Sunday, July 29, 2012

Devarim

This coming Shabbat is called Black Shabbat.  It receives this name because of its proximity to Tisha B’Av, the fast day marking the destruction of the first and second Temples.  These were considered the greatest of Jewish tragedies (until the Holocaust occurred) and so the Sabbath preceding the Ninth of Av takes on a mournful tone.  This year however Shabbat is darkened for two additional reasons.

This evening the Olympics will open in London.  While this is usually cause for great celebration and excitement, this year it is colored by sadness.  40 years ago at the 1972 Olympics in Munich 11 Israeli athletes were murdered by Palestinian terrorists.  The International Olympic Committee refuses to observe even a moment of silence at the game’s opening ceremony to mark this yahrtzeit. 

Noted historian Deborah Lipstadt writes: “Never before or since were athletes murdered at the Games. Never before or since were the Games used by terrorists for their evil purposes. Never before or since were those who came to participate in a sports competition murdered for who they were and where they came from.  The proper place to acknowledge such a tragedy is not in a so-called spontaneous moment in front of 100 people, but in a purposeful action by the entire Olympic ‘family.’”  (I have posted more of Lipstadt’s insights on my blog.)  The failure of the IOC to honor the memories of those murdered suggests that they forgive murder for political ends.

Last Shabbat 12 Americans were killed and nearly 60 injured at a Colorado movie theatre.  It is a tragic and dark day when an apparently intelligent man turns to evil ends.  Little can be offered as to why he would commit such a heinous crime.  Why would a promising young PhD student murder innocent people?  All agree that it was an unspeakable act.

Many have also used this occasion to speak about gun control.  Although I fail to understand why anyone, except for the military and law enforcement, needs to own any weapons, I recognize Americans’ right to bear arms.  This right does not however need to be an absolute right.  Rights can be limited and framed without undermining their fundamental value.  Still waiting periods and forbidding the purchase of automatic weapons would not have deterred this shooter.  It might have saved more lives.  But an intelligent, patient, methodical man bent on destruction can inflict great harm.  More laws will not prevent such evil acts.  They might only make them less likely.

Let’s be honest.  Limiting the sale of automatic weapons, armor piercing bullets, explosives and the like minimize risks.  They do not eliminate them.  Gun control laws are sensible.  But dangers can never entirely be prevented.  The more important discussion is how do we better train the human spirit to do good and never harm.  Goodness is not a matter of intelligence.  It is a matter of training the spirit.

It has been a sad week.  First for the failure of others to acknowledge the pain and suffering committed against our people 40 years ago.  Second for the horrible loss of life in our own country and for the debate that seems tragically out of step with the more fundamental problem.  Goodness is something learned.  It is something taught.  Evil cannot simply be legislated against.  Goodness must be inculcated each and every day.

This Shabbat is called the Black Shabbat.  It is also called Shabbat Hazon, the Sabbath of vision.  It receives this name because of its Haftarah.  The prophet Isaiah is chanted as a rebuke not only against the ancient Israelites but against us.  The rabbis believed that we were to blame for our own destruction and in particular the destruction of the ancient Temples.  Isaiah offers this vision: “Wash yourselves clean; put your evil doings away from My sight.  Cease to do evil; learn to do good.  Devote yourselves to justice; aid the wronged.  Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow.  Come, let us reach an understanding, declares the Lord.”

May we come to such an understanding.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Jewish Blood Is Cheap


Deborah Lipstadt's provocative article about why the Olympic Committee refuses to observe a minute of silence  in memory of those Israeli athletes murdered at Munich's 1972 games.  She concludes:
I have long inveighed against the tendency of some Jews to see anti-Semitism behind every action that is critical of Israel or of Jews. In recent years some Jews have been inclined to hurl accusations of anti-Semitism even when they are entirely inappropriate. By repeatedly crying out, they risk making others stop listening—especially when the cry is true. 
Here the charge is absolutely accurate. This was the greatest tragedy to ever occur during the Olympic Games. Yet the IOC has made it quite clear that these victims are not worth 60 seconds. Imagine for a moment that these athletes had been from the United States, Canada, Australia, or even Germany. No one would think twice about commemorating them. But these athletes came from a country and a people who somehow deserve to be victims. Their lost lives are apparently not worth a minute.
I can find no other reason than what Lipstadt suggests.  There is nothing political about remembering those who were murdered in cold blood.  The Olympics are indeed supposed to be about world solidarity.  They are supposed to be above politics.  They are supposed to be about the love of sport.  Terrorism and murder once marred these very competitions.  The only response is to stand in solidarity and remember.  All must stand against such acts of terror.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Mattot-Masei

There are any number of customs that are prevalent at today’s b’nai mitzvah parties whose origins do not trace back to ancient times.  Let’s explore three. 

