Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Hanukkah and Alternative Facts

There is the Hanukkah we prefer to tell and then there is the Hanukkah of history.

We prefer to tell the story of the miracle of oil. Here is that telling. When the Maccabees recaptured the Temple from the Syrian-Greeks they found only enough oil to last for one day of the planned eight-day rededication ceremony. Nonetheless they lit the oil. Miraculously the oil lasted for all eight days.

We prefer as well to speak about the victory of a small group of rebels against the mighty army of their day. One brave man, Mattathias, led the charge against the Syrian-Greek army. Outnumbered, and outgunned, Mattathias and his five sons led the rebel army. They fought valiantly, using cunning tactics, and eventually achieved victory. After seven long years they recaptured the holy city of Jerusalem.

Their cause was just and their enemies evil. A great miracle happened there.

In fact the real Hanukkah is one of pain and discord. It was a civil war. The Maccabees fought against other Jews who were enamored of Greek culture. They killed their fellow Jews. Once they gained power they soon became corrupt rulers and persecuted those who disagreed with their fervor. They even forcibly circumcised those Jews who chose not to observe this ritual.

The preferred story covers over this painful history. We prefer to forget such dissension and division. And yet the facts offer an important lesson for this year. They stand as a warning against zealotry and fanaticism. History stands as a testimony against those who believe that God is on their side and their side alone.

Again and again, we must figure out how to engage in civil discourse without destroying the communities and countries we call home. Recently I was privileged to hear Charlie Baker, the Republican Governor of Massachusetts. He spoke about what it was like growing up with a mother who was a life-long Democrat and a father, a Republican. He joked that they cancelled each other out in every election.

And yet it was because of this seeming division that he developed his passion for political service. It was around the family dinner table, where ideas were debated and positions were refined. The family argued with zeal. They debated with each other as if the country’s very survival depended on it. And yet they never stopped being a family. When he ran for governor he asked his mom if she would now vote for a Republican. “You know, son, it is a secret ballot,” was her response.

This balance is exactly what we require. We need to rediscover that table where debate is encouraged, and where everyone is still family. This is the rabbis’ dream. They found a way to live as a community while embracing competing ideas. They rejected the Maccabees path.

The Maccabees ruled for 100 years. And then 230 years after the Maccabees wrested control from the Syrian-Greeks, the Romans advanced on Masada to discover that the zealots committed mass suicide rather than be taken prisoner. A short distance away Jerusalem and its Temple lay in ruins.

Ultimately zealotry consumes itself. Sadly it also consumes those around it.

We did not again achieve sovereignty in the land of Israel until our own age. We did not fashion these United States until rather recently in human history. Democracy is a fragile enterprise.

We have waited too long to allow zealotry to consume us once again.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Joseph, Family and Jerusalem

Jerusalem is the capital of the State of Israel regardless of what the world thinks or does.

I worry, however, that President Trump’s announcement, which appears motivated more by his desire to fulfill a campaign promise rather than a grand vision for Middle East peace, will not lead to peace. I worry that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s exclusive focus on Israel’s external threats, namely Iran and Islamist terrorism, and not on the continuing erosion of Israel’s democracy, will undermine Israel’s survival. Zionism is about securing a Jewish future that is built on both Jewish and democratic values. It is about writing our own history. It is about taking swift and bold action to defend Jewish lives, like attacking an Iranian base in Syria, as Israel recently did, and what I wish Israeli leaders also did, not expanding settlements in areas, such as Arab East Jerusalem, that the majority of Israelis imagine will one day be home to a Palestinian state.

I continue to hold on to the Psalmist’s words, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; may those who love you be at peace. May there be peace within your ramparts, peace in your citadels. For the sake of my kin and friends, I pray for your peace; for the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I seek your good.” (Psalm 122)

And now for some brief words of Torah.

This week we begin the tragic story of Joseph and his brothers. Their father Jacob is not the best of fathers, at least according to all of my b’nai mitzvah students who are appalled by his behavior and the fact that he so blatantly favors one son over all the others. Joseph is also not the best of brothers. He flaunts his father’s gifts before them. He tells his brothers of his many dreams in which he imagines he will one day rule over them.

They understandably become incensed. Some want to kill him. (Also not the best demonstration of brotherly love, or of basic human behavior.) They decide instead to sell him into slavery. They cover his multi-colored tunic with animal blood and tell their father that a wild beast killed him.

There are so many things that went wrong. There are so many corrections, and detours, that could have avoided this tragic outcome. Small acts of favoritism, feelings of ill will, mushroom out of control. The family is divided. And the young Joseph finds himself alone in a foreign land.

Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschutz, a leading rabbi in eighteenth century Prague writes: “Had Joseph and his brothers sat down together, they would have spoken to one another and could have told one another what bothered them. Then they would have ironed out their differences. The trouble in every argument is that there is no common language and no one listening.”

