Thursday, August 6, 2020

No More Tests and Trials

Really? Another calamity? Now you throw hurricanes at us too.

The Torah responds: “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, that He might test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts…” (Deuteronomy 8)

And I shout back, “No more tests.”

Our prayer book adds: “Purify our hearts to serve You in truth.”

Why must there be so many hardships? And why must there be any hardship at all? How do these challenges purify our hearts? At the very least can these difficulties be spread out. Why does tzuris appear to come in successive waves? Just when we feel like we are gaining enough strength to stand up again another wave comes crashing in and knocks us down.

The tradition suggests that the righteous are tested even more than the wicked. Abraham was, for example, tested not one time but ten. Who then would we want to aspire toward righteousness? The tradition counters that what makes people truly righteous is that they do not seek the title of tzaddik. They do good for its own sake. They do not wish to acquire status and stature. Their suffering becomes added proof of their righteousness.

Still these days I find myself wanting to run in the other direction. 2020 is exhausting. It is bedeviling. Enough! No more!

Then again if we are able to find meaning in even the most difficult of challenges, and amidst this current piling of incremental difficulties, we will better for it. When we are tested our hearts grow stronger. The problem is not these tests and trials. It is found instead when we offer meaning and lessons about other people’s challenges. When we offer a cliché to a friend, “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” Or when we try to interpret someone else’s pain or explain away their difficulty, we add to the pile of tzuris. In that moment, when we think we are offering a healing explanation we do more harm than good. No one wants their pain to be justified.

During Tuesday’s storm our beautiful apple tree was uprooted and fell on our neighbor’s property. Yesterday our neighbor walked over to our house so we could strategize about the tree’s removal. I had never met Dan before. I only saw his family playing on the other side of our fence.

Perhaps a new friendship will take root. After five years of living on either side of the fence a tropical storm forced us to strike up a conversation.

The wilderness, and the tempestuous challenges found therein, is indeed where life is lived. It occupies the majority of the Torah. There is no Torah found after this last book of Deuteronomy when we cross over to the Promised Land. Our Torah is only discovered in the hardships of the wilderness.

While I am exhausted by this year’s unending tests, I have faith I will emerge stronger and even better.

Your heart is likewise in your hands. Your challenges are yours from which to wrest meaning. You must carve your own path through the wilderness.

But you never know. A new friend might be found on the other side of the fence ready and willing to walk by your side.

Together we can hope, and pray, there is not too much more wilderness ahead.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Rescuing History

Today marks Tisha B’Av, the day commemorating nearly all Jewish tragedies, most especially the destruction of the first and second Temples, and the subsequent 2000-year exile from the land of Israel.

Our weekly portion appears to foretell this cataclysm.
Should you, when you have begotten children and children’s children and are long established in the land, act wickedly and make for yourselves a sculptured image in any likeness, causing the Lord your God displeasure and vexation, I call heaven and earth this day to witness against you that you shall soon perish from the land which you are crossing the Jordan to occupy; you shall not long endure in it, but shall be utterly wiped out. (Deuteronomy 4)
Not only do these verses foretell tragedy, they also assign blame. We are the victims of our own wrongdoings. No wonder that the prophet Jeremiah castigates the people and blames them for causing destruction of the first Temple, even though it was the Babylonians who laid siege to Jerusalem. No wonder that some 500 years later, the rabbis again fault the people for the decimation of first century Jewry, the destruction of the second Temple, and the slaughter of Jerusalem’s inhabitants at the hands of the Romans.

It was all because of sinat chinam, baseless hatred among Jews, the rabbis argued. This provided an opening for Rome to conquer Jerusalem. Jeremiah earlier laments: “Jerusalem has greatly sinned. Therefore, she has become a mockery.” (Lamentations 1) We stand guilty. History is evidence of our sins.

