Thursday, February 4, 2016

Mishpatim and Its Contradictions

There are two contradictory impulses within our beloved Torah.

On the one hand, we are better than them.

“Whoever sacrifices to a god other than the Lord alone shall be utterly destroyed.” (Exodus 22:19)

And on the other, we can do better for them.

“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:20)

The two verses stand side by side.

Within our tradition (as well as other religious traditions), we see interpretations of chosenness colored by chauvinism and exclusivity. God’s love and concern is only befitting those who worship like us, those who behave like us, those who are like us. With the drawing of such lines, we become like privileged royalty, elevated above all others.

We also see chosenness as elevating our duty to others, as requiring of us an even greater responsibility to others. Yes this can at times be a burden, but it also provides a path to meaning. Chosenness then becomes a call to protect the ill treated, as personified by the stranger, and to better the world.

On which verse will our Torah rest? Do we wish to elevate the lives of others or do we see ourselves as elevated above them?

I am no longer sure that we can hold on to both, that we can affirm these opposing sentiments.

I recognize that most do not wish to hear such blunt honesty, but as we approach the third yahrtzeit of my teacher, Rabbi David Hartman, I wish to honor his memory by giving voice to such truthfulness. My rabbi was courageous and fierce, passionate and at times angry. There was at times an uncomfortable honesty about his teachings. He would scream at us about the dangers within our own tradition. I came to love that Rabbi Hartman was both Judaism’s fiercest critic and its most devoted believer. Even though most might prefer a feel good faith that caresses us with approval and asks little of anything of us, I prefer an honest and courageous one.

Perhaps there is reward discovered in such honesty.

Let me be forthright. There are those who see in our Torah evidence of their privilege. This is not what I choose to read. The Torah is meant to elevate our behavior. It is intended to call us to action. It is meant to ennoble our lives with a call to do better for others.

If we are to be a kingdom of priests it must not be about what we get but instead what we must do. If we are to be a holy nation then it must not come at the expense of others but rather from what we can do for others.

There may very well be these two impulses within the Torah, but we must choose one.

I know the choice I must make.

I will sing: “You shall not wrong a stranger…”

I choose the verse that uplifts all. I know of no other way of upholding the Torah’s import for the world at large. I must work to better the world.

Perhaps in the process I might even elevate my life and infuse it with added meaning.

For additional inspiration, take a few moments to watch this brief interview with Bernie Marcus, the founder of Home Depot.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Yitro and Rejoicing with God

To know God is to fear God. So the Torah suggests. In this week’s reading we learn that the experience of Sinai is terrifying.

“There was thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled.” (Exodus 19:16)

This is how the Torah describes the revelation at Mount Sinai. In fact the people were so overwhelmed by the experience that they begged Moses to spare them further divine encounters. They pleaded, “Let not God speak to us, lest we die.” (Exodus 20:16)

We ask: if the goal of our tradition is to draw us close to God how do we find encouragement in these words? How can a story filled with fear and dread provide us with inspiration? And so the rabbis reimagined the experience. In their eyes holiness becomes more manageable and God more approachable. To know God is to draw affirmation in the mundane, in the ordinary and everyday. Rabbi Akiva in fact understands Song of Songs, a biblical love song, not as words that describe romantic love between two people but instead as the love between Israel and God.

We are wed to God. We echo such sentiments with the words of Lecha Dodi. We sing: “Come my beloved to meet the bride.” We greet the Sabbath bride. We welcome the divine. For the Kabbalists, who authored this prayer, the experience of God was synonymous with lovemaking. We draw close to God as one draws near a lover. Their literature is filled with eroticism. It is intoxicated with loving God.

We continue to struggle with how to give voice to our encounter with God.

The unparalleled Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, writes:
The precision of pain and the blurriness of joy. I’m thinking
how precise people are when they describe their pain in a doctor’s office.
Even those who haven’t learned to read and write are precise:
“This one’s a throbbing pain, that one’s a wrenching pain,
This one gnaws, that one burns, this is a sharp pain
and that—a dull one. Right here. Precisely here,
yes, yes.” Joy blurs everything. I’ve heard people say
after nights of love and feasting, “It was great,
I was in seventh heaven.” Even the spaceman who floated
in outer space, tethered to a spaceship, could say only, “Great,
wonderful, I have no words.”
The blurriness of joy and the precision of pain—
I want to describe, with a sharp pain’s precision, happiness
and blurry joy. I learned to speak among the pains.
Amichai’s insight is well founded. (And I recall it in part because we remember the Challenger astronauts who thirty years ago gave their lives in pursuit of touching heaven’s joys.) Why is pain and heartache more precise than joy and celebration? Fear of God appears easier to describe than love of God. One misplaced word can give rise to dread.

