Thursday, April 27, 2017

Miracles and Prophecies

We celebrate Israel’s independence on fifth of Iyyar, this Tuesday. Although the modern state of Israel was founded on May 14, 1948 (5 Iyyar 5708) Jewish resettlement of the land began much earlier. Throughout the centuries, there were small pockets of Jews living in the holy cities of Jerusalem, Safed and Tiberias, but large numbers did not begin to immigrate until the late 19th century. In fact Theodor Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress in 1897.

Zionism’s intention was to resettle the land of Israel. Its vision was that the Jewish people must return to its ancestral home. And so by the time the state was established some 700,000 Jews lived there. Today, by the way, there are over six million Jews who live in the modern State of Israel.

In the 1920’s there were approximately 150,000 living there.Zionism was beginning to inspire Jews throughout the world. During the winter of 1926, Gershom Scholem decided to visit the land of Israel and see first hand this Zionist experiment. Scholem was a German Jewish scholar and the foremost expert on Jewish mysticism. His works are still considered groundbreaking and required reading for those studying mysticism. He penned a letter to his friend and colleague, Franz Rosenzweig, one of the greatest Jewish philosophers.

This letter was recently discovered....

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Yom HaShoah Remembrance

This evening marks the beginning of Yom HaShoah, officially called Yom HaShoah v'HaGevurah--Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day.  Ceremonies are held at synagogues, Jewish schools, Holocaust museums and many throughout the State of Israel.  The day begins with a ceremony at Yad Vashem.

There are many moving, and even haunting, exhibits there, at Yad Vashem.

When you make your way through the museum you are forced to follow a meandering path.  Although you can see to the end of the exhibits, and the windows that look out on Jerusalem's hills, you cannot walk in a direct, straight line.  Instead you must walk back and forth through the many chapters, and episodes, that mark the Holocaust.  The path is obscured.

Years ago I found myself in the exhibit about the Netherlands.  I was transfixed by this story and video testimony.


 

This is but one episode among millions.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

One Among Six Million

Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Commemoration Day) begins Sunday evening. It is the day set aside to remember the Holocaust.

How does one mark the destruction of much of European Jewry and six million Jewish souls? It is an impossible task. Every effort is but an attempt to comprehend the enormity, to understand the depravity and to give voice to the unfathomable.

And so we build museums. We write books. We grasp at remembrances. All our responses remain inadequate. And so I offer but one story.

Etty Hillesum was born in 1914 to a middle-class, assimilated Jewish family living in Middleburg, Netherlands. She was the oldest of three children. Depression and mental illness plagued her family. Her brothers and mother suffered from these diseases. At the University of Amsterdam Etty studied law, Slavic languages and psychology. She earned a law degree in 1939. She was strongly influenced by Julius Spier, a psychoanalyst from Berlin who became her mentor and then lover. In 1940, after Germany’s invasion of Holland, her studies ended.

Soon the Nazis began rounding up Dutch Jews. The Hillesum family was taken to the transit camp of Westerbork. Here Etty began working for the Jewish Council, the organization charged with deciding their fellow Jews’ fate. Her position gave her some measure of freedom. She was able to travel back and forth to Amsterdam. And yet she steadfastly refused offers of safe haven outside of the camp.

She wrote intensely throughout these excruciating years. She sought to be the “thinking heart” of the camp. She struggled to find a way to understand the horrors she saw with her very own eyes, to accept, and understand, the choices that people made, both the evil and the good. She hoped to maintain a sense of meaningfulness even in the face of death. She filled eight notebooks with her most intimate thoughts. She entrusted them to a friend. In 1981 a selection of her writings was first published. It was entitled An Interrupted Life: The Diaries of Etty Hillesum, 1941-1943. The book received popular and critical acclaim.

She writes on July 12, 1942:
Dear God, these are anxious times. Tonight for the first time I lay in the dark with burning eyes as scene after scene of human suffering passes before me. I shall promise You one thing, God, just one very small thing: I shall never burden my today with cares about my tomorrow. Each day is sufficient unto itself. I shall try to help You, God, to stop my strength ebbing away. But one thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that You cannot help us, that we must help You to help ourselves. And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves. And perhaps in others as well. You cannot help us but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last. You are sure to go through lean times with me now and then, when my faith weakens a little, but believe me, I shall always labor for You and remain faithful to You and I shall never drive You from my presence.
Some believe she purposely chose to board the train to Auschwitz, knowing full well what fate awaited her. Given her position she could have prevented her own name from appearing on the list of those to be deported. She appeared to believe that she could make no others choice. How could she not accompany her family—even to her own death? How could she not accompany her fellow Jews?

