Thursday, July 23, 2015

Tisha B'Av, Tragedies and Celebrating

According to tradition Tisha B’Av marks far more than the destructions of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. by the Babylonians and the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E. The Mishnah adds even more calamities. On this day the ten spies returned to Moses with a negative report about the land of Israel, sowing discontent among the people and ensuring our wandering would last 40 years. On this day in 135 C.E. the Romans crushed the Bar Kokhba revolt, killing over 500,000 Jews and leveling the city of Jerusalem and its Temple Mount. In 135 our wanderings outside of the land began yet again and did not of course end until the modern era with the birth of the State of Israel.

Later tradition suggests even more tragedies occurred on Tisha B’Av. The First Crusade in which nearly one million Jews were killed in Europe began on the ninth of Av. On this day as well, the Jews were expelled from England in 1290, France in 1306 and Spain in 1492. On this day, in 1941, Heinrich Himmler (y”s) received approval for the Nazis’ murderous final solution. And in 1942 the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto began on Tisha B’Av.

How can this be? How can all these tragedies begin on this same day? To be honest I am skeptical about the historicity of these ascriptions. It is doubtful that all these events did in fact begin on Tisha B’Av. So the question is what does this conflation of all these tragedies into one day say about our tradition. Why does our tradition fold all these calamitous events into Tisha B’Av?

Over the centuries the narrative is further enhanced. Our victimization comes to revolve around this one day. There are those who even see in these tragedies the sins of our people. Our victimization then becomes our responsibility. These tragedies become our doing. The Talmud blames the destruction of the Temple on sinat chinam, baseless hatred among Jews.

Thus Tisha B’Av is the antithesis to modernity and Zionism. We have now a sovereign nation. We have now a strong State of Israel. Of course there are threats. But with sovereignty we will no longer be victims. We are no longer at the mercy of foreign powers. It might, especially during these days, appear otherwise but Zionism teaches that history is now ours to be written. Our generation can defend ourselves like no prior generation. Zionist philosophy refuses to see the Jewish people as eternal victims. Current threats must not transform us once again into seeing ourselves as victims.

Perhaps that is the intuition of our tradition. Why one day? To suggest that one day is enough. Yes there are other days associated with historical events (Tzom Gedaliah, Tenth of Tevet and Seventeenth of Tammuz), but these are minor fast days and do not have the import of Tisha B’Av. And so this single day suggests that one day is in fact enough to beat our chests and lament our losses.

The hallmark of our tradition is that it codifies joy over mourning, celebration over tragedy. A single day is enough to mourn the many catastrophes that have befallen our people for we could in fact fill a calendar year with a list of tragedies. And so myth and memory are folded together and wrapped into the Ninth of Av. We observe all calamities on one day. The rest of the days in the calendar are reserved to affirm the present and look toward the future.

The tradition suggests that if every today becomes the eighth of Av with its trepidation and fear and every tomorrow the ninth of Av with its mourning and lament, we will be unable to celebrate, we will be unable to sing. And then we will be unable, or unwilling, to march forward toward the tenth of Av.

One day is enough to look back and cry. The remainder must be left to celebrate.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Mattot-Masei, History, Hope and Worries about Iran

On the day that images from Pluto were beamed back to earth from 3 billion miles away, we are debating the inner workings of something far closer to home, the intricacies of the human heart. It is around our view of the heart that the arguments about the recent Iran nuclear deal spin.

President Obama appears to believe that within every human being there is a seed of evil and that therefore all people are redeemable because all are sinful. It is this view that colors his foreign policy decisions and in particular his approach to Iran. Prime Minister Netanyahu by contrast believes that some are unredeemable, that there are those so inclined toward evil that we can only say, “Do not cross this line.” While hope might be on Obama’s side, history stands on Netanyahu’s.

I do not trust the intentions of Iran’s leaders...

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Pinchas, Shas, Reform Jews and Our Inheritance

Yesterday Israel’s Religious Affairs Minister David Azoulay, from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, suggested that Reform Jews should not be considered Jewish. He said, “Let's just say there's a problem as soon as a Reform Jew stops following the religion of Israel. I can't allow myself to say that such a person is a Jew."

