Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Hanukkah and Distant Miracles

Hanukkah arrives this evening and with it the thought of miracles. A great miracle happened there, we proclaim. Nes gadol haya sham.

A miracle? “When Mattathias had finished speaking these words, a Jew came forward in the sight of all to offer sacrifice upon the altar in Modiin, according to the king’s command. When Mattathias saw it, he burned with zeal and his heart was stirred. He gave vent to righteous anger; he ran and killed him upon the altar. At the same time he killed the king’s officer who was forcing them to sacrifice, and he tore down the altar.” (I Maccabees 2:23-26) The war was not only against Antiochus Epiphanies but the Jews who supported him. The first battle was in fact Jew against Jew.

How is it that a story of the Maccabees fighting against the Syrian-Greeks, and against the Jews who welcomed their culture, became a story of miracles? It is because the rabbis, living centuries after the Maccabees and the corruption to which their rule gave rise, and following the disastrous revolt against Rome in their own day, reimagined the Hanukkah struggle. It was no longer a story about war, and most especially the civil war that it in fact was, but instead a tale about God’s power and majesty. In the rabbinic imagination Hanukkah becomes not the victorious war story, filled with the battle scarred heroism of Mattathias and his sons, but instead a tale about God’s miracles. Nes gadol haya sham. God’s light brightens a darkened story.

It was the birth of Zionism and the State of Israel that upended the rabbis’ retelling and their philosophy....

Monday, December 15, 2014

It's Still about Our Values

What follows is my sermon from this past Shabbat in which I discuss the Senate's report on torture.

This week we read the story of Joseph and his brothers. The brothers grow increasingly jealous of Joseph. They conspire to kill their younger brother. Then they decide to sell him into slavery. They throw him in a pit and sit down to a meal. I have been thinking about that verse: Vayeshvu le’echol lechem, they sit down to eat. (Genesis 37:25) They turn aside from their brother’s pain.

This week I sat at my breakfast table reading the newspaper. I read of the resurgence of antisemitism and the continuation of terror. I read of the tragic death of Eric Garner and the simmering tensions near my home town of St. Louis. I lost my taste for food. We must no longer turn aside from these injustices.

I read as well this week’s Haftarah. The prophet Amos declares:
Spare Me the sound of your hymns,
And let Me not hear the music of your lutes.
But let justice well up like water,
Righteousness like an unfailing stream. (Amos 5:23-24)
And I read of the Senate’s report on torture. I recalled the prophet’s message. I remembered his words: we are to live by the law—always. His words continue to ring in my ears as I read the report’s details in yesterday’s paper.

The report’s revelations are disturbing. Among the more unsettling discoveries are the following. The CIA lied to Congress and the White House, and covered up the use of these “enhanced interrogation techniques.”  That is a troubling euphemism.  Let us reflect on this: euphemisms too often mask our moral failures. "Collateral damage" actually means that innocent people have died. The report most significantly unveiled that these interrogation techniques were far more brutal and inhumane than we previously believed.

Senator John McCain, who has always been my hero on this issue, said:
I understand the reasons that governed the decision to resort to these interrogation methods, and I know that those who approved them and those who used them were dedicated to securing justice for the victims of terrorist attacks and to protecting Americans from further harm... But I dispute wholeheartedly that it was right for them to use these methods, which this report makes clear were neither in the best interests of justice nor our security nor the ideals we have sacrificed so much blood and treasure to defend… we are always Americans, and different, stronger, and better than those who would destroy us.
I recognize that some might think that we should do whatever it takes to protect American lives. I believe however that torture does not aid in our protection; it does not benefit our security. There is of course debate whether or not torture produces valuable intelligence so let’s leave that question aside and focus instead on the most important issue. The use of torture undermines our values; it undermines the laws that make this country great. We should always be animated first and foremost by our values rather than our fears. The single greatest danger of terrorism is not the loss of life it inflicts but that it will so terrorize us that we will lose our way and forget our values. So it is time we talk more about our values than our fears. That is the message of the prophets. That is the message that America is supposed to offer the world. In this instance we lost our way. That is what was revealed by this week’s news.

