Thursday, January 31, 2013

Yitro

There are two competing rabbinic versions regarding how the Torah was given on Mount Sinai.

In one interpretation God first offers the Torah to the other nations of the world. One objects to the prohibition against stealing. Another nation to murder. And yet a third to adultery. Each refuses to accept the Torah. Finally God approaches the people of Israel, offering the engraved Ten Commandments, Torah and all of its requirements. The Jewish people say, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” (Exodus 19:8) Aside from this tale’s pejorative sting, the legend suggests that the Torah was a choice. We chose our tradition and affirmed its obligations.

Another rabbinic story offers a radically different account. In that midrash, God holds Mount Sinai above the heads of the Israelites and declares, “Either accept the Torah and its laws and statutes or die.” The Jewish people of course wisely accept the Torah and thereby discover life. This account offers a disturbing image of God. Here God is portrayed as coercive and threatening. We prefer to see God instead as loving and our choices as free.

Often, when I share these interpretations, people gravitate towards the first rabbinic legend. Few even find fault with the negative descriptions of the other nations. People want to see their Torah as freely chosen, as our faith and the Jewish commitments that derive from them as brimming with freedom and choice. God said, “Remember the Sabbath day.” And we then observe. And we then discover meaning.

But lately I have been thinking that we are not as free as we think.

Ask anyone what gives their life the greatest meaning. Will they say, “I can do whatever I want, whenever I want; I can go to the gym at 11 pm; I can go out to dinner with friends on any evening of the week.”? I doubt such will be their answers. Instead people will say, “My children. My family. My charity work.” More often than not it is those things which involve others that add meaning to our lives. It is that which involves obligation. It is our commitment to others that grants life its greatest meaning.

Are we really free? Are our choices made with complete disregard for those we love, for those we obligate ourselves towards? Is a life of meaning built around choice or obligation? Then again, who would want to choose something with a mountain hanging over their heads? The choice is coerced. It is tainted.

Is it truly? Can our choices be entirely free? Is the freedom to choose an illusion? Can we really make choices that are devoid of outside influences? Can we disregard family? Friends? Should we cast aside obligation? Perhaps the rabbinic legend is correct.

With every choice there is indeed a mountain suspended above our heads. At times we disregard it and pretend the looming mountain does not exist. Lately I have come to believe that is better to affirm its pull and allow meaning to be gained by the weight of its obligation and commitment.

The mountain may indeed be frightening and even at times feel coercive, but it can also be meaningful.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Beshalach

“God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer…” (Exodus 13:17)

Why?  Why not take the more direct route?  Why the roundabout path?  The commentators debate this question.

Many suggest that God’s concern was practical.  If the people traveled through what is today the Gaza Strip, the land then controlled by the Philistines, they would most assuredly confront war.   This of course might give them pause.  They might have a change of heart and want to return to slavery.  The Torah agrees: “…God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.’”   The medieval commentators Rashi and Ramban concur.

On the literal level this makes sense.  But God parts the Sea of Reeds in this week’s portion as well.  The sea is divided so that the Israelites might escape the advancing Egyptians.  In the beautiful poem “Song of the Sea,” that includes our Mi Chamocha prayer, the Israelites exclaim: “Pharaoh’s chariots and his army He has cast into the sea; and the pick of his officers are drowned in the Sea of Reeds….” (Exodus 15:4)  So why would God not fight the battles with the Philistines as well?  Perhaps the stated reason is not the more important explanation.

The commentators Ibn Ezra and Maimonides offer more interesting explanations.   Ibn Ezra suggests that the Israelites first had to sense freedom before claiming the land of Israel as their own.  They needed to live as a free people, wandering throughout the wilderness, before establishing freedom in the land of Israel.  Maimonides, on the other hand, suggests that the Israelites needed to take this roundabout route so that they might experience hardship.  The hunger and pain, rebellions and complaining, offer important lessons for the former slaves to become one people. 

The easy path rarely offers the greatest lessons.   When things are given to us without struggle, or even suffering, we do not always appreciate them as we should.   What we earn through hardship and pain is sometimes more meaningful than even the most valuable of gifts.

What is truly priceless is that which we craft with our own hands through struggle and sacrifice. That is what we prize!  For these we more often sing God’s blessings. 

Had God led us from Egypt directly to the land of Israel we might not appreciate the blessings that would come to flourish in that land—then as well as today.

