Saturday, September 29, 2012

Asking the Clergy

Here is my printed response from today's "Ask the Clergy" column in Newsday.  The question was: How would you comfort someone facing a medical challenge?

In Judaism, we believe in doctors. We don't ascribe to a faith that is without science and modern medicine. So, the first order of business is to make sure the person is getting the right medicine and science.

Then, we would deal with the practical. Can I help them in any way to find the right doctors? Do they need assistance with transportation to medical appointments? Do they need someone to sit with them in their home? Do they need someone to sit with them at a doctor's appointment?

Sometimes, people think going to the rabbi or other clergy is the last resort. We can be supportive throughout the person's illness, even for practical assistance. And the things I mentioned earlier can be done by any individual, not just a member of the clergy.

Yes, we can pray with them, and our hope is that prayer offers strength and comfort. Judaism certainly has prayers for the sick, but I strongly believe that every situation is unique, and we shouldn't try to find prayers or words that fit a formula. Each person is different. Each illness is different. I have to listen to the person about what he or she needs. Don't rush in thinking you can solve their problems. Don't assume you know how someone feels. Avoid the cliches, such as "I know how you feel" or "All things happen for a reason."

Friday, September 28, 2012


The Hebrew month of Tishrei offers quite the set list!  Immediately following Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is Sukkot.  This holiday begins on Sunday evening and marks the Israelites wandering through the wilderness and living in these temporary shelters.

This month provides us with a record setting concert.  Year after year it is the same.  Rosh Hashanah.  Yom Kippur.  Sukkot.  Simhat Torah.  There is an interesting tradition that even before breaking Yom Kippur’s fast, one is supposed to place the first board on the sukkah.  Like the best of concerts there is no pause between songs.  We move from the introspection of Yom Kippur to the rejoicing of Sukkot.  The two holidays are bound to each other.  The joy of Sukkot takes over.    

The inwardness of Yom Kippur is transformed by the earthiness of Sukkot.  We let go of our sins and wrongdoings.  We turn to the world.  Whereas Yom Kippur is all about prayer and repentance, Sukkot is about our everyday world.  Its mandate is to celebrate our everyday blessings. 

What is its most important mitzvah?  Leishev basukkah—to live in the sukkah.  We are commanded to eat our meals in the sukkah and even sleep in the sukkah.  For one week our lives move from our beautiful homes to these temporary shelters.  The sukkah must be temporary in its character.  If it is too comfortable then it is not a sukkah.  If it provides too much shelter then it defeats the meaning of Sukkot.

Central to this definition of the sukkah is the schach, the roof.  One must be able to see the stars through its lattice.  So what does one do if it rains?  What happens to living in the sukkah if the weather is uncomfortable?  The rabbis are clear in their answer.  Go inside!  A temporary shelter cannot protect us from the rains.  A temporary shelter should not protect us.  Its fragility is part of its message.

Even more important than the sukkah’s temporary quality is the joy of the holiday.  It is no fun to sleep outside in the rain.  It is no fun to be eating outside during a late fall sukkot.  One’s joy would be diminished.   First and foremost this day is about rejoicing.  We rejoice in the gifts of this world.  We celebrate the bounty of creation. 

Living in these temporary shelters helps to remind us of these blessings.  After a long day of fasting and praying, Sukkot comes to remind us of the blessings that surround us each and every day.  Sitting outside in our sukkot, we look at the blessings of our homes.  We relish the blessings of nature.  We rejoice in fall breezes, the changing of the leaves and the full moon that will peer through the lattice on Sunday evening.

We breathe a sigh of relief after the exhaustion of beating our chests and examining our ways.  The moon brightens the evening.  We sing and laugh as we gather around the table in our sukkah.  We rejoice!

The set list continues next week with Simhat Torah…

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Why!?: A Meditation on the Meaning of Religion

I was recently reading the Iceland Times.  Or is it the Times of Iceland?  (Ok I just had to begin with that.)  My Icelandic is of course very rusty.  Still I was able to make out the following.  Thank you Google Translate.  Thank you Facebook friends for sharing.  The story began on Saturday, August 25th, when a woman who was described as "Asian, about 160 cm (5 ft-3), wearing dark clothing and speaking English well" was declared missing somewhere in the vicinity of southern Iceland.  The search went on throughout the better part of the weekend, with no sign of the woman to be found. However, on Sunday evening, she was reported alive and well.  In fact she had no idea she was missing in the first place.  This was apparently the result of a misunderstanding regarding her appearance. While it was initially reported that she had stepped off her tour bus and never returned, in fact she had changed clothing before getting back on the bus, hence the confusion.  To make matters even more unbelievable, given the good-natured person that she is, she had joined the weekend search party.  She had spent 24 hours searching for herself.  Eventually, it occurred to her that she could very well be the "missing person" and reported the matter to the police. The search was called off.  Much to her delight, she was declared found.  Can you imagine this?  She spent a full day looking for herself.  I imagine her talking with her fellow searchers as they walked through southern Iceland.  I imagine her saying things like, “I hope the poor woman is ok.  I really hope we find her.”

