Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Simhat Torah, Letters and Lessons

This evening begins the holiday of Simhat Torah, the day that marks the joy we feel when we begin the Torah reading anew.

According to Jewish tradition the Torah is perfect. If a sentence appears repetitive, a word seems curious, a letter seems out of place, the fault cannot be with the Torah, but instead with the interpreter. Each and every week we unroll the scroll and discover a question.

And so we begin again. Why does the Torah begin with a bet? If the Torah is without error and authored by the hand of God then why open with the second letter of the Hebrew alef-bet, rather than the first? The rabbis offer suggestions.

Their answers are discovered in a collection of sermons called Bereshit Rabbah, a book compiled in the land of Israel during the third century.

Rabbi Jonah said: Why was the world created with a bet? Just as the bet is closed at the sides but open in front, so you are not permitted to investigate what is above and what is below, what is before and what is behind. In other words speculation about what preceded creation is to be avoided, questions about what constitutes the heavens are unhelpful. Focus on the here and now. The mysteries of the heavens and what may or may not have existed before creation are matters that lead one astray.

Another rabbi answers: To teach you that there are two worlds. Bet has the numerical value of two and thus points to the rabbinic teaching that in addition to this world there exists the world to come: namely, heaven. Yes, Judaism believes in heaven. End of sermon.

But the discussion and debate continues. Why does the Torah begin with a bet? Because it connotes blessing. The Hebrew word for blessing is baruch and begins with a bet. The word for curse, on the other hand, is arur and begins with an alef. If the world was created with an alef, others might ask, “How can the world endure seeing that it was created with the language of cursing?” Hence the Holy One responded, “I will create the world with the language of blessing in order that it will stand.” Although it might not always appear to be so, the world is filled with blessing.

Given that they are rabbis, another comments. Why with a bet? Just as the bet has two projecting points, one pointing upward and the other backward, it prompts us to ask, “Who created you?” It intimates with its upward point, “God who is above me.” And we ask further, “What is God’s name?” And it points with its back point to the Lord. God’s name, Adon, begins with the alef. Every sermon concludes with God.

Rabbi Eleazar relates a story: For twenty-six generations the alef complained before the Holy One, pleading with God. The alef said, “Sovereign of the Universe! I am the first of the letters, yet You did not create Your world with me!” God answered: “The world and its fullness were created for the sake of the Torah alone. Tomorrow, when I come to reveal My Torah at Sinai I will begin My revelation with none other than you, “I (Anokhi) am the Lord your God…” (Exodus 20:2) With this letter the Ten Commandments are given and the world is righted.

Creation begins with the bet of blessings, but it is sustained by the alef of our actions.

The questions continue to be unrolled before us.

A teaching can stand on one letter.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Sukkot, Journeys and Dreams

Below is my article distributed by

Our tradition gives life to journeying. The Torah affirms wandering.

Usually we think of the Torah in its discrete portions. We divide it up week by week. The reading of these five books can then be more easily completed in one year’s time. On this occasion think of the Torah in its entirety.

Early on God promises that we will find fulfillment in a new land. God tells Abraham, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1) Abraham and his children and his children’s children build a new life in a new land. For generations our ancestors built a home in this Promised Land, but as everyone knows they become slaves in Egypt until hundreds of years later God rescues them and promises to return them to this land. The remainder of the Torah, actually the majority of the Torah, is about this journey home.

We wander for forty years. Near the end of our holiest of books we reach the edge of the Jordan River. We can see the dream from the top of Mount Nebo. Moses dies. The Torah concludes. We return to the beginning of the story. We never get to the promise. We are forever wandering. That is the Torah’s message. Our dreams remain incomplete. Our journey continues. We never arrive home.

No holiday better exemplifies this sentiment than Sukkot. In order for a sukkah to be a sukkah the roof in particular has to be of a temporary quality. If your sukkah is so sturdy that it keeps the rain out, then it is not a sukkah but a house. That in a nutshell is the tradition’s guidelines for these temporary booths. They are to remind us of our ancestors’ journey.

They are to teach us that our lives are incomplete; we are forever journeying and never home. Perhaps we are told to live in these sukkot so that we might look at our houses from afar. Sometimes we can better appreciate our blessings when we look at them from a distance.

Years ago I built my sukkah with a student who was homeless. I invited him, as well as my other students, to come to my apartment to help build the sukkah. He was the only person who accepted the invitation. At the time we lived in an apartment in Great Neck. Rather than calling me so that I could pick him up in Queens where the subway train reached its limit, he walked to my apartment from the subway station. When I told him that I would give him money to take the railroad for his return to the city, he refused and insisted on walking back to the subway for his journey to the shelter where he lived.

Together on my apartment’s balcony we constructed my sukkah. As we lifted the boards and hammered together the sukkah, I remember thinking to myself: “I am constructing this sukkah to remind me how fortunate I am. For me this sukkah is temporary. Its roof is flimsy. Its walls are permeable. It is less than my house. It is a reminder that life should not revolve around material possessions. For my student however it is far more than his house. It is not less than he owns, but more.”

It was in that moment that I realized the true spiritual meaning of this Sukkot holiday. We might live in beautiful and comfortable homes filled with many wonderful things, but meaning can be found in a few boards and a flimsy roof. We can always fill our lives with more spirit.

All are homeless. All are wandering.

We continue to journey. We conclude the Torah at the edge of a dream. We begin the reading anew. We begin the telling of our story again, in each and every generation.

Lying next to my children in our sukkah we huddle together for warmth in the cool fall evenings. We peer through the roof and gaze at the stars. I tell them about Abraham’s dream. I imagine that this was the same night sky that Abraham also saw and caused him to dream of the one God. I speak to them of our people’s journey.

The dreaming continues.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Mud and Dreams: Israel and Antisemitism

What follows is the written text of my Yom Kippur morning sermon exploring the recent war in Gaza, antisemitism and our best response to the world's evils.

I returned from my annual trip to Israel searching for a return to normalcy. The signs of the war I left behind appeared everywhere. I ventured to West Neck Beach to join my friends for a morning swim in the Long Island Sound. It is my latest fitness passion: open water swimming. The parking lot was filled with trucks and tents. Apparently West Neck Beach parking lot is the staging area for the filming of “Royal Pains,” a show often filmed in the Huntington area. Over the years there have been times when our showers and bathrooms have been transformed into a Tiki Bar. The signs of the weeks prior reappeared. My mind wandered to my friends and acquaintances waiting at their army units’ staging area on Gaza’s border for the start of the ground offensive. Our parking lot appeared as such a trifling by comparison. A staging area for a bad TV show. A staging area for troops readying for battle. 64 Israeli soldiers were killed in action. 2,200 Gazans died in ruins.

