Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Yom HaShoah Sermon

Before we turn to our concluding prayers I would like to offer a few words about Yom HaShoah and our commemoration of the Holocaust. My thoughts turn to the upheaval in the Ukraine, where my grandfather was born. In the past week alone, there have been reports of a synagogue being fire-bombed in the south-eastern city of Nikolayev, the desecration of the tomb of Dov Ber Schneerson, brother of the late Lubavicher Rebbe, in Dnepropetrovsk and the vandalizing of the Holocaust memorial in Sevastopol. Those incidents followed the distribution in Donetsk of a leaflet calling on all Jews to register with the self-declared, pro-Russian authorities. Separatist leader Denis Pushilin, whose name appeared on the leaflet, denied that his organization was responsible and the document’s authenticity has yet to be proved.

I continue to wonder, can I see today’s events in any way but through yesterday’s lenses? I still recall the fields of Babi Yar, my eyes see those fields and ravines where Jews were slaughtered. In two days time 33,771 Jews were murdered by the Nazi killing machine. Some were even buried alive. The images of piles and piles of human beings are forever imprinted on our Jewish souls.

Yehuda Amichai implies that such images become fragments of history that could prove to be our Jewish time bomb. Over the centuries we accumulate broken shards of history that eventually so weighs down our souls that we might explode. His poetry asks, Is it possible to remember history while not remaining forever beholden to it? Is it possible live by the words zachor—remember and not only look back but also look forward to a brighter and better future. Is it ever possible to transcend history? This is part of the question that the Zionism wishes to address. And therein lies the tradition’s criticism of the enterprise I so admire. Only the messiah can transcend history. Only God’s messenger can overcome the shackles of centuries of injustice. And so we are left to wander and muddle through history, writing great poems and perhaps even better novels, I think as well of AB Yehoshua’s Mr Mani. We wander through history. Its weight can at times feel overbearing.

Leon Wieseltier observes that President Obama so wants to overcome history that he continues to turn a blind eye toward it. He accuses the president of abandoning countless oppressed people, most recently those in the Ukraine. He writes:
Obama’s surprisability about history, which is why he is always (as almost everyone now recognizes) “playing catch-up,” is owed to certain sanguine and unknowledgeable expectations that he brought with him to the presidency. There was no reason to expect that the Ayatollah Khamenei would take Obama’s “extended hand,” but every reason to expect that he would crack down barbarically on stirrings of democracy in his society. There was no reason to expect that Assad would go because he “must go,” but every reason to expect him to savage his country and thereby create an ethnic-religious war and a headquarters for jihadist anti-Western terrorists. There was no reason to expect Putin to surrender his profound historical bitterness at the reduced post-Soviet realities of Russia and leave its “near abroad” alone. There was no reason to expect that the Taliban in Afghanistan would behave as anything but a murderous theocratic conspiracy aspiring to a return to power. And so on. Who, really, has been the realist here? And what sort of idealism is it that speaks of justice and democracy but denies consequential assistance (which the White House outrageously conflates with ground troops) to individuals and movements who courageously work to achieve those ideals?
Wieseltier opines, "Obama’s impatience with history has left him patient with evil."  Those words haunt me. History can be tiresome. It can be draining. It can feel as if it is pulling you down. But if we forget, we abet evil. If we refuse to light a candle year after year, then our tormentors can rise again, perhaps with different names, and in different lands, but they will flourish, if we turn aside, if we choose silence.

And yet I continue to wonder, how might I live in the present while remembering the past? How do I bless today, how do I bless this Shabbat and look cheerfully toward tomorrow while still clinging to yesterday’s wounds. That remains our most daunting task.

And that in the end is why the tradition has the last word. Zachor is a command. Remember! I have no choice but to remember.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Yom HaShoah and Searing Remembrances

Recently I watched from afar as my good friend journeyed to Rwanda.  She was drawn there, to this African country to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide and the noble work of the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village.  She is the daughter of a man, hidden during the Holocaust, but who as an adult reclaimed the forgotten Jewish memories torn from her father and slaughtered with her paternal grandparents.  And now she traveled to the sites where one million Tutsi were murdered by their neighbors, the Hutu, in the span of one hundred days.  They were not killed in gas chambers but by hand with machetes and clubs.

Philip Gourevitch observed in The New Yorker (April 21, 2014), “A lot of Rwandans will tell you that all through mourning week they are prone to bad and bitter feelings. For those who were there in 1994, during the genocide, memory can feel like an affliction, and the greater imperative has often been to learn how to forget enough for long enough to live in the present for the rest of the year. And for those who were not yet born—more than half the country today—what does it mean to be told to remember?”  

Indeed, what does it mean to remember?

Last week as well the Internet was abuzz with reports of renewed antisemitism in the Ukraine....  

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Passover, Dayyenu and I'm Happy

This past Sunday I was watching CBS News Sunday Morning and learned about Pharrell Williams and his hit song “Happy.”  I had heard the song (I am of course forever attending seventh grade parties) and had already noted that I liked it, but knew little about its writer.

I was taken with Pharrell Williams’ humility and his gratitude to others. Williams gives credits to his teachers, remarking that his success is due largely to them and then concludes, "You see people spin out of control like that all the time. I mean, those are the most tragic stories, the most gifted people who start to believe it's really all them. It's not all you. It can't be all you. Just like you need air to fly a kite, it's not the kite. It's the air.”

Years ago, perhaps on another Sunday morning, I was reading the medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides Guide of the Perplexed (III:12).  In it he remarked that people often complain to God about all they don’t have.  They chase after riches so that might be able to enjoy more.  They fail to see that they already have untold wealth.  Look at the world with different eyes, Maimonides counsels.  That which is most prized is less abundant and that which is most plentiful we take for granted.  We pine after diamonds and jewels.  We take for granted the water we drink and the air we breathe. 

We yearn for fine wine when we could instead be thankful for water.  And thus Maimonides reasons that we should change our perspective and thank God for the gift of air, the taste of water, a morsel of bread (or today’s matzah).  When we see how plentiful is the very air we breathe and when we ascribe that as a gift from God we have no choice but to be grateful and discover joyful hearts.  If your cup always needs to be refilled with wine then the soul can never be sated.  If instead you fill the heart with thanks and praises then the soul is stirred to happiness.

Likewise the Seder’s Dayyenu continues to linger in my ears.  “If God had only brought us out of Egypt.  Dayyenu—That would have been enough for us!”  And the list continues.  If God had only given us the Torah, if God had only given us Shabbat.  Dayyenu!  That would have been enough.  How often do such words really fall from our lips?  How often do we say that would have been enough?  “What only brisket and no turkey?” some still say.  Breathe in.  Thank God for the riches that are always provided and swirl about in the sky’s gentle breezes and the currents of the waters.  It’s not me.  It’s You God.  It