Thursday, January 29, 2015

Beshalach and Tibetan Shul

This week we begin the wandering that defines the remainder of our Torah.

I am in the midst of reading Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost. I am taken with the author’s meditations on journeying. She quotes a Tibetan sage who lived six hundred years ago. He teaches about the meaning of a path, a track. In Tibetan, this is called, shul.
[A shul is] a mark that remains after that which made it has passed by— a footprint, for example. In other contexts, shul is used to describe the scarred hollow in the ground where a house once stood, the channel worn through rock where a river runs in flood, the indentation in the grass where an animal slept last night. All of these are shul: the impression of something that used to be there.
Too often we pine after such impressions. We long for what we believe we had years ago. We conjure images of the past and mythologize distant events.

After seeing Fiddler on the Roof for the first time I asked my grandmother who spent her first ten years living in a shtetl outside of Bialystok about shtetl life. I walked away from the show believing much of the play’s idyllic portrayal. My Nana immediately disabused me of such notions. “The Cossacks murdered Jews. We were always hungry. No one in the shtetl got along.” (By the way Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman, upon which the Broadway play is based, offers a more realistic and sobering account.)

Our wandering ancestors also reimagine the past. “We remember the fish that we used to eat 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 to!” (Numbers 11:5-6)

One wonders if the intention of our wandering was to get lost. Then such mythic remembrances could die in the wilderness and only a new future could be seen. Then only the dream would be held in our hearts. Perhaps God sets us out to wander with this purpose in mind. To move forward towards dreams we must let go of our longings for yesterday.

And yet the past appears to offer security. Memory seems more clear than the future’s uncertainty. We cannot know what future will look like. And in this unknowing our discomfort grows. We long for the impression of what used to be there.

Nostalgia pulls us backward. It is emotionally satisfying and perhaps even a times uplifting. But it is also a drug that quickly becomes toxic. Why? Because we mistakenly believe that the past is known and the future uncertain. Our minds play tricks on us. We reimagine events. We write new histories. Thus nostalgia makes for a poor foundation on which to construct a future. In fact the word “nostalgia” came into English usage to describe a medical condition of intense homesickness. During the American Civil War, for instance, Northern doctors attributed a number of soldiers’ deaths to nostalgia.

I require no gifts of prophecy to declare that the future will look different than the past. Do we worry like the Israelites who long for the certainty of slavery or do we ask difficult questions? Do we choose an uncertain picture of an unknown future over an imperfect impression of a worn past? Do we choose a dream, a vision over nostalgia, longing? Do we look to long term stability over short term rewards?

The Talmud teaches:
One day, Honi the Circle Maker was walking on the road and saw a man planting a carob tree. Honi asked the man, “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?” The man replied, “Seventy years.” Honi then asked the man, “And do you think you will live another seventy years and eat the fruit of this tree?” The man answered, “Perhaps not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees.” (Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 23a)
I do not know what the trees I plant will look like in 70 years. Who among us believes that we will live beyond 120 years? I cannot know if the dreams I hold in my heart will flower or even bear fruit. Nonetheless I pledge to choose the future over the past. I knowingly choose uncertainty over fading impressions. I choose dreams!

“So God led the people around and around, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds.” (Exodus 13:18)

I will continue to wander.

And we will write a new Torah.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Bo, Freedom and Meaning

“Let My people go!” Moses declares to Pharaoh. (Exodus 10:3)

This familiar verse is often cited as a defense of freedom and individual liberty. What is the meaning of freedom? Does it mean that we are free to do whatever we want? Is it permissible, for instance, to draw cartoons that others find offensive? Are we free to shout words that others find provocative?

Speech and the freedom of expression have limits. Most of us remember learning how the US Supreme Court drew its few lines around speech. The court affirmed the First Amendment but added that we are forbidden from screaming “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater. In other words speech can be curtailed when there is clear evidence that our words will cause others physical harm. Now that people crowd together in lesser numbers in theaters will the court one day redefine “fire” for the internet age?

