Thursday, June 28, 2012

Hukkat

Years ago my family and I spent a day hiking in the wilderness of Zin.   We complained about the lack of food and water.  We complained that we were still wearing the same clothes since our arrival.  (The airline had lost our luggage.)  Our guide was determined to bring us to the spring of Ein Avdat.  When we finally arrived we asked, “This is a spring?  The water is so dirty.  It looks more like a puddle.”  I am sure our leader thought to himself, “Those spoiled Americans.  They should spend some time in the Israeli army.”

“The Israelites arrived at the wilderness of Zin…  The community was without water, and they joined against Moses and Aaron.  The people quarreled with Moses, saying, ‘If only we had perished when our brothers perished at the instance of the Lord...  Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates?  There is not even water to drink.’”    (Numbers 20:1-5)

The Israelites complain a great deal.  The commentators are unforgiving in their judgment of them.  They lack faith in God.  After all they saw: the plagues, the parting of the Sea of Reeds, Mount Sinai, after all these miracles, they still complain.  The commentators are as well unforgiving of their leader Moses and his response to the people.  In this portion Moses loses his temper and strikes the rock, saying, “Listen you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” (20:10)  It is for this act that Moses is punished.  Because of this God prevents Moses from entering the land of Israel.

Most agree that he is punished because of his anger.  The leader loses his cool with the people he leads.  But who is ever perfectly tempered?  And who always has perfect faith?  In fact I doubt those who profess blind faith.  I question those who are always so even keeled.  I wonder.  What awakens his passion?  What stirs her to anger?  What arouses doubt in her soul?  What shatters his trust in God?

The most common word for faith in Hebrew is emunah.  Its root is related to the word trust.  Faith is to trust or rely on God.  Abraham Joshua Heschel, however, suggests that a better word for faith is yirah, awe.  We are therefore to stand in awe before God.  This awe moreover calls us to better our world.  Faith does not resolve all questions.  It does not provide certainty.  Instead it asks more of us.  Faith is a call to service.

Most people see questions as contrary to faith.  They believe faith calms the soul and quiets doubt.  But questions are integral to belief.  Thus I believe the more faith, the more questions.  Most people see anger as something to be avoided.  But anger intimates passion.  Why are we not angry that just a few miles from our homes people go hungry?  Only minutes from my house people grumble for water.  Let this make us angry!

I want passions that occasionally rise to anger.  I want as well a faith that is filled with trust and awe, but also many questions.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

July-August Newsletter

Below is my message from the July-August 2012 Newsletter.

This past week we began packing up our supplies at the church. After 16 years of calling the Brookville Reformed Church home we are moving on to the next stage in our journey together. The cantor and Kim packed up the Hebrew School supplies. I tended to the ritual items and the prayerbooks. As I packed up the prayerbooks I imagined those who sat in these pews and held them in their hands.

I thought of all those who turned the prayerbook’s pages marking the happy occasions in their lives. And I thought of those who stained them with their tears when they stood up from shiva and returned to their congregation. How many shouts of mazel tov were heard by these siddurim? How many anguished cries poured on to their words? I still believe what I have said many, many times. It is these prayers that have carried us from place to place.

Too often people confuse a congregation with a building. They think the synagogue is a matter of architecture. It is not. It is a matter of the people. And it is a matter of their songs and prayers.

And so on this day I carried once more. I packed up the prayerbooks and brought them to our new home. But even this new building will not define us. The ancient Levites were charged with caring for the tabernacle as the Israelites wandered through the desert. They also shlepped, moving the tabernacle from place to place. There is nothing demeaning or unholy with carrying our sacred books. More than anything else this carrying is what has defined us for generations. For generations we have carried siddurim from one home to another.

And now many people think that our shlepping will end. They confuse arriving at a destination with the conclusion of a journey. In truth this too is only a stage. The journey is always incomplete. That is the religious perspective. To appreciate Jewish history is to understand that we are always journeying and we will never arrive home. That is why throughout our long history of wandering our singular hope was to return to our first home, Jerusalem.