Fear is a far simpler thing to summon than love. Terror seeps into our hearts. Rejoicing requires courage.

Our senses become confused. We become overwhelmed.

The Torah concurs. It offers these words about Sinai: “All the people saw the thunder and the lightning…” (Exodus 20:15)

You cannot see thunder! The people’s senses are likewise confused and overwhelmed.

We are unable to find the words to describe such an awesome experience. The holy, the overwhelming, the joyous defy description. Perhaps then we must resort to poetry and songs.

How can we find words for our joys? And yet rejoicing must become our foundation. Only simcha can carry us forward. Only rejoicing can banish the trembling.

When we sing, when we dance, and when we celebrate we experience God.

When we rejoice we approach Sinai.

Still we have no words.

“I want to describe, with a sharp pain’s precision, happiness and blurry joy.”

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Beshalach and Walking Away from War

Among my favorite poems is “Eli Eli” by Hannah Senesh:
My God, my God
I pray these things never end
The sand and the sea
The rush of the waters,
The crash of the heavens,
The prayer of man.
Senesh was of course the young Zionist who parachuted behind German lines and made her way into her native Hungary in order to rescue fellow Jews. She was captured and we now know tortured mercilessly. On November 7, 1944 she was executed by a German firing squad.

Her writing and poetry remain. Her words are often added to our Shabbat prayers....

This post continues on The Times of Israel.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Bo, Darkness and Heroes

“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Hold out you your arm toward the sky that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched.’” (Exodus 10:21) The tradition expands our understanding of this plague of darkness. It was so thick and enveloping that the Egyptians could not even see their hands in front of their faces.

This helps to explain why darkness is the ninth plague.

In that darkness the Egyptians were utterly alone. They only had their thoughts. They could see nothing but what could be found in their imaginations. Such ruminations must have given rise to even greater and greater fear. Blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, cattle plague, boils, hail, locusts ran through people’s minds. In their imagination frogs became transformed into crocodiles that devoured children. And locusts became vultures gnawing on the carcasses of dead cattle. Such is the power of the mind.

Such are the dangers of imagination. One would think that this darkness could serve as a moment of introspection, that the designs of the mind might lead the Egyptians to let the Israelites go free. And yet fear becomes an end in itself. It corrupts our dreams. It obscures our vision. We find ourselves alone in the darkness imagining the worst of days.

We are living within such a plague. Unlike the plague that befell the Egyptians our darkness is instead blackened by the 24 hour news cycle, the endless stream of information, and misinformation provided by the Internet, and our ceaseless notifications popping up on our iPhones’ screens. We think that we are more connected. We believe that we are more informed. Instead we become likewise plagued by darkness. It is a darkness filled with alerts and notifications.

Fear obscures our view, it envelopes and shrouds. The incessant barrage of information darkens our vision. We see disease where in truth there is health. We see hail where there are bright, sunny skies. Our imagination gets the better of us.

We find it increasingly difficult to distinguish between an ordinary frog and dangerous, vicious beasts. Can we see through this darkness and discover friends among those who are unlike ourselves? Can we see beyond our fears, and beyond this modern plague, and distinguish between those who are truly bent on doing us harm from those who are given toward companionship? We appear unable to see the hands, right before our eyes, reaching out to others in friendship. We imagine that more and more hands stab at us in this darkness.

The rabbis ask: Who is a hero? They answer: It is the person who masters his or her evil inclination. Can we summon such heroism? Can we master this inclination?

How is it that those we often call heroes are those who steadfastly hold on to their dreams and ideals even when imprisoned and surrounded by darkness? Natan Sharansky, who was imprisoned in the Soviet Gulag for almost ten years, carried with him a small book of psalms. He held fast to the verse from Psalm 23: I will fear no evil. Even though surrounded by torturers and likewise alone with his imagination he chose instead to fixate on his dreams. He remained singularly focused on his wish to make aliya to Israel. How did he summon the courage to look beyond the tortures and see only a dream, a vision?

