Thursday, March 26, 2020

Two Pockets of Strength

The Hasidic rabbi, Simcha Bunim of Pshiskha, teaches:
People must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that they can reach into one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling low and depressed, discouraged or melancholy, one should reach into the right pocket, and there, find the words: "For my sake the world was created." But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and there find the words: "I am but dust and ashes."
These days I found myself reaching into the right pocket alone. I have little need for the left. These days, as my worries increase, I must rely on the words contained in that right pocket. I lean on the mantra, “For my sake the world was created.”

Rabbi Simcha Bunim was one of the key leaders of eighteenth-century Polish Hasidism. Although he never assumed a formal rabbinic role, and actually worked as a pharmacist, he was an extremely influential teacher, and produced a number of significant disciples, including Menachem Mendel of Kotzk. Unlike other Hasidic thinkers, he did not emphasize Jewish mysticism and believed that devotion to God was gained through both passion and analytical study. Most significantly he taught that people cannot understand God if they do not first understand themselves.

And so, he offers us needed insights into our own character and the challenges that now face us. He points us toward our own failings as well as our all too often hidden strengths.

He looks to the opening verse of this week’s Torah reading, “Vayikra—And the Lord called to Moses…” (Leviticus 1) and like many commentators, and as we are commanded to look this week no matter the circumstances we face, notices that the final letter of the first word, alef, is written smaller than the other letters. Even in the Torah scroll this alef is calligraphed in a smaller fashion. Simcha Bunim offers an explanation.
Even though Moses attained the greatest heights ever reached by a person, he was unmoved by that fact and remained as humble as ever. When people stand at the top of a mountain, they do not boast about how tall they are, because it is the mountain that makes them high. By the same token, Moses felt that whatever he had accomplished was due to God, and he had no reason to feel proud of his achievements.
These days, there is nothing as humbling as being confined to one’s home by the tiniest of creatures, by a virus. And perhaps there is nothing as humbling as the realization that my health is dependent on the health of those standing all around me.

How small the alef that opens the word “Ani—I” appears today. We depend on others. We require others to choose to do things (or more likely, not do things) that might very well not be to their benefit, but instead to the benefit of others they do not know, and even cannot see.  I stand on the shoulders of others—who I pray remember they carry my hopes and dreams, my health and welfare, in their very hands. Their decisions may very well determine my fate.

I am humbled to realize that the world’s fate may very well rest on my decisions.

I continue to reach into my right pocket again and again. And there find some measure of strength and reassurance.

Friday, March 20, 2020

COVID-19 is the New Amalek. Here's How We Defeat It.

In an age when every day feels like a week, and every week seems like a month, I am looking back to what seems like a far-off distant memory when we dressed in costumes and celebrated the joyous holiday of Purim. I recall the Shabbat prior to our carnivals and megillah readings when we read the story of Amalek, the Jewish people’s arch enemy, who attacked the ancient Israelites from behind, killing the stragglers.

Amalek and his followers killed the weak and infirm who struggled to keep up during our people’s wandering in the wilderness. He is forever marked as evil. Throughout the generations we saw in our many enemies the image of Amalek, reimagining him first as Haman, and then we envisaged his descendants as the Romans, the Crusaders and in modern times the Nazis. We saw in him the evil antisemites who attacked and killed us again and again.

We have perpetually sought to blot out his name and his memory. And yet he reappears in every generation.

I never imagined, until now and at this very moment, that our age-old enemy could be microscopic...

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Impatience, Anger and Friends

I offer some Torah during these tumultuous days. Perhaps it is a mere, albeit necessary, distraction. Perhaps it can help to better our days.

“When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.’” (Exodus 32)

So begins the story of the Golden Calf. Only a few weeks earlier the people were slaves in Egypt where they had witnessed God’s mighty acts and Moses’ extraordinary leadership. The people had just stood at Mount Sinai where they received the Torah and in particular the Ten Commandments forbidding idolatry. Their leader disappears to the mountain top for but a few short weeks and they quickly lose faith and bow down to idols. If only they had waited. If only they could have waited for their leader’s return. Then this sin could have been avoided.