Generations of Jews find blame for historical tragedies in our own actions. “If only we had been more faithful to God. If only we had not disobeyed the commandments. If only…” Such are the explanations offered for millennia. And while there is great spiritual power in seeing historical tragedies as occasions to reexamine our ways, and to look within our souls to discover how we might be responsible and how we might even be deserving of blame, it appears blasphemous when looking back at more recent tragedies. To suggest that the Jewish people are somehow to blame for the Nazis murderous rampage is sacrilege.

It may be in keeping with Deuteronomy’s thinking, but it has no place in my faith. Even the teachings offered by the rabbis explaining this day of Tisha B’Av cannot, and should not, be reckoned with the historical record. Sure, it is always better to ask, “What can we learn? How can we do better?” than to point fingers at some mysterious other. Isn’t that what the Nazis did? “Why did Germany lose World War I?,” they asked. And they shouted in response, “It was because the Jews stabbed us in the back.”

“Why is this pandemic raging throughout our country?” we now ask. Do we say, “It is because of him or her or them?” Or do we ask, “Is it because we think too much about ourselves and not about others?” One answer leads to name calling and despair. The other offers the potential for spiritual growth and change. It may not make for the accurate telling of history, but it can offer the opportunity for repair.

And thus, I resolve. No more blaming of victims. Look within for rescue.

The Torah continues, offering an antidote to its own stark theology. “The Lord will scatter you among the peoples…. But if you search there for the Lord your God, you will find Him, if only you seek Him with all your heart and soul…”

When you find yourself distressed and despairing, start up the search once again.

The Hasidic rabbi Menhaem Mendl of Kotzk teaches: “The very act of seeking God, the longing to find God, means ‘you shall find God’; that in itself is enough.”

For now, that will have to be enough.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Waiting for Leadership

I am losing faith in leaders.

I am losing faith in Moses.

He is given to anger. He frequently loses his temper with the Israelites. A few weeks ago, he smashes a rock and God then tells him that he will not be allowed to enter the Promised Land. This week we find him standing on the other side of the Jordan River, offering the Israelites some last tidbits of advice before handing the leadership reigns to Joshua. (The entire book of Deuteronomy is in large part Moses’ farewell address, filled with a lengthy to do list of exhortations: “Don’t forget…. Don’t you ever…. You better not…. Beware of…”)

Moses appears exasperated and even exhausted. I recall that he never really wanted the job. He begs for God to pick someone else. He complains that he is not a good speaker. And now forty years later, Moses appears to be saying, “I told you so.” He castigates the people and exclaims: “I cannot bear the burden of you by myself…. How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering!” (Deuteronomy 1) Was his early premonition correct? Did he know that no matter how much he cajoled and how often he prodded, no matter how many times he shouted and how frequently he commanded, his followers would disappoint?

Or is this the natural course of leadership? The gap between the leaders’ expectations and the people’s behavior is sometimes too wide. It pains the leader to even acknowledge or give voice to this widening gap. I am left wondering.

I am certain that during these days I find myself increasingly disappointed in Moses. I am losing faith in his leadership. Why did he not begin with the words, “I am grateful for the privilege of leading you. We have experienced untold heights. We crossed the Sea of Reeds. We stood at Sinai. We have also experienced unimaginable challenges. I admit. Eating manna gets tiresome day after day. Running out of water on more than several occasions was indeed trying. But here we are, at the edge of what will be our new home, standing at the precipice of our hoped-for redemption. Thank you for the honor of calling me your leader.”

Instead he begins with complaints. “I can’t take your complaining and bickering.” He is exhausted by the call. He is tired after forty years. And all he appears able to say is that it’s all their fault. Moses appears unable to share their burden and pain.

The Torah offers a solution. Appoint magistrates and tribal leaders to share the heavy lifting of leadership. Rabbi Larry Kushner comments: “Insulate the leader within a bureaucracy! This is more than the simple delegation of responsibility; it is the creation of artificial, ritual distance necessary for the leader to be able to lead and love.”