Questions

What follows are some questions from our synagogue's 5th graders and of course my answers.  This article appeared in our congregation's January-February Newsletter.

Why do we wear yamahas in temple?
First of all we wear yarmulkes not Yamahas.  Some people actually ride Yamahas although not too many Jews.  Motorcycles are dangerous.  So don’t ride motorcycles, but if you ever do, wear protective equipment especially a helmet.  We cover our heads in synagogue not for protection but out of respect.  This custom developed at a time when covering our heads was how we showed respect rather than taking off our hats as we do today for the Star Spangled Banner.  Yarmulke is Yiddish.  The Hebrew is kippah.  It simply means “cap” or “dome.”  In fact Israel’s new, and successful, anti-missile missile system, Iron Dome, is called in Hebrew “Kipat Barzel.”  Some people wear a kippah all the time, others only when they are in synagogue.  And still others whenever they are doing something Jewish like reciting blessings or studying Torah.  It is supposed to be a reminder that we are always standing in God’s presence.  Since God is everywhere it is good to have such reminders.  Then we are more likely to be kind and respectful to others and forever thankful to God.

Why did you choose to be a rabbi?
When I was in college I had to take a Bible class.  I fell in love with studying our Bible and Jewish writings.  I always wanted to find a job in which I could help people.  Soon I realized that rabbis help people and are also supposed to keep learning, even many years after college.  Besides you get to stand up in front of people and since I seem to like that as well being a rabbi is the perfection combination of all these things.

Why do you read Hebrew backwards?
Actually English is backwards since Hebrew is an older language.  It is a matter of perspective.  I know learning Hebrew is a challenge but it is an easier language than English.  It is entirely phonetic.  In other words you can always sound out how to pronounce the words.  There are very few exceptions.  Nearly every word has a three letter root that hints at its meaning.  There are only 22 letters.  As soon as you figure out how to pronounce the letters and vowels you can read it.  Just remember to read from right to left.

Why do Iran and Syria hate Israel so much?
I wish I knew.  Not to scare you too much but they also hate the United States.  Also Syria is preoccupied right now with hating itself.  They are in the middle of a civil war.  We hope that when their president Assad is finally overthrown a new government more friendly to its neighbor Israel will replace it.  This is a long shot but still a hope.  Sometimes people, and countries, hate others because that is easier than looking at their own problems.  That is what I think is happening with Syria and IranIran also wants to take over the Middle East and they find it difficult to accept a Jewish state in the middle of the Muslim Middle East.  We have to stand together and be strong even when others hate us. 

Why does God let us have war?
God has nothing to do with wars.  Even though people sometimes say they are fighting wars for God, God does not start wars or end wars, or want us to make wars.  They are in our hands.  God made people free to choose between right and wrong.  War is a result of our choices.  It is unfortunate and sad that sometimes countries can only solve their problems by making wars.  God keeps hoping and praying that we will try to bring more peace.  We always pray for shalom, peace.

Why do you step on the glass when you get married?
A Jewish wedding is the happiest of occasions according to our tradition.  But even at this most joyful event we pause and remember that there is still sadness in our world and sometimes even in our own lives.  The saddest event in our history was the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 C.E. That was one terrible war!  That is why this event is often mentioned when the glass is broken.  I always speak more generally before the groom breaks the glass especially because after the Holocaust I don’t think the Temple’s destruction is the saddest event in our history anymore.  We pause and remember, break the glass and then shout “Mazel tov.”

Keep asking your questions.  That is always the best way to learn.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Bo

I have been thinking about Lance Armstrong.  I know I should be spending more time thinking about Israel’s upcoming elections and gun control laws, but I remain riveted, or perhaps distracted, by the spectacle of yesterday’s hero seeking to regain the past glory that we now learn was most certainly stolen.  This evening we will be able to watch him confess to Oprah.  Such is the contemporary paradigm.  Public confessions have become the substitute for righting wrongs.

But public tears, however heartfelt (and I remain skeptical about his motivations), are only the beginning of the repairing of wrongs.  According to Moses Maimonides there is only one true measure of complete repentance and that is for a person to be in the exact same situation, tempted by the exact same sin, but this time to make a different choice and ultimately the right decision.  Rarely do we have the opportunity to test our repentance.  Rarely are we afforded the chance to see if we have indeed changed.  Most choose to avoid being tested.