We, who in contrast live in relative comfort, become instead intoxicated by our imaginations of terror and evil, we become tortured by the threats leveled against us. The dangers are real. And yet they grow even larger in our minds. They grow more menacing in our imaginations. We who are unaccustomed to living with such fears allow terror to rule our lives rather than dreams.

We find ourselves in darkness. We find ourselves alone. We can see little else but our nightmares. We imagine the worst about others.

The rabbis advocated for a heroism of the ordinary and everyday. They were concerned about the inner. They wrote about the dangers of our intentions. They counseled: master the imagination.

And I continue to believe what I have often taught. In this age of terrorism it really does amount to such a heroism of the everyday. It is about subduing our fears and affirming the ordinary.

David Bowie sings: “We can be heroes, just for one day. We can be us, just for one day.”

The Torah offers: “People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was; but all the Israelites enjoyed light…” (Exodus 10:23)

I remain partial to Peter Gabriel’s version of David Bowie’s classic:

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Vaera and God's Many Names

This week’s Torah portion, Vaera, opens with the words: “God spoke to Moses and said to him, ‘I am Adonai. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name Y-H-V-H…” (Exodus 6)

To Moses God offers this personal name of YHVH. We, however, no longer know how to pronounce this name and so we say, Adonai, my Lord. This name is related to the name revealed at the burning bush. When Moses asks, “When I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?’” God responds, Eyeh Asher Eyeh, meaning “I will be what I will be.” (Exodus 3) YHVH is thus a form of the verb, “to be.” What a mysterious, and wonderful, name. The name of God means: God is.

As a consequence the Jewish tradition has many names for God. A casual search of the prayerbook yields well over 50 different names. Here are a few: the Teacher, the Holy One Blessed be He, the Place, Builder of Jerusalem, the Healer, God of Thanks, Lord of Wonders, our Father our King (Avinu Malkeinu), Rock of Israel and Lord of Peace.

We call God by many different names. We find God through these many names. The Psalmist declares:
The heavens declare God’s glory
the sky proclaims His handiwork.
Day to day makes utterance,
night to night speaks out
There is no utterance,
there are no words… (Psalm 19)
Language is merely scratching the surface. Our words are only glimmers of the divine. Reaching out to God is not a perfect science. Even our prayers are mere attempts. Our most carefully constructed sentences and most heartfelt songs can only, at best, extend upward.

One of my favorite poets, Denise Levertov, concurs: 
Lord, I curl in Thy grey
gossamer hammock
that swings by one
elastic thread to thin
twigs that could, that should
break but don’t.
I do nothing, I give You
nothing. Yet You hold me
minute by minute
from falling.
Lord, You provide.
We stretch and weave words as if they are hammock strung between two branches. Hammocks can be comfortable and relaxing when they envelope us, as we sit in the summer shade, yet unsteady when our weight is shifted ever so slightly.

Words are both flimsy and secure. Our tradition therefore offers us many different names, many different paths to reach our God. None of them are perfect. None of them are the final answer. Indeed the rabbis declare that there are 70 different facets of the Torah. There is never one Jewish answer! There is no one answer when it comes to interpreting Torah and even when it comes to naming God.

We find God through many names and many different places. May this coming Shabbat be indeed a Sabbath of peace, quiet and relaxation. May it be a day when we hear at least one of God’s names emerge from our lips.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Shemot, Kiddush and Kaddish

This week we begin the most significant of books, Exodus. While Genesis is filled with stories about our patriarchs and matriarchs, Leviticus with the laws of holiness, Numbers with the tribulations of wandering in the desert and Deuteronomy with a litany of everyday commandments, Exodus contains the most formative of our stories. It is here that we become a people when God takes us out from Egypt. It is this episode that we recount every year at our Passover Seders and every Shabbat when we join together in the kiddush.

And yet the book’s Hebrew name suggests nothing of this significance. In Hebrew it is called: Shemot—Names. On one level this is because a book’s (or portion’s) Hebrew names is given by its first most significant word. “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…” it begins. Not the dramatic beginning one might expect from the most important of our stories. Then again a great drama can unfold from the most ordinary of opening lines. “Call me Ishmael.” Herman Melville famously wrote.

