Thursday, August 15, 2019

Bucket Lists

We know a great deal about Moses’ life and his many accomplishments. We do not know much about his personal aspirations. I do know that there was one all important thing on his bucket list. He wanted to visit the land of Israel. Sadly, he never achieved this goal. He died on the other side of the Jordan River.

He pleaded with God. “Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan…” God responded harshly, “Enough! Never speak to Me about this matter again.” (Deuteronomy 3)

Our hero’s bucket list remained unfulfilled. It was a simple list. It contained only one item. The reason why Moses is Moses is because he did not ask much for himself. He was all about the mission and little about his own wants. True, he occasionally lost his temper. And this is the stated reason why he is not allowed to enter the land.

I think, however, that his impatience, and anger, are understandable. It’s not like he had an easy job. At the age of 80 he is tasked with leading the difficult, and ever complaining, and occasionally outright rebellious, Israelites through the wilderness. He really did not want the job. God coaxed him. And then it ends up lasting forty years. His frustration is understandable.

One can imagine Moses saying, “I just want to touch the Promised Land with my own hands and feet before I die.” And I am left wondering why God would not grant him this one request.

Then again, I wonder about bucket lists. They are all about personal aspirations. I want to go to Alaska. I want to visit Vietnam. I want to climb Mount Everest. (No, not really.) I want to go sky diving. (Ok, maybe.) I want to complete an Ironman. One day, I want to sail wherever the winds and waves might take me.

Bucket lists are all about what I want, where I want to go and what I want to do. They are about the about the places I want to see, the cultures I find fascinating and the heretofore unimaginable things I might learn doing these things. They are about the people I could possibly meet on my travels and the self-discovery I might achieve. They are about the experiences I hope to achieve.

Bucket lists are about imagining the personal fulfillment we might gain in the allotted years we are granted. If only every one of us were to be blessed with a lifetime of Moses’ 120 years! This is the nature of bucket lists. Each of us writes, and rewrites, these lists. They seem to grow longer with each passing year.

Friends return from their travels and regale us about what they saw and what they experienced and most importantly about where they ate. We take notes. More items are added. The world gets even bigger. Such lists are not bad. Rabbi Hillel reminds us: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself what am I?”

It is just that bucket lists are really more about ourselves than the world.

What if our lists looked more like Moses’? What if the personal ask was only one item long and the rest of the list was about how we are going to help others get to their promised land?

Imagine that. Our personal fulfillment might better be achieved by lifting others up and helping others master their goals.

And I imagine that then the world might seem smaller. And our lives might no longer seem so overwhelming.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

No More Mourning

In 1966, the Israeli author, Shai Agnon, received the Nobel Prize in Literature. When accepting the award, he said:
As a result of the historic catastrophe in which Titus of Rome destroyed Jerusalem and Israel was exiled from its land, I was born in one of the cities of the Exile. But always I regarded myself as one who was born in Jerusalem. In a dream, in a vision of the night, I saw myself standing with my brother-Levites in the Holy Temple, singing with them the songs of David, King of Israel, melodies such as no ear has heard since the day our city was destroyed and its people went into exile…. I was five years old when I wrote my first song. It was out of longing for my father that I wrote it.
The genius and creativity spanning the 2,000 years since that historic catastrophe found its impetus in longing.

It was about dreaming.

Tisha B’Av, which occurs on Sunday, commemorates a number of Jewish tragedies....

Friday, August 2, 2019

Tell the Truth

A brief comment on some ancient, and seemingly out of date, words.

The Torah states: “Moses spoke to the heads of the Israelite tribes, saying, ‘This is what the Lord has commanded: when people make vows or take an oath, they shall not break their pledge; they must carry out all that has crossed their lips.’” (Numbers 30)

The rabbis ask, “Why did Moses speak to the heads of the tribes? Why did he direct his words to the leaders and not all the people?”