Delegating helps to get the job done effectively. No one can, or should, do everything by him or herself. The big job of leading requires the work of many capable hands. Perhaps even more importantly, delegating creates a protective shield around the leader. He is not burdened by all the complaints. She is not beaten up by all the bickering.

When leaders’ hearts become filled with every trouble, they are unable to love.

Thank God for Joshua. He comes on to the scene at just the right time. I take heart in his advice: “Be strong and courageous.” (Joshua 1)

That’s what I am going to have to lean into these days.

Chazak v’amatz—be strong and courageous.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Writing Our Own Torah

We often describe the Israelites journey through the wilderness as forty years of wandering, implying that they were forever on the move. And yet the concluding chapters of Numbers delineate twenty places at which they encamped. There is the wilderness of Sin where the manna first appeared and Rephidim where the people complained about lack of water and Moses struck a rock in anger.

The medieval commentator, Rashi, observes that the Israelites were really on the move in the first year when they left Egypt and the last year when they prepared to enter the land of Israel. During the thirty-eight intervening years they were actually living normally at one place or another. They were not constantly on the run, or even on the move. Instead they journeyed from Egypt to the promised land in stages, stopping for even years at a time at one oasis or another.

Often when recounting a trip, we speak about the destination, we paint a picture of what we experienced there. Perhaps we encountered in this place great natural beauty or met unique and wonderful people in that land. And yet the Torah never arrives at its destination. It concludes with the journey’s goal incomplete. Thus, we imply that its chapters and verses are about aimless wanderings. We never arrive so our journey lacks direction and purpose.

And while there is great value in meanderings, in setting off on a walk that offers no purpose than to be accompanied by others or one’s thoughts, this might not be the most accurate description of our forty years in the wilderness. Instead “the Israelites set out from Rameses and encamped at Succoth. They set out from Succoth and encamped at Etham…” (Numbers 33)

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, teaches: “Whatever happened to the people as a whole will happen to each individual. All the forty-two journeys of the Children of Israel will occur to each individual, between the time he is born and the time he dies.”

For the first years of my life I lived in Northern New Jersey, and then we journeyed to the suburbs of Saint Louis and then back again to New Jersey and then back once more to Saint Louis. And then I spent my years of college in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and then it was off to Jerusalem for the start of rabbinical school and then to Cincinnati to complete my studies where I made the pronouncement, “I will move anywhere but New York.” And then we moved to Great Neck and Dix Hills and now Huntington which are all of course in New York.

Each place, that was more often than not chosen for me by circumstances, offered new adventures: the birth of children and new jobs. Each place offered new discoveries and something even more to learn.

And so now I find myself encamped in Huntington waiting out this unexpected, and unforeseen, pandemic. What will we learn of ourselves? What will we learn of each other? How will we arise from this crisis better than before and better than we can now imagine?

The Torah offers a blueprint for our lives. We find ourselves in its pages.

The destination is always off in the distance, and perhaps even after the conclusion of the book. Life, and meaning, are found in the unexpected places we find ourselves, the places at which we pause. That’s where life happens.

And that is where our Torah is written.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Don't Give the Keys to the Likes of Pinchas

Christians consider Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher sacred. It is there that they believe Jesus was crucified, buried and later resurrected from the dead. And yet the many denominations that comprise Christianity do not always agree about how this place is to be revered. 150 years ago, a compromise was enacted detailing when the Orthodox, Coptic, Ethiopian and Catholic churches are allowed to perform their rituals. A schedule is followed. By and large this has ensured peace in this holy place.

This was not always the case. On a hot summer day in 2002 a Coptic monk moved his chair out of the scorching sun and into the shade. Rival monks accused him of breaking this compromise and disrespecting their faith. A fight ensued. Eleven monks were taken to the hospital. And yet, when I visited the church a few years ago, the church appeared a freer place of worship than either the Dome of the Rock or our sacred Western Wall.

