Thursday, September 18, 2014

Nitzavim-Vayelech and Hidden Good

There is a legend about thirty-six righteous individuals who are so good and so noble that the world is sustained by their deeds. They are called the Lamed Vavniks (the Hebrew letters lamed and vav add up to thirty six). Crucial to this legend is the fact that their identities must always remain obscured. If but one of their names is revealed, another must take his place. Otherwise the world might teeter and even collapse.

It is interesting to note that according to this tradition, our well-being is not only placed in the hands of a few righteous individuals, but in their identities remaining concealed. Why is it so important that they remain hidden? It is because the world really does require hidden sparks of goodness.

Doing good should not be predicated on recognition or reward but instead on the needs of others, on the requirements of the world at large. That is the message of the Lamed Vavniks. They do good only because the world needs it. Their reward remains in God’s hands. The Torah teaches: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God; and those things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may observe all the words of this Torah.” (Deuteronomy 29:28)

The Hasidic rebbe, Menahem Mendle of Kotzk opines: “The world thinks that a tzaddik nistar—a hidden righteous person—is a person who conceals his righteousness and his good deeds from others. The truth, though, is that a tzaddik nistar is one whose righteousness is hidden and concealed from himself, and who has no idea whatsoever that he (or she) is righteous.”

How different the world might be if good was so ordinary that even the doer remained unaware.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Ki Tavo and Treasures

What is a treasure?

I can treasure something.  Some people treasure cars, others shoes.  More often people treasure not that which is the most costly but that which was given to them.  They then hold in their hands a keepsake.  The possession acquires value because of the giver rather than because of its monetary value.  My most valued kiddush cup is not that which is even the most beautiful but that which was given to Susie and me by her grandparents and which served the family for several generations.

I can treasure a book, the Torah.  I wonder.  Does it matter which scroll I read or is it the words that I spend my years examining and pondering that are the more important and therefore the most treasured?

I can treasure someone.  Most treasure family, a spouse, children, parents and grandparents.  I wonder.  Do their actions make me treasure them less?  If I become disappointed with them do I love them any less?  On the contrary, if they do something which makes me proud do I treasure them even more?  I think not.  They are treasured because of who they are.  They can do right or even wrong, but they are family and will always be treasured and loved. 

So too the Jewish people.  In the Torah we are called God’s treasure, an "am segulah," a treasured people.  Is God’s love dependent on what we do?  “And the Lord has affirmed this day that you are, as He promised you, His treasured people… (Deuteronomy 26:18)  We are treasured because God promised.  The giver grants sanctity.  The giver lends meaning to the treasure.

The cup with which we sanctify Shabbat reminds me of our grandfather.

And yet the verse continues: “…His treasured people who shall observe all His commandments.” Grand expectations are placed upon our shoulders.  We expect so much of those we love.

Are we loved any less if we fall short?     


Not by God.  But most certainly by ourselves.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Ki Tetze, Birds and the Breath of Goodness

According to Moses Maimonides this week’s portion contains 72 mitzvot, far more than any other Torah portion.  Within this plethora of commandments we discover: “If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young.  Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life.”  (Deuteronomy 22:6-7)

This is an interesting command.  It is important to note that the Torah does not just deal with ritual life but with ethical obligations.  Moreover the Torah’s concern extends not just to human beings but to all of God’s creatures.  Still, one wonders how this act is a measure of compassion.  The tradition reasons that the mother must be sent away so that she does not see her young taken.  Human beings are allowed to make use of God’s creation, and even creatures, but with this permission comes certain responsibilities.  We must not cause undo suffering to animals.  The Torah therefore takes the mother’s pain into account.

This is why this mitzvah is connected to long life.  This reward mirrors that promise offered for the commandment to honor parents.  The vast majority of mitzvot do not have such a reward attached to them.  These are two of the few instances.  Of course this raises the question.  If I do not show honor to my parents, if I fail to let the mother bird go, will I not be rewarded with long life?

