Thursday, December 30, 2010

Vaera

This week’s Torah portion, Vaera, opens with the words: “God spoke to Moses and said to him, ‘I am Adonai.  I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name Y-H-V-H…”  (Exodus 6)

To Moses God offers this personal name of YHVH.  We, however, no longer know how to pronounce this name and so we say, Adonai, my Lord.  This name is related to the name revealed at the burning bush.  When Moses asks, “When I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?’”  God responds, Eyeh Asher Eyeh, meaning “I will be what I will be.”  (Exodus 3)  YHVH is thus a form of the verb, “to be.”  What a mysterious, and wonderful, name.  The name of God means: God is.

As a consequence the Jewish tradition has many names for God.  A casual search of the prayerbook yields well over 50 different names.  Here are a few: the Teacher, the Holy One Blessed be He, the Place, Builder of Jerusalem, the Healer, God of Thanks, Lord of Wonders, our Father our King (Avinu Malkeinu), Rock of Israel and Lord of Peace.

We call God by many different names.  We find God through these many names.  The Psalmist declares, “The heavens declare God’s glory/ the sky proclaims His handiwork./  Day to day makes utterance,/ night to night speaks out/ There is no utterance,/ there are no words…” (Psalm 19)  Language is merely scratching the surface.  Our words are only glimmers of the divine.  Reaching out to God is not a perfect science.  Even our prayers are mere attempts.  Our most carefully constructed sentences and most heartfelt songs only, at best, extend upward.

My favorite poet, Denise Levertov, concurs:  “Lord, I curl in Thy grey/ gossamer hammock/ that swings by one/ elastic thread to thin/twigs that could, that should/break but don’t./  I do nothing, I give You/nothing.  Yet You hold me/ minute by minute/ from falling./  Lord, You provide.”  We stretch and weave words as if they are hammock strung between two branches.  Hammocks can be comfortable and relaxing when they envelope us, as we sit in the summer shade, yet unsteady when our weight is shifted ever so slightly. 

Words are both flimsy and secure.  Our tradition therefore offers us many different names, many different paths to reach our God.  None of them are perfect.  None of them are the final answer. Indeed the rabbis declare that there are 70 different facets of the Torah.  There is never one Jewish answer!  Not when it comes to Torah and not when it comes to naming God.

We find God through many names and many different places.  And so wherever this email find you, on a beautiful stretch of beach (Amen), on a glistening white mountain of snow (Amen), on the historic streets of a European city (Amen), in the life affirming cafes of our beloved Jerusalem (Amen), or on the quiet of our Long Island home emptied of its bustle (Amen v’Amen), I wish you a Shabbat Shalom.  May it indeed be a Sabbath of peace, quiet and relaxation.  May it indeed be a day when we hear at least one of God’s names emerge from our lips.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Psalms 19-21

19. This might be one of my favorite psalms.
The heavens declare the glory of God,
the sky proclaims His handiwork.
Day to day makes utterance,
night to night speaks out.
There is no utterance,
there are no words,
whose sound goes unheard.
There are no words.  The only fitting testimony is nature.  Have you ever walked outside and seen the leaves changing colors in the fall or the flowers first blooming in spring or the sun streaming through the clouds in summer or the snow first beginning to fall on the winter’s frozen ground?  There is no utterance.  How beautiful is God’s world!  The heavens spin story after story telling of God’s glory.
The teaching of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul…
The precepts of the Lord are just,
rejoicing the heart…
The fear of the Lord is pure,
abiding forever
the judgments of the Lord are true,
righteous altogether,
more desirable than gold,
than much fine gold;
sweeter than honey,
than drippings of the comb.
Just like nature, everything from God is perfect.  God’s teachings are perfect, precepts are just, and fear is pure.  To fear God is pure?  How is fear positive?  Yirat hashamayim, fear of heaven, is noble and good to the biblical mind.  Sometimes we translate yirah as awe, but that obscures its true meaning.  Fear of God is positive and sought after.  Why do we fear fear of heaven?  Sometimes we do positive things out of fear.  Fear of failure can be a powerful motivating tool.  And sometimes we rightly fear nature.  Perhaps fear is not an altogether negative emotion.  And so God’s precepts make the heart happy.  When we observe a mitzvah we rejoice.  We should celebrate doing God’s work.  All of God’s judgments, pronouncements, and commandments are finer than even gold.  They are sweeter than the sweetest honey.  I should not seek riches.  I must not long for fine wine and sweet desserts.  Instead I pine after celebrating God’s commandments.  Would that it were this easy!  God’s words drip from the honeycomb—like the morning dew on a bed of roses.
May the words of my mouth
and the prayer of my heart
be acceptable to You,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
May God find my words and prayers sweet and desirable.  May my prayers reach to heaven.  This phrase has made it into our prayer service following the Amidah.  Indeed Psalm 19 is part of the Shabbat liturgy.

20. May the Lord answer you in time of trouble,
the name of Jacob’s God keep you safe.
There is the notion that we, the Jewish people, know God’s first name.  We are as it were on a first name basis.  And thus we can call out to God in times of trouble, as if reaching out to a friend.  We say Adonai heal us.  Is this why this particular psalm is part of our weekday prayers?  The work week is trouble.  Shabbat is a prayer by contrast.  It is a blessing.  Even when working, keep God’s name on your lips.
They call on chariots, they call on horses,
but we call on the name of the Lord our God.
Others call God by the wrong names.  They heap praises on the machineries of war.  We however call on Adonai, our God.  Have you ever felt that we sometimes call wrong things “our God?”  We sing praises about our fine homes, our beautiful cars.  We often direct our prayers and supplications toward the wrong desires.  Who are “they?”  It is us.

21. He asked You for life; You granted it;
a long life, everlasting….
As if it was that simple.  Ask for long life and God grants it.  Nonetheless it is my daily prayer.  Sometimes when reciting the Shehechiyanu to mark a happy occasion in a family’s life I am struck by the number of people who are not there.  Every occasion I recite this prayer I count it as a privilege.  We thank God for giving us life.  But what about those who were not granted long life? 
Be exalted, O Lord, through Your strength;
we will sing and chant the praises of Your
mighty deeds.
Keep on singing! The prayers can have a mantra like quality. Take the kaddish for example. It says in essence “God is great, God is holy…” Over and over again we intone its words. Eventually they seep into our hearts. Eventually the song finds its way into our hearts. 

100 Jewish Songs

You Questioned Our 100 Greatest Jewish Songs - by Dan Klein; Tablet Magazine
The author responds to the volume of coments about his interesting list of the top 100 Jewish songs.  He writes in part:
Why are there so many secular/Ashkenazi/American songs? 
...As for the inclusion of so many secular pop songs: I stand by all those choices. Look, people, the fact is, in historical terms—in terms of impact, influence, and global reach—American popular music is one of the greatest artistic achievements in the history of civilization. That sounds bombastic, but it’s true. What other art has reached more people, in more places, than pop and jazz and soul and rock & roll and hip-hop? (Maybe Hollywood movies—another Jewish invention.) Jews have played a disproportionate role in pop music, in both its creative and commercial spheres. I wanted the list to acknowledge that achievement.
What’s more, as I argue in the list, many of these so-called “secular” pop songs aren’t especially secular. I called “Over the Rainbow” a Jewish exilic prayer. That’s the way I hear it. Many of the pop songs on the list are, to my ears, manifestly Jewish, and not just because they’re written and performed by Jews. Listen to the Gershwin’s “Summertime”—its bluesy intervals are the same that you hear in dozens of Jewish liturgical melodies. This is true of many of Harold Arlen’s great songs, too. One of the signal accomplishments of Jews in pop music is the way they’ve smuggled Jewish culture, Jewish musical tropes, Jewish themes, into the mainstream—a stealth Semiticization of American culture.
If a non-Jew writes a Jewish themed song, shouldn’t they be included?
Yes, of course. There are a couple of examples on the list of Jewish-themed songs by non-Jews. (Madonna’s “Ray of Light” is one.) Woody Guthrie’s “Hanukkah Dance” was supposed to be on the list. It was left off because of a production error on my part. (Ooops!) There’s a long tradition of pop philosemitism, the most famous practitioner being Cole Porter, who once said he’d discovered the secret to musical greatness: “write Jewish tunes.” Porter’s “Jewish tunes” are among his most famous—songs like “Night and Day,” with its Orientalist “Jewish” sound, those brooding minor keys. I thought long and hard about including some reggae and ska—songs with biblical themes like Bob Marley’s “Exodus” or the Melodians’ “Rivers of Babylon” or Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites.” But I was concerned about construing Rastafarianism as some kind of bastardized crypto-Jewish tradition: those songs are Christian songs, Rasta songs, not Jewish songs.
The lines are not so easy to draw.  What makes a song a Jewish song?   The Jewish authorship of Christmas songs qualifies them for inclusion!?  Enough!  Regardless, all of this makes for great listening!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Shemot

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 and so they enslave and oppress the Jewish people.  Pharaoh decrees that all first born sons of the Israelites must be killed.  But 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, Exodus 2.  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.’”  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 compassion acts that God takes notice of the Israelites’ suffering.  Have these acts 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 His covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.  God looked upon the Israelites, and God too notice of them.”

