Thursday, December 26, 2013

Vaera and the Call of Leadership

Whether you are home discovering a respite from the pressing schedules of work and school or away enjoying some precious days in the warming sun or perhaps skiing down a mountain of snow, take these moments to drink in some words of Torah.

God chooses Moses to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt.  Moses is charged with extraordinarily weighty tasks.  He must first appeal to the mighty Pharaoh demanding that his slaves be freed.  Moses protests to God, saying, “The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of impeded speech!” (Exodus 6:12)  His tasks appear overwhelming and daunting. 

One of the hallmarks of our great Jewish leaders is that they do not want the job.  They do not seek leadership positions.  Instead these seek them out.  They do not pine after accolades or power.  At times it appears that God even pursues our leaders.  God calls to Moses out of an ordinary and plain bush, albeit one that burns but remains unconsumed.  The prophet Jonah is swallowed by a giant fish when trying to flee.  Like Moses the prophets view their abilities as lacking.  Yet, these are exactly the type of leaders God calls.

On one level the Bible’s import is clear.  These leaders are God’s instruments.  It is not their abilities that move historical events but instead God.  One way to read the Bible is as a record of God’s involvement in human affairs and in particular a concern for the Jewish people.  Moses does not then lead the people out of Egypt but instead God.  Moses does not even speak to Pharaoh.  He is but a mouthpiece.

On another level the Torah offers an important lesson about leadership.  The greatest of leaders are those who find themselves, most often by circumstance and timing, in situations that require their active involvement.  They do not seek positions of power.  They do not relish fame. These pursue them.  It is what is asked of them by these situations that makes them great.  Whether by God or circumstance, they are called to action.   They do not seek greatness.  It follows from the word of God, it moves from a call.

Nelson Mandela offers a modern example.  In his most famous of speeches, delivered before being sentenced to jail for what would amount to 27 years, Mandela said:   
This then is what the ANC is fighting. Our struggle is a truly national one. It is a struggle of the African people, inspired by our own suffering and our own experience. It is a struggle for the right to live.  During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
I do not imagine that greatness is achieved by seeking to die for a cause.  Many great men and women have been prepared to die for the sake of an ideal.  Their willingness to sacrifice their own lives is not the hallmark of great leaders.  Our times confuse this point.  We are witness to far too many who hold up the desire for death as a goal and measure of leadership.

A willingness to sacrifice is indeed a measure of greatness.  More important is the Bible’s lesson that humility and the eschewing of fame are the best measures of extraordinary leadership.

Leadership pursues a select few.  Greatness follows only those who do not seek it.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Shemot and Remembering Our Values

Suffering begins with forgetfulness.

“A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” (Exodus 1:8)

Thus begins our story of slavery. It was not of course that the new king had forgotten Joseph. The two men undoubtedly never met. It was instead that he forgot all that Joseph had done for Egypt. Generation after generation had failed to teach that it was Joseph who had rescued Egypt from famine. The new king never heard the telling Joseph’s story.

Our redemption and freedom begin with remembrance.

“God heard their moaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.” (Exodus 2:24)

Forgetfulness brings on suffering. Remembrance leads to salvation.

This is why remembering is one of the key building blocks of the Jewish faith. Judaism values memory. We are commanded to remember the Sabbath: “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy” and the evils Amalek did against us: “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way out of Egypt.” Zachor is the command our people recites over and over again. Remembrance is the principle around which we observe our holidays and organize our Jewish lives.

This command is embedded within ritual acts. When we lift up the kiddush cup and thereby sanctify Shabbat we remember the Sabbath as a reminder of both God creating our world and freeing us from Egypt. Think especially about our celebration of Passover. We celebrate our Seders in an effort to make us feel that we were slaves and are now free. It is not supposed to be about the food, however delicious it may be, but that the taste of these symbolic foods reminds us on the one hand of the bitterness of slavery and on the other, the sweetness of freedom. The single most important phrase of that celebration is: k’ilu, as if. “In every generation one is obligated to see oneself as if he went out from Egypt.”

The notion is that we must re-enact and re-live the past in order to feel it and take it into our hearts. Memories are given life in our tradition. Remembrance is codified as mitzvah. Forgetfulness is deemed a sin.

Let us apply this theory to some modern examples. We tend to forget the good people do for us and focus instead on a slight. Like the new king who saw only the growing number of Israelites and forgot all that Joseph had done for Egypt, we forget the good and dwell on the bad.

In our own country we are only beginning to realize the extent to which the NSA listened in on our private conversations. The fear of terrorism has made us forget American values. We also allowed torture to be used against our enemies. Despite evidence to the contrary, and the sensationalism of Zero Dark Thirty and Homeland, we permit torture to be done in our name. We forget the values that make our country great. Life and liberty are our universal dream.