All kidding aside, this true story, at least as much as my limited Icelandic is able to verify, serves as a metaphor for our own search.  People often come to me with painful stories.  They ask me, “Why?”  They ask me why is this happening?  Why did my mother die so young?  Why did my father suffer for so long?  They come with questions of pain.  They come searching for answers.  These questions are unanswerable.  I do not have answers.  I refuse to offer clichés.  I refuse to offer theologies that suggest concise answers to life’s most vexing and troubling questions.   People think that religion is about answers.  It is not.  Perhaps the fundamentalist varieties are.  Perhaps they offer exactitudes.  But they also require suspending all doubt and complexities.  They require the rejection of independent thought.  One’s own thinking becomes a slave to that of a master.  Want to know what to do, what to believe?  Ask your rebbe.  Ask your imam.  Ask your minister.   Google it. I come offering no simple answers.  I am on the same search as everyone else.  I ask the same questions.  I arrive at partial answers, temporary consolations.  Spend a day searching for yourself!  I try to spend many such days. 

The Torah of course offers the greatest lesson.  Here is our greatest book yet it concludes unfulfilled, with our dream unrealized and our questions unanswered.  Here are the Five Books of Moses yet Moses dies at its conclusion.  His dream of leading the people into the Promised Land is unfulfilled.  That is left to his successor Joshua.   We are left to wonder why God would be so harsh to the most trusted servant.  Why would God not allow Moses to take the people that final mile across the Jordan?  He had faithfully spoken to Pharaoh demanding that God’s people be set free.  He had led the people through the wilderness for forty years.  He had spent sleepless days and nights, without food and drink, communing with God on Mount Sinai and then delivering the Torah to the people.  All because of one moment of anger he is punished.  That is what we are left to believe.  Here is that instance.  The people were grumbling and complaining yet one more time.  There was not enough water in the wilderness, they cried to Moses.  God instructs Moses to command the rock to give water.  Instead Moses hits the rock and screams at the people.  Ok, so he gets angry.  He yells at the rock. He yells at the people.  Maybe he even gives too little credit to God for the miracle.  It was hot.  He was tired.  He was maybe even hungry.  He was certainly thirsty.  He probably needed a new pair of sandals.  But God says, “Now you can’t go into the land with the people.”  Why? 

Moses’s life is filled with questions.  When God first calls him, he asks, “Why me?”  He does not want the job.  Who would?  One of the common threads that unite all prophets is that they don’t want the job.  Look at Jonah, this afternoon’s Haftarah reading.  God says, “Go to Nineveh.”  And he runs.  God has to send a big fish to swallow him.  It is as if to say, “Beware of those who want to be great leaders, who want to stand in front of large groups of people and command them their words.”  That is what makes Harry Truman so compelling.  He was called to greatness, an ordinary man who did not want the job but who rose to the occasion and led a nation through crisis and war.  He was a hat salesman who led a nation.  God does not call Moses until he becomes an ordinary shepherd.  A prince of Egypt was not good enough!  He was an ordinary man, tending to his father in law’s flock.  That is when he was called.  He achieved greatness.  History forever remembers the name Moses.  But he died with questions on his lips.  He begs God, “Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan…” (Deuteronomy 6:25)  God will not relent.

And we are left wondering.  We are left asking, “Does not a life of virtue merit reward?  Does not a life lived in obedience to God’s will deserve blessing?”  Moses gets many years but not his greatest dream.  The Torah offers only partial answers.  And we are left forever asking.  Why? 

We learn that the written Torah is completed in the oral Torah.  The discussion continues.  Although the oral Torah is now found in books such as the Mishnah, Talmud and Midrash, it is never completed.  When God gave the Torah on Mount Sinai, the rabbis teach us, God also provided us with the means of interpreting these stories and laws and even the very crowns adorning the letters.  We continue to ask.  We continue to argue.  We continue to search for answers.  The oral Torah is never completed.  Each generation adds its questions.  Each generation contributes its search for answers. 