If only they could have waited. So many of our own wrongdoings can be avoided by exercising a little patience. How many times have we fired off an email response, or text message to only regret it minutes later? How many times have we screamed at a cashier to only find our children’s embarrassed stares looking back at us? If only we could have waited.

Even Moses stands guilty of this sin. When he comes down the mountain and sees the wild, house party he smashes the tablets. He could have paused, perhaps even cried or at least stopped to gather his thoughts, rather than allowing his anger to smash the tablets. Moreover, even God stands guilty of this wrong. At first God wants to destroy all the people. Initially God also seethes with anger. But it is only because of Moses’ intercession that God’s anger is quelled. Anger is sometimes understandable, but it is rarely, if ever, commendable.

We draw several lessons. First of all, impatience fuels anger. Many regrets are piled upon the words if only I had waited. If only I had not been so quick to say that or so hasty to do that. If only I had not screamed in anger. In a world where information travels at the speed of light we should be more cautious when relaying feelings at a similar speed. Anger, and love for that matter (texting is really only about speed not feelings), are always best delivered in person. Difficult words especially are best said face to face, or at the very least, and during these days, when you can hear the voice on the other end of the phone.

Second, we learn that friends are invaluable. They comfort us when we are sad, but most importantly they, like Moses did for God, help to soften our anger. Too often friends nod in agreement when we bitterly complain about the injustices served against us. Feeling another’s pain is well and good but it does not help to lift another out of despair. It often has the opposite effect. It often deepens our anger. “You are so right!” are not always the best words to offer to a friend. Such words do not pull us from our anger. Moses implores God, “Now if You will forgive their sin well and good; but if not, erase me from the record You have written!” And God’s anger was cooled.

The rabbis teach that both the new set of tablets and the broken set of tablets were placed in the tabernacle. Both the broken and whole were placed in this holy vessel. We like to think that we should forget our wrongs and do away with our regrets. But regret also fuels repair. Regret motivates us to do better and improve ourselves.

The brokenness is never discarded. It too can be made holy.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Our Synagogue's Response to COVID-19

We are writing to update you about our synagogue’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. First of all, as of this writing, our programs, classes and services are going ahead as planned. We are staying in touch with the local health authorities and staying up to date with information from the Centers for Disease Control. If need be, or if it is required of us, we will make changes to our schedule.

We urge you stay informed as well. It is important that we rely on facts, and advice, from medical experts. This is what will continue to guide our synagogue’s response and should also guide our personal responses.

Regarding hygiene we are cleaning our facility, most especially our classrooms, and surfaces with which people regularly come into contact on a more regular basis. We are insisting that our students wash their hands with soap and water more often and most obviously before they eat. It is important that everyone practice good hygiene. Still, the single most important thing that we must do is the following: if you feel sick, in particular if you have a fever or cough, you not only should stay home, but must.

We must not only care for ourselves, and our families, but each other. While hugs, and kisses, might become increasingly limited, compassion for others must always remain our singular concern and our community’s defining characteristic. It is what makes us a caring community. Continue to show concern for others. There are many different ways to offer support even if it might mean, in the future, more text messages and phone calls rather than personal interactions.

Finally, let us address our fears. Each of us deals with these in different ways. Some are more afraid than others. We cannot allay all fears. We can, as a synagogue, be guided by medicine. Of course, we are bound by faith, but in this circumstance, we lean first and foremost on science and the expertise of health professionals.

The following story is told of the famous Rabbi Israel Salanter, a leading Orthodox rabbi in nineteenth century Vilna. During the cholera epidemic of 1848, medical authorities advised people against fasting on Yom Kippur. And so, what did Rabbi Israel Salanter do? He ascended the bima during Yom Kippur services, stood before his congregation, and then recited the motzi and ate. Stay in touch with me so that I can continue to offer emotional and spiritual support.