I have often wondered.  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 with compassion?

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 in fact 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, I am sure, knew her name and admired her for her fame and riches, yet history instead remembers her for reaching out to Moses.  History remembers her compassion.

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, toward a baby crying in anguish.  It is those eyes that sparked God’s remembrances.  It is her compassion that awakened God’s compassion.

May it be so in our generation as well!  We never know which act of compassion will stir God’s heart.  And so to my Christian friends I say, Merry Christmas.  And to all, Shabbat Shalom!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Jewish Songs?

Songs of Songs - by Jody Rosen and Ari Y. Kelman; Tablet Magazine
Everyone seems to be thinking about the same thing! Or, are my eyes drawn to such articles because I am still thinking about these things?  Yes, I am still singing after our wonderful musical Shabbat service!   And I am still thinking about music and song, Judaism and prayer.  So here is another interesting article from Tablet Magazine about the 100 best Jewish songs. You might be surprised to see what makes it on the list. Listed are: "White Christmas," "Hound Dog" and "Over the Rainbow" (#1) as well as Adon Olam (#11 here; listen to our cantor singing this prayer to see why it really should be #1), Kol Nidre, Shema Yisrael, Avinu Malkeinu and Oseh Shalom. There are the Israeli favorites too: Yerushalayim shel Zahav, Shir LaShalom, Hatikvah, Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu (#88) and Hava Nagila (you must listen to Bob Dylan's version of this classic here!).

What makes a song Jewish?  Is it a matter of the composer's faith?  (That is the only explanation for why "White Christmas" makes it on the list.)  Is it a matter of the song's content?  (One can argue, as the authors do, that "Over the Rainbow" could make it in based on content.  But #46, "Hound Dog?")  What makes a novel Jewish for that matter?  Is it because of the author or because of what he or she writes about?  Is Portnoy's Complaint a Jewish novel?  Is Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King?  Or only his Herzog a Jewish novel?  Writing and music mirror the experiences of Jews living in the countries they find themselves in.  Living in the United States we sometimes exert our Jewishness.  Other times we hide it.  When do we claim our identities?  When do we hide them?  This tension as well is often the source of creativity, giving us great music, literature and art. 

Obviously I choose never to hide my identity (that would be kind of hard when most people think my name is "rabbi") and why I suspect I am so enamored of Israeli culture.  It is often Jewish without ever trying to be and sometimes even without the author or singer being aware of the fact.  I don't think most Israelis hear as I do the Jewish and Biblical resonances in their everyday Hebrew.  Take for example the contemporary songwriter Muki and his song "Elohim." "You are the earth.  You are life.  You are creation.  You are the years.  You are love drifting away....  When I breathe, when I feel, I open my eyes, I look and know.  Hear this clear truth, these words, I know You.  God.  I do not fear You.  All I want is to meet You.  I have no doubt about You.  You are with me. I am with You.  Just don't ever forget me!"  Sometimes I find myself listening to the song as if meditating in prayer.  Listen as well to the new internet radio station: Jewish Rock Radio to discover more music and songs to lift your hearts and prayers.  I am certain you will not hear "Over the Rainbow" on this station.  But perhaps you should!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Jewish Christmas Songs

Have Yourself a Jewish Little Christmas - by Marc Tracy; Tablet Magazine
Following up on the theme of Friday's sermon, here is an article about the most famous American Christmas songs, all written by Jews.  Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" is the most well known by far, but even "Santa Baby" now made famous by Taylor Swift, was composed by Joan Ellen Javits and Philip Springer.  Watch the below video for some more interesting tidbits about this remarkable cultural phenomenon.


A Fine Romance from Tablet Magazine on Vimeo.
I of course favor Bruce Springsteen's "Santa Clause is Coming to Town." I certainly don't mind listening to that on E Street Radio! At this time of year I find myself singing many of these songs. So we have a choice. Shut out the world at large. Or sing along with our neighbors. I choose to get into this holiday spirit! I love a good song, no matter who wrote it.

For those who would like more information about David Lehman's A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs visit Nextbook Press.

Richard Holbrooke Obituary

Richard Holbrooke Obituary By Leon Wieseltier | The New Republic
Leon Wieseltier writes eloquently, and powerfully, as he most often does, about the accomplished diplomat, Richard Holbrooke. He writes:
What [Holbrooke] believed in most of all, I think, was in the ability, and the duty, of the United States, by a variety of means, to better the world. He was, in his cast of mind, a realist, but his cast of mind was not his philosophy: this realist—the Democrats’ most accomplished Machiavellian—was always returning to first principles, to moral considerations, to the alleviation of human suffering and the spread of political liberty as goals of American statecraft. He came away from his early years in Vietnam with lessons but without a syndrome. He was unanguished about the use of American force, when it was morally justified and intelligently applied—which is to say, he was the last of the postwar liberals. Even in his most virulent criticism of what he regarded as America’s military mistakes abroad, there was not a trace of the temptation to surrender a high sense of America’s role in history. Isolationism disgusted him. He had a natural understanding, it was almost an attribute of his character, of the relationship between diplomacy and force. He had no illusions about the harshness of the world, and therefore about the toughness that is required for the creation of a world less harsh. His last assignment, the increasingly Sisyphean attempt to bring Afghanistan into the community of open and decent societies, was a bet on this sober and unsentimental optimism. He cared famously about what worked, and he could be brazen in his pragmatism, but Holbrooke’s professional life was animated by goals and concepts that no mere pragmatist could share. American interventionism, for him, was not just a policy; it was a way of existing responsibly in the world, the measure of a national (and personal) ideal, the real greatness of a great power.
It was this rare package of means and ends, of ideas and instruments, that made possible Holbrooke’s triumph at Dayton. He negotiated a peace with a villain whom he deeply despised, and thereby ended a genocide in which we, the United States, and an administration from his own party, had outrageously acquiesced. In this way he helped to restore the honor of his country after a period of disgrace. On the day that Holbrooke suffered the cataclysmic collapse from which he never recovered, The New York Times reported that Henry Kissinger—the Republicans’ most accomplished Machiavellian—remarked in 1973 that “if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.” Such unforgettably filthy words would never have crossed Richard Holbrooke’s lips. In government and out, not least in his groundbreaking work at Refugees International, his career was a loud and effective refutation of that chilling “maybe.
I continue to believe as well that the alleviation of human suffering is not simply a goal, but a commandment. We dare not turn away from the troubles of the world!  Enjoying liberty and success should be more about responsibilities than luxuries.

For those who would like to learn about Holbrooke's views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict read Dore Gold's piece in The Jerusalem Post.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Vayechi-R&B Shabbat Sermon

On Friday evening we welcomed four talented musicians to our Shabbat services.  (They were Erica von Kleist on saxophone and flute, Richie Barshay on drums, Ike Sturm on bass, and David Virelles on piano.)  To help mark this occasion I delivered the following sermon.

On this evening and this particular Shabbat I am thinking about Leonard Chess, and of course his brother Phil.  Let me tell you about the Chess brothers.  They were the founders of Chess records, one of the most, if not the most influential labels in the early Blues scene.  Leonard was born in Poland, in an area that is now Belarus, to a Jewish family.  He came to Chicago in 1928.  The family changed their name to Chess from some name that I did not have the time to check with Annie about how to accurately pronounce. (His given name was: Lejzor Czyz.)

