Thursday, September 22, 2016

Ki Tavo and No More Either/Or

This week’s Torah portion begins with the rituals we are to perform when entering the land that God promises.

After harvesting the first fruits of the season the farmer performs a special ceremony. He brings a basket of fruit to the priest who then places it on the altar. The farmer then recites the following ritual formula: “My father was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there… The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Lord, have given me.” (Deuteronomy 26:5-10)

In this brief formulaic encapsulation of Jewish history, the Torah emphasizes our journey from wandering to landedness. God brought us from slavery to freedom and from the wilderness to the land of Israel.

It is interesting, and perhaps curious, to note that when we live in the land, as this Torah portion foresees, we remember our other condition of wandering and when we are in the diaspora we long for the condition of nationhood.

At every Jewish wedding, for example, the ancient rabbis commanded us to sing, “O Lord our God, may there forever be heard in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem the voices of joy and gladness, bride and groom, the jubilant voices of those joined in marriage under the huppah, the voices of young people feasting and singing.” At every Seder we conclude with the words, “Next year in Jerusalem!”

There are two competing paradigms in Jewish history: on the one hand, wandering and the diaspora, and on the other, landedness and Jewish sovereignty. Throughout most of Jewish history our center was a diaspora community, as best exemplified by ancient Babylonia or pre-World War II Poland. There were other times when we enjoyed Jewish independence in Jerusalem, under for example, King David or the Maccabees.

We, however, live in a unique time when there is both a vibrant diaspora community and an equally vibrant, and powerful, Jewish state. Today we are blessed with both paradigms. Today it is not the diaspora or Jewish sovereignty, wandering or landedness. It is both. And so we lack historical parallels to emulate. How do we further our unique historical situation when we only know how to remember wandering or long for sovereignty?

How can we live in both the diaspora and the land of Israel? This is the question for our present age. How can we both affirm Jewish sovereignty in the State of Israel and assert the vibrancy of the Jewish diaspora? And it is this question that hides beneath nearly every Jewish debate, especially those about the modern State of Israel and its policies and most important its relationship with the United States. Democrats shout, “Hillary is best for Israel.” Republicans claim, “Trump will better defend Israel.”

We shout at each other. Those who affirm the vibrancy of wandering and criticize Israel’s reliance on power are called disloyal. Those who relish in the recently achieved Jewish sovereignty and call diaspora Jews’ defense of the stranger are described as weak.

Perhaps we require a new language. We must discover new rituals for this unique, and unparalleled time—if for no other reason than to quiet the shouts and cries at one another. It can no longer be either/or if we are to remain as one.

Wandering and sovereignty must be held together.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Fifteen Years Later: A Prayer

Lord our God, I offer this prayer fifteen years after the 9-11 attack.

On the morning of September 11, 2016, I felt once again the comfortable cool air of a late summer day and turned to look up at the deep blue sky. And all I could think about was that terrible, dark day of fifteen years ago. I thought of the fear and terror of that morning. I remembered those taken from our midst and how they were robbed of their futures. And I was robbed of their companionship. All I could think about were those smiling photographs looking up at me from our newspapers. They were torn from our families; they were stolen from our homes. My heart remains wounded. Now even so many years after that day, I strain to hear their voices. I long to feel their embrace....

Monday, September 12, 2016

9-11 and Making Holy War

The Bible’s Book of Deuteronomy, which Jews are in the midst of reading, details the laws about making war. It is worth noting that although we might prefer to cling to the words of the prophets and their lofty visions of peace: “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation” or “The wolf shall lie down with the lamb,” the Jewish tradition is not a pacifist tradition. It allows for war. The Book of Deuteronomy in fact recognizes that this will be the Jewish people’s lot when they cross the Jordan and conquer the land of the Canaanites. It most especially recognizes that sometimes we must fight wars of self-defense. Of course, before attacking an enemy terms of peace must be offered.

The Bible continues. The priest speaks to the troops and says: “Sh’ma Yisrael—Hear O Israel! You are about to join battle with your enemy. Let not your courage falter. Do not be in fear, or in panic, or in dread of them. For it is the Lord your God who marches with you to do battle…” (Deuteronomy 20) This refrain of “Don’t be afraid, God is with you” is often repeated. Such words make us uncomfortable. This week we are marking the 15th anniversary of 9-11, a day that continues to wound and a day in which our country, and our city, were attacked by people who believed that they were likewise doing God’s bidding, that their heinous acts had God’s blessing. So how do we read our holy books and not cringe at even such vague similarities?