On another day, I was at the office and the custodial staff was moving furniture in the floor above me (this was at 430 North Broadway). Such rearranging of the tables and chairs in the catering hall there often made loud noises in our offices below. There was a loud bang. I sat up and thought, “I have to go to the bomb shelter.” The war continues to find me. And then I remembered where I was. To be honest I never felt threatened or even afraid when I was in Jerusalem. It was not like life stopped. On the two occasions when I did what I was supposed to do and followed protocol, here is what happened. The sirens went off. I walked down the stairs of my apartment to the basement and greeted whoever else was there. We introduced ourselves if it was our first meeting. Then came the routine. Count the explosions (1-2-3-4) and later confirm the news reports to see if your count was accurate. (“Four rockets intercepted in the Jerusalem area.”) Wait 10 minutes, say goodbye and then return to the apartment and most important of all continue with your day as if nothing happened. Our office staff with whom I Skyped thought my attitude was rather cavalier. In Jerusalem however where there were 90 seconds of warning there was little cause for alarm. In fact I went for my scheduled run about an hour after the second warning siren. And yet I was surprised how those booms found their way into my heart.

While the attitude of everyday Israelis might be nonchalant (what choice do they really have?) the decision of the Israeli government to defend its citizens against such rocket attacks is absolutely just. It is the right, and obligation, of every nation to give priority to the lives of its own citizens over the lives of others. In the course of one week alone during July Hamas fired over 1,000 rockets. If not for Iron Dome (Kippat Barzel), and the activism of AIPAC and the support of the US Congress and in this case the support of President Obama, the summer would have been far different. I would have been afraid to continue with my day as if nothing happened. All Israelis, like the citizens of Southern Israel who have only 15 seconds to run for cover, would have then spent the better part of their days and nights in shelters.

Still the heart beats with fear from this summer of war. Many of us have spoken about my experiences and our feelings. We are angry about the world’s reaction and its indifference to Jewish pain. We are maddened at how quickly it takes up the case of Israel’s enemies. Let me focus on these issues this morning. First an ancient story. You know it well.

When the Jewish people were leaving Egyptian slavery they reached the shores of the Sea of Reeds. God performed a miracle and parted the sea so that they could cross the waters to dry land. Their Egyptian enemies pursued them and were drowned in the sea. We celebrate this miracle every time we gather for services with the words of Mi Chamocha. Most people don’t think about this and most certainly don’t dwell on this but if the waters just receded then the people were walking through mud. I have been thinking about that image. It occurs to me that every miracle has its mud, every miracle has its yuck.

I believe the creation of the state of Israel is a modern miracle. It stirs my Jewish heart in ways that I still struggle to understand. And this I also realize, this miracle too has its mud. And so this morning we are going to wade through some mud. We are going to get a little dirty and it is going to be somewhat uncomfortable and even messy. This sermon is the starting point of what I hope will be our continuing debate. I really hope that some will return this afternoon for our open discussion about world events. I hope that more will get involved in our Israel Committee.

Here is the first bit of mud. Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, argued that the creation of the Jewish state would forever solve the problem of antisemitism. Oops. That was his argument for why we needed a state for the Jewish people. He did not care one iota if it was in Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel. He did not think we should even speak Hebrew there. His writings grew out of his reporting on the Dreyfus trial in France. Captain Dreyfus, a French Jew, was tried and convicted of treason for one reason. Because he was a Jew. Herzl came to believe that only if we band together in a state of our own can we cure antisemitism. What bitter irony! In our own age attacks against Jews have become synonymous with hatred of Israel. Do I need to recount the many examples from this past summer? “Gas the Jews” was shouted at a pro-Palestinian rally in Germany just months ago. The movement on college campuses of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions of which the majority of my favorite rockers are also supporters (shout out to the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Lady Gaga and Alicia Keys for playing in Tel Aviv) is growing stronger. At the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) where my daughter is a student some Jewish students were targeted with eviction notices on their dorm room doors.

The New York Times, which I still read no matter how angry it makes me on some days, on Wednesday in an article about the most popular names in Israel (by the way the answer is Mohammed) offered this seemingly parenthetical phrase: what the Israeli government likes to call the Jewish state. What? Are you kidding? Likes to call the Jewish state? I have never seen such clarifications about the many Muslim states throughout the world. I have never read such off hand comments about our own nation where the President lights a Christmas tree and holds an Easter egg hunt on the White House lawn. To be fair a Seder is also held in this White House. The point is not of course about how inclusive our government may or may not be. Israel was founded on the dual principles of being Jewish and democratic. Such insidious asides strike at Israel’s very legitimacy, which should always be a given. Israel was created out of vote by the United Nations, which the United States supported, and the Arab world rejected. Its legitimacy is a given. Its acceptance among the family of nations should be a foregone conclusion. There is legitimate criticisms of its policies. Citizens of the world are free to protest its policies at Israel’s embassies throughout the world. When those criticisms become attacks against its legitimacy and its very being, or metastasize into criticism against Jews, then those words become antisemitic. The world appears at ease when Jews are victims but agitated when we gain power. There is no sin in wielding power, especially when defending our lives.

Only Israel has to defend its right to defend itself. And so never before have we felt so alone. For those around my age and younger we can scarcely remember a time when antisemtism was so public and so vengeful. What appears so clear friends and neighbors are unable to understand. Who would sit idly by, or wait weeks, or drop warning leaflets before a military strike, while rockets are fired at its citizens or tunnels are dug under its borders? How can we be right and the rest of the world wrong? I will tell you how. Because we are!

Hamas bears greater responsibility for the destruction that was visited upon Gaza this summer. Here is an organization whose raison d’etre is the destruction of the Jewish state, whose very charter makes use of the vilest of antisemitic tropes. Did you know that 800,000 tons of cement was used to construct tunnels whose sole purpose was to murder Jews across the border? Apparently that is enough cement to build the foundations for eight skyscrapers. What better lot could Hamas have built for its citizens if it was not singularly focused on hatred, death and destruction? Did you know that 150 Palestinian children died in accidents constructing these tunnels? Investigate that UN Human Rights Council!

Mahmoud Abbas’ recent speech at the UN was disgusting in its suggestions that Israel engages in intentional genocide. Mistakes were certainly made, but genocide? That suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of history. Let us be honest. Hamas is at fault. Do not think that Hamas fights Israel because of settlements in the West Bank. It denies the legitimacy of Tel Aviv. It attacks the Arab-Jewish coexistence so often found in Haifa. Still Israel cannot wipe its hands of care and concern for the people of Gaza. 2,200 Gazans died. True many were Hamas combatants. But many were not. Children died in Israeli strikes. Of course I know that Hamas fired its rockets from schools, that Hamas intentionally endangered its citizens. However we must not allow its followers’ hatred of us, or even their desire for our destruction, to harden our hearts. We must fight the tendency to become callous and indifferent to the pain and suffering surrounding us. True Israel’s responsibility is first and foremost to its own citizens, but its interest, its care and concern must extend beyond its borders.