Chess Records, memorialized in the movie "Cadillac Records," one of my favorite movies (not because it stars Beyonce or Adrien Brody but because it is all about the Blues), is responsible for giving us many Blues greats.  Here is a partial list of who they helped to discover: Muddy Waters (who wrote the song “Rollin’ Stone” that of course gave some fairly well known British group their name), Howlin Wolf (I personally like his song “Three Hundred Pounds of Heavenly Joy”), Bo Didly, Willie Dixon, Little Walter, Chuck Berry, Etta James (“At Last”), Memphis Slim and Johnny Lee Hooker to name a few.  And this in a nut shell helped to begin the rock and roll revolution that our children accept as God given and from Mount Sinai.

Now I am not thinking about Leonard Chess so that I can stand up here and say, “Well it is all because of the Jewish people that we enjoy Rock and Roll.”  That is beyond even my usual healthy dose of chutzpah.  Furthermore I don’t very much like the attempt to reclaim everything positive as our own (we have hundreds of Nobel Prize winners, invented the cell phone etc.) and distance ourselves from everything negative.  (This week’s papers were certainly a reminder that two years is not nearly enough time to forget the negative.)  I am thinking instead about Leonard Chess because I want to say something about music and Judaism. 

Everyone thinks religion and music, and Judaism and music are separate categories.  My religion belongs over here and my music belongs over there.  Music is my secular life.  It is about parties and dancing.  Religion is about services and studying.  Music is about fun.  Religion is about seriousness.  Music is new and creative.  Religion is old and traditional.  

In a word, “Wrong!”  We belong to a people who have made dancing a commandment and singing an obligation.  So why should they be separate?  Why can’t religion and music share goals?

Music has a way of touching our souls that little else can achieve.  A song can spark a tear.  A song can bring a smile.   That is the reason why every couple has a song.  Forgive me for being so blunt but I have yet to meet a couple who says that they first danced to the Torah portion Lech Lecha. 

For the past few months I have been talking about R&B Shabbat and have received more than a few quizzical looks.  But why must they be antithetical?  To my mind Shabbat has a great rhythm and even some blues.  There is the rhythm of the day and its many prayers.  And there are the blues of longing for that first Shabbat and pining after the ultimate Shabbat.

We do a disservice to ourselves and our Judaism when we struggle to maintain separate categories and spheres.  Divided selves are unhealthy and unwise. 

In this week’s Torah portion we read of Joseph and his brothers traveling to the land of Israel to bury their father Jacob.  The Torah records no details of what I imagined must have been weeks of travel.  What did they say to each other on this painful journey?

We do read of what the brothers say to Joseph immediately upon their return.  They bow before him and say, “We are prepared to be your slaves.”  Joseph responds, “Have no fear!  Am I substitute for God?  Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result—the survival of many people.”  (Genesis 50:18-21)

When Joseph and his brothers left for Israel they were a fractured family.  They were brothers who had not yet forgiven themselves for the wrong they had done to Joseph.  And there was Joseph, a man far too enamored of himself and his talents.  When they return from their journey they are shalem; they are whole; they are again a family.  Although we do not know what they said to each other, we do know that they are changed because of their journey.

Much of the time we spend worrying ourselves about how to get from A to B or how to get one kid from here and another to there.  In New York it is a pastime to debate the best routes so as to minimize time spent in traffic and the length of the trip. But journeying is about the trip more than the destination.  Journeying often ends up in places that were unintended.

When you truly listen to a song, when you open your ears and more importantly your heart, you do not know where it might take you.  That is the power of music.  That as well is the power of our Jewish faith and the journey we travel together.

So next time you are sitting in traffic, instead of yelling at other drivers or worse, each other, tell the kids to take off their wireless headphones and iPods and start singing together.  Then it will no longer be about traffic but about your family’s journey.  And then whenever you arrive at your destination will be secondary to where that journey takes you.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Childish Things - by Etgar Keret

Childish Things - by Etgar Keret; Tablet Magazine
Here is another great story by Israeli writer, Etgar Keret, in today's Tablet Magazine. It is another take on my post Hanukkah Fires. Keret dreams of an argument with Bibi Netanyahu and concludes:
“I’m sorry,” I say. “But I just can’t accept, that you, the prime minister of Israel, are evading responsibility and trying to shift the blame on a 5-year-old.”
“Prepare for action,” Bibi interrupts me in the middle of my dream. “A huge, nasty robot dog at 12 o’clock is trying to devour our slide.” And then I woke up, I think, or maybe I was just watching the news.
Are we in danger of burning down our home?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Psalms 16-18

16. I am ever mindful of the Lord's presence;
He is at my right hand; I shall never be shaken.
So my heart rejoices,
my whole being exults,
and my body rests secure.
In typical Jewish fashion this is one of the psalms read at a funeral.  The opening can be alternatively translated: "I have set the Lord before me--always.  Because He is at my right, I shall not falter.  Therefore my heart celebrates, and my being sings, and my flesh rests--assuredly."  Why read these verses at a funeral?  It is of course a statement of faith. Hold God close. Draw Adonai near.  Then you will not fall.  You may very well feel like you are faltering, but say a blessing and a prayer.  Baruch dayan ha-emet.  
For You will not abandon me to Sheol,
or let Your faithful one see the Pit.
You will teach me the path of life.
In Your presence is perfect joy;
delights are ever in Your right hand.
With God at your side you might feel like there are only simchas.  These celebrations are more indicative of the path of life than any of the many tragedies, pains and difficulties we face.  We are commanded to say a blessing in the face of death.  We are also commanded to dance at parties.  Blessings and whirling about in song and dance these are the defining Jewish postures.

17. A prayer of David.
Only five psalms open with this superscription: 17, 86, 90, 102 and 142.  Many times the psalms refer to the prayers of David, but only these five open with this description.  17, 86 and 142 are called prayers of David, although 142 is not just a prayer of David but a maskil: a prayer composed when he was in the cave, 90 a prayer of Moses, and 102 a prayer of a poor man.  What distinguishes a prayer from a psalm?  For the Bible a prayer appears to be akin to a plea.  Please hear my words, listen to the outpourings of my heart.
Hear, O Lord, what is just:
heed my cry, give ear to my prayer, 
uttered without guile....
You have visited me at night, probed my mind,
You have tested me and found nothing amiss...
I call on You;
You will answer me, God;
turn Your ear to me,
hear what I say.
Is it positive to be visited at night?  Is it comforting?  The idea that God sees and knows all is comforting to the saint.  But who is so perfect?  Who is without blame?  Even David sinned.  And what a mighty list of sins he committed!  Nonetheless here the person offering this prayer, if it is in fact David, has the confidence, and perhaps audacity, to say that he has passed all tests.  He says, I have examined my ways and found them to be blameless, so answer me.  Listen to my prayers!  There is a confidence here, even a chutzpah, that evades me.  I find comfort in the closing lines.
Guard me as carefully as the pupil of Your eye.
Hide me in the shadow of Your wings...
Then, I justified, will behold Your face;
awake, I am filled with the vision of You.

Each morning I awake to sing blessings and prayers, to give thanks for the morning. Baruch...yotzer ha-m'orot.

18. According to the superscription this psalm was composed by David when he was hiding from Saul in the caves of Ein Gedi.  It is remarkable in its imagery.
I adore You, O Lord, my strength,
O Lord, my crag, my fortress, my rescuer,
my God, my rock in whom I seek refuge,
my shield, my mighty champion, my haven.
All praise!  I called on the Lord
and was delivered from my enemies.
Many are the nooks and crannies of Ein Gedi.  In these David hides and in these God is found.  God is a rock.  God is, as the prayer recounts, the Rock of Israel.  A rock is of course immovable.  While unfeeling a rock can be felt and seen.  It is dependable and sturdy.  Perhaps this is why the ancients felt God's nearness in the hills of the Judean desert. 
In my distress I called on the Lord,
cried out to my God;
in His temple He heard my voice;
my cry to Him reached His ears.
Our cries reach to the highest heavens and find their way to the loftiest of abodes.  Imagine the trickles of water that make their way through the rocks of this desert oasis.
The ocean bed was exposed;
the foundations of the world were laid bare
by Your mighty roaring, O Lord,
at the blast of the breath of Your nostrils.
But during the winter rainy season flash floods can topple boulders and wash away desert roads.  Our prayers can be faint cries and mighty torrents of sobbing and pleading.
He rescued me because He was pleased with me.
David can sin.  He can murder. He can commit adultery.  God always forgives David because God loves David.  He was rescued not because of his merit but instead because of God's love and affection.  Is this the meaning of hesed, a love that is undeservedIs David the measure of divine hesed?