Judaism teaches that words can be among the most hurtful weapons people wield. Our tradition argues that lashon hara, gossip, can destroy a person’s reputation, that misplaced words, or even evil speech, can cause irreparable harm to another. Still would we want our country’s legal tradition to limit speech? Would we want our nation to differentiate between sacred and profane and draw lines declaring some words as profanity and others sacrosanct.

The danger then becomes the words with which I agree are holy and those which I oppose are blasphemous. While I might be sympathetic to Muslims’ feelings I am still unwilling to limit a cartoonist’s right to draw even the most offensive cartoons. Would I still affirm this freedom of expression if the cartoonist rendered caricatures of Auschwitz? I have no doubt that I would deem such cartoons blasphemy. Would I then want my nation’s laws to hue to my definitions of holy and profane? Who gets to define what is blasphemy and what offends religious sensibilities? In liberal democracies we have declared such drawing of lines off limits.

Like all religious traditions Judaism speaks about blasphemy, calling it hillul hashem, desecrating God’s name. Often Jewish literature describes actions as defaming God. If a person is clearly identifiable as Jewish, i.e. wearing a kippah, and cheats in business then this constitutes a hillul hashem. This person dishonors the Jewish tradition and brings shame to God. The object of leading a Jewish life is not only to add meaning to an individual’s life but also, and perhaps more importantly, to bring others to Torah. By doing something unethical we undermine this goal. Doing something unscrupulous amounts to blasphemy.

Like Judaism every religious tradition circumscribes freedoms. The question at hand is the proper balance between individual freedoms and a tradition’s dictates. Although we might disagree about where to draw such lines, the meaning of freedom is discovered when one draws limits and in how one curtails freedoms. That is the contention of the Jewish tradition.

Judaism believes that freedom only gains its fulfillment when wedded to obligation. It is the pledge to others and to God where freedom becomes meaningful. In the devotion, in the choice to do something for another, or for God, meaning is gained.

We discover that the portion’s verse is often misquoted and left incomplete. The Torah declares: “Send My people out so that they may serve Me.”

I must choose service. I must choose to pray. I must choose the ethical. Freedom is the necessary condition for meaningful devotion.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Martin Luther King and Dreaming Big

What follows is the sermon I delivered this past Shabbat.

This weekend we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr Day. On this day we reflect on his achievements. We also ponder what remains to be realized in the civil rights struggle.

As you know Martin Luther King gave his most famous speech in August of 1963 standing before Washington DC’s Lincoln Memorial and in front of the thousands who marched there to further civil rights.

In that “I Have a Dream” speech, he said:
Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.
And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today!
After a particularly dark week, when despair grips us, when we see clear evidence of what happens when antisemitism goes unchecked, when terrorism again frightens us, I want to reflect not on these evils, but instead on the importance of dreams. Faith in general and Judaism in particular is built on the dream that tomorrow can be better than today. For the religious person dreams are not fantasies. They can be felt. They can be touched. Dreams are as real as the earth and sky. We tenaciously hold on to dreams despite what happens around us. We remain undeterred by tragedy. We do not veer because of evil.

Let us take but one example from history. For nearly 2,000 years we prayed, “Next year in Jerusalem!” I am certain there were times when some laughed at such statements, when there were even Jews who lost hope, who despaired and scoffed at such dreams, calling them perhaps fantasies. We have lived through unimaginably dark days and yet we continued to sing, we continued to shout, “We will return!” And now we have returned. Jerusalem is rebuilt; it is a teeming, thriving, modern city. Israel certainly faces its challenges—and that is perhaps an understatement—but let us take heart in the realization of our dream.

Do you think that Zionism could have been successful if not for that ancient hope, that Jewish dream that every child heard at their Seder tables? I don’t think so. Better realities are built on ancient dreams. That is what today’s Jerusalem should loudly proclaim to every Jewish child.

