Friday, August 29, 2014

Elul and Good People

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “The good person is not he who does the right thing, but he who is in the habit of doing the right thing.”

It is simple, and perhaps easy, to do a single good deed, to volunteer at a soup kitchen on a Sunday, to write a check to a needy charity, to offer one apology to a person wronged, or to attend Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.  These are all worthy endeavors but Judaism is not about the solitary act but instead about a litany of acts, a lifetime of doing right.  Our faith is about creating a discipline of doing, about ritualizing behaviors.

This is why Judaism sets aside not two days for the task of repentance, or even ten, but instead forty.  On Tuesday, with the new moon of Elul, this forty day period of introspection and repair began.  It began with Rosh Hodesh Elul, gains momentum with the meditative Selichot service (on Saturday, September 20th at 7 pm), further intensifies with the prayers of Rosh Hashanah and reaches a crescendo with the fasting of Yom Kippur.  These forty days mirror the days Moses spent on Mount Sinai communing with God.  They are intended so that we might turn inward and examine our ways and repair our wrongs.

Repentance, teshuvah, is about turning and changing.  This of course is no simple task.  It is not about reciting one Al Cheyt, one moment of apology, one solitary word of forgiveness, but instead about building a life centered on words and deeds.  It is about stringing together a few acts until they become a habit. That cannot be accomplished in a mere two days, no matter how meaningful our services are, no matter how heartfelt our praying and singing might be.

Each of these days we are granted an opportunity for renewal and repair.  Set aside moments during the course of this month and ask yourself what you would like to change, from whom you would like to offer an apology and seek forgiveness.

We are given a blessing each and every one of these days to create new habits.  And from there we begin to build the title of good person.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Reeh, Friends and Enemies

In the traditional haggadah we read the following prayer when opening the door for Elijah: “Pour out your fury on the nations that do not know you, upon the kingdoms that do not invoke your name, for they have devoured Jacob and desolated his home. Pour out your wrath on them; may your blazing anger overtake them. Pursue them in wrath and destroy them from under the heavens of Adonai!”

Added to the haggadah during the murderous Crusades, these words seem out of step with our modern, universal values. Even though we are sympathetic to the origins of this prayer, our liberal haggadahs have deleted it from our Seders. We speak instead about the messianic peace that Elijah will announce rather than the vengeance he might exact.

This week’s portion echoes these sentiments and begins with a similar refrain. Here it is not a prayer but a command. “You must destroy all the sites at which the nations you are to dispossess worshipped their gods, whether on lofty mountains or on hills under any luxuriant tree. Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site.” (Deuteronomy 12:2-3)

Again this appears contrary to everything we believe. Destroying non-believers and their places of worship contradicts everything we hold dear. How is this any different from the hate filled words of the Hamas’ charter or the savagery of ISIS? How are our Torah’s words different from those who read their tradition’s words as a mandate to murder and destroy?

And yet we live in a time when suggesting we have no enemies is equally problematic. Thus we are trapped between those who are unable to name our real enemies and those who see enemies everywhere and anywhere. A.B. Yehoshua, a leading Israeli novelist, recently argued that this is in fact the crucial dilemma facing Israel. The failure to call Hamas an enemy rather than a terrorist state prevents Israel from confronting Hamas and its rockets and tunnels. The fight against terror is never ending. Confronting an enemy by contrast offers two clear options: negotiations or war.

Yehoshua writes: “Let us not forget: The Palestinians in Gaza are our permanent neighbors, and we are theirs. We will never halt the bloody destruction by talking of ‘terror.’ It will require negotiation, or a war against a legitimate ‘enemy.’" (“Israel Needs to Stop Calling Hamas a Terrorist Organization,” The New Republic, August 13, 2014)

Terrorism is a tactic. And the so-called war on terror is an unhelpful euphemism that avoids the challenge of naming our enemies. Only by naming our enemies can we truly confront today’s struggles.

Our times need not be so confusing. Those who wish to destroy us and proclaim it in such unmistakable terms, those who revile the pluralism for which this country stands, are most certainly our enemies. We must not be afraid to say such words. Our world has real enemies. Does that make such prayers legitimate? Does that make such commands meaningful? I recoil from these words. Better perhaps that we should pray for peace rather than seeking vengeance. Still we must remain forever on guard and vigilant.

We must also work to be sure that those with whom we have honest disagreements remain friends. We dare not confuse friend with enemy. Articulating a vision of pluralism and an acceptance of different worldviews is paramount. Let us be clear. When others advocate for our destruction they name themselves as our enemies. We must remain unafraid of saying so in clear and unmistakable terms. We must avoid euphemisms that confuse the moral challenge.

