Friday, August 29, 2014

Elul and Good People

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “The good person is not he who does the right thing, but he who is in the habit of doing the right thing.”

It is simple, and perhaps easy, to do a single good deed, to volunteer at a soup kitchen on a Sunday, to write a check to a needy charity, to offer one apology to a person wronged, or to attend Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.  These are all worthy endeavors but Judaism is not about the solitary act but instead about a litany of acts, a lifetime of doing right.  Our faith is about creating a discipline of doing, about ritualizing behaviors.

This is why Judaism sets aside not two days for the task of repentance, or even ten, but instead forty.  On Tuesday, with the new moon of Elul, this forty day period of introspection and repair began.  It began with Rosh Hodesh Elul, gains momentum with the meditative Selichot service (on Saturday, September 20th at 7 pm), further intensifies with the prayers of Rosh Hashanah and reaches a crescendo with the fasting of Yom Kippur.  These forty days mirror the days Moses spent on Mount Sinai communing with God.  They are intended so that we might turn inward and examine our ways and repair our wrongs.

Repentance, teshuvah, is about turning and changing.  This of course is no simple task.  It is not about reciting one Al Cheyt, one moment of apology, one solitary word of forgiveness, but instead about building a life centered on words and deeds.  It is about stringing together a few acts until they become a habit. That cannot be accomplished in a mere two days, no matter how meaningful our services are, no matter how heartfelt our praying and singing might be.

Each of these days we are granted an opportunity for renewal and repair.  Set aside moments during the course of this month and ask yourself what you would like to change, from whom you would like to offer an apology and seek forgiveness. 


We are given a blessing each and every one of these days to create new habits.  And from there we begin to build the title of good person.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Reeh, Friends and Enemies

In the traditional haggadah we read the following prayer when opening the door for Elijah: “Pour out your fury on the nations that do not know you, upon the kingdoms that do not invoke your name, for they have devoured Jacob and desolated his home. Pour out your wrath on them; may your blazing anger overtake them. Pursue them in wrath and destroy them from under the heavens of Adonai!”

Added to the haggadah during the murderous Crusades, these words seem out of step with our modern, universal values. Even though we are sympathetic to the origins of this prayer, our liberal haggadahs have deleted it from our Seders. We speak instead about the messianic peace that Elijah will announce rather than the vengeance he might exact.

This week’s portion echoes these sentiments and begins with a similar refrain. Here it is not a prayer but a command. “You must destroy all the sites at which the nations you are to dispossess worshipped their gods, whether on lofty mountains or on hills under any luxuriant tree. Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site.” (Deuteronomy 12:2-3)

Again this appears contrary to everything we believe. Destroying non-believers and their places of worship contradicts everything we hold dear. How is this any different from the hate filled words of the Hamas’ charter or the savagery of ISIS? How are our Torah’s words different from those who read their tradition’s words as a mandate to murder and destroy?

And yet we live in a time when suggesting we have no enemies is equally problematic. Thus we are trapped between those who are unable to name our real enemies and those who see enemies everywhere and anywhere. A.B. Yehoshua, a leading Israeli novelist, recently argued that this is in fact the crucial dilemma facing Israel. The failure to call Hamas an enemy rather than a terrorist state prevents Israel from confronting Hamas and its rockets and tunnels. The fight against terror is never ending. Confronting an enemy by contrast offers two clear options: negotiations or war.

Yehoshua writes: “Let us not forget: The Palestinians in Gaza are our permanent neighbors, and we are theirs. We will never halt the bloody destruction by talking of ‘terror.’ It will require negotiation, or a war against a legitimate ‘enemy.’" (“Israel Needs to Stop Calling Hamas a Terrorist Organization,” The New Republic, August 13, 2014)

Terrorism is a tactic. And the so-called war on terror is an unhelpful euphemism that avoids the challenge of naming our enemies. Only by naming our enemies can we truly confront today’s struggles.

Our times need not be so confusing. Those who wish to destroy us and proclaim it in such unmistakable terms, those who revile the pluralism for which this country stands, are most certainly our enemies. We must not be afraid to say such words. Our world has real enemies. Does that make such prayers legitimate? Does that make such commands meaningful? I recoil from these words. Better perhaps that we should pray for peace rather than seeking vengeance. Still we must remain forever on guard and vigilant.