The person of faith does not dismiss dreams. The religious personality does not scoff at visions. They instead embrace them and take them into their hearts. At the darkest times, they don’t resort to cynicism. Instead they sing louder.

Sure there is a lot of work still to be done to realize Martin Luther King’s dream; we always fall short of dreams. Far too many African Americans do not share the opportunities my children take for granted. We can argue about the whys, but that fact remains unaltered. And yet my children really don’t judge others by the color of their skin or by their religion or by their sexual orientation. They look instead to the content of their character. In 1963 few could have imagined such a different reality could be realized within a lifetime.

Hatred, racism, antisemitism still exist; in some corners they even thrive, but we have traveled far. The civil rights dream is not yet fully real but we are so much better because we dreamed. During some days even dreaming is an act of courage! Sure we have to keep working harder to repair a great many things. But we traveled this far because of a dream. That is what must always be held before our eyes. We must keep dreaming. That is the answer.

And finally there is the dream of peace that we must continue to speak of. We don’t dismiss it because of a week marred by unspeakable evils. I admit, on this day this dream could not seem more distant. After this week the dream of peace cannot seem more elusive. What is the person of faith to do? Abandon dreaming? Abandon speaking of visions of a better tomorrow? Never! We continue to sing for peace.

Faith is the stubborn response to human frailty, to human flaws, and to the world’s imperfections. We do not ignore reality. Instead we refuse to be defeated by it. We continue to sing; we continue to dream.

The prophet Isaiah declared:
Let us go up to the Mount of the Lord,
To the House of the God of Jacob;
That He may instruct us in His ways,
And that we may walk in His paths.”
For instruction shall come forth from Zion,
The word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
Thus God will judge among the nations
And arbitrate for the many peoples,
And they shall beat their swords into plowshares
And their spears into pruning hooks:
Nation shall not take up
Sword against nation;
They shall never again know war. (Isaiah 2)
Part of the answer to our times, the response of faith is to dream. We restore hope by dreaming. We continue to sing: “Nation shall not take up sword against nation. They shall never again know war!”

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Vaera, Terrorism and the Hardened Heart

This past week was a painful and harrowing week. The attacks in Paris at Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket remind us once again of terrorism’s reach. In this age of terror the daily routine of going to a supermarket and what should be the uneventful drawing of cartoons become courageous. Ordinary, everyday acts, become acts of bravery.

What do we do? We muster our courage and steel our hearts by saying that it could never happen here. We say, “Paris was heading in this direction.” Or, “I don’t frequent places that are likely to be attacked?” Make no mistake. Shopping at the local kosher butcher is no more dangerous than the frequenting of the nearby Whole Foods. Terrorism instills fear in its randomness.

While terrorism may appear to be directed at harming lives its greatest danger is how it attacks the heart. And it is within the heart that we can achieve victory. Here is how the heart must respond.

First we must come to recognize that there is unmitigated evil in this world. Much of it comes from radical Islam. Calling our current struggle a war against terror is unhelpful. Terrorism is a tactic. It is not an ideology. Just as we once waged war against Nazism so must we battle Islamism. We must therefore wage a war of ideas against this ideology of hate.

Our military and police can prevent attacks and stop the advance for example of ISIS and Al Qaeda, but the war will be won in our hearts. And so we must hold fast to our commitment to a pluralistic society. We must continue to preach the democratic ideal that competing beliefs can not only coexist but also give rise to beauties that we might be unable to see if only surrounded by like-minded believers. In difference, and disagreement, holiness can be realized.

We must not harden our hearts against Muslims or those who are different. The ideas of pluralism and openness are what make us great. This is part of the allure of Paris. Holding such freedoms forever in our hearts is the first response.

The second is also a matter of the heart. We must never lose hope. Hope is the root of faith. Judaism continues to believe that tomorrow can be better than today. Despite the world’s tribulations we defiantly believe that it can be redeemed. The world can be made better.

