Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Terumah

When I visualize cherubs, even though I don’t much believe in these mythic beings, I still imagine Michelangelo’s renderings.  So much of our religious imagery is taken from Renaissance art.  The great artists of those days still continue to provide us with many of our visual religious images.  This is ironic given that Michelangelo for example mistakenly carved horns for Moses rather than the Torah’s “rays of light.”  And despite our tradition’s insistence otherwise, we continue to imagine Eve handing Adam an apple.  Judaism suggests the fruit was a pomegranate, fig or etrog.  So why do we depend on Renaissance artists when these angelic cherubs are described in our very own Torah?

In this week’s portion, we read of the details of the ancient tabernacle and the cherubs that adorned it.  “You shall make a cover (kapporet) of pure gold, two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide.  Make two cherubim (keruvim) of gold—make them of hammered work—at the two ends of the cover….  The cherubim shall have their wings spread out above, shielding the cover with their wings.  They shall confront each other, the faces of the cherubim being turned toward the cover….  There I will meet you, and I will impart to you—from above the cover, from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Pact—all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people.” (Exodus 25:17-22)

What is a cherub?  According to biblical scholars the Hebrew word keruv is most likely related to the ancient Akkadian meaning to pray, bless or be gracious to.  These winged creatures are first mentioned in Genesis, when God positions them outside the Garden of Eden to guard its entrance.  Their depiction was common throughout the ancient Middle East.  One can surmise that the Bible’s lack of a detailed description indicates that the ancient reader had a clear understanding of what cherubim looked like.  It appears that they had human faces, the body of animals, most often a bull or lion, and large wings.  Renaissance artists depicted them as babies with wings.

I wonder why a tradition that seeks to abolish all forms of idolatry demand that we construct such images within the most sacred of precincts.  Rabbi Gunther Plaut (z”l) suggests an answer: “Apparently the cherubim belonged to an old mythological tradition that could not be dislodged, and by hiding them away in a place totally inaccessible to the people at large the danger of their adoration was minimized…”  Then again perhaps such imagery is part and parcel to being human.  We need to build things in order to better imagine God and the accompanying heavenly entourage.  Thus despite Judaism’s zealous prohibitions against idolatry and representations of the divine, attempts to picture the heavens all too often peak through.

Most years I gloss over the Torah’s descriptions about cherubs and angels, dismissing them as meaningless to my modern day faith.  I don’t believe in flying mythic creatures.  Yet human beings continue to conjure rich images, painting and sculpting our understanding of the Bible’s words.  Human beings need to imagine detailed visions. And we rely on artists to visualize the divine.  We are dependent on others to help us grasp at the divine.  Perhaps we should instead take refuge in our own hearts and minds, allowing our thoughts to paint new and original images.  That would be more in keeping with our tradition’s philosophy.

The cherubim’s purpose was to mediate between heaven and earth, to carry the prayers of human beings to the heavens.   I choose instead to rely on my words.  Perhaps a few reach to the heavens.  More often than not my words are lifted by the words of my ancestors found in our prayerbook, especially when rendered as music and song.  And then there are occasions when I discover a poem, a verse that lifts my prayers, as if soaring on wings.  William Blake writes: “To see a world in a grain of sand/And a heaven in a wild flower,/Hold infinity in the palm of your hand/And eternity in an hour.”

And herein is the reminder I seek.  The divine can more often than not be unlocked in the most ordinary and every day.  We need not travel to beautiful buildings, even (and especially) those as striking as the Sistine Chapel.  We need not even construct a tabernacle, ordained with cherubim.  Our thoughts, our prayers, our visions and our very own renderings are all we require.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Iran Is Not Cuba

Iran Is Not Cuba
Gershom Gorenberg's wisdom and insights are worth noting.

