Thursday, October 27, 2011

Noah

This week’s Torah portion contains the familiar story of Noah and the flood.  God was angry about humanity’s evil ways and so destroys the world’s inhabitants save Noah and his family and the animals two by two.  After Noah emerges from the ark he offers a thanksgiving sacrifice and God promises him that never again will the earth be destroyed.  The symbol of this covenant is the rainbow.

The portion begins with the statement: “This is the line of Noah.—Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God.—Noah begot three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth.”  (Genesis 6:9)  The story of the flood concludes with a seemingly contradictory verse: “Noah, the tiller of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard.  He drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent.  Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside.”  (Genesis 9:20-22)
 
According to many historians viniculture first began near Mount Ararat, located in modern day Turkey.  This of course is where the ark came to rest as the flood waters receded.  The Bible therefore locates the development of wine making with the earliest generations.  More importantly the cultivation of grapes, especially those for wine, takes a great deal of time.  This implies that a significant number of years have passed since the flood.  Noah and his family have now become tied to the land.  In fact Noah now has a grandson, Canaan. 

This is exactly why the Jewish tradition prizes wine.  It must be cultivated over years.  This is part of its great value.  It is for this reason that we use wine to welcome Shabbat and mark the holidays.  It is for this reason as well that we recite a blessing and shout “L’chaim” when a bride and groom share the wine under the huppah.  It is not because of its intoxicating effect. It is instead because it is a demonstration of how we can take God’s creation of grapes and fashion them into something of value and worth.  Although water is required for sustenance wine is required to elevate life, to sanctify and transform an ordinary day into Shabbat and an everyday occasion into a simcha.  This is what Noah discovered in our portion.

This of course does not mean that we are supposed to get drunk and certainly run around naked like Noah.  So the question is why did Noah get drunk?  The first answer is that he did not know the potency of what he had created.  Like a high school or college student (Hmm, why would that come to mind?) he does not appreciate the power of alcohol.  If this were the first cup of wine anyone had ever sipped how would he know its power?  (I can tell them over and over again about the dangers of alcohol but they like Noah have to learn for themselves and taste its power on their own.) 

Then again I once heard Elie Wiesel suggest that Noah became drunk because he was plagued by survivor’s guilt.  He and his family were the only people to survive this great catastrophe.  According to the rabbis he took a great deal of time to build the ark in the hope that others would inquire about his mission.  The rabbis saw his righteousness and argued that his building project was meant as a sign to others so that they might repent.  In the end no one even bothered to ask about his task.  No one even bothered to offer help.

He emerged from the ark a scarred man.  He emerged seeing himself as a failure.  He was tortured by guilt.  He could only save his family.  No friends, no countrymen could be rescued.  (Wiesel could only save himself.)  But Noah cared for the entire world.  And thus he spent his final years in his tent, plagued by guilt and feelings of failure.

Thus even the righteous sometimes stumble.  They set too lofty goals for themselves. Noah’s great tragedy was that he tried to save the entire world.  When you try to save everyone you are far more likely to fail.  I choose instead to work to save our small corner of the world.  Join me in this task.

We are partnering with the American Jewish World Service to mark Global Hunger Shabbat and eighteen days of action leading up to Thanksgiving.  For more information visit this organization’s website.

Join me in these efforts to make a difference in our world. We dare not sit in our homes and like Noah in his concluding years look with pity at our own lot. We must instead start somewhere and work to rescue a piece of the world.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Simhat Torah Sermon

We have come to the conclusion of the Tishrei marathon.   We observed Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and now finally, Simhat Torah.  We travel from personal introspection and repentance to fasting and the recounting of our many failings to the wandering and fragility of temporary booths to now the joy of Simhat Torah.

We celebrate the conclusion of the Torah reading cycle and its simultaneous beginning.  On this day we begin the cycle all over again.  We believe that everything we ever wanted to know is in this scroll.  It is only perhaps a matter of reading it at a different angle if the wisdom is not immediately apparent.

This is because all wisdom is contained in this book.  This day is therefore cause for great celebration.  Simhat Torah is the quintessential Jewish holiday.  It is about dancing and singing.  And these more than anything else are more the Jewish postures than the fasting and litany of sins on Yom Kippur.  We are supposed to celebrate.  We are commanded to rejoice.

