Thursday, January 10, 2019

God's Burning Truth

Rabbi Menahem Mendl (1787-1859) was a controversial Hasidic teacher who led a community in Kotzk (Kock, Poland) for twelve years. He is often called the Kotzker rebbe.

Reb Menahem Mendl was, however, never fully comfortable in this leadership role. When followers came to visit, hoping to hear some of their master’s teachings, he would only occasionally come out of his study. And when he did, he would then chase these students away. His dream was to develop fifty worthy disciples who would attain the spiritual level of the prophets. He of course never achieved this goal and instead spent his remaining twenty years in seclusion.

He was a master without a congregation.

He was so intoxicated with God that he found little time for people. He was uncompromising. His goal was absolute perfection. Menahem Mendl disdained half measures. He believed in a radical approach, stating that it was better to be completely wicked than to be partially good and partially wicked. His singular goal was absolute truth and complete authenticity. Falsehood and complacency were antithetical to a worthy religious life. Conformity and social conventions were obstacles that needed to be trampled. He was known to say, “Give me just ten disciples who will follow me to the desert, eat manna and forsake this decadent world.”

His obsessions led him to perform an unusual custom. Every year, prior to Passover, he burned his writings along with the bread. And yet there are a number of sayings and teachings ascribed to him. He taught: “People are accustomed to look at the heavens and wonder what happens there. It would be better if they would look within themselves to see what happens there.”

Look within for truth.

To the Kotzker rebbe, there is no escaping God’s demands or God’s presence. He saw God everywhere and anywhere.

Even this week’s portion points to more than the plagues it describes. Why does the portion open with such a curious word? God commands Moses to “Come to Pharaoh” rather than “Go to Pharaoh.” Menahem Mendl comments:
The Torah does not say, lekh—go—to Pharaoh, but bo—come. The reason for this usage is because one cannot go from God; one cannot move away from God for God is everywhere. Therefore, God told Moses, “come,” or in other words, “Come with Me, for I will be with you wherever you are.”
We cannot escape God’s presence. We cannot escape God’s demands.

It is enough to drive a person mad. Perhaps this is why Menahem Mendl shooed disciples away and sought to destroy his legacy by burning his writings. He was tormented by God’s truth.

God’s demands are overwhelming. Truth burns at the soul.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel explores Menahem Mendl of Kotzk’s teachings in his extraordinary book, A Passion for Truth. Heschel observes:
We recall him still, Reb Mendl of Kotzk. He has not fled from us by dying. Somehow his lightning persists. His words throw flames whenever they come into our orbit. They burn. Who can bear them? Yet many of us shall thereby shed our masks, our pretensions and jealousies, our distorted notions, and then messianic redemption may approach its beginning. 
What did the Kotzker leave behind? He published no books, left no records; what he wrote he burned. Yet he taught us never to say farewell to Truth; for God laughs at those who think that falseness is inevitable. He also enabled us to face wretchedness and survive. For Truth is alive, dwelling somewhere, never weary. And all of mankind is needed to liberate it.
Where is the Kotzker rebbe when he is most needed?

He has secluded himself—once again.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

God Only Wants One Thing from Us

People call God by many different names.

Allah. Vishnu. Almighty.

Buddha. Jesus. Tao.

Adonai.


God calls people to do one simple thing:

Do good.

And typically adds some advice:

Stick together.

And very often offers a warning:

Beware of them and their ideas.

And we are still trying to figure out how to follow this simple command....

Friday, December 28, 2018

Stirring Compassion

A little over 400 years have passed since the conclusion of Genesis. The memory of Joseph, his family, and in particular all of the great things Joseph did for Egypt, are no longer read in Egypt’s history books. The new rulers only see how numerous the Israelites have become.

So they enslave and oppress the Jewish people. Pharaoh decrees that all first born sons of the Israelites must be killed. In one of the first acts of civil disobedience, the Hebrew midwives, Shifrah and Puah, ignore Pharaoh’s law and thwart his plan. Pharaoh then declares that every Jewish boy shall be drowned in the Nile.