For two thousand years our people, for example, refused to let go of the hope that one day we would return to our ancient land. Every summer I for one reassert that hope when I board a plane to travel to Jerusalem. Today’s Jerusalem is a modern city built on an ancient hope. That is what our faith is made of.

We waited a long time for the realization of this dream. We witnessed some of the darkest years history ever witnessed. Still hope remained secreted within our hearts.

This is our faith. No matter how vicious evil becomes hope will triumph. “I believe in perfect faith in the Messiah’s coming. And even though the Messiah is delayed, I will continue to wait every day.” One day the idea that harmony will exist in the midst of differently held, and even competing, beliefs will rule the day.

That is a battle of the heart.

This week my heart grows hard. It becomes increasingly inured to death and pain, terror and fanaticism. It responds with statements of distance, “It can’t happen here.”

“The Lord said to Moses: “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart…” (Exodus 7:3)

Can my heart traverse the distance? Can my heart achieve victory?

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Shemot and Saving Names

Why does the most important book of the Torah, the book of Exodus that details our people’s liberation from Egypt and tells the story that we recount at our Passover Seders begin with the most ordinary list of names?

“These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah; Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin; Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. The total number of persons that were of Jacob’s issue came to seventy, Joseph being already in Egypt.” (Exodus 1) Certainly a more dramatic introduction could have been written.

Then again remarkable stories sometimes begin with the most mundane and seemingly ordinary opening lines. “Call me Ishmael.” is among the most famous of such opening lines. It begins the epic story of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The Torah however is more than a literary masterpiece. Each word, every sentence, suggests a lesson. Every nuance points to a teaching.

And so we learn that every story must begin by honoring those who came before us. The Talmud for example expends great effort discussing which rabbi authored an opinion. Before even beginning a debate the Talmud’s discussion frequently digresses to questions about authorship. “Did not Rabbi Michael Moskowitz say in the name of Rabbi Steven Moskowitz? Others say it was Rabbi Susie Moskowitz in the name of Rabbi Michael Moskowitz.”

Before we can march forward we must remember and honor those who came before us. Naming those who preceded us begins our story; it solidifies the lesson. We give honor to our predecessors. The secret to redemption, which is the theme of the Book of Exodus, turns on remembrance. Zachor, the command to remember, is a core Jewish belief. Forgetfulness on the other hand leads to ruin.

The story continues. “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” Pharaoh erases history. He forgets Joseph and the good he performed for Egypt. Pharaoh’s forgetfulness leads to our suffering.

Our salvation begins with remembrance. “God heard the Israelites’ moaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.” (Exodus 2) God remembers the promise made in prior generations, the pledge made to our forefathers. Pharaoh forgets. We suffer. God remembers. God names Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And we are redeemed.

The names become intertwined. The story unfolds.

The Exodus story hinges on the names we recount. In Hebrew the Book is called Shemot—Names. We name the children of Israel. And so begins the story of our redemption.

Our most important story, the story of our freedom from Egypt, begins with the recounting of names. We in turn begin the telling of our own history by naming our parents and grandparents. We recall our ancestors. Only by naming those who came before us can we find redemption and write a better future.

A prayer. We are saddened that once again we have witnessed another barbaric terrorist attack. Terrorism continues to strike at Western values. We mourn the murders of twelve people at the French magazine, Charlie Hedbo. We mourn the cartoonists, writers, editors and police officers. We pray for healing for those injured in the attack. We pray: may terrorism fail in its intent to strike fear in our hearts. May we instead find the strength to renew our faith in the values we hold dear: democracy, pluralism and freedom of the press.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Vayehi, Euphemisms and Truth Telling

Happy New Year! May 2015 be filled with good health and much happiness. May the world see at least a measure of peace!

I find myself wondering about euphemisms, the common phrases we use to shroud uncomfortable truths. Chief among these are those that we use to report death. “He passed,” we say. “She passed away,” others recount.