For centuries Jews observed the tradition that a corner of every home built outside of that city must remain incomplete. We must never become too comfortable in any other land. But the modern era has taught us that even though we have arrived home to Jerusalem it also remains incomplete. That dream is only partially fulfilled. And so we cling to the messianic longings of Yerushalayim shel maaleh, the heavenly Jerusalem. We forever hold in our prayers a vision of perfection. No earthly destination can ever be perfect. Not our beautiful homes. Not our ornate sanctuaries.

I am a Jew. I have no home. I have moved from city to city. And so only the prayers of my people have carried me on my journeys. They have been my sails. And they will continue to sustain me.

They will accompany our congregation in whatever building we might find ourselves in. Many will hold these prayerbooks in their hands and they will remember where they once stood and who once held them. They will be strengthened by their words.

I look forward to leading our praying within these new walls. I do not think, however, that the journey is complete. It is never complete.  We are forever journeying.  No matter where we might find ourselves we continue our travels—but always together and with these sacred books carried in our hands.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Behaalotcha Sermon

Below is the sermon from Friday, June 8, 2012.

At the conclusion of the parsha we find an interesting story about Miriam, Moses’ sister. She criticizes her brother about his Cushite wife. She is apparently dark skinned and clearly not an Israelite. By the way the translation is confusing. The standard English translation suggests that both Miriam and her other brother Aaron criticized Moses about this. But the Hebrew is more specific. Only Miriam spoke against Moses.

They both however criticize Moses with these words: “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us as well?” Wow, that is harsh. This does not sound much different than Korah’s later charge. “For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” As you know Korah and his followers are severely punished for their rebellion. But in our Torah portion, Aaron is not punished at all. Only Miriam is.

She is punished with leprosy. Part of the question then is what is the difference in their criticisms? Despite my great love and affection for Miriam and of course her extraordinary accomplishments (she is only one of three women in the Bible to be called a prophet), she is here deserving of criticism. She is punished because she attacks the personal, namely Moses’ wife.

The assumption of the rabbis is that she is guilty of gossip. She speaks ill of Moses in public. It is as if she said to others, “Did you see what my brother’s wife is wearing…” Or, “Can you believe that he married a Cushite?” The rabbis draw a connection between gossip and leprosy. Gossip is moral leprosy, they argue. A person’s character is disfigured by such words.

That is the rabbinic insight about gossip. Lashon hara, the evil tongue, is to be avoided at all costs. Even when the information is true, we must be reticent to share it. Lashon hara can forever damage a person. Imagine Moses’ embarrassment. He is standing before the congregation and his sister is going on about his wife. Imagine his wife Zipporah’s embarrassment. I must admit I feel some discomfort criticizing Miriam but she offers us a great and important teaching.

Herein lies the problem for our own age. We are more at ease speaking about people instead of with people. We are more comfortable criticizing than debating. The Jewish tradition believes in machloket, debates. It believes in machloket l’shem shamayim, arguments for the sake of heaven. Yet we shy away from such debates. We appear to fear arguing about ideas.

Instead we label those with whom we disagree with names such as traitor. Only last week an argument raged about the Israel Day Parade. Some on the right sought to prevent the New Israel Fund from participating in the parade. They support left-wing organizations, such as Rabbis for Human Rights. They support organizations that stand in opposition to the actions of the Israel Defense Forces. True, I may not be comfortable with every organization NIF supports, but that does not make them traif. In order for us to build a better Jewish state, we must be open to all opinions. It is treasonous to question the IDF’s primary purpose of defending the Jewish state. It is not treason to question specific actions of the IDF.

An example from the other side. Recently I participated in an email exchange about President Obama. The subject was what I thought be a poor joke about what it would mean to have four more years with Obama as president. One person labeled the joke, racist. It was not. One can oppose Obama’s policies without being racist. True some don’t like Obama because they are in fact racist. But not all opposition is racist. Calling it as such avoids dealing with the content of the disagreement. Disliking the president’s policies does not make a person racist.

These attempts to delegitimize the other is a way of avoiding debate. Label the opposition as racist or treasonous and then you don’t have to really deal with the ideas, you don’t have to really engage with what really matters. We really need, here and in Israel, real and honest debate. Name calling is not going to solve any problems. What ever happened to sitting down with those who you really disagree with?