The Lord lives!  Blessed is my rock!
Exalted be God, my deliverer...
Hold a rock in your hand.  Keep a blessing on your lips.

To read the psalms online, in both English and Hebrew, follow this link.

Vayechi

This week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, is the final portion in Genesis.  Two death scenes are recorded in this week’s portion.  Both are framed by journeys.  The final act in the Joseph saga begins.  The aged patriarch Jacob summons his son Joseph to his bedside and says, “Do me this favor, place your hand under my thigh as a pledge of your steadfast loyalty: please do not bury me in Egypt.  When I lie down with my fathers, take me up from Egypt and bury me in their burial place.” (Genesis 47:29-10)

After Jacob blesses his grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh he offers a unique blessing to each of his sons.  He then breathes his last breath and is gathered to his people.  “Joseph flung himself upon his father’s face and wept over him and kissed him.” (Genesis 50:1)  Jacob is mourned for 70 days and then Joseph asks Pharaoh for permission to travel to the land of Israel to bury his father.  Joseph and his brothers, as well as many of the leaders of Egypt, travel to Hebron to bury Jacob alongside Abraham and Isaac, Sarah, Rebekah and Leah.   Before crossing the Jordan they observe another mourning period, this time for seven days.

It was of course a lengthy journey from Egypt to the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron.  The Torah notes the journey but records nothing of the conversations that must have occurred.  What did the brothers say to each other as they traveled to bury their father?  What did the Egyptians say to each other about the Jewish customs they observed?  What did Joseph say to his sons Ephraim and Manasseh about the land to which they were journeying?

It is curious that Genesis provides little detail about the journeys it records.  The majority of the Torah is of course about a journey from Egypt to the land of Israel.  The remainder of the Torah details discussions and arguments, successes and failures.  Yet in our Torah portion the most important journey, the one that presages the Jewish people’s defining journey, is reported only with its beginning and end points.  Why?

I have often wondered what family members say to each other as they drive from funeral home to cemetery.  It seems to me among the more difficult steps in an extraordinarily difficult day.  The journey, between the obligations of funeral and burial, seems particularly wrenching.  What do siblings, living apart for so many years but thrust together by grief, say to each other in the car ride?  What can parents say to a child grieving for a beloved grandparent as they mourn for their own parent?  

I remember in particular my grandfather’s funeral procession.  There were few words.  I looked out the window and listened to my father’s cries.  I remember my mother’s words of reassurance to my brother and me.  The procession took a detour so that it might drive by my grandfather’s shul.  On that cold December day, the doors of the synagogue were opened in a gesture of respect.  A number of men, friends of my grandfather, stood beside the doors.

I turned to my parents, “Why?”  There were only tears. There were no fitting words. It is perhaps for similar reasons that the tradition requires no words to recite before lighting the yahrtzeit candle.  On such journeys it is often impossible to find adequate words.
 
For Jacob the funeral procession concludes with no words, but with all of his children reunited in a final act of burying him in his ancestral home.  For Joseph the procession is delayed.   It will not be until the Israelites are freed from Egypt that Moses takes with him Joseph’s bones.  The Israelites tend to their packing and make ready for the journey.  Moses on the other hand fulfills a nearly forgotten vow, made to his forefathers hundreds of years before, and carries Joseph's bones out of Egypt.  “Why?” the Israelites might have asked.

There was only silence.  There are times when that is the only and best response.  And there are times like Moses and Joseph before him, when are hands become our prayers.

To read the Torah portion online follow this link.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Heroes

Again, I don't usually cite CNN or favor it as a resource, nonetheless its series on this year's everyday heroes is inspiring.  CNN presents a selection of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.  Peruse the nominations and their accompanying videos on CNN.com (2010 Heroes) to witness these remarkable examples of humanity at its best.  I presume this is part of CNN's intention.  What most often makes the news is unfortunately the opposite.  This year's winner is Anuradha Koirala, a humble woman from Nepal who has nearly singlehandedly rescued 12,000 girls from Asia's sex trade.  I found the below story about India's Narayanan Krishnan particularly inspiring.  Krishnan is a Brahmin and therefore according to Hinduism's orthodox interpretation is not supposed to come in contact with anyone who is "impure" and not a member of his caste.  But he states: "I am just a human being.  Everybody is the same."



According to rabbinic legend the messiah will be found caring for the lepers outside the gates of the city.  The rabbis understood that the world's redemption will be brought not so much from heaven but by ordinary people doing extraordinary acts, transcending station and position to care for those less fortunate.  My donations and contributions of food and clothing to local soup kitchens seem so minuscule by comparison. I must do more to feed the hungry and care for the homeless!
And thanks to Marc for first bringing this video to my attention.

Nobel Prize

On a number of recent occasions I have found myself profoundly disappointed by the Nobel committee's selection for their prestigious peace prize.  This year's winner however is an inspiring choice.  Liu Xiabo, a dissident who languishes in a Chinese prison cell, stands alongside other giants.  He appears equal to the legacy of such winners as Andrei Sakharov and Martin Luther King.  Liu Xiabo was of course one of the leaders of the Tienanmen Square protests of June 1989 and is now jailed for continuing to speak in behalf of human rights.  He could not travel to Norway to accept the award and so in his stead last year's "I Have No Enemies" speech was read.  Last December, he delivered this final statement to the court sentencing him.  He steadfastly holds to the principle of non-violent resistance.  Remarkably he speaks of having no enemies, and no hatred.  Freedom of expression, he argues, is the foundation of human rights.  He believes, moreover, that ultimately China will bow to the universality of human rights.  He writes:
Hatred can rot away at a person's intelligence and conscience. Enemy mentality will poison the spirit of a nation, incite cruel mortal struggles, destroy a society's tolerance and humanity, and hinder a nation's progress toward freedom and democracy. That is why I hope to be able to transcend my personal experiences as I look upon our nation's development and social change, to counter the regime's hostility with utmost goodwill, and to dispel hatred with love.
His language, even in translation, soars in particular when speaking of his love for his wife.
If I may be permitted to say so, the most fortunate experience of these past twenty years has been the selfless love I have received from my wife, Liu Xia. She could not be present as an observer in court today, but I still want to say to you, my dear, that I firmly believe your love for me will remain the same as it has always been. Throughout all these years that I have lived without freedom, our love was full of bitterness imposed by outside circumstances, but as I savor its aftertaste, it remains boundless. I am serving my sentence in a tangible prison, while you wait in the intangible prison of the heart.
Your love is the sunlight that leaps over high walls and penetrates the iron bars of my prison window, stroking every inch of my skin, warming every cell of my body, allowing me to always keep peace, openness, and brightness in my heart, and filling every minute of my time in prison with meaning. My love for you, on the other hand, is so full of remorse and regret that it at times makes me stagger under its weight. I am an insensate stone in the wilderness, whipped by fierce wind and torrential rain, so cold that no one dares touch me. But my love is solid and sharp, capable of piercing through any obstacle. Even if I were crushed into powder, I would still use my ashes to embrace you.
His images and language conjure remembrances of Pablo Neruda's "Poet's Obligation" in my mind.  I suspect that Liu Xiabo might bristle at the comparison, the devoted communist poet side by side with the steadfast fighter of communism.  Nonetheless the prison cell is the focus and source of much poetry.
To whoever is not listening to the sea
this Friday morning, to whoever is cooped up
in house or office, factory or woman
or street or mine or harsh prison cell:
to him I come, and, without speaking or looking,
I arrive and open the door of his prison,
and a vibration starts up, vague and insistent,
a great fragment of thunder sets in motion
the rumble of the planet and the foam,
the raucous rivers of the ocean flood,
the star vibrates swiftly in its corona,
and the sea is beating, dying and continuing.
So, drawn on by my destiny,
I ceaselessly must listen to and keep
the sea's lamenting in my awareness,
I must feel the crash of the hard water
and gather it up in a perpetual cup
so that, wherever those in prison may be,
wherever they suffer the autumn's castigation,
I may be there with an errant wave,
I may move, passing through windows,
and hearing me, eyes will glance upward
saying, "How can I reach the sea?"
And I shall broadcast, saying nothing,
the starry echoes of the wave,
a breaking up of foam and of quicksand,
a rustling of salt withdrawing,
the grey cry of sea-birds on the coast.
So, through me, freedom and the sea
will make their answer to the shuttered heart.
And finally David declared when hiding in a cave:
My heart is firm, O God;
my heart is firm;
I will sing, I will chant a hymn.
Awake, O my soul!
Awake, O harp and lyre!
I will wake the dawn. (Psalm 57)
May we indeed see the day when no one will need to demonstrate, yet again, that the heart and soul and mind can never be imprisoned!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Vayigash Sermon

Our Torah portion contains the dramatic reunion of Joseph and his brothers.  In this story Judah pleads in behalf of Benjamin, who has been framed by Joseph, by offering himself instead.  Joseph is unable to control himself, sends his servants out of the room, and forgives his brothers.  He tells them not to worry about what they did to him so many years ago.  It was, he states, to do God’s will that he was sent into slavery in Egypt.  Finally the brothers are able to speak and they hug and kiss each other, crying over the remarkable turn of events.  Joseph sends them back to the land of Israel to bring their father to Egypt.  I wonder: Why did Joseph not go back with them to see his father after these 20 years?