Kind of makes one think about how every argument, and how every disagreement, too easily becomes a crisis. People no longer speak to each other. They console themselves with their resentments. They wallow in their righteousness.

Kind of makes one think of Jerusalem.

Torah is never a diversion from the contemporary. It always speaks to now.

Prayers Work If You Believe

Recently I was listening to Pastor Rudy’s Love Revolution on SiriusXM’s gospel station. (I recognize this is not how one might expect a rabbi to begin an article, but to be honest that’s the station I more often listen to.) Hezekiah Walker sang, “Every praise is to our God, every word of worship with one accord…” In between listening to some of my favorite gospel singers, Pastor Rudy opined, “Prayer does work. God does listen.”

The music left me. The songs faded. My thoughts wandered. “Really? How can he be so sure? How does he know prayer works? How can he be so confident God is listening?” There are so many things demanding God’s attention and care. There is an entire world in need of healing and filled with brokenness. God is going to listen to my small prayers, which must appear so self-absorbed in comparison to the world’s grand problems?

A crisis emerged. How can I lead prayer if I doubt prayer, if even for a moment?

I recalled an experience from some years ago....



Sunday, December 3, 2017

Cycling and Jerusalem Dreams

The Giro d’Italia is the 21-day professional cycling Italian grand tour held every year in May. This year the first three days are being held in Israel. Day one is an individual time trial in Jerusalem. Day two travels from Haifa to Tel Aviv. And day three from Beersheva to Eilat. I wish to speak about this event is not only so I get to talk about cycling but because the controversies I feared might happen are beginning to come to fruition. One was expected. And the other, unexpected.

The first comes from expected corners. Palestinian activists accuse race organizers of being complicit in Israel’s occupation. They are critical of the decision to start the race in Jerusalem, a city that they feel is still contested and that they wish to have serve as the capital of a hoped for Palestinian state.

The second controversy comes from an unexpected place, Israeli officials....

Thursday, November 30, 2017

A Sufi Torah

I have spent the past week reading about the Sufi mystics.

I have always held a special place in my heart for fellow seekers. I have always searched throughout the world’s religious traditions for those, and their teachings, who wish to grow closer to God. That pursuit continues to occupy my thoughts and studies. I reject those who claim that such teachings are only found in their own tradition, and who shut their ears to truths emanating from voices outside their own, or who persecute and murder those whose claims are different than their own.

My heart is broken that, once again, people have been murdered while bent in prayer. This time it was some three hundred worshippers murdered, and over 100 hundred injured, in a Sufi mosque in the Sinai. ISIS claimed responsibility. My heart breaks that these worshippers were murdered in the name of faith, albeit a distorted faith.

The Sinai too holds a special place in my heart. There, I wandered throughout its wilderness, accompanied only by a few friends and Bedouin guides. There I could imagine how our faith was born. It is a stark wilderness. Our guides favored paths traversing the dry riverbeds, wadis, which offered the occasional shade and the lone tree under which we could rest. My frequent thirst and hunger made me more sympathetic to my ancestors’ gripes detailed in our Torah.

In my week’s reading I discovered that the celebrated Jewish thinker Moses Maimonides’ grandson, Obadiah, found his way to Sufi Islam. Obadiah’s father Abraham was the leader of Egypt’s Jews and greatly admired these mystics, believing that one could trace a direct line between Israel’s ancient prophets and his contemporary Sufis. But it was Obadiah who immersed himself most deeply, writing a treatise that sought to incorporate Sufi spiritual practices into Jewish observance. Kabbalah and Hasidism were no doubt influenced by these sacred borrowings.

A forgotten piece of history that too often gets lost in favor of a more linear view of the Jewish story. “Moses received the Torah from God at Sinai. He transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, the Prophets to the members of the Great Assembly…” (Avot 1)  History instead moves in a meandering path.

I rediscovered the Sufi poet, Hafiz. A number of his books line my shelves. Living in fourteenth century Iran, Hafiz became the most well-known, and well read, of Sufi masters. He remains the most popular poet in modern day Iran. He writes:
You should have been invited to meet
The Friend.
No one can resist a Divine Invitation.
That narrows down all our choices
To just two:
We can come to God
Dressed for Dancing,
Or
Be carried on a stretcher
To God’s Ward.
I return to the Torah. I am reminded that we become Israel when we struggle with God. That is the essence of our name. “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have wrestled with God, and with people, and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32) Thus the name Israel means to wrestle with God.

I continue the wrestling match.

My continued act of defiance in the face of ongoing terror attacks is to renew my commitment to learn from others and to strengthen my faith not only by immersing myself in the words of my own tradition but in the teachings of others as well.
Again the words of my teacher, Hafiz:
A poet is someone
Who can pour Light into a spoon,
Then raise it
To nourish
Your beautiful parched, holy mouth.
The Torah was born in a stark, and beautiful, and most certainly parched, wilderness. It is my poem. It is not, however, the only poem.