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Shoftim and a Lynching Tree

What is so terrible about a tree?

In keeping with Deuteronomy’s near obsession with idolatry and its desire to eradicate all objects of foreign worship from the land of Israel, we read: “You shall not set up a sacred post (asherah)—any tree-like object beside the altar of the Lord your God that you make—or erect a stone pillar; for such the Lord your God detests.” (Deuteronomy 16:21-22) Last week’s theme continues through this week.

An asherah, sacred post, was apparently a standing wooden object erected at a place of worship. In other words it was a totem pole. It could have also been a particular type of tree that was deemed sacred by the ancient Canaanites. Or, perhaps it was a tree that was planted near their temples. Interestingly the name for a Canaanite goddess was Asherah. Trees, or wooden objects, were thus associated with this goddess and explicitly forbidden.

The sentiment is clear. Anything that even approaches Canaanite religion or worship is forbidden. The message is emphatic. We are going to do things differently, most especially in the land of Israel. And that begins with how we pray.

But a tree?

There are times when hiking in the deserts of Israel one is grateful for the shade of a tree. It is a welcome relief from the afternoon sun. In a hot, dry climate, shade can offer much relief. “And the Lord appeared to Abraham by the terebinths (oaks) of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot.” (Genesis 18:1) Given that this tree, or cluster of trees, had a particular name indicates that they were familiar to Abraham and his contemporaries. Perhaps they were used as a landmark. Then again perhaps these trees were also deemed sacred by his new neighbors.

During Abraham’s time there appears more comfort with the indigenous Canaanite religion. It was not that the patriarchs believed as the Canaanites did. But they do appear more at ease living side by side with competing religious practices and ideas. They allowed such religions to coexist alongside their own. Rather than uprooting these sacred trees Abraham redefines them. There he experiences his God. The Canaanites’ totem pole becomes the site of his covenant with God and the beginnings of our faith.

Deuteronomy sees such an approach as impossible. By this time the Israelites wish to become the dominant religion of the land. They are to be the majority of its inhabitants. Thus the Canaanites are no longer neighbors but enemies. In this week’s portion we sense the moment when the Israelites will reclaim the land for our entire nation. There can be no living side by side with their enemy’s ideas or even with their sacred objects.

Imagine a tall, stately tree that serves as a contemporary destination. Imagine as well that years ago this same beautiful tree was used to lynch an innocent man or even to hang a guilty criminal. Would you want such a tree to continue to serve as a landmark for the place you now call home? An ordinary tree can become deformed by the acts committed under its limbs. This is exactly how the Canaanites were seen. This is exactly how their sacred trees were viewed. In the imagination of the ancient Israelites the Canaanite religion was everywhere and always equated with such evils.

One always imagines an enemy doing horrific and unspeakable acts. (And sometimes they really do. But other times they do not. More often the evil-doers are fewer in number than we imagine.) The Israelites therefore believed that there was no choice but to eradicate even their trees.

Beware of seeing evil lurking under every tree.

The prophet proclaims: “Nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war; every man shall sit under his grapevine or fig tree and no one shall make him afraid.” (Micah 4:4)

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Turning Home

A story by Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, the unparalleled 18th century Hasidic rabbi.

There once was a Jew who lived in the great and tumultuous metropolis of New York. (Ok, I changed the city from Prague). One night he dreamed that he should journey to San Francisco (I think it works better than Vienna). There, at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge, leading to the overpriced homes of that vibrant and bustling city, he would find a buried treasure.

Night after night he dreamed the same dream. The image of that glistening red bridge, shrouded in fog and connecting San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean, occupied his thoughts. He resolved, he must travel there. He left his family behind and traveled west to California. There he was certain he would find the treasure about which he dreamed.

Given the current age of terrorism in which we now find ourselves, the bridge is under constant surveillance. Finding the buried treasure might prove more difficult than he had planned and bargained for. And so, every day he walked the bridge’s expanse; he explored the rocky coastline; he wandered near the bridge’s supports. He wondered where exactly the treasure might be buried. The police began to take notice.

After two weeks an officer approached the man. He turned to run. The officer grabbed the man by his coat and shouted, “You are not from around here. What are you plotting? Why do you keep returning here, to this bridge, day after day?” The man grew afraid and nervous. He revealed his dream of the buried treasure. The officer burst out laughing. He brought other officers over. “Listen to this New York Jew’s tale,” he said.