The Hatam Sofer, a leading 19th century rabbi, responds: “The reason is that it is often leaders who make all types of promises which they don’t keep. Because they often go back on their promises, this warning was aimed specifically at them.”

Such is the teaching that occurred to me when watching this week’s presidential debates.

Such is the response to those who suggest the Torah has nothing to say about our contemporary struggles.

Leaders, especially those who wish to become president, should be the most careful with their words. They should be even more careful than everyone else.

The Torah remains up to date.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Passion and Zealotry

The Talmud counsels: “Rabbi Hisda taught: 'If the zealot comes to seek counsel, we never instruct him to act.'" (Sanhedrin 81b)

And yet the Torah reports that Pinchas was rewarded for his actions. Here is his story. The people are gathered on the banks of the Jordan River, poised to enter the land of Israel. They have become enthralled with the religion of the Midianites, sacrificing to their god, and participating in its festivals. Moses tries to get the Israelites to stop, issuing laws forbidding such foreign practices, but they refuse to listen. God becomes enraged.

"Just then one of the Israelites came and brought a Midianite woman over to his companions... When Pinchas saw this he left the assembly and taking a spear in his hand he followed the Israelite into the chamber and stabbed both of them, the Israelite and the woman, through the belly." The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, "Pinchas has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me." (Numbers 25) Pinchas' passion tempers God’s anger. Thus Pinchas renews the covenant between God and the people.

It is for this reason that Pinchas’ memory is recalled at the brit milah ceremony. As we renew the covenant through the ritual of circumcision we recall Pinchas. We then welcome the presence of the prophet Elijah who, in the future, will announce the coming of the messiah. We pray, “This is the chair of Elijah the prophet who is remembered for good.” Perhaps this young child will prove to be our people’s redeemer.

Elijah is as well a zealot. He, like Pinchas, has a violent temper and deals with non-believers with an equally heavy hand. He kills hundreds of idolaters and worshipers of Baal. So why are these the heroes we recall when we circumcise our sons? Is it possible that the rabbis saw this ritual and its demand that we take a knife to our sons as a zealous act? Was this their nod to the intense passion that is required to perform the mitzvah of circumcision?

The Torah suggests that an act is made holy by one’s intention, that the ends justify even extreme means. Pinchas succeeds in ridding the Israelites of idolatry. Elijah as well bests the prophets of Baal, bringing the people closer to monotheism. They are thus revered by our tradition.

I remain troubled. I stand appalled.

I wonder. Why must passions lead to zealous acts?

Zealousness and passion are too often intertwined. Passion is desired. Zealousness must be quelled. The knife can be an instrument of holiness or a tool for murder.

My teacher at the Shalom Hartman Institute, Dr. Israel Knohl, once remarked that monotheism is given to violence. Because it is adamant that there is only one God it promotes the destruction of other gods and occasionally, or perhaps it is better to say, too often, their worshippers. Monotheism is exacting. It can be as well ruthless.

I hold firm to its belief. I remain distant from the actions it too frequently deems holy.

And so I draw a measure of comfort from the very same prophet whose actions I abhor. Elijah’s story concludes with a beautiful estimation of where we might find God. It is not in a thunderous voice or mighty actions. "There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks, but the Lord was not in the wind... After the earthquake—fire; but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire, a still, small voice." (I Kings 19)

This is the Haftarah that is often paired with this week’s portion. The rabbis offer this reading as a counterweight. We require passion, but not zealousness. Not every disagreement is a threat that necessitates radical action. Believing in one God does not require that we destroy others, or their followers. A plurality of beliefs does not negate our own firmly held convictions.

Hold fast to your own beliefs. Leave room for others’ convictions.

The Rabbis teach! If the zealot comes to seek counsel, we never instruct him to act.

Rely instead on the still, small voice.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

King David's Footsteps

Several days ago, I hiked in the footsteps of King David. The words of the Bible became real. They became filled with life.