In fact the Talmud Yerushalmi states that we will be held to account for all the joys we neglected to celebrate.  When we approach the heavenly court we will be asked in effect, “Did we rejoice enough?”  That in a nutshell is the Jewish message.  Revel in life.  Celebrate life. Most especially celebrate the gift of Torah.  And never pass up an opportunity to join a party.

May this year offer us many opportunities to celebrate.  May this year offer us many opportunities to learn from this Torah.

Simhat Torah

What joy!  We begin the Torah reading again.  This is the sentiment surrounding Simhat Torah, the concluding holiday of the busy month of Tishrei.  On this day we proclaim, “I am privileged to reach this milestone again.  I am blessed to open this book again.  I am overjoyed that I can unroll the Torah scroll yet again.”

For Judaism the greatest blessing is not the new, but to return to the old, the familiar.  We return to this same book year after year.  We read the Torah every year in the hope, and with the faith, that we will find something new there.  In these pages we believe we will discover something new and restorative. 

It is this same sentiment that accompanies our visits to the land of Israel.  When we journey there we return to the land.  It may very well be a modern state but in our souls we know that we are returning to an ancient land.  This is Israel’s great and lasting power.  (We rejoice as well about Gilad Shalit’s return!)

So much of modern day life is about the new.  Do you have the iPhone 4S or are you waiting for the iPhone 5?  Have you replaced your LCD TV with an LED TV?  Moreover why watch football on a regular TV when you can watch it in 3-D?  Such is the sentiment of contemporary culture.  The newer something is the better it is called.

It is a bitter irony that the man who relentlessly developed such technologies and more efficient ways of communicating spent his life estranged from his birth father.  Because Steve Jobs’ birth parents were not married when he was born they gave him up for adoption. After hiring a detective to find his birth parents, he developed a relationship with his birth mother and sister, but never his father.  Despite extraordinary wealth, unrivaled technology and seemingly effortless communication tools, parts of Steve Jobs’ life remained fractured.  What is new does not always redeem. 

This is why Judaism suggests that the new is discovered in the old.  We believe that it is in the old, in the ordinary, and in the most basic of relationships that truth is revealed.  On the High Holidays we prayed that we might return to our truer selves, that we might rediscover the lofty purpose of our lives. 

Even the bar and bat mitzvah on which we lavish so much attention is not the celebration of something new.  It is not simply a thirteenth birthday party.  It is instead the arrival at something old.  On that day our son or daughter peers at the lettering of the Torah scroll and becomes linked to past generations. They return to the faith of their ancestors.  Of course no generation’s faith is the same as its predecessor’s.  Yet holding the scroll close to their hearts they reclaim their parent’s faith as their own. In the ancient calligraphy of the Torah scroll they also discover something new about themselves. 

In our return we always discover something new.   Such is our faith.  This is our belief.  This is our celebration on Simhat Torah.

Sukkot Sermon

This Shabbat we find ourselves in the midst of the holiday of Sukkot.  This day has its origins both in the agricultural seasons and Jewish history.  In ancient times our ancestors used to build booths at their distant fields in order to make the fall harvesting easier.  Our sukkot are thus reminiscent of this attachment to the land.  Our booths also recall our wanderings through the desert, wandering from our freedom in Egypt to the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.  We travel between Passover and Shavuot.  Sukkot therefore marks not a destination but a journey.

Moreover the entire Torah is a record of this journey.  Like so many camping trips we were not always at our best.  As we traveled we sometimes complained.  This makes this holiday even more curious.  Here is a day that marks a journey rather than the arrival at the intended destination.  Ponder this.  Most holidays are about getting there, or getting out of there rather than traveling to there.  The message in this holiday is therefore that we are always journeying.  We are never completely there.  If you think you have arrived then your goals are too small.  That is Sukkot’s power and its message.

This brings me to recent news and the announcement that Gilad Shalit will soon be home.  What extraordinary news.  He has been held for over five years in captivity.  He has been held against all international laws.  He has been denied visitors even from the Red Cross.  His journey from captivity will soon be over.

I am proud and saddened by this moment.  Netanyahu and Israel have agreed to trade over 1,000 prisoners for one life.  I am sad that murderers will go free.  I am saddened that those who have killed will be free and that those who lost family members will see these terrorists come home to a heroes’ welcome.  That might be almost too much to bear and far too much to imagine.

Then again I am proud that Israel so values the lives of its citizens and especially its citizen soldiers that it is willing to make this extraordinarily unbalanced deal.  Yossi Klein Halevi said: “For all my anxieties about the deal, I feel no ambivalence at this moment, only gratitude and relief. Gratitude that I live in a country whose hard leaders cannot resist the emotional pressure of a soldier’s parents. And relief that I no longer have to choose between the well-being of my country and the well-being of my son.”

