Thursday, March 26, 2015

Tzav and Kindling Your Flame

In this week’s portion we learn that the altar fire had to be constantly maintained. “The fire on the altar shall be kept burning, not to go out: every morning the priest shall feed wood to it, lay out the burnt offering on it, and turn into smoke the fat parts of the offerings of well-being. A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out.” (Leviticus 6:5-6)

I imagine that this was an enormously difficult task for the priests. The olah sacrifice in particular had to be burned up entirely on the altar. That is why its root meaning comes from the word to go up. This must have been a very powerful fire.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook saw in this altar fire an analogy to the Jewish heart. Just like this ancient fire had to be kept burning, so too must we keep the Jewish flame burning in our hearts. But today there are no priests to tend to this fire. With the destruction of the Temple and the resulting democratization of Judaism this task fell on each of us. In that moment nearly 2,000 years ago every Jew was empowered to kindle his or her own fire. There are no more priests. Maintaining our fire is each of our responsibilities. We must each nurture our own spiritual fire.

A fire requires two things to burn: fuel and care. So the first question is what is the fuel that nurtures our spiritual fires? I offer some partial answers.

Books. To live up to the title that we are the people of the book requires reading, it entails learning. We are a literate people that demands perpetual study. We are defined by the books we continue to hold in our hands and I hope, our hearts: the Bible, and in particular the Torah that we read line by line year in and year out, and the Siddur, prayerbook. We discover truths in conversation with our holy books. The Torah for example is not a guide book. We don’t read a verse and say, “Now I know what to do.” How else can we explain the demand that we continue to read about sacrifices we no longer offer and verses talking about turning fat parts into smoke? We argue with the text, we draw out meaning from between the lines.

Prayer. To pray on a regular basis helps to rekindle our spirits. Central to Jewish prayer is the attitude of giving thanks. Gratitude is the Jewish approach to the world. That is the essence of the formulation: “Blessed are You Adonai…” Shouting blessings, even in the face of death, singing psalms, even when the world appears dreary, is how Judaism counsels us to shape our hearts. We spend much of our days working towards goals. We are driven by the desire for gain. Even the most noble of these quests creates an emptiness that spurs us forward. Competition is not bad when it pushes us and motivates us to better ourselves. But on Shabbat we take a breath and say “I have enough. I need nothing more.”

And yet we also believe that it is our sacred responsibility to look at the world and say as well, “What can I do to help? How can I alleviate suffering and pain?”

One last suggestion for fuel. Gemilut hasadim. Judaism teaches that these deeds of lovingkindness, such as visiting the sick, feeding the hungry, burying the dead and even dancing with the bride and groom are demanded of us. We help others first and foremost because they require help. We also do this because our souls are nurtured by these acts. We don’t do this as reminders of how fortunate is our lot, but because Judaism obligates us to look outward. We have no ascetic tradition in which the ideal is to reject the world and live apart from others. Only by looking in the faces of others, and seeing their pain as well as their joy, do we kindle, and rekindle, the Jewish flame in our own hearts. Sometimes it is difficult to do these tasks, but nevertheless we do not shy away from the obligation.

Gemilut hasadim, prayer and Torah are the fuel for our Jewish fires. But fires also require care. When tending a fire, we must first take note if and when more fuel is required. We cannot throw a pile of logs on the fire on occasion and then look away hoping the fire will continue to burn. Sometimes we might even need to rearrange the logs. On some days we might study more than pray. On others we might fill our hearts with more of these sacred, loving deeds. And still on others we might just need to sing a song.

Each of us is different. Each of our flames requires care and nurturing. It is in our hands. I can’t do this for you. I can help. I can teach. I can stand by your side. Fellow members of the community can stand with you. Learning is better done with others. Our songs are at their best when sung together. And it is most certainly easier to perform gemilut hasadim when accompanied by others. The kaddish, for example, is never said alone. The hora cannot be danced by yourself. We always journey together.