The rabbis teach. When the Egyptians were drowning in the sea, the angels in heaven began singing with joy. God rebuked them and said, “My children are drowning. My children are drowning.” Elie Wiesel said: “There are the Palestinians to whose plight I am sensitive but whose methods I deplore. Violence and terrorism are not the answer. Something must be done about their suffering, and soon. I trust Israel, for I have faith in the Jewish people. Let Israel be given a chance, let hatred and danger be removed from her horizons, and there will be peace in and around the Holy Land.” (Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech, December 10, 1986) He spoke those words in 1986. Still true. Still sadly true.

Some more mud. And this is where this morning’s enterprise grows uncomfortable. Israeli settlers sometimes evict Palestinians from their homes. Israeli soldiers did not always behave perfectly. War by its very nature is imperfect and imprecise. And saying that should not make me an Israel hater, an Israel basher. Your cause can still be just, even if your methods are not always perfect. Let me also say, since now I am getting up to my knees in the mud, President Obama is right when he calls for a Palestinian state, when he points out that maintaining control over the West Bank erodes Israel’s democratic values. But this truth is difficult to hear because it comes from a president who only belatedly calls evil by its proper name. President Obama’s hesitancy to get involved in Syria, his apparent trust of Iran’s intentions, his only recent and reluctant attacks on ISIS, makes one wonder if he still believes that he can reason with evil. ISIS cannot be reasoned with. Evil cannot be excused. It can only be confronted.

Prime Minister Netanyahu understands better the realities, he sees the evils that surround Israel. Sometimes I wonder if he only sees the external threats. He appears unable to see the dangers the occupation of the West Bank represents to Israel’s character and soul. As my teacher Yossi Klein Halevi wrote: “I believe that Israel's long-term survival depends on ending the occupation, on empowering our neighbors. The Jews didn't come home to deny another people its sense of home.” He captures the ambivalence of many Israelis when he continues, “But how to create a Palestinian state outside my window that could well be taken over by Hamas? How to share the governing of Jerusalem with a Palestinian state — negotiated, say, with Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas — when we could wake up one morning and discover that we are ‘sharing’ our capital city with a genocidal enemy?” (“How Do Israelis Cope?, LA Times, September 12, 2014)

In Israel such sentiments led to a sense of despair about this summer’s war. Here we go again. Push them back until next time, people said. They appeared to say, There is no end game. But we are obligated to ask, Where is the end game?. There is only one way out and that is to figure out how to empower moderate Palestinians (and I don’t mean Palestinians who I always love) to take over more and more rule of the West Bank (and perhaps Gaza), and to help such leaders gain more responsibility for the everyday lives of Palestinians. Years ago I visited the soon to be completed Palestinian city of Rawabi in the heart of the Palestinian controlled West Bank. This is a planned city, it is hoped on the scale of Columbia, Maryland. Israeli authorities have oftentimes thrown up bureaucratic roadblocks against its completion. To my mind they should instead be shipping tons and tons of cement to Rawabi. Help its leaders realize their dream of a modern, pluralistic Arab city. This would only further the cause of peace. This is only but one example. A Palestinian state, living in peace alongside a Jewish state, is in Israel’s interest. Many are saying, “There he goes again. What a dreamer.” Guilty.

This is what I believe. Come at 3 pm and I invite you, throw some mud. But come prepared to offer a suggestion for another way out. Obama is right. Netanyahu is right. Obama is wrong. Netanyahu is wrong. Is it possible that two leaders who appear so diametrically opposed to each other could both be so right and both be so wrong? Is it possible then that the truth could emerge if there were to be honest debate and discussion? The status quo is unsustainable. It will erode our dreams for Israel. It will bring more destruction to Gaza. God will again rebuke us. But Zionism is about rewriting history and cursing destiny. Israelis can write a new story. It is about not giving in to fate. History is for us to craft. We can redeem it.

Part of that redemption begins with an honest heshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our own deeds. However right was Israel’s founding, and again I believe it to be a miracle, we must come to admit that Palestinians were displaced in those years. Not all left their homes on their own accord. (Read Ari Shavit’s new book if you want to learn more about this.) As much as I might wish otherwise I cannot insist that Palestinians refer to Israel’s founding with the rhythms of my narrative. They might forever refer to what I call Yom Haatzmaut, Israel Independence Day, as Al Nakbha, Catastrophe. Peace cannot hinge on the squaring of our narratives. Leon Wieseltier observed: “Ethical life is the transformation of there into here. Mentally, we must live large if we are to live significantly. But I fear that mentally we are living small. In our foreign policy, we are abandoning the world to its chaos and its cruelty, and disqualifying ourselves from acting on behalf of the largest and the most liberating ideals.” (“Xu Zhiyong's Brave Human Rights Activism in China,” TNR, February 1, 2014) I ask, Can Palestinians’ there ever become our here?

Let us hope that President Obama now understands, however belatedly, that we must sometimes fight for these ideals, that we must sometimes defend these dreams by placing soldiers in harms way. Let us also pray that we come to recognize that the ideals of remaining a vibrant Jewish democracy hinge not only on the stories that we tell our children, but creating the space for peace to emerge. Perhaps all we need in this day and age is some distance and some borders. If Israel truly matters then it must become more than mere talking points. If we really love Israel then we must not be afraid to wade through the muck and argue about what is best for its security and its character. We must care about preserving its soul as well as its body.

Some might be saying, “While the world throws mud us, and worse rockets, we should not criticize ourselves.” But such comments deny the significance of Yom Kippur. It is a day given to self-examination, it is a day that teaches that we can only achieve reconciliation with others if we honestly examine our ways. Al cheyt shechatanu…For the sin we have committed. There are those as well in good measure. We are strong enough to get knee deep into the thick of such debates.

I have two dreams for Israel. That it will see peace and forever live in security and safety. And that it will realize its Jewish and democratic values. That it will not be Jewish to the exclusion of its democratic principles and not democratic to the exclusion of its Jewish heritage.

The best part of those swims with which I began today’s sermon is always the return swim home. We always try to route our swims so that we swim against the tide on the way out and with the tide on the way back. The tide is of course this powerful, unseen current that can make for the most challenging or the easiest of swims. There have been days when the difference between the fight to the turn around point about a mile out and the swim back to the beach was ten minutes. Then there is nothing quite like that return swim with the tide pushing you home.

I have read enough Jewish history to know that we have always fought the currents and tides of history, that we have defied all expectations and persevered despite many attempts to destroy us, that once we only dreamed but today we have before us the miracle of a vibrant Jewish democracy in the land promised to our forefathers, but what I would give to even just once feel like we were swimming with the tide, that the world had our back and that we were not swimming alone each and every year, that there was no us and them but only one current and one tide and it carried us together toward peace.

That’s the dream that keeps me going. That’s the dream that sustains my soul. Take comfort in it now. Take heart in dreams on this day.

The Heart Knows: Why We Do the Things We Do

What follows is the written text of my Yom Kippur evening sermon exploring human motivation and in particular the motivation for good.