And the DJ announces, “It’s Hora time.  Everyone to the dance floor!”  And we jump from our seats and join together in dancing and singing the words of Hava Nagila.  “Come, let us rejoice and be happy!  Come, let us sing!  Awake, awake brothers!  Awake brothers with a joyful heart!”  Most people don’t realize that the words to this familiar song are not that old. 

In fact the tune is based on a Hasidic niggun, prevalent among Jews living in 19th century Ukraine.  It is apparently similar to a Ukrainian folk song.  A niggun is a wordless melody.  They are passed from one generation to the next.  They are typically attributed to specific rebbes, although I have been unable to discover the authorship of Hava Nagila’s tune.  It was the belief of Hasidic Jews that music helps to connect us to God.  Music is the universal language. It was also their belief that no words can suffice in approaching God and so we are left with their wordless melodies.

The Hava Nagila tune was carried by these Hasidic Jews to Jerusalem where Abraham Idelsohn soon discovered it.  He is considered the dean of Jewish musicologists.  Some believe that he authored the accompanying words in 1918 to celebrate the victory of the British in World War I.  The song soon spread throughout Palestine and then made its way to the United States.   By the 1950’s it had become what we recognize today: the staple at parties and simchas.   I wonder, how long before “I Gotta Feeling” achieves such prominence?  

The singing and dancing are of course accompanied by hoisting the 13 year old in a chair and then the siblings and finally the parents.  This appears to be an instance where DJ’s have written a new Jewish custom.  The origins date back to Jewish weddings when the bride and groom were hoisted in chairs and then allowed to reach across the mechitzah with a handkerchief, thereby briefly engaging in mixed dancing.  In such a setting the bride and groom do not touch publicly and so the wedding party helps them to reach out to each other.

In our world such restrictions are obviously not observed.  Bride and groom dance together and are in fact expected and encouraged to slow dance together.  (Susie and I danced to an Elton John song.)  The lifting in chairs has become an expression of unparalleled joy that has now made its way to b’nai mitzvah celebrations.  Dancing is the greatest expression of our joy.  The hora and lifting are quintessential expressions of Jewish joy.  So why do we require expert party enhancers to show us how to dance?  Why do we need experts to show us how to express joy?  What’s wrong with our dancing?

And finally there is the montage.  I always enjoy these photography collections.  I marvel at how privileged is our lot as the countless pictures of different vacation destinations adorn the screens.  I wonder when this custom began?  Although I relish these pictures (especially my own children’s) I remain curious about the purpose of the montage.

This week’s Torah portion marks the conclusion of the Book of Numbers.  The Jewish people are nearing the borders of the land of Israel.  Our portion offers these words: “These are the marching-stages of the children of Israel that they went on from the land of Egypt, by their troops, through the hand of Moses and Aaron.  Moses wrote down their departures, by their marching-stages, by the order of the Lord.” (Numbers 33:1-2)

According to tradition there were 42 stages during the people’s wandering in the wilderness.  Now God instructs the people that they must remember the details of their journey, to recall every place they stopped, to remember if not every moment of their 40 year journey then their departure points.  It is these that Moses must record.  Is this akin to the montage? 

The midrash offers an analogy by way of answering our question: “It is like the case of a king whose son was ill.  He took him to a certain place to cure him.  On their return journey his father began to recount all the stages, saying: ‘Here we slept; here we cooled ourselves; here you had a headache.’ So the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses: ‘Recount to them all the places where they provoked Me.’’ (Numbers Rabbah 23:3)

Is it possible that the purpose of the montage is not so much that our friends say, “Ooh and ah,” but that instead our sons and daughters should remember all that we have done for them?  Is it possible that the montage finds resonance in this week’s portion?  Let’s be honest, on the surface the montage does not make sense.  It is a review of a life not yet fully lived.  A 13 year old is not yet completely formed.  Then again neither am I.  And then again neither were the Israelites at this juncture.  Still God instructs Moses to recount their journey.  At such milestones we pause and remember all the places where we journeyed.