After what seemed like hours of laughter and the exhausting repetition of his story to what felt like every San Francisco police officer, in particular the tale of his dream, and the travails of his journey from New York to California (Oy the traffic; the delays at LaGuardia) the officer said: “What a foolish man you are to believe in such dreams. If I lived my life by such visions, I would be well on my way to New York. In fact, last night I dreamed that a New York Jew has buried in his very own backyard a treasure waiting to be uncovered.”

The man returned to New York. He immediately began digging in his backyard and there in his perfectly manicured lawn, among the beautiful landscaping, he found untold gold and silver coins; he discovered unimaginable wealth. He sat down and reflected. “The treasure was always here; it was always in my possession. Why did I have to travel so far to discover this? It was always here within my reach?”

More often than not, treasures are found closer to home. They can be found in the tradition that carries us from place to place. They can be found in the homes where we laugh together at holiday meals. They can be found within our own hearts. So teaches Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav.

The High Holidays and the period of introspection they mark, begin with the first of the month of Elul. This day begins on Saturday. The task of turning begins not on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur but this weekend.
What are the treasures waiting to be discovered here and now, at home and at work, within reach of our very own arms and legs? What untold riches are standing here before our very eyes? This is the question we should focus on during these forty days of repentance. This is the gift of the month of Elul.

This is the question that might open our hearts to our tradition’s season of turning. It is not so much about the sermons, the prayers and even the chanting of Kol Nidre as much as the turning of our heart towards the treasures found within, to the riches found closest to home.

And, In memory of Gene Wilder, and to illustrate part of my inspiration, enjoy this clip from The Frisco Kid:



And take to heart some of his witty advice: “If you're not gonna tell the truth, then why start talking?”  It is the perfect reminder about our tradition’s demand to speak honest words.  

Friday, August 26, 2016

Parent's Prayer Before College

For those who may be driving a son or daughter to college for the first time, perhaps you will find this creative prayer meaningful and helpful for that moment of letting go:

Adonai Eloheinu, Lord our God, keep my son/daughter safe as they learn more about the world, themselves, and I hope their Jewish inheritance, at college. Open their hearts to different people and their minds to new ideas. Let them acquire wisdom and skills to navigate life’s challenges and struggles without my prodding and help. Indeed, let them grow more independent. Restrain me from texting too often but let them remain certain I am always available to listen, advise and most of all offer words of love and comfort. Even though my sheltered embrace is now distant from their daily lives let them find protection in Your eternal care. Blessed are You, Adonai, who listens to prayer.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Ekev and God's Wealth

As we march through the portions of Deuteronomy, amidst the promises of reward and the threats of punishment in Moses’ lengthy warnings to the Israelites, we discover these words: “Remember it is the Lord your God who gives you the strength to make wealth…” (Deuteronomy 9:18)

The religious perspective insists that the foods we eat and the successes we earn are not our own but are instead owed to God. Even though I believe each of us deserves a measure of praise for our own successes I wonder how our world might be improved if we were to adopt this philosophy.

If my success is not my own, if my wealth is not because of my own strengths, intelligence and skills, then perhaps I am more willing to share with others and give to my community. I am less inclined to hold this wealth in my own hands because it is not owed to the work of my hands. Everything is a gift. Everything is blessing from God.

And that is the goal of the society the Torah wishes to create. It is about fashioning a sense of “our.” Its theory is that in order to do so, in order to train the soul to share, we must replace “It is mine.” with “It is because of God.”

If everything belongs to God, if the food I eat, if the successes I attain, are because of God then it becomes easier for me to share. Community can only be sustained by sharing.

That is the Torah’s goal. A holy community can only succeed because of God’s strength.

Friday, August 19, 2016

What Old School Perspective Can Teach

What Old School Perspective Can Teach the Age of the Smartphone

Here is the theory: the people closest to us are actually growing more distant and the events farthest from our homes feel much too near. Two illustrations:

A recent phone conversation with my daughter.

“I heard from your uncle that you and your cousin had a lengthy conversation.”

“Yes. We texted for a while about her summer at camp.”

“I thought your uncle said you spoke.”

“Abba, for my generation texting is talking.”

You could almost hear as well, “You’re so old!”

I manage to text, inbox and even tweet. Still I wonder how these technological advances might hurt our relationships with each other and our world....