The summer that only recently ended has been an excruciating few months. While the weather was nearly perfect we watched the world slip into chaos. To name but a few of the tragic events there was the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner over the Ukraine, the unchecked terror of the Ebola virus, the racial riots in my hometown of St. Louis and the antisemitic mob hysteria in Europe, the war between Israel and Hamas and the rampaging destruction of ISIS. As ISIS rapes and murders its way across Syria and Iraq, a few Westerners were caught up in its path. Steven Sotloff was such a man. He was gruesomely murdered on September 2nd. He was kidnapped a year earlier.

Most people did not know until some time after his death that not only was he Jewish, but Israeli. He made aliya to Israel in 2005. In a letter written in May and smuggled out to his parents, he wrote, “Please know that I’m ok. Live your life to the fullest and fight to be happy. Everyone of us has two lives. The second one begins when you realize you only have one.” The second one begins when you realize you only have one. That is what I would like to explore on this Yom Kippur. Not the evils that surround us but instead the motivation for good that can emerge from each of us. We can learn much when it blossoms forth especially from a young man held in captivity. If we are to confront this evil, part of the answer must certainly be that we can pledge to do good. How can we make doing good more of our everyday lives? The other piece is of course that our leaders, most especially President Obama, must fight to keep the evils such as ISIS in check. It seems clear that our president now understands that reason alone cannot bend the arc of history. More about that tomorrow morning. This evening I want to talk about us and the motivation to do good. I wish to ask, where can hope be found?

People do not know this but the reason we remained unaware of Steve Sotloff’s Jewish identity is that soon after his capture, some 150 of his friends scrubbed his online identity removing all mention of his being Jewish or Israeli. I have been thinking about these unnamed friends this past month. I admit, sometimes it is hard to do so amidst the chaos and destruction, but that is what I wish to dwell on. Why did they do this? Why did they devote themselves to this task, spending countless hours scouring the web? It was because Steve was their friend and they wanted to do whatever they could to save his life. Even though their efforts proved unsuccessful I draw hope from their motivation. I am stirred by their actions. The Talmud counsels: “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a) It was worth the hours. It was as if the entire world rested in their hands, and depended on their efforts. Friendship calls us to action. We will run in charity events for friends. We will volunteer for boards because friends ask us. We will sit in front of our computer screens hoping and praying that our efforts might save a life.

Then again I am appalled that the mere mention of a person’s Jewish identity would further endanger him. We have seemingly moved backward in time. Is it possible that publicly declaring one’s Jewish identity might once again mark someone for death? The world appears as if it is propelling back toward medieval times? Then again, can an identity be erased? It was reported that during Steve Satloff’s captivity he went to great lengths to observe his Jewish traditions, secretly fasting on Yom Kippur and surreptitiously praying towards Jerusalem. The second life begins only one you realize you have one. What courage! What inspiration! What motivation.

Many of us participated in the recent ALS ice bucket challenge. Why did we pour ice cold water over our heads? Because our friends asked us to. Or more exactly because our friends cajoled us to do so by publicly challenging us. The ALS foundation raised over $60 million. I hate to be a cynic on this our most holy of days but how many people poured ice water over their heads for the entertainment of their friends, and the appearance of doing good, but never sent in a donation and how many quietly made a donation to the ALS Foundation but never did anything with ice water except to drink it on the warmest of days? Which act is more worthy? The unheralded donation or the public pronouncements? There is nothing of course wrong with the ice bucket challenge as long as it leads to the good of giving tzedakah. The ice bucket challenge is not a good unto itself, except perhaps in how it increased awareness about ALS. Of course one could argue that in an age of limited resources this popularized challenge sidetracked resources from other worthy charities. So I challenge you that if you participated in the ice bucket challenge and gave to the ALS foundation for the first time then be sure that this does not divert you away from your other tzedakah commitments. I continue to wonder about why we do what we do. Sometimes we give because we want to, and other times we give because friends cajole us. Sometimes we give because we are told to, and other times we give because our heart inspires us. Judaism teaches that the act is more important than the inspiration, that a good deed redeems even the basest of motivations.

This is why the tradition gives us a list of commandments and not a code of feelings. Virtue is not found in motivation, but action. True the inner intention, the kavvanah, can help to inspire action, but it must never come to replace the deed. How do we know what is right? We consult our tradition. As Reform Jews we believe that our inherited tradition must always have a voice, but never a veto. We also explore this path in the context of community. The group is the corrective to individual wants and desires. This is why our ideal prayers are said with others. We are more apt to ask for the right thing when standing with others. We look to our right and to our left, and see, for example, the pain of others, and then discover that our mundane goals of a new, larger house might not be as important as their restored health. We even recount our sins with others. On this day, we say “For the sin we have committed…” It is not that we believe that every one of us did every one of these wrongs but instead that we are strengthened by our joint words. We gain courage to repair our lives and mend our ways by attaching our words to our neighbors’. The tradition offers us a path. It gives us a road in which to locate ourselves. We walk together.

Why? So that we might add a measure of good to the world. I admit, sometimes we do things for the sake of a reward. People like posting pictures and videos of themselves. People like the accolades and approvals of others. Do you know that there are only two commandments in the entire Torah in which a reward is attached to them, specifically the reward of a long life? They are: #1. Honor your father and mother. The Torah states: “Honor your father and mother that you may long endure on the land that the Lord your God is assigning to you.” (Exodus 20:12) #2. “If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with your young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you fare well and a have a long life.” (Deuteronomy 22:6-7)

I have often wondered about these mitzvot. Why are they so important that they only offer the promise of reward? I wonder not so much about the honoring parents so much as the bird’s nest. The commentators ask what is the connection between these two commands. They draw a connection between the fact that both commandments deal with the relationship between parents and children. We are commanded to show compassion to parents. Love is not commanded, but care. There is another connection. More often than not no one knows if you observe these commandments or not. I know that this is not so likely, but it you were to happen upon a bird’s nest, perhaps a wounded animal, do you look to your right or left to see if anyone is watching or do you look above and recall God’s commands? Behind closed doors, when, for example, your mother or father are sick and in need of care, or perhaps if you are younger when they discipline you, do you speak to them with words of compassion or of frustration? It is not an easy mitzvah, but that is exactly why it is a command.

No one knows if you were kind to an animal. They cannot speak. They cannot report on you. And this is why there is a reward attached. In the quiet of your homes, amidst the humdrum of daily life, I challenge you to honor your father and mother. Take up that challenge. Show concern for even the animals that surround us. That would be but two more measures of good added to our world. Long life perhaps. Good most certainly.

Then again we care deeply about what others think. How else can one explain the near frenzy with which the ice bucket challenge raced throughout the country? Are such communal expectations and pressures really so bad? Some of us had the pleasure of examining a beautiful story on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. It is found in the Talmud Yerushalmi and is the story of Shimon ben Shetah. (Jerusalem Talmud, Bava Metzia 8a) Here is my rendition of that story. Rabbi Shimon ben Shetah traded in cotton. (It is a modern innovation for rabbis to be paid as full time rabbis. In ancient times they supported their families with their trades.) His students loved him so much that they said, “Master, let us buy you a donkey so you won’t have to work so hard. Then you can spend more time teaching us.” They went and bought him a donkey from a neighbor, from someone who was not Jewish. Lo and behold, they found on the donkey a precious stone. They ran to their teacher and exclaimed, “Now you won’t have to work at all.” Shimon asked them, “Does the owner know of your discovery?” They said, “No.” Their teacher admonished him, “Go and return it.” They argued, “But we did not steal the stone. We bought the donkey for a fair price. The law allows us to keep the donkey and anything we find on it.” Some even argued, “Besides we bought it from a non-Jew.” When hearing this, Shimon became enraged and shouted, “Do you think I am a barbarian? I would rather hear, ‘Blessed be the God of the Jews’ to all the riches of the world!”