Each of those moments should be occasions for giving thanks.  Each of those moments should be occasions for singing and dancing!

Our hearts are joined in prayer and sorrow for the victims of this week’s terrorist attack in Bulgaria.  May justice be swift.  May healing be even swifter.   May peace be realized soon in our day. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Late Yitzhak Shamir

The Late Yitzhak Shamir: Israel's Grittiest Prime Minister – Tablet Magazine

This is an excellent article about Yitzhak Shamir by Daniel Gordis. He writes:
For all the misgivings many now have about Shamir’s intransigence or his specific policies, part of his legacy is that Jews ought not to pretend not to know what, deep down, they know. Yitzhak Shamir knew what he had seen, both in Europe and then in the Arab world, and he knew what it meant. He was no less ambivalent about the Arabs than he was about the Poles and refused to vote for Begin’s peace treaty with Egypt. Presumably in deference to Begin, he abstained; but he made it clear that he thought Israel was paying far too high a price. Today, three and a half decades later, with the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power in Cairo, and with Israel now missing the Sinai as a buffer, who was wiser? Was it the Nobel Prize-winning Begin who’d turned peacemaker, or Shamir, who had not? Will the sword devour forever? Yes, Shamir sadly believed, it will. Is it possible that he was right?
I continue to pray that he was not, although with each passing day I come to believe that sadly he may indeed have been correct.  My prayers however will forever remain unchanged.  Shalom is always my most fervent prayer.

Hava Nagila

Below is a great video about the meaning and origins of the familiar Hava Nagila.

 

The familiar words are translated as follows:
Come, let us rejoice and be happy!
Come, let us sing!
Awake, awake brothers!
Awake brothers with a joyful heart!

Perhaps the DJ's at so many of our simchas should watch this video to better appreciate the meaning of the song that brings everyone to the dance floor.  Perhaps it would be helpful if we took a few moments to remind ourselves of the meaning of this not so ancient but ever popular song.

I particular like the Hasidic saying that Danny Maseng shares: "There are ten levels of prayer.  And above them is music."  I often find this to be true, especially when praying at the JCB accompanied by our cantor and musicians!

Friday, July 13, 2012

Pinhas

“There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind.  After the wind—an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake.  After the earthquake—fire; but the Lord was not in the fire.  And after the fire—a still small voice.”  (I Kings 19:11-12)

These words were first spoken to the prophet Elijah.  God is not found in the grand and majestic, the awesome and even terrible.  God is instead found in the quiet, in the ordinary, in the unexpected.  God is found in what we must strain to hear.  Each of us holds on to a thread found within our tradition.  And this verse continues to serve as my thread.

These words also form the concluding words of this week’s Haftarah.  The connection between the Torah and Haftarah is clear.  Our Torah portion begins by recounting the deeds of Pinhas who was so zealous in his faith in God that he killed a fellow Israelite who had sexual relations with a Midianite woman.  It is a harrowing story.  Elijah is, as well, given to violence.  He slaughters 450 prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel.   

This summer we again studied with Israel Knohl, the chair of Hebrew University’s Bible department.  He began his lecture by reading from the words of Mohammad Atta (y”s).  He offered this as a modern illustration that monotheism is given to such violence.  Because it is adamant that there is only one God it promotes the destruction of other gods and occasionally, or perhaps too often, their worshippers.  Monotheism is ruthless. It was a harrowing lesson.

The Torah portion reports that Pinhas was rewarded for his zealousness.  “It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned action for his God.” (Numbers 25:13)  Yet I still offer the ancient priests’ words when blessing a bar/bat mitzvah student, a wedding couple or a newborn baby.  I bless my own children each and every Shabbat with these words.  Likewise it is the people’s response to Elijah’s actions with which we conclude our Yom Kippur prayers.  “The Lord alone is our God!  The Lord alone is our God!” (I Kings 18:39)

Each of us must hold on to a thread of our tradition.  Too often we discard others.  Every summer I return to Jerusalem in order to confront those threads that I toss aside.  With good reason one might respond.  Yet the faith of the Shalom Hartman Institute and in particular its founder and my rabbi, David Hartman, is that the tapestry will not unravel if I pull and tug on these other threads.  Too often we hold on to a single thread as if it were a heavy anchor line.   