Etty Hillesum and her family were deported in September 1943. No one from her family survived the war.

Her last entry is dated August 24, 1943.
When I think of the faces of that squad of armed, green uniformed guards—my God, those faces! I looked at them, each in turn, from behind the safety of a window, and I have never been so frightened of anything in my life as I was of those faces. I sank to my knees with the words that preside over human life: And God made man after His likeness. That passage spent a difficult morning with me. I have told you often enough that now words and images are adequate to describe nights like these. But still I must try to convey something of it to you. One always has the feeling here of being the ears and eyes of a piece of Jewish history, there is also the need sometimes to be a still, small voice. We must keep one another in touch with everything that happens in various outposts of this world, each one contributing his own little piece of stone to the great mosaic that will take shape once the war is over.
Etty Hillesum was murdered in Auschwitz on November 30, 1943. She was 29 years old.

May the memory of Etty Hillesum serve as a blessing.

Her story is but one story among six million.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Counting from Freedom

We count many things in our lives. We count our years, often marking them with birthday candles on a cake. We count our money, even though we are not supposed to. We count our friends, even though again we are not supposed to. And now we even count our likes and followers.

We count the days to a vacation. We count the years to retirement. We count the days to the end of school, or even graduation. We mark 17th birthdays with special fanfare. Now a teenager can be more independent. They no longer need parents to drive them all over Long Island. We celebrate 21st birthdays as well because on that day a young adult is free to drink alcohol (legally).

All of these examples share a common theme. We mark our days toward freedom. “Now I am free to order a drink. Now I am free to drive a car.”

In the Jewish tradition we count in the opposite direction. On the second night of Passover we begin counting the Omer. We count for seven weeks. We count until we arrive at the holiday of Shavuot. Although Shavuot is far less widely observed than Passover it marks the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. It is the celebration of a detailed list of responsibilities.

To the Jewish mind, freedom is meaningless if not wedded to responsibility. Passover only makes sense when it is connected to Shavuot. The Omer and the counting of the days and weeks serve to remind us that meaning is not discovered in freedom. It is instead found when freedom is pledged to something greater. It is instead when it is married to the mitzvot (commandments) found in the Torah.

The Omer reminds us not to say, “Now I am free,” but rather “Now I am blessed with responsibilities.” The tradition sees meaning in duty, in commandments, in work. We move away from freedom. We move towards responsibility.

That is what we look forward to. That is what we count towards.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Doors and Questions

Many people know the joke about Jewish holidays. “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.” And while jokes often hint at some truth this joke belies the true meaning of Passover.

The intention of the seder is made crystal clear at its outset. Following the breaking of the middle matzah, we declare: “This is the bread of poverty and persecution that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt… Let all who are hungry, come and eat. Let all who are in need, come and share the Pesach meal.”

The early rabbis, who constructed the seder ritual, authored this prayer. Unlike most of our other prayers it is written in Aramaic, a language related to Hebrew and spoken by the rabbis. They wrote this Ha Lachma Anya prayer in Aramaic so that everyone would understand the seder’s intention. How ironic that we are even more unfamiliar with Aramaic, the language of the Talmud, than with Hebrew. 

The seder is meant to inculcate memory. It is meant to remind us that we were slaves. It is meant to teach us the meaning of our suffering. We recall the feelings of our slavery not to dwell on our pain but so that we can be sure others do not endure such cruelties. How else can we understand the biblical command: “You shall not hate an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land.” (Deuteronomy 23)

How else can we understand the opening of our hallmark ritual meal?

Let all who are hungry, come and eat.

We remember hunger. We eat matzah to recall this feeling.

Let all who are in need, come and share.

We recall the feelings of desperation. We remember when the world turned its back.

This elaborate ritual meal is about imbibing the feelings of suffering and slavery so that we might open our hearts to others’ pain. We recall the closed doors so that we might open our doors.

And what do we do next? We literally open the door!

Then again, when we open the door for Elijah, the haggadah offers these vengeful words: “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.” After centuries of antisemtism and persecution Jews living in medieval times added this reading to the haggadah.

They were understandably afraid to open the door. And so they recalled the fiery vengeance of the prophet Elijah who destroyed the prophets of Baal. Blood libels and Good Friday massacres were commonplace. Their fears were understandable. Their anger becomes palpable in the words of this prayer. It was as if to say, “They are at our doors. They are here to kill us once again.”

But we do not live in medieval times. We also do not of course live in the days of the early rabbis. Today antisemitism grows. Our fears increase. Do we have the courage to open the door? Do we take to heart the intention of the seder? Can we only remember our own pain? “They are at our doors again.” Or do we use this meal to imagine the suffering of others? “Let us open the gates of our nation to the stranger.”