This week we read about Zelophehad’s daughters. They approach Moses demanding that the law of inheritance be revised so that their father’s memory will endure. They say, “Our father died in the wilderness…. Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!” (Numbers 27) Justice demands the law be changed.

Right wing parties often criticize Reform, accusing it of picking and choosing from the tradition...

Friday, July 3, 2015

Balak and the Eye of Faith

I am presently in Jerusalem studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute where I am once again participating in its annual conference. I feel privileged to return to this place year after year to recharge my spiritual batteries and reacquaint myself with the tradition I so love. I am surrounded by colleagues who share my love of learning, debate and even argument, as well as devotion to Israel. I remain grateful to my congregation and its leadership for allowing me this time for rejuvenation.

Given this yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem, I realize that for the past fifteen years I have only observed July 4th from afar. Every year I have found myself here in Jerusalem for July 4th. I have also by the way marked Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, in May while at home on Long Island. It occurs to me that these days look far different from a distance. I cannot of course see the fireworks from here, but I wonder is it possible that the miracles of Israel and the United States shimmer more brightly from afar? From this distance, I only see successes rather than struggles. When nearby the flames appear far more intense, and perhaps even frightening. From afar I tend only to see the glow.

Balaam looked out at Israel and rather than curse the Jewish people as his king had commanded him, offered words of blessing: “Mah tovu…

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Hukkat, Forgiveness and Righteous Anger

The rabbis imagine King Solomon, considered the wisest figure in the Bible, saying, “I have labored to understand the word of God and have understood it all, except for the ritual of the red heifer.” (Numbers Rabbah 19:3)

I struggle to understand a great many things. In particular I labor to understand the events of this past week.

These words echo in my thoughts. “I forgive you! You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”

Nadine Collier, the daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance, one of the nine victims murdered at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, uttered these words. They were said at the bond hearing of confessed murderer Dylann Roof. I find these sentiments both remarkable and incomprehensible.

Whereas forgiveness is central to Christian teachings, although the depths of such forgiveness may very well exceed that of many Christians, justice is paramount to Judaism. How can murder ever be forgiven? How can a human being offer something that belongs to God? And yet, forgiveness of another, and especially of such an egregious crime, prevents someone from wallowing in anger.

Then again, the lack of justice, and the familiar repetition of such massacres, gnaws at my soul. I turn angry. Once again the combination of guns, mental illness and racism have transformed hatreds into massacres. Add Charleston to the list of Newtown, Oak Creek and Aurora to name a few.

Forgiveness has its virtues. It is a balm for the soul. Perhaps it allows the mourners to remain closer to those they lost. Their forgiveness makes more room for their remembrances. They can remember their loved ones. They can mourn their losses rather than fixating on the justice that continues to appear ever more distant.

Commentators suggest that the bizarre sacrificial ritual of the red heifer, detailed in this week’s portion, is a method for safeguarding the ritual cleanliness of the priesthood. It guarantees that his sins might not despoil the sacrifices. We no longer offer sacrifices. We have no method for ensuring our purity. All human beings are given to wrongdoing. We cannot be rescued from our wrongs by the sprinkling of blood. Instead we must engage in repentance. The turning of the heart is within our hands. Forgiveness, however, remains in the hands of others. Forgiveness is elusive.

I return to my anger. Some, and perhaps these days we might say far too many,are given to evil.

When will we say, “Enough?” Is removing the Confederate flag enough? Symbols of hate are indeed powerful. But such hatred must be banished from the heart. How can we transform our anger into action and address the constellation of problems (and not just their symbols) that make this a recurring tale.

Even our president has been relegated to the role of chief priest. He leads us in mourning. He intones our tragedies. But such massacres are not tragedies. A tragedy is unavoidable. I remain convinced that we can do so much more to eliminate the litany of such mass murders. Let us say, “Enough!” Let us be stirred to action.