According to the Torah we are commanded to say a blessing after eating each and every meal.  After eating our fill we are to give thanks.  The rabbis then ask, but what constitutes a meal?  How much food makes a meal?  How many courses? For one person it might need to include steak.  For another it could be tofu stir-fry.  For me there is nothing quite like a veggie burger with soy cheese on gluten free bread.  Yum.  For others if there is no dessert it cannot be called a meal.  So what is the rabbis’ answer?   How much food must we eat before we are required to say a blessing?  K’zayit is the answer.  An olive’s size.  An olive?  Who in the world is satisfied after eating an olive?  Or even a handful of olives?  Is there anyone for whom an olive would constitute a meal?  The answer is of course no.   No one is sated after eating an olive.  Even though the Torah says, “When you have eaten and are satisfied give thanks to the Lord…” (Deuteronomy 8:10) our tradition has decided that we give thanks even when we have not really had a meal.   We say a blessing even though we are not satisfied.  Here is the theory.  It is one that I learned from my rabbi, David Hartman.

Judaism is about how to live with imperfections, how to live with questions, how to live when dreams and desires go unfulfilled.  We say a blessing even when it is an imperfect meal.   We don’t say, “You’re chopped.”  Instead we say, “Thank you.  Thank you God.  Baruch HaShem.”  Granted the saying of blessings, or any religious ritual, can become obsessive.  You could be running around saying blessings after eating every morsel and crumb.  Nonetheless the overall point is the same.  We say a blessing.  This is Judaism’s most important response to life’s difficulties and imperfections. 

Say a blessing.  Sing a song.  Rebbe Nachman said: “Even if you can’t sing well, sing.  Sing to yourself.  Or sing in the privacy of your own home.  But sing.”  Nachman of Bratslav was fond of singing and dancing.  “Get into the habit of singing a tune,” he said.  “It will give you new life and fill you with joy.  Get into the habit of dancing.  It will displace depression and dispel hardship.”  He is known for such statements.  His Judaism was particularly infused with joy.  His dancing surpassed my own.

Say a blessing.  Sing a song.  What are we required to say when staring at death?  “Baruch dayan ha-emet.   Blessed is the judge of truth.”  Is this a theological statement?  Do we believe that this death is a righteous judgment?  Do we not grieve for our loss?  Who would not want more time with their loved one?  Even given 120 years who would not want one more moment with their mother or father, husband or wife, brother or sister or even child?  All would say that 120 years is more than a full life, but still we want more.  Even with so many years would we be satisfied?  Of course not.  Yet we say, Baruch dayan ha-emet.  Blessed is the judge of truth.  Shout blessings at imperfections.  Shout songs at too few years.  But sing.  That is our secret.  It is not so much about the theology or our acceptance of divine judgment.  It is instead about the music. 

The strangest and most wonderful lesson about the kaddish is that very few if any understand the meaning of its words.  Perhaps that is because it is written in Aramaic, the language of the Talmud, and not even Hebrew, the language of most of our other prayers.  It is even unclear when the prayer became associated with mourning.  The legend is that when Rabbi Akiva died his students were grappling with how best to mark their teacher’s death.  They decided to recite the prayer that he taught them to say when they gathered to study.  During those years the kaddish marked the completion of study.  It was a song of praise to God.  “Yitgadal v’yitkadash… Magnified and sanctified is His great name….   Blessed, praised, glorified, raised, exalted, honored, uplifted and lauded be the Name of the Holy One Blessed above He, above all blessings and songs, praises and consolations that could be uttered in this world.”  This is what they said when they sat at the table learning with their teacher.  This is what they began to slowly utter following his death.  And thus our custom was born.  Is it theology?  Is it a remembrance of a great teacher?  Or is it the music of its words? 

Life is imperfect.  Life is filled with questions and uncertainties.  Accidents happen.  Tragedies occur.  We sing.  We bless.  These acts allow us to live with imperfections.  There are no answers.  There is only one response.  Stand in awe before the majesty, and mystery, of creation.  We find a morsel for which to give thanks.  We wrest this from among the questions.  We pull this from the fire and say, “Baruch Ata Adonai…”  We add music and song.  We dance.  That is all we can do at times.  It is less well known that Nachman of Bratslav battled depression and despair.  He was at times given to dark thoughts.  What was the medicine he prescribed?  Sing.  Dance.  Pray.  Say blessings.  Shout with joy, even at the imperfections of the world.  Don’t get me wrong.  I am not suggesting that we throw our hands up to destiny.  I am not suggesting that when you are sick you should not go to a doctor.  I have little patience for religious leaders who suggest that faith must replace science.  Find the best doctor. 