Nevertheless, Judaism insists that repentance must be about deeds, about changing behaviors.  Confession is but the first step.  The more difficult work for Lance, and for us as well, is what follows.  Will he seek to mend the wrongs done to his teammates?  How will he repair the harm done to professional cycling, or even more important to the Livestrong Foundation and cancer survivors? 

Of course one could argue, it is only cycling, or baseball, or sports for that matter and we already devote too much time to following these games and their stars.  Still in a culture that venerates winners we would do well to remember that cycling with friends or throwing a baseball with a son or daughter should be reward enough.  Rather than spending our hard earned money in efforts to ride farther and faster or so that our sons and daughters might gain a scholarship to college or the dream of dreams, drafted into the pros, we might be better off slowing down and enjoying the ride and the company, especially when it is with our children. 

Confession is only the first step.  Repair and change are the necessary steps.  Yet how do we change our behavior if never again given the opportunity to repent.  A nineteenth century Hasidic master writes:

There are certain sins of which we are told, “The person is not given the opportunity to repent.”  Nevertheless, if the person really engages in serious soul-searching, realizing the abyss which stretches in front of him, and nevertheless repents, God will take pity on him and accept his repentance.  His humbleness and his subservience pave the way for his repentance, at a time when the regular path to repentance has been barred to him.   However, if “you refuse to humble yourself before Me” (Exodus 10:3) there is no way that you can possibly find an alternate path to repentance, and you will remain in a state of “not being given the opportunity to repent.”

God may indeed accept the wrenching confession we will soon witness.  It will take much longer to rectify matters with friends and family, competitors and teammates.  I have always believed that it is the people with whom we surround ourselves who matter most.  I prefer struggling to right matters with those people rather devoting myself to beseeching God.  Only when turning to God helps us turn toward others do I find strength in such devotions.

That is what Lance forgot.  That is what Pharaoh never understood.

The Torah declares: “So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said to him, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, ‘How long will you refuse to humble yourself before Me?” (Exodus 10:3)

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Vaera Sermon


We begin our story with an angry Pharaoh.  The Jewish people are suffering more and more under his oppressive bondage.  God hears their cries.  So, as everyone knows, God sends Moses.  Moses worries that Pharaoh will not listen to him.  The Jewish people, he complains, have not been such good listeners.  Why would Pharaoh listen?

Moses really does not want the job.  One of the characteristics of our biblical heroes, especially those called prophets, is that they do not want the job.  They do not feel they are qualified or even worthy.  God quells his worries by promising to send his brother Aaron with him and of course arms him with a few tricks, for example a staff that magically turns into a serpent. 

Moses appears before Pharaoh and says, “Let My people go that they may serve Me.”  This phrase is often misquoted as “Let My people go” but the second part is perhaps the more significant. The purpose of their freedom is so that they may serve God.  For the Bible freedom is meaningless if not wedded to something greater.  It is not freedom to do whatever the Jewish people want but instead the ability to worship God in freedom.  We replace servitude to Pharaoh with that of service to God.  Our Shabbat kiddush reminds us of this.  In that prayer we remind ourselves that Shabbat is a reminder of the exodus from Egypt.  Only a free people can set a day aside and do no work.  Shabbat is not just a recollection of God resting on the seventh day of creation but a weekly reminder that we are free.  Passover comes once a year.  Shabbat arrives every week.  How can we then forget our freedom? 

God also helps Moses make his case to Pharaoh by bringing down the familiar plagues on Egypt. There is 1) blood, 2) frogs, 3) lice, 4) wild beasts, 5) cattle plague, 6) boils, 7) hail and in next week’s portion 8) locusts, 9) darkness, and 10) the death of the first born.  The plagues raise difficult theological dilemmas.  Is the purpose of these plagues to convince Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go or instead to convince the Israelites of God’s mighty power?  The refrain that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart would suggest that the larger purpose is to convince the Israelites.  That such suffering was necessary to wed the people of Israel to God is disturbing.  The Jewish tradition counsels that we must continue to be saddened and mourn the deaths of the Egyptians.  We take out a drop of wine at our Seder tables to demonstrate that our joy is mitigated.  The midrash tells us that the angels were silenced when celebrating the Egyptians suffering in the Sea of Reeds.  God chastises them with the words, “My children are drowning!”