At the church no one interfered with the many different ways pilgrims prayed. Some took pictures. Some marveled at the artwork. Others posed for selfies. Many fell on their hands and knees to kiss the stone on which Jesus’ disciples placed his body. People were clearly overcome by emotion. There were many tears and many more songs and prayers. I found myself marveling at their religiosity.

I also found myself admiring their freedoms. No one policed behaviors. No one shouted that something was inappropriate. No one said, “Stop doing that! This is a holy place.”

Before walking up to Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, from which Muslims believe Mohammed ascended to heaven and Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Ishmael, my bag was thoroughly searched. We were not allowed to take any Jewish religious objects, such as a tallis or prayerbook, up to the mount. Apparently, the authorities fear that we might then recite a Jewish prayer on the mount. It is, by the way, Israeli security officials who enforce this ban.

Once we entered the large plaza Muslim officials approached our group to explain that this is a holy site and what we’re allowed to do and not do. They examined the women in our group. Some were told that they were not appropriately dressed. They were given specific directions about how better to respect this sacred place. Some were handed scarves to cover their shoulders. I asked if I could enter the Dome of the Rock, as I had done many years before, but was told, “It is only for Muslims.”

Is it the worry about provocations that makes my entry now forbidden? Perhaps. Certainly, after the first and second intifadas there is justified concern about what might lead to another outbreak of violence. Then again non-Muslims are forbidden from entering the holy city of Mecca. Let’s be honest, there is a growing trend among the faithful that the other, the non-Muslim, the non-Jew, the non-Christian, somehow diminishes the sanctity of a holy place. Even the term “non” is an attempt to draw a sacred circle around oneself by drawing others outside. Only those who are inside the circle are holy, or chosen. I reject this tendency. I reject the sentiments of Pinchas who killed those he believed defamed God. “Pinchas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me…” (Numbers 25)

The Western Wall is little different. I can walk up to these sacred stones wearing shorts and a T-Shirt. Women, on the other hand, must be sure their shoulders are covered and their skirts an appropriate length. If not, they are given schmattas to cover themselves. Women must pray in the women’s section. I can roam the much larger men’s section and search its broad length for a private place to pray.

I am not however free to lead a Reform service for the men and women of my congregation at the main Western Wall plaza.

And so, I find myself envying my Christian brethren.

Apparently, the situation I admired was not always the case. In the twelfth century Saladin, then the ruler of Jerusalem, gave the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher’s front doors to a local Muslim family. The Joudeh family continues to hold these keys to this very day. And that might be the secret to the freedom I so desire.

It is entrusted to another.

Muslims are the religious authorities for the Dome of the Rock. The ultra-Orthodox control the Western Wall.

Perhaps if we want to restore freedoms to our own faith, we need to trust someone else with the keys.

Perhaps spiritual truths are gained, and religious experiences heightened when we don’t worry about who is in control. If we are true to our faith we should say, “The house belongs to God alone.”

We might discover that doors to our faith might be opened by giving the keys to someone else.

Friday, July 3, 2020

The Voice of Others

A few poems.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, a nineteenth century Jesuit priest and English poet, writes:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And, for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And through the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
And Denise Levertov, a twentieth century American poet, offers:
Faith’s a tide, it seems, ebbs and flows responsive
to action and inaction.
Remain in stasis, blown sand
stings your face, anemones
shrivel in rock pools now wave renews.
Clean the littered beach, clear
the lines of a forming poem,
the waters flood inward.
Dull stones again fulfill
their glowing destinies, and emptiness
is a cup, and holds
the ocean.
Hafiz, the fourteenth century Persian poet, affirms:
What is the difference
Between your experience of Existence
And that of a saint?

The Saint knows
That the spiritual path
Is a sublime chess game with God

And that the Beloved
Has just made such a Fantastic Move

That the saint is now continually
Tripping over Joy
And bursting out in Laughter
And saying, “I Surrender!”