We must also work to be sure that those with whom we have honest disagreements remain friends. We dare not confuse friend with enemy. Articulating a vision of pluralism and an acceptance of different worldviews is paramount. Let us be clear. When others advocate for our destruction they name themselves as our enemies. We must remain unafraid of saying so in clear and unmistakable terms. We must avoid euphemisms that confuse the moral challenge.

We pray: “May God, who blessed our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, bless the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces, who stand guard over our land and the cities of our God, from the border of Lebanon to the desert of Egypt, and from the Great Sea to the Aravah, on land, in the air, and on the sea. May the Lord cause the enemies who rise up against us to be struck down before them. May the Holy Blessed One preserve and rescue our soldiers from every trouble and distress and from every plague and illness, and may God send blessing and success in their every endeavor….” (Prayer for the Welfare of Israel Defense Forces Soldiers)

Pray for peace. Remain vigilant. Fight against our enemies when they rise up against us.

Remain clear-sighted. Know who is an enemy. Remember who is a friend.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Ekev, Bread and Faith

This week we read the famous line: “…man does not live on bread alone.”  But what exactly does this oft-quoted phrase mean?

First let’s examine the context:

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: whether you would keep His commandments or not.  He subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your fathers had ever known, in order to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, but that man may live on anything that the Lord decrees. The clothes upon you did not wear out, nor did your feet swell these forty years. Bear in mind that the Lord your God disciplines you just as a man disciplines his son. Therefore keep the commandments of the Lord your God: walk in His ways and revere Him.  (Deuteronomy 8:2-6)

Looking at the larger context we learn that this is a lesson about tough love.  God subjects the Jewish people to hardships throughout their wanderings in order to test their devotion.  God further tests the people so that they might learn that there is only one true source of sustenance and that is God.  Well, sign me up!

How is this motivating?  How is this a compelling argument for faith?  Who wants to be hungry?  Who wants to be disciplined? 

Perhaps the larger lesson is different.  While we may not wish to look toward God as the source of hardships, discipline and tests, they are a part of life.  The notion that life will never offer us challenges, that the road will always be even, is of course mistaken.  Everyone, even our children, will face difficulties.  All of us will encounter hardships. 

So we must see even these hardships as opportunities.  And how might we gain this change of heart?  By looking to God.

The idea is not that we should observe God’s commandments so that we might never face difficulties.  It is not as well that we have to prove our faith to God, as the Torah appears to suggest, but instead that these challenges can be openings to allow God in. 

Bread might sustain our bodies, but life is sustained by far more. 

After every meal our tradition counsels us that we are supposed to recite a blessing. This too is found in this week’s portion.  “When you have eaten and are full, then you shall bless the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 8:10)  The Hasidic rabbi, Shlomo of Karlin, comments: “By blessing God you will become full.”

The fullness of our hearts can only come from singing praises to God.  Being satisfied comes not from a belly filled with bread but instead from giving thanks. 

A meal is much more than the food on our plates.

Only faith can fill the heart.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Vaetchanan and Pleading for Peace

For all his successes and triumphs, our hero Moses is denied setting foot on the Promised Land. Because he grew angry at the Israelites and hit a rock, God states that he will not be allowed to enter the land of Israel.

This week Moses begs God to change this decree: “I pleaded with the Lord… Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan…” (Deuteronomy 4:23-25)

The commentators are bothered that Moses pleads. Begging appears beneath him. His words seem undignified for a leader. They wonder as well how Moses can question God’s judgment. The medieval writer, Moses ibn Ezra, suggests that even in this instance, Moses, who the tradition calls “Moshe Rabbeinu—Moses, our Teacher,” is offering a lesson. And what is it that he teaches the people? It is a lesson about the supreme value of living in the land of Israel. It is as if to say, “Living in the land is worth pleading.”

The modern commentator, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, reads this passage differently. He suggests that Moses is not asking for forgiveness, but instead arguing that he did not even commit a wrong. The decree is therefore unjustified and should rightfully be annulled. What chutzpah! In the end Moses’ request is partially fulfilled. God responds to his plea and allows him to see the land from afar. Moses is allowed to glimpse the beauty of Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel.

I continue to wonder. For what is it appropriate to plead? For what can I beg God?