The haggadah leaves this question unanswered. It contains both prayers. It affirms both feelings. In fact it is more about asking questions than offering answers. It wishes to open the conversation. It wants us to ask, and discuss and debate what does the memory of suffering and slavery mean to us today. It wishes us to imagine how we might create a better future.

My teacher Rabbi David Hartman advises: “Don’t let the printed word paralyze the imagination. Talk. Discuss the Exodus. You are free.”

Freedom means the luxury to debate questions. It is about the necessity of discussion.

The questions never go away. 

Is the door still opened?

Each age must continue the search for its own answers.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Giving Up and Gaining Meaning

Today marks the beginning of my eighth year writing Torah Thoughts. During these seven years we have never missed a week. Whether it was a vacation, or even a hurricane, Torah has persevered. Our lives are punctuated by this weekly reading. Our lives gain meaning through the discipline of Torah study.

This project is an affirmation that content is paramount. In an age dominated by 140 character outbursts, Torah comes as a relief. It also comes as a reminder. Content sustains us. Reading nurtures us. Torah must never be relegated to the mere chanting of its verses. This learning discipline comes to teach us.

Words matter. Torah is intended to be discussed and studied. Its words, and verses, and portions are meant to be pored over.

Seven years ago, with the opening portion of Leviticus, Vayikra, we began this project. Perhaps it would have been better if we started with the stories of Genesis or the drama of Exodus. In those books the import of Torah is clear. We often find ourselves in the achievements of Abraham. We often discover meaning in the struggles of a newly freed people.

Instead we began with sacrifices. We began with the blood of animal sacrifices and the smoke of burnt offerings. How curious that we started our journey reading about stuff we no longer do. We opened our holy book to discover the killing of animals and the sprinkling of blood on the altar. Pretty gross if you asked me. Pretty foreign if you asked just about anyone. And yet the importance of studying Torah, and wresting meaning from its pages, becomes more apparent.

Its meaning is not found in its literal words.

How could it be when there is so much about priests and sacrificial offerings? We believe there has to be something for us learn even in a portion about laws we no longer do. Otherwise why keep reading Torah. Why keep reading every page of this book year in and year out. Why not skip the portions that we find unedifying? Why not focus on Joseph? Why not dwell on the Ten Commandments? We do not. We cannot.

Torah is also about challenge. It is about struggle.

During good times and bad we must draw from the wellspring of Torah. Often this requires stubbornness. The meaning is not always apparent. The import is not always clear. We must turn it. We must decipher it. We must open the Torah anew each and every year. We don’t get to pick the reading. We don’t get to skip those we don’t like. We must open our book to what is given to us—on this day, in this week.

We turn to Leviticus and its sacrifices.

The Hebrew word for sacrifice is korban. It comes from karov, meaning to draw near. The ancients believed animal sacrifices were about how you get close to God. The term for one of the sacrifices, the burnt offering is olah, meaning to go up. This is because the smoke ascended to heaven.

While I do not believe that the sprinkling of blood or the barbecuing of animals on the altar might help us draw nearer to God, I share my ancestors’ desire. My question is their intent. How do we draw closer to God?

When you offered an animal for sacrifice it could not be any animal. It had to be the best animal, an animal without blemish. You had to give up something that was valued and prized. Perhaps that is how we can draw closer to God. We must give up something we love. We must give up something of value.

Granted this idea can be taken to an extreme. And that is exactly what ascetics do. They give up everything to get closer to God. Giving up everything is decidedly un-Jewish (which is why we don’t have an ascetic tradition), but giving up something, sacrificing something, can bring us closer to God and those we love.

We must make sacrifices in order to gain holiness. This is the import of Leviticus.

We live, however, an age when this notion of sacrifice has fallen out of favor. Perhaps we require it once again. Perhaps we cannot draw near to anything, or anyone, or most especially God, without giving up something. It is more about giving than getting. And in the giving (up) we often achieve the getting.

To sacrifice does not mean to lose but instead to gain. #ThrowbackThursday.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Remembering a Life Guided by Loyalty

As a congregational rabbi, I officiate at many funerals. All are sad. Some are tragic. A few leave deep impressions. Arthur’s funeral was such an occasion.

At his funeral there were military honors. Arthur served in a US Army reconnaissance unit during WWII, fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. It was an experience that taught him about war’s horrors. He would often argue against wars and advocate for peace agreements, even when others offered reasoned skepticism, with the simple words, “I don’t want any kid to experience what I experienced.” These war experiences also taught Arthur that food is precious. His unit was often forced to forage for rations. He therefore savored every meal, always sitting down to three meals a day, and even enjoying chocolate ice cream on his last day.