Whereas, my dear,
I am afraid you still think

You have a thousand serious moves.
And this week, in our Torah, we discover another poem:
How fair are you tents, O Jacob,
Your dwellings, O Israel!
Like palm-groves that stretch out,
Like gardens beside a river,
Like aloes planted by the Lord,
Like cedars beside the water…
They crouch, they lie down like a lion,
Like the king of beasts; who dare rouse them?
Blessed are they who bless you,
Accursed they who curse you! (Numbers 24)
So said Balaam, the foreign prophet sent by Israel’s sworn enemy, the Moabites. King Balak instructs Balaam to curse the Jewish people. Instead the prophet provides us with a prayer.

“Mah tovu ohalecha, Yaakov…” With these words we begin our morning prayers.

So records our Torah.

And so, we are reminded. Torah is about more than just listening to our own voice.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Prophet or Rebel?

The prophets of old shouted and railed against injustices. Few listened. At best they were surrounded by a small number of loyal, disciples. Most ignored their pleas. They turned a deaf ear to their screams. And yet, centuries later, we turn to their words for inspiration.

The prophet Isaiah declares:

Cry with full throat, without restraint;
Raise your voice like a ram’s horn!
Declare to My people their transgression,
To the House of Jacob their sin….
This is the fast I desire:
To unlock the fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.
It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him
And not to ignore your own kin. (Isaiah 58)

And yet, despite the fact that we read these words every Yom Kippur, Isaiah’s shouts and cries remain muted. He was ignored in his own generation. He is still by and large ignored today.

Perhaps it is because communities, and even countries, too easily become unraveled by such screams. Is this why the prophet Jeremiah was jailed? Prophets, with their calls for change and their demands to undo injustices, are threats to the established order. Where they see injustices aplenty, others see an unraveling of what they have come to love and an undoing of the many comforts they now enjoy.

Is it possible that Korah was a prophet? The tradition answers with an emphatic, “No.” Korah, and his followers, question Moses’ leadership. They say, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them and the Lord is in their midst.” (Numbers 16) The Torah judges these words to be the fomenting of rebellion. God sides with Moses. The earth then swallows up Korah and his followers.

I am thinking that there is a very thin line between prophecy and rebellion.

The Talmud counsels: “The world endures on account of people who are able to restrain themselves during a quarrel.” (Babylonian Talmud, Hullin 89a). The prophets quarrel with everything. They see injustices everywhere. The world might not very well endure if we are led by prophets.

Then again, the world might never change, or be made better, if we fail to heed their words.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel opines:

This is our tragedy: the insecurity of faith, the unbearable burden of our commitment…. Our faith is too often tinged with arrogance, self-righteousness. It is even capable of becoming demonic. Even the creeds we proclaim are in danger of becoming idolatry. Our faith is fragile, never immune to error, distortion, or deception. There are no final proofs for the existence of God, Father and Creator of all. There are only witnesses. Supreme among them are the prophets of Israel. Humanity is an unfinished task, and so is religion. The Law, the creed, the teaching and the wisdom are here, yet without the outburst of prophetic demands coming upon us again and again, religion may become fossilized. (“No Religion is an Island”)

We cannot quarrel with everyone and everything. And yet, we must heed the prophetic voice. Some things must change and must not be allowed to endure.

“Prophet or rebel?” is the question that continues to haunt us.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Why Juneteenth Matters

What follows is my sermon from Shabbat Services on June 19th.  Join us every Friday evening at 7 pm on Facebook Live. 