There are two possibilities to explain Joseph’s motivation for the elaborate test he creates for his brothers. 1. He wanted to exact revenge and so the thought of throwing his brothers in jail was too tempting to avoid.  Or, 2. Joseph wanted to test his brothers to see if they had repented.  This second option is of course the explanation our tradition favors.  The only way to see if someone has made teshuvah shleymah, complete repentance, is to test them by the exact same situation.  Only if you say no to the same temptation that before you said yes to, do we know that you have changed.

But rarely do we find ourselves in this same circumstance.  And so how do we know if a person has truly changed?  Michael Vick for example admitted his wrongs and served time in jail.  Ben Roethlisberger by contrast never really owned up to his wrongs.

Some have argued that we are too quick to forgive our modern heroes.  They have said that sports achievements give Vick and Roethlisberger an unfair advantage.  We forgive them too easily because they win football games.  But from a Jewish perspective we can say that Vick has changed.  Our judgment of Roethlisberger must remain unclear.

Judaism fundamentally believes that people can change.  I confess perhaps we do so with great difficulty.  Nonetheless we can change.  It is a matter of first admitting the wrong.  And then asking forgiveness of those we have wronged.  Then we must resolve to change.  At some point we will be tested by the same circumstances.  In that moment we will discover if we have indeed changed.

But changing ourselves is in some ways the easier task.  Allowing others to change comes with greater difficulty.  Forgiving others of their wrongs is the more trying test.  Following Joseph’s example is the mightier task.

We must therefore continually remind ourselves that people can change.  We must say to ourselves that nothing is fated.  If I can change then others can change.  Can we forgive and forget the wrongs done to us?  Can we allow for others to change?  Michael Vick is indeed a great football player.  Believing that he has changed gives me hope.  Believing that others can change gives us hope in the future.

According to the rabbis repentance is built into the fabric of creation.  It was made by God before the world.  Why?  It is because the ability for people to change sustains the world.  There is no future without change.

Have hope in yourself and your ability to change.  More importantly, have hope in others.  It is not simply a matter of our Jewish faith.  It is instead because the world depends on it.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Correction

In my recent post "Hanukkah Fires" I failed to note all of the countries that came to Israel's aid in fighting the Carmel forest fires.  Here is a more complete list of countries:
Azerbaijan
Bulgaria
Croatia
Cyprus
Egypt
France
Germany
Greece
Holland
Italy
Jordan
Palestinian Authority
(The PA is of course not a country, but perhaps the most significant of my prior omissions.  The Palestinian Authority sent three fire engines and 21 firefighters.)
Russia
Spain
Switzerland
Turkey
United Kingdom
United States
This is an extraordinary list, especially given the number of Muslim and Arab countries who participated.  Turkey for instance sent two planes

Friday, December 10, 2010

Psalms 13-15

I continue my soliloquy on the psalms...  Is anyone listening?  No matter, the psalmist speaks to my heart.  That place is always the measure of true poetry.
13. How long, O Lord; will You ignore me forever?/ How long will You hide Your face from me?/ How long will I have cares on my mind,/ grief in my heart all day?
We begin with a lament.  We continue with a prayer.  We plead to God.
Look at me, answer me, O Lord, my God!/ Restore the luster to my eyes...
And we conclude with a song.
My heart will exult in Your deliverance./ I will sing to the Lord,/ for He has been good to me.
Often people come to services with broken hearts.  They are drawn to attend to mark a yahrtzeit or because they are in mourning or because they wish to offer a Mi Shebeirach for friends or family who are sick.  Rarely do people come because of the joy of Shabbat.  It is difficulty and brokenness that compels people to pray.  Like the psalmist we open with a cry, we begin with pain.  If our prayer services work then that the pain and difficulty is transformed into song.  We always conclude with songs of joy.  The kaddish must never be our final word.  We sing to Shabbat with the kiddush, Adon Olam, Ein Keloheinu.  Our pain must be transformed into song.  This is the journey of faith. 

14. The fool says in his heart; there is no God.... The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind/ to find a person of understanding,/ a person mindful of God.
The fool is the person who believes that God does not take notice.  The wise understand that God sees all of our actions.  This is the theology of the psalmist.  It is not here a matter of God creating the world, or redeeming the world, but instead a matter of taking note of human behavior.  God is the God of justice.  God is noted in human action.  The fool is the person who says, "My actions do not matter.  They have no significance."  Or the mantra of our society, "...As long as he or she is happy."  Happiness is not the concern of this psalm.  It is instead about doing right and not doing wrong.  Even though the wicked might seem to have the upper hand, God notes what we do and don't do.  Our small, seemingly insignificant actions have cosmic significance.  God sits with the righteous.  God keeps company with those who do good.  Our task is to do more good than bad.  Think to yourself: Everything I do is not just about me but about others.  What I do matters to the world.  What I do matters to God.
Are they so witless, all those evildoers,/ who devour my people as they devour food,/ and do not invoke the Lord?/ They will be seized with fright,/ for God is present in the circle of the righteous. 

15. In case you did not get the point of what the psalmist is trying to convey...
Lord, who may live in Your tent,/ who may dwell on Your holy mountain?/ He who lives without blame,/ who does what is right,/ and in his heart acknowledges the truth;/ whose tongue is not given to evil;/ who has never done harm to his fellow...  
Why is religion defined more by ritual acts rather than ethical behavior?  Is he religious means does he keep kosher, does he keep Shabbat?  Why is the definition of religious not about business ethics?  If one lies or cheats or steals one should never be called religious.  You can pray all you want.  And I do like to pray.  But better, you should focus on the small details of how you treat others.  These are the core of the religious life.  They are the foundation of any faith.  The psalmist has the final word:   
The person who acts thus shall never be shaken.

Hanukkah Fires

Hanukkah has of course ended but its themes still linger.  In Israel this past week 39 ultra-Orthodox rabbis representing various municipalities issued a ruling that Jews should not rent to non-Jews.  The vast majority have of course decried their ruling and the Attorney General is now investigating whether any laws have been broken.  Prime Minister Netanyahu denounced the ruling as well.  Even Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Elyashiv, the head of Israel's ultra-Orthodox Lithuanian community, said in response, "I've said for some time that there are rabbis who must have their pens taken away from them."  I am sure he might say the same thing to some of my writings, nonetheless his words are here on the mark.  No matter where you live it is impossible to cut off the world.

The spirit of the Maccabees lives on.  That is what I have been thinking about lately.  I have been mulling over Hanukkah's long since suppressed history.  The heroes of our Hanukkah story quickly became corrupt and oppressive.  Civil war soon erupted under their autocratic rule.  They executed their fellow Jews who opposed their rule.  (According to one history that I read, they in fact crucified hundreds of opponents.)  They practiced forced conversions.  They persecuted the Pharisees, the forerunners of who we know as the rabbis.  Absolute rule breeds corruption and more importantly an unwillingness to confront the other.  It fosters an insularity from ideas different than one's own.

On the other hand a small part of me understands the rabbis' ruling.  Many Israelis feel besieged and delegitimized.  When far too many, most especially the Palestinians and their Arab supporters, declare that Jews never lived in the land of Israel or the city of Jerusalem it fosters in our hearts contempt for the world at large.  But we must fight this feeling.  The impulse to shut the world out is the far more dangerous and sinister feeling.  Those are the consuming fires the Maccabees lit centuries ago.  It was they who rightly fought against outside oppressors but who then shut out and persecuted all who opposed their views (except of course when it served to maintain their power, as for example when they hired gentile mercenaries).