In an effort to save the newborn Moses, his mother and sister place him in a basket in the Nile. Thus begins one of the more interesting chapters in the Torah. It is punctuated by several acts of compassion. The first instance is surprisingly that of Pharaoh’s daughter, an unnamed woman who notices the baby boy. “She spied the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to fetch it. When she opened it, she saw that it was a child, a boy crying. She took pity on him and said, ‘This must be a Hebrew child.’” (Exodus 2)

Remarkably she knows that the baby is a Hebrew yet she still reaches out to the endangered child, thus disobeying her father (perhaps she is a teenager, Rabbi Bar Yohai suggests). She appoints a Hebrew woman to nurse and care for the child. Unbeknownst to her, this woman is Moses’ mother, who is also unnamed. Pharaoh’s daughter names the child Moses, a common Egyptian name.

Moses is raised as an Egyptian, but his awareness of the suffering of others grows. (Does he learn compassion from his foster mother?) In three instances Moses rushes to the defense of others. In the first and most familiar instance, Moses witnesses an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave. In a fit of rage (righteous indignation?), he kills the Egyptian and saves the Hebrew.

Later Moses sees two Hebrew slaves fighting with each other and intervenes, saying, “Why do you strike your fellow?” Rather than offer thanks, one of the Hebrews turns on Moses and says, “Who made you chief and ruler over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?”

Upon hearing this Moses becomes frightened and flees from Egypt. He finds himself in Midian and of course by the well where he rescues the priest’s seven daughters from some ill-tempered shepherds. Moses then single handedly waters their flock.

It is only after this final rescue and the accumulation of these compassionate acts that God takes notice of the Israelites’ suffering. Have these deeds awakened God’s compassion? “The Israelites were groaning under their bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God. God heard their moaning, and God remembered the covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.”

I wonder. What took God so long? Why did God wait over 400 years to rescue the Jewish people? I continue to wonder. What takes God so long? What takes God so long to notice our pain and to respond to our suffering?

Throughout history we have waited for God to send the messiah to heal all wounds and address the world’s troubles. Maimonides writes: “Even though the messiah delays, I will continue to wait. Ani maamin, I believe.”

There are many rabbinic legends about the messiah. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi asks: “When will the messiah come?” Elijah responds: “Go ask him yourself. He can be found sitting at the gates of Rome, caring for the lepers, changing their bandages one at a time.” The messiah is that person who reaches out to others in compassion.

Perhaps God is waiting for us to reach out to others in compassion.

Ponder this. History does not record Pharaoh’s daughter’s name. She was certainly famous in Egypt. Everyone in Egypt knew her name and admired her fame and riches, yet history instead remembers her for reaching out to Moses. History remembers her compassion.

And so the Jewish people’s history begins with the unnamed daughter of Pharaoh looking away from all of her riches and indulgences and instead with compassionate eyes, looking toward a baby crying in anguish. It is those eyes that sparked God’s remembrances. It is Moses’ deeds that stirred God’s heart. It is their compassion that awakened God’s sympathy.

We never know which act of compassion will stir God.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Can Love Be Reduced to a Mathematical Equation?

Much of our lives are dominated by algorithms. We turn to apps for every manner of things: to shop for clothes (shout out to LeTote), to track our workouts (kudos to Strava) and to weave around traffic (thank you GoogleMaps). We are increasingly dependent on apps like Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp to communicate with friends and family.

I continue to wonder about the effect of these dependencies. And so, my curiosity was piqued when I saw the recent article, “The Yoda of Silicon Valley.”

Donald Knuth is considered the father of computer programming. He has written a multi-volume book, considered the subject’s Bible, The Art of Computer Programming. Although I am certain this book will never be added to my Amazon wish list, I found his life work fascinating. His philosophical musings were particularly insightful and illuminating.

Knuth comments: “I am worried that algorithms are getting too prominent in the world....


Thursday, December 13, 2018

Drawing Near

Sometimes the Torah packs meaning into one word.

Vayigash alav Yehuda—and Judah drew near to Joseph…” (Genesis 44)

Judah still does not know that the Egyptian ruler who has been supplying him with rations during the famine and who now threatens the youngest of his father Jacob’s children, Benjamin, with enslavement is his brother Joseph whom he sold into slavery. Fearful for Benjamin’s life and his father’s welfare, Judah now draws close to Joseph to plead for Benjamin.

