Thursday, May 18, 2017

Holy Earth

The Torah portion makes clear that the land of Israel is particularly dear. It is of course the holy land. This is why it alone is granted a sabbatical year. One might therefore think, especially given the success of modern Zionism, that only the land of Israel is holy. But in fact all lands are holy. The earth, the very ground beneath our feet, is sacred.

Our blessings do not say, for example, “Thank You God for the fruit of Israel,” but instead “for the fruit of the earth—borei pri ha-adamah.” The Psalms declare, in a decidedly universal tones, “The earth is Adonai’s and all that it holds; the world and all its inhabitants. For God founded it upon the ocean, set it on the farthest streams.” (Psalm 24) Another psalm provides a litany of God’s earthly creations. “How many are the things You have made, O Lord; You have made them all with wisdom; the earth is full of Your creations.” (Psalm 104)

I have been thinking about the power of nature. Often it is nature’s fury that reminds me of its majesty. Recently, we have witnessed, tornadoes and flooding, earthquakes and hurricanes. The psalmist’s words again come to mind: “You make springs gush forth in torrents; they make their way between the hills.”

The psalms remind us again and again. “God looks at the earth and it trembles; God touches the mountains and they smoke.” And so I have no choice but to: “I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; all my life I will chant hymns to my God. May my prayer be pleasing to God; I will rejoice in the Lord.” (Psalm 104)

As we stand before the awesome power of nature, we have no choice but to sing God’s praises. At times that is all we can do to rescue us from the earth’s fury. We require such reverence not only before God but before nature.

For too long we have believed that we are masters of nature, that we can control its fury, that we can tame mighty rivers and hold back oceans. We might be able to build better locks and even higher levees, but nature cannot be controlled. In fact some have suggested that our lock and dam system has made catastrophic floods more likely. Furthermore we know now that Army Corps of Engineers lock and dam system prevent vital nutrients from reaching the Mississippi river’s delta and enriching its delicate ecosystem.

I am not of course suggesting that we give up the effort of building levees and dams. However, reverence combined with knowledge, and scientific learning, might be in fact a much better approach. We would do well to remind ourselves of God’s admonition to Job: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Speak if you have understanding.” We require such humility!

And so we must relearn this truth. All lands are indeed holy. It is not just one land. It is not just our own backyard but all the earth.

Why was the Torah revealed in the wilderness of Sinai? It was revealed there to make clear that it was given to all. The desert wilderness belongs to no one. The Torah therefore is for everyone. It was given there moreover so that no land can claim the Torah as its alone.

Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel, is of course my favorite land. So much of Jewish history occurred there. I love nothing more than to hike its wadis and swim in its waterfalls. But it is not the only land.

The reverence for the land that the sabbatical year suggests is something we must apply to all lands. We must restore a sense of reverence for the earth and the land.

We can no longer afford to do whatever we want with our precious earth.

It is not just about my own backyard. It is not just about my own holy land.

Let us restore reverence in our hearts. Let us infuse humility in our souls.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Holy Terror

The Book of Leviticus is singularly obsessed with ritual. It is filled with laws about sacrifices and ritual purity. There are the occasional details about the familiar: keeping kosher and the more frequent unfamiliar: the mixing of wool and linen.

It contains only two stories. Both are tragedies. Both involve incidents where ritual goes terribly wrong.

The first is the story of the priests, Nadav and Avihu. They offer an alien fire. They die at the instance of the Lord. (Leviticus 10) Little explanation is offered. We are left wondering what they did that merited the punishment of death. I remain baffled.

I remain troubled.

The other story appears in this week’s Torah portion. It offers more details but is equally troubling. “The son of the Israelite woman cursed the Name of God, and he was brought to Moses—now his mother’s name was Shelomit—and he was placed in custody, until the decision of the Lord should be made clear to them.” (Leviticus 24)

And what is God’s determination? “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Take the blasphemer outside the camp; and let all who were within hearing lay their hands upon his head, and let the whole community stone him.” Sadly, the Israelites did as God commanded and stoned him to death. Again what did he say that merited death? How can a curse deserve such punishment? What was so offensive about his words?

Perhaps his blasphemy was only inadvertent. Perhaps he sought to praise God but in his zealousness said something that others deemed inappropriate. What could have been so terrible that there was no other fitting punishment? I am baffled.