Let me be clear: the use of power to protect our lives and the lives of our fellow citizens is a moral imperative. But we must wield this power justly. Mistakes will undoubtedly be made; police and armies make errors. And we must then have the courage to examine our failures. To take an honest accounting of our wrongs, a heshbon hanefesh in our tradition’s language, is also a moral imperative. I reject the argument that the airing of this report makes us weaker, that it somehow endangers lives. I believe the opposite. It makes us stronger. That is the message we recount on the High Holidays. Each and every one of us can change. A community can change; a country can change. Great countries must certainly have the courage to examine their failures so that they can change and be even greater.

Soon we will be celebrating Hanukkah. Everyone is familiar with the story. But there is a dark side to the story of the light of Hanukkah. The Maccabees and their rule quickly became corrupt; they soon abused their power. They so believed they were right that they came to believe they could do no wrong; their righteous indignation in the face of all who disagreed with them, including fellow Jews, made them guilty of wrongs, and some even say atrocities. This is why the tradition argued that all must be subject to the law. Hanukkah is on one level a cautionary tale about power. That’s not how we usually tell it, but maybe we should recall that message at this moment.

In the war against terror, actually in the war against Muslim fanaticism and fundamentalism (that is the ideology we are battling), we must be on guard against losing our values. Even our enemies, when facing us in battle, even our enemies, when captured, are human beings, who are deserving of protection. Judaism teaches that all human beings are created in God’s image. We must never lose sight of this

I recognize that we are still afraid, even after all these years after 9-11. We are sometimes afraid for our lives. But we must never allow that fear to make us lose sight of the values that make us great. Even the weakest, even the most despised, and yes even our avowed enemies, are deserving of certain protections.

Amos declares:
Thus said the Lord:
For three transgressions of Judah,
For four, I will not revoke it:
Because they have spurned the Torah of the Lord
And have not observed God’s laws;
They are beguiled by the delusions
After which their fathers walked. (Amos 2:4)
Let us take our cue from the prophets. We dare not turn aside. We must restore justice to its rightful place. Only justice will protect our most cherished dreams.

Again John McCain: “But in the end, torture’s failure to serve its intended purpose isn’t the main reason to oppose its use. I have often said, and will always maintain, that this question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us.”

There is no doubt that these terrorists are horrible and despicable people. But the law must still prevail. It is about us. It is about our values. Let us restore justice to its rightful place. Amen!

Below is Senator John McCain's speech on the Senate floor.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Vayeshev and the Haftarah's Call

This week we begin the gripping story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph is the youngest child of Jacob, born to his beloved wife Rachel. Jacob showers love and affection on Joseph. The brothers become jealous of him. One day they conspire to kill him, but instead throw him into a pit and sell him into slavery. This is how Joseph and then his family, and then ultimately the Jewish people, end up in Egypt.

The tension quickly builds in the opening chapter. “When Joseph came up to his brothers, they stripped Joseph of his tunic, the ornamented tunic that he was wearing, and took him and cast him into the pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.” (Genesis 37:24) How could Joseph’s very own brothers be so cruel? “Then they sat down to a meal.” (Genesis 37:25) After throwing him into a pit, they callously sit down to eat.

And yet how often do we go about our days, eating our meals, as injustices are committed around us?

This was the prophets’ keen observation. Abraham Joshua Heschel argues that it was their pathos which forms the foundation of our Bible. He writes: “[The prophets] are some of the most disturbing people who ever lived: the men whose inspiration brought the Bible into being—the men whose image is our refuge in distress, and whose voice and vision sustain our faith.”