Standing at the cemetery, I looked to see both soldiers wearing their dress uniforms.  One stood in the distance and played taps.  The other stood saluting the flag-draped coffin....  

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Fire, Fear and Awe

For many Shabbat is defined by the family meal. Its highlights are the foods long associated with Jewish cooking: chicken soup and brisket. In the Torah, however, Shabbat is defined by what is not there.

“You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the Sabbath day,” (Exodus 35) this week’s Torah portion intones.

The rabbis interpreted this prohibition literally. One cannot kindle fire on Shabbat. One may however make use of fire if it was lit prior to the start of Shabbat. In traditional homes lights are therefore left on during Shabbat, but never turned on. Stoves are kept at a low temperature but again never ignited. This is why many Shabbat recipes are of the slow cook variety such as cholent.

There were others who interpreted this verse in a different manner. The sectarian Karaites, who rejected the rabbis’ oral law, spent their Shabbat in darkness. In their worldview no manner of fire could be used on Shabbat. Scholars suggest that our lighting of candles and in particular its accompanying blessing is a response to these Karaites. In this blessing and the lighting of the Shabbat candles we discover the meaning of this prohibition for our times.

Fire can warm but also burn. It can be comforting and dangerous. It is similar to the Hebrew term, yirah, fear. Like fire’s dual meaning, yirah can also be translated as awe. Too often during these days of terror yirah becomes palpable. We are once again joined in sorrow. We mourn and pray for the residents of London as terror once again strikes our hearts with fear.

And yet it is this very term of yirah that the tradition uses to describe a person of faith. It is in a sense one who bows before heaven. They are endowed with yirat hashamayim, fear of heaven.

The great Jewish philosopher, Abraham Joshua Heschel, writes: 
Fear is the anticipation and expectation of evil or pain, as contrasted with hope which is the anticipation of good. Awe, on the other hand, is the sense of wonder and humility inspired by the sublime or felt in the presence of mystery. Fear is “a surrender of the succors which reason offers”; awe is the acquisition of insights which the world holds in store for us. Awe, unlike fear, does not make us shrink from the awe-inspiring object, but, on the contrary, draws us near to it. This is why awe is compatible with both love and joy.
Awe is the more apt description of the faith we strive towards.

We return to the lights of Shabbat.

Fire can be both dangerous and inspiring. The brilliance of the rabbis was to demand a blessing before the lighting of fire. In this way the fire is transformed into an object of holiness. Fire is not be feared. It is to be held in awe. At the beginning of Shabbat when fire is prohibited, and then again at the conclusion of Shabbat when fire is again permitted we thus offer blessings. We elevate fire to the holy. We no longer fear it. We transform the potentially dangerous and bask in its warmth.

Perhaps this is the very task these times demand.

We again turn to Heschel’s God in Search of Man:
The meaning of awe is to realize that life takes place under wide horizons, horizons that range beyond the span of an individual life or even the life of a nation, a generation, or an era. Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness the eternal.
May our Shabbat lights help us to stand in awe before God and God’s world. May these fires only be awe-inspiring.

May all of our fears be transformed into awe.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

A Broken and Whole Heart

Everything is going well for the Israelites. God freed them from slavery in Egypt. God reveals the Torah. God provides them with food to eat (manna) and water to drink. Dayyenu! Moses climbs Sinai in order to commune with God for forty days. He leaves his brother Aaron in charge. You know the story. All hell breaks loose. Those teenagers throw a wild party, building a golden calf, dancing and drinking. They blaspheme God. Let’s go to the videotape.  The narrator intones: “They were as children who lost their faith.”

They lost their way, as youngsters and people often do. All they had to do was say, “Dayyenu.” That would have been enough. Thank you. Instead their first impulse is to do what they saw and learned in Egypt, namely bowing down to idols.

This God idea is a difficult notion to understand and comprehend.

Moses is unforgiving. He becomes enraged. (He has some anger issues.) He smashes the tablets. The leaders, and many of the participants, are killed. God is also quite unforgiving.

Moses returns to the mountain. He quells God’s anger. God instructs Moses, “Carve two tablets of stone like the first, and I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you shattered.” (Exodus 34) These tablets are then placed in the Ark. And what happens to the broken tablets? They too are placed in the Ark. Rabbi Meir teaches that both the broken and the whole tablets are placed in the Ark of the Covenant. (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Batra 14b) This is then carried by the people throughout their wanderings.

Why save the broken tablets? Move on from your mistakes. Forget your transgressions is the counsel we often give and receive. And yet the tradition thinks otherwise.