Too often in our own age we discount the opinions of others. “Do what you think is right? As long as you are happy it is ok.” are our mantras. Shimon ben Shetah rejects this. It does matter what the world thinks. It does matter what others think. We cannot just say, “What’s fair is fair. As long as it is legal is good enough for me.” This rabbi’s desire was to bring more people to Judaism. That demanded of him an even higher standard, a more scrupulous code. He believed that his actions must bring praise to the tradition he so loves. He imagined that people would look at what he does each and every day and exclaim, “Blessed be the God of the Jews.” Imagine for a moment what the world might look like if we paused and asked ourselves, “Will this bring blessings to my faith, praise to my people and honor to my family?” Imagine for a moment how filled with peace our world might be, and especially the Middle East, if every person who professes a deep faith, if people who proclaimed themselves to be religious, were to ask, “Will this bring honor to my religion?” There is more to life than “Do what you think is right.” Ask instead, “Will this bring honor to Judaism? Will this add merit to the Jewish people?” I am given to such dreams.

Many people have asked me about this summer’s trip to Israel. They ask me if it was hard to be there for the start of the war. To be honest it is not the first time that I was in Israel during a war, although please God may it be the last time. I did leave before the start of the ground war when the Israeli psyche shifts so perceptibly. They ask me what it was like to have to run to a bomb shelter. They search for pain in my answers. They ask me, “What was the most difficult moment?” They are often surprised to find out that the most difficult moment was not even the discovery three boys’ bodies, z”l. Their kidnapping and murder by Hamas was the beginning of this summer’s hostilities. That day was indeed a tragic day. And yet the most painful moment was instead the discovery of the young Arab boy’s body and the realization, which I shared with the majority of Israelis and Jews, that his murderer was also a Jew. The police soon captured the perpetrator and I recall the image on my TV screen as he was led away in handcuffs. He covered his face. And I shouted at the TV, “Cover your tzitzit. Take off your kippah. You barbarian!” I continue to dream. Will my actions bring honor to my faith?

All of these young boys were buried with tears and accompanied to their final resting places with shouts of pain. Some of my friends visited the mourning tent of Mohammed’s family. I recall the funeral for the three Jewish boys: Gilad, Naftali and Eyal. Naftali’s mother, Rachel, spoke at the funeral. She said. “Rest in peace, my child. We will learn to sing without you. We will always hear your voice in our hearts.” I could not begin to fathom her courage. And so I read more about Rachel Frankel. Apparently she is a widely admired teacher among Orthodox women. She is a reasoned voice for women’s participation and inclusion in Jewish life. According to traditional Jewish law a woman is not obligated to say kaddish. She is not required to observe positive, time bound mitzvot, except of course the lighting of Shabbat candles. She would not lead public prayers in a mixed group of men and women because she is not required to pray and so cannot help carry a man’s obligatory prayers. Such is the ideology of my more traditional brethren. And then I witnessed the most remarkable of things. Her son’s body was placed in its grave. The moment for kaddish arrived. And Ruth lifted herself out of her seat and stood and said, “Yitgadal v’yitkadash…” with a full voice. And then an even more remarkable thing happened. Israel’s chief rabbi, David Lau, said, “Amen.”

I wonder. Did he forget his ideology? Did he ignore his beliefs? Perhaps. I doubt he paused to think. His heart said Amen to her prayer of pain. How could he say anything but Amen, I believe, I stand with you? In an age filled with ideologies of terror and death, perhaps the heart needs to teach. I imagine that many have forgotten about funerals. There have been far too many since. And yet they remain imprinted on my soul. I imagine that each of these families continue to relive those days each and every moment of their lives. During a summer filled with violence and bloodshed, murder and death, there was hope to be found in one word: Amen. Perhaps the heart can rescue us. Yitgadal v’yitkadash. Magnified and sanctified is God’s name. Amen. There is hope in one word. There is hope in friends. The second life begins when you realize you only have one.

The prophet Ezekiel lived through extraordinarily tumultuous times. He witnessed the destruction of the Temple and much of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in the sixth century BCE. He lived in exile and looked to the land of Israel from afar. His initial prophecies fill his contemporaries with vivid images and stern warnings. Later he preaches of a restored and renewed Israel. He proclaims: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you: I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 36:26) Perhaps he is still right. This is what is required. Lev hadash, a new heart, a heart not hardened by ideology and not closed to the pain of others, a heart that is no different than our neighbors. A new heart. Yitgadal v’yitkadash. Magnified and sanctified may God’s name be. Amen v’amen.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Yom Kippur and Walking Together

A Hasidic tale. Rabbi Hayim of Tzanz used to tell this parable: A man, wandering lost in the forest for several days, finally encountered another. He called out: “Brother, show me the way out of the forest.” The man replied: “Brother, I am also lost. I can only tell you this: The ways I have tried lead nowhere; they have only led me astray. Take my hand, and let us search for the way together.” Rabbi Hayim would add: “So it is with us. When we go our separate ways, we may go astray. Let us join hands and look for the way together.”

On Yom Kippur we recount our sins. We examine our ways so that we might mend our wrongs and repair our mistakes. In fact the Hebrew word for sin, cheyt, is better translated as missing the mark. Sin implies that one is tainted by an action, that repair is nearly impossible. Missing the mark, however, suggests that repair is more a matter of getting back on the proper path. And how do we get back on that path? With the help of others.

This is why the Viddui, the confession of sins, is recited in the plural. We recite a litany of wrongs not because we believe that every one of us has done every one of these wrongs, but instead because we are strengthened by we. “For the sin we have committed…” We are lifted by the exclamation of “we.” We are weakened by I.

That is the power of Yom Kippur. We join with others in order that each of us might better repair our own individual lives.

Let us join hands and look for the way together.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Spotify and Synagogues: A Meditation on the Synagogue

What follows is the written text of my Rosh Hashanah morning sermon exploring why we need the synagogue.

I would like to speak this morning about ancient history. On this Rosh Hashanah I wish to meditate on history and wonder aloud about our future. For this occasion I have unearthed a number of artifacts. Here is the first show and tell item. It is of course a record album, an exhibit of classic vinyl. I uncovered this in my basement buried in the boxes from our move eleven years ago to our current home. There remain my albums stacked neatly in the moving boxes, never again to be unpacked until this very moment. Some of my younger students might be marveling at this object. Yes, this is what I once used to play music. To put this in contemporary terms, this double album contains 26 songs, a mere fraction of the 1,000 songs presently on my iPhone.