Then again what value is hidden within this opening verse? Perhaps it is not the story that the Torah portion begins to relate for us but instead the lesson. We begin our story by remembering our forefathers. This stands in stark contrast to our enemies. “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” the portion also relates. Our suffering begins to unfold. It is triggered by forgetfulness. We know many names. He forgets one name.

Thus Exodus begins with remembrance and turns on forgetfulness. And herein lies the lesson. If we remember we cannot never forget who we are or what we are about. Exodus begins with the simplest of remembrances: recounting the names of our ancestors. It is as if to say: name your parents, grandparents and great grandparents. “Blessed are You Adonai our God, God our ancestors: God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob, God of Sarah, God of Rebekah, God of Rachel and God of Leah…” we begin the Amidah each and every time we gather to pray.

The Book of Exodus turns on the following. We remember. They forget.

The message becomes clearer. Remembering is the secret to our redemption. God commands: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt.” the Torah repeats over and over and again.

That lesson begins with a list of names.

And it is reaffirmed every time we recite kaddish.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Vayehi, Barnacles and Blessings

Judaism categorically believes that people can change, that they can examine their ways and correct their failings. We do not believe in fate. We contend that our destiny remains in our hands. Otherwise the High Holidays, and the centrality of their message of repentance and turning, would be meaningless. We believe in the possibility of self-renewal. And yet people behave as if we think otherwise.

John W. Gardner once observed in quoting another author: “’The barnacle is confronted with an existential decision about where it's going to live. Once it decides it spends the rest of its life with its head cemented to a rock.’ End of quote. For a good many of us, it comes to that.”

This week we read about the blessings Jacob offers to each of his children. “And Jacob called his sons and said, ‘Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come.’ The more we read in the portion the more their destinies appear pre-ordained. Their fates seem bound to prior deeds. His blessings mirror popular sentiment that our character is unchanging.

To his eldest Jacob proclaims: “Reuben, you are my first-born, the might and first fruit of my vigor, exceeding in rank and excelling in honor. Unstable as water, you shall excel no longer…” To his youngest Jacob says: “Benjamin is a ravenous wolf; in the morning he consumes the foe, and in the evening he divides the spoil.“ (Genesis 49)

This is not the Torah we teach. This is not the tradition we uphold. We are not barnacles!

And what was Reuben’s sin? He slept with his father’s concubine. One sin, one mistake and Reuben’s destiny is shattered. His good fortune is reversed. His father’s blessing becomes a curse. Where is the forgiveness? Where is the opportunity for change? Jacob echoes popular belief. He gives voice to the fact that too often we bury our heads in the sand, we blame the machinations of others, we offer excuses about circumstances and complain about the troubles of fate. We act as if our destiny is written in stone. Reuben is destined for no good, Jacob declares.

But we are not our forefather’s sons. And we need not be barnacles. Our destiny is not to be found in the stars. No matter how terrible, and seemingly unforgiveable, the sin we can give shape to a new story. Our lives can be shaped by our own hands. They are not written by parents or grandparents. They are not ordained by prior generations.

Where is this Torah to be discovered? Where is the belief that we can rewrite our future? It is found in Jacob’s sons as well. It is discovered when they turn and stand up for their youngest brother Benjamin. They do not allow him to be thrown in jail as they did years earlier with Joseph. It is uncovered when Judah says in effect: “Take me instead.” This is the model of repentance we teach. We can change. We can make a turn. We can redeem even the most desperate of circumstances. We can reshape our lives and renew our souls.

John Gardner again:
Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you, out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life. Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you. If it does, then the particular balance of success or failure is of less account.
We need not live as if we are barnacles. Blessings are to be found in our very own hands.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Vayigash and Suffering's Promise

While Martin Luther King sat in a Birmingham jail he penned a letter to his fellow clergy explaining why he thought it necessary to engage in civil disobedience. He criticized their vocal opposition to his efforts saying that religion must serve the cause of justice rather than maintaining the status quo. In King’s lengthy “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” he wrote:
But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom. They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment. I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future.
These soaring words gain even more spiritual power because they emerge from jail, because they come out of suffering. The essence of King’s message is captured in the words: “right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.” A man wrongly imprisoned can better affirm such sentiments. His suffering adds an exclamation point to the words. A depth of meaning emerges from his experience.