Back to the Torah. In our portion as well Moses is feeling overburdened as the leader. So God tells him to appoint 70 elders to help with the leadership tasks. The spirit of God descended upon these as well. The Torah then reports that Eldad and Medad spoke in ecstasy in the camp. They were apparently overcome with the prophetic spirit. But wait only Moses is the prophet. A youth runs out and tells Moses, “Eldad and Medad are acting the prophet in the camp!” Joshua shouts, “My lord Moses, restrain them!” But Moses said, “Are you distraught on my account? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that Lord put His spirit on them.”

You can read this remarkable, if unfamiliar, episode as Moses saying, “Good I can really use the help.” Or to put into contemporary terms, “Can someone else please volunteer?”

But in this instance I choose to read this episode differently. Moses says, “Don’t worry. It is good to have dissenting opinions. Let someone else also say what they think God means. We have 40 years of journeying, and struggling, together. Truth is not the province of one individual.”

When there are great problems to be solved, dissent is required. Less name calling, less personal attacks are in order. More honest debate, more machloket l’shem shamayim is necessary. We need a lot more of Eldad and Medad. But we also require something even more important. We need more who have the courage to listen to dissenting voices, to listen to criticism. We need more who are of the character of Moses, even if it is for a moment.

Our times require us to be Moses, to not hear dissent as personal attacks. And to turn to those who offer ad hominem attacks and say, “Tell me what is wrong with my ideas?”

Let us sit together and debate. We both love this great country. We both love the State of Israel. One idea, one position will never solve all of our problems. Only honest, and forthright debate, has a chance of healing the divide.

Korah

This week’s Torah portion contains the story of the most famous of the rebellions against Moses’ authority.  Korah and his followers rebel against Moses. 

“They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, ‘You have gone too far!  For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst.  Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?’”  (Numbers 16:3)  Korah and his followers are severely punished for rising up against Moses.  “Scarcely had he finished speaking all these words when the ground under them burst asunder, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korah’s people and all their possessions.” (16:31-32)

On the surface the rebels’ critique does not appear to justify such harsh punishment.  For centuries commentators have offered different interpretations, attempting to explain why their complaint was so problematic.   Some have argued that it was how they questioned Moses’ authority.  Korah and his followers did not argue with a sense of machloket l’shem shamayim, arguments for the sake of heaven.  Others have suggested that it was not so much their arguments with Moses but instead their lack of faith in God’s chosen leader.  It was not a rebellion against Moses but instead against God.

Recently I discovered a different interpretation.  It is found in the collection of Hasidic commentaries, Itturey Torah.

“What was the source of the dispute between Korah and Moses?  Moses gave a hint at this when he stated, ‘Do you then want the priesthood?’  All that Korah wanted was the prestige of being a priest, but not the attendant duties and responsibilities. “

Ask your children the following question.  Would you prefer to sit on the bench of a winning team or play the entire game on a losing team?  I suspect that most of our children would choose winning over playing.  Many would probably offer the justification that even on the bench there is a chance that they would play, if only for a moment.  Still is it better to play for one minute and win or play for 90 minutes and lose? 

I always prefer to be in the game.   I prefer the challenge.  Most people appear to prize winning over hard work.

The priesthood of course was not just about standing in front of the people and hearing the shouts of amen to one’s every sermon and prayer.  It was also about slaughtering animals.  It was also messy and most importantly, laborious. 

Too few value such messy hard work.  Too many only want the prizes and accolades.   Too many are like Korah who only wanted the prestige and not the duties and responsibilities.  The lesson is that such glory can only come from hard work and struggle, challenge and sacrifice. 

This is why Korah was punished so severely.  He failed to understand that you must first ask for the hard work.  You must seek the challenge.  You must welcome the responsibilities.  You must run to get into the game.  The glory follows—but only sometimes.

Winning is not the only purpose of the game.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Thank You

This past Shabbat we offered thank yous to our friends at the Brookville Reformed Church for hosting our congregation these past sixteen years.  What follows is my sermon marking this occasion.