The rabbis married a Haftarah portion, a selection from the prophets, with every Torah portion. Haftarah means to complete and thus the Haftarah completes, and compliments, the Torah portion. Vayeshev is paired with the first of the literary prophets, Amos who lived in the eighth century B.C.E. He castigates the people for their greed. He rails against oppression. “Because they have sold for silver those whose cause was just and the needy for a pair of sandals. Ah, you who trample the heads of the poor into the dust of the ground and make the humble walk a twisted course…” (Amos 2:6-7) The prophet appears to recall the sins of Joseph’s brothers. His warnings could very well have been directed against the brothers.

It is a mystery why the rabbis instituted the reading of the Haftarah. Some suggest it was during a time when the Torah reading was forbidden and so the Haftarah would offer hints of what people were unable to hear. Others suggest it was because people were growing increasingly unfamiliar with the prophets and the importance of their message. The Haftarah reminds us of our obligations to the world at large. Do we hear its message?

Too often we chant the Haftarah’s words but fail to take them into our hearts. This was one of the critiques the early Reform rabbis offered. We had forgotten to speak against society’s ills. “The Lord roars from Zion, shouts aloud from Jerusalem… Ah you who turn justice into wormwood and hurl righteousness to the ground.” (Amos 5:7) What will make us regain the prophetic spirit that is the heritage of Reform? What injustices will call us to regain our voice?

The world calls for our attention and concern. There is racism and violence, torture and poverty, terror and hunger.

The prophet demands that we not turn aside, that we pay more careful attention to the world’s travails. And yet Heschel rightly notes that the prophet speaks in an octave too high. How can we hear the shrill scream? He writes: “The prophet is sleepless and grave. The frankincense of charity fails to sweeten cruelties. Pomp, the scent of piety, mixed with ruthlessness, is sickening to him who is sleepless and grave. Perhaps the prophet knew more about the secret obscenity of sheer unfairness, about the unnoticed malignancy of established patterns of indifference…”

And we continue with our meals.  Do we hear the prophet’s call?

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Vayishlach, Wins, Losses and Ties

Years ago, when studying in Jerusalem, my friend and I skipped an evening lecture to attend a soccer match between Maccabi Tel Aviv and Beitar Yerushalyim. Our teachers were not happy with our decision. Our protests that this too is Israeli culture were dismissed as naiveté. What could we possibly learn at a soccer stadium? How to curse in the most colorful of ways? Israeli soccer is not the highbrow culture of the poet Yehudah Amichai or the novelist Amos Oz. It is not the thoughtful and passionate debate of the beit midrash, the study hall, where I spent most of my days. We watched fights break out. We looked on in disbelief as fans threw a smoke bomb.

It was a rather unsatisfying game. The final score was 0-0. It ended in a tie. It concluded with the fans muttering “Teiku.” Modern Hebrew has borrowed a word from Talmudic times. It has lifted a word out of the study hall and brought it to the arena.

Teiku is the Talmud’s word for when a debate is concluded without decision. It means let it stand. Others say it is an acronym meaning when Elijah comes and heralds the coming of the messiah this disagreement will be resolved. This is the original meaning for Elijah’s cup at the Seder table. Some rabbis said there should be four cups of wine and others said five. Teiku! For now we compromise. No one wins. No one loses.

The beauty, and genius, of the Talmud is that it allows contradictions to stand. Our book is not a law code of answers. It is a record of discussions and debates. The Jewish people are often called the people of the book. Many think this phrase refers to the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, but it is the Talmud that better gives life to our spirit. What we find in the pages of the Talmud best exemplifies the Jewish heart. It is there that Israel, the people of the book, is born.

Rabbis who vociferously disagreed with each other are found on the same page. They might not have lived in the same town and they might not have even known each other, they might as well not have even lived in the same century, but in the verses of the Talmud they sit at the same table, and argue with one another. That is the most important lesson of the Talmud’s volumes. Even though we disagree, every one of us, can be discovered on the same page.