Still there are no more priests to tend the fire. Your flame is in your hands.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Vayikra and Listening to the Call

This week we begin the sixth year of my weekly Torah Thoughts.  For five years, without ever missing a week, we have learned Torah together.  Thank you for your continued participation.

We begin again.  We begin the third book of the Torah: Leviticus.  This book is concerned with the priestly cult, with sacrifices, ritual impurities and priestly garb.  “The bull shall be slaughtered before the Lord and Aaron’s sons, the priests, shall offer the blood, dashing the blood against all sides of the altar which is at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.” (Leviticus 1:5) 

These words and the book in which they are found challenge us with questions of relevance.  So much of what we read in the pages of Leviticus we no longer do. Thousands of years ago the centrality of sacrifices as the primary means of approaching God was replaced with tefilah, prayer and gemilut hasadim, loving deeds. 

And so we weave stories.  We spin interpretations in order to discover meaning.

The first word of Leviticus, vayikra, means “and he called.”  The book opens with the commandments about sacrifices.  It begins with God calling to Moses.  “And the Lord called to Moses…”  Vayikra is written in a most unusual way in the Torah scroll.  The last letter of this opening word, the alef, is stylized smaller than all other letters.  Alef is silent in Hebrew.  It could be absent.  It also begins the Hebrew word for “I,” anochi.

A midrash in the name of my colleague Rabbi David Stern.  When God calls to us, the “I” must be diminished.  The self must be made smaller in order to hear the call.  The ego must be small but not absent.  How many times has Susie said to me, “I told you that!  You were not listening.”  Focus.  Pay attention.  Listen.

God often calls.  Are we listening?

We must incline our ears to detect God’s voice.  It shimmers throughout nature.  In the changing of the seasons, in the emerging leaves of the trees coming to life, the singing of the birds in the morning, and even the flurries of a Spring snow shower, we can discern God’s creative hand.  We must open our eyes and incline our ears.

When a homeless man reaches out to me and asks for food do I respond?  Do I hear the faint words of God calling me to feed the hungry?  Do I fulfill the mitzvot of gemilut hasadim and bring healing to my broken world?


God calls.  Do we listen?

Friday, March 13, 2015

Vayakhel-Pekudei and Breathing Shabbat

The Torah commands: “On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord.” (Exodus 35:2)

The Rabbis expand. They weave interpretations. They suspend a mountain from the Torah’s thread. They sanctify the seventh day with blessings and songs. They set the day apart by their laws and restrictions. From this command they define thirty-nine categories of prohibited work.

They build what Abraham Joshua Heschel lovingly calls a palace in time. For the Jew the Sabbath day is a sanctuary. It is not constructed of space but of time. We spend our week seeking to master the world. We pray in a sanctuary of time. On Shabbat we bow to the setting of the sun. Heschel writes:
The seventh day is like a palace in time with a kingdom for all. It is not a date but an atmosphere. It is not a different state of consciousness but a different climate; it is as if the appearance of all things somehow changed. The primary awareness is one of our being within the Sabbath rather than of the Sabbath being within us. We may not know whether our understanding is correct, or whether our sentiments are noble, but the air of the day surrounds us like a spring which spreads over the land without our aid or notice. (The Sabbath)
We must ask: do we wish to participate in constructing this sanctuary? Do we wish to make Shabbat a part of our commitments? As Reform Jews we need not take every law and demand to heart. Still Shabbat beckons. An atmosphere awaits.

I am in the midst of reading a new book about Shabbat, Judith Shulevitz’s The Sabbath: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time. In it she observes:
Our schedules are not the only thing the Sabbath would disrupt if it could. It would also rip a hole in all the shimmering webs that give modern life its pleasing aura of weightlessness—the networks that zap digitized voices and money and data from server to iPhone to GPS. In a world of brightness and portability and instantaneous intimacy, the Sabbath foists on the consciousness the blackness of night, the heaviness of objects, the miles that keep us apart. The Sabbath prefers natural to artificial light. If we want to travel, it would make us walk, though not too far. If we long for social interaction, it would have us meet our fellow man and woman face-to-face. If we wish to bend the world to our will, it would insist that we forgo the vast majority of the devices that extend our reach and multiply our efficacy.
Who would not agree that our many electronic devices have come to rule our lives? How our lives might be different if we instead allowed God’s creation to dictate our schedules—at least on one day. On Shabbat we could look not to our iPhones, as we are incessantly forced to do, but instead to the beginning of evening. “And there was evening and there was morning, a first day.” (Genesis 1)

