area.

Our children find this letting go easy and natural. They are digital natives. We find this far more difficult. We still remember the days of folded maps and AAA Triptiks. A student recently remarked about his parents and my contemporaries. He constantly admonishes his father with the words, “Dad, if you are going to use Waze you have to listen to it.” And so we listen begrudgingly, although there are times that we still think we know better.

Our parents’ generation finds this letting go even more troublesome. They refuse to give a measure of authority to a tiny cellphone. Reason does not work. I gently prod....

War, Peace and Prayer

Years have passed since Joseph’s brothers conspired against him and sold him into slavery in Egypt. And now, following an uneven path to power, Joseph has become Egypt’s vice president. Because of his ability to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, he has effectively prepared the country for the famine. Meanwhile back in the land of Israel Joseph’s family is ill-prepared. They are forced to make several journeys to Egypt in order to procure food.

Joseph seizes upon this opportunity. Because his brothers do not recognize him, but he of course recognizes them, he develops an elaborate plan to see if they have changed. He entraps the youngest of the brothers, Benjamin, hiding a goblet in his bag of food, and threatens to throw him into jail. Judah, an elder brother, pleads in behalf of Benjamin. He suggests that Joseph arrest him instead.

At this moment, Joseph is overcome with emotion and reveals himself to his brothers. They are dumbstruck. He forgives them. They have indeed changed. They stand in the exact same situation and yet this time choose differently. They are once again given the opportunity to get rid of their father Jacob’s favorite child and yet this time choose instead to defend him. They exhibit complete repentance.

This week’s portion opens with the words: “Then Judah drew near (vayigash) to him and said, ‘Please, my lord, let your servant appeal to my lord.’” (Genesis 44) This drawing near offers an insight into how we are to go about fixing relationships and repairing the world. The rabbis comment (Midrash Rabbah):

Said Rabbi Yehudah: The verb “he drew near” (vayigash) implies an approach to battle, as in the verse “So Yoav and the people that were with him drew near to do battle” (II Samuel 10).

Rabbi Nechemiah said: The verb “he drew near" implies a coming near for reconciliation, as in the verse “Then the children of Judah drew near to Joshua” (Joshua 14).

The sages said: It implies coming near for prayer, as in the verse “When it was time to present the meal offering, the prophet Elijah drew near and said, ‘O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel!’” (I Kings 18).

Rabbi Eleazar combined all these views. Judah approached Joseph with all three in mind, saying: If it be for war, I approach to make war; if it be for reconciliation, I approach to make amends; if it be for prayer, I approach to pray.

The fascinating insight about this ancient commentary is the notion of how thin the line between war, reconciliation and prayer. In drawing near to another it could be for a fight. Or it could be to make peace. Or it could be to offer a prayer.

In an age when apologies are too often offered by text message, when bellicosity rockets across social media, and when prayers are circulated through email, we would do well to remember that the critical, and most important, point is the act of drawing near.

Little can be accomplished when distance separates people. The relationship cannot be transformed if people refuse to look each other in the eyes. They must stand face to face. They must draw near.

And in that moment of drawing near, a relationship can be repaired and the world transformed. When we approach another we may fear war, but it can turn to peace. We may expect reconciliation but it can inadvertently turn into an argument, disagreement and even belligerence. A moment when we are ready for a fight, when we are prepared for reconciliation can likewise be transformed into prayer.

We must be prepared for prayer, reconciliation and argument, all, at the same time.

We must always draw near. Vayigash! Draw near.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Hanukkah and Alternative Facts

There is the Hanukkah we prefer to tell and then there is the Hanukkah of history.

We prefer to tell the story of the miracle of oil. Here is that telling. When the Maccabees recaptured the Temple from the Syrian-Greeks they found only enough oil to last for one day of the planned eight-day rededication ceremony. Nonetheless they lit the oil. Miraculously the oil lasted for all eight days.

We prefer as well to speak about the victory of a small group of rebels against the mighty army of their day. One brave man, Mattathias, led the charge against the Syrian-Greek army. Outnumbered, and outgunned, Mattathias and his five sons led the rebel army. They fought valiantly, using cunning tactics, and eventually achieved victory. After seven long years they recaptured the holy city of Jerusalem.

Their cause was just and their enemies evil. A great miracle happened there.

In fact the real Hanukkah is one of pain and discord. It was a civil war. The Maccabees fought against other Jews who were enamored of Greek culture. They killed their fellow Jews. Once they gained power they soon became corrupt rulers and persecuted those who disagreed with their fervor. They even forcibly circumcised those Jews who chose not to observe this ritual.

The preferred story covers over this painful history. We prefer to forget such dissension and division. And yet the facts offer an important lesson for this year. They stand as a warning against zealotry and fanaticism. History stands as a testimony against those who believe that God is on their side and their side alone.