Still, now matter how well you eat and exercise it is not entirely in our hands.  Does that mean, Well then give up.  Eat whatever you want.  Feast on Big Macs everyday.  Shmirat haguf, the care of our bodies is not simply about prolonging our lives but the responsibility to care for the divine image shrouded in the body’s vessel.  That is Judaism’s second response to the imperfections that surround us.   There are responsibilities that go beyond our own needs and desires.  Each of us is created in God’s image.  We care for ourselves as if our bodies are holy.  It is not the same as the Greek vision that our bodies are temples.  It is not the worship of body.  It is instead that the bodies are vessels of the holy.  We care for ourselves not so much out of fear, and especially the fear of illness and death, but out of a sense of responsibility and awe.

Science and medicine are therefore sacred pursuits.  It was once that rabbi and doctor were often combined in the same person.  Maimonides was such a person.  There was not then the division between faith and science, medicine and religion.  The two served each other.  Their goal was the same.  Refuat haguf and refuat hanefesh, healing of the body and healing of the soul, were not opposite pursuits.  They were both spiritual pursuits.  Today we appear to say, See the best doctor first.  If that fails, pray.  It is as if prayer is a last resort.  It is as if faith is the final measure.  Is it only when there is a mere morsel of life that we turn to the words of our tradition?  It should never be faith instead of medicine.  It should never be just have some chicken soup and say some psalms. Nourish the body and the soul.  They are one. 

Then again there will be times when science becomes stumped.  There will be moments when medicines cannot cure.  That is especially when we reach for the olive’s worth.  That is when we say, “K’zayit can sustain me.”  Baruch. Here is the secret.  Most refuse to say it out loud.  Faith is stumped as well.  It is filled with questions.  It too does not have answers to all of life’s questions.  It is instead an attitude.  It is a perspective of yirah, of awe.  It is about looking at the world for that sliver of a blessing, a song, a prayer.  Even now?  Rabbi Akiva’s students asked their teacher at the moment he was martyred by the Romans.  Yes, especially now, he answered.

Faith is not simply about prayer.  It is also about what we do, how we behave.  On these days especially we affirm that we can change.  We have the chutzpah to believe that we can fix the world.  We do not accept judgments as fated.  We work to right them.  We work to repair them.  We proclaim the power of repentance.  We can turn.  We can make amends.  We can change ourselves and our world.  People sometimes, and perhaps too often, make terrible choices.  They cause pain to others.  Need we recite examples?  They are too many to enumerate.  This is our faith as well.  We believe in the capacity for human beings to do better, to rescue the glimmer of good that is within each and every soul.  We refuse to accept pronouncements, “He will never change.  She will never say she is sorry.”  This is our response when people say, “Look at all the problems religion causes.  Look at the terrorism.  Take note of the millions of lives slaughtered in God’s name.”  We stand in defiance of such pronouncements.  We declare that our faith demands of us to do better, to repair this broken the world.  We do not deny the pain and sorrow.  We also do not look away from it.  We say that it can be fixed, and that we are the ones who can do so.  We refuse to give up. We challenge those who speak of destiny and fate.

We come not offering answers.  Those are for fundamentalists.  We come to repair, to care and to bless.  We come to journey together.  We come to search. When we search we discover new truths.

Recently in Israel they made an astonishing discovery.  It was not as one might expect a great archaeological find.  It was instead a discovery found in an elderly woman’s drawer.  There her daughter discovered a poem by Hannah Senesh.  Hannah Senesh was of course the extraordinarily brave Hungarian Jew who parachuted behind enemy lines to help rescue her fellow Jews from the Nazis before being executed.  She was a fervent Zionist and her poems, especially Eli Eli, my God my God, are sung to this day.  She was captured and we now know tortured mercilessly by the Nazis.  From her British training base in Cairo she wrote letters to friends.  To her friend Miriam Yasur, living at Kibbutz Hatzor, she sent a poem.  This poem was only discovered a few months ago by Miriam’s daughter, Hannah, who I suspect was named for her mother’s cherished friend.  Sometimes the greatest of discoveries are found in the ordinary.  We need not unearth mountains of dirt.  We need not summit Everest.  We need only look with new eyes.  Here in a drawer, a truth was uncovered.  Hannah Senesh wrote:  
A hora, roaring, tempestuous, blazes around me
With the mystery of rhythm, gladdening and forging,
It tugs at my body and heart
The foot marches, the back quivers, the song is ignited, a searing chorus
Dance and song, a wordless prayer,
Hail to the future, hail to creation…