We discover echoes of these feelings in this week’s Torah portion. There Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. Recall that the brothers threw Joseph in a pit, sold him into slavery where he was again jailed by his taskmasters. And yet Joseph says to his brothers: “Now do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.” (Genesis 45:5)

Although Joseph had every right to be angry, and every reason to be unforgiving, he chose instead to see God’s hand in the jail cell that he occupied. He chose to see hope. He thereby redeems his pain and suffering. This is the quintessential Jewish move. We shout blessings at pain. We give thanks despite suffering. Jewish history attests to Martin Luther King’s words: “right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”

For centuries we exclaimed that even if the body is imprisoned, even if our people are oppressed, we cannot be defeated if we fill our hearts with songs and our souls with gratitude.

Perhaps only someone who experiences such suffering and pain can change the world. I therefore discover renewed faith in the Malala Yousafzais and the Natan Sharanskys. And only a people who endures oppression can serve as prophets to a troubled and fractured world.

Martin Luther King again writes: “I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom.”

We continue to sing and pray.

“The goal of America is freedom.”

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Hanukkah and Hope

This evening begins the fifth night of Hanukkah.

Many are celebrating with the giving of presents and the eating of latkes (or perhaps sufganiyot). Some are also enjoying the playing of dreidel. The tradition requires only the lighting of the Hanukkah menorah preceded by the appropriate blessings. The lights are placed in the window to proclaim the miracle of Hanukkah for all to see.

For centuries this holiday was downplayed.  It was simple in its observance. Yet it was profound in its message. Hanukkah reminds us that hope is always possible. The lighting of the Hanukkah candles is about adding light during the darkest times of the year, and throughout the darkest moments of our history.

In the Talmud two great rabbis argue about how best to light the Hanukkah lights...

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Vayeshev and Making History

Jewish history hinges on the Joseph story that begins this week. Because of the jealousy and hatred between Joseph and his brothers they sell him into slavery in Egypt where he rises to prominence. Eventually his family follows him there. The Jewish people then build comfortable lives in Egypt until a new Pharaoh comes to power. As the Torah recounts, “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” The people are enslaved. Their cries reach to heaven and so God calls Moses to lead the people to freedom. The rest of the story is all too familiar.

It turns on Joseph. It depends on the moment Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery. It also revolves around an unnamed man. Let me explain.

Jacob sent Joseph out to the fields to look for his brothers. He apparently had difficulty finding them. “When Joseph reached Shechem, a man came upon him wandering in the fields. The man asked him, ‘What are you looking for?’ He answered, ‘I am looking for my brothers. Could you tell me where they are pasturing?’ The man said, ‘They have gone from here, for I heard them say: Let us go to Dothan.’ So Joseph followed his brothers and found them at Dothan.” (Genesis 37:15-17)

If not for this stranger Joseph might never have found his brothers. They might not have sold him into slavery. Then the Jewish people might never have arrived in Egypt and become enslaved there. And we might never have drawn so much inspiration from our Passover Seders and the retelling of our going out from Egypt.

Moses Maimonides suggests that the stranger is an angel. How else could one explain that all of Jewish history, and for that matter world history, turns on his directions? For this medieval thinker it could only be a divine messenger who sets Joseph on the proper course. For Maimonides the stranger could therefore only be an angel.

And yet I would like to think that this man could be anyone.

Perhaps it is the unknown, unnamed strangers upon which history turns. Their names are never known. History books do not even record their deeds. And yet history could never be written without their guiding hand.

Far too many people aspire to fame. They wish to be the ones who write history, whose names are recorded in the history books. They worry about their legacy. They spend precious hours wondering if they will be remembered for good. Yet often it is the unnamed stranger who points the direction. And it is upon their shoulders that history actually turns.

There is more that depends on the unnamed. I might never have noticed these verses, or the mention of this man, if not for the young parents who asked to study this week’s Torah portion in preparation for their son’s bar mitzvah. If not for their eyes and especially their questions, this stranger might have remained hidden from view.

Perhaps it is the hidden, and unnamed, upon which our learning turns and upon which history revolves.

You never know where the directions you offer might lead. You never know where the questions you ask might take others.