Anger has its merits. It can serve to build a better society. Let our anger be transformed into righteousness. Forgiveness remains with God.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Korah, Arguments and Disagreements

“Jane, you ignorant…” With these words Dan Aykroyd would begin his counterpoint to Jane Curtin’s point on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update. We of course knew this line was coming, but still we laughed. Why? Because we understood that this is not how people are supposed to argue and debate.

This week we read about Korah and his rebellion against Moses and his leadership. History deems it a rebellion rather than a revolution. Here is why. Korah’s followers exclaim, “Is it not enough that you brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, that you would also lord over us?” (Numbers 16:12) They do not argue, they attack. They infer that Egypt, the land of their slavery, is the Promised Land. They lash out at Moses.

I am sure there were legitimate criticisms of Moses’ leadership style. He is overly passionate and given to fits of anger. He is hesitant to share the burden of leadership. He, and he alone, is privileged to speak face to face with God. And yet Korah does not offer such critiques. He attacks the person.

The rabbis draw from this story a lesson about arguments and disagreements. They teach that machloket l’shem shamayim, an argument for the sake of heaven, is how we uncover the truth and strengthen our commitments. “An argument for the sake of heaven will have lasting value, but an argument not for heaven’s sake will not endure. What is an example of an argument for heaven’s sake? The debates of Hillel and Shammai. What is an argument not for heaven’s sake? The rebellion of Korah and his associates.” (Avot 5:19)

Rabbis Hillel and Shammai did not agree on much. Hillel was forgiving and open-minded. Shammai was strict and demanding. The Jewish people required both rabbis. The Jewish people survived because of both of their schools of thought, the Jewish community was strengthened by their divergent interpretations. The truth was uncovered in their fiery debates and frequent disagreements. Hillel and Shammai shared a love of Torah and a devotion to the Jewish people. Both admired the other. These rabbis compromised for the sake of community.

And while I do not wish to return to my parent’s basement and what my imaginations have fashioned into a mythic past in which people only argued for heaven’s sake, I do feel that we have entered a new era in which SNL’s comedy skit has proven sadly prescient. It appears that we argue to destroy the other rather than learning from the debate and dialogue. Today it appears that ideology is more important than community, principles more important than country.

We suggest that those who sit across from us, that those who disagree with us, do not love the United States, the State of Israel or the Jewish people. How many times do we say, “If you really loved Israel then you would not vote for… If you really loved the United States then you would vote for…” Such statements are not arguments. They are attacks. Such exclamations do not lead to uncovering of truths, but instead to its unraveling.

I hold different commitments than I did when I sat watching SNL. I have changed my views. Why? Because I was open to the opinions of others. I did not turn away from disagreement. I listened to those I love and to those who share my passions. Why is it that changing one’s mind or adapting one’s views is viewed as betrayal and disloyalty rather than the badge of honor our community and nation require?

There are many ways to love the State of Israel. There are many ways to love the United States. There are even different ways to love the Jewish community. I do not hold a cornerstone on truth. It is instead teased out in discussion and dialogue.

We have a choice to make. We can be like Korah and Moses or instead Hillel and Shammai. If we refuse to sit across the table from those with whom we passionately disagree then we cut ourselves off from learning.

Truth can only emerge through loving disagreements.

On a tragic note we join together in sadness and prayer for the community of Charleston in which a gunman murdered nine people while praying in church. We pray for those injured, murdered and grieving. We join together as well as in indignation, and even anger, that we live in an age in which schools and houses of worship are not the sanctuaries of safety and security that they should rightfully be. We must do more to safeguard our nation from such murderous hate.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Shelach Lecha, Sailing and Fear

This past Sunday I participated in the annual blessing of the fleet. The clergy from Oyster Bay each took turns blessing the boats that paraded in front of the dock. We blessed kayakers and clammers, yachts and sailboats. We offered spontaneous prayers asking God to provide first and foremost safety and protection, but also sun, wind and enjoyment. In the case of the clammer I prayed for a bountiful harvest as well. (I am sure there is a joke to be found there. Did you hear about the time the rabbi prayed for clams?) It was a beautiful afternoon. There was comradery in our prayers. There was joy on the vessels.