There is no greater sin than that of the Golden Calf. But why dwell on it? In fact, it is one of the six Torah episodes we are commanded to remember each and every day. The teaching is clear. You are only complete with your flaws. No one is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes. A complete person holds the broken and whole together. That is the message contained in the Ark.

Jewish mystics take this notion even further. A 16th century Kabbalist, Eliyahu de Vidas, teaches:
The Zohar states that the human heart is the Ark. And it is known that in the Ark were stored both the tablets and the broken tablets. Similarly, a person’s heart must be full of Torah. And similarly, a person’s heart must be a broken heart, a beaten heart, so that it can serve as a home for God’s presence. For the divine presence only dwells in broken vessels, which is a broken and beaten heart. And whoever has a heart filled with pride propels God from him, as it says “God detests those of haughty hearts”.
I like this idea. Then again I don’t like it.

I like it because it suggests that brokenness leads to a closeness with the divine. I don’t like it because it implies brokenness leads to greater religiosity.

Who wants to be broken?

Then again there are undoubtedly moments in all of our lives when we feel hurt or broken, when we feel we are guilty of far too many mistakes. It is in those moments when should recall the lessons of the broken tablets.

The shattered tablets were never discarded. It is only taken together with the whole tablets that we are able to approach the divine. 

It is with a simultaneously broken and whole heart that we better approach God.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Vashti and Today's Woman

Purim begins on Saturday evening. It is a holiday marked by frivolity. Among its highlights are drunkenness, and even cross dressing. It is punctuated by laughter. And yet the story on which it is based is characterized by extraordinarily serious themes. The megillah of Esther spins around the question of antisemitism. You know the story.

The evil Haman gains a seat of power next to the King of Persia, Ahasuerus. He clamors for the death of the Jews. His reason is simple, although one might ask, “Are the reasons for antisemitism really understandable and ever simple?” Haman becomes enraged when Mordecai, the Jew, refuses to bow down to him. Meanwhile Mordecai’s cousin Esther, who has hidden her Jewish identity in order to win the king’s favor in a beauty contest, has gained the king’s ear. She is able to persuade Ahasuerus that Haman represents a threat. He allows the Jews to defend themselves and defeat the antisemite—until next time.

Most people read this story and believe Esther is its hero. Perhaps, some see the hero as Mordecai. Clearly both save the Jewish people from an existential threat. They defeat antisemitism. And yet nothing is clear when you examine the story in detail. Much is hidden. Even more is forgotten.

Vashti is also its hero.

Who is Vashti? She is the queen who precedes Esther. Why is she dethroned? She refuses to dance before the king and his drunken friends. Yes, that is the story. The king throws a wild seven day long party. He brags to the assembled men about his wife’s beauty. In order to show off how good looking she is, he commands her to dance in front of her friends wearing (only) her crown. (Go read Esther 1 if you would like to double-check my retelling.) And what does Vashti say, “No!”

What happens next? The guys say, “Hey king, you better get your wife in line! If she is allowed to refuse your command, who knows what will happen next. All the women of Persia will stop listening to their husbands. They might want to start driving. They might want to become doctors, lawyers, CEO's, rabbis or even the president.” (Ok. I added a few lines.) So the king listens to his drunken friends and advisors and throws Vashti out of the palace.

But then our drunken, and irredeemably sexist, king becomes lonely. “Throw a beauty pageant and find a new wife,” advise his friends. And who shows up at the beauty pageant? Esther. She parades herself in front of the king. She does exactly what Vashti refuses to do. She demeans herself in order to become queen. And herein lies the disturbing, and often hidden, irony of the Purim story. Her debasement leads to our salvation. The woman who uses her beauty, and hides her Jewish identity, is the one who achieves power and saves the day. It is Esther who rewrites history. But at what personal cost?

I have often wondered what happens to Vashti.

We don’t hear from her again. I would like to. These days I long for Vashti. She is the model to which we aspire. She chooses justice over power. She is true to herself. She is loyal to the women of the kingdom. No woman should be asked to do what she is asked to do, or for that matter what Esther in fact does, at her cousin’s bidding.

And yet we don’t speak about this. Vashti remains the forgotten hero of our Purim story. Her truth is glossed over. It is banished from the headlines.

I would like to rediscover her truth. I would like to find Vashti—once again.

Turn back to the opening chapter. Reread the book. Look with new eyes.

These days I could really use Vashti’s truth.

Despite all its frivolity, there remain troubling and serious questions hidden within Purim’s story.

Regardless I am going to join in the laughter. History is so cruel. Politics are so serious. Sometimes the only medicine is the prescription Purim offers.

Laughter!