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Vaetchanan and Swimming Medals

Olympic swimmers break records every year.  Their skills are extraordinary.  Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky amaze.  Swimmers improve their times at every Olympics. 

The first medalist in Olympic swimming, in modern history, was Alfred Hajos-Guttmann.  And who was Hajos-Guttman?  A Jew.  In fact he was a Hungarian Jew.  He earned two gold medals at the 1896 games in Athens.  He won the 100-Meter and 1200-Meter Freestyle.  His time for the 100-Meter was 1:22.2.  By the way, this year’s winner touched the wall at 47.58.

Granted Hajos-Guttman did not swim in a 50-Meter state of the art pool but instead in the cool waters of the Mediterranean in which there were the occasional 12-foot swells.  There is a big difference between swimming in a pool and an ocean!  Even more noteworthy Hajos-Guttman also earned titles in Hungary’s national competitions in running, hurdles, discus and soccer.  Later he coached Hungary’s national soccer team. 

And when he returned to the 1924 Olympics he competed not in sports but the arts.  Apparently back then it was not just about sports, and sportsmanship (although there have been both stirring and disturbing examples of this during these summer games), but other disciplines.  Hajos-Guttman earned top honors in architecture. 

And so I’m just saying.  Maybe it really did begin with a Jewish achievement.

And why did Hajos-Guttman take up swimming?  At the age of thirteen his father drowned in the Danube.  It was not so much about the medals but instead about saving life.  In fact he changed his name to Hajos, which means sailor in Hungarian.

The Talmud teaches that parents are obligated to teach their children Torah and a craft.  To not teach them a craft is likened to teaching them to steal.  And some say to teach them to swim too.  Why?  Because their lives might depend on it. (Babylonian Talmud Sukkah 56b)  And Rabbi Moskowitz adds: To teach them to ride a bike.  Why?  Their enjoyment might depend on it.

The Torah reminds us: “And you shall teach them to your children. (Deuteronomy 6)

No one can swim as fast as Phelps or Ledecky but everyone needs to know how to swim.  And it all started with Alfred Hajos-Guttman, the Jew who took up swimming for no other reason than his life might depend on it. 

It’s really not about the medals.

Addendum: I would like to acknowledge Abby Sher and her recent article in Jewniverse: The First Swimmer to Win Olympic Gold Was This HungarianJew.  Sher pointed me in the direction of Hajos-Guttman’s achievements.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Devarim and the Weight of Words

Sometimes language offers hints of meaning. Other times it creates challenges to progress.

The Hebrew language provides many examples. Let us examine two. The Hebrew word for woman: isha is the same exact word for wife. There are different words for a young woman but not an adult woman. The language suggests that once a woman reaches adulthood her fulfillment can only be found in marriage to a man. The word for husband, by the way, is the same as that for owner: baal.

Such are the limitations of an ancient language as it confronts modernity. Hebrew is unable to recognize that a woman can find fulfillment not only in marriage but also as a rabbi (Go Susie!), prime minister (three cheers for Golda!), or even president. A woman can find meaning and fulfillment in a myriad of different ways. Her choices should be as endless as those for a man. She, like a man, should only be limited by intelligence, talents and devotion. (Go Shira and Ari!)

She does not serve a husband. Instead, like men and all human beings, she has the potential to serve the world. She can better the world by not only bringing forth life and forming a loving and holy partnership with another, but by working to improve our broken world. That is the obligation of every human being—both men and women.

On the other hand, there are times when language reminds us of ancient teachings that still resonate with modern meaning.

In Hebrew the word for word: devar is the same as that for thing. A word has weight. It is not ephemeral. It can heal. A word can also harm. A word is a thing. It is as if a word is an object that can be held in our hands. A word is not cheap. This is one of Judaism’s most profound lessons and something that our holy language reminds us of again and again.

In addition the word is born in the desert wilderness: midbar. This word shares the same root as devar. It is there that God revealed the word: devarim. It is there that we were taught about the weight of our words. It is also there that we gained a hint of the power of speech because it is there that God’s word thundered from Mount Sinai.

We must therefore measure the weight of our words. Otherwise we might find ourselves alone, and without the community that nurtures us. We might find ourselves adrift in a desert wilderness.

“These are the words that Moses addressed to all of Israel on the other side of the Jordan….” (Deuteronomy 1)

It is the word that can still bring healing to our broken world.