Regardless of our viewpoint, we read that Pharaoh keeps saying no.  Why do all the Egyptians have to suffer because of his stubbornness?  One answer is that people often suffer because of a leader’s choices.  That of course takes me into politics.  (These details I have expanded in the sermon’s written form.)  Even in our own modern age, there are dictators who behave like the ancient Pharaoh.  There is Assad, the current embattled Syrian president, who continues to slaughter his own people so that he can remain in power.  To date at least 60,000 Syrians have been killed.  Could there be a more fitting example of a modern ruler with a hardened heart?

There is a world of difference but even in democracies leaders too often choose what is best for them rather than what is best for the people they lead.  We could cite examples of President Obama who for example looked away from gun violence for nearly four years because he did not want to expend precious political capital on a difficult issue.  I imagine he feared losing standing, but in the end he failed to lead.  And people suffered.  In Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu called for early elections because the timing, prior to a budget vote, served his political interests.  Or I could talk about Congress.  Here the level of ideological vitriol has reached new and extraordinary levels. Lead.  Do what is best for the people you serve rather than the small interests who support your re-election campaigns!  Politics of course demand compromise, but more importantly they demand that leaders recall what is in the best interests of those they serve.

The point is that Pharaoh and sometimes our own leaders are so selfish or stubborn that they bring suffering to the people they are supposed to serve.  Pharaoh had it exactly backwards.  He thought leadership was about being served rather than about service to others.  That is why he brought the plagues down on Egypt.  Leadership is never supposed to be about the leader.  It must always be about those being led. In our stubbornness and hardening of hearts we forget the purpose of our mission to lead.  We forget that freedom is about service.  And then our forgetfulness leads to our punishments.  And that becomes the plague of our own generation.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Vaera

What takes God so long? After 400 years of slavery God responds to the Israelites’ suffering. God says to Moses, “I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant.” (Exodus 6:5) 400 years!

Why now? Why wait for the Israelites to suffer for so many years? Did the slavery become that much worse? Was God indifferent to their pain? Impossible! Still the question remains.

Interestingly God’s response to the Israelites’ suffering mirrors Pharaoh’s daughter’s response to the infant Moses. In last week’s portion she hears the cries of Moses. “When she opened the basket, she saw that it was a child, a boy crying. She took pity on it and said, ‘This must be a Hebrew child.’” (Exodus 2:6) My newfound hero, the unnamed Pharaoh’s daughter, is the first to show compassion to the Israelites.

Perhaps this is what God was waiting for. God waits for us. There are other traditions that suggest as well that God waits for human beings to act before responding. The most famous of these is the story of Nachshon who according to legend jumps into the Sea of Reeds thereby prompting divine involvement and concern. When the waters reach his neck and he is about to drown God splits the sea. Others suggest that the messiah sits at the gates of Rome bandaging the sores and wounds of lepers. The messiah waits by performing compassionate acts. There he waits for God to send him to redeem the world. These traditions suggest that God is not the first to act but instead waits for our compassion. God’s compassionate concern is not in response to suffering but instead in response to our concern.

In our Torah portion God appears to respond to Pharaoh’s daughter. Not only does she not have a name but she is also not Jewish. Moreover she is the daughter of the story’s arch enemy. The Rabbis ask why she would go to the Nile to bathe herself. She could have sent her slaves. The Talmud suggests that she opposed her father’s policies from the start and went to the river to purify herself of her father’s sins. It was there that her heart was stirred to rescue Moses thus leading to the redemption of an entire people. According to legend she also accompanied the Israelites when they left Egypt. In that moment Pharaoh’s daughter left the trappings of the palace and forever pledged herself to the fate of the Jewish people.

Is it possible that her heart awakened God’s concern?

Recently a number of us volunteered with Nechama, a Jewish organization dedicated to helping communities rebuild after natural disasters. We ventured to the South Shore to help a family tear out their water soaked dry wall and wood flooring. There we met other volunteers. One volunteer left a deep impression. He was a young man from Wisconsin who gave up his week long vacation. He drove here following Hurricane Sandy to help out. He slept most nights in his car. Here was a Christian man from the Midwest helping out Jewish New Yorkers.

Compassion comes from unexpected places. It often does not even bear a name. Nonetheless my hope and prayer remains the same. May our compassionate acts stir God’s concern. May they awaken God’s compassionate heart.