I am troubled.

What is blasphemous or alien are subjective determinations. What is labeled as foreign can only be discovered in the eyes of the insider. Such determinations draw a line between insiders and outsiders, between us and them. The Torah offers a counter impulse. It seeks to bring more inside. It repeats over and over again the command “There shall be one law for stranger and citizen alike.” While Leviticus is obsessed with ritual, the Torah as a whole is determined to establish one law for all. No distinction must be drawn between citizen and stranger.

The judgments of blasphemy and alien require an insider perspective. What I deem holy you might view as profane. What you view as a curse I might view as sacred. What you call alien I might call ordinary. What you deem foreign I might see as uplifting.

We are left perplexed. Do these stories contradict the law?

On the surface these episodes can be read as cautionary tales. Take God’s instructions wrong and death ensues. Curse God and you will be punished. Do a ritual in a foreign way and you will be killed. These stores are warnings. But what is a curse and what is foreign are matters of interpretation.

The plain meaning of these tales appears too severe. Too often the law writes people out. And then the narrative writes the unexpected in.

There is only one woman who is named in the entire Book of Leviticus. It is Shelomit, the mother of the man put to death for blasphemy. Why do we know her name? Why do we know the name of the person who suffers the unimaginable horror of witnessing her son stoned to death? Her name leads us to a discovery. There are times when the law turns tragic, when its observance can cause pain. Its terror is humanized. He had a mother!

And we are also intimately acquainted with the father of Nadav and Avihu. It is Aaron. He too sees his sons killed for what was perhaps only a youthful mistake. Perhaps they became carried away with their singing and dancing.

Aaron and Shelomit share a sad, and tragic, connection. Their children die. And their deaths are (apparently) sanctioned by God. We are left wondering. Can law lead to tragedy?

I remain baffled. I remain troubled.

“And Aaron fell silent.” And I imagine, Shelomit watched in horror.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Love Your Neighbor!

The Torah commands: Love your neighbor as yourself. (Leviticus 19:18)

And the Talmud weaves stories to illustrate the importance, and perhaps difficulty, in observing this command.

It is told that Rabbi Hillel was open to any question, and welcomed people with open arms. Rabbi Shammai, on the other hand, focused more on his books and a strict interpretation of the law.

Here is their story (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a).

One time two people made a bet about whether it was possible to anger Hillel. They shook hands and agreed on the amount: 400 zuzim. One Friday evening, as the rabbi was bathing and preparing for the start of Shabbat, the man stood at the entrance of Hillel’s house and in a demeaning manner said, “Who here is Hillel, who here is Hillel?” Hillel wrapped himself in a garment and went out to greet the man. He said, “My son, what do you seek?” He said, “I have a question to ask.” Hillel said, “Ask, my son, ask.” The man asked, “Why are the heads of Babylonians oval?” Given that Hillel was from Babylonia, he could have viewed this as an insult, but instead said, “My son, you have asked a significant question. The reason is because they do not have clever midwives. They do not know how to shape the child’s head at birth.”

Our hero gets an A for patience but unfortunately an F in science. This goes on and on. The man asking more and more ridiculous, and politically incorrect, questions. He finally stammers and says, “I have many more questions to ask, but I am afraid because you will certainly get angry.” Hillel responds: “All of the questions that you have to ask, ask them.” The man became angry and went to pay off the 400 zuzim bet.

Another time a gentile came before the two rabbis. The gentile first approached Shammai and said: “How many Torahs do you have?” He said to him: “Two, the Written Torah and the Oral Torah.” The gentile said to him: “With regard to the Written Torah, I believe you, but with regard to the Oral Torah, I do not believe you. Convert me on condition that you will teach me only the Written Torah.” Shammai scolded him and cast him out with shouts and reprimands.

The same gentile came before Hillel, who immediately converted him and began teaching him Torah. On the first day, he showed him the letters of the alphabet and said to him: “Alef, bet, gimmel, dalet.” The next day he reversed the order of the letters and told him that an alef is a tav and so on. The convert said to him: “But yesterday you did not tell me that.” Hillel said to him: “You see, it is impossible to learn what is written without relying on an oral tradition. Didn’t you rely on me? Therefore, you should also rely on my teaching with regard to the matter of the Oral Torah, and accept the interpretations that it contains.” Nothing can truly be understood without interpretation, nothing can fully be explained without a teacher. This is why we need the Oral Torah and the body of rabbinic works, most especially the Talmud and Midrash.