He suggests that the panic about Iran is more prevalent here rather than in Israel.
...[T]he people around me in Israeli society don't seem to be panicking. Perhaps it's because no one I know has received official notice that it's time to get gas masks from the Home Front Command—in contrast to the nationwide distribution effort during the period of real tension before the 1991 Gulf War. In fact, the low level of public preparedness suggests two possible conclusions: Netanyahu, Barak, and other top officials could be confident, or terribly overconfident, that Iran and its allies will not retaliate in a serious way. Alternatively, the bellicose public comments and sundry leaks are designed for political purposes, foreign or domestic.
He also argues that the comparisons to 1938 Germany are flawed.
...[T]hinking in 1938 terms risks an even more hard-line implication: Any diplomatic engagement with Iran will lead to Chamberlain-style appeasement. So military action is not just the final option; it's the only option. Despite their emotional appeal, history's extreme examples can close off rather than aid analysis.
And thus I arrive at these tentative conclusions. Prepare for war. Work tirelessly on diplomacy.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Mishpatim

The Talmud offers the following counsel regarding abortion: “If a woman is having difficulty in giving birth, one cuts up the fetus within her womb and extracts it limb by limb, because her life takes precedence over that of the fetus. But if the greater part was already born, one may not touch it, for one may not set aside one person’s life for that of another.” (Mishnah Oholot 7:8)

Two insights emerge from this text. If a woman’s life is in danger then abortion is permitted—and even demanded. Jewish authorities continue to debate what might constitute a threat to the mother’s life. More traditional authorities argue only a physical threat, more liberal offer expansive interpretations, including psychological dangers. The second insight however is the more significant and informative for our contemporary debate. The mother’s life takes precedence over that of the fetus.

As I watch today’s shrill discussions I find myself growing increasingly agitated. My religious commitments are offended when others place the life of the fetus over that of the mother. I believe otherwise. My tradition teaches me that the mother’s life takes precedence. My deeply held religious conviction tells me that it is demeaning of women, and perhaps even misogynistic, to hold that the mother’s life is of equal value to that of the developing fetus. Despite this I am willing to respect those who have different religious convictions. I ask however that they do the same. The strength of this great nation is the belief that different, and even competing, religious convictions are allowed not only to coexist but also flourish.

The fetus is of course sacred and must be treated with care and concern. It is a potential life. Its value must not be brushed aside. Its value must not be treated in a cavalier manner. Nonetheless when its potential life threatens the actual life of the mother it becomes of secondary importance. Despite the debate among Jewish authorities regarding what constitutes a threat to the life of the mother; all agree that the mother’s life is of greater importance. The mother and fetus become two lives of equal value when the baby’s head emerges. Until that moment the mother’s life takes precedence. And that is what Judaism teaches, and that is what I firmly believe.

Yet a woman’s body (as well as a man’s) is not entirely her own. Our tradition also teaches that our bodies belong to God. We cannot do whatever we want to our bodies. My religious convictions are equally offended when people speak of their bodies as if they created them, as if they control them. They are instead entrusted to us. We are commanded to care for them. We do not own them. Even our bodies are divine gifts.

This is what I learn from our Jewish tradition. My faith demands the convictions of me that our bodies are sacred, human life is holy, but as well that a mother’s life is of greater importance than the potential life of the fetus she carries. I first discover this in this week’s portion. “When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact from him, the payment to be based on reckoning. But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” (Exodus 21:22-25)

Here we learn that monetary compensation is offered for an accidental miscarriage. In the Torah the intentional taking of a human life constitutes a capital crime. No compensation could suffice. Only the death penalty could rebalance the scales. That the Torah does not require this in the above situation is evidence of the Jewish position regarding abortion.

In addition, the meaning of an eye for an eye is not meant literally but instead figuratively. We are to determine the value of an eye. We are to calculate a fair monetary compensation for the injury. There is a profound confusion about this point. In contemporary culture an eye for an eye is instead used when speaking about exacting vengeance. Use of this biblical phrase suggests a veneer of justice, and is too often misused to justify military action. This is not how our tradition understands this phrase. There is much in the interpretation. Different religious traditions often understand the same words in different manners.

People speak as if their convictions are the beginning and end of all debate. They speak as if their religious beliefs are the determinants for all and that their interpretations are the only legitimate readings. I prefer however to look to my own faith for guidance and counsel. There I discover much to inform our current debates. There my religious convictions are restored.