In Israel one can literally walk where our biblical heroes traveled. One can stand where Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac or where the prophet Amos admonished the Jewish people or where David composed his sweet psalms.

In the land of Israel our Bible takes shape. It is here that the soil adds flesh to our legends.

Before beginning the hike, we stood on the heights of Tel Azekah where the Israelites spied the Philistine army. It was there that our people cowered in fear before the mighty Goliath. A young David volunteered to battle the giant. He refused the offer of King Saul’s armor and spear. He thought them too cumbersome and heavy. David killed Goliath with a small pebble thrown from his slingshot. The Israelite army then routed the Philistines and the Israelites soon crowned David as king.

The legend of David and Goliath was born here, in this place....

Thursday, July 11, 2019

The Pattern of Failures

I am writing from Jerusalem where I am studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Rabbinic Torah Study Seminar. I remain grateful that our congregation recognizes the need for me to deepen my learning and recharge my commitments. There is really nothing like studying with colleagues and learning from remarkable teachers, and most especially, to do so here in Jerusalem. No matter how many times I may visit this city, every time I return becomes a pilgrimage in which my spirit is renewed.

This morning I was reminded of a favorite saying of my teacher Rabbi David Hartman, may his memory be for a blessing. He often said that the Bible is an indictment of the Jewish people. Like so many of Reb David’s teachings, this appears counter intuitive. We often look to the Bible as inspiration. We hold it up time and again as the best source to motivate us to do good or for that matter, the justification to observe the Jewish holidays, or as in my present case, the cause for me to return to this holy city, year after year, or, and perhaps most especially, to re-establish sovereignty in this land after 2,000 years of wandering.

Rabbi Hartman of course saw something far different and perhaps far more in the Bible’s words. It was more about our failings than our successes. It was more about not living up to what was asked of us rather than fulfilling God’s commandments. Take the prophets for example who over and over again chastise the Jewish people for failing to live up to God’s expectations. Each and every one of them, from Amos to Isaiah, say in effect, “Do you think this is all God wants you to do!” They thundered, “It is not enough to go to services. It is not enough to light candles.”

Their exhortations can be summed up with the words, “It is not enough.”

And when one looks at the grand narrative portrayed in the Bible, as we did this morning with Micah Goodman, the author of the acclaimed book Catch-67, one realizes that the story does not culminate with the Jewish people establishing a nation in the promised land of Israel, but instead with their return to Egypt. We leave Egypt following Moses’ lead, wander the wilderness, conquer the land under Joshua, establish the rule of kings and build the Temple. But then during the years that the prophet Jeremiah prophesies, the Babylonians destroy the holy Temple and establish Gedaliah as their puppet king. He is soon assassinated by a fellow Jew.

The Book of Kings then concludes: “And all the people, young and old, and the officers of the troops set out and went to Egypt because they were afraid of the Babylonians.” (II Kings 25). History is cyclical. We were taken out of Egypt only to return to Egypt. Our powerlessness was transformed into power and then again to powerlessness.

The movement, and struggle, between power and powerlessness continues in our own age.

Back to the Bible and in particular this week’s Torah reading. Even the Five Books of Moses is not the crowning achievement of the very person who heralds its name, but instead stands as an indictment against Moses and an elucidation of his shortcomings. We read about why God does not allow him to enter the land. The people are once again complaining. There is a lot of that in the Book of Numbers. (That alone should stand as evidence of David Hartman’s teaching.) There is not enough water. God tells Moses and Aaron to instruct a rock to bring water. Moses instead hits the rock and says, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” (Numbers 20)

And with that, God decides that Moses does not get to enter the land. Commentators debate what was Moses’ exact sin. Was it that he hit the rock not just one time, but two? Was it instead that he became angry, again, at the people? Was it that he took credit for God’s miracle? Was it that he drew a stark line between the people and their leader and insulted them by calling them rebels?

The Bible is unclear. It is however clear that God thinks Moses’ time is done. He failed as a leader. The Five Books of Moses indicts its very own author.