This of course is no ordinary album. It is Pink Floyd’s The Wall. I recall the discussions when this album came out. It was the most ancient of days. The year was 1979. There was the excitement and enthusiasm of that moment when in December of that year I finally got my hands on the album. I held the prize in my fingers. My friends and I marveled at the cover graphics. We even argued about the hidden meanings found in the track order. As those Saturday evenings would drag on into Sunday mornings, we would run back and forth to the turntable to replay track 6 of side 3. (“Hello, hello, hello…Is anybody in there? Just nod if you can hear me. Is there anyone at home.”)

That’s what it was like in ancient days. That was the experience of listening to music. Some might be looking at this relic, especially those on our Israel Committee, and saying, “Did he have to pick Pink Floyd? Did the rabbi have to choose Roger Waters given his hatred of Israel and his activism in the BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions)? I pledge we will examine these issues in more detail on Yom Kippur. This album remains a world to its own. I recall those days with fondness when I hold it in my hands.

But what of music today? It has been a mere thirteen years since the invention of the iPod. My current b’nai mitzvah students know of no other world. We shared music in ancient times not on Facebook but by making mix tapes. That is how we shared our love of Pink Floyd or the Eagles or if we want to march into the 80’s, Squeeze and the Talking Heads. (“You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack… And you may ask yourself, ‘Well, how did I get here?’”) And now even downloading music is a thing of the past. What was revolutionary a decade ago, our children by and large no longer do. There is Spotify and Grooveshark. For a mere $10 per month I can have access to 20 million songs. Gone is the sense of holding the music in my hands. Gone is the sense of owning music. For my young students music is only shared. It is about playlists and individual songs rather than albums and tracks. It is about Facebook discussions like “I can’t believe Steven Moskowitz is listening to Hotel California again.”

I hold now a second piece of history in my hands. This is a book. I would like to think that this is not yet ancient history, but I wonder what the future holds for the book in the fast paced digital age? The movement from scrolls, with which we of course still read, to those few, precious books made for wealthy individuals to the mass production of books by Gutenberg in 1440 helped to democratize learning. And yet the piles of books, the rows upon rows of filled to overflowing bookshelves are no longer the most common feature of a Jewish home. My Kindle, this small little device, can hold over 1,000 books. I can have access to a library of books on my iPhone.

Lest this sound like another advertisement, for another $10 per month I can have unlimited access to 700,000 books. Then again there is something about the feel of a book in the hand. The People of the eReader does not have the same ring to it. And this book that I clutch is again no ordinary book. It is my prized collection of Emily Dickinson poems. There is of course an Emily Dickinson app given that she is among this country’s greatest poets, but a book represents a journey, a book tells a story separate even from its words.

And I can tell you the story of my discovery of this book. I had boarded the subway to make my journey uptown from Penn Station when I looked up from my folded paper (remember how we used to fold the paper so as not poke the person next to us) to discover this sign called Poetry in Motion. Launched by the MTA and the Poetry Society of America in 1992 the subway cars were now decorated not only with advertisements but poems. And there I read “Hope is the thing with feathers – That perches in the soul – And sings the tune without the words – And never stops – at all –.”’ I did not know then that poem #254 could so capture my heart. I exited the subway to find a bookstore and purchase this book: The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. I recall that each and every time I hold this book in my hands and discover another of her lines. Among the dog-eared pages I find again “A smile so small as mine might be/Precisely their necessity –“ (#1391).

Leafing through the pages of these poems I continue the journey. For my children their journeys will be very different. Children’s journeys are of course supposed to be different than their parent’s. Books might no longer line their shelves but the written word, I hope and pray, will continue to stimulate their minds and penetrate the soul. Still I wonder what might be lost without a book under their arms, without books lining their shelves. How will they still leaf through pages and discover anew a poem to stir the soul?

The third show and tell item in this meditation on history I cannot even wrap my hands around. It is the synagogue. It is likewise undergoing radical transformations. Like music and poetry, it too is ancient yet changing. What will the synagogue be like in an age when so much is shared for such little expense? People might not be asking this question so directly but I see it forming on their lips. They ask, if I can have all access to music and books for $10 per month why can’t I have all access to Judaism for just as little? And so here is my response to why the synagogue must survive. Before we can even answer this question we must ask a more basic question: why be Jewish. So let me tell you straight out. Why be Jewish. Because Judaism offers a path of meaning. Because Judaism tackles questions with which we are still wrestling. Because Judaism offers a road to bring healing to the world.

These answers are uncovered in the book. The answer is unfurled in the edges of a scroll. And that takes some work to uncover. Let’s be honest if you want something akin to the convenience of eReaders and iPhones you can go elsewhere. You can find a tutor to come to your house. You can hire a “rabbi” who will officiate at a bar or bat mitzvah three months from now. If you just want the ceremony you can do that. But synagogue is first and foremost about community. Hebrew School is a misnomer. It is not about learning Hebrew as much as it is about teaching our children to attach themselves to their community and to fall in love with their faith. That is why it matters that they sit across the table from others. Learning is not a solitary activity for the Jew. It is done with others. Sure you can read by yourself. Sure you can even practice your alef-bet by yourself. But you can only truly learn with others.

This is why as well learning is supposed to be a life long pursuit. That in a nutshell is one of the reasons why I run away to Jerusalem every summer. So I can study surrounded by others, so that my head can be filled with the arguments and debates that have sustained our people. And why must we learn? Because we believe that Torah is meant to better the world. I don’t mean to suggest that we should convert the world to being Jewish, but I do mean to say that if Judaism is to matter it has to matter not just for ourselves and our own individual needs, but it has to matter for the world. Abraham Joshua Heschel, the unparalleled 20th century rabbi, remarked, “To be a Jew is either superfluous or essential…. Hence we learn the purpose of Jewish existence: we are obligated to live lives that will become Torah, lives that are Torah.” (Pikuach Neshama: To Save a Soul)

If Torah is only about lighting candles 18 minutes before sunset or about answering questions such as is this oven kosher or not and not about is it ethical to lay off employees so as to increase the stock price, is it moral to wage war against ISIS, then it is meaningless. Torah must be relevant for our lives today. It must have meaning for the here and now. If Torah is only about personal meaning and not even more importantly about the betterment of the world, then it loses its significance. If it remains here and does not venture to the streets, to our offices, to our homes then it lacks profound truth. We must live lives that become Torah.

Do you want to know why we should survive? Here is why. The world desperately needs these answers or at the very least a place where we can debate these questions. Do you want to know why the synagogue must survive? It is the address where these values are learned and re-engaged; it is where community is fostered and Torah is brought to the world.