There was another incident involving another gentile who came before Shammai and said to him: “Convert me on condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I am standing on one foot.” Shammai pushed him away, swinging at him with a yardstick. The same gentile came before Hillel. He converted him and said to him: “What is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, all the rest is commentary. Now go and study.”

Years later these converts gathered together. They reflected on their experience and said, “Shammai’s impatience sought to drive us from the world; Hillel’s patience brought us beneath the wings of the Divine Presence.” Who knows where even the most seemingly ridiculous question might lead. If it serves as an entry to more learning, to a life of meaning then it is not demeaning of even the greatest of scholars.

True learning begins with a question.

The sages advise: A person should always be patient like Hillel and not impatient like Shammai.”

I have learned. There is a little of Hillel in each of us. There is a little of Shammai in all.

And the Torah continues to demand: Love your neighbor as yourself!

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Spiritual Truth of the Desert

Recently my wife and I visited Southern California’s Joshua Tree National Park. As we entered the park we briefly noted the sea of yellow wildflowers covering the desert floor. I wondered why so many were stopping to take pictures. Flowers are not so rare on the east coast. What are called wildflowers in the desert may very well be weeds in the green expanse I call home.

Later we were told that we were privileged to witness a once in ten-year bloom. The winter rains had produced abundant flowers. We initially took little notice. We were busy speaking with our son on the cell phone as we drove into the park. It was not until we lost reception that we began take in the desert’s beauty. I wonder how much is missed because we insist on remaining connected to those thousands of miles away rather than the world that stands before our eyes.

It was also not until were told by residents, “We have never seen anything like this before,” that we began to breathe in the beauty. Why is it as well that we must be told, “This is extraordinary!” in order to appreciate beauty? The Jewish tradition recognizes this impulse. It offers a myriad of blessings to recite before the wonders of nature. There is a blessing when seeing a mountain. There is a blessing for a rainbow. There is a blessing for the ocean. It is almost as if the ancient rabbis, who composed these blessings, are instructing us, “Get off your cellphone. You are standing in front of the ocean. Pause. Breathe. Look at God’s extraordinarily beautiful world. Say, ‘Thank you.’’

That’s not of course the words to the blessing, but it is perhaps the intent.... 

This post continues on The Wisdom Daily.


Monday, May 1, 2017

Memorials are Everywhere

When traveling through Israel memorials are everywhere.  When walking through the streets of Jerusalem remembrances are inescapable.  I happened upon this memorial to those who fell in 1967's battle for Jerusalem.


I approached to examine the names more closely and count the fallen.

Were they killed here, in this exact spot in which I now stand?  I do not imagine.  Did they die in one moment?  I do not know.

For their families they are more than names etched on a memorial.  They are sons, and brothers.  They are husbands, and grandsons.


I discovered kittens playing at the soldiers' feet.


Their nursing mother scurried off as I approached.  The kittens were unafraid?  Or unknowing?

Wars intrude on everyday life.  Hanoch Levin writes:

When we go walking, there are three of us –
You, me, and the war to come.
When we sleep, there are three of us –
You, me, and the war to come.

You, me, and the war to come,
The war that is coming for good.
You, me, and the war to come,
Bringing eternal rest.

When we smile in a loving moment,
The war to come smiles with us.
While we wait in the delivery room,
The war to come waits with us.

You, me, and the war to come,
The next war, which will bring us good.
You, me, and the war to come,
Creating eternal rest.

When they knock on the door, there are three of us –
You, me, and the war to come.
And when all this is finally over there will again be three of us –
The war to come, you and the photograph.

You, me, and the war to come,
The war that is coming for good.
You, me, and the war to come,
Creating eternal rest.

Today might very well be Yom HaZikaron, Israel's Memorial Day, but in Israel every day presents memorials and remembrances.  Every day presents the worry of the war to come.  

Israel has become far too expert in building remembrances to the fallen.

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.