Perhaps that is the Bible’s very inspiration. Failure is part and parcel to our lives.

Failure is part of our history.

Leaving Egypt and then returning to Egypt, and then leaving again and returning again, is the pattern of our destiny.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Why I'm Both Celebrating the Myth and Honoring the Anger

I wonder how Korah’s descendants describe this week’s events described in the synagogue’s weekly Torah reading. Would it be akin to the accolades we heap on Bar Kochba who led a failed a rebellion against Rome in the second century? To this day we sing of his courage when we recall Rabbi Akiva’s martyrdom on our holiest of days, Yom Kippur. Akiva was one of Bar Kochba’s greatest supporters.

Moses ruthlessly quashed Korah’s rebellion (revolution?). He killed Korah and 250 of his followers. Would my hero Moses be called a murderer by Korah’s descendants?

“Blasphemy!” one might say.

Years ago, I traveled to Israel on a UJA mission. It was during the second intifada and we were there to show our support and express our solidarity. Yitzhah Rabin was assassinated five years earlier and my companions and I were deeply traumatized by his murder and the increasingly deadly Palestinian terrorist attacks.

We mourned the soldier turned prime minister turned peace maker....

Friday, June 28, 2019

Today's Anguish

The spies return from scouting the land of Israel. Ten return with a negative report. They say: “All the people that we saw in it were men of great size and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves.” (Numbers 13)

Every morning I read the newspapers. Every evening I watch the TV news. During the day I read online reports.

The other day a father and daughter drowned in the Rio Grande while trying to cross the United States-Mexico border. Their names were Oscar Alberto and Valerie Martinez Ramirez. Many others have discovered a similar fate. Some fled worn torn Syria. Others ran from persecution in Sudan. Some escaped violence in Central America. Others left poverty in Venezuela.

They see in America a promise and hope.

Every morning I read the newspapers. Every evening I watch the TV news. During the day I read online reports.

And that is all I seem to do.

I offer up excuses for going about my day as if the plight of refugees and asylum seekers is normal. “But I have to buy a new pair of pants. But I have dinner plans. But I have to work out.” The problems seem enormous. They appear insurmountable. What can I do?

More! At the very least.

A father and daughter drowned at our nation’s border.

Regardless of our disagreements about immigration policy our humanity demands more of us. Our tradition asks us to do better. A father does not risk his daughter’s life out of folly. He traverses a raging river only because desperation propels him. I may not understand the specifics of his desperation, but I cannot imagine any other reason.

I have never faced such a decision. I have never needed to take such risks.

And I look like a grasshopper to myself.

I wish I could muster the strength of Joshua. I wish I could summon the courage of Caleb. They were the spies who did not see the giants. They refused to see the enormity of what stood before them. Their faith was unrivaled.

Perhaps the ten spies were realists. Perhaps the challenges they faced were in fact gigantic.

And Joshua and Caleb were idealists.

I long to hold on to their ideals. I reach for their words:

“Have no fear of them!”

I read. Have no fear. I must do more.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Gossip Disfigures

How dare anyone criticize our leader!

We read: “Miriam spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married.” (Numbers 12) We learn elsewhere that Moses’ wife is Zipporah. She is a Midianite. This week the Torah suggests that she is dark-skinned and therefore perhaps from Ethiopia. She is not an Israelite. Was this the basis of Miriam’s criticism of her brother Moses? 

How dare he marry a foreigner!

Their brother Aaron joins the critique. He and Miriam pile on more harsh words, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has God not spoken through us as well?” Were they jealous of their brother Moses? Did they want to lead the Israelites as well? Did they believe, as Judaism does, that everyone can have a relationship with God and that anyone, with enough wisdom and learning, can lead?

Perhaps our leader thinks too much of himself. Perhaps he denigrates the holy spark found in each and every person.