Shulevitz continues: “There is something gorgeously na├»ve about the Sabbath. To forbid people their tools and machines and commercial transactions, to reduce their social contacts to those who live no more than a village’s distance away—it seems a child’s idea, really, of life before civilization.”

We are offered a day to catch our breath. We are given a day to breathe in the neshamah yetirah—the additional soul, the added breath.

Although we do not participate fully in the tradition’s strictures, I continue to wonder how we can make Shabbat a part of our lives. We should ask, can I take the tradition’s intent seriously. How can I bring meaning to my life, to my week, by pausing on this day?

There is something almost magical about setting a day apart.

The Zionist thinker, Ahad Haam, remarked: “More than the Jewish people has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people.”

We pause. Shabbat breathes life.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Purim, Drunkenness and Eternal Hatreds

This evening begins the holiday of Purim and with it a revelry likened to Mardi Gras. The Talmud (Megillah 7b) commands: "Rava said: It is one's duty to get oneself so drunk on Purim until one cannot tell the difference between 'arur Haman' (cursed be Haman) and 'barukh Mordekhai' (blessed be Mordecai)." That is an extraordinarily drunk state.

I have often wondered about this command. Why would the tradition encourage us to become so drunk that we cannot tell the difference between good and evil? Judaism has long argued that one of the defining characteristics of human beings, over and against animals, is our ability to make such distinctions, to distinguish right from wrong. Why would we want to ever blur that line, mumbling barukh and arur, cursed and blessed? Why would drunkenness be the preferred state of dealing with such a serious question as antisemitism?

The story of Purim, although farcical and even ahistorical, deals with this very question. Haman’s antisemitism and hatred for the Jewish people stems from Mordecai’s refusal to bow down to anyone but God. He refuses to bow down because he is a Jew. Haman therefore vows to kill all the Jews.

When I was young I thought that antisemitism was a problem of prior generations. It would never again regain the destructiveness of the 1930’s and 1940’s. Sure there might still be inappropriate jokes. Sure there might be those who avoided my hand in friendship because I was Jewish, but the hatred my grandfather experienced, I believed, was forever of the past and not the future. My grandfather did not share my youthful optimism.

Antisemitism is an eternal problem, he argued. It changes. It remains eternal. Sadly he was right.

Today antisemitism has again taken on a different form. It is wrapped in the garb of anti-Israel rhetoric. In this country the venom against Jews and Judaism is married to a hatred of Israel.

In ancient times antisemites fixated on the Jewish observances of Shabbat, kashrut and circumcision. How could they not work on Saturday; how could they not eat delicious pork; and how could they destroy their beautiful bodies, antisemites argued. In medieval times the blood libel was added to antisemites’ lexicon. Not only did Jews have strange customs, antisemites preached, but they sacrificed Christian children to use their blood to bake matzah. Jews were responsible for the killing of Jesus, antisemites accused. Riots and pogroms followed. Jews were murdered.

In modern times antisemitism metastasized into something even far more sinister and deadly. Jewish identity was racial. It was a matter of blood. It was not something that a Jew could renounce by conversion or by a rejection of Jewish tradition. The Nazis argued that if a person had one Jewish grandparent they were Jewish, whether or not they were observant or even called themselves Jewish. They were therefore marked for death. Emil Fackenheim, a modern Jewish philosopher, argued that the Nazis robbed Jews of even choosing martyrdom. It was not their choice of conversion or death as it was during the Inquisition. The selection for death was our tormentors’ choice. To be called a Jew was determined by others.