The Talmud offers a story.  Elisha ben Abuyah, a colleague of Rabbi Akiva, once saw a young boy climb a tree to fetch eggs from a nest.  In observance of the command, he shooed the mother bird away before taking the eggs.  When climbing down from the tree he fell and died.  Elisha saw this and rejected his Jewish faith.  How could there be a good and just God, he reasoned, and apparently said very loudly.       

Such is the question that has occupied Jewish thinkers for generations.  While Elisha’s is among the most radical that our tradition preserves (he is deemed a heretic by his colleagues but not written out of their book), I prefer the reasoning of Moses Maimonides, the great medieval philosopher. 

He writes in his Guide of the Perplexed:  “Consider the environment in which we have our being: the more urgently a thing is needed by living beings, the more abundantly (and cheaply) it is found.  The less dependent on anything, the rarer (and more expensive) it is.  Thus the things man needs most, for instance are air, water, and food…  This is a mark of God’s goodness and bounty.” (Guide, III:12) 

When we look at the world we tend to forget that even the air we breathe is a gift from God.  We make long lists of all the things we need (among them, a long, healthy life) and when we don’t receive but one of these we ask, where is God?  Maimonides counsels us that we need to look at the world differently, we need to look at God differently.  Look at how plentiful the air we breathe is.  Look at how quenching is the water I drink.

I admit his advice is sometimes difficult, and challenging, to follow.  Most people don’t know that Maimonides faced a similar struggle.  Fourteen years prior to penning these words, his brother drowned in a ship wreck in the Indian Ocean.  In addition to losing his only brother much of the family fortune was lost.  Maimonides was forced to devote more time to his medical profession in order to support his family, as well as his brother’s. 

For a full year following his brother’s death the person who most believe was the greatest Jewish thinker who ever lived spent a year in bed, depressed beyond all consolation.  He wrote to a friend: “Now my joy has been changed into darkness; [my brother] has gone to his eternal home, and has left me prostrated in a strange land.  Whenever I come across his handwriting in one of his books, my heart grows faint within me, and my grief reawakens.”

With the litany of our tradition’s blessings it is curious that the no blessing is mandated for water and air, and yet they are as much a sign of God’s bounty as the hallah we will taste, and bless, tomorrow evening.

Take counsel from Maimonides’ words.  Take heart from his life.

Sometimes it really does take years to see again the beauty and wonder in God’s world.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Elul and Good People

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “The good person is not he who does the right thing, but he who is in the habit of doing the right thing.”

It is simple, and perhaps easy, to do a single good deed, to volunteer at a soup kitchen on a Sunday, to write a check to a needy charity, to offer one apology to a person wronged, or to attend Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.  These are all worthy endeavors but Judaism is not about the solitary act but instead about a litany of acts, a lifetime of doing right.  Our faith is about creating a discipline of doing, about ritualizing behaviors.

This is why Judaism sets aside not two days for the task of repentance, or even ten, but instead forty.  On Tuesday, with the new moon of Elul, this forty day period of introspection and repair began.  It began with Rosh Hodesh Elul, gains momentum with the meditative Selichot service (on Saturday, September 20th at 7 pm), further intensifies with the prayers of Rosh Hashanah and reaches a crescendo with the fasting of Yom Kippur.  These forty days mirror the days Moses spent on Mount Sinai communing with God.  They are intended so that we might turn inward and examine our ways and repair our wrongs.

Repentance, teshuvah, is about turning and changing.  This of course is no simple task.  It is not about reciting one Al Cheyt, one moment of apology, one solitary word of forgiveness, but instead about building a life centered on words and deeds.  It is about stringing together a few acts until they become a habit. That cannot be accomplished in a mere two days, no matter how meaningful our services are, no matter how heartfelt our praying and singing might be.

Each of these days we are granted an opportunity for renewal and repair.  Set aside moments during the course of this month and ask yourself what you would like to change, from whom you would like to offer an apology and seek forgiveness.