Rashi, the great medieval commentator, disagrees. He imagines Miriam criticizing her brother for neglecting his wife. Moses is singularly devoted to his mission. He is on call for God at all hours of the day and night. Miriam therefore worries about her sister in law’s well-being. She worries about her brother’s marriage and family.

I wonder. Is the best teaching offering by the very person who falls short of fulfilling its words? Rashi authored a line-by-line commentary to the entire Bible and Talmud. How did he find time for his own family? Miriam reminds us. No job is more important than family. No task, even one divinely ordained, should take precedence over those closest to us.

God apparently disagrees. Miriam is punished and stricken with leprosy. Aaron is left alone to plea for his sister, “O, my lord, account not to us the sin which we committed in our folly.”

The rabbis suggest that it was not what Miriam said but the manner in which she spoke the words. They see a parallel between this disfiguring disease and gossip. The tradition is clear. Even if the words are true they must only be spoken when absolutely necessary and then only in private. Critique becomes gossip when it finds its way into the public domain. Criticism becomes slander when it seeks to demean others rather than uplift them.

Gossip disfigures. A Hasidic story relates that it is like a feather cast to the wind. Such words can never be collected. Once gossip is shared it can never be withdrawn. The damage to a person’s reputation might never be undone. Beware of what one tweets! Judaism counsels. Gossip disfigures the gossiper.

A person’s character unravels when she or he gossips. The rabbis remind us that gossip not only belittles the person about whom we talk but also damages the person who speaks such words. Gossip denigrates everyone—even and including the person who listens.

And so we must offer prayers of contrition for all the times we resorted to gossip to entertain. We pray for all the moments we gossiped in order to give ourselves a greater sense of self-worth. We pray for all the minutes we inclined our ears to the gossip that others shared. We pray with Moses, “O God, pray, heal her.”

Heal us!

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Making Peace

The Ktav Sofer, a leading nineteenth century Hungarian rabbi, comments: “Peace begins in the home, then extends to the community, and finally to all the world.”

It is a fascinating lesson. Often we speak about bringing peace to the world but forget about making peace with those who stand closest to us. We give lofty speeches and sermons (rabbi!) about making peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, or between Democrats and Republicans but neglect making peace with those we profess love. But such grandiose endeavors are impossible if we do not begin with a foundation of peace in our personal relationships.

If couples argue at home, then they often bring divisiveness to work. If parents yell at their children, then their children bring anger to school.

We cannot make peace if we don’t feel at peace. If our interactions with others are rife with conflict and discord then how can we bring peace or for that matter, negotiate peace? Judaism has long recognized the centrality of peace. It teaches about its necessity. Shalom bayit, peace in the home, is of paramount importance. Other values take second to preserving it.

And this is why so many of our prayers speak of peace. The central prayer we recite whenever we gather concludes with a prayer for peace. The Amidah may offer a litany of requests: for health, forgiveness and justice to name a few, but we always conclude with the words: “Blessed are You Adonai who blesses Your people Israel with peace.” We conclude as well the Blessing after Meals with the prayer: “Oseh shalom bimromav…May the One who makes peace in the high heavens make peace for us, for all Israel and all who inhabit the earth.” The Kaddish also concludes with these same words.

We pray for peace so we might have the strength to bring peace.

This week we learn the words for the priestly blessing. These are the words I am often privileged to recite at baby namings, bnai mitzvah and weddings. “May the Lord bless you and keep you! May the light of the Lord’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you! May you always find God’s presence in your life and blessed with shalom, peace.”

These are also the words that parents recite when blessing their children at the Shabbat and holiday dinner table. We begin our festive meals by asking God to bring peace to those we most treasure: our children. We conclude our meal by asking God to bring peace to our people and then to the world.

Perhaps the great Hungarian rabbi is correct. Peace must begin in the home. Then it extends to the community and finally we hope, to all the world.

I offer this suggestion. Try blessing your children at home. It might bring an additional measure of peace to your home and your most prized relationships.

And you never know. It could even be the beginning of bringing peace to the world.