Come Tuesday I will rejoice with Noam and Aviva Shalit that their son is home.  I will also rejoice as I look up through the schach of my sukkah at the stars.  I will remember that we are forever journeying.  I will recall that Gilad’s return is but a way station and not the conclusion of the story.

The only destination is the messianic dream when the sukkot of earth are transformed into sukkat shalom, the sukkah of peace.  This vision is spoken about and dreamed about in our prayers and even in the Byrd’s song, “Turn, Turn, Turn.”  Until then we will be forever journeying.  Until then take heart in the command to rejoice in this holiday!

Read the full article by Yossi Klein Halevi here.

Sukkot

This evening begins the holiday of Sukkot, the week long celebration that commemorates our people’s wandering in the wilderness as well as the fall harvest.

Sukkot is observed in two primary ways.  We build sukkot, temporary booths, and spend as much time as possible in them, eating in them and even sleeping in them.   These sukkot must capture the temporary quality of our ancient dwelling places.  No home was viewed as permanent.  All were way stations on our millennial journey of return to the land of Israel.  We must be able to view the stars and especially the bright, fall harvest moon through the roof’s lattice.  This suggested the impermanence of our lives.  Nothing is forever.  The wind and rain can sometimes sting our faces.  Life sometimes brings tears.

Second we take the lulav and etrog in our hands and wave them in six directions: east, south, west, north, up and down.  We do so in remembrance of the Torah’s command: “…You shall take the product of hadar trees (etrog), branches of palm trees, boughs of myrtle trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days.” (Leviticus 23:40)  It is entirely possible that this ritual was an ancient Jewish rain dance given that the rainy season begins in Israel at this time.  Nonetheless we reinterpret its meaning and import.  We celebrate that God is everywhere, a protecting shelter all around us.  We affirm this by shaking these four species in six directions.

The lulav is constructed of one palm frond, two willow branches, and three myrtle twigs.  It is taken together with the etrog, an oversized and sweet smelling lemon.  The ancient rabbis offer this interpretation of these four species.  The etrog has both taste and smell.  It symbolizes people in our community who do both good deeds and study Torah.  The palm has taste but no smell.  It symbolizes people who perform good deeds but do not study Torah.  The myrtle has smell but no taste.  It represents people who study Torah but do not perform good deeds.  And the willow has no smell and no taste.  It represents people who do not study Torah and do not perform good deeds.

A community has all kinds of people.  We hold all four species together in our hands.   We are bound together.   We can’t say, “I only want to be with people who take Torah seriously.  I only want to be a part of group that does good deeds.”  We can’t say as well, “I only want to be with people who are like me.  I only want a group that looks and acts like me.” 

A community has all kinds of people.  Some are the closest of friends.  Some feel distant.  But we are only strong when we hold each other tight.  We are only one when we are bound together like the disparate species of the lulav and etrog. 

A community has all kinds of people. We need each other more than we care to admit.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Yom Kippur

As we prepare for this holiest of Jewish holidays I often think of the Yom Kippur fast.  To be honest denying ourselves food seems so un-Jewish.  But this observance traces its origins to the Torah.  “Mark, the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement.  It shall be a sacred occasion for you: you shall practice self-denial…  you shall do no work throughout that day.  For it is a Day of Atonement, on which expiation is made on your behalf before the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 23:26-28)

The ancient rabbis ask what is the meaning of this commandment of self-denial.  Being rabbis they answered their own question and said that five enjoyments are forbidden on Yom Kippur.  They ruled there is to be no eating or drinking, no wearing of leather shoes, no washing, no anointing with oils, and no sexual relations. 

Again one might counter that taking pleasure in life is one of Judaism’s greatest teachings.  We do not belong to an ascetic tradition.  Monks are not our religious ideal.  In fact another rabbinic statement suggests that in heaven we will be called to account for all the worldly enjoyments we denied ourselves.

Yet one day a year we are commanded to practice self-denial.  We are commanded to become monks.  All are instructed to leave the pleasures of this world and look within, toward the inner life.  We leave aside our needs and pleasures and focus instead on our spiritual lives.  We turn to God and more importantly turn to our friends and family seeking to make amends for past wrongs.  But sometimes I wonder if the fast and this self-denial achieve their lofty goals.  I don’t know about you but I can get pretty cranky when I don’t eat.  And then whom do I snap at?  Those closest to me—my family and friends.