Hail to the future, indeed!  The funny thing about that 160 cm tall woman who we laughed at in the beginning, the woman who wandered through southern Iceland searching for herself is that she actually had it right.  We are supposed to search for ourselves.  That is the quest.  It is not about the answers.  It is not about what Google tells us.  It is instead about the search and the unintended discoveries.  It is all about the questions.  That is the essence of our faith.

Religion is not about answers.  It is instead how to live with these troubling questions, how to live with the litany of imperfections that are our world and our bodies.  It is how to live with uncertainty.  The answer is not the answers.  The answer is keep looking.  The answer is walk together.  Keep singing and blessing, even if it is only a morsel.  Work to fix the world and care for the spark of the divine in each of us.  Most of all walk with others.  Religion is about summoning the strength to live with such unresolved questions, imperfections and inconsistencies.

Eventually the meandering search will become a wordless prayer.  Eventually the questioning will form a hora.  The questions, the uncertainties, the imperfections never disappear.  They don’t feel as burdensome when you are singing and dancing, arm in arm.

Don't Separate Yourself

Yom Kippur Evening Sermon

On the plane home from Israel I met a man from Louisiana who had just finished working on an oilrig off the cost of Haifa.  He was returning home after spending six months working on the rig.  He told me of the Leviathan gas field which as the name suggests is immense in its proportions and almost messianic in its promise of natural gas riches.  When the messiah arrives, the rabbis teach us, we will eat the flesh of a roasted Leviathan.  I am not sure if that sounds like it will taste good, but such is the legend.  I was saddened to learn that he never once visited Israel’s shores except to travel to and from Ben Gurion airport.  He did promise that he would visit Jerusalem on his next trip.

It saddened me that he was so close to Israel and yet did not take the opportunity to experience the country.  But what made me even more disheartened was the distance he expressed to our own, shared country.  Somehow we started talking about politics, the upcoming elections and President Obama.  This was probably not my wisest decision.   Let’s debate politics with a tobacco chewing, large oilrig worker from Louisiana who you can’t run away from.  But I was jet lagged and tired.  It was 330 in the morning and our flight had arrived before the JFK workers were even ready to usher us off the plane.  Somewhere in the course of the conversation he said, “Obama is your president.  He ain’t mine.”  I don’t know why he thought he could pigeon hole me.  Maybe it was because I spoke about my worries about the environment and climate change in response to his accusation that Obama is killing the oil companies.  Still I could not let the “He ain’t my president” go.  I said, “I understand that you did not vote for him.  It should not matter who you voted for or who I voted for.  He is still our president.”  Maybe I should have realized that rabbi does not carry so much authority among Louisiana oilrig workers.  He turned to me and said, “No. He ain’t.  He’s a communist. He closed down the oil industry and eliminated jobs.  He ain’t my president!”  To be honest, I cleaned up the story a little bit and edited out some of his more colorful adjectives.  I said, “I don’t want to argue about the specifics.  You know the oil industry much better than I ever could.  He is still our president.”  “No he ain’t.  He is yours, not mine.”  I then said, “What’s the weather supposed to be like?  What are your plans for when you get home?”  There we were: two Americans standing next to each other, both anxious to exit the plan.  And yet we stood oceans apart. 

This evening I wish to reflect on this encounter (it was certainly not the experience I expected from my annual trip to Israel) and offer some observations about the upcoming elections and American democracy.  Come November many of us will be disappointed and maybe even angry.  I don’t know how many of us will be upset.  Maybe it will be 50% or 60% or even 70%.  Not everyone is going to have the guy they voted for in the White House come January. Here is my belief.  The greatest moment of American democracy is not the celebrations by the winner and his victory speech but the concession speech by the loser.  He speaks of ideals.  The loser inevitably speaks about American values.  I am most comfortable and at ease in that place, not with losers per say but with values and ideals.  The winner speaks of grand promises, promises that will inevitably disappoint.  No one can live up to all that he promises.  Looking back on recent history some of our greatest moments were Bush vs. Gore, not necessarily the Supreme Court decision, but Gore bowing to the Court’s authority and reminding us of the meaning of American democracy.  Or perhaps you prefer John McCain’s concession speech.  I remember in particular him quieting those who heckled at Obama’s name.  In their losses they reminded us of what is truly important.  I wish McCain was on that plane with me.  We should hold on to those moments.  We tend to forget such matters in the months preceding elections.  We yell at friends.  We change the subject to the weather.