I wonder: do such phrases make the loss any less real? Do they shield us from the pain? And yet we continue to speak these words. Even the Bible mirrors these phrases. It appears to echo our discomfort.

The Torah reports: “When Jacob finished his instructions to his sons, he drew his feet into the bed and, breathing his last, he was gathered to his people.” (Genesis 49:33) The Haftarah affirms: “So David slept with his fathers, and he was buried in the City of David.” (I Kings 2:10) This is how the Bible reports the deaths of our forefather Jacob and King David.

But Judaism insists that we not shy away from confronting death. We must face its stark truth. There is no mitzvah more difficult than placing a shovel of earth into a loved one’s grave. Why do we do this? It is because we leave this act to no one but ourselves. We assume this responsibility with our own hands. We do not leave this task to strangers. We return the love given to us in life with this act of hesed, with an act that can never be repaid. By doing so we also, and perhaps even more importantly, help to see the reality of the death standing before our eyes. When taking the shovel into our hands there is no longer mistaking the truth that lies before us.

Still we continue to rely on euphemisms. We turn aside from truth. Our language obscures stark realities. In the newspapers we read about enhanced interrogation methods when we mean torture. We write of collateral damage when it is the violent deaths of innocent human beings we mean. Euphemisms obscure the truth that we must confront. I understand that in war soldiers must dehumanize their enemies with slang terms to obscure the horrible deeds they must do to defend our country and our lives. Their commanders as well come up with acronyms such as KIA to cover up the truth that they send good men and women to their deaths.

Such euphemisms continue to obfuscate the realities about which we must speak. Can we repair our world, can we bring even a measure of peace, when we are unable to speak with honesty and clarity?

The poet Peter Cole writes:
And may my love and language lead me into
that perplexity, and that simplicity,
altering what I might otherwise be.
But let it happen through speech’s clarity—
as normal magic, which certain words renew. (Things on Which I've Stumbled)
The truth about death is always harsh. It continues to sting. There is no mitigating its barbs.

Language always falls short.

“Joseph flung himself upon his father Jacob’s face and wept over him and kissed him.” (Genesis 50:1)

He was gathered to his people. Still the son mourns the father.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Vayigash and Scattered Books

The following commentary was distributed to rabbis and Jewish leaders throughout the country by the Jewish Federations of North America.

Eight years after his brother’s tragic death, the unparalleled medieval Jewish thinker, Moses Maimonides, wrote a letter to a friend, speaking about his recent struggle with mourning and loss: “Now my joy has been changed into darkness: he has gone to his eternal home, and has left me prostrated in a strange land. Whenever I come across his handwriting or one of his books, my heart grows faint within me, and my grief reawakens.” This letter was discovered among the hundreds of thousands of documents uncovered in Cairo’s Ben Ezra synagogue in what is now called the Cairo Genizah. There, hidden away for centuries, were prayerbooks and Bibles, Talmuds and commentaries, holy books scattered among seemingly incidental letters and writings.

Several weeks ago I arrived at the synagogue to discover a box of old books. The caretaker informed me that this happens from time to time. Worn siddurim and chumashim, along with crumpled yarmulkes, were left at the door. I wonder if these were the remnants of a parent’s library. Not long ago the mourners perhaps gathered in the home in which they grew up, now they returned to close up the house, pack away keepsakes and donate useful items. What might they do with these books?

One can imagine the discussion: Can we throw them out? They appeared to answer: leave them at the nearest synagogue. And so in the middle of the night they placed the books by our synagogue’s door. I wandered through the books. Some had to be placed in our genizah, destined to be buried. Some were added to our congregation’s book collection. A few were intriguing: an unfamiliar translation of the psalms, an obscure edition of the Passover haggadah. One book caught my eye. Between the prayerbooks and Bibles I found a hundred year old book: Audels Automobile Guide with Questions, Answers and Illustrations, 1915. This manual offered answers to questions such as “How should the throttle be operated on an open or country road?” Here was a discarded book, detailing forgotten questions, hidden among abandoned holy books.