David Ben Gurion once said:
Three hundred years ago a ship called the Mayflower set sail to the New World. This was a great event in the history of England. Yet I wonder if there is one Englishman who knows at what time the ship set sail? Do the English know how many people embarked on this voyage? Or what quality of bread did they eat? Yet more than three thousand three hundred years ago, before the Mayflower set sail, the Jews left Egypt. Every Jew in the world, even in America or Soviet Russia knows on exactly what date they left—the fifteenth of the month of Nisan; everyone knows what kind of bread the Jews ate. Even today the Jews worldwide eat matza on the 15th of Nisan. They retell the story of the Exodus and all the troubles Jews have endured since being exiled. They conclude this evening with two statements: This year, slaves. Next year, free men. This year here. Next year in Jerusalem, in Zion, in Eretz Yisrael. That is the nature of the Jews.
Ben Gurion offers a remarkable insight. Our Passover celebrations are about remembering our going free from Egypt. Every symbol on our tables is meant to do one of two things: on the one hand, to recall the pain and suffering of slavery, i.e. eating the haroset and maror or on the other hand, to celebrate the joy of being free, namely drinking four cups of wine and reclining. Why do we observe this holiday? Why do we celebrate Passover, over 3000 years after the event it commemorates? So that we might not only remember our own pain but also so that we might be sensitive to the pain of others. We eat matzah so that we might be better attuned to the suffering not just of Jews but of all people. The Torah makes clear what the symbolic gestures of the Seder imply. “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23). You know what it feels like. That’s the Passover message in a nutshell.

The killing of George Floyd has shaken me. It has awakened in a great many people feelings of empathy, indignation, and despair. We have come to realize we are still not doing better. To be sure I should have been shaken years ago, and even decades ago. And I have spent the past weeks not only reading, and trying to learn more, but also examining my own attitudes and views. A verse in this week’s Torah portion sounds much different than it has in other years. Here is this week’s story that led to this newfound revelation. After returning from scouting the land, ten spies deliver a negative report, and fomented discord among the newly freed Israelites. They say, “We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey… [But] the country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers.” (Numbers 13). My brethren are being devoured. I watched it on CNN. It unfolded right before my eyes.

Van Jones, a commentator who I find intelligent, insightful and who struggles still to work across party lines, remarked that there has always been a tension between the dreams of our nation’s founders and the reality in which they lived and thrived. Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of our Declaration of Independence, is also the man who owned slaves and fathered children with at least one of these slave women. He is the same person who wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

As I look inward, as I search within my soul, as I peer into the nation that has almost exclusively offered my family and me promise and opportunity, these truths no longer appear as self-evident as they once did. I recall the history lessons of my youth. Growing up in St. Louis I remember studying the Civil War. The teacher opined, “The war was really about secession. It was not about slavery.” And I dutifully regurgitated that opinion on my test so that I might be awarded an A. Yesterday it occurred to me—and I mean literally yesterday, because until these past weeks it never even entered my mind to more closely examine that teaching—that this is like saying, “World War II was really about the invasion of Poland. It was not about the Holocaust.” This makes no sense. This makes no sense, most especially to my Jewish ears.

The Nazi’s murderous and antisemitic ideology drove it to savage Europe and slaughter six million of my people. The ideology that Jews were sub-human animated this regime. Likewise, slavery, and the ideology that Black lives are worth less than White lives, that people of color are less than human, that other human beings, who we believe, and our Jewish teachings loudly declare are created in the image of God, can be bought and sold as property, animated the South. For the soldiers of the Confederacy, the ideology of slavery led them to charge into battle. And the fact that we are still arguing about this, and denying this basic fact, and teaching that the Civil War was not really about slavery, is why we find ourselves in our current situation, a situation in which the lives of our fellow Americans who are people of color, can be killed in broad daylight by the very people who are meant to protect us—and I mean protect all of us, that is protect every single American. The safety, rescue and protection that I feel when the police drive by is not what all law-abiding Americans see. Through his tears, Van Jones, exclaimed this moment in which we now find ourselves might be different. He said, “A black man was killed, and people care.” People care. S’lach li. Forgive me for not paying attention when it was Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown or the countless others. Forgive me for turning away and not doing more to fight racism.