My objective is not to suggest who we should vote for.  To advocate for one candidate over another would be a betrayal of the trust you place in me.  That is not the rabbi’s job. I disagree with my many friends who have signed on to “Rabbis for Obama.” My great worry is what happens on November 7th and even more important how everyone feels on January 20th.  On that day there should be no winners and losers.  Once the election is over, once the inauguration occurs, all should say “Our president is…”  We disenfranchise ourselves from the very democracy that granted us so many freedoms and opportunities when we say, “He ain’t my president.”  That is my chief worry.   I am not 100% sure if this trend has grown larger since Obama became president, if he is even more polarizing than his predecessors.  Sometimes it appears so but I recall the left casting themselves aside during the Reagan years.  I am certain however that we should be united in battling this trend.  You can have your issues with Obama’s positions and policies.  You can have your debates with Romney’s ideology and promises.  But come January 20th one of them is going to be our president.  He is not just ours if we voted for him.  He is ours because we are Americans.  It seems so basic.  It also seems far too fleeting.

Why do we count things in terms of winners and losers?  When did we begin to measure everything, even our elected leaders, in terms of winners and losers, in terms of you are only mine if I chose you?  Perhaps this is the latest realization of the primacy we place in individual choice and how we overly indulge personal preference.  If my guy doesn’t win then he ain’t mine anymore.  Then this country is not ours?  This view seems particularly acute regarding Israel and most importantly Iran.  So let me offer some observations about the Iran crisis, its march toward nuclear weapons and how Israel and the United States is addressing this problem.  There are three points about which we should agree.

#1. Iran represents an existential threat to Israel and a danger to the United States.  To say otherwise is to misread history and especially modern Jewish history.  We must never attempt to explain away antisemites, most especially dictators with genocidal aims.  Bill Keller wrote the following in last week’s Times: “Despite the incendiary rhetoric, it is hard to believe the aim of an Iranian nuclear program is the extermination of Israel.” (The New York Times, September 9, 2012)  Such an evaluation is dangerous and naïve.  Such assumptions are a luxury we can ill afford.  We must always take antisemites at their word.  When they say they want to kill us, we believe them.  I wish I could believe otherwise, but we cannot, we must not.  The lessons of history are etched on the millions of graves we can no longer even find.  When it comes to antisemites with dangerous weapons, there is no other way of reading our history.  When someone rises up to say he wants to destroy the Jewish people and its nation, and when he rushes to acquire the means to do so, believe him. 

#2. This does not mean that a pre-emptive strike or an Israeli or American attack is the right response.  Have we not learned that war is messy and unpredictable?  Had we not gone to war in Iraq Saddam Hussein might have provided the needed deterrent against Iran’s desire to rule the Middle East.  Surgical strikes like those done recently in Syria and many years ago in Iraq no longer appear possible.  I do not believe that there are easy answers to this question.  How to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons defies simple answers.  Clearly there are disagreements between the Obama administration and Netanyahu’s government regarding these answers.  I do not believe however that there is disagreement about the question.  I continue to believe that the United States and Israel share an unbreakable friendship and partnership.  It will continue regardless of who our next president is.

Let us admit.  It is possible that US and Israeli interests might diverge.  The judgments of these two nations and its leaders may differ.  This is not to say that Iran and its desire to build nuclear weapons is not a threat to the United States and its interests.  Have we not learned that oceans can no longer protect us from terror and attack?  Iran and its proxies have attacked the United States before.  Have we already forgotten the embassy hostage crisis or the bombing of the marine barracks by Hezbullah?  Make no mistake. Iran represents a threat not only to Israel, not only to the United States but to the world.

