Thursday, August 27, 2015

Ki Tetze, Good Deeds and Responsibilities

Many people think that a mitzvah is a good deed. Jewish tradition however understands this term to mean a God given commandment, a sacred responsibility. According to the tradition there are 613 mitzvot gleaned from the Torah.

There is the familiar, “Be fruitful and multiply,” and the obscure, “You shall not wear a mixture of wool and linen.” There are ethical mitzvot and ritual. There are positive and negative. There are laws that are dependent on the ancient sacrificial cult and therefore no longer applicable and there are other laws that are only incumbent upon those living in the land of Israel.

Genesis gives rise to only three commandments. Exodus provides us with the familiar commandments to observe Passover and Shabbat as well as the demand that we not oppress the stranger. Leviticus gives us the laws of keeping kosher and those surrounding the incomprehensible sacrifice of animals. Numbers commands us to wear a tallis and Deuteronomy to give tzedakah and recite the Shema.

Deuteronomy provides us with the most commandments, 200 of the 613. In this week’s Torah portion we find 72, far more than any other portion. There are many interesting commands detailed here. “If you chance upon a bird’s nest with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over them, do not take the mother with her young. If you see your fellow’s donkey or ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not pick it over again; that shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.”

Most interesting is the following: “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring blood guilt on your house if anyone should fall from it.” On Long Island we don’t have too many homes with rooftop parapets. And so I wondered, to what can this apply? I began thinking about fences. But here on Long Island we build fences for privacy rather than protection. We build them to keep the neighbors out rather than to protect our neighbors from harm.

The Biblical ethos is instead that each of us is responsible for our neighbors. The parapet is akin to pool fences. We have an obligation to protect our neighbors. In our culture we remain fixated on the rights of privacy and shielding our lives from our neighbors. The Bible insists that we must not remain indifferent to our neighbors.

All of the Torah is built on the idea that we are responsible for others. It is not constructed around our rights and privileges but rather around our duties and obligations, most especially to our neighbors.

The required list may no longer be 613 items long but the point is the same. Our neighbors are not to be ignored. The fences we build should not be about keeping our lives to ourselves. They must instead be about our responsibility to others.

That is the essence of the mitzvot.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Shoftim, Justice and Peace

We live in a world where people often scream about injustice, but rarely take action to correct such failings. The injustices we most often speak about are those that involve people closest to us. We complain about this friend or that. We criticize this family member or another. Rarely do we seek to make amends and make peace.

This week’s Torah portion focuses on justice. In addition to legislating how judges should be appointed, it contains the famous verse: “Justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” (Deuteronomy 16:20)

We hear this call for justice, but too often we misapply its message to friends and family. Instead we need to spend more time pursuing justice for our society. Our country faces many problems. There is a growing inequity between rich and poor. We continue to witness simmering racial tensions explode into view. On our very own Long Island there are far too many homeless and hungry. The Interfaith Nutrition Network, for example, serves over 300,000 meals per year! There are still far too many without adequate jobs. We must create more employment opportunities. These are but a few examples of the many challenges our society faces. We need to work to repair the many problems in our broken society.

This is the Torah’s demand. We must pursue justice for the sake of our country and our community. But rather than working to fix these problems we level the charge of injustice against family members and friends. With regard to those closest to us we are instead commanded to pursue peace. Hillel said: “Be among the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace.” (Avot 1:12) According to our tradition Aaron best exemplifies peace making. Why? The Israelites clamored to build a Golden Calf when their leader Moses was busy on the mountaintop communing with God. Aaron was left in charge. He did not as one might expect talk them out of their unholy task. Instead he appears to have helped them. Aaron facilitated the building of the calf. The Torah’s judgment of his actions is harsh.

The rabbis, however, see in Aaron a model of peace making. Their suggestion is extraordinary. Even when family members are straying, or in this case building idols, we are to be like the disciples of Aaron, and make peace. Thus when it comes to family shalom, peace, is the greatest virtue. When it comes to the larger society the greatest value is tzedek, justice. We often confuse which value is to lead the way.