My faith begins, and ends, with my tradition’s interpretations. My understanding however draws a wider circle, and includes the interpretations of others people’s religious convictions.

Appendix: A thoughtful, and immediate, critique from a congregant.
On the point that we should not impose our views of such moral issues on others, while I personally agree in general, in fact we do often impose our views of moral matters when it comes to action as opposed to belief. Our law allows all to believe what they want, and for the most part profess what they believe, but draws the line at action. Actions that contravene the norm are routinely condemned and punished, even when religiously based, and to some extent this must be so. For example, if one religion believes that smoking marijuana is required, its adherents do not get dispensation from our drug laws; if another believes children must proselytize at night in the street, it must nevertheless succumb to laws against child labor and abuse. Saying we should not impose our religious views on others, in matters such as abortion, does not really resolve the dilemma of how to deal with acts that our social “norm” considers (morally) beyond the pale. I don’t happen to think that a majority of Americans are against abortion, but if they are, if they find it so morally repugnant that they believe it cannot be tolerated at all in a civilized society, then how is a religious dissent on that issue any different from dissenting religious views regarding child abuse, polygamy, misogyny, drug use, etc.? I think it’s too easy to say each can do whatever he/she believes, because we still have some minimal societal norm to identify and enforce.
Robin

Wolpe vs. Beinart

Opinion: Wolpe vs. Beinart | Jewish Journal
Rabbi David Wolpe offers an important corrective to criticism of Israel from the left.  Wolpe writes:
...The parade of self-confident sophistries is confounding. “Denied rights simply because they are not Jews.” Beinart’s phrase elides a torturous history of renunciation, rejection, terror, promises of annihilation and, well, war. It places the entire burden of the conflict on the Israelis, inhabitants of the only state in the world whose existence is constantly questioned and threatened. It turns what has been a painful (and, to be sure, sometimes brutal) occupation of a population, with agonizing options on both sides and blood-strewn sidewalks, into the thinly veiled implication of racist oppression. If you said the reverse, that the Arab nations made war on Israel “just because they were Jews,” you would have a more supportable sentence. 
...Is there no room for honest dissent? I am no fan of the settler movement. I agree that two states is the only just and workable solution. But (and this is where we apparently diverge) I acknowledge I could be wrong about how to get there. We agree that Palestinians have suffered terribly. An end to the current impasse is urgently needed. But Beinart’s certainty about the ends of equality and statehood has frozen into lockstepping the means, and dictating acceptable attitudes. There are thoughtful, kind people who disagree. Many of them, I suspect, do not aspire to raze democracy. This e-mail is an end-zone dance, a strutting lack of humility. 
...Beinart’s e-mail represents what is wrong with the debate: It is smug in its dismissal of Israel’s leadership and grandiose in presenting one view as the sole salvation of that beleaguered nation’s honor. Peter Beinart raises crucial, abiding issues. Then he compares those who take a different view to racist destroyers of democracy. This is not debate. This is not dialogue. This is demagoguery. He is better than this and we must be, too. In Pirkei Avot, Avtalion warns sages to be careful with their words. The warning applies to those who are not sages, as well.
Orthodoxies unfortunately exist on both the right and left.  There are no easy answers to today's dilemmas.  Passionate debate must continue.  Pronouncements must be avoided.

For a reminder of Beinart's contribution to this discussion read a prior post.  There Beinart reminds us that our youth are growing increasingly distant from the State of Israel.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Going To Melody