The Jewish value of pikuach nefesh, caring for our health, takes precedence over all other commandments. We will continue to live by this value. We will continue to lead by this value. We will remain informed by medicine and sustained by faith.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

AIPAC, Borders and Coronavirus

I spent the opening days of this week at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington DC, hearing from all manners of politicians and experts.   I was there because of the special bond I feel with the modern State of Israel.  I was there as well because I wish to ensure that the relationship America shares with Israel remains unshakable.  

And yet like many people throughout the world, I spent a good deal of my time at the conference reading about, and discussing, the coronavirus.  I realized then and there that despite my attachments to specific peoples, namely Americans, Jews and Israelis, and specific borders, those of the United States and Israel, the lines that demarcate those attachments quickly became irrelevant.  It was as if all our discussions, and debates, the cheering and at times even weeping (there were some incredibly moving moments at the conference), were rendered moot by a line no larger than one-900th the width of a human hair.

That is the size of the virus that dominates our attention, and hypnotizes our concern.

As much as we might wish to draw lines, and seal off borders, against threats, we have come to realize that the world is far more interconnected than we ever thought possible.  Then again perhaps the world was always so connected.  It is not like epidemics did not spread throughout the world prior to plane travel and prior to our dependence on China’s manufacturers.

There I was at the AIPAC Policy Conference cheering about the special bond between Israel and America, and reflecting on my decades-long affection for the city of Jerusalem, and I awoke to the realization that we are indeed one human family.  We might not always think this is the case, but this nearly invisible virus has made this crystal clear.  Just as there is a definitive, bright line between Israel and Syria, there is, we now belatedly realize, a hairbreadth line connecting Wuhan to New York City.    

I may not wish this to be so, but it is.  We are one.  The world can only fight this virus together.  It seems so cliché to say such things, but that is the lesson swirling amidst the news about this virus.  Borders are not impervious to dangers and threats.  And we should no longer require an electron microscope to be made aware of this.  And so what are we to do?

Should we take counsel with the Torah’s somewhat strange ritual of consulting the Urim and Thummim (Exodus 28).  These were, by the way, ancient means of determining God’s will when matters appeared beyond people’s ability to control.  Think of a Ouija Board.  Or if you have traveled to Asia, think of how a person throws stones to get a prescription and how in those lands religion and medicine are intertwined.

How I have been tempted (almost) these past few weeks! 

That is not of course what I am going to do.  And that is not what I think we should do.  Believing in science and medicine is not the opposite of faith.  It can inform what I believe and how I pray. 

We should (we must!) follow the advice of experts, of doctors and health officials, of the New York Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control.  I hope it goes without saying that this is what we are doing at the synagogue.  We are insisting on healthy practices for every member of our congregation.  By all means, if you are sick, stay home and get healthy, and also be in touch with me so your synagogue community can be supportive.  By all means, stay vigilant about your health.  Practice good hygiene.  Be safe.  Be prudent.

Still I worry.  Not just about the virus. 

I worry about what makes us human.  The potential threat is also a needed prescription.  It is always and will forever be excellent medicine.  We need other people.  We require affection.  We are sustained by compassion.  Can this, if this is what one day will be required of us, be conveyed at a prescribed distance of six feet?  I for one have resolved that for now, those who wish to be hugged, will be hugged.  And those who wish instead for an elbow bump will receive a (loving?) elbow.

Remember what makes us what we are, and makes every person, throughout this big, and every shrinking, world human.  It is first and foremost other people.