150 years later, after the Emancipation Proclamation, there are still far too many remnants of the racist ideology that almost destroyed our nation and threatens to rip us apart once again. Things must change. And they must change now. No more statues venerating Confederate leaders. No more Confederate flags symbolizing what was supposed to be a defeated ideology. No more military bases named for Confederate generals. Sure, study their tactics in War Colleges and offer praise for their strategies if warranted, but their names do not below in the public squares of a nation that wants to truly live up to its founding dream that all are created equal.

Second, mark today, this day of Juneteenth on your calendars. Mark it as we do Passover. Remember that on this day, on June 19, 1865, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the last remaining slaves were delivered the news that they were free. Allow that lesson, a lesson that I was never taught in all my required American history classes, to sink in. People endured more years of slavery because it took that long for the news to reach Galveston, Texas and the far reaches of the Confederacy. Juneteenth represents the very idea we celebrate on Passover and the very best dreams of this country’s founders. This is not a rewriting of history. It is instead a correcting of how we teach history. This day must come to mark an honest accounting of our nation’s struggle to square its sometimes-tortured realities with its loftiest dreams and visions of itself. Only an honest accounting, and forthright reckoning, will do.

And finally, commit to learning more about the pain and suffering of our fellow Americans. When I speak about antisemitism in general, and the Holocaust in particular, and most especially to non-Jewish groups I ask two things of my listeners: 1) that they acknowledge historical truths, namely the countless antisemitic persecutions our people have endured and regarding the Holocaust, the Nazis’ systematic determination to exterminate our people, and 2) that they understand our pain. #1 must come before #2. I never really expect that they will understand what it really feels like to stand in my shoes, that they might feel this history as I feel it and as a Jew feels it. That would be unrealistic, and even illogical.

And so, I have resolved. I am not going to ask one of my few Black friends (and that small number should in itself stand as an embarrassment and indictment) to explain his or her pain to me. I worry that may only do more to assuage my guilt than to rectify our problems. What then are we going to do in this moment? I can tell you what I am going to do first. And you are welcome to join me. I am going to redo my homework from those high school years. I am going to relearn my history. I am going to read more and learn more. Watch the documentary “13th” with me. It is eye opening. Join me for a discussion of this movie. Bring your middle schoolers and high schoolers to the discussion. Email me if you are interested in joining me on this journey.

The healing begins with a renewed call to learning and listening. The repair could very well start by adding one more holiday to our calendar. Think of all that began not only with our going out from Egypt but with our sustained, and stubborn, remembrance of that historical moment at our Passover Seders. Our fellow Americans may be uplifted by such a day just as we continue to be uplifted, every year on the 15th of Nisan. It is long past time that the pain of our fellow Americans becomes our pain. We know all too well the feelings of the stranger. And no one should be made to feel like a stranger ever again.

Friday, June 19, 2020

We Are Only as Small as We Think We Are

There are days when everything appears as giants. And every problem appears insurmountable.

How will we ever overcome this pandemic? Or its consequent economic downturn? Will life ever return to what it was once like? How will we eradicate racism from our country, from American culture and its institutions? What more can we do to uplift the lives, and livelihoods, of our fellow Americans who are Black?

The questions appear enormous. The problems feel like foreboding giants.

When the spies returned from scouting the land of Israel, they offered this report: “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are giants… and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” (Numbers 13)

Why did they see themselves as small grasshoppers? Perhaps it was because they were beaten down by this new experience of wandering in the wilderness? Then again perhaps it was because they still saw themselves as slaves. After hundreds of years of slavery, they could not imagine they would be able to overcome their enemies and achieve any measure of success.

These words are why the Israelites must now wander for forty years. God determines that only a generation born in freedom can build a nation of its own.

Still I wonder. How did they know how they appeared to others? And this is perhaps the ten spies’ most worrisome, and even insidious, claim. They had such poor self-esteem and self-worth that they imagined everyone saw themselves as small as they saw themselves.