That is why the synagogue was created. 2,000 years ago there was only one address to be Jewish. The only address was the Temple in Jerusalem. There we would bring our sacrifices to the priest to be offered on the Temple’s altar. There was no local address for Judaism in each and every town. It was centralized in the Temple. And then in 70 CE the Romans destroyed the Temple and nearly wiped us out completely when they leveled Jerusalem. All that remains of that grand structure is the Kotel, the Western Wall. Out of that tragedy the synagogue was born. The rabbis developed a portable faith that was independent of place that was separated from even the holiest of places. We could go anywhere. All we needed was a book, the Torah, and the songs of our prayers. Even more importantly all we needed was each other. Synagogue comes from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Beit Knesset, a house of assembly. What makes a synagogue a synagogue is not a building but the people. If you have the required ten, you have a synagogue, whether you are in Jerusalem, or Brookville or Jericho or Oyster Bay.

The Rabbis fashioned Judaism out of the Bible; they made wandering and journeying part of the enterprise. They recognized that even though we might, until realizing this dream in the present day, longed for Jerusalem, our lot would be to wander throughout the lands. In each city, in every town, in all the countries of our dispersion, the synagogue became the primary address for teaching Torah, for bringing Torah to successive generations and the world at large. We would forever be wanderers. We would forever journey. We would learn new things in every land, we would discover new truths in every city and we would relearn our ancient teachings in the synagogue, now on Temple Lane. In a way we carried the synagogue, as we carry a book, from place to place. We held it in our hands. We carried its meaning in our hearts. We marveled at its architecture. We looked at the album cover. We continue to wander.

The Torah is of course on its most literal level about a journey. First it tells the story about the discovery of God. Abraham looks up and realizes that there can only be one God who made the heavens and the earth. It is then about God responding to our suffering and freeing us from Egypt. But it is mostly about 40 years of wandering through the wilderness. That is the majority of the story. It is about the trials and misfortunes of the longest camping trip ever described. “Moses, I can’t believe you forgot to pack more food!” the people scream over and over again. But it is worth the journey, and the grumblings and the complaining, because there is a promise of a new home in the land of Israel. And then on the shores of the Jordan River, Moses gives one final speech followed by another final speech filled with advice, but mostly filled with warnings about what to do and of course mostly what not to do. And then he dies. God buries him on Mount Nebo.

And the Torah then does the most surprising of things. It ends. The Torah concludes on the wrong side of the river. It ends with the promise unfulfilled, with the dream unrealized. Our most important book ends with the journey incomplete. And what do we do? We roll the scroll back to the beginning and start reading the story all over again. “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth…” In the synagogue and the Torah reading cycle that is central to this institution we ritualize the journey over the destination. The journey always continues we remind ourselves year after year. On Simhat Torah we sing for joy not because we have arrived at some destination but because we can begin again. The wandering always continues.

People think that the synagogue is fixed, that is immovable and never changing. People think that a synagogue is a building. It is not. The building is a tool. It serves the congregation. It must never become the other way around. This is the most important lesson I learned, and I hope all of us learned, from our fifteen years of wandering and schleping the Torah scroll all over Long Island. I never felt it inauthentic to serve a congregation without its own building, I never felt that we were anything less than even the grandest and oldest of synagogues. Having our own building makes the teaching easier. You don’t have to wonder anymore where your rabbi is. The address is clear. It is simpler.

But with this simplicity comes some dangers. Will we become overly focused on the building? Will we lose sight of what has made us a holy congregation? Will we lose sight of the people who have made this a special and unique community? The great Hasidic rabbi, the Kotzker rebbe taught: To what is the one who looks out only for himself and his (or her) own perfection compared to? To a tzaddik in a fur coat. If the house is cold and a person wishes to warm himself, he has two choices: to light a fire or put on the fur coat. What is the difference between lighting a fire and putting on the fur? When the fire is lit, I am warm as well as others. We are warmed when I light a fire. When I put on the fur coat only I am warm. We must remain on guard never to become that tzaddik who wraps himself in a fur coat and fails to help light the fire that warms all.

The St Louis congregation in which I grew up recently celebrated its 140th anniversary. That may appear really old, but 140 years is a mere speck on the Jewish timeline. Each synagogue only gains its ancient voice because it does not stand alone. It is tied to all other synagogues, some of which are no more, others of which continue to thrive, some of which are brand new. The synagogue moves through history. Movement is part of its very nature. Think about prayer, another central feature of synagogue life. We stand up and sit down. We bow and bend our knees. We beat our chests on Yom Kippur. The Hasidic masters sway to and fro, moving their bodies to the rhythm of prayer. And I have heard that on the North Shore of Long Island some even dance to their prayers. We continue to move.

I worry that some might think that the journey is now complete. We have arrived at a building. We have survived the wandering. But the journey continues. The holy work of fashioning community forever marches on.

We need the synagogue. Why? Because we need each other. The point of community is to enlarge our circle of friends and solidify our friendships. You can only teach the value of community with others, with peers. That is the essence of minyan, the quorum required for prayer. While the synagogue was a response to a catastrophic change, an answer to the question of how are we going to keep being Jewish without a center, it was also a response to a need. The spirit will always require a poem to stir its being. The soul will always need music and song, no matter the cover.

The Jewish spirit is nurtured by the synagogue. It is this institution that gives it life, that nurtures our souls and brings the values of Torah to the world.

There is a legend about the Temple that once stood in Jerusalem. It is about its windows. Ancient buildings like the castles and churches we visit throughout Europe constructed their windows so as to funnel the natural light from the outside in. In other words the windows cut into the building’s thick stonewalls were wider on the outside and thinner on the inside. The Temple’s windows were the opposite. They were larger on the inside. Their purpose was to funnel the light from the inside to the outside, to bring the meaning and content gained within to the world at large. That is the purpose of the synagogue: to bring light to the outside, to build a fire together to warm the community. The purpose is to bring Torah to the world.

As much as we are overjoyed about our new building, it is really not about the building. The building is not the dream. The building serves the dream.

Back to Pink Floyd. “All in all it was all just bricks in the wall. All in all you were all just bricks in the wall.”

It is not the building. It is something far grander and more eternal. It is the light that comes from within.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Rosh Hashanah and Rekindling Our Story

A story. The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, was legendary in his ability to beseech God and thereby gain protection for his people. On one occasion, when the people of his town faced a grave danger the Baal Shem Tov left his modest home and walked deep into the forest. He found there a particular spot and kindled a fire. As he sat by the warmth of the fire, he recited a prayer asking for God’s protection and care. The great rebbe arrived back to town and discovered the threat had passed. Everyone believed that it was the Baal Shem Tov’s actions that had saved the community.

Some time later the Jews of the town again found themselves facing danger. Their rebbe, the Baal Shem Tov’s disciple, remembered what his teacher had done a generation earlier. He resolved to do the same. He walked deep into the forest, found the exact same spot, and likewise kindled a fire. Then he realized that he did not remember the words of the Baal Shem Tov’s prayer. And so he sat by the fire and meditated on God’s protective nature. Once again the danger passed and the town was spared.