Today we see something far different. On college campuses such vitriol is leveled against the State of Israel. Both of my children have experienced this on their respective campuses. For a sobering account of this problem watch the video “Crossing the Line” produced by Jerusalem U. The BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) Movement argues that Israel is like apartheid South Africa, a country that was founded on an immoral principle.

Let me be clear. Israel is a vibrant democracy. Within Israel, and throughout the world, there are legitimate discussions of Israel’s policies. There are well-founded criticisms of Israel’s decisions and its actions. Debate is the cornerstone of any democracy. However when one attacks the legitimacy of the State of Israel, when one argues that Israel’s very existence is immoral, this is antisemitism. Every people has the right to self-determination. This is Zionism’s founding principle. To attack this right is antisemitism. Today, here is where this age old problem is manifest.

And so I return to the Talmud. It would be really nice if for one day we did not know and did not have to worry about this eternal problem. Although I would never encourage the drunkenness the Talmud demands (especially for my college students) it would be nice if on one day our history was not so serious and antisemitism was not, again, so real. It would be nice if on this day everything became blurred and we did not have to obsess about right and wrong, good and evil.

What a wonder it would be if our history were not so deadly serious. What a world we could found if, at least on this one day, we could discover such uninhibited joy.

My grandfather however was right. History continues to torture us.

And yet we continue to celebrate. We continue to rejoice. We even continue to laugh.

And perhaps that is why the Rabbis also argued that there will be no need for our holidays when the messiah arrives. When Elijah announces the coming of the messiah and the world is redeemed and rescued from the evils of history, there will be no more holidays except one.

Then, only Purim will continue to be observed. Chag Purim Samayach!

Monday, March 2, 2015

Ancient Problems, Modern Answers

What follows is a slightly updated and emended form of the sermon delivered this past Shabbat.

Shabbat Zachor is the Sabbath of Remembrance. This day is assigned to the Shabbat immediately preceding Purim. On this Shabbat we are commanded to remember what the Amalekites did to the Israelites on their journey through the wilderness. The Torah states: “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt—how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!” (Deuteronomy 25:17-19) Why is this read prior to Purim? Because the tradition argues that Haman was a descendant of Amalek. There is a thread that connects all our enemies.

One generation’s evildoers are descended from the prior generation’s. The wickedness is the same. The battle is eternal. Leon Wieseltier argues: “All violence is not like all other violence. Every Jewish death is not like every other Jewish death. To believe otherwise is to revive the old typological thinking about Jewish history, according to which every enemy of the Jews is the same enemy, and there is only one war, and it is a war against extinction, and it is a timeless war.” Antisemitism is, I fear, eternal, but not every antisemite is Haman. Today’s enemies are not the Nazis. The situation is different. The problem is real. The threat is great. Still 2015 is not 1938. There are differences.

On Tuesday Prime Minister Netanyahu will speak to Congress....

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Tetzaveh, Candles and Emotions

Candles are important religious symbols. We kindle Shabbat lights on Friday evening and the multiple wick havdalah candle on Saturday evening. We light candles to mark the beginning of our holidays: on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Pesah and Shavuot. We light the menorah on each of the nights of Hanukkah.

At each of these occasions we sanctify these holy days by reciting a blessing: “Blessed are You Adonai our God Ruler of the universe, who sanctifies us with mitzvot and commands us to kindle the lights of…” We elevate the day, we set it apart and call it holy by the lighting of candles and the reciting of these words. It is possible that our tradition mandated this candle lighting long ago at the approach of evening in order to illuminate the dark night. How else could we continue to enjoy the company of friends on Shabbat evening prior to the development of artificial illumination? And thus it is the blessing that sanctifies the day rather than the candle lighting. And yet the flames captivate us.

In contemporary culture candles enthrall us as well. We light birthday candles and sing “Happy Birthday.” Perhaps some light anniversary candles to celebrate their years together. Or perhaps we light these candles to create a romantic mood. And lest I forget, Long Island has given the Jewish world a new custom: the bar/bat mitzvah candle lighting ceremony. Honored guests are each accorded a candle. The young boy or girl offers rhymed words about his/her relative and then a song is played as the family member comes forward. Finally everyone sings “Happy birthday” as the candles are blown out.