We are given a blessing each and every one of these days to create new habits.  And from there we begin to build the title of good person.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Reeh, Friends and Enemies

In the traditional haggadah we read the following prayer when opening the door for Elijah: “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. Pour out your wrath on them; may your blazing anger overtake them. Pursue them in wrath and destroy them from under the heavens of Adonai!”

Added to the haggadah during the murderous Crusades, these words seem out of step with our modern, universal values. Even though we are sympathetic to the origins of this prayer, our liberal haggadahs have deleted it from our Seders. We speak instead about the messianic peace that Elijah will announce rather than the vengeance he might exact.

This week’s portion echoes these sentiments and begins with a similar refrain. Here it is not a prayer but a command. “You must destroy all the sites at which the nations you are to dispossess worshipped their gods, whether on lofty mountains or on hills under any luxuriant tree. Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site.” (Deuteronomy 12:2-3)

Again this appears contrary to everything we believe. Destroying non-believers and their places of worship contradicts everything we hold dear. How is this any different from the hate filled words of the Hamas’ charter or the savagery of ISIS? How are our Torah’s words different from those who read their tradition’s words as a mandate to murder and destroy?

And yet we live in a time when suggesting we have no enemies is equally problematic. Thus we are trapped between those who are unable to name our real enemies and those who see enemies everywhere and anywhere. A.B. Yehoshua, a leading Israeli novelist, recently argued that this is in fact the crucial dilemma facing Israel. The failure to call Hamas an enemy rather than a terrorist state prevents Israel from confronting Hamas and its rockets and tunnels. The fight against terror is never ending. Confronting an enemy by contrast offers two clear options: negotiations or war.

Yehoshua writes: “Let us not forget: The Palestinians in Gaza are our permanent neighbors, and we are theirs. We will never halt the bloody destruction by talking of ‘terror.’ It will require negotiation, or a war against a legitimate ‘enemy.’" (“Israel Needs to Stop Calling Hamas a Terrorist Organization,” The New Republic, August 13, 2014)

Terrorism is a tactic. And the so-called war on terror is an unhelpful euphemism that avoids the challenge of naming our enemies. Only by naming our enemies can we truly confront today’s struggles.

Our times need not be so confusing. Those who wish to destroy us and proclaim it in such unmistakable terms, those who revile the pluralism for which this country stands, are most certainly our enemies. We must not be afraid to say such words. Our world has real enemies. Does that make such prayers legitimate? Does that make such commands meaningful? I recoil from these words. Better perhaps that we should pray for peace rather than seeking vengeance. Still we must remain forever on guard and vigilant.

We must also work to be sure that those with whom we have honest disagreements remain friends. We dare not confuse friend with enemy. Articulating a vision of pluralism and an acceptance of different worldviews is paramount. Let us be clear. When others advocate for our destruction they name themselves as our enemies. We must remain unafraid of saying so in clear and unmistakable terms. We must avoid euphemisms that confuse the moral challenge.

We pray: “May God, who blessed our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, bless the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces, who stand guard over our land and the cities of our God, from the border of Lebanon to the desert of Egypt, and from the Great Sea to the Aravah, on land, in the air, and on the sea. May the Lord cause the enemies who rise up against us to be struck down before them. May the Holy Blessed One preserve and rescue our soldiers from every trouble and distress and from every plague and illness, and may God send blessing and success in their every endeavor….” (Prayer for the Welfare of Israel Defense Forces Soldiers)

Pray for peace. Remain vigilant. Fight against our enemies when they rise up against us.

Remain clear-sighted. Know who is an enemy. Remember who is a friend.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Ekev, Bread and Faith

This week we read the famous line: “…man does not live on bread alone.”  But what exactly does this oft-quoted phrase mean?

First let’s examine the context:

God has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, that He might test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts: whether you would keep His commandments or not.  He subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your fathers had ever known, in order to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, but that man may live on anything that the Lord decrees. The clothes upon you did not wear out, nor did your feet swell these forty years. Bear in mind that the Lord your God disciplines you just as a man disciplines his son. Therefore keep the commandments of the Lord your God: walk in His ways and revere Him.  (Deuteronomy 8:2-6)

Looking at the larger context we learn that this is a lesson about tough love.  God subjects the Jewish people to hardships throughout their wanderings in order to test their devotion.  God further tests the people so that they might learn that there is only one true source of sustenance and that is God.  Well, sign me up!