Again and again, we must figure out how to engage in civil discourse without destroying the communities and countries we call home. Recently I was privileged to hear Charlie Baker, the Republican Governor of Massachusetts. He spoke about what it was like growing up with a mother who was a life-long Democrat and a father, a Republican. He joked that they cancelled each other out in every election.

And yet it was because of this seeming division that he developed his passion for political service. It was around the family dinner table, where ideas were debated and positions were refined. The family argued with zeal. They debated with each other as if the country’s very survival depended on it. And yet they never stopped being a family. When he ran for governor he asked his mom if she would now vote for a Republican. “You know, son, it is a secret ballot,” was her response.

This balance is exactly what we require. We need to rediscover that table where debate is encouraged, and where everyone is still family. This is the rabbis’ dream. They found a way to live as a community while embracing competing ideas. They rejected the Maccabees path.

The Maccabees ruled for 100 years. And then 230 years after the Maccabees wrested control from the Syrian-Greeks, the Romans advanced on Masada to discover that the zealots committed mass suicide rather than be taken prisoner. A short distance away Jerusalem and its Temple lay in ruins.

Ultimately zealotry consumes itself. Sadly it also consumes those around it.

We did not again achieve sovereignty in the land of Israel until our own age. We did not fashion these United States until rather recently in human history. Democracy is a fragile enterprise.

We have waited too long to allow zealotry to consume us once again.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Joseph, Family and Jerusalem

Jerusalem is the capital of the State of Israel regardless of what the world thinks or does.

I worry, however, that President Trump’s announcement, which appears motivated more by his desire to fulfill a campaign promise rather than a grand vision for Middle East peace, will not lead to peace. I worry that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s exclusive focus on Israel’s external threats, namely Iran and Islamist terrorism, and not on the continuing erosion of Israel’s democracy, will undermine Israel’s survival. Zionism is about securing a Jewish future that is built on both Jewish and democratic values. It is about writing our own history. It is about taking swift and bold action to defend Jewish lives, like attacking an Iranian base in Syria, as Israel recently did, and what I wish Israeli leaders also did, not expanding settlements in areas, such as Arab East Jerusalem, that the majority of Israelis imagine will one day be home to a Palestinian state.

I continue to hold on to the Psalmist’s words, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; may those who love you be at peace. May there be peace within your ramparts, peace in your citadels. For the sake of my kin and friends, I pray for your peace; for the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I seek your good.” (Psalm 122)

And now for some brief words of Torah.

This week we begin the tragic story of Joseph and his brothers. Their father Jacob is not the best of fathers, at least according to all of my b’nai mitzvah students who are appalled by his behavior and the fact that he so blatantly favors one son over all the others. Joseph is also not the best of brothers. He flaunts his father’s gifts before them. He tells his brothers of his many dreams in which he imagines he will one day rule over them.

They understandably become incensed. Some want to kill him. (Also not the best demonstration of brotherly love, or of basic human behavior.) They decide instead to sell him into slavery. They cover his multi-colored tunic with animal blood and tell their father that a wild beast killed him.

There are so many things that went wrong. There are so many corrections, and detours, that could have avoided this tragic outcome. Small acts of favoritism, feelings of ill will, mushroom out of control. The family is divided. And the young Joseph finds himself alone in a foreign land.

Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschutz, a leading rabbi in eighteenth century Prague writes: “Had Joseph and his brothers sat down together, they would have spoken to one another and could have told one another what bothered them. Then they would have ironed out their differences. The trouble in every argument is that there is no common language and no one listening.”

Kind of makes one think about how every argument, and how every disagreement, too easily becomes a crisis. People no longer speak to each other. They console themselves with their resentments. They wallow in their righteousness.

Kind of makes one think of Jerusalem.

Torah is never a diversion from the contemporary. It always speaks to now.

Prayers Work If You Believe

Recently I was listening to Pastor Rudy’s Love Revolution on SiriusXM’s gospel station. (I recognize this is not how one might expect a rabbi to begin an article, but to be honest that’s the station I more often listen to.) Hezekiah Walker sang, “Every praise is to our God, every word of worship with one accord…” In between listening to some of my favorite gospel singers, Pastor Rudy opined, “Prayer does work. God does listen.”

The music left me. The songs faded. My thoughts wandered. “Really? How can he be so sure? How does he know prayer works? How can he be so confident God is listening?” There are so many things demanding God’s attention and care. There is an entire world in need of healing and filled with brokenness. God is going to listen to my small prayers, which must appear so self-absorbed in comparison to the world’s grand problems?

A crisis emerged. How can I lead prayer if I doubt prayer, if even for a moment?

I recalled an experience from some years ago....