John Augustus Shedd, an early 20th century American author, writes: “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.”

Setting sail presents unexpected dangers. And yet how do we forge new paths and discover new truths if we don’t set out?

Can a blessing offer protection for the journey?

The tradition prescribes the traveler’s prayer: “May it be Your will, Lord our God and God of our ancestors, to guide us in peace, sustain us in peace, to lead us to our desired destination in health and joy and peace, and to bring us home in peace. Save us from every enemy and disaster on the way, and from all calamities that threaten the world….”

Only the harbor offers protection. Only staying at home offers security.

The spies return from scouting the land of Israel with a report: “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.” (Numbers 13:32)

Joshua tries to reassure the Israelites. “Caleb hushes the people.” Moses becomes disenchanted. God grows angry. The people’s fears will not be quelled.

God decrees that they must remain in the wilderness for forty years. Only those born in freedom in the wilderness will journey to the Promised Land. It appears that the heart of a slave only knows fear.

They are unable to set sail. They remain forever in the harbor. They deny themselves the blessings of this new land. They see giants. They view themselves as tiny grasshoppers. They do not take to heart “[the land] does indeed flow with milk and honey!” (Numbers 13:27) They deny themselves discoveries. They remain forever in the known. The future must be for their children to seize.

Fear paralyzes. It distorts our vision. It discolors our dreams. It dissuades us from setting out. How many remain afraid to travel to Israel today?

We remain at home. We stay within the harbor.

If only we could seize the courage to go forward. If only we had faith in the words of our prayers. “Lead us to our destination in peace.”

Peace remains in God’s hands. It remains within our grasp to lift the anchor and raise the sails.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Behaalotecha, Shepherds and Wandering

The greatest of our biblical heroes begin their careers as simple shepherds. Why? It is because shepherding demonstrates the necessary credentials to transform a group of distinct individuals into a community. Abraham, Moses and David gently guide their animals throughout the wilderness, even taking note of a stray sheep or goat. Even God is praised with the words: “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me to still waters…” (Psalm 23:1)

And yet the people often refuse to be guided. The Book of Numbers is a record of these refusals, and rebellions. Moses struggles to lead the Jewish people forward; they over and over again wish to go backward. “The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and 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!’” (Numbers 11:4)

They would rather be penned in as slaves than wandering the wilderness free. How quickly they forget their sufferings and pains! They cling to fanciful imaginations of yesterday. This pull of a mythic past is so strong that they long for what must have been a sliver of fish and wilted leeks. They prefer the certainty of yesterday’s morsel rather than the bounty of God’s manna. Moses grows angry. He struggles to urge them forward. They only want to stay put. They wish to remain in the past.

The Book Numbers elucidates this tension. On the one hand we read of Moses urging them toward the promise and the dream, although the unfamiliar and unknown, and on the other the people clinging to their memories of the past. Memories appear more certain. How quickly yesterday’s troubles become forgotten. How quickly the imagination refashions the past. A meager ration of cucumbers and melons become a meal.

The hand of the shepherd guides them forward. They rebel. “If only we had meat to eat!”

Then again perhaps the true meaning of our heroes being shepherds is that a shepherd is first and foremost a wanderer. I admit that this may very well be my singular theme, but perhaps the spiritual message of the Torah is that God wants us to remain forever wanderers. Moses points to the future. The people look to the past. God affirms the present. Keep wandering. Keep moving, even if in circles. That of course is the Torah’s primary story line. “And whenever the cloud lifted from the Tent, the Israelites would set out on their journey accordingly…” (Numbers 9:17) The Torah is primarily a record of forty years of wandering.

God apparently does not want us to become attached to any one place or location. We remain in each encampment but a few days. The cloud of glory lifts. The people move on. In the Torah the Promised Land remains but a dream.

The dream is held at a distance. We continue to affirm the present.