Let me begin my remarks by first reassuring our friends at the church. We are leaving here for one simple reason. We need larger space. You have only made us feel most welcome. In fact we stayed longer than either of us ever imagined we would. This could only have happened because of the generosity of spirit that you extended to us. I hope and pray that we will remain friends, that our congregations will continue to work together. I pledge to you this evening that we will continue as we have for the past sixteen years, to purchase the Advent candles that you use to count the days toward Christmas. My heartfelt prayer is that although we will no longer be regular guests here at the church we will continue the spirit of brotherhood that we have forged here.

I will miss you. I will miss in particular my friend, Allan Ramirez. I will miss coming to the church. I have learned a great deal here. I will miss its quiet and serenity. I will miss being alone here after services, when our ner tamid (eternal light) illumines the sanctuary. I felt a keen sense that my cleaning up mattered for the services you would be holding on Sunday. (I do have to thank Rigo for sharing in these efforts. It was he who lovingly spread our blue tapestry on the table and wheeled our Ark into the sanctuary every Friday evening.) Here I have learned the true nature of sanctuary. Here we were always made to feel welcome that we could pray as we wanted and as our tradition dictated. This I have learned is the meaning of sanctuary. It is a refuge for the spirit.

I will miss especially the bells. There were times to be honest when they seemed to interrupt our prayers. But I will miss their gentle reminder of the gift we have received. I will miss what these bells have come to signify. Many times we have gathered as a congregation to recall past sufferings. We have done so here, at the Brookville Reformed Church. And the bells have often punctuated these observances. While sufferings and persecutions have not ended throughout our world, in this little corner, in these seats we have never seen the likes of what we recall on those days. Our children have experienced something far different. Here we have taught our children more than just the meaning of being Jewish. Here they have also learned a powerful lesson.

Despite what we learn about in history, and despite the threats that continue throughout our world, it is possible for Jews to count it as ordinary to pray in a church. Although it might be unrivaled in Jewish history, our children deem the extraordinary ordinary. It is possible for Jews, Christians and Moslems to not only be friends but share a home. They can worship differently in one place. Here is a church that welcomes our prayers, that invites us to place our prayerbooks in its pews.

What is virtually unparalleled in Jewish history we have grown to accept. We dare not forget this message. Even though we will soon be praying elsewhere this message must remain in our hearts. There is a danger that when surrounding ourselves with only like-minded individuals and people of the same faith we begin to grow suspicious of those who are different. We begin to look down on others. That is why we must always hold what we have learned here in our hearts.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great 20th century Jewish philosopher, offers these words in his famous speech about interreligious cooperation. The speech is called “No Religion is an Island.” In it he argues that no religion, no community can exist in isolation. We must learn from each other. He concludes:
What, then, is the purpose of interreligious cooperation?
It is neither to flatter nor to refute one another, but to help one another; to share insight and learning…and, what is even more important, to search in the wilderness for wellsprings of devotion, for treasures of stillness, for the power of love and care for man. What is urgently needed are ways of helping one another in the terrible predicament of here and now by the courage to believe that the word of the Lord endures forever as well as here and now; to cooperate in trying to bring abut a resurrection of sensitivity, a revival of conscience; to keep alive the divine sparks in our souls, to nurture openness to the spirit of the Psalms, reverence for the words of the prophets, and faithfulness to the Living God.
In this week’s Torah portion, Shelach Lecha, Moses sends the spies to scout the land. Ten of the spies return with a worrisome report. They are afraid of what they see. In their eyes everyone in the new land is a giant and they see themselves as grasshoppers. Our being here should forever remind us that this must never be the case. No one else should ever appear like menacing giants. And we should never imagine ourselves as small as grasshoppers. To be sure the world can at times, or maybe even often, appear threatening. The world can appear as the spies indeed saw it. But here in this place we have discovered another truth.

We have learned here that while we must remain true to our own individual traditions, we must as well remain faithful to all of humankind. With faith and hope nothing can break our spirits. Together we can accomplish far more than alone.