This past week as well the fires in the Carmel forest were finally extinguished.  42 police officers lost their lives, including the highest ranking woman in the Israeli police force, Haifa police commander Ahuva Tomer.  The fire was apparently started by a high school boy smoking a hookah.  He was so afraid to tell anyone that he was smoking hashish that when he accidentally started the fire he neglected to tell anyone.  The fire quickly spread because of high winds and the extensive drought Israel is now experiencing.  For all who have contributed to the JNF and planted trees in Israel, thereby participating in the reclamation of the land, this fire is particularly wrenching.  So many years of tree planting burned in a few short days!  Israel's lack of preparedness and lack of proper firefighting equipment is (pick your language) a busha, shanda, embarrassment.  How does arguably the best air force in the world not have any firefighting planes?  How did Israel not learn after the Hezbullah rocket started fires of 2006?  Netanyahu was forced to appeal to the world for help.  Planes and firefighters arrived from Bulgaria, Greece, Cyprus, Switzerland, the United States, Azerbaijan, Croatia and France.  Israel is supposed to be able to defend itself.  In this instance it could not.

Perhaps this is the lesson those 39 rabbis need to learn.  It is impossible to live alone.  It is impossible to live in isolation.  The Maccabees were ultimately consumed by their inability to learn this truth  If we relearn this lesson then the Hanukkah fires will not have burned for naught.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Vayigash

I love to watch football.  Even given its violence I enjoy watching any game, especially close contests.  Sunday night’s Steelers-Ravens game was thrilling.  Monday’s Jets-Patriots was disheartening.  I admit as well that although I favor the Jets (and even the Giants) I carry no loyalties.  When I was young I cheered for the St. Louis Cardinals who are now the Arizona Cardinals where a cardinal can scarcely be found sitting in a tree (nay, a cactus).  Soon after I left my home town St. Louis acquired the Rams who I still remember as coming from Los Angeles but who now have Oakland’s Raiders.   So I am left only watching for the love of the game.

A few short weeks ago I found myself cheering for the Philadelphia Eagles.  In that game Michael Vick ran for two touchdowns and threw for another four.  Despite the fact that I don’t believe that history is made on a football field it was still an extraordinary performance, and a worrisome one for the day when I will cheer for the Giants in their upcoming game against Philly.  (Let’s hope New York’s defense can match Chicago’s performance.)

Nonetheless the accolades showered on Michael Vick raised for me a question of faith.  Can a person change?  And can others forgive him for his wrongs?  All know that Vick was convicted of running a dog fighting ring for which he served nearly two years in jail.  And so I wonder: has Michael Vick fully repented?

It is this very question that occupies the Torah portion Vayigash.  The curtain opens on Act III of our Joseph drama with Joseph sitting in a throne-like chair surrounded by servants.  His brother Benjamin is bound in chains and held by the Egyptians. Judah draws near (vayigash) Joseph and pleads for his brother Benjamin finally saying, “Now, if I come to your servant my father and the boy is not with us—since his own life is so bound up with his—when he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die, and your servants will send the white head of your servant our father down to Sheol in grief….  Therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers.  For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me?  Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father!”

Joseph could no longer control himself and sends his servants out the room.  Through his sobbing and tears he says “I am Joseph.  Is my father still well?...  I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt.  Now do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me here; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you…   So, it was not you who sent me here, but God…”  With that Joseph embraced his brother Benjamin around the neck and wept, and Benjamin wept on his neck.  He kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; only then were his brothers able to speak.  (Genesis 44:18-45:15)

According to Moses Maimonides the test of true repentance is to be tempted again by the same sin but instead to commit no wrong.  A person must stand in the same situation where before he or she sinned but this time behave differently, this time refrain from sinning.  This is the only way one can know if a person has changed.  Our tradition therefore understands Joseph’s elaborate trap as a test.  Joseph frames his brother Benjamin by placing the goblet in his food bag not to be cruel and exact revenge but instead to see whether his brothers are now different men.  Will they now abandon the only other son of Jacob and Rachel and leave him imprisoned?  Or will they rise up to defend him?  Will they turn their backs on a brother or hold him close to their hearts?

This is the test Joseph devises for his brothers.  It is of course possible that Joseph was at first motivated by revenge.  But when Judah approaches him in the portion’s opening chapter, he becomes overwhelmed by feelings of love and affection for the family from whom he has been separated for so many years.  He realizes that his brothers have indeed changed.  Joseph must also of course realize that he is a changed man.

And so this is our question for our Shabbat.  Do we believe as Judaism does in the ability of people to change?  Can we change and find our way out of destructive habits and paths that lead only to self-ruin?  Is there room in our hearts to allow ourselves to change?  Is there room in our hearts to allow others to change and forgive them their wrongs?

Michael Vick is indeed a great football player.  The more important question is: Is he a changed man?  While football might make for great entertainment, history is not made by extraordinary passes and dazzling runs.  History is made instead by great men and women.  And they are, like Joseph and his brothers, changed men and women.

Race to Nowhere

Here is a film that adds more evidence to one of the themes in this year's Rosh Hashanah sermon.  Our schools are indeed quashing creativity and papering over mistakes.



Amen!  Selah!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Hanukkah in the Soviet Gulag

Camp Fire - by Natan Sharansky; Tablet Magazine - A New Read on Jewish Life
What follows are a few excerpts from Natan Sharansky's moving story of lighting the Hanukkah menorah when he was a Soviet dissident and was imprisoned in the gulag.  Read the story in its entirety by following the above link.

On the sixth night of Hanukkah the authorities confiscated my menorah with all my candles. I ran to the duty officer to find out what had happened.  “The candlesticks were made from state materials; this is illegal. You could be punished for this alone and the other prisoners are complaining. They’re afraid you’ll start a fire.”  I began to insist. “In two days Hanukkah will be over and then I’ll return this ‘state property’ to you. Now, however, this looks like an attempt to deny me the opportunity of celebrating Jewish holidays.”  The duty officer began hesitating. Then he phoned his superior and got his answer: “A camp is not a synagogue. We won’t permit Sharansky to pray here.”  I was surprised by the bluntness of that remark, and immediately declared a hunger strike. In a statement to the procurator general I protested against the violation of my national and religious rights, and against KGB interference in my personal life....

“Listen,” I said, “I’m sure you have the menorah somewhere. It’s very important to me to celebrate the last night of Hanukkah. Why not let me do it here and now, together with you? You’ll give me the menorah, I’ll light the candles and say the prayer, and if all goes well I’ll end the hunger strike.”  Osin [the camp commander] thought it over and promptly the confiscated menorah appeared from his desk. He summoned Gavriliuk, who was on duty in the office, to bring in a large candle.  “I need eight candles,” I said. (In fact I needed nine, but when it came to Jewish rituals I was still a novice.) Gavriliuk took out a knife and began to cut the candle into several smaller ones. But it didn’t come out right; apparently the knife was too dull. Then Osin took out a handsome inlaid pocketknife and deftly cut me eight candles.... 

I arranged the candles and went to the coat rack for my hat, explaining to Osin that “during the prayer you must stand with your head covered and at the end say ‘Amen.’ ” He put on his major’s hat and stood. I lit the candles and recited my own prayer in Hebrew, which went something like this: “Blessed are You, God, for allowing me to rejoice on this day of Hanukkah, the holiday of our liberation, the holiday of our return to the way of our fathers. Blessed are You, God, for allowing me to light these candles. May you allow me to light the Hanukkah candles many times in Your city, Jerusalem, with my wife, Avital, and my family and friends.”  This time, however, inspired by the sight of Osin standing meekly at attention, I added in Hebrew: “And may the day come when all our enemies, who today are planning our destruction, will stand before us and hear our prayers and say ‘Amen.’ ”

“Amen,” Osin echoed back.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Psalms 10-12

Sorry for the delay...  It was the many distractions of Hanukkah!
10. Why O Lord do You stand so far away/ concealed in times of great sorrow.
When people experience tzuris they often ask, "Where is God?"  The psalmist echoes this sentiment.  During times of great pain we feel that God is distant and most certainly, concealed.  The remainder of the psalm is a restatement of a familiar theme.  Rise up against the wicked.  Banish evil.  Robert Alter suggests that these verses do not fit with the opening line, but to my mind they do.  Sometimes our pain is the result of other people's misdeeds.  Therefore the psalmist cries out to God.  Live up to Your promise to be a God of justice.  Yet there are other times when our problems are not the result of others or of our mistakes, but instead because of nature.  People are struck with disease not because of any fault of their own.  Such is the nature of our bodies.  It is in these moments that the psalmist most accurately captures our mood.  I need You.  Where are You?  You appear hidden and remote.  It is also possible that these moments of pain are when God is nearest.  When we most need God, God is there.  At least that is my prayer.