Pursue justice for the society at large. Pursue peace for family and friends. As the High Holidays approach I pledge to seek justice for our society, and make peace among family and friends.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Elul and Preparing for Change

Saturday begins the Hebrew month of Elul and therefore the start of the High Holiday season. Below you will find my article, recently published by Reform Judaism, reflecting on this moment: How the Torah Sets the Stage for Real-Life Struggle.

Real Torah is about preparation.

Take Moses' life as an example. First of all, Moses does not even begin his true calling until, at the age of 80, he leads the people from Egypt. We know incomparably little about his first 80 years. In fact, the majority of the Torah details his, and the people's, life from the Exodus forward. What little we do know about those years is more the stuff of legend than Torah. We do read there that Moses did not even want the job.

The 40 years of wandering and struggle are a prelude to Moses' dream of leading the people into the Promised Land - and yet he is denied this dream. Moses, who fails to achieve his lifelong ambition and singular goal, is allowed only to stand on the other side of the Jordan and glimpse the dream from afar. He is not allowed to touch the land of Israel, a privilege instead granted to his successor, Joshua.

The Torah suggests a reason for God's harsh judgment. Moses gets angry one too many times, losing his temper with the people. He smashes a rock when they complain, yet again, about the lack of water. Because of this action, his career concludes on the precipice of a dream, and his life ends with its goal unfulfilled and its ambition unrealized. He dies at the age of 120 years.

It is Joshua who leads the people into the land. We discover this not in the Torah, but instead in the Book of Joshua. The Torah concludes on the other side of the dream - in essence, on the wrong side of the river. It never fulfills its stated goal. After Moses' death, we roll it back to creation and we begin the preparation all over again.

The Torah is not about the fulfillment of dreams. It is instead about preparation - and it must therefore remain incomplete.

If we are to discover ourselves in its words and in between its lines, the Torah must never be perfectly fulfilled. This is real living. Perfection is an unrealizable ambition. Even the life of Moses, the prophet of prophets, falls short, which is why the tradition calls him not "Moses the prophet," but instead "Moses, our teacher." We learn from his life.

Perhaps the Torah's very incompleteness is a hint, then, of its perfection. It offers a perfect teaching: We wander. We struggle. And we prepare.

During the forthcoming days of the month of Elul, Jews the world over will turn inward. We will count 40 days from the first of Elul until Yom Kippur. They mirror the days Moses spent on the mountaintop communing with God. They are reminiscent of the 40 years when Moses lived Torah. Those years are, in fact, the majority of our scroll's verses.

These 40 days are intended for us to prepare for the High Holidays. We are meant to use these days to focus on repentance, change our ways, and most especially seek out those people we have wronged. We can only reach out to God if we first repair our human relationships. Yom Kippur is useless without the Torah of these 40 days of preparation, without first reaching out to others.

And yet, like the dream that Moses only sees from afar, we learn that teshuvah shleymah, complete repentance, is a distant, if not impossible, goal. According to Maimonides, such certain judgments about the mending of our ways can only be made if we find ourselves in the exact same situation, facing the exact same temptation but this time making a different decision. Even repentance is incomplete.

Still we continue to prepare. And this is where Torah is discovered.

We hold a dream in our hearts. We can improve. We can change. Friendships can be repaired. Relationships can be healed. We count our days in preparation for that dream. We wander through the Torah toward that dream.

Before we know it, our High Holiday prayers will conclude, and the gates will close.

We take comfort in the scroll that has no end. The dream seems distant. The preparations must begin again in earnest.

Our Torah is learned. The Torah is relearned.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Ekev and Feeding Compassion

The Talmud reports that Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav: It is forbidden to eat before feeding one's animal. (Brachot 40a)

What is the import of this ruling? It would be cruel to eat in front of our hungry animals and pets. Our concern for God’s creation extends to animals as well as to humans. Compassion is taught by caring for pets. Attending to their cries, and pangs of hunger, molds a caring heart.