Leon Wieseltier: Going To Melody | The New Republic
This article is a beautiful meditation about the too often ignored costs of our emerging (emerged?) digital age.  We prize the immediacy of news and information.  We equate Googling with learning.  We fail to recognize that in the process we may lose the meandering achievement of knowledge.  Wiesletier writes:
It is a matter of some importance that the nature of browsing be properly understood. Browsing is a method of humanistic education. It gathers not information but impressions, and refines them by brief (but longer than 29 seconds!) immersions in sound or language. Browsing is to Amazon what flaneurie is to Google Earth. It is an immediate encounter with the actual object of curiosity. The browser (no, not that one) is the flaneur in a room. Browsing is not idleness; or rather, it is active idleness—an exploring capacity, a kind of questing non-instrumental behavior. Browsing is the opposite of “search.” Search is precise, browsing is imprecise. When you search, you find what you were looking for; when you browse, you find what you were not looking for. Search corrects your knowledge, browsing corrects your ignorance. Search narrows, browsing enlarges. It does so by means of accidents, of unexpected adjacencies and improbable associations. On Amazon, by contrast, there are no accidents. Its adjacencies are expected and its associations are probable, because it is programmed for precedents. It takes you to where you have already been—to what you have already bought or thought of buying, and to similar things. It sells similarities. After all, serendipity is a poor business model. But serendipity is how the spirit is renewed; and a record store, like a bookstore, is nothing less than an institution of spiritual renewal. 
He speaks of the recent closing of his favorite record store.  I think as well of the closing of Borders and the many Barnes and Noble stores.  My town recently lost its record store as well.  Its independent book store, the wonderful Book Revue, still continues.  I wonder if it thrives.  Recently I wandered through its doors.  I soon found myself in the poetry section and discovered another Rainer Maria Rilke poetry book.  I was not looking for his poems.  I do not need yet another book, and another book of his poems, but how could I resist buying, "Book of Hours: Love Poems to God," especially when I read:
All who seek you
test you.
And those who find you
bind you to image and gesture.

I would rather sense you
as the earth senses you.
In my ripening
ripens
what you are.

I need from you no tricks
to prove you exist.
Time, I know,
is other than you.

No miracles, please.
Just let your laws
become clearer
from generation to generation.
I was searching for nothing.  That, at least, is what I thought.  Perhaps Wieseltier is right in his distinction between searching and browsing.  But the rows of poetry books always beckon me.  I found something even though I did not search for anything.  True knowledge surprises--and astounds.  That is its gift.  We lose these when we rely only on the internet and our computers.  Had I remained at home peering into my laptop I would not have discovered these poems.  And that is Wieseltier's great insight.  We no longer wander.  We no longer meander through rows of  books.  We no longer browse!  We no longer find comfort in the corners of libraries, surrounded by the learning of prior generations.  We only want answers.  We no longer search after knowledge and understanding.  Rather we type our questions into Google and scan its many answers.  But answers are not the same as learning.  And searching is no longer the achievement of knowledge.  Over these recent years search has grown more definitive while knowledge grows ever more diminished.  Wieseltier concludes:
My father had furniture stores. I grew up with the pathos of retail: you throw all your money into a location and an inventory, you hang out a sign, you trick out a window, you unlock a door, and (if you lack the resources to advertise formidably) you wait. If they come in, you use your skill; but they have to come in. When my father was ill, I would quit the library and mind the store. One day I set a house record for sofas sold because the store was located in a neighborhood where many U.N. people lived, and I knew more than most furniture salesmen about the crises in Iran and Cyprus. Eventually the store failed. But the failure of some stores is more repercussive than the failure of other stores. The commerce of culture is a trade in ideals of beauty, goodness, and truth. A hunger for profit exploits a hunger for meaning. If the one gets too ravenous, the other may find it harder to subsist. The disappearance of our bookstores and our record stores constitutes one of the great self-inflicted wounds of this wounding time.
And finally I return  to his earlier words: "But serendipity is how the spirit is renewed; and a record store, like a bookstore, is nothing less than an institution of spiritual renewal."

If everything becomes virtual how will we learn what we do not know we need to learn?

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Yitro

This week’s Torah portion contains the Ten Commandments. According to Jewish tradition, these ten are delineated as follows and are called instead Aseret HaDibrot, the Ten Sayings.

1. I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.
2. You shall have no other gods beside Me.
3. You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord your God.
4. Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.
5. Honor your father and you mother that you may long endure on the land.
6. You shall not murder.
7. You shall not steal.
8. You shall not commit adultery.
9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.

People often place these commandments above others. In fact I often hear the following, “I am not that religious, but I do follow the Ten Commandments.” While contemporary culture gives these commandments such prominence, their place within Jewish tradition is far more convoluted.