We say, this alone is my faith.  We refuse to look at other threads.  We believe, that our faith is only our own story.  It is only this verse.  The other day we met with a leader of Ateret HaKohanim, a group that helps buy property to settle Jews in the Old City’s Moslem Quarter.  He argued that Jews should be allowed to live in each and every corner of the land of Israel and in particular the city of Jerusalem.  He offered threads from our tradition as proof for his position.  Some of my colleagues argued with him, offering different threads, expertly citing texts from rabbinic writings that supported their positions.  Neither side convinced the other.  Everyone holds on to his thread as if it were an anchor line that can hold a weighty ship in place.

There is in fact no such heavy line. All are mere threads.  Israel Knohl teaches that the Bible is a divine symphony.  Its many different voices are threaded together.  The faith that I renew here is not the attachment to this or that thread but instead the belief that each and every idea must be challenged.  Every accepted answer must be questioned.  It is exhausting to be sure, but I return believing that we are stronger for it.  I have learned from my teachers a courage that the tapestry will never unravel even if I tug and pull at this thread or another.

This year we do not read the Haftarah describing Elijah’s deeds.  Because this coming Shabbat falls a few days after the 17th of Tammuz, the day that recounts the beginning of the destruction of Jerusalem, we read instead the words of the prophet Jeremiah.  This prophet proclaims to a broken people and a destroyed Jerusalem: “Surely, futility comes from the hills,/Confusion from the mountains./Only through the Lord our God/Is there deliverance for Israel.” (Jeremiah 3:22)

Despite the brokenness standing before him, the prophet’s faith can never unravel.  That is my faith as well.  My faith is this alone. The tapestry can never be unraveled.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Balak

I am again in Jerusalem studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute’s annual conference where I am learning alongside Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist and Renewal rabbis.  Our teachers are the leading thinkers in the Jewish world.   Here I can renew my spirit and rekindle my Jewish passions.   I remain grateful that the congregation and its leadership afford me this time.

Being here during the first two weeks in July provides the most curious of circumstances.  I have for many years only observed July 4th from afar. This provides an interesting symmetry for it is also true that I have celebrated Israel’s independence day from a distance.  The question then is what does this distance teach us about what we love?

On the surface distance promotes fear and uncertainty.  What we look at from afar we worry about and feel we don’t fully understand.  As I sit here in Jerusalem I for example worry about the weather in the states.  Was there any damage in my neighborhood from the recent storms?  Did trees fall in my back yard or was my basement flooded?  When I sit in my home in New York I worry about Israel’s struggles.  Will there be more violence in Southern Israel now that the Muslim Brotherhood has assumed control of Egypt?  Will there be civil war between Israel’s secular majority and its growing ultra-Orthodox minority?

These are real worries to be sure.  But just as life continues in the states despite the weather so too does life continue here despite worries about security and simmering tensions within Israel’s society.

Distance also affords an appreciation that is sometimes lost when what we love is held too close.  Had I been in Israel for Yom Haatzmaut I would have been occupied by family gatherings and watching official celebrations.  Sitting at a distance I see more clearly Israel’s idealism and founding vision.  When we celebrate Yom Haatzmaut in our synagogues we recall that Israel represents something unparalleled in Jewish history.  Here is a vibrant, albeit cacophonous, Jewish democracy.  Moreover, the modern State of Israel means that the Jewish people have returned to history.  Here we determine our people’s destiny—for better or worse.

Had I been in New York for July 4th I would have attended barbeques, visited the beach, watched fireworks and undoubtedly grumbled about traffic.  Looking from afar however I see different things. I am reminded instead of the values on which our country was founded.  I see not the simmering tensions that the recent Supreme Court decision still did not resolve, but instead the blessings of American democracy.  In the United States no religious group receives state sanction.  Every community must rise and fall on its own merits.  No one is favored.  No one is advantaged.  Sitting here I do not see the difficulties of raising money to support each and every synagogue or 501(c)(3) but instead only the blessings contained in our founders’ words: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Israel’s enemy, the Moabite king Balak, commands his prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites.  Instead he stands on the hilltop and looks down on the Israelites from afar and offers a blessing: “Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov…How lovely are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel.”  (Numbers 24:5)

It is his words, found in this week’s portion, that begin our morning prayers.  When standing in our familiar sanctuaries we recall the person who stood at a distance and looked from afar.

Sometimes even the most intimate of things must be appreciated from a distance.  Sometimes we must behold from afar what we most love.