The lines can longer be drawn, and perhaps no longer should be drawn.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Making Room for God

Dov Ber of Mezritch, a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov who founded the Hasidic movement in the late eighteenth century, implores us to open our hearts to God. He writes: 
We, the Children of Israel are forever building up our entire selves to become dwelling places for divinity. That is why the Israelites erected the Mishkan (Tabernacle) from offerings there in the wilderness. This process never ceased and goes on in every generation. We Israelites are called upon to build up the full form of God, the Shechinah, by using our entire selves. Thus our sages taught on the verse “Let them make Me a Tabernacle and I will dwell within them” (Exodus 25). This verse does not say “within it” but “within them”! This teaches that God dwells within every single person. This is what we have taught: that each of us must build up our entire self to be a fit dwelling for divinity. Then God indeed dwells within us.
But how do we make ourselves a dwelling place for God? How do we bring God into our lives?

Is it by observing more rituals? By lighting Shabbat candles every Friday evening? By ridding our homes of bread prior to our Passover Seders? By singing every verse of Lecha Dodi at Shabbat services? By fasting on Yom Kippur? By never eating a cheese burger or only eating at a kosher restaurant? Dov Ber would, I imagine, offer an emphatic yes. He would then most certainly expand the list even further.

Then again he would also add that such ritual scrupulousness must be combined with proper intention, that performing the rituals out of habit or compulsion is not enough. Outer observance must be tied to inner piety.

And yet, I continue to wonder. How do we make ourselves a tabernacle for God? It seems almost, I dare say, too easy to suggest it is only a matter of ritual acts such as lighting candles and keeping kosher. It would be too simple to suggest that all we have to do is follow a list, albeit a very lengthy one.

Instead to become a dwelling place for God we must act like God, to model God’s compassion and understanding at every turn. We must open our hearts to others. This list is much more concise but far more difficult to attain. But imagine how the world might then appear if we were to be scrupulous about our observance of this simple, but difficult, list.

It might seem like there is a tabernacle standing before us at every turn. We might behold God in every person.

Dov Ber continues: “This is what the holy Zohar (the foundational text of Jewish mysticism) meant when it taught that the form in which the world was created is the form of the mishkan (Tabernacle), and the mishkan and the human form are all the same.”

The list is brief. The task is great.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Listen to the Experts

It used to be the case that when a doctor made a recommendation, we would accept the advice. Now we return home, scour the internet, read patient reviews, search every side effect the medication might cause, or seek out setbacks from others who have had the procedure. And while we should do some research, and garner second and sometimes even third opinions, this trend represents an extraordinary loss of faith in wisdom and experience. We no longer trust experts.

We have forgotten that knowledge and information are not the same as wisdom and experience. Expertise is gained by testing what one learns against what experiences. This is why apprenticeship is an important part of mastering any profession.

And yet we read online, and discover everything that is wrong with the system.

We no longer have faith in government officials. We question the legitimacy of scientific findings. We have lost faith in the experts who must help us navigate the world’s challenges. Sure, part of the problem is the abundance of information, and misinformation, on the internet. But the other part of the problem is how we view others and the world. We open with skepticism. Too often we lead with mistrust.

Relationships are fed by trust. They are nurtured by faith.

The root of faith, emunah, is trust. It begins with an openness to the world, to others and most importantly, to God and God’s revelation.

Still, the Jewish people’s response to the giving of the Torah is remarkable, and unexpected. When the Torah was revealed at Sinai, they responded: “All that the Lord has spoken, we will do and will obey (naaseh v’nishmah).” (Exodus 24)

They require no persuasion, or second opinions. They need no convincing and no arguments. God did not offer for example that keeping kosher is healthier or that Shabbat will restore to them a sense of balance to the week. Instead, God commands. And the people respond, “All that the Lord has spoken, we will do.”

Faith is about taking action before reason perhaps dictates or persuasion compels.

Although a great deal of material can be found online, one cannot always find guidance by asking Google. Too often we turn to our computer screens and seek there knowledge and answers, when we should instead just get started and join in. Faith begins with a measure of trust.

Let’s turn to the expert.

“All that the Lord has spoken, we will do.”

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Father in Law Knows Best

One could argue that this week’s Torah reading containing the revelation at Mount Sinai, and the Ten Commandments, is the most important of portions. And yet is named for Moses’ father-in-law, Yitro. This seems curious. Why would the portion be called Yitro?