Thus the defining book of the Torah is Numbers. In fact its name in Hebrew is “Bamidbar—in the wilderness.” The wilderness belongs to no nation. It belongs to no one—except God. It is as if to say the Torah is found both nowhere and anywhere.

And it is there that we must remain—forever wandering, forever moving. Our holiest of books is defined by the midbar, the wilderness. It is defined by a scrappy landscape in which animals roam free although gently guided by the hand of their shepherd.

It is also the place in which our people wander—but free.

The Torah is discovered nowhere and anywhere.  It is found instead in wandering.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Naso, Privilege and Desire

In ancient times we were divided by classes and tribes. In fact the reason why King David chose Jerusalem as the capital of our ancient land was because the city was ruled by no one tribe. It was the Washington, D.C. of ancient days.

The Torah offers a record of these divisions. “All the Levites whom Moses, Aaron, and the chieftains of Israel recorded by the clans of their ancestral houses, from the age of thirty years up to the age of fifty, all who were subject to the duties of service and porterage relating to the Tent of Meeting…” (Numbers 4:46)

The Levites were charged with attending to the sacrificial rituals. The Cohenim, priests, were the most privileged of this tribe. In a traditional synagogue the aliyas are still awarded by this division: Cohen, Levite and Israelite. And on the High Holidays the Cohenim rise to bless their congregation. These honors are not earned. They are a matter of birth.

With the development of rabbinic Judaism, following the destruction of the Temple, the rabbis eliminated most of these tribal distinctions. Privilege was earned. It became instead a matter of learning. If you studied enough, if your Hebrew was proficient and your knowledge sufficient, you could lead prayer services. A serious Jewish life, a deepened Jewish experience, became open to all who showed commitment and desire.

The Torah became not the provenance of a cherished few, but instead the possession of all. In that moment we became the people of the book and a “kingdom of priests.” We must continue to earn this title.

Rabbi Akiva did not start out as the greatest of rabbinic sages. In fact his father in law, Kalba Savua, rejected him as a suitor for his beloved daughter Rachel because Akiva came from such a lowly station. He was a mere shepherd and worked for the wealthy Kalba Savua. Legend suggests that he began his rabbinic studies without even knowing the alef-bet. And yet he studied and learned. Through hard work and devotion he became the greatest of rabbis.

His wife Rachel in turn remained devoted to Akiva even after her father cut them off. They were so impoverished, the Talmud suggests, that she was even forced to sell her hair for food. The privileged Kalba Savua rejected Akiva the shepherd. But then twelve years later Akiva returned with thousands of students. Kalba Savua now opened his arms to his son in law.

Privilege and station are earned through learning.

We discover that our rabbinic forebears upended the Bible’s system of class and tribes. Merit was achieved through knowledge. A meritocracy was born. Its foundation remains study and learning.

This is why Jews continue to have such a love affair with American democracy. Success is not a matter of birth. It is not a matter of tribe or class. It is instead a matter of learning. It is a matter of hard work and desire.

In order for a meritocracy to be sustained two things must be maintained. The gates of study must be open to each and every person regardless of lineage. And perhaps even more important, the heart of each and every person must be open to learning.

It begins not with birth but with desire.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Memorial Day's Fallen

On Monday our nation will observe Memorial Day.  Its barbeques and beach parties belie the day’s somber theme.  Like the Shavuot that precedes it its meaning and import is forgotten.  Memorial Day is a day intended to remember and mourn those who were killed while serving our country, those who died defending the land we call home.   Among the many thousands I urge you to take these names into your hearts.  These are the names of the 50 American Jewish casualties of our wars since 9-11 and although these names are no more precious than the thousands of others casualties they hold a special place in our hearts as American Jews.

In addition I commend this article about the Normandy Kaddish Project. My cousin and fellow Long Islander Alan Weinschel has made it his mission to photograph the 149 Jewish gravestones on Normandy Beach.  He has called us to remember these names on the Shabbat closest to the anniversary of D-Day.  


May the many sacrifices we recall on this Memorial Day strengthen our commitment to American ideals.