I wondered how many of our Jewish books are becoming increasingly forgotten. Is it because the questions of prior generations no longer appear relevant? Who drives a car with a handle throttle lever anymore? “From what time may one recite the Shema?” the Talmud asks. Or is it perhaps because our parents’ books cause us pain, discomfort, unease? Do our hearts grow faint when we see the books revered by prior generations?

For millennia our most treasured possessions were books. So revered were these works that even their tattered pages were never discarded. They were instead buried.

Two books in particular have guaranteed our survival: the Siddur, prayerbook and the Torah, Bible. We have carried these books from place to place, from country to country. Wherever we have lived we have grasped these in our hands. We have reinterpreted their verses and rewritten their words. They have defined us. These books have ensured that the Jewish future would be connected to past generations. We might be different than our parents and grandparents, but the books we hold in our hands would always be familiar. The written word remains eternal.

And yet we live in an age when words appear cheapened. They are quantified and measured; they are applauded by likes. How can a generation where words are as a fleeting as a Snapchat ensure that a people will remain devoted to words? In an age of the abbreviated text message how might we continue to clutch the heft of words in our hands? Is it even possible to bequeath gigabytes to our children?

I write notes scattered in the margins of my books.

Jacob, who became known as Israel, is nearing the end of his life. He travels to Egypt to join his son Joseph. There they grasp possessions. (Genesis 47:27) Is it at this moment that Israel takes hold of the books that will forever define us?

Jacob begins his life by taking hold of his brother’s heel. (Genesis 25:26) It is then that he earns his first name. We begin our lives holding on to others; we grow in wisdom by holding on to our most treasured possessions. We leave these books for future generations to pore over and reinterpret. We read the notes left by parents and grandparents. They give us strength—if we but grasp them. It is then that we become Israel.

I worry. Will books continue to be left at synagogue’s doors, abandoned and discarded, or will they be clutched in our hands and carried through these doors, to be read and pored over, chanted and sung? Will it continue to be said of Israel that words animate us? My heart grows faint within me.

My heart is stirred by the scattering of notes and letters.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Hanukkah and Distant Miracles

Hanukkah arrives this evening and with it the thought of miracles. A great miracle happened there, we proclaim. Nes gadol haya sham.

A miracle? “When Mattathias had finished speaking these words, a Jew came forward in the sight of all to offer sacrifice upon the altar in Modiin, according to the king’s command. When Mattathias saw it, he burned with zeal and his heart was stirred. He gave vent to righteous anger; he ran and killed him upon the altar. At the same time he killed the king’s officer who was forcing them to sacrifice, and he tore down the altar.” (I Maccabees 2:23-26) The war was not only against Antiochus Epiphanies but the Jews who supported him. The first battle was in fact Jew against Jew.

How is it that a story of the Maccabees fighting against the Syrian-Greeks, and against the Jews who welcomed their culture, became a story of miracles? It is because the rabbis, living centuries after the Maccabees and the corruption to which their rule gave rise, and following the disastrous revolt against Rome in their own day, reimagined the Hanukkah struggle. It was no longer a story about war, and most especially the civil war that it in fact was, but instead a tale about God’s power and majesty. In the rabbinic imagination Hanukkah becomes not the victorious war story, filled with the battle scarred heroism of Mattathias and his sons, but instead a tale about God’s miracles. Nes gadol haya sham. God’s light brightens a darkened story.

It was the birth of Zionism and the State of Israel that upended the rabbis’ retelling and their philosophy....

Monday, December 15, 2014

It's Still about Our Values

What follows is my sermon from this past Shabbat in which I discuss the Senate's report on torture.

This week we read the story of Joseph and his brothers. The brothers grow increasingly jealous of Joseph. They conspire to kill their younger brother. Then they decide to sell him into slavery. They throw him in a pit and sit down to a meal. I have been thinking about that verse: Vayeshvu le’echol lechem, they sit down to eat. (Genesis 37:25) They turn aside from their brother’s pain.