A generation later the same situation arose. Again the Jewish community felt threatened by its neighbors. The leader of the community, the Baal Shem Tov’s disciple’s disciple, went into the forest. He soon discovered that he did not know where in the forest to go and he also did not know the words of the master’s prayer. Still he found a spot and lit a fire. And again the danger passed and the community survived.

The Rhizener rebbe, four generations after the Baal Shem Tov, found himself facing a similar struggle. He did not know the prayer. He did not know the place in the forest. He did not even know in which forest the Baal Shem Tov prayed so many generations earlier. He did not know how to light the special fire. What did he do? He told the story of the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples. The community was once again spared.

Sometimes all we require is a story.

Rosh Hashanah is about retelling our stories. It is about reconnecting with our past. It is about rekindling the fire.

Whether we know the exact place or even the words of every prayer, we are united by our common story.

On Rosh Hashanah it is written and Yom Kippur it is sealed…

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Nitzavim-Vayelech and Hidden Good

There is a legend about thirty-six righteous individuals who are so good and so noble that the world is sustained by their deeds. They are called the Lamed Vavniks (the Hebrew letters lamed and vav add up to thirty six). Crucial to this legend is the fact that their identities must always remain obscured. If but one of their names is revealed, another must take his place. Otherwise the world might teeter and even collapse.

It is interesting to note that according to this tradition, our well-being is not only placed in the hands of a few righteous individuals, but in their identities remaining concealed. Why is it so important that they remain hidden? It is because the world really does require hidden sparks of goodness.

Doing good should not be predicated on recognition or reward but instead on the needs of others, on the requirements of the world at large. That is the message of the Lamed Vavniks. They do good only because the world needs it. Their reward remains in God’s hands. The Torah teaches: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God; and those things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may observe all the words of this Torah.” (Deuteronomy 29:28)

The Hasidic rebbe, Menahem Mendle of Kotzk opines: “The world thinks that a tzaddik nistar—a hidden righteous person—is a person who conceals his righteousness and his good deeds from others. The truth, though, is that a tzaddik nistar is one whose righteousness is hidden and concealed from himself, and who has no idea whatsoever that he (or she) is righteous.”

How different the world might be if good was so ordinary that even the doer remained unaware.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Ki Tavo and Treasures

What is a treasure?

I can treasure something.  Some people treasure cars, others shoes.  More often people treasure not that which is the most costly but that which was given to them.  They then hold in their hands a keepsake.  The possession acquires value because of the giver rather than because of its monetary value.  My most valued kiddush cup is not that which is even the most beautiful but that which was given to Susie and me by her grandparents and which served the family for several generations.

I can treasure a book, the Torah.  I wonder.  Does it matter which scroll I read or is it the words that I spend my years examining and pondering that are the more important and therefore the most treasured?

I can treasure someone.  Most treasure family, a spouse, children, parents and grandparents.  I wonder.  Do their actions make me treasure them less?  If I become disappointed with them do I love them any less?  On the contrary, if they do something which makes me proud do I treasure them even more?  I think not.  They are treasured because of who they are.  They can do right or even wrong, but they are family and will always be treasured and loved. 

So too the Jewish people.  In the Torah we are called God’s treasure, an "am segulah," a treasured people.  Is God’s love dependent on what we do?  “And the Lord has affirmed this day that you are, as He promised you, His treasured people… (Deuteronomy 26:18)  We are treasured because God promised.  The giver grants sanctity.  The giver lends meaning to the treasure.

The cup with which we sanctify Shabbat reminds me of our grandfather.

And yet the verse continues: “…His treasured people who shall observe all His commandments.” Grand expectations are placed upon our shoulders.  We expect so much of those we love.

Are we loved any less if we fall short?     

Not by God.  But most certainly by ourselves.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Ki Tetze, Birds and the Breath of Goodness

According to Moses Maimonides this week’s portion contains 72 mitzvot, far more than any other Torah portion.  Within this plethora of commandments we discover: “If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young.  Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life.”  (Deuteronomy 22:6-7)

This is an interesting command.  It is important to note that the Torah does not just deal with ritual life but with ethical obligations.  Moreover the Torah’s concern extends not just to human beings but to all of God’s creatures.  Still, one wonders how this act is a measure of compassion.  The tradition reasons that the mother must be sent away so that she does not see her young taken.  Human beings are allowed to make use of God’s creation, and even creatures, but with this permission comes certain responsibilities.  We must not cause undo suffering to animals.  The Torah therefore takes the mother’s pain into account.

This is why this mitzvah is connected to long life.  This reward mirrors that promise offered for the commandment to honor parents.  The vast majority of mitzvot do not have such a reward attached to them.  These are two of the few instances.  Of course this raises the question.  If I do not show honor to my parents, if I fail to let the mother bird go, will I not be rewarded with long life?

The Talmud offers a story.  Elisha ben Abuyah, a colleague of Rabbi Akiva, once saw a young boy climb a tree to fetch eggs from a nest.  In observance of the command, he shooed the mother bird away before taking the eggs.  When climbing down from the tree he fell and died.  Elisha saw this and rejected his Jewish faith.  How could there be a good and just God, he reasoned, and apparently said very loudly.       

Such is the question that has occupied Jewish thinkers for generations.  While Elisha’s is among the most radical that our tradition preserves (he is deemed a heretic by his colleagues but not written out of their book), I prefer the reasoning of Moses Maimonides, the great medieval philosopher. 

He writes in his Guide of the Perplexed:  “Consider the environment in which we have our being: the more urgently a thing is needed by living beings, the more abundantly (and cheaply) it is found.  The less dependent on anything, the rarer (and more expensive) it is.  Thus the things man needs most, for instance are air, water, and food…  This is a mark of God’s goodness and bounty.” (Guide, III:12) 

When we look at the world we tend to forget that even the air we breathe is a gift from God.  We make long lists of all the things we need (among them, a long, healthy life) and when we don’t receive but one of these we ask, where is God?  Maimonides counsels us that we need to look at the world differently, we need to look at God differently.  Look at how plentiful the air we breathe is.  Look at how quenching is the water I drink.

I admit his advice is sometimes difficult, and challenging, to follow.  Most people don’t know that Maimonides faced a similar struggle.  Fourteen years prior to penning these words, his brother drowned in a ship wreck in the Indian Ocean.  In addition to losing his only brother much of the family fortune was lost.  Maimonides was forced to devote more time to his medical profession in order to support his family, as well as his brother’s. 

For a full year following his brother’s death the person who most believe was the greatest Jewish thinker who ever lived spent a year in bed, depressed beyond all consolation.  He wrote to a friend: “Now my joy has been changed into darkness; [my brother] has gone to his eternal home, and has left me prostrated in a strange land.  Whenever I come across his handwriting in one of his books, my heart grows faint within me, and my grief reawakens.”

With the litany of our tradition’s blessings it is curious that the no blessing is mandated for water and air, and yet they are as much a sign of God’s bounty as the hallah we will taste, and bless, tomorrow evening.

Take counsel from Maimonides’ words.  Take heart from his life.

Sometimes it really does take years to see again the beauty and wonder in God’s world.