11. The Lord in His holy palace;/ the Lord--His throne is in heaven;/ His eyes behold, His gaze searches mankind.
Even though God is remote and indeed far away God still sees all.  Even our innermost thoughts and our every day actions are not beyond God's gaze.  While our eyes cannot see to heaven, God can see to earth.  Abraham Joshua Heschel speaks of  "God in search of man."  This is the sentiment here expressed.
In the Lord I take refuge/...  For see, the wicked bend the bow,/ they set their arrow on the string/ to shoot from the shadows at the upright.
What an extraordinary image!  I am surrounded by evil-doers who lurk in the shadows, their bows pulled taut and their arrows aimed at me.  Yet I must walk upright.  To walk upright on the straight path is the highest accolade the Bible can shower on a person. 
For the Lord is righteous (tzaddik);/ He loves righteous deeds;/ the upright shall behold His face.
Only those who walk upright, despite the sound of bows quivering in the dark, will behold God's face.  To overcome the distance that sometimes appears between God and humanity, between God and me, I must continue to walk in the path of righteousness.  Such is the view of the psalmist. Such is the view of Heschel.  There are of course no guarantees that I will feel God's nearness.  But righteousness is all that I can do.  I might not even be able to repair all the world's or my brokenness.  Nonetheless truth and compassion must carry the day.  They are the path that I must walk.

12. May the Lord cut off all flattering lips,/ every tongue that speaks arrogance/....  The words of the Lord are pure words,/ silver purged in an earthen crucible,/ refined sevenfold.
There is a distinct difference between human and divine speech.  We try to write about God.  We try to describe God, yet all our attempts are in vain.  We cannot even fathom God's wonders.  How often does religion speak with confidence about God's ways!  How can anyone truly know and understand!  Even though God's words are pure they must be refined here on earth.  So it is a catch-22.  Even those words that we believe are God's were distilled through human ears.  Franz Rosenzweig once wrote that the only word we can be sure God spoke at Mount Sinai was "Anochi--I am."  The rest is, as the saying goes, commentary.  I love poetry. I love the words of the psalms.  But they are all approximations.  Yet words can be like a silver kiddush cup held in my hand.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Another Hanukkah Message

The End of Hanukkah by Rabbi Donniel Hartman
Hanukkah lends itself to many interpretations.  My teacher Rabbi Donniel Hartman offers the following insights in his most recent opinion piece.

Hanukkah is a holiday with an identity crisis. From the beginning, the rabbis had difficulty pinpointing what it was that we are celebrating. Was it the Maccabees' or God's military victory over the Assyrians? Was it a spiritual victory of Judaism over Hellenism? Or was it the miracle in which one small jar gave light in the Temple for eight days? Or is it a holiday celebrating a victory of the Jewish people against religious oppression?

...The essence of the modern era, however, may be encapsulated as the period in which such dichotomies have come to an end. A modern Jew is one who has multiple identities and multiple loyalties. He or she is a traveler in an open marketplace of ideas in search of new synergies and meanings. What a previous generation would call assimilation, that is, the penetration of "outside" ideas and cultures within a Jewish one, the modern Jew sees as essential to building a life of meaning and a Judaism of excellence.

Whatever Athens or Jerusalem might have signified in the past, today they represent the notion that to be a Jew is to live in the larger world and who aspires to create a new dialogue with that world in which both sides learn from and impact on each other. As a result, Jewish identity has changed. We no longer see our identity as singular and unique, but as integrated and complex. Jews today see themselves as citizens of both Athens and Jerusalem.

...A so-called "good Jew" is no longer one who fights Hellenism but one who maintains a Jewish core within the multiple facets of their life. It was often much easier to be a Jew when we were fighting "them," whoever "them" may have been. To maintain a Jewish commitment within a world in which dichotomies are gone requires a level of Jewish education and knowledge unparalleled in Jewish history. A dialogue between Jerusalem and Athens in which the value of each is maintained will only be possible if one knows what Jerusalem means and what values and ideas Judaism can contribute to living a meaningful life.

Hanukkah-Miketz Sermon

At services we not only celebrated Shabbat and Hanukkah but presented our fourth graders with their very own prayerbooks.  What follows is the sermon I delivered marking this special occasion.

It is interesting that Shabbat Hanukkah nearly always coincides with Parshat Miketz, this week’s Torah portion about Joseph and his brothers.  Here is why I find this coincidence so intriguing.

The very first Hanukkah was quite different than our own.  As you know centuries ago the Maccabees fought a three year struggle against the mighty Syrian-Greek army.  The ruler of the Syrian-Greeks, Antiochus Epiphanes had decreed that our people could no longer practice their Judaism. 

Here are just a few of his oppressive rules. No Jewish sacrifices could be offered.  Instead sacrifices of pigs had to be made to Zeus.  Pagan temples had to be built in the land of Israel.  Circumcision was prohibited.  We could no longer observe our Torah laws but instead had to follow Greek laws.  Shabbat and holiday celebrations were strictly forbidden.  Everyone had to party on the Emperor’s birthday.  Participation in Greek parades was mandatory.  The penalty for not following any of these rules was of course death.  And finally it was forbidden to identify oneself as a Jew.  No one was even allowed to use Jewish names any more.  So you could not be called Noah or Talya or Josh, but you could be called Bruce, Kim or Steve.

Well thank God the Maccabees did not want to be called Steve.  (By the way the meaning of the name Steven comes from the Greek meaning crown.  The ironies abound!)   The Maccabees would not have any of these laws.  They fought a long hard battle and as you know, won.  They cleaned up the Temple, dedicated it in an eight day long celebration (Hanukkah means dedication), threw out all of those Jewish Steve’s, and proclaimed the holiday of Hanukkah for all generations to come.  Today we light our menorahs to commemorate their victory and also of course as a reminder of the miracle of oil.  Everyone knows this part of the story.  There was barely enough oil for a one day dedication ceremony.  Nonetheless the menorah was lit and the oil miraculously lasted for all eight days.

The first Hanukkah was about fighting not to be like others.  But in our Torah portion Joseph is the first Jew to live in a foreign land.  He lives among the Egyptians, making a home for himself there and becomes the second in command of all of Egypt.  It is therefore more than a bit ironic that on the Shabbat when we celebrate Hanukkah and its message of being different than others and more importantly our right to be different, we read of Joseph taking on an Egyptian name and acting so much like an Egyptian that his brothers don’t even recognize him when they come begging for food. 

Throughout the generations Judaism has gone back and forth between these poles.  We want to be different.  We want to be the same.  Look at the next generation!  My children are called Shira and Ari.  And if you haven’t figured out already, my parents did not name me rabbi.  When I was born the mohel did not announce, “We are proud to welcome rabbi into the covenant of Israel!”   Shira’s and Ari’s parents are of course not named rabbi and rabbi, but Susie and Steve.  Back and forth with the names we travel, always struggling to live as a Jew while being a part of the world at large.  We want to be different.  We want to be the same.  That is the eternal story of Hanukkah.

On this Shabbat we will soon present our fourth graders with their very own prayerbooks, their very own Siddur.  Why on Shabbat Hanukkah?  It is because every Jew needs at least two books.  The Bible and the prayerbook are the essential ingredients to building a Jewish life.  (You will get a Bible in sixth grade.)  You can be anywhere, in any land, in your home or synagogue, even in a church, as long as you have a Bible and a prayerbook in your hand, you can make a Jewish life. 

But the Siddur, more than the Bible, is the book that represents the marriage of tradition with contemporary culture.  It is of course about how we pray, how we thank God, how we celebrate our holy days.  But it also reflects today.  We use the words of Hebrew and our tradition as well as the melodies of American culture and the poetry of contemporary society.  Perhaps in our congregation we combine cultures more forcefully than in others, but to my mind, the Siddur has always been about that.  It has always been about this back and forth.