These weeks an answer begins to emerge. How about peace? Let my plea be heard! Let shalom be granted—even if but partially. Does such a plea appear undignified?

I continue to rely on the Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai.

Not the peace of a cease-fire
not even the vision of the wolf and the lamb,
but rather
as in the heart when the excitement is over
and you can talk only about a great weariness.
I know that I know how to kill,
that makes me an adult.
And my son plays with a toy gun that knows
how to open and close its eyes and say Mama.
A peace
without the big noise of beating swords into ploughshares,
without words, without
the thud of the heavy rubber stamp: let it be
light, floating, like lazy white foam.
A little rest for the wounds –
who speaks of healing?
(And the howl of orphans is passed from generation
to the next, as in a relay race:
the baton never falls.)
Let it come
like wildflowers,
suddenly, because the field
must have it: wildpeace.

Please God. I plead. Vaetchnanan!

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Tisha B'Av, Tragedy and Renewal

On Tuesday, the Jewish world will observe the saddest day in our calendar, Tisha B’Av.

This day commemorates the destruction of the first Temple by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. and the second by the Romans in 70 C.E. According to tradition it also marks the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290 and from Spain in 1492. This day has therefore become the day on which we mark our many collective tragedies.

In 70 not only was the Temple destroyed but the city of Jerusalem also decimated. Most of its inhabitants were murdered or carted off to Rome as slaves. (For visitors to Italy one can see this depicted on the Arch of Titus.)

And yet out of this devastation grew rabbinic Judaism. The rabbis authored prayers whose words echoed longings for a different, and renewed, Jerusalem. “Blessed are You, Adonai, Guardian of Israel, whose shelter of peace is spread over us, over all Your people Israel, and over Jerusalem.” Even at weddings they counseled that we pause to remember this great tragedy and shatter a glass.

If not for this great calamity, the Judaism we know and love, the Jewish life of synagogue and home, would not exist.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg writes:
The Rabbis’ fundamental theological breakthrough was a ‘secularization’ insight. God was becoming less visible, more hidden. The Destruction was a signal that manifest divine activity was being curtailed. God would not stop the Romans or save the Temple (even though God had destroyed the Egyptians at the Red Sea). Still the covenant was not being disowned; it was being renewed…. The original covenant remained, but humans became more active and responsible. (The Jewish Way)
It is in our hands. The peace of Jerusalem is within our grasp. This is what we must continue to believe.

Out of every tragedy comes the sparks of something new and different.

In 1492 Queen Isabella ordered that the Jews be banished from Spain. The edict was signed on March 31, 1492. The Jews, who had enjoyed there a golden age, were given only four months to leave the country. And thus four months later on the ninth of Av (Tisha B’Av) all the Jews left Spain.

And the next day, Columbus set sail.

We know the rest of that story.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Writing Out, Drawing In

Below is my commentary published by Ten Minutes of Torah - Reform Voices of Torah - D'varim.

There is great power in language, in our words. It draws us in. Every time we recite the words, Adonai Eloheinu, "the Eternal our God," we write ourselves into the Jewish story. Yet, the very same language that writes us in, the very same stories that draw us in, also write others out. There can only be an "us" if there is also a "them." This is the implication of the portion's words, "The Eternal our God spoke to us at Horeb . . ."

There remain some for whom these words are foreign, who are cast aside by them. Hidden within this concept of us are the words "not them"—and the even more painful "not you."

It is these thoughts that continue to haunt me after officiating at a particularly tragic funeral. A young couple asked me to help them bury their child. Because one parent is Jewish and the other Christian, only half the mourners were Jewish. I wondered, was I helping the mourners with the words I recited, especially those said in Hebrew? Were the tradition's words that are our inheritance and bring our people so much comfort instead making half of those present feel excluded?

As we turned to the ritual of placing the shovels full of earth into the grave, I invited all to participate. Some quietly asked me if it would be OK for them to take part given that they are not Jewish. I answered with an emphatic, "Yes, of course." Everyone took turns: parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins; friends, rabbis, and pastors; Jews and Christians. No one stopped until the task was completed and the mitzvah fulfilled.

I smoothed over the earth that now reached the edges of the grass. I thanked all for participating. We were united by the work of our hands.