We pray: “May God, who blessed our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, bless the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces, who stand guard over our land and the cities of our God, from the border of Lebanon to the desert of Egypt, and from the Great Sea to the Aravah, on land, in the air, and on the sea. May the Lord cause the enemies who rise up against us to be struck down before them. May the Holy Blessed One preserve and rescue our soldiers from every trouble and distress and from every plague and illness, and may God send blessing and success in their every endeavor….” (Prayer for the Welfare of Israel Defense Forces Soldiers)

Pray for peace. Remain vigilant. Fight against our enemies when they rise up against us.

Remain clear-sighted. Know who is an enemy. Remember who is a friend.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Ekev, Bread and Faith

This week we read the famous line: “…man does not live on bread alone.”  But what exactly does this oft-quoted phrase mean?

First let’s examine the context:

God has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, that He might test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts: whether you would keep His commandments or not.  He subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your fathers had ever known, in order to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, but that man may live on anything that the Lord decrees. The clothes upon you did not wear out, nor did your feet swell these forty years. Bear in mind that the Lord your God disciplines you just as a man disciplines his son. Therefore keep the commandments of the Lord your God: walk in His ways and revere Him.  (Deuteronomy 8:2-6)

Looking at the larger context we learn that this is a lesson about tough love.  God subjects the Jewish people to hardships throughout their wanderings in order to test their devotion.  God further tests the people so that they might learn that there is only one true source of sustenance and that is God.  Well, sign me up!

How is this motivating?  How is this a compelling argument for faith?  Who wants to be hungry?  Who wants to be disciplined? 

Perhaps the larger lesson is different.  While we may not wish to look toward God as the source of hardships, discipline and tests, they are a part of life.  The notion that life will never offer us challenges, that the road will always be even, is of course mistaken.  Everyone, even our children, will face difficulties.  All of us will encounter hardships. 

So we must see even these hardships as opportunities.  And how might we gain this change of heart?  By looking to God.

The idea is not that we should observe God’s commandments so that we might never face difficulties.  It is not as well that we have to prove our faith to God, as the Torah appears to suggest, but instead that these challenges can be openings to allow God in. 

Bread might sustain our bodies, but life is sustained by far more. 

After every meal our tradition counsels us that we are supposed to recite a blessing. This too is found in this week’s portion.  “When you have eaten and are full, then you shall bless the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 8:10)  The Hasidic rabbi, Shlomo of Karlin, comments: “By blessing God you will become full.”

The fullness of our hearts can only come from singing praises to God.  Being satisfied comes not from a belly filled with bread but instead from giving thanks. 

A meal is much more than the food on our plates.

Only faith can fill the heart.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Vaetchanan and Pleading for Peace

For all his successes and triumphs, our hero Moses is denied setting foot on the Promised Land. Because he grew angry at the Israelites and hit a rock, God states that he will not be allowed to enter the land of Israel.

This week Moses begs God to change this decree: “I pleaded with the Lord… Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan…” (Deuteronomy 4:23-25)

The commentators are bothered that Moses pleads. Begging appears beneath him. His words seem undignified for a leader. They wonder as well how Moses can question God’s judgment. The medieval writer, Moses ibn Ezra, suggests that even in this instance, Moses, who the tradition calls “Moshe Rabbeinu—Moses, our Teacher,” is offering a lesson. And what is it that he teaches the people? It is a lesson about the supreme value of living in the land of Israel. It is as if to say, “Living in the land is worth pleading.”

The modern commentator, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, reads this passage differently. He suggests that Moses is not asking for forgiveness, but instead arguing that he did not even commit a wrong. The decree is therefore unjustified and should rightfully be annulled. What chutzpah! In the end Moses’ request is partially fulfilled. God responds to his plea and allows him to see the land from afar. Moses is allowed to glimpse the beauty of Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel.

I continue to wonder. For what is it appropriate to plead? For what can I beg God?

These weeks an answer begins to emerge. How about peace? Let my plea be heard! Let shalom be granted—even if but partially. Does such a plea appear undignified?

I continue to rely on the Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai.

Not the peace of a cease-fire
not even the vision of the wolf and the lamb,
but rather
as in the heart when the excitement is over
and you can talk only about a great weariness.
I know that I know how to kill,
that makes me an adult.
And my son plays with a toy gun that knows
how to open and close its eyes and say Mama.
A peace
without the big noise of beating swords into ploughshares,
without words, without
the thud of the heavy rubber stamp: let it be
light, floating, like lazy white foam.
A little rest for the wounds –
who speaks of healing?
(And the howl of orphans is passed from generation
to the next, as in a relay race:
the baton never falls.)
Let it come
like wildflowers,
suddenly, because the field
must have it: wildpeace.

Please God. I plead. Vaetchnanan!