The prophet Jeremiah declared:
Thus said the Lord: Mend your ways and your actions, and I will let you dwell in this place. Don’t put your trust in illusions and say, “The Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord are these [buildings].” No, if you really mend your ways and your actions; if you execute justice between one man and another; if you do not oppress the stranger, the orphan, and the widow…only then will I let you dwell in this place. (Jeremiah 7)
These are words that we share. No building will ever define who we truly are. It is how we treat one another that we will forever define us. That will be our most lasting testament. And that I have learned here, in this place, from our friends at the Brookville Reformed Church. That message we dare not forget. We pledge to forever teach this to our children.

May we continue to hold this message in our hearts. Let us march forward as Jews, carrying in our hearts what we have learned here, in this church, throughout our journey.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Shelach Lecha

Some thoughts about the weekly Torah portion and contemporary events...  There is currently a heated debate about the limits of secrecy and the public disclosures about the Obama administration’s clandestine efforts against Iran and Al Qaeda.  In particular the current administration is accused of using its covert successes for political gain.  Let me offer a few contributions to this discussion.

It should first be noted that all presidents use the spy agencies for their own political advantage.  President Bush certainly used them to bolster his desire to invade Iraq.  In fact it now appears that the claims of WMD were based on faulty intelligence at best or completely fabricated reports at worst.  When making such judgments about our leaders we tend to be more forgiving of those politicians we support and more critical of those we don’t like.  Such is human nature.  We must therefore cast these feelings aside and debate these matters in an open and honest way.

Secrecy always advantages the person in power.  The powerful shape the discussions by controlling the dissemination of information.  That is why a democracy must debate even its most secretive efforts.  In a democracy the application of military power, whether clandestine or not, must be debated openly.  The specifics of how that power is wielded should be kept from public view, however.  Troop placements, weapons’ capabilities, covert methods and the like should not be disclosed.  Otherwise security is potentially compromised.  Still, the questions about the use of computer viruses, for example, have never been forthrightly discussed.

There seems little doubt in my mind that these weapons might one day be turned against us.  Yet I still believe it is worth these risks in order to stop Iran from building nuclear weapons.  Whether to use such weapons is however a legitimate point of debate.  I believe as well that we should assassinate Al Qaeda leaders using any means necessary.  Yet again this is a legitimate point of public debate.  It does not compromise American security to debate these questions.  It instead strengthens American democracy.  While I might be fascinated about the specific methods I don’t need to know them.

And so we must argue about what we believe are the goals of such methods.  When states use violence to protect its citizens or project good other values are inevitably compromised.  Do we agree that drone attacks and cyber warfare are legitimate?  Steven Aftergood said,Secrecy cloaks not only the operations, but their justification and rationale, which are legitimate subjects of public interest.”  (The New York Times)

“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Send men to spy the land of Canaan…’  (Numbers 13:1)  Ten of the spies return with a worrisome report.  “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we….  The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers.  All the people that we saw in it are giants…  and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves…”  (13:31-33)  Joshua and Caleb, while not denying the details of the report, offer encouraging words, suggesting that the Israelites would be successful in their attack.

God becomes enraged with the ten spies and the people’s subsequent lack of faith.  God says in effect, “How can they doubt that they will be successful?  It does not matter how mighty their adversaries might be.”  God withdraws support.  The Israelites still attack.  They are defeated.  “And the Amalekites and Caananites who dwelt in that hill country came down and dealt them a shattering blow at Hormah.” (14:45). 

Throughout the centuries commentators have argued that the Israelites were defeated because they lacked faith.   They marched forward without their leader Moses and without the symbol of their faith, the Ark of the Covenant.  Is it possible, however, that the spies report was accurate and that the Israelites were not ready to defeat a more powerful enemy?  Do we see instead see a glimmer of democracy when the spies bring their report to the entire people?  Perhaps it is not as the Torah and our subsequent tradition would suggest all about having the correct attitude and faith.  Perhaps it is instead about the accuracy of the report and reaching a consensus among the people.

Forty years later Joshua finally leads the people against the same giants of the land, although now the Israelites are only those who were born in the wilderness and not those born into slavery.  The Haftarah reports the details of how the Israelites now scout the land.  Joshua, like Moses, first sends spies to the region of Jericho.  They find their way to the house of a harlot named Rahab and stay there for the night.  (Such operational details we might not wish to know!) 