How is this motivating?  How is this a compelling argument for faith?  Who wants to be hungry?  Who wants to be disciplined? 

Perhaps the larger lesson is different.  While we may not wish to look toward God as the source of hardships, discipline and tests, they are a part of life.  The notion that life will never offer us challenges, that the road will always be even, is of course mistaken.  Everyone, even our children, will face difficulties.  All of us will encounter hardships. 

So we must see even these hardships as opportunities.  And how might we gain this change of heart?  By looking to God.

The idea is not that we should observe God’s commandments so that we might never face difficulties.  It is not as well that we have to prove our faith to God, as the Torah appears to suggest, but instead that these challenges can be openings to allow God in. 

Bread might sustain our bodies, but life is sustained by far more. 

After every meal our tradition counsels us that we are supposed to recite a blessing. This too is found in this week’s portion.  “When you have eaten and are full, then you shall bless the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 8:10)  The Hasidic rabbi, Shlomo of Karlin, comments: “By blessing God you will become full.”

The fullness of our hearts can only come from singing praises to God.  Being satisfied comes not from a belly filled with bread but instead from giving thanks. 

A meal is much more than the food on our plates.

Only faith can fill the heart.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Vaetchanan and Pleading for Peace

For all his successes and triumphs, our hero Moses is denied setting foot on the Promised Land. Because he grew angry at the Israelites and hit a rock, God states that he will not be allowed to enter the land of Israel.

This week Moses begs God to change this decree: “I pleaded with the Lord… Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan…” (Deuteronomy 4:23-25)

The commentators are bothered that Moses pleads. Begging appears beneath him. His words seem undignified for a leader. They wonder as well how Moses can question God’s judgment. The medieval writer, Moses ibn Ezra, suggests that even in this instance, Moses, who the tradition calls “Moshe Rabbeinu—Moses, our Teacher,” is offering a lesson. And what is it that he teaches the people? It is a lesson about the supreme value of living in the land of Israel. It is as if to say, “Living in the land is worth pleading.”

The modern commentator, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, reads this passage differently. He suggests that Moses is not asking for forgiveness, but instead arguing that he did not even commit a wrong. The decree is therefore unjustified and should rightfully be annulled. What chutzpah! In the end Moses’ request is partially fulfilled. God responds to his plea and allows him to see the land from afar. Moses is allowed to glimpse the beauty of Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel.

I continue to wonder. For what is it appropriate to plead? For what can I beg God?

These weeks an answer begins to emerge. How about peace? Let my plea be heard! Let shalom be granted—even if but partially. Does such a plea appear undignified?

I continue to rely on the Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai.

Not the peace of a cease-fire
not even the vision of the wolf and the lamb,
but rather
as in the heart when the excitement is over
and you can talk only about a great weariness.
I know that I know how to kill,
that makes me an adult.
And my son plays with a toy gun that knows
how to open and close its eyes and say Mama.
A peace
without the big noise of beating swords into ploughshares,
without words, without
the thud of the heavy rubber stamp: let it be
light, floating, like lazy white foam.
A little rest for the wounds –
who speaks of healing?
(And the howl of orphans is passed from generation
to the next, as in a relay race:
the baton never falls.)
Let it come
like wildflowers,
suddenly, because the field
must have it: wildpeace.

Please God. I plead. Vaetchnanan!

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Tisha B'Av, Tragedy and Renewal

On Tuesday, the Jewish world will observe the saddest day in our calendar, Tisha B’Av.

This day commemorates the destruction of the first Temple by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. and the second by the Romans in 70 C.E. According to tradition it also marks the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290 and from Spain in 1492. This day has therefore become the day on which we mark our many collective tragedies.