An ordinary shovel had become an instrument of holiness. A minyan of sorrow had been formed. Perhaps tragedy makes us one. Suffering and pain can draw us together. In that moment, standing at that grave, I discovered that there are moments when there is only us and no them. Such was the gift and teaching of a child now gone.

Words might exclude. Actions unite.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Masei, Jewish Power and Its Agitations

On Passover we sing Vehi Sheamda in a tune that belies its meaning: “This promise has stood us and our parents in good stead. For not only has one enemy stood over us to annihilate us. But in every generation enemies have stood over us to annihilate us. Yet the Holy One keeps the promise to save us from their hands.”

The world is once again convulsing with hatred of the Jews. Israel is fighting an enemy whose stated mission is to destroy us. Synagogues are desecrated in France. Throughout Europe people once again riot against the Jewish state. The distinction that some pretend exists is no more. There is no difference between anti-Israel sentiment and antisemitism. (Loving criticism of Israel does not of course make the critic anti-Israel.)

Amos Oz, a leading Israeli novelist, writes...

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Mattot, Arguments and Destructions

We read this week: “Moses spoke to the heads of the Israelite tribes, saying…” (Numbers 30:2)

It is rare that the Torah addresses the leaders and not the people as a whole.   In most instances the Torah states instead, “Moses spoke to the people, saying…” (Numbers 31:1)  Why in this instance would Moses speak to the tribal heads rather than the people? 

Perhaps the secret can be discerned in the laws detailed in this chapter.  Here we read about the concept of making vows.  The Hatam Sofer, a leading rabbi in 19th century Germany, asks the very same questions and opines that this law is directed at leaders because people in public office are more often tempted to make promises that they cannot keep.  It is as if to say, “Be on guard of the words and promises you make.” 

I would like to suggest a different reason.

On Tuesday we marked the 17th of Tammuz, the fast day commemorating the beginning of the destruction of Jerusalem.  It is this day, nearly two thousand years ago, that the Romans breached the walls surrounding the city.  The city and the Temple were destroyed three weeks later on Tisha B’Av (the ninth of Av).  This period of mourning marks the Jewish people’s greatest tragedy, until the modern period and its Holocaust.  The loss of the Temple, the destruction of Jerusalem and the slaughter then of so many Jews is still remembered even at Jewish weddings by the breaking of the glass.

It was of course the Romans, and prior to that the Babylonians, who destroyed the first and second Temples, but yet the rabbis engaged in what was sometimes wrenching introspection in order to uncover how the Jewish people might have been at fault for their own destruction.  They more often than not suggested that it was because of baseless hatred of one Jew for another.  The seeds of our demise were sown by how we screamed and yelled at each other. 

The rabbis of course believed in argument and especially passionate debate.  They taught that truth can only emerge when we openly argue and debate with one another.  We read: “Any debate that is for the sake of heaven, its end will continue; but that which is not for the sake of heaven, its end will not continue.  What is a debate for the sake of heaven?  The debate between Rabbis Hillel and Shammai.  And a debate that is not for the sake of heaven?  The debate of Korah and his entire band of rebels.” (Avot 5:17)  

There is a fine line between a positive and negative argument.  It rests in how we approach those with whom we disagree.  The rabbis offer us an important insight.  While we might be strengthened by debate, we are weakened by tribal divisions.  When we debate we must ask, are we arguing so that truth might emerge?  Or are we arguing instead to draw divisions between us? 

This is why Moses speaks to the tribal heads.  Our very survival depends on how our leaders argue and debate.  It rests in how leaders speak to one another.   

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Pinhas, Sirens and Children at Play

On Tuesday evening at approximately 10 pm, as I walked home from the Shalom Hartman Institute where I am spending two weeks studying and learning, the sirens sounded throughout Jerusalem. I was midway between the Institute and the apartment I rent in Jerusalem’s German Colony. I had never heard these warning sirens before except to indicate the minute of silences observed on Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron. I heard two booms. I quickened my pace, but still paused to look both ways before crossing the busy thoroughfare of Emek Refaim, finally making it back to my apartment in a few minutes. Then I thought that perhaps I should go downstairs to the miklat, bomb shelter. I joined others in the basement outside of the locked shelter. After waiting there the required ten minutes we said our good evenings and returned to our apartments.