Nonetheless on this one day a year, I don’t worry about what I need to cook for breakfast, lunch or dinner.  I don’t try to squeeze in a Starbucks coffee in between the office and Hebrew School.  I don’t think, “Maybe I can stop at Whole Foods for a quick, if over-priced, snack or 16 Handles for a frozen yogurt.”  I think only about what is really most important: my relationship with family and friends.  I dwell on my longings for God.  I look within and see what I most wish to repair.  No one is perfect.  All can do better.

G’mar chatimah tovah—May you indeed be inscribed for life.

Rosh Hashanah

These High Holidays are given to us so that we may renew our commitment to our tradition and to each other.  We gather for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as well so that we can rekindle our commitment to improving ourselves and our world.  Let us gain inspiration from Elie Wiesel’s words as these tasks draw nearer.  Wiesel writes:

I remember: as a child, on the other side of oceans and mountains, the Jew in me would anticipate Rosh Hashanah with fear and trembling.
He still does.
On that Day of Awe, I believed then, nations and individuals, Jewish and non-Jewish, are being judged by their common creator.
That is still my belief.
In spite of all that happened?  Because of all that happened?
I still believe that to be Jewish today means what it meant yesterday and a thousand years ago.  It means for the Jew in me to seek fulfillment both as a Jew and as a human being.  For a Jew, Judaism and humanity must go together.  To be Jewish today is to recognize that every person is created in the image of God and that our purpose in living is to be a reminder of God.
Naturally, I claim total kinship with my people and its destiny.  Judaism integrates particularist aspirations with universal values, fervor with vigor, legend with law.  Being Jewish to me is to reject all fanaticism anywhere.
To be Jewish is, above all, to safeguard memory and open its gates to the celebration of life as well as to the suffering, to the song of ecstasy as well as to the tears of distress that are our legacy as Jews.  It is to rejoice in the renaissance of Jewish sovereignty in Israel and the reawakening of Jewish life in the former Soviet Union.  It is to identify with the plight of Jews living under oppressive regimes and with the challenges facing our communities in free societies. 
A Jew must be sensitive to the pain of all human beings.  A Jew cannot remain indifferent to human suffering, whether in other countries or in our own cities and towns.  The mission of the Jewish people has never been to make the world more Jewish, but to make it more human.

May we find ourselves ready for these efforts.

Shanah tovah u’metukah—A happy, sweet near year,

Nitzavim-Vayelekh

A prayer for the High Holidays, as we approach this period of introspection and repentance.  We recite this prayer at tashlich, when we gather and symbolically cast away our sins into the vastness of the sea.

Let us cast away the sin of deception, so that we will mislead no one in word or deed, nor pretend to be what we are not.
Let us cast away the sin of vain ambition which prompts us to strive for goals which bring neither true fulfillment nor genuine contentment.
Let us cast away the sin of stubbornness, so that we will neither persist in foolish habits nor fail to acknowledge our will to change.
Let us cast away the sin of envy, so that we will neither be consumed by desire for what we lack nor grow unmindful of the blessings which are already ours.
Let us cast away the sin of selfishness, which keeps us from enriching our lives through wider concerns, and greater sharing, and from reaching out in love to other human beings.
Let us cast away the sin of indifference, so that we may be sensitive to the sufferings of others and responsive to the needs of our people everywhere.
Let us cast away the sin of pride and arrogance, so that we can worship God and serve God’s purposes in humility and truth.  (Mahzor Hadash)

Judaism counsels that actions and deeds define our lives.  Good intentions do not redeem bad deeds.  And bad intentions are dissolved by good deeds.   Thus we can only correct our wrong actions.  We can only repair misdeeds.

How many times do we instead discuss and debate intentions?  Our tradition’s counsel is that they are irrelevant. Only deeds can be judged.  If a person does good then he or she is deemed righteous.  Intentions are known by God alone.  What a person holds in his or her heart is the purview of the divine.  It is not the province of human beings.  Thus the High Holidays are devoted to repairing and correcting our actions.  We spend these days focusing on what we might do different, not what we might intend. We resolve to cast away our wrongs and repair our lives.

The Torah portion declares: “Hidden acts concern the Lord our God; but revealed acts, it is for us and our children ever to apply all the words of this Torah.” (Deuteronomy 29:28)