It was once the case that these commandments were as central as people’s statements would suggest. During early rabbinic times the Ten Commandments were recited during the morning service alongside the Shema. However it was soon removed from the liturgy in response to sectarian claims (most likely early Christian) that these commandments were more important than all others. The rabbis however did not want people to think that these ten were of greater importance than others. All mitzvot, commandments, were binding. The rabbis argued that Judaism demands our commitment to 613 mitzvot.

Yet the rabbis were also keenly aware of the universality of the Ten Commandments’ message. This is why they taught that they were given in the wilderness, in a land claimed by no one. They also argued that they were translated into every language and that again their universal message was disseminated throughout the world. Even Shabbat contains a universal message within the rabbinic imagination.

While Shabbat might not appear to contain a message for the entire world, given our particular Jewish observance of the day, its message is of universal import. While I hesitate to use such evangelical language, Shabbat is a day that can benefit the entire world. Shabbat can offer respite for the soul. It is a day that can renew and restore. It is a day that is set apart from all others, offering us a chance for spiritual renewal and reflection.

Whether we sing Lecha Dodi and fill the day with Jewish music and prayers or just take a day to pause and reflect, Shabbat is a day that can benefit all. It is a day given to the world.

Monday, February 6, 2012

January-February Newsletter

What follows is my January-February 2012 Newsletter article.  Sorry for the delay in posting this article.

Here are my answers to our students’ Ask the Rabbi questions.

Can you get the words in English for your bar/bat mitzvah?
No.  I assume this question is about how hard Hebrew can sometimes be to read and chant. Every one of our students has always been able to lead the prayers.  That is why we meet with students for over six months to help get them ready.  Sometimes students write notes for themselves in their books to help them remember how to say difficult words, but you can never do that in the Torah scroll.  Every student at the JCB reads from the Torah scroll.  That takes hard work and practice.  Bar/bat mitzvah means taking responsibility for your own Judaism.  It is not always easy.  I believe that the things that are the best are not those things that are the easiest.  I know you can do it!  Besides you get to read from the most important Jewish book!  On your bar/bat mitzvah day the most important job is yours not any professionals.  That is what it means to become a bar/bat mitzvah. 

How did you train to become a rabbi?
After graduating from college (Franklin & Marshall, a great college, with a bad mascot, the diplomats) I spent five years studying in rabbinical school (Hebrew Union College).  The first year of rabbinical school was in Jerusalem where I met my wife, Susie, who is also a rabbi.  Oops I think that is off topic.  So that is a lot of school.  But the most important thing about being a rabbi is that you have to keep learning.  So every year I go back to Jerusalem to learn even more.  To be a rabbi means to love learning, and of course love people. 

What is your favorite Torah story?
My favorites are the ones I find the most challenging.  I continue to be challenged by the story about Moses hitting the rock in anger.  Because of this God does not allow him to enter the Promised Land.  I have always found this to be a very harsh punishment for what appears to be a small mistake.  So I keep searching and looking to see if maybe Moses’ mistake was much bigger than what I originally thought.  Maybe part of the lesson is that even small mistakes can sometimes have really big consequences. 

Hi, what did you think of Charlie Sheen’s comment?
Shalom!  Unfortunately antisemitism still exists.  People hate for all different reasons.  People blame others for their own mistakes and failures all the time.  Sometimes that looks really ugly.  Charlie Sheen is not the only example of a person who blames the Jewish people for his own problems.  That list is very long.  In the end it is just really sad that such a talented man is destroying his life, and also bringing down those who are trying to support him.  I used to really enjoy the show, but don’t watch it any more. 