In 70 not only was the Temple destroyed but the city of Jerusalem also decimated. Most of its inhabitants were murdered or carted off to Rome as slaves. (For visitors to Italy one can see this depicted on the Arch of Titus.)

And yet out of this devastation grew rabbinic Judaism. The rabbis authored prayers whose words echoed longings for a different, and renewed, Jerusalem. “Blessed are You, Adonai, Guardian of Israel, whose shelter of peace is spread over us, over all Your people Israel, and over Jerusalem.” Even at weddings they counseled that we pause to remember this great tragedy and shatter a glass.

If not for this great calamity, the Judaism we know and love, the Jewish life of synagogue and home, would not exist.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg writes:
The Rabbis’ fundamental theological breakthrough was a ‘secularization’ insight. God was becoming less visible, more hidden. The Destruction was a signal that manifest divine activity was being curtailed. God would not stop the Romans or save the Temple (even though God had destroyed the Egyptians at the Red Sea). Still the covenant was not being disowned; it was being renewed…. The original covenant remained, but humans became more active and responsible. (The Jewish Way)
It is in our hands. The peace of Jerusalem is within our grasp. This is what we must continue to believe.

Out of every tragedy comes the sparks of something new and different.

In 1492 Queen Isabella ordered that the Jews be banished from Spain. The edict was signed on March 31, 1492. The Jews, who had enjoyed there a golden age, were given only four months to leave the country. And thus four months later on the ninth of Av (Tisha B’Av) all the Jews left Spain.

And the next day, Columbus set sail.

We know the rest of that story.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Writing Out, Drawing In

Below is my commentary published by Ten Minutes of Torah - Reform Voices of Torah - D'varim.

There is great power in language, in our words. It draws us in. Every time we recite the words, Adonai Eloheinu, "the Eternal our God," we write ourselves into the Jewish story. Yet, the very same language that writes us in, the very same stories that draw us in, also write others out. There can only be an "us" if there is also a "them." This is the implication of the portion's words, "The Eternal our God spoke to us at Horeb . . ."

There remain some for whom these words are foreign, who are cast aside by them. Hidden within this concept of us are the words "not them"—and the even more painful "not you."

It is these thoughts that continue to haunt me after officiating at a particularly tragic funeral. A young couple asked me to help them bury their child. Because one parent is Jewish and the other Christian, only half the mourners were Jewish. I wondered, was I helping the mourners with the words I recited, especially those said in Hebrew? Were the tradition's words that are our inheritance and bring our people so much comfort instead making half of those present feel excluded?

As we turned to the ritual of placing the shovels full of earth into the grave, I invited all to participate. Some quietly asked me if it would be OK for them to take part given that they are not Jewish. I answered with an emphatic, "Yes, of course." Everyone took turns: parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins; friends, rabbis, and pastors; Jews and Christians. No one stopped until the task was completed and the mitzvah fulfilled.

I smoothed over the earth that now reached the edges of the grass. I thanked all for participating. We were united by the work of our hands.

An ordinary shovel had become an instrument of holiness. A minyan of sorrow had been formed. Perhaps tragedy makes us one. Suffering and pain can draw us together. In that moment, standing at that grave, I discovered that there are moments when there is only us and no them. Such was the gift and teaching of a child now gone.

Words might exclude. Actions unite.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Masei, Jewish Power and Its Agitations

On Passover we sing Vehi Sheamda in a tune that belies its meaning: “This promise has stood us and our parents in good stead. For not only has one enemy stood over us to annihilate us. But in every generation enemies have stood over us to annihilate us. Yet the Holy One keeps the promise to save us from their hands.”

The world is once again convulsing with hatred of the Jews. Israel is fighting an enemy whose stated mission is to destroy us. Synagogues are desecrated in France. Throughout Europe people once again riot against the Jewish state. The distinction that some pretend exists is no more. There is no difference between anti-Israel sentiment and antisemitism. (Loving criticism of Israel does not of course make the critic anti-Israel.)

Amos Oz, a leading Israeli novelist, writes...