And even if God fails to respond, the wounds will remain bandaged and the homes will soon be repaired.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Shemot Sermon

Jewish tradition has some very strong opinions about naming. In Ashkenazi circles it is a strongly ingrained custom to name a child for a family member who died, in particular someone who recently died. In Sephardi homes naming follows a more prescribed order, typically first child for father’s father whether living or not, second for mother’s father and so on. Parents spend considerable hours, days, weeks and even months discussing and debating their future child’s name. There is also a custom, or perhaps better called, a superstition, of renaming a sick child so as to trick the angel of death. Many of those of older generations named Hayim or Haya are often called these names for this reason.

All of this is by way of introducing this week’s Torah portion, Shemot—Names. First we read the names of Jacob’s sons who find their way into Egypt and of course settle there, ultimately leading to our slavery and eventual freedom. In chapter two we first meet Moses. Curiously no one in this story is named until Moses is rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter and finally named by her. It is a fascinating story and begs the question why would the Torah not name its greatest hero immediately? Why do we hear so little of his lineage? It is as if the Torah says, “Somebody married somebody else and gave birth to a beautiful baby boy.”

In Pirke Avot we read: "Rabbi Shimon said, there are three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of kingship. But the crown of a good name is superior to them all." The most important name is that name we earn. It is not what we are given by our parents. As much as these names may symbolize our connection to the past, what others call us because of the good we do are our most important names.

The Hebrew poet Zelda wrote a beautiful poem about names:
Each of us has a name
given by God
and given by our parents
Each of us has a name
given by our stature and our smile
and given by what we wear
Each of us has a name
given by the mountains
and given by our walls
Each of us has a name
given by the stars
and given by our neighbors
Each of us has a name
given by our sins
and given by our longing
Each of us has a name
given by our enemies
and given by our love
Each of us has a name
given by our celebrations
and given by our work
Each of us has a name
given by the seasons
and given by our blindness
Each of us has a name
given by the sea
and given by
our death.

That is the lesson of Moses’ name. Here was a man who changed history. He was not born into a famous family. In fact his birth was not the most significant event of his life. His parents did not even name him. His story instead began when he was pulled from the water by a complete stranger. He earns his name! It is what others call him.

He began from the humblest of beginnings. He was born to an ordinary family. And then changed history and rescued his people. And that of course is our task—to earn a good name. No matter our beginnings, it never beyond any of us to save others. A good name is within our own hands.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Shemot

Parents deliberate for months the names that they select for their children. For whom should they name their child? What if the baby is a girl? A boy? What should be the child’s Hebrew name? Do the origins of the name matter? Will the name influence their child’s future character?

The most significant book of the Torah begins in a similar fashion. “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah; Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin; Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher…” (Exodus 1:1-4)

And yet the story of the most significant person in the Torah begins without naming a single person. Listen to how the Torah frames our hero’s beginnings.
A certain man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw how beautiful he was, she hid him for three months. When she could hide him no longer, she got a wicker basket for him and caulked it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child into it and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile. And his sister stationed herself at a distance, to learn what would befall him. The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the Nile, while her maidens walked along the Nile. She spied the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to fetch it. When she opened it, she saw that it was a child, a boy crying. She took pity on it and said, “This must be a Hebrew child.” Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a Hebrew nurse to suckle the child for you?” And Pharaoh’s daughter answered, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will pay your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, who made him her son. She named him Moses, explaining, “I drew him out of the water.” (Exodus 2:1-10)
No one is named in this entire story until its conclusion. The Torah records no names for our actors until this brave young woman gives it to our hero. Moses is named not by his mother or even his father. Instead he is named by Pharaoh’s daughter. Imagine that! The daughter of the very man who sets in motion the need to hide Moses in a basket so that he will not be killed by Pharaoh’s henchman not only saves Moses but names him. (By the way Pharaoh is a title not a name. It is most akin to when we hear “The White House said…” The house of Levi is a tribe.)

The Book that begins with names and is in fact called in Hebrew “Shemot—Names” introduces its greatest hero with the words “A certain somebody from an important tribe married a female somebody from the same community and then gave birth to a beautiful boy…” I find this remarkable! And so the question remains: why would the Torah that will later be called “The Five Books of Moses” introduce its hero in this way? Why would it want his beginnings not to be based on lineage?

It is because his story must instead be based on merit, on actions, on his accomplishments. Moses’ name in fact suggests the first of many such actions. The Torah suggests that it comes from the Egyptian meaning “to draw out.” He will of course later become the man who draws the Israelites out of Egypt.

Thus we learn that our most important names are not those that are given to us by our parents. They are always those we earn throughout our lives. In fact those must be the names that others call us by.