Again candles elevate these occasions. Is it the words we sing or the lighting of candles that affects the mood? Would the words alone be enough? Is the magic of the occasion brought about by the kindling of these lights? Why do candles add holiness? Why do candles sanctify days and help to set them apart?

The Torah begins: “You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly.” (Exodus 27:20)

Perhaps it is because the kindling of a flame is basic and almost primal. This act alone helps to add sacredness to occasions. It hearkens back to the Torah’s words. It is the lighting of the candles rather than the words that affects our emotions.

The Talmud teaches that as the sun set on the sixth day of creation Adam became frightened. So on Saturday evening God gave Adam the gift of fire to dispel his fear and sadness, to illuminate the darkness. God taught humanity how to use fire for noble and sacred purposes. This is why the havdalah blessing is unique among the candle blessings: “Blessed are You Adonai our God Ruler of the universe creator of the lights of fire.”

Most would agree that of all the candles we light none has a greater hold on us than the yahrtzeit candle. This candle burns from sunset to sunset. We light it to sanctify the anniversary of a death. It is a private moment of reflection and contemplation. In the evening when we awake for a light night snack the small flame illuminates the kitchen with its glow. The candle is called in Hebrew a ner neshamah—literally, a soul candle.

Unique among all the candles our tradition prescribes there is no blessing for the yahrtzeit candle. No words are required. Is this to say that all words would prove inadequate? What a remarkable admission. For a tradition built on words, an edifice in which days are ushered in and out by blessings and moments are sanctified by the words “l’hadlik ner,” on this occasion we stand in silence and stare at a flickering candle. The flame is enough--perhaps. It is the light of the soul. The memory continues to burn.

“A candle from God is the soul of a human—ner Adonai nishmat adam.” (Proverbs 20:27)

Crossing the Line

This is a sobering video about the increasing anti-Israel, and antisemitic, incidents at college campuses throughout the country.  Many of my students now confront this at their universities.



Opposing Israel's specific policies or particular actions is not wrong.  Calling the Zionist project, the effort to build up Jewish sovereignty in the ancient land of Israel, racist or immoral is antisemitic.  All peoples, Jews and Palestinians in particular, have the right to self-determination.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Terumah and the Fiery Heart

The Hasidic rabbi, Menahem Mendl of Kotzk was by all accounts a firebrand. He served a community in Poland until 1839 when he retreated from public life and lived in seclusion for the last 20 years of his life. He never published. All that survives of his work is a small collection of sayings. In fact towards the end of his life he burned all of his writings. Everything that he ever wrote was destroyed save what his disciples remembered. He was singularly consumed with devotion to God. He railed against false piety.

This week we read of the details for the construction of the tabernacle, the portable mishkan, around which the ancient Israelites focused their devotion. The Torah declares: “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. Exactly as I show you—the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings—so shall you make it.” (Exodus 25:8-9)

Can any building truly house God?

Can any building other than the original mishkan be perfect? And so we continue struggling, attempting to figure out how best to bring God to earth, how to make God’s presence felt in the here and now. All of Jewish history is in part a record of the attempts to decipher how to build that mishkan again and again, how to recreate that moment of God’s nearness found in the Torah. How do we build a Jewish life out of the fragments of belief that are left to us by our ancestors?

Our efforts are imperfect. Our sanctuaries inadequate.

Rabbi Menahem Mendl of Kotzk asks about this week’s verses: why does the Torah say that God will dwell among them and not that God will dwell in the sanctuary. He answers his own question: “It says ‘among them’ and not ‘among it,’ to teach you that each person must build the sanctuary in his own heart; then God will dwell among them.”

The trappings and beauty of our sanctuaries pale in comparison to the heart. That is where true piety can be found. We do not require buildings. We do not need sanctuaries. And if we are to take Menahem Mendl’s life as an example, we do not even require books.