One answer is that the names of the portions have nothing to do with their content or meaning. The names are instead the portion’s first most important, or unique, word. The reading is never named for Moses for example because his name appears too frequently. The portion’s names are designed so that the Torah reader can more easily find the beginning of the reading. This is no easy task in a scroll that of course has no pages, but even more significantly no punctuation.

Then again, the rabbis, when dividing the yearly Torah reading into portions, could have begun this week’s reading with the following chapter, Exodus 19, in which the details of the revelation are described. Instead they begin a chapter earlier with the words: “Vayishma Yitro…Yitro priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moses and Israel.” (Exodus 18)

The question therefore remains. Why begin the portion with Yitro? Why name the most significant of readings with Moses’ father-in-law’s name? There must be a reason. Nothing is by chance. Moreover, Yitro is not even Jewish. He is a priest to the Midianites, a future enemy of Israel.

Perhaps Yitro’s words come to remind us that wisdom comes from many sources. It does not always arrive as revelation. It does not just come as Torah from Sinai! In addition, Yitro comes to balance the concluding lesson of last week when we read about Amalek, Israel’s eternal enemy. Everyone who is not Jewish is not our enemy. In fact, some are family. How quickly we forget. Yitro is Moses’ father-in-law. All are not Amalek.

We look to Yitro’s words for meaning. He shouts God’s praises. After Moses recounts all that God did for Israel by freeing them from Egyptian slavery and rescuing them at the Sea of Reeds, Yitro proclaims: “Blessed be the Lord!” He is therefore among the first to use our prayer book’s formulation, “Baruch Adonai.” The rabbis find this quite remarkable. How could Yitro offer words that neither Moses nor the people Israel say? “How shameful that Moses, and the 600,000, did not use phrase!” they remarked. (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 94)

In their harsh judgment of Moses and the people they may have missed the most important of teachings. The nineteenth century Hasidic rebbe, Shlomo of Radomsk, reminds us that the Israelites praised God for what God did for them at the Sea of Reeds. Yitro, on the other hand, shouted God’s blessings and praises, for what God did for others.

It is easy, and to be expected, to give thanks for the blessings we receive. The greater faith is to rejoice in the blessings of others.

Such is the teaching revealed by someone other than Moses and someone who we first expect to be wholly other. Yitro, the priest of Midian, teaches.

The more profound faith is to see the gifts others receive not as the occasion for our own diminishment but instead as moments for our own rejoicing and celebrating.

Blessed be Yitro’s teaching.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Enough of the Outrage

What follows is my brief sermon from this past Friday night addressing our feelings about the conclusion of the impeachment proceedings as well as those about the prior week's unveiling of a new Mideast peace plan.

We are living in an age of outrage, in which we move from one outrage to another. We shake our heads in disgust at this injustice or that. On Tuesday evening we were outraged by some of our President’s claims or alternatively outraged by the Speaker’s tearing up of his speech. On Wednesday, we were outraged by the Senate’s vote to acquit the president or outraged by the House managers’ arguments to impeach him. Last week we were either outraged that Jared Kushner thought himself sufficiently well-read and experienced enough to offer a Mideast peace plan or on the other hand that every attempt this administration makes at solving an intractable problem is met with disdain and immediate rejection. We no longer live in a time of reasoned debate. But if we cast the outrage aside, there are reasonable takeaways from these events.

First and foremost, we are a nation of laws. And whether you thought the Democrats, or the Republicans were on the right side of history, the law and in particular the constitution is what governs our society. We can disagree about policies, about ideology, about what’s best or what’s worst for this country, but we must never forget it is the law that allows us to be one United States of America. It is a devotion to certain ideas that makes us a nation and those are enshrined in our constitution.