Today, by contrast, we value ideology over debate. This trend began in medieval times when our traditional literature moved from the arguments of the Talmud to the distillation of law in codes such as the Mishneh Torah and Shulhan Arukh and the systemization of thought in the philosophies of Saadia Gaon and Moses Maimonides. We tend to value loyalty to ideas over devotion to community. We write those with whom we disagree out of our books.

The Talmud is our heart. That is the lesson I learned from my teacher, Rabbi David Hartman.

Teiku! Let it stand.

We can scream and yell for our team. We should argue for our view. We should fight to advance our position. When passions get the better of us we might even curse. Passionate debate is not always as highbrow as our teachers would like it to be.

What makes us Israel? It is struggle. It is argument. It is debate.

This week we read the mysterious story of Jacob wrestling with a divine being. He emerges from this struggle with a limp but also a new name. He becomes Yisrael, Israel. “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:29) He is injured by the struggle. He gains his identity through the challenge.

Heated debates guarantee the future. Knowing when to let it stand ensures that we have others with which to argue.

Teiku. 0-0!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Vayetzei, Thanksgiving and Being Angels

Jacob awakes from his dream of a ladder reaching toward heaven with angels going up and down and exclaims, “Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!” (Genesis 28:16)

A Hasidic story. A wealthy man who approaches the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, and asks if he could meet Elijah the Prophet, the messenger of God who rose to heaven in a chariot of fire. The man had heard rumors that Elijah wanders the earth to bless people in need of his help. The wealthy man had achieved great success and counted many accomplishments to his name. Everything he ever wanted, he was able to acquire. (I first heard this story from Rabbi Naomi Levy.)

At first the Baal Shem Tov insisted he didn't know how to find Elijah. And then one day the Baal Shem Tov said to the man, "You can meet Elijah this Shabbat. Here is what you must do: Fill up your coach with a Shabbat feast. Pack hallah, wine, chicken and vegetables. Pack cakes and fruit and delicacies and bring it all to a hut in the forest and ask if you can spend the Shabbat there."

On Friday afternoon the wealthy man rode his coach along a winding forest trail until he came upon the hut the Baal Shem Tov had told him about. He knocked on the door and a poor woman in tattered clothes answered. The wealthy man asked if he could spend the Shabbat with her family.

The husband and his wife were overjoyed to have a Shabbat guest even though there was barely enough food to go around. Their emaciated children giggled with excitement. Then the wealthy man showed them the feast he had brought. For a moment they froze at the sight of such abundance. And then the children cheered, the wife wept with joy, and her husband comforted her.

That Shabbat eve was like no other this family had ever experienced. They ate well and drank well. They sang and prayed. The wealthy man kept staring at the poor father. Could this be Elijah? He asked the poor man to teach him Torah, but the man was illiterate. The father ate until his stomach was full, he drank and belched and picked his teeth. This couldn’t be Elijah. All through that night and the next day the wealthy man waited impatiently for Elijah to appear. But there was no sign of the holy prophet.

On Saturday night, as Shabbat came to an end, the wealthy man was fuming. "The Baal Shem Tov deceived me. He made a fool of me." And then he said his goodbyes to the family and raced outside filled with anger. As he was stomping away, the wealthy man's shoe got stuck in the mud. As he leaned down to pick it up he overheard sounds of rejoicing coming from inside the hut. The children were jumping up and down and shouting with joy over the most wonderful Shabbat they had ever experienced.

The wife said to her husband, "Who was that man who brought us all that food?" Her husband replied, "Don't you see? It was Elijah the Prophet who came to bless us."

Suddenly the wealthy man saw who Elijah was. "Elijah is me," he said to himself. “Elijah is me.”

Why did the angels go up the ladder in the opposite direction from what would be expected? Why did they climb the ladder not down from heaven but up from the earth?

The answer is uncovered in the story.

Not if we become Elijah.

The answer is discovered in Jacob’s dream.

Not if we are angels.

Nearly 300,000 Long Islanders receive emergency food assistance every year.  (Read more at Long Island Cares.)