Fear crowds out remembrance and leads to forgetfulness.  Forgetting the values that animate our faith, our country and our lives may very well lead to  ruin.

Forgetfulness leads to suffering.

Only remembrance can guarantee redemption.

Friday, December 13, 2013

David Hartman z"l

The Reform movement honored my teacher, Rabbi David Hartman, at its biennial.  Here is its beautiful tribute video.  It was a wonder and privilege to be in his presence for such moments.

I miss him.  He was the rare combination of courage and love.  He was never afraid of questions.  He was tireless in asking even the most difficult questions of his Judaism.  He also never stopped loving Jews, even those who made him angry, and rabbis, who he felt were always deserving of his support as well as prodding.  I hope to model what I learned from him.  David loved the questioner even more than the believer.  Question and critique strengthens faith.  It never weakens it.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs honored David and his teaching by presenting the Schindler Award to David's son, Rabbi Donniel Hartman.  Both spoke beautifully of David's contributions and teachings and of a Judaism that is unafraid of debate and welcomes a multiplicity of answers.  Such is a faith that our times especially require.

I must close with Moses Maimonides, with whom Hartman had a life-long discussion and debate: "Just as a person is commanded to honor and revere his father, so is he obligated to honor and revere his teacher... "

Each and every day.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Vayehi and Family Harmony

This week we conclude the Book of Genesis. Jacob gathers his family together to offer a final benediction. The portion opens with the words: “Jacob lived seventeen years in the land of Egypt…” (Genesis 47:28) And how old was Joseph when his brothers sold him into slavery? Seventeen. The commentators notice this symmetry. Jacob enjoyed the same number of years living with his son in Egypt as Joseph did living with his father in Canaan. What are we to make of this symmetry? The tumultuous years of Joseph’s youth are perfectly balanced by these final seventeen years.

Would that we discover such perfect symmetry in our own lives!

The midrash adds: “These seventeen years were the best years of Jacob’s life – years of prosperity, goodness and peace; his other 130 years were filled with toil and pain.”

Why were the best years of his life spent in Egypt? How could Jacob enjoy any place but the ideal land of Israel? The commentators suggest that the answer must be that he studied Torah in Egypt and thereby redeemed its pagan influences. I think the answer is far more obvious. We need not reach and imagine that Jacob observed such traditional behaviors to justify his happiness in a foreign land.

So why was Jacob so happy? In Egypt his family was once again whole. His sons have forgiven each other. Now they each have flourishing families of their own. Jacob can enjoy the comforts his son has amassed. He can relish in the joys of grandchildren. In Egypt he, and his entire family, have discovered a tranquility that eluded them in Canaan.

The lesson is clear. Shalom bayit, peace in the home, is more prized than even the most cherished of locations. It is a blessing that eluded our patriarch Jacob for the majority of his life. Now he has found it. And he discovers it no less in Egypt!

Peace between siblings, love between parents and children, is the greatest blessing of all. We need not venture to a sacred destination in order to discover this blessing. It is always nearby.

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Geneva Deal, History and Fear

Years ago, when studying in Jerusalem, my friends and I hailed a cab and jumped in.  One of my companions is blind and was accompanied by his seeing eye dog, a trusted and caring German Shepherd.  The driver became agitated.  He refused to allow the dog in the car.  We grew defensive of our friend.  Our indignation soared, "How dare you discriminate!"  But our friend understood.  The driver was a Holocaust survivor and in his mind, and heart, such dogs were trained for another purpose. He grew increasingly terrified.  It took a great deal of coaxing but eventually my ever calm and wise friend persevered.  Although blind he sees and understands far more than most.  He immediately saw and understood the fear.  Perhaps that was all the driver needed: understanding and acknowledgment of his fear, a recognition that despite the fact that it was now over sixty years later, his fears are still real.

I thought of this experience as I begin to analyze the recent agreement brokered with Iran over its nuclear ambitions.  President Obama does not appear to understand Israeli (and for that matter, Jewish) fears.

Yossi Klein Halevi remarked in an article, "Israel's Freakout, Explained":
During the first Obama administration, the urgent Israeli question was: Is he is a friend of the Jewish state? That question was largely resolved for many Israelis during the President’s visit to Israel last March, when he won over much of the public by affirming the Jewish roots in the land of Israel and the indigenousness of Israel in the Middle East, as well as Israel’s past efforts to make peace.
Now, though, Israelis are asking this: After eight years of President Obama, will the Middle East be a safer or more dangerous region for Israel?
For most Israelis the answer is self-evident. The turning point came this summer, when Obama hesitated to enforce his own red line over Syria. That was the moment that he lost the trust of the Israeli public on Iran.
Israel lives, and thrives, in a terrifying neighborhood.  It must remain forever vigilant.  It must be strong and resolute.  I have never known its fears.  Yet they are part of my people's history.