She hides them from the town’s soldiers and confides in them an assessment of her people’s mood.  “I know that the Lord has given the country to you, because dread has fallen upon us, and all the inhabitants of the land are quaking before you…”  (Joshua 2:9)  The spies then make their way back to Joshua and offer a brief, but positive report, although only to Joshua.  Is Joshua less democratic than his predecessor?   Is waging a successful war and the secrecy it too often entails contrary to the democratic spirit?  Joshua then successfully leads the people in battle against the inhabitants of the land, conquering the land of Canaan for the first time.

We appear to find ourselves in similarly turbulent times.  And I get nervous when leaders speak too readily about making war.  I also get nervous when leaders speak too easily about making peace with our sworn enemies.  I am left to rely on my confidence in democracy and the legitimacy of the debate it must foster.  Secrecy offers me little comfort.

I am left as well to rely on the courage of Joshua. “Be strong and resolute…” (Deuteronomy 31:23)

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Behaalotcha

This week’s Torah portion retells the story of Miriam criticizing Moses.  “Miriam spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married.”  (Numbers 12:1)  We learn elsewhere, in Exodus, that Moses’ wife is Zipporah who is a Midianite.  Here it suggests that she is dark-skinned and therefore perhaps from Ethiopia.  Regardless she is not an Israelite.  Was this the basis of Miriam’s criticism of her brother Moses?

Their brother Aaron now joins the critique and he and Miriam offer more harsh words, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?  Has He not spoken through us as well?”  (12:2)  Were they jealous of their brother Moses?  Did they want to lead the Israelites as well?  Did they believe, as Judaism does, that everyone and anyone can have a relationship with God?  This criticism appears well founded.

Nonetheless, the medieval commentator, Rashi, suggests an alternative explanation.  He imagines Miriam criticizing her brother for neglecting his wife.  Moses is singularly devoted to his mission and on call for God at all hours of the day and night.  Miriam therefore worries about her sister in law’s well being.  She worries about her brother’s marriage and family.  This is a fascinating comment from a man who in addition to his day job wrote a line-by-line commentary to the entire Bible and Talmud.  I wonder how Rashi had time for his family.  Is the best teaching offered by the very person who falls short of fulfilling its words?  Miriam reminds us, no job is more important than family.

Nonetheless it is Miriam who is punished and stricken with leprosy.  Aaron is left alone to plea for his sister, “O, my lord, account not to us the sin which we committed in our folly.” (12:11)  The rabbis draw a parallel between this disfiguring disease and gossip.  They suggest that it was not what Miriam said but the manner in which she spoke the words.  The tradition is clear.  Even if the words are true they should not be spoken unless absolutely necessary and then only in private.  Critique becomes gossip when it finds its way into the public domain.

The rabbinic insight is clear.  Gossip is as disfiguring as leprosy.  A Hasidic story relates that just like a feather cast to the wind, such words can never be collected.  Once gossip is shared it can never be withdrawn.  The damage to a person’s reputation might never be undone.  Beware of what is posted and texted!  Moreover gossip disfigures the gossiper.

This might very well be the greater of the rabbis’ teachings.  Like a disfiguring disease a person’s character unravels when he or she gossips.  The rabbis remind us that gossip not only damages the person about whom we talk but also belittles the person who speaks such words.  Gossip damages everyone—even and including the person who listens.

And so we pray for all the times we resorted to gossip to entertain.  We pray for all the moments we gossiped in order to give ourselves a greater sense of self worth. We pray for all the minutes we inclined our ears to the gossip that others shared.  We pray with Moses, “O God, pray, heal her.” (12:13) Heal us! 

Naso Sermon

Let me offer some very brief words of Torah. I cannot pass up the opportunity to teach when so many people are here, but I also don’t want to stand in the way of the delicious dinners that await us.