He offers himself in Benjamin’s place. He concludes his plea with the words, “Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father!” Judah is a changed man. He will no longer sell another brother into slavery. Joseph cannot control his emotions and says, “I am your brother Joseph whom you sold into Egypt. Do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me here; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.” He then embraces Benjamin, and kisses Judah and the rest of his brothers.

This remarkable tale of reconciliation begins when Judah draws near to Joseph and demonstrates his repentance. It culminates with Joseph’s statement of forgiveness. Joseph says in effect, “You intended to do wrong, but now we can see that throwing me in a pit while you sat down to a meal, selling me to the Ishmaelites who then traded me to the Egyptians, and then telling our father that wild beasts killed me, turned to good. Our family would have starved if you had not done that wrong, if you were then not so motivated by jealousy.

I would have understood if Joseph kept his brothers in jail for a long time and said, “Look at me. You tried to get rid of me and instead I have become second only to Pharaoh.” I would have even understood if Joseph said, “I don’t want anything to do with you. You may be my brothers but you are bunch of good for nothings.” But that is not Joseph.

He is heroic in his forgiveness. And Judah is heroic in his repentance.

Elsewhere in the Bible the word “vayigash” is used to describe making war.

Vayigash Yoav v’ha’am—and Joab and the troops with him drew near to make war against the Arameans… (II Samuel 10)

I have come to believe that this instance more aptly describes our everyday interactions. We follow not the examples of Joseph and Judah, but instead Joab.

Every discussion quickly turns angry. Every argument appears like war.

Our political leaders scream at each other rather than reaching for compromise. Our Facebook feeds are filled with outrage. “How dare they! Look at those idiots!” we read over and over again. Exclamation points abound. Emails and text messages quickly become heated. Anger and vitriol color our computer screens. We retreat to our iPhones.

We withdraw to the certainties of our shared indignation. Our feeds confirm our outrage. They vindicate our anger.

It all could change if we but turned to this week’s opening word. Vayigash. So much can be lost in drawing near to make war. So much continues to unravel as we draw near in battle and self-righteous indignation.

So much more can be cured by drawing near in reconciliation.

We again require such heroics.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Masked and Unmasked

Rabbi Larry Kushner observes that throughout the Joseph story, our hero Joseph often changes clothes. In the opening chapters, his father places the coat of many colors on him and then his brothers tear it from him. There is as well the garment torn from him by Potiphar’s wife when she tries to seduce him. And finally, in this week’s portion the following: “Pharaoh had him dressed in robes of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck.” (Genesis 41)

By the time his brothers come before him, in search of food to stave their hunger from famine, Joseph looks like an Egyptian. He is unrecognizable. His clothes, and apparently his mannerisms and language, allow him to hide from them despite the fact that he stands right in front of them. Now it is left to him alone to remove these clothes. Still, he is not yet able to tear the trappings of his Egyptian identity and reveal himself to his brothers.

What do we hide? What do we reveal?

Soon Joseph will remove his mask and embrace his brothers in forgiveness. He is only able to do this after he comes to believe that they have changed. When they refuse to consign their younger brother Benjamin to slavery as they once did Joseph he is able to reveal himself. It is then that Joseph unmasks his true identity. Joseph discovers that he is more a brother, and a member of the family of Israel, than an Egyptian. His inner self becomes one with his outer identity.

Are we the same on the outside as we are on the inside? Is it possible to achieve such harmony?

Yesterday our country observed a day of mourning for President George H.W. Bush. Of the many remembrances shared I was most struck by those of his son, President George W. Bush. In this weekend’s 60 Minutes interview he said that he once asked his father the following, “Dad do you ever think about the war?” His father responded, “I think about Delaney and White all the time.” They were the two crew mates who died when his plane crashed. It was a startling revelation.

Despite all the accolades about Bush’s wartime heroism: the grainy film of him being rescued by a submarine, the reports of his nearly 60 missions, the pictures of him in his Navy dress uniform and the many government jobs he achieved: president, vice-president, CIA director, congressman, he remained bound to the two friends killed over 70 years ago. Their memories occupied his thoughts.

Their deaths were the hidden hands that directed his life. It appeared as if their memories impelled his service.

It was not the uniforms—and the many achievements, but the loss. It was not the heroism and the years of service, but instead the friends—or more accurately, their absence that guided his life.

I sensed his pain.