Why is Christmas so celebrative and has Santa (who isn’t real), and lights and everything, and Hanukkah is only presents and menorahs?
First of all I would not tell your Christian friends that their hero is not real.  That is for them to decide.  Second it is not a competition.  Third we live in a country where most people are Christian so it appears that Christmas is better because it is all over the radio, and in stores, and in public displays.  Instead of looking at what you don’t have, try enjoying the pretty lights.  I like how they make the early dark nights brighter!  It won’t make you less Jewish to enjoy Christmas lights, or even sing Christmas songs.  Most important you have to compare the whole package.  Hanukkah is a minor holiday.  Present giving for Hanukkah is a really new thing.  I promise you that the Maccabees were not giving each other presents or even playing dreidle 2,200 years ago.  They were too busy fighting the war!  You have to look at all Jewish holidays not just the one that comes near Christmas.  Sukkot is a major holiday and is for example all about joy and happiness.  My sukkah is even decorated with lights.  Or look at Passover, another major holiday.  How fun is it to find the afikomen?  The most important thing is to remember that Judaism is all about joy and celebration.  I look forward to dancing with you during the hora at your bar/bat mitzvah!  How much more fun does there need to be? 

Keep asking your questions.  They continue to be the best way to learn!

Beshalach Sermon

In this week’s portion the people finally leave Egypt.  They do not travel very far before they are nearly overtaken by Pharaoh and his army.  We read of this famous scene describing the Israelites standing at the shore of the Sea of Reeds, fearful again for their lives.  Everyone knows the story.  God of course splits the sea and the people travel through.  The Egyptian army is drowned in the sea.

There are two midrashim about this event and the questions about miracles that it raises.  The first is a modern midrash.
1. Even though the splitting of the sea was a great and wondrous miracle some people still only saw the mud beneath their feet.  They never looked up.  They only saw the mud dirtying their sandals.  The lesson is clear.  There are many miracles, all around us, but sometimes we only see the mud.
2.  According to an ancient midrash, God did not bring this miracle immediately.  God waited until the people demonstrated their faith.  And the people waited for one person, a man named Nachshon.  It was he who was responsible for God’s miracle.  How?  He jumped into the waters.  Only until the waters covered his mouth did God finally split the sea.  Thus you have to have faith.  You have to jump in head first if you really want to see miracles.

Following this miracle at the sea, Miriam led the people in celebration on the other side.  There was singing and dancing.  The most important lesson is that the Torah continues after this portion.  It does not stop on the other side with this great celebration.  The journey continues. The people did not stop with a great celebration. They traveled to Mount Sinai.  They wandered through the wilderness.

If we are going to apply this lesson to our own times it occurs to me that we place too much emphasis on celebrations and milestones.  We should focus instead on the journey.  I am not suggesting that I don’t like a good party.  I certainly do.  But the central focus should not be the ceremony. If we are talking about b’nai mitzvah it should not be about how many verses a student chants, or how well the bar/bat mitzvah sermon is crafted.  Instead it should be about the process of learning.  What values did s/he learn as s/he prepared for this day?

What would happen if birthday parties were not about “Wow I am 50 years old” but instead about “This is what I have learned in my 50 years.”  Then we would not wake up the next day depressed that the party is over (or hung over).  Instead we would say, “This what I hope to learn in my next 50 years.”  What would happen if come Monday the Super Bowl was not about the winner but instead about the season—of each and every team, and about the hopes for next year’s season?  Will the Giants’ sense of family be as profound if they lose the big game?

I know.  I am being overly idealistic.  But the lesson is important to remember.  The lesson is not to focus on the milestones and instead about the journey.  The Hasidic rebbe, Rabbi Ohrbach offers this comment:  “This is an indication of what happens so often when one’s striving for a certain goal is finally realized.  As long as one is striving, the goal is something greatly desired.  However, once one has realized the goal, it seems to shrink in importance.  The mundane reality of everyday life dissolves all the beautiful dreams and one realizes all the problems that still lie ahead.”

Life is not about the parties and celebrations.  It is instead about the journey, the wandering, the trip, the striving.  The poet Robert Browning said:  "A man's reach must exceed his grasp/Or what's a heaven for?”  Thus keep on striving, keep on journeying and even wandering.  And always be like Nachshon.  Have the courage to jump in the waters.