There is no such thing as a purity of faith.

There is only all of us. And if not, there is none of us.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Detrimental Impact that Technology Has

A recurring enemy in the Star Trek series, of which I am a fan, is the Borg. They are cybernetic organisms that are linked together. They travel through space, and time, assimilating other species into their collective. They intone the words, “You will be assimilated; resistance is futile.” There is no individual autonomy, only the collective mind. 

I think of them as I see how interconnected our lives have become.

Often my young students resist sharing their opinions with me. I push and prod. I explain to them that the meaning of being Jewish is to wrestle with the stories, and laws, found in the weekly readings. They do not get to pick their favorite chapter or verse. Instead it is assigned to them based on what weekend they will become a bar or bat mitzvah. Their task is to figure out what message it has for them. What is the meaning it might offer for their lives?

I realize that this is a weighty task. I recognize that their schooling trains them to memorize facts and figures....

Thursday, November 16, 2017

We Only Have Each Other

Isaac and Rebekah are the parents of twin boys: Jacob and Esau. The Jewish people trace their lineage through Jacob. His name is later changed to Israel and so we become, quite literally, the children of Israel.

The rabbis see glimmers of their lifestyle in Jacob’s character. “Jacob was a mild man who stayed in camp.” (Genesis 25) Esau becomes synonymous with their enemies. He becomes the Roman conqueror. “Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors.” Two boys: one our hero, the other our enemy. Destiny is sealed from the moment Rebekah conceived. “The children struggled in her womb.”

The rabbis expound. When Rebekah walked by a house of study, Jacob would stir within her. And when she walked by a place where people practiced idolatry, Esau would grow excited. A fanciful story to be sure, and yet this interpretation has colored our worldview. We look back at Jacob as a harbinger of all that is good in Jewish life, of all that we hold dear. He represents the Jewish ideal. We see Esau as a representation of all that is evil. He becomes the paradigmatic outsider.

Perhaps instead the import of this story is that they are brothers. And yet they struggle so mightily even before the day they were born. Let’s be honest. We are still struggling with each other. It is not as if Jews get along with other Jews. Only this morning ultra-Orthodox Jews and Israeli security accosted Reform Jews at the Western Wall. My friends and colleagues sought to bring a Torah scroll into the Kotel plaza in order to celebrate the ordination of the 100th Israeli Reform rabbi.

Standing there, at this holiest of Jewish sites, I have been called a Nazi. I have heard young girls called whores.

As I read about this morning’s event, I found myself growing defiant and saying, “We are the true Jews. We are Jacob; they are Esau.” And then I realized they are saying the exact same words in their synagogues. Their rabbis are writing words parallel to my own. They are calling Reform Jews Esau.

We are left screaming at each other. We say, “You are Esau. I am Jacob.” We label the Jewish organizations whose ideology we do not share as treason. We shout, “I am kosher. You are treif.” I have heard, “JStreet is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” We call one another a danger to the Jewish people. I have read, “The ZOA gives succor to antisemites.”

I find comfort in the Torah. The truth of our story is that the children struggled. And Rebekah cries, “If so why do I exist?” She then inquires of the Lord.

Who is Jacob?

Who is Esau?

We too must inquire.

When will we realize we are Jacob and we are also Esau?

When will we realize we are brothers?

Later, after years of struggle, Jacob and Esau come to the realization that their brotherhood supersedes their bitterness. They recognize that their kinship must overwhelm even their sense of right and wrong.

“Esau embraced Jacob and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.” (Genesis 33)

When will their realization become our own?

We only have each other.

Together we must embrace our common heritage. Together we must hold our Torah.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Gallons of Compassion

In ancient times there was no such thing as JSwipe. Instead eligible bachelors would go to the local well where young women gathered to collect water.

Following Sarah’s death, Abraham charges his trusted servant Eliezer with the task of finding a wife for his apparently docile son Isaac. He loads ten camels for the lengthy journey. Eliezer arrives in Aram and approaches the well. He decides upon a test. Whoever offers water not only to him but his camels will be the woman Isaac should marry.

Rebekah approaches. (Cue the music! Who else is going to see Squeeze at the Paramount?) Eliezer says, “Please, let me sip a little water from your jar?” Rebekah immediately hands him the jar and says, “Drink, my lord.” And when he finished drinking, she said, “I will also draw for your camels until they finish drinking.”

This was no small undertaking. Let me put Rebekah’s offer in perspective. Camels need to drink approximately 25 gallons after such a long journey. There were ten camels. That means she had to fetch 250 gallons of water. Let’s say that a typical bucket holds two and half gallons. So that means she makes a hundred trips back and forth to the well. (Yes, I passed that part of my SAT.)