The Torah portion contains the vow of the Nazir. As a measure of extra piety a person could pledge to abstain from alcohol, not cut his hair and avoid contact with the dead. It should be self-evident that I am not a Nazir. (That is a bald joke not a drinking joke.) The most famous Nazirites were Samuel and Samson. (I am thankful to those who caught the Springsteen reference in the email blast. “Romeo and Juliet, Samson and Delilah…’Cause when we kiss, Fire.”)

But the question for this evening is about vows, oaths and promises. People make promises all the time. There are the familiar New Year’s pledges of promising to work out more. I promise to eat less, drink less. I pledge to give more to tzedakah. I vow to learn more, or attend services more often. Whatever forms these personal vows take, the question is about their efficacy and value. More often than not they quickly become empty and soon go unfulfilled.

We make far more promises to ourselves and our family and our friends than we keep. More often than not we have good excuses why these remain unfulfilled. This is why Judaism actually frowns up making vows and pledges. Our tradition so values words that it worries when words are spoken that can soon become false. In fact in traditional circles when someone makes a promise, they will say, bli neder. This means that it is not a vow. It is not a promise made to God or using God’s name. For then a promise to God would become false and we would then transgress something greater, namely Ten Commandment #3: You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord. This is also the origins of the beautiful Kol Nidre prayer. It serves to nullify unwitting vows.

This is the concern of our tradition. Our words matter, they can shape reality. In our age when words have become abbreviated in the flurry of text messages we would do well to recall this message. Be careful of what we promise. It would be better simply to do. People become disheartened by good that is promised and remains unfulfilled; then we become disheartened, we become discouraged. Our lives, and the lives of those around us, are enriched by goodness that is performed. That and that alone will sustain us.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Naso

Years ago I hiked in the Judean desert to Wadi Qelt.  There I discovered small caves dug into the sides of the mountains.  These were caves for Christian monks who had pledged to live a life of solitude and denial.  Their meager rations were placed in a bucket that was then lowered from the cave’s mouth.  There was one small cave for each monk.  My friends and I looked at each other and said, “How un-Jewish!”  Denying yourself food is not the Jewish way.  Yom Kippur, despite its importance, is not emblematic of our tradition.

This week’s Torah portion, Naso, describes the ancient Nazirite vow in which a person pledged to abstain from alcohol, refrain from cutting his hair and avoid contact with the dead.  This was a voluntary rite and could be made as a life-long pledge or for as brief a period as one month.  By making this vow an individual sought a deeper connection to God and an increased measure of holiness.  The most famous of Nazirites were Samuel, the prophet who we read about on Rosh Hashanah, and Samson who of course lost his spiritual powers when Delilah seduced him into cutting his hair.  (I’m driving in my car, I turn on the radio…)   The New Testament records that John the Baptist was a Nazirite.  This practice eventually fell out of favor.  Such asceticism continues in other religious traditions but Judaism long ago rejected such practices.

Judaism instead developed an approach of moderation.  It does not forbid drinking.  Instead it uses wine to sanctify Shabbat and holidays.  It views wine as a way to elevate celebrations.  Life is intended to be enjoyed and wine helps serve that purpose.  Judaism did not as well forbid sexual relations or view them as sinful.  There is no celibate tradition within Judaism.  Instead it framed sex within proper relationships.  When a relationship is sanctified by marriage sexual relations are not only permitted between husband and wife but commanded.  Yes it really is a mitzvah.  By the way according to traditional sources it is the husband’s commandment and the wife’s right.  Moreover it is not only for the sake of procreation but more importantly for the purpose of enjoyment.  This is Judaism’s realistic view of such worldly matters.  There are pleasures in this world that help to elevate and sanctify our lives. 

Nothing is unholy.  Everything is but waiting to be made holy.   The Nazirite and his monkish practices were thus pushed aside by our Jewish tradition.

But even in ancient days there was one thing that even the Nazirite could not deny himself.  He could never shut out the community.  Unlike the monks who lived like hermits in the Judean desert Jewish “monks” could never choose solitude.  Even the most pious of Jews could never choose to be alone.  There is no extra measure of holiness in that.  To be a Jew is to be part of the community.  The congregation can never be shut out.

Hillel suggests: “Do not separate yourself from the community.”  For the Jew the greatest holiness can only be achieved with others, never without.