The rabbis derive this law from the following verse: "I will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and then, you shall eat and be satisfied." (Deuteronomy 11:15) Because the Torah speaks first about cattle and then about human beings, the rabbis rule that we must feed our animals before satisfying our own hunger.

It is fascinating that the ancient rabbis derive this teaching from the order of the verse’s words. Their reasoning reminds us that we live in a world not only where words matter but also the order of these words. They continue to teach us that compassion begins by reaching out to others first. Only then can we reach out to ourselves. Only then do we become sated.

Can compassion really be taught by sprinkling a few crumbs of food in a fish tank or by filling a dog’s or cat’s bowl with food before sitting down to our own meals? The Talmud’s answer is yes. Yes, absolutely. Before my hunger is satisfied I must first provide for others, I must first reach out to others. I must, in this case, reach down to those who cannot care for themselves, and provide for them. It begins by pausing, and noting the needs of other creatures.

Our spiritual hunger is sated when we turn to others, when we open our hands to all of God’s creatures.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Vaetchanan and Swimming Torah

This week we find the words of the V’Ahavta in the week’s portion. “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions which I charge you this day... (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)

Two words found in the V’Ahavta summarize life’s most important work: v’shinantam l’vanecha—and you shall teach them to your children. On the surface the meaning of this verse seems obvious. Parents are obligated to teach their children everything. The Talmud explores the specifics. Parents must teach their children Torah. Okay we expected that answer from the great repository of Jewish wisdom. The Talmud continues: parents are required to teach their children a craft. Why? Rabbi Judah responds: Those who do not teach them a craft teach them thievery. And some say: to teach them to swim too. Why swimming? It is because their lives may depend on it. (Kiddushin 29b)

I love that ancient rabbinic statement—and not just because I am an avid swimmer. It is instead because it encapsulates much of what I believe our tradition is supposed to represent. Judaism sees Torah not only as the imparting of values but also of providing our children with practical skills (craft) and even with survival skills (swimming). To raise up our children into independent adults they must be able to discern right from wrong on their own. They must be able to fend for themselves, facing challenges—again on their own. They must be able to survive without us—yet again, on their own.

Sure you can swim with friends but no one, not even parents, can do the swimming for you.

The teaching of values, the imparting of traditions can continue between parents and children well into adulthood but children must carve out their own path and make their own way. They must meander through life’s struggles on their own. Today it sometimes appears otherwise. Nonetheless I continue to believe that despite technological innovations, a parent might not be, and perhaps should not be, a phone call (or text) away. Let go. Let them swim into uncharted waters. Trust in your teachings. Take faith in your Torah.

Curiously the Torah uses shinantam for teach rather than the more common m’lamed. This particular word derives its meaning from the Hebrew, to repeat. Why would the Torah use the word, repeat? My repeated admonitions to my children are more often than not my worst parenting moments. “Do your homework. Clean your room. Call your grandparents.” These exhortations are greeted with nonchalance and more often than not go unheeded. I am the only one who hears my repeated words. “Don’t swim so far from shore!”

Then what could the Torah intend? If repetition is the worst teaching method then what could this unusual word choice mean? An insight must be hidden in the verse’s words. The best lessons are those that our children see us do repeatedly. Those actions that they see us do are the best Torah we can offer our children. This is what will prove most lasting.

This is what the Torah portion means by its words, “Repeat them to your children.” The best teaching is what our children see us do, over and over again. If you want your children to be generous, give tzedakah. If you want your children to be learned, then let them see you read and even take classes. If you want your children to be committed to their health then let them see you exercise. If you want them to find Judaism meaningful then bring Judaism into your own lives.

Over and over, again and again, this is what our children must see us do. They discern what is most important by observing what we do over and over, again and again.

So let them see you swim.  And get them swimming on their own.