We are surrounded by extraordinary abundance. And yet 50 million Americans struggle to feed themselves and their families. No one should go hungry in this blessed land.

We can do more. We can be like Elijah. We can become angels.

That is our dream. It is the same as Jacob's.  To climb ladders toward heaven. To become angels.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Toldot and Wells of Tears

Terrorism seeks to instill fear. Its goal is to terrorize. The danger of terrorism is that it makes us question doing the most ordinary of things.

On Tuesday, in Jerusalem, four Jews were brutally murdered while standing and beginning to pray the Amidah. One brave Druze policeman was killed while saving the lives of his fellow countrymen. In that moment preceding the chanting of the words “Blessed are You Adonai our God; God of our ancestors, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob…” our thoughts are supposed to be focused on God, all distractions are to be pushed aside. We focus on God and God alone. It was in this moment that terrorists burst into the synagogue with their murderous intent. On this occasion their bloodied shouts of “God is great” silenced our “Blessed are You Adonai shield of Abraham.”

And yet, we will return to our prayers....

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Chayei Sarah and Teaching Compassion

This week we read of Sarah’s death. She dies at the age of 127 years and Abraham buries her in the Cave of Machpeleh in Hebron. This begins our attachment to this city located in today’s West Bank. All the patriarchs and matriarchs, with the exception of Rachel, are buried there.

Following the mourning for Sarah, Abraham sends his most trusted servant, Eliezer on an errand to find a wife for his 37 year old son, Isaac. (Talk about helicopter parenting!) Eliezer travels to the country of Abraham’s birth and goes there to the town well. The well was the singles bar of ancient times because young women would go there to fetch water. So Eliezer wisely went to the well in order to find a young wife for his master.

He decided that he would choose this wife not based on her beauty but instead on her character. And how would he make this determination? He decided that whoever offered to give him water and offer as well to water his camels would be the right woman. “When Rebekah had let him drink his fill, she said, ‘I will also draw for your camels, until they finish drinking.’ Quickly emptying her jar into the trough, she ran back to the well to draw, and she drew for all his camels.” (Genesis 24:19-20) Because of this he discovered that she was a compassionate person.

Kindness to animals is a measure of compassion to humans. In fact there is whole body of Jewish law dealing with our obligations to animals. We are commanded to be sure that animals do not suffer. This is the tradition’s basis for kosher slaughtering. The Talmud even suggests that we must feed our animals (in our case our pets) before we eat. (Brachot 40a) Why? Because to not do so may cause pain to the animals. Imagine how your dog responds every time you sit down for meal. The dog becomes agitated at your feet until you fill the bowl with food.

The tradition reasons that compassion to other human beings begins with showing kindness to animals. Moses Nachmanides, a medieval philosopher, reasons that this is the very reason for the commandment regarding preventing cruelty to animals. It is to inculcate compassion toward human beings. We learn the value of compassion by caring for pets. This is what we hope to teach our children by bringing a dog or cat into our homes.

This is what the servant Eliezer must have intuited when we first saw Rebekah. This is why he brought her back to marry Isaac. I imagine that when Rebekah and Isaac first met she saw the pain in his eyes. She saw that he was still grieving after his mother’s death. I imagine that she wrapped her arms around him and said, “I am sorry for your loss. Eliezer tells me what a remarkable woman your mother was.”

And the Torah states: “Isaac loved Rebekah, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.” (Genesis 24:67)

Such traits of kindness can begin with the feeding of animals. A character founded on compassion can begin with the offering of water to a stranger.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Vayera and Ishmael's Cries

There are certain verses of my holiest of books that haunt my Jewish dreams.

Here is one such verse: “Hagar thought, ‘Let me not see when the child dies.’ And she sat a distance and raised her voice and wept.” (Genesis 21:16)

And here is the story. Sarah is unable to bear children and so she instructs her husband Abraham to have sexual relations with her maidservant, Hagar. She gives birth to a son and Abraham names him, Ishmael—God will hear. Some years later Sarah, as God promised, miraculously conceives and gives birth to a son, Isaac. According to the Torah she is 90 years old and Abraham 100 at this point.