We only require a true and devoted heart.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Mishpatim, Prayer Breakfasts and Moral Clarity

Mahatma Ghandi famously said: “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”

Ghandi’s life was of course the living embodiment of the pacifist tradition. He preached against taking up arms and called others to turn away from seeking the revenge that the Torah’s words imply. Ghandi, and the vast majority of commentators, however misunderstand the Bible’s intent.

This week’s portion states: “But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” (Exodus 21:23)

Scholars suggest that an eye for an eye is a poetic way of expressing the idea, also enshrined in American law, that the punishment must fit the crime....

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Yitro and Calming Smiles

The Torah recounts the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai:
All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance. (Exodus 20:15)
The Talmud reimagines:
When Moses ascended to heaven to receive the Torah he found the Holy One sitting and fashioning crowns upon certain letters. Moses said to God: "Master of the world, who requires you to do this?" God replied: "There is a person who will come to be after many generations, called Akiva ben Yosef; he will one day expound heaps upon heaps of laws from each and every crown." Moses said before God: "Master of the world, show him to me." God replied: "Turn around." He turned around and found himself behind the eighth row in the Talmudic academy—behind the regular students arranged in order of excellence in the first seven rows. Moses did not understand the discussion and was dazed. When Rabbi Akiva came to a certain point, his students asked him "How do you know this?" Akiva replied, "This is a law given to Moses from Sinai." Then Moses was calmed. But Moses turned back and stepped before the Holy One and said: "Master of the world, You have such a person, yet You give the Torah through me?" God replied: "Be still, that is how it entered my mind." (Babylonian Talmud, Menahot 29b)
Here the Rabbis appear to admit that although their project is interpretive it is in truth innovative. They seem aware of the fact that they are creating something so new that even Moses would be unable to understand it. He would be relegated to the back row of the class.

Sometimes the distance between generations is so great that one generation struggles to understand the other.

And yet a thread connects the two. Both share a belief. They hold on to the faith that even such apparently unrecognizable innovations were given on Mount Sinai. When God handed the written Torah to Moses God also revealed the oral Torah, the method by which we would continue to interpret its written words.

We weave new interpretations.

Would my grandparents understand my children’s Jewish lives? Would they find comfort in today’s prayers and songs? Would they approve of such new interpretations as Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu or Debbie Friedman’s Mi Shebeirach: “Bless those in need of healing with r’fuah sh’leimah, the renewal of body, the renewal of spirit, and let us say, Amen”? Would their hearts only be stilled when my daughter would declare: “I am named for my father’s grandfather and my mother’s grandfather.” Then they might be calmed. The thread becomes revealed. Their hearts would exult. And their minds might declare, “Look at her smile. Look at her sing.”

The exultation is found in singing. We draw comfort in a smile.

The story unfolds. Moses is not satisfied. Perhaps he asks too many questions.
Then Moses said: "Master of the world, you have shown me Akiva’s Torah, now show me his reward." God said: "Turn around." He turned around and saw Akiva's flesh being weighed in a butcher shop.
Their earlier admission turns horrifying. History reminds us that the greatest rabbi, the most masterful interpreter of Torah, is murdered by the Romans. As we recount on Yom Kippur afternoon, Rabbi Akiva is martyred because of his devotion to Torah and his support for the Bar Kochba rebellion.

We discover hidden warnings within the Talmud’s story. If you believe that a life devoted to Torah, a life committed to Jewish observance, guarantees a life of ease and the blessing of 120 healthy years, then beware. Take care against such seductions. Even the individual who Moses himself admits was the most deserving of receiving the Torah suffers a cruel and torturous end. Torah can add meaning to our lives. It does not promise longevity.

Still Moses will not relent with his questions.
Moses exclaimed: ‘’Master of the world, such Torah and such a reward?" God replied: "Be still, that is how it entered my mind."
The thread continues.

Emily Dickinson writes:
They might not need me—yet they might—
I’ll let my Heart be just in sight—
A smile so small as mine might be
Precisely their necessity—
The questions daze. The smile stills.

And we continue to weave the imagined thread that extends to Sinai.

…Be still, that is how it entered my mind....