This week I sat at my breakfast table reading the newspaper. I read of the resurgence of antisemitism and the continuation of terror. I read of the tragic death of Eric Garner and the simmering tensions near my home town of St. Louis. I lost my taste for food. We must no longer turn aside from these injustices.

I read as well this week’s Haftarah. The prophet Amos declares:
Spare Me the sound of your hymns,
And let Me not hear the music of your lutes.
But let justice well up like water,
Righteousness like an unfailing stream. (Amos 5:23-24)
And I read of the Senate’s report on torture. I recalled the prophet’s message. I remembered his words: we are to live by the law—always. His words continue to ring in my ears as I read the report’s details in yesterday’s paper.

The report’s revelations are disturbing. Among the more unsettling discoveries are the following. The CIA lied to Congress and the White House, and covered up the use of these “enhanced interrogation techniques.”  That is a troubling euphemism.  Let us reflect on this: euphemisms too often mask our moral failures. "Collateral damage" actually means that innocent people have died. The report most significantly unveiled that these interrogation techniques were far more brutal and inhumane than we previously believed.

Senator John McCain, who has always been my hero on this issue, said:
I understand the reasons that governed the decision to resort to these interrogation methods, and I know that those who approved them and those who used them were dedicated to securing justice for the victims of terrorist attacks and to protecting Americans from further harm... But I dispute wholeheartedly that it was right for them to use these methods, which this report makes clear were neither in the best interests of justice nor our security nor the ideals we have sacrificed so much blood and treasure to defend… we are always Americans, and different, stronger, and better than those who would destroy us.
I recognize that some might think that we should do whatever it takes to protect American lives. I believe however that torture does not aid in our protection; it does not benefit our security. There is of course debate whether or not torture produces valuable intelligence so let’s leave that question aside and focus instead on the most important issue. The use of torture undermines our values; it undermines the laws that make this country great. We should always be animated first and foremost by our values rather than our fears. The single greatest danger of terrorism is not the loss of life it inflicts but that it will so terrorize us that we will lose our way and forget our values. So it is time we talk more about our values than our fears. That is the message of the prophets. That is the message that America is supposed to offer the world. In this instance we lost our way. That is what was revealed by this week’s news.

Let me be clear: the use of power to protect our lives and the lives of our fellow citizens is a moral imperative. But we must wield this power justly. Mistakes will undoubtedly be made; police and armies make errors. And we must then have the courage to examine our failures. To take an honest accounting of our wrongs, a heshbon hanefesh in our tradition’s language, is also a moral imperative. I reject the argument that the airing of this report makes us weaker, that it somehow endangers lives. I believe the opposite. It makes us stronger. That is the message we recount on the High Holidays. Each and every one of us can change. A community can change; a country can change. Great countries must certainly have the courage to examine their failures so that they can change and be even greater.

Soon we will be celebrating Hanukkah. Everyone is familiar with the story. But there is a dark side to the story of the light of Hanukkah. The Maccabees and their rule quickly became corrupt; they soon abused their power. They so believed they were right that they came to believe they could do no wrong; their righteous indignation in the face of all who disagreed with them, including fellow Jews, made them guilty of wrongs, and some even say atrocities. This is why the tradition argued that all must be subject to the law. Hanukkah is on one level a cautionary tale about power. That’s not how we usually tell it, but maybe we should recall that message at this moment.

In the war against terror, actually in the war against Muslim fanaticism and fundamentalism (that is the ideology we are battling), we must be on guard against losing our values. Even our enemies, when facing us in battle, even our enemies, when captured, are human beings, who are deserving of protection. Judaism teaches that all human beings are created in God’s image. We must never lose sight of this

I recognize that we are still afraid, even after all these years after 9-11. We are sometimes afraid for our lives. But we must never allow that fear to make us lose sight of the values that make us great. Even the weakest, even the most despised, and yes even our avowed enemies, are deserving of certain protections.