Take this to heart. Our children are supposed to swim farther and faster than we ever could have managed, and than we ever could have imagined.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Tisha B'Av, Tragedies and Celebrating

According to tradition Tisha B’Av marks far more than the destructions of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. by the Babylonians and the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E. The Mishnah adds even more calamities. On this day the ten spies returned to Moses with a negative report about the land of Israel, sowing discontent among the people and ensuring our wandering would last 40 years. On this day in 135 C.E. the Romans crushed the Bar Kokhba revolt, killing over 500,000 Jews and leveling the city of Jerusalem and its Temple Mount. In 135 our wanderings outside of the land began yet again and did not of course end until the modern era with the birth of the State of Israel.

Later tradition suggests even more tragedies occurred on Tisha B’Av. The First Crusade in which nearly one million Jews were killed in Europe began on the ninth of Av. On this day as well, the Jews were expelled from England in 1290, France in 1306 and Spain in 1492. On this day, in 1941, Heinrich Himmler (y”s) received approval for the Nazis’ murderous final solution. And in 1942 the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto began on Tisha B’Av.

How can this be? How can all these tragedies begin on this same day? To be honest I am skeptical about the historicity of these ascriptions. It is doubtful that all these events did in fact begin on Tisha B’Av. So the question is what does this conflation of all these tragedies into one day say about our tradition. Why does our tradition fold all these calamitous events into Tisha B’Av?

Over the centuries the narrative is further enhanced. Our victimization comes to revolve around this one day. There are those who even see in these tragedies the sins of our people. Our victimization then becomes our responsibility. These tragedies become our doing. The Talmud blames the destruction of the Temple on sinat chinam, baseless hatred among Jews.

Thus Tisha B’Av is the antithesis to modernity and Zionism. We have now a sovereign nation. We have now a strong State of Israel. Of course there are threats. But with sovereignty we will no longer be victims. We are no longer at the mercy of foreign powers. It might, especially during these days, appear otherwise but Zionism teaches that history is now ours to be written. Our generation can defend ourselves like no prior generation. Zionist philosophy refuses to see the Jewish people as eternal victims. Current threats must not transform us once again into seeing ourselves as victims.

Perhaps that is the intuition of our tradition. Why one day? To suggest that one day is enough. Yes there are other days associated with historical events (Tzom Gedaliah, Tenth of Tevet and Seventeenth of Tammuz), but these are minor fast days and do not have the import of Tisha B’Av. And so this single day suggests that one day is in fact enough to beat our chests and lament our losses.

The hallmark of our tradition is that it codifies joy over mourning, celebration over tragedy. A single day is enough to mourn the many catastrophes that have befallen our people for we could in fact fill a calendar year with a list of tragedies. And so myth and memory are folded together and wrapped into the Ninth of Av. We observe all calamities on one day. The rest of the days in the calendar are reserved to affirm the present and look toward the future.

The tradition suggests that if every today becomes the eighth of Av with its trepidation and fear and every tomorrow the ninth of Av with its mourning and lament, we will be unable to celebrate, we will be unable to sing. And then we will be unable, or unwilling, to march forward toward the tenth of Av.

One day is enough to look back and cry. The remainder must be left to celebrate.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Mattot-Masei, History, Hope and Worries about Iran

On the day that images from Pluto were beamed back to earth from 3 billion miles away, we are debating the inner workings of something far closer to home, the intricacies of the human heart. It is around our view of the heart that the arguments about the recent Iran nuclear deal spin.

President Obama appears to believe that within every human being there is a seed of evil and that therefore all people are redeemable because all are sinful. It is this view that colors his foreign policy decisions and in particular his approach to Iran. Prime Minister Netanyahu by contrast believes that some are unredeemable, that there are those so inclined toward evil that we can only say, “Do not cross this line.” While hope might be on Obama’s side, history stands on Netanyahu’s.

I do not trust the intentions of Iran’s leaders...

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Pinchas, Shas, Reform Jews and Our Inheritance

Yesterday Israel’s Religious Affairs Minister David Azoulay, from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, suggested that Reform Jews should not be considered Jewish. He said, “Let's just say there's a problem as soon as a Reform Jew stops following the religion of Israel. I can't allow myself to say that such a person is a Jew."