Rabbi Steven Moskowitz
February 3, 2012

Friday, February 3, 2012

Some Medals are Pinned to Your Soul

Bartali Honoured For Saving Jews During The Holocaust | Cyclingnews.com
A fellow cyclist shared this article about Gino Bartali, the Italian champion cyclist and winner of the Giro d'Italia in 1936, 1937 and 1946 and the Tour de France in 1938 and 1948.  Apparently Yad VaShem is researching whether he also deserves recognition as one of the Righteous of the Nations, those who worked to save Jews from the World War II Nazi death machine.  His long rides were not the apparent training rides that others thought them to be but instead efforts to smuggle documents to Jews seeking to escape.  These documents were hidden in his bicycle.  It is also reported that at least on one such occasion he led Jews across the Alps himself.  Explaining it as part of his training he pulled a wagon behind his bicycle with a secret compartment holding Jewish refugees.  His efforts helped to save the lives of 800 Jews.  His only public comment about these efforts was the statement: "Good is something you do, not something you talk about. Some medals are pinned to your soul, not to your jacket."  He died in May 2000.

Let that be a temper to my competitive spirit and my efforts to ride faster and farther.

And the next time I get up out of my saddle and try to muscle up a climb I should remember to use the derailleur instead and shift to an easier gear.  It is the derailleur that Bartali also helped to pioneer.

I  must remember that refining the soul is always better, and far more important, than polishing any trophy.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Beshalach

According to the rabbis every word in the Torah is perfect; every phrase has a purpose. The unusual sparks a question. A teaching follows.

The rabbis ask why this week’s portion begins with the word, vayehi? “Vayehi—And it came to pass, when Pharaoh sent the people away…” (Exodus 13:17) This word adds nothing to the plain meaning of the verse. It appears redundant. From this word alone mountains of teachings are spun.

Thus the rabbis of the Talmud teach that wherever the Torah states vayehi distress is implied. (Megillah 10b) And then upon this teaching later rabbis offer additional insights.

The Hasidic rebbe, Rabbi Rabinowitz asks:
What distress was there when the Israelites left Egypt? The purpose of the plagues, which God brought upon Egypt, was to instill faith in the hearts of the Israelites and to gradually develop within them a yearning for freedom and a strong desire to free themselves of the shackles of Egypt and its depravity. In the end, after all the plagues, miracles and wonders, the Torah tells us that “Pharaoh sent the people away”—that the Israelites did not leave Egypt on their own free will, but were sent away. That was indeed a cause for distress. (Iturei Torah, Beshalach)
For years the Israelites hoped to be free. Yet when the moment arrived, rather than leaving of their own volition, they were hurried out of Egypt by their tormentor.

Sometimes, after years and years of waiting, when the dream is finally realized we fail to recognize its achievement. Sometimes when miracles appear, we do not see them. The achievement of our own dreams is too often left for others to point out to us. Our own eyes fail to see our hopes realized.

Another Hasidic rebbe, Rabbi Ohrbach offers a different comment.
This is an indication of what happens so often when one’s striving for a certain goal is finally realized. As long as one is striving, the goal is something greatly desired. However, once one has realized the goal, it seems to shrink in importance. The mundane reality of everyday life dissolves all the beautiful dreams and one realizes all the problems that still lie ahead.
It is clear that not achieving our dreams is profoundly disappointing, but this comment offers an interesting insight that achieving them can also lead to disappointment. Sometimes our most hoped for dreams bring great disappointments.

Instead it is the dreaming and striving that give life meaning. It is this seeking that combats disappointment, despair and distress. It is the Torah’s wandering that offers its greatest lesson. It is our people’s standing on the border of the Promised Land that is its most profound teaching. The secret to our success is therefore to always set new goals. It is an unsuccessful life to achieve every goal and realize every dream. Better to set your sights so high that you are forever striving. Better to pause only briefly to celebrate achievements and instead immediately set new goals.

Perhaps this is why my favorite poetry books are those released posthumously. These collections of unfinished poems reveal the most about the poet. It was what he or she was working on in their last days. It demonstrates that the poet was forever creating, and always dreaming. One can never be sure if theses poems achieved their final polish and finishing touches. These poems instead reveal the poet’s truer self. They shed light on the poet’s inner strivings.

And that is the secret: to forever set new goals. And as you near achieving those goals, set your sights even higher.