In the end, it’s one thing to see mounting problems as gigantic. It’s an added thing to see ourselves as too small, or too unprepared, or even too unwilling, to tackle these immense challenges. It’s an unforgivable thing entirely to imagine that others, in particular our enemies, whether they be viruses or other nations, see us as tiny grasshoppers who can be smashed underfoot.

We can overcome whatever we believe ourselves able to overcome! Much of our challenges can be overcome by faith, by faith in God and belief in our abilities to surmount any and all difficulties.

When King David was just a boy the Israelites’ enemy were the mighty Philistines. They were led by the giant Goliath. Every soldier was afraid to go into battle against Goliath. Even King Saul was frightened. But David was unafraid. Even though he was just a small boy he ventured out into the open field without any armor. He brought only a slingshot. And the legend was born. David killed Goliath, striking him with a small stone between the eyes.

David had faith. He had confidence. He did not seem himself as a small boy despite the fact that every other soldier was taller, and stronger, than him.

There really is only one question. Are we going to be the like the ten spies? Or are we instead going to be like Joshua and Caleb, the two spies who believed that despite immense odds the Israelites would succeed? Joshua and Caleb recognized the realities and threats, but they still had faith their people could succeed. They did not view themselves as small. Are we likewise going to be as confident as David or as cowering as the rest of the Israelite soldiers? Even the best armor, and greatest military might, cannot overcome challenges if people don’t believe they can be overcome.

Of course, it is not a matter of turning on and off a switch. It is not as stark as the stories suggest.

There will be moments in the coming weeks, months and years when we will feel like the ten spies, when we will see ourselves as small as grasshoppers unable to overcome any challenges. And there will be other moments when we will discover the confidence of Joshua and Caleb and the faith of King David, and n we will see ourselves as mighty and able to overcome even the most gigantic challenges.

My prayer is simple. I pray that these latter moments will be more numerous than the former.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

No More Complaining

This week we read a litany of complaints. There is the complaint about Moses’ leadership: “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has God not spoken through us as well?” (Numbers 12) and the complaint about the food in the wilderness. Listen to the Israelites: “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat for free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look at.” (Numbers 11)

But the manna is not meant to be looked at. It is instead meant for eating. It provides ample sustenance. Instead the Israelites just stare at it. The Hebrew implies, “There is nothing but this manna before our eyes.” I wonder. Is it the lack of variety that leads to the Israelites’ complaints? “Really, pasta again tonight!?”

Or is it instead that in Egypt the food was provided for them? Even though they were slaves, the food was free. What a bitter irony these words offer. The Israelites may not have paid for their food, or even worked to prepare it, but they toiled day and night, and lived (and died) according to their taskmasters’ yes or no. It was not really free. They paid for it with their lives. And yet, the newly free Israelites, remain dissatisfied and complaining.

Then again free people do a lot of complaining about food. “I want some of those delicious shitake mushrooms! I want my blackberries. I want, I want, I want…”. How often I have complained during these past few months about the food that was now unavailable at the store? I should not have said, “There is nothing but this…to look at,” and instead offered, “Thank God there is food enough to eat.” Isn’t that the not so hidden message of manna?

Sustenance is not about the food, but instead about the state in which we enjoy it. Think of our Jewish mourning rituals. The first thing a mourner is supposed to do after returning from the cemetery, and after washing their hands, is to eat. The foods prescribed for this meal of consolation (seudat havraah) are hard boiled eggs in Ashkenazi circles and lentils in Sephardic homes. Both foods symbolize life. This is not of course what mourners feel like doing. In fact, the impulse is to do the opposite.

Denial, or fasting, seem more emotionally appropriate. They are more in keeping with the state of a mourner’s feelings. And yet Judaism commands the mourner, “Eat.” It is not a feast of course; it is instead meant as manna. It is intended as sustenance. Even though devastated by grief, the mourner has to go on living. They are sustained not by memories.

Now, they feast on stories. They eat to live.

Their sustenance is found instead in these words of remembrance.