Prayer is about many things.  It is first about reaching to heaven from the depths of inspiration—sometimes out of pain, but mostly out of joy.  Prayer is also about reaching back through history.  That is the power of the Hebrew.  That is also why we more often than not use the words of our tradition and don’t write new prayers each and every time we gather.  We stand on the shoulders of prior generations of pray-ers.  We sing Lecha Dodi and Shalom Aleichem and V’Shamru.  Few of our words can match those of the mystics who penned for example “Beloved, come to meet the bride; beloved come to greet Shabbat.”  But we also sing Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu.  We are still figuring out how to do both, how to live as Jew and to be part of the world at large. That is what the prayerbook is about and that is what Hanukkah is about.

My hope and prayer for our fourth graders is that you will use this prayerbook well.  Carry it with you throughout your lives.  (Yes I know it is too big to fit in your pocket.  But it is certainly smaller than many of the textbooks you already carry.)  Refer to it when you are unsure how to give thanks.  Open its pages when you want help to sing with joy, especially about the joy of Shabbat.  Don’t worry so much about making sure it always looks perfect.  It is always better to use a book than to allow it to sit on your bookshelf as if it were a framed picture.

I imagine that in the next generation our prayerbooks will look different.  I also imagine that in the next generation our names will be different.  Both of course will be different, but the same.  You can change a name.  You can add more English readings to the next prayerbook.  But we will forever remain the same.  We will always be the Jewish people.

That is the meaning of Hanukkah.  That is the import of the twists and turns in this week’s Torah portion.  That is the power of the book you will soon hold in your hands.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Matisyahu's New Video

Here is Matisyahu's new video and song, "Miracle on Ice."  My favorites are still "Exaltation" from the "Shake Off the Dust" album or of course "Jerusalem" from "Youth."  For those who are unaware Matisyahu is a Hasidic reggae artist.  Enjoy!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Miketz

This week’s Torah portion, Miketz, is part two of the Joseph saga.  Our hero Joseph is in an Egyptian jail.  He was there because he was wrongly accused of having an affair with his master’s wife.  Having dreamed dreams all his life, Joseph has the uncanny ability to interpret others’ dreams.  He occupies himself with dream interpretation while languishing in jail.  Scene two: Pharaoh is plagued with frightening dreams.  No one is able to interpret their meaning.  The chief cupbearer (what kind of a job is that!) who remembers Joseph from the days when they shared a jail cell tells Pharaoh of Joseph’s remarkable abilities. 

Joseph is summoned, interprets Pharaoh’s dreams and thereby accurately foretells seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine.  Joseph wisely prepares Egypt for the years of want by storing up food during the preceding years of abundance.  Meanwhile back in Canaan Joseph’s family has run out of food and is forced to travel to Egypt to seek relief.  Given Joseph’s newly acquired station his brothers come to him asking for food.  He recognizes them, but they do not recognize him.  He now acts and dresses like an Egyptian.

Joseph creates an elaborate trap to see if the brothers have indeed changed.  He frames Benjamin to test whether or not the other brothers will defend him or throw him into the pit as well.  Act two concludes.  I will share more about this trap and test next week when the story nears conclusion.  This week I would like to focus on one verse.  In the course of his discussions with the brothers Joseph asks, “How is your aged father of whom you spoke?  Is he still in good health?”  (Genesis 43:27-28)

Most of the time when we ask others, “How are you?” or as our children now say, “How ya doin?” we don’t expect them to tell us the details of their health and welfare.  We expect them to say, “Ok.”  The deep and probing question, “How are you?” has become a formula.  It no longer seeks to uncover how a friend or neighbor or even family member is really doing.  How many of us greeted long since seen family members on Thanksgiving vacation with the words, “How are you?” and listened with all our hearts for a truthful response?  And how many of us answered with more than the formulaic, “Ok”?

Joseph’s brothers respond, “It is well with your servant our father; he is still in good health.”  According to the rabbis visiting the sick and caring for others is not a matter left to professionals or a private affair.  It is instead a public concern and the responsibility of all.  It is incumbent upon the entire community.  

A Hasidic story.  Once the Gerer Rebbe decided to question one of his disciples.  He asked, “How is Moshe Yaakov doing?”  The disciple didn’t know.  “What!” shouted the Rebbe, “You don’t know?  You pray under the same roof, you study the same texts, you serve the same God, you sing the same songs—and yet you dare tell me that you don’t know whether Moshe Yaakov is in good health, whether he needs help, advice or comforting?” 

We sit next to each other so that we might support each other and truly know how our friends are doing.  So let us reach out to others and truly listen to their needs.  That would be the best celebration of Hanukkah and a fitting testament to the true meaning of community.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

History and the Land

As we look forward to tomorrow's celebration of Hanukkah we are reminded of the importance of history.  This week's papers reported that the Palestinian Authority continues to deny the Jewish connection to historical sites in the land of Israel.  The PA even goes so far as to deny that the Western Wall was part of the Temple Mount.  UNESCO calls Rachel's tomb in Bethlehem a mosque alone.  The Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA) issued the following statement in response:

"If there is ever to be true peace in the Middle East, the shrines of each of the three Abrahamic religions must be respected by the political bodies in the region and by the United Nations. Referring to Rachel's tomb as a 'mosque' is both factually and historically inaccurate. Similarly statements by the Palestinian Authority that the Western Wall in Jerusalem is not the retaining wall of our Temple Mount ignores established historical fact. Both of these references are disrespectful of Judaism and of the generations of Jews who have consistently venerated these sites; one from the time of Genesis and the second from before the Christian era to the present. Accordingly, we call upon UNESCO, the Palestinian Authority and upon all people and all nations of good will to cease referring to Rachel's tomb as a mosque or the Western Wall as anything other than a treasure of the Jewish people."

In order for peace to be achieved we must affirm each others' claim to the land.  Rabbi Irwin Kula rightly noted: "People who want to erase each other inflame each other. This just hardens everyone at a time when we need to soften."  You can read more about this issue in last week's Jewish Week.

Hanukkah Message

Fourteen years before he was killed during Israel’s daring rescue of Jewish hostages at Entebbe airport, Yoni Netanyahu wrote the following: “Because each and every minute is made up of seconds and of even briefer fragments of time, and every fragment ought not to be allowed to pass in vain…  I must feel certain that not only at the moment of my death shall I be able to account for the time I have lived; I ought to be ready at every moment of my life to confront myself and say: This is what I’ve done.” (Yonatan Netanyahu, Self-Portrait of a Hero)

Nearly 2,200 earlier Mattathias and his sons led a revolt against the oppressive rule of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the ruler of the Seleucid Empire.  The first battle occurred in Modein, in the land of Israel, when Mattathias killed a fellow Jew who was obeying the king’s order to sacrifice to his pagan gods.  Mattathias then single handedly killed the king’s officers standing nearby.  He cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Let everyone who is zealous for the law and supports the covenant come out with me!”  And he and his sons fled to the hills and left all that they had in the city. (I Maccabees 2)  Thus begins the three year war which culminates in the Jewish fighters reclaiming Jerusalem and rededicating the ancient Temple. 

Our history is filled with many battles, wars and struggles.  To my mind they are far too numerous.  My rabbinic forebears felt so as well and thus recast Hanukkah into the holiday that we know today.  They made the day not so much about a military victory but instead about a divine miracle.  We light the menorah not to commemorate the Maccabees’ bravery, military cunning and ultimate victory but the miracle of oil lasting for eight days.  In the rabbinic imagination the soldier must be stilled and war silenced.  Only God’s power remains manifest.  Authoring their books in the years following Jerusalem’s destruction and subsequent failed rebellions (in particular Bar Kochba’s in 135 C.E.) they saw only danger in celebrating the feats of soldiers.  They foisted all their hopes on God and scant few on their own might and power.

Our world is of course not like the early rabbis and not as well like the Maccabees.  Here in the United States we are blessed with a vibrant diaspora community.  6,000 miles away there exists the seemingly unprecedented, a sovereign Jewish state.  Never before have we beheld such blessings in the same day and age. 

When Shimon Peres asked the soldiers returning from Entebbe how Yoni Netanyahu was killed, the answer came immediately: “He went first; he fell first.”  Whether we rely on God’s miracles or our own strength we must always have such faith to go first.  Yoni Netanyahu is perhaps the modern embodiment of Hanukkah’s ancient message.  Netanyahu like the rabbis reveals in his letters that he was disheartened by war.   But Yoni Netanyahu was also like Mattathias because he was zealous and unafraid. 

As we light our menorahs and celebrate Hanukkah we thank God for daily miracles.  But we must also remember we dare not wait for them.