Second, regarding the peace plan again there are some reasonable takeaways. What this plan manages to do is to elevate Israel’s legitimate security needs and say that they must be held alongside the Palestinian’s desire, and right, for a state of their own. For too long, perhaps, peace plans sought to primarily undo injustices felt by the Palestinians rather than giving equal voice to Israelis desire to live in safety and security. For too long Palestinians’ refusal to come to the table has been excused and Israel’s march towards annexing the territories has been highlighted. To be sure, annexing the territories would be devastating for Israel’s democratic ideals. But Palestinian leaders need to come to the table and argue their case. Enough with the being outraged. Perhaps this plan can help move us forward.

As my teacher Yossi Klein Halevi argues that this plan has effectively exposed myths long held by both sides. He writes,
The Israeli myth is that the status quo can be indefinitely sustained and that the international community, distracted by more immediate tragedies in the Middle East, is losing interest in the Palestinian issue. But the Trump administration’s considerable investment of energy and prestige in devising its plan has reminded Israelis that the conflict cannot be wished away.
Regarding the other side, Halevi writes, 
The Trump plan also challenges a key premise on the Palestinian side – that Palestinian leaders can continue to reject peace plans without paying a political price… It is long past time for Palestinian leaders to do what they have never done in the history of this conflict – offer their own detailed peace plan. We know what Palestinian leaders oppose – but what exactly do they support?
That is my hope on all accounts on this Shabbat. Enough of the outrage. Get down to talking and arguing about how we are going to move forward. Let’s stop pointing fingers at how bad the other side is or how outraged they make us feel. Peace is in everyone’s interest. The rule of law is what allows societies to thrive.

Save the shouts not for our political opponents but instead for perhaps some good old-fashioned miracles. Take a cue from this week’s Torah portion. Moses, Miriam, and all the Israelites took their timbrels in their hands, started dancing with great joy, and most of all began to sing. They prayed, “Sing to the Lord, for God has triumphed gloriously.”

Perhaps this is the advice we most need. Calm down and sing a song. This is what this Shabbat evening might be best about. Sing. If we saved our shouts for something like that, we might be better served than shouting at each other and accusing one another of this outrage or that. I pray. Please God give us the strength to shout songs of joy in Your direction rather than shouts of outrage at one another.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Jump Into History

Yesterday Senator Mitt Romney said, “We are all footnotes at best in the annals of history.”

When the Jewish people approached the Sea of Reeds, with the Egyptian army pressing behind them, they feared that their liberation from slavery was a terrible mistake and that they would soon meet their deaths in the churning waves. According to tradition it was not their leader Moses’ outstretched arms that parted the seas. It was instead another man, named Nachshon.

Among rabbis, and historians, he is a well-known figure, but among many he is a forgotten footnote to our most famous tale. Looking around him at the fear among his fellow Israelites, seeing the doubt written across their faces about the journey upon which they had just embarked, Nachshon jumped into the waters.

“Nachshon has lost his mind,” the people shouted. “He is most certainly going to drown. Let us look away.” Meanwhile most of the Israelites could only see Moses standing above the crowd, arms outstretched to the heavens. Nachshon struggled in the sea’s waves, fighting to keep his head above the water. And then, just as the waters reached up to his neck, a miracle occurred. The seas parted. The people crossed on dry land.

We know this part of the story. The people broke out in song. They sang, “Mi chamochah ba-eilim, Adonai—Who is like you O God, among the gods that are worshipped!” (Exodus 15)

The few who witnessed Nachshon’s daring act, muttered to themselves about his gumption. Some lamented his contrarian spirit. (And I admit I am partial to such a spirit that swims against the currents—both literally and figuratively.) Others praised his faith. A few offered private words of thanks for his chutzpah. The majority, however, never discovered his name or found out that it was his solitary act which provided the required salvation and allowed the people to move forward toward freedom.

Sometimes the most important act of the day is a footnote.

I realized. Everyone knows Moses’ name. More should know Nachshon’s.

Perhaps we should reread our books beginning with such footnotes. Perhaps we should tell our histories beginning with these forgotten tales.

They may very well provide a way toward freedom.