Sarah soon becomes jealous of Ishmael and overprotective of Isaac. She worries that Hagar’s son will supplant her son’s rightful place as heir to Abraham’s promise. Sarah instructs Abraham to banish them. He is troubled by this demand and consults with God. God advises Abraham to heed his wife’s request and reminds him that Ishmael will also become a great nation. Muslims trace their lineage to Abraham through Ishmael and Jews through Isaac. Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael away with meager rations.

They quickly run out of water. Hagar places Ishmael by a bush and begins to weep.

The story continues. News reports suggest that a Third Intifada is beginning in the city that Jews and Muslims both deem holy. Jerusalem convulses.  The Torah reverberates with contemporary meaning.

The tears remain. My dreams become restless nights.

“God heard the voice of the child…. And God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water, and she went and filled the skin with water and gave it to the boy to drink.” (Genesis 21: 19)

God hears all cries.

Do we?

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Lech Lecha and Prayers of Questions

We recall this week’s portion in the opening benediction of the Amidah with the words: “Blessed are You Adonai shield of Abraham and helper of Sarah.”

God is a protecting shield. The Torah recounts: “Some time later, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision. God said, ‘Fear not, Abram, I am a shield to you; Your reward shall be very great.’” (Genesis 15:1) A shield is a military image. It blocks the path of enemies. It leads the charge. It affords added protection. And yet Abram responds: “O Lord God what can You give me, seeing that I shall die childless?”

Our hero Abraham addresses only the promise yet unfulfilled and not the reassurance of divine protection. If it were possible to say it appears as if Abraham loses faith. He lacks confidence in the journey he has only recently set out upon. God commands, “Lech lech—Go!” and Abraham goes. And then he begins to doubt the promise, saying in effect, “You told me I am going to be a great nation but how can this be true if I don’t even have a child?” Isaac, and Ishmael, will soon be born, but at this moment there appear questions and doubt. How curious it is that we then begin our central prayer recalling this dialogue of questioning and doubt.

Perhaps this is how we enter prayer as well. Do we as well doubt the reward? Do we wonder if our promises will be fulfilled, our prayers answered? The journey of prayer begins with praise: God, You are the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah. It then moves to petition. We beg for health. We conclude with thanks. “Modim anachnu lach—we give thanks to You.” Do our prayers assuage all questions? Of course not. We offer the words of our tradition as reassurance, as a shield against our doubts.

The image of a shield suggests strength and confidence. We can persevere. With this added protection we can set out on any journey. It buttresses our faith. We open our prayers recalling Abraham’s journey. We shield our hearts.

Our words and prayers rebuild our confidence. We sing. We pray.

“We set our hope on the Lord,
He is our help and shield;
in Him our hearts rejoice,
for in His holy name we trust.” (Psalm 33:20)

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Noah, Klinghoffer and Intoxicating Tragedies

In 1862 a reviewer wrote the following about Victor Hugo’s publication of Les Miserables: “One cannot read without unconquerable disgust all the details Monsieur Hugo gives regarding the successful planning of riots.” And yet most people describe the Broadway production of “Les Miserables” to be among their favorites. It is a remarkable show. 150 years after the Paris Uprising of 1832, or depending on your perspective the June Rebellion, with no allegiances to either side in that struggle standing among us, we are afforded the luxury of historical perspective. We can more easily judge the artist’s work.

This is among the challenges confronting us when evaluating the production of John Adam’s opera, “The Death of Klinghoffer.” Not only is thirty years insufficient time to grant us an objective, historical view, but the struggle continues. Palestinian terrorists remain our enemies. The memory of a painful summer of war still haunts us. We do not see a death, but murder.

And yet I decided to evaluate the opera....