I have since learned that I handled my first missile attack incorrectly. It takes a Hamas rocket approximately 90 seconds to reach the Jerusalem area and so as confident I might have been about my quickened pace I was actually supposed to dart into a nearby building. Now I have read the guidelines issued by the Home Front Command: “When the alert siren or an explosion are heard, it is necessary to complete the process of protection, depending on the time available to you and to act according to the following instructions… If outside – enter the closest building, depending on the time available. If there is no building or cover/shelter nearby, or if you are in an open space, lie down on the ground and protect your head with your hands.” Oops! I have also, much to the JCB staff’s delight, secured a key to the bomb shelter.

Truth be told the threat of injury or harm from a rocket here in Jerusalem is minimal....

This post continues on The Times of Israel Ops & Blogs.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Balak, Zionism, Visions and Fantasies

My teacher Rabbi David Hartman once wrote: “Israel represents the birth of a healthy society that seeks to create a nation like all other nations. The demythologization of the Jewish people is one of the great gifts of Israeli society to the Jewish people.”

And yet at times this demythologization is almost too painful to behold.

Yesterday Jews protested the murder of three Israeli teenagers, shouting “Death to the Arabs.” It is also suspected that as revenge for the deaths of Gilad Shaar, Naftali Frenkel and Eyal Yifrach an East Jerusalem Arab teen, Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir, was murdered. Naftali Frenkel’s uncle responded: “There is no difference between blood and blood. A murderer is a murderer, no matter his nationality and age. There is no justification, no forgiveness and no atonement for any murder.”

Being in Jerusalem during these days I have the keen sense that our nation’s character is being tested. There are moments of great pride and solidarity.

At the funeral for these three teens, President Shimon Peres said, “We prayed, each of us alone and all of us together, for a miracle. We prayed that that we will see them return in peace to their families, to their homes and to us all. Sadly we were hit by the tragedy of their murder and a deep grief enveloped our people. We are an ancient people, united and deeply rooted. Our story is full of tears but the soul maintains the Torah. These three boys exposed the depth of our people and the heights it can reach.”

And yet there are other moments of embarrassment and shame. Rabbi Noam Perel, the leader of the Bnei Akiva youth movement, said, “The government of Israel is gathering for a revenge meeting that isn't a grief meeting. The landlord has gone mad at the sight of his sons' bodies. A government that turns the army of searchers to an army of avengers, an army that will not stop at 300 Philistine foreskins…” The myth and even fantasy of an ideal people is shattered. Who continues to idealize our people and cling to the notion that all Jews are animated by the Torah’s decree that every human being is created in the image of God?

Part of the Zionist project is the desire to be a nation like all other nations. And yet with the achievement of sovereignty comes the painful reminder that each and every day our Jewish character is tested. In the diaspora we wish Israel only to live up to our fantasies, to our images that it unique among the family of nations and always lives up to its founding principles. Israel may very well be unique but it is not always perfect. I wonder, is Judaism up to the challenge of sovereignty?

My teacher’s words ring in my ears during these painful days. A nation of our own means that our values will always be tested and that we will sometimes fall short. That is why David Hartman founded the center here in Jerusalem. In his mind the State of Israel was the greatest of experiments. Can our values be held up to the exposure of sovereignty? Singing Shalom Rav and clinging to the Jewish value of shalom when it was only a messianic dream, when we lacked political power and our lives were entirely in the hands of others was not a great challenge by comparison.

Holding on to life and preserving Jewish lives without negating the lives of others and without even denouncing the humanity of our enemies, is the supreme test that is the State of Israel’s lot. Each and every day this is challenged.

We wish to be a great nation, an example for Jews throughout the world, and even a light to other nations of the world. This is part of the dream of continuing to build up the State of Israel. This place is not only for us, but an example for all. Such is the dream of the nation we call our home as well. Great nations wish not only to serve their citizens but the world.

This is the vision of the Declaration of Independence that we celebrate on July 4th. “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.”

We will continue to be tested. I continue to hope and pray that one day all the world will say along with the prophet Balaam,
“How wonderful are your 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…” (Numbers 24:5)

Sitting here in Jerusalem one has the feeling that we may very well hold that judgment in our hands—during these days.