#3.  We depend on no one but ourselves.  This is the most basic definition of Zionism. Zionism is about an independent Jewish nation that defends its own interests and secures the Jewish future through strength.  Perhaps this is naïve, especially in our interconnected, or hyper-connected, world.  I recall recent history.  During the first Gulf War, Israel and in particular Tel Aviv, suffered Scud attacks from Iraq.  Had Israel responded militarily to these attacks, the fragile coalition that Bush Senior had brokered would have unraveled.  Israel restrained itself.  Was this a good decision?  Clearly it kept the coalition from fraying.  The limited objectives of the war were achieved and the Powell doctrine affirmed.  Saddam’s army was pushed out of Kuwait.  Yet Israel’s failure to respond was a mistake of Zionism.  Its decision was a psychological blow to the country’s psyche.  It was attacked without provocation and did nothing but huddle in bomb shelters and safe rooms.  I do not pretend to think that such decisions are easy, that the agonizing choices leaders face especially in war rooms are simple, but I can say with certainty that Israel’s restraint in the face of attack undermined one of its core principles and its very identity.  While Israel may not be able to go it alone militarily it needs to psychologically.  It must do so because this is the very essence of Zionism.  

Only Israel and its leaders can determine which actions will best protect its citizens.  This is not because we don’t know enough or we don’t care enough.  It is not because the US is untrustworthy.  It is instead because Israel and the US see the world through different lenses. The nature of having a Jewish state is that we cannot depend on the world—even our greatest ally. We will write Jewish history ourselves—for better or worse. It will no longer be done to us.  We will never again be victims. Israel must defend itself.  Israel will defend itself.  The Jewish people will remain strong.  Chazak v’amatz.  Be strong and resolute, the Torah demands.

I have an unshakable faith in friendship and the friendship between Israel and the United States.  It is a friendship that transcends particular presidents and their parties.  I resent being tugged between opposing sides, as if my commitment and love for Israel is a punching bag.  The tradition argues, “Imo anochi b’tzara—we stand together in trying times.”  It does not mean that we always agree, but we stand together especially when there is a crisis, especially when we are tested, most especially when in sorrow or under duress. 

Let me be clear.  If Israel attacks Iran, which is its right, if that is what its leadership deems is the best way to protect the Jewish nation from Iran’s genocidal aims then the debate ends.  We stand with our people.  Some might say that the time to stand together is when the threat is raised.  Indeed we should be united in recognizing this threat.  We must vigorously fight those who dismiss Iran as a real threat to the world.  There remains however an open question of how best to fight this.  That is the only question currently open for debate.  If Israel attacks, if the United States attacks, or if God forbid, Iran attacks us, then “Imo anochi b’tzara…we stand together and united.”

Our views, our opinions, can be divided but we must remain one.  Still we continue to hear, “He ain’t my president.  He did not say what I wanted.  He stands for everything I am not.  He does not have Israel’s back.”  But he is, no matter who he is, no matter what his decisions might be.  I can disagree with him.  I can advocate for different positions.  I will certainly shout for all to hear that Iran represents a threat not only to my people but to the world as well. In the end the man in the White House is mine whether I voted for him or not.  And come January, he will be my president, whether I chose him or not. 

There are many issues that divide us. I am sure there are differences of opinion regarding taxes and immigration, the environment and unemployment.  I am certain that there are many opinions sitting in this room.  There is only one community.  There is only one country.  And we have only one president.  All of us. 

When we disenfranchise ourselves by drawing a line between ourselves and our leaders, we cut ourselves off from the community.  Is not this what we criticize the Haredi, the ultra-Orthodox, for, separating themselves from the society that sustains them?  Are we then any better?  I have always believed that elections are about the ideas and person who might make our country better.  I have always felt that we are at least supposed to try to improve our nation, our world and our lives.  It is supposed to be about our community not simply our individual lot.  I see taxes for example as part of my obligation to others.  Sure I don’t want to pay any more and I make every legal effort to pay as little as possible, but taxes are one way I participate in this community, in this country.  They are my obligation just as tzedakah is my mitzvah.  We cannot afford to draw ourselves outside of the circle of obligation.  We must redouble our efforts to draw ourselves in.  We must relearn the meaning of sacrifice.  I wish both candidates spoke more about obligations instead of what I might personally gain by their election.

Perhaps we should even reinstate the draft.  Dare I say such things?  My children’s grandparents might certainly take issue.  We need it.  We require what it nurtures for the community.  When American Jews served in the US armed forces in appreciable numbers, we understood better the meaning of democracy and the import of sacrifice.  Then our lives were defined not by opportunity and privilege but instead by duty and obligation.

My friend and student, Charlie, the US marine, who is serving in Afghanistan with a defense contractor reminds us of what this means.  His fiancee Ali teaches us as well about the meaning of sacrifice.  They are only together for these few weeks because he managed to grab a precious break for the holidays.  There is not of course a universal draft or even anything approaching national service. Imagine what it would teach us, and our children.  I could speak as well about Chris Stephens, the American diplomat, who gave his life serving our country.  Here was a man who gave his life so that democracy might flourish, however tentatively in the Arab Middle East. 