So now my question is what is wrong with Eliezer. Did he just sit there and watch her do all this heavy lifting? Apparently, yes. He sat and watched for the one hour and forty minutes it took for the camels to drink. By the way it takes a camel ten minutes to drink 25 gallons. (And I thought I would never again use SAT math.)

Commentators often speak about Rebekah’s compassion. “How do we know this?” they ask. Because she shows compassion for the animals. Because she thought not only of Eliezer’s thirst but also the animals’.

Now, after learning more about camels and doing some simple calculations, perhaps he was impressed with her extraordinary strength and stamina. She is not afraid of hard work. She is a doer. Given his servant Isaac’s timidness, he maybe thought, this is exactly the kind of woman Isaac needs to marry. Perhaps.

Then again the true measure of compassion appears to be when you do the extra and the unexpected.

It is all about the “and.”

That is the secret of the test Eliezer designs. It is also the secret to adding a measure of compassion to our own lives.

Cell Phones are Ruining Serendipity

A few weeks ago a mystery object rocketed past earth. Astronomers scrambled to understand it. They had never before seen anything like it. They quickly labeled the small space rock “A/2017 U1.” They determined it was not a comet or asteroid, but instead from a different solar system than our own. It was from another world. You can detect the glee in the scientists’ exclamations. “I was not expecting to see anything like this during my career, even though we knew it was possible and that these objects exist,” said one NASA researcher. The theoretical became possible.

For a brief moment, the stars aligned. And luck provided a potentially ground breaking discovery.

Years ago, in fact when I was 15 years old, my brother and I were situated on either side of an older man on our family’s first trip to Israel. We kept him up for the better part of the flight, talking and being the mischievous brothers that we were–but are, I promise, no longer. A bond was formed. Our parents became especially close to Jerry and his wife Marion. A lifelong friendship was formed. One that spanned nearly 35 years until Jerry’s death several years ago and Marion’s a few weeks ago.

We used to think it was Jerry’s misfortune to be seated in between us....

Friday, November 3, 2017

Halloween's Demons

We are saddened and outraged about Tuesday’s terrorist attack in New York City. Our hearts are joined in the all too familiar prayers of healing for those injured and comfort for the families of those murdered. Our hearts are also joined in resolve that we must never allow terror and fear to rule our lives, shade our city, or give color to our nation. I stubbornly believe that the most important battle against terrorism is waged within and that our hearts have always been strong enough to banish fear.

Perhaps this struggle against fear lies at the center of our recent celebrations of Halloween. I was surprised to see the number of photographs on Facebook and Instagram of my friends dressed up in costumes. One dressed up as a cheerleader, another a pirate. Many donned super hero costumes. (And many would like to forget the year I dressed up as Superman. Rabbi in tights!)

What is the attraction to wearing costumes? Why does everyone love to dress up?

It is because, for a brief moment, we can pretend we are someone else. We can hide from the realities of the world. We can cover up the fears that dominate our day to day lives. We can feel almost invincible. That is the attraction to dressing up and wearing costumes.

This is at the center of Purim. That story is about our endless struggle against antisemitic hatred and murderous regimes. And what is our response? You would think it would be mourning and fasting. Instead we wear costumes. We drink. It is a day of unabashed revelry. What Purim always was is what Halloween celebrations have become.

And yet Halloween offers us something additional. On this day American Jews can feel a part of American culture. Everyone celebrates Halloween! Never mind that the holiday hearkens back to ancient Celtic culture. November 1st marked their new year and so on this day the boundary between this world and the next could more easily be crossed. Hence the spookiness and all the skeletons.

Never mind that in the year 1000 the Catholic Church layered religious import upon this ancient holiday. The day became All Hallows Eve and was preceded by All Souls Day in which the souls of the dead were honored. The origins of trick-or-treating is apparently found in this day, when the poor would beg for food and then promise to pray in behalf of the dead in return.

That of course is not why we celebrate Halloween. I had to research these origins and spent a good deal of time reading the encyclopedia. I had to quiz my Christian colleagues. We do not celebrate it because we adhere to Celtic theology. We do not believe what the Catholic Church interprets. We love Halloween because it is a fun day. We are fortunate enough to go to parties. We are offered the opportunity to wear costumes. We get to celebrate. We get to dress up.

All this sounds so much like Purim that I find myself wondering why we love Halloween more than our very own holiday. On Purim we also give out food. On Purim we are also commanded to give food to the poor. Here is a thought. Save those costumes for March 1st! This year I expect to see plenty of cheerleaders, pirates and super heroes at our Purim celebrations.

It is always good to laugh at hatred and pretend we are not afraid. Perhaps we require two days to do just that.