This week we read about Zelophehad’s daughters. They approach Moses demanding that the law of inheritance be revised so that their father’s memory will endure. They say, “Our father died in the wilderness…. Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!” (Numbers 27) Justice demands the law be changed.

Right wing parties often criticize Reform, accusing it of picking and choosing from the tradition...

Friday, July 3, 2015

Balak and the Eye of Faith

I am presently in Jerusalem studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute where I am once again participating in its annual conference. I feel privileged to return to this place year after year to recharge my spiritual batteries and reacquaint myself with the tradition I so love. I am surrounded by colleagues who share my love of learning, debate and even argument, as well as devotion to Israel. I remain grateful to my congregation and its leadership for allowing me this time for rejuvenation.

Given this yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem, I realize that for the past fifteen years I have only observed July 4th from afar. Every year I have found myself here in Jerusalem for July 4th. I have also by the way marked Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, in May while at home on Long Island. It occurs to me that these days look far different from a distance. I cannot of course see the fireworks from here, but I wonder is it possible that the miracles of Israel and the United States shimmer more brightly from afar? From this distance, I only see successes rather than struggles. When nearby the flames appear far more intense, and perhaps even frightening. From afar I tend only to see the glow.

Balaam looked out at Israel and rather than curse the Jewish people as his king had commanded him, offered words of blessing: “Mah tovu…

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Hukkat, Forgiveness and Righteous Anger

The rabbis imagine King Solomon, considered the wisest figure in the Bible, saying, “I have labored to understand the word of God and have understood it all, except for the ritual of the red heifer.” (Numbers Rabbah 19:3)

I struggle to understand a great many things. In particular I labor to understand the events of this past week.

These words echo in my thoughts. “I forgive you! You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”

Nadine Collier, the daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance, one of the nine victims murdered at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, uttered these words. They were said at the bond hearing of confessed murderer Dylann Roof. I find these sentiments both remarkable and incomprehensible.

Whereas forgiveness is central to Christian teachings, although the depths of such forgiveness may very well exceed that of many Christians, justice is paramount to Judaism. How can murder ever be forgiven? How can a human being offer something that belongs to God? And yet, forgiveness of another, and especially of such an egregious crime, prevents someone from wallowing in anger.

Then again, the lack of justice, and the familiar repetition of such massacres, gnaws at my soul. I turn angry. Once again the combination of guns, mental illness and racism have transformed hatreds into massacres. Add Charleston to the list of Newtown, Oak Creek and Aurora to name a few.

Forgiveness has its virtues. It is a balm for the soul. Perhaps it allows the mourners to remain closer to those they lost. Their forgiveness makes more room for their remembrances. They can remember their loved ones. They can mourn their losses rather than fixating on the justice that continues to appear ever more distant.

Commentators suggest that the bizarre sacrificial ritual of the red heifer, detailed in this week’s portion, is a method for safeguarding the ritual cleanliness of the priesthood. It guarantees that his sins might not despoil the sacrifices. We no longer offer sacrifices. We have no method for ensuring our purity. All human beings are given to wrongdoing. We cannot be rescued from our wrongs by the sprinkling of blood. Instead we must engage in repentance. The turning of the heart is within our hands. Forgiveness, however, remains in the hands of others. Forgiveness is elusive.

I return to my anger. Some, and perhaps these days we might say far too many,are given to evil.

When will we say, “Enough?” Is removing the Confederate flag enough? Symbols of hate are indeed powerful. But such hatred must be banished from the heart. How can we transform our anger into action and address the constellation of problems (and not just their symbols) that make this a recurring tale.

Even our president has been relegated to the role of chief priest. He leads us in mourning. He intones our tragedies. But such massacres are not tragedies. A tragedy is unavoidable. I remain convinced that we can do so much more to eliminate the litany of such mass murders. Let us say, “Enough!” Let us be stirred to action.

Anger has its merits. It can serve to build a better society. Let our anger be transformed into righteousness. Forgiveness remains with God.