How are we not any better than the Haredi if we fail to pledge ourselves to the betterment of our world and most especially our nation?  If we do not sacrifice for others then how are we any different?  Don’t say we are better because we live in the modern world, because we participate in a modern economy, because we hold jobs and don’t just study all day and night.  We must give back.  We must serve—not just our small communities, not just our people but also the country and world.  The United States is not just a place to live and work.  It is an idea that must be served and protected.  This country is not just a collection of diverse towns and peoples.  The United States is a community.   It must forever remain so.  I remain deeply concerned that when we withdraw into our hamlets, when we stop speaking about the common good and the needs of all, we lose sight of what is supposed to be our impact.  “All the nations of the world shall bless themselves by your descendants,” God tells Abraham.  (Genesis 22:18)

2,000 years ago Rabbi Hillel said, “Al tifrosh min ha-tzibbur—don’t separate yourself from the community.”  Hillel was right then.  He is right now.  The greatest danger is not Obama.  The greatest threat is not Romney.  It is not about taxes or the economy, health care or even who better has Israel’s back.  It is instead about separating ourselves from the community.  It should not be, “My guy didn’t win, so I am out of here, I am checking out.”  To be part of a community, to be a citizen of a democracy, means that you don’t always get your choice.  Your ideas don’t always hold sway.  Your vote does not always make you a winner.  But it always counts.  You are forever a member of the community.  We are forever part of something greater than ourselves and our own personal interests.  We must fight the impulse to say, “He ain’t mine.” 

I cannot say for sure who our leader will be come January.  I am certain that whoever it might be, he will my president.  I am certain he will be mine. 

Monday, September 24, 2012

Yom Kippur

The Mishnah teaches: “For transgressions against God, Yom Kippur atones; but for transgressions of one human being against another, Yom Kippur does not atone until they have made peace with one another.”

This past Saturday evening Ari and I went to the Bruce Springsteen concert at MetLife stadium.  A shout out to all of the JCB members I saw there.  Because of a weather delay the concert did not start until 1030 pm.  Bruce played until 2 am.  It was of course a fantastic concert.  At about 8 pm they ushered everyone out of their seats to take shelter inside because of the approaching severe weather.  Two hours later they made an announcement.  “We have resolved the situation.  It is now safe to return to your seats.”  Ari and I looked at each other quizzically. 

Are not the rains in the heavens?  During our prayers we pray, “Your might Adonai is everlasting.  You give life to all.  Great is Your saving power.  You cause the wind to blow and the rain to fall…”  Some might disagree with this theology.  Perhaps you might offer scientific explanations about cloud formations and the power of nature.  But who would suggest that such matters are in human hands?

I recall a former teacher who appeared to believe that the British controlled the world.  He was a Bible professor so the university was forgiving of his theories about modern politics.  We knew that for ten minutes of every class we could stop taking notes as he spoke about secret meetings between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.  Thatcher was telling Reagan what to do.  We knew especially that we would not be tested on Britain’s new rain making machine.  (I promise I am not making this up.) 

Nonetheless I thought of my professor on Saturday night.  “We have resolved the situation…”  Who takes credit for the rains?   These matters are not in human hands.  Judaism steadfastly rejects such theories.  It rejects my professor’s conspiracy theories (as well as Mel’s) and his belief that human beings command the heavens.

Judaism rejects the notion that all is in our hands, that everything is controlled by human beings, and as well that nothing is in our hands.  We can say we’re sorry.  We can repair our relationships with others.  When approaching God, prayers can suffice.  With others the hard work of repair is always demanded.

On Yom Kippur we turn inward.  We examine our ways.  We seek to make amends.  “Sure it’s so hard to be a saint in the city.”  Nonetheless every year we are given an opportunity to turn, to change, to carve a different path.  Our lives are not entirely in our hands we recognize.  There are matters that we cannot control.

We cannot influence everyone around us, we cannot change how others might behave or even respond.  We can choose our own responses, our own actions.  We can carve out our own paths. While not everything is within our power, the direction of our lives is for us to decide.  We can always turn. 

The weather is beyond the design of human beings.  The rains are indeed outside of our hands.  Whether we sing or dance is within our power.  How we respond is always in our hands.

Now with these hands
I pray for the strength, Lord
With these hands,
I pray for the faith, Lord
Come on, rise up!