Still I wonder about Prime Minister Netanyahu's insistence that any deal with Iran is akin to Chamberlain's accord with Nazi Germany.  If we insist on this comparison there can only be one resolution to today's conflict.  History can, and should, be a teacher.  But today is not 1938.  The past is but one lens. The future cannot necessarily be seen more clearly through the past.  History is an imperfect prism.

Also writing in The New Republic, Ben Birnbaum, offers a different perspective, "The Iran Deal is Better Than Nothing--Even for Israel":
Another top Israeli security figure recently noted to me that if the deal taking shape in Geneva were to forestall a nuclear-armed Iran for a couple of years, it would be almost as effective as an Israeli military strike—with none of the consequences, of course. Compared to the current situation, the Geneva deal does not clear that bar. But compared to where the Iranian program would be six months from now without a deal, it could come close.
Make no mistake.  Iran continues to agitate for Israel's destruction.  Fear grows in my heart.  We must remain wary of Iranian promises and even suspect of their intentions.  Does that mean though that every effort to reach an accord is doomed?  Can a compromise with our enemies buy us a measure of security?

I want to remain hopeful.  Yet I remain afraid.  I take counsel from the prophet Isaiah, "Say to the anxious of heart, 'Be strong, fear not...' (Isaiah 35)

I reread his words. "Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, And the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped...."

History is an imperfect lens.  Yet I draw faith from its waters.
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
And come with shouting to Zion,
Crowned with joy everlasting.
They shall attain joy and gladness,
While sorrow and sighing flee.
Sorrow and sighing flee.  Fear and trembling banished from our hearts.   And the land might rest secure.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Vayigash and Change

We pick up the story of Joseph and his brothers as it nears its dramatic conclusion. Joseph has framed his brothers by hiding a goblet in his brother Benjamin’s bag. Joseph accuses the brothers of thievery and threatens to jail Benjamin. Rather than allowing Benjamin to be carted away and made a slave, as they did to Joseph so many years ago, Judah draws near to Joseph and begs that his younger brother be spared.

Judah pleads, “Therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers. For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me? Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father!” (Genesis 44:33-34) In that moment Joseph realizes that his brothers have indeed changed.

The rabbis see in Joseph’s machinations a test of his brothers. Given the opportunity, would they once again get rid of their father’s favorite son or make a different choice? Would they defend Benjamin even though years earlier they had betrayed Joseph? The only true test of teshuvah shleymah, complete repentance, is to find oneself in the exact same situation and make a different choice.

This is how Joseph discovers that his brothers have made repentance. Judah is a changed man.

It is instructive that Judah is the spokesman for the brothers. It was he who had earlier suggested that they sell Joseph into slavery rather than killing him. Judah has indeed changed.

Change is central to his character. It should also be defining of our own. In fact it is from the name Judah that the term Jew derives. The origin of the term Jew is one who descends from the tribe of Judah. Is it possible that change should then be the defining characteristic of a Jew?

I often hear people argue that it is because of Orthodoxy that Judaism survives. I hear this argument from all manners of Jews, from Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews. The notion is that only strict observance and inviolability guarantees the future. This is patently false. It angers me when I hear this argument from Orthodox Jews because it highlights their belief that only they hold the true path. It saddens me when I hear this from fellow Reform Jews because it suggests a lack of faith in our own path.

Change is part of our DNA. It is what guarantees our future. An example from history. Everyone who visits Israel goes to Masada and marvels there at the bravery of the zealots who chose their own deaths at their own hands rather than becoming slaves to the Romans. We fail to recognize that not one of us is a descendant of those brave fighters! The Jewish future might have ended with them. Instead it was seized by Yohanan ben Zakkai, a rabbi who secretly met with the Romans and negotiated the building of a small school in Yavneh.

With that masterful change the Jewish future was secured. The zealots would have called him a traitor. If their followers had discovered him they would have killed him. And yet his willingness to change rather than remain steadfast to old ways guaranteed a future that continues to this day.

And yet most remain afraid of change. We want it to remain like yesterday. We mythologize the past and as well tend to demonize the future. We pretend to live in a never changing present.

This weekend I watched the 60 Minutes interview with Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon. He spoke about change and how disruptive Amazon is to the old ways of doing things, such as bookstores, that I confess I continue to miss. He remarked, “Complaining is not a strategy.” It is of course easy to say such things when you are a billionaire or in the case of Joseph, number two in all of Egypt. Perhaps then it is easier to say as Joseph did, “Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me here; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.” (Genesis 45:5)

True it is as well easier to laugh at change when you are a recognized master of it. Yet how much brighter might our future be if rather than complaining (or as in the example of Masada choosing suicide) we see only challenges to overcome and discover changes to master? Should this lesson not be instructive for all?

Change is who we are.  It is our very name.