Amos declares:
Thus said the Lord:
For three transgressions of Judah,
For four, I will not revoke it:
Because they have spurned the Torah of the Lord
And have not observed God’s laws;
They are beguiled by the delusions
After which their fathers walked. (Amos 2:4)
Let us take our cue from the prophets. We dare not turn aside. We must restore justice to its rightful place. Only justice will protect our most cherished dreams.

Again John McCain: “But in the end, torture’s failure to serve its intended purpose isn’t the main reason to oppose its use. I have often said, and will always maintain, that this question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us.”

There is no doubt that these terrorists are horrible and despicable people. But the law must still prevail. It is about us. It is about our values. Let us restore justice to its rightful place. Amen!

Below is Senator John McCain's speech on the Senate floor.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Vayeshev and the Haftarah's Call

This week we begin the gripping story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph is the youngest child of Jacob, born to his beloved wife Rachel. Jacob showers love and affection on Joseph. The brothers become jealous of him. One day they conspire to kill him, but instead throw him into a pit and sell him into slavery. This is how Joseph and then his family, and then ultimately the Jewish people, end up in Egypt.

The tension quickly builds in the opening chapter. “When Joseph came up to his brothers, they stripped Joseph of his tunic, the ornamented tunic that he was wearing, and took him and cast him into the pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.” (Genesis 37:24) How could Joseph’s very own brothers be so cruel? “Then they sat down to a meal.” (Genesis 37:25) After throwing him into a pit, they callously sit down to eat.

And yet how often do we go about our days, eating our meals, as injustices are committed around us?

This was the prophets’ keen observation. Abraham Joshua Heschel argues that it was their pathos which forms the foundation of our Bible. He writes: “[The prophets] are some of the most disturbing people who ever lived: the men whose inspiration brought the Bible into being—the men whose image is our refuge in distress, and whose voice and vision sustain our faith.”

The rabbis married a Haftarah portion, a selection from the prophets, with every Torah portion. Haftarah means to complete and thus the Haftarah completes, and compliments, the Torah portion. Vayeshev is paired with the first of the literary prophets, Amos who lived in the eighth century B.C.E. He castigates the people for their greed. He rails against oppression. “Because they have sold for silver those whose cause was just and the needy for a pair of sandals. Ah, you who trample the heads of the poor into the dust of the ground and make the humble walk a twisted course…” (Amos 2:6-7) The prophet appears to recall the sins of Joseph’s brothers. His warnings could very well have been directed against the brothers.

It is a mystery why the rabbis instituted the reading of the Haftarah. Some suggest it was during a time when the Torah reading was forbidden and so the Haftarah would offer hints of what people were unable to hear. Others suggest it was because people were growing increasingly unfamiliar with the prophets and the importance of their message. The Haftarah reminds us of our obligations to the world at large. Do we hear its message?

Too often we chant the Haftarah’s words but fail to take them into our hearts. This was one of the critiques the early Reform rabbis offered. We had forgotten to speak against society’s ills. “The Lord roars from Zion, shouts aloud from Jerusalem… Ah you who turn justice into wormwood and hurl righteousness to the ground.” (Amos 5:7) What will make us regain the prophetic spirit that is the heritage of Reform? What injustices will call us to regain our voice?

The world calls for our attention and concern. There is racism and violence, torture and poverty, terror and hunger.

The prophet demands that we not turn aside, that we pay more careful attention to the world’s travails. And yet Heschel rightly notes that the prophet speaks in an octave too high. How can we hear the shrill scream? He writes: “The prophet is sleepless and grave. The frankincense of charity fails to sweeten cruelties. Pomp, the scent of piety, mixed with ruthlessness, is sickening to him who is sleepless and grave. Perhaps the prophet knew more about the secret obscenity of sheer unfairness, about the unnoticed malignancy of established patterns of indifference…”

And we continue with our meals.  Do we hear the prophet’s call?