Uniforms hide the cost of war. (Perhaps this is their intention.) Achievements mask our inner struggles.

The soul was laid bare.

Monday, December 3, 2018

The Miracles of Hanukkah Are Not What You May Think

During my rabbinical school years, my classmates and I gained experience serving small pulpits throughout the country. We traveled to these far-flung congregations once a month or every other week. I served communities in Houghton-Hancock, Michigan; Clarksdale Mississippi; Fargo, North Dakota and Arvada, Colorado.

I recall my first Hanukkah in Clarksdale. As I drove south from the Memphis airport, through the cotton fields of Northern Mississippi, I began to formulate my teaching about the upcoming holiday. For weeks, we had studied Hanukkah’s origins with our professors and debated its meaning in our classes.

I decided to teach my congregants about the real Hanukkah. I patiently explained how our central story about the miracle of oil appears nowhere in the Book of Maccabees. These books, written soon after the victory over the Syrian-Greeks and the Jewish Hellenists, emphasize the Maccabees’ heroism, the sinfulness of those Jews enamored of Greek culture, and the ruthlessness of the Syrian-Greek oppressors. There, the eight days are tied to the Temple’s rededication ceremony. The Temples were first dedicated during Sukkot, another eight-day holiday and so Hanukkah’s eight days are most likely tied to Sukkot’s eight.

“What about the miracle of oil?” my congregants asked.

“It does not appear until the pages of the Talmud,” I respond...

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Angels and Demons

Everyone has their demons. And everyone has their angels.

There are some that say that when our forefather Jacob wrestled with “beings divine and human” he struggled with his estranged brother Esau. Other suggest he wrestled with Esau’s protecting angel.

Long before this mysterious encounter, Jacob stole the birthright from Esau. At his mother Rebekah’s suggestion, he tricked his father Isaac and took the first-born blessing for himself. Esau then threatened to kill him. Jacob runs.

He has been running for some time. Afraid about the next day’s meeting with his brother he sends his family across the river and instructs his servants to bring gifts to Esau.

“And Jacob was left alone.”

He is alone with his thoughts.

Should I have lied to my father? Why did I trick Esau out of his rightful inheritance?

Regret fills the solitude. It feeds the loneliness.

“A being wrestled with him until the break of dawn.”

Jacob is unable to wrest free from his demons.

The being wrenches his hip. Jacob now limps. Undeterred and even more determined, our forefather insists the being offer him a blessing. He receives a new name.

Jacob becomes Israel. Israel means to wrestle with God. The angel explains, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.”

Our identities hinge on wrestling. Our names emerge from our struggles.

Everyone has their demons. Everyone has their angels.

Perhaps they are one and the same.

And now Jacob runs no more.

“Esau runs to greet him. He embraces Jacob, and falling on his neck, he kisses him; and they wept.” (Genesis 32)

Friday, November 16, 2018

Still Dreaming!

Place is central to our most important Jewish dream. That singular dream is recounted at our Passover Seders: L’shanah habaah b’yerushalyim—next year in Jerusalem. And now, as the Psalmist sings, we are in fact like dreamers who have returned to Zion. We can in a matter of hours touch the land that our ancestors only saw in their mind’s eye and sang about in their prayers.

Vayetzei begins that dreaming. Jacob arrived at the place. And he dreamed of a ladder reaching toward heaven. And God reiterated to him the promise that the land on which he was lying will be assigned to him and his offspring. Today his dream has become real. Yama—West—becomes Tel Aviv. Tzafona—North—is now Haifa. Our dreams are now real places.

For millennia this was not the case.

The rabbis of old were forced to fashion Judaism out of the embers of a destroyed Jerusalem....

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Why I Wore a Kippah to Vote

This Tuesday morning, I wore my kippah, the customary head covering many Jews wear in synagogue. We cover our heads as reminder that God is always present.

As I entered the local elementary school to vote, I donned my kippah. I don’t wear a kippah all the time. Typically I wear one when leading prayer services or when teaching a class or when officiating at a wedding or funeral. I don’t wear one when doing any manner of everyday activities, such as grocery shopping or going for a walk or for that matter, venturing to town hall.

This occasion, however, needed to be sanctified–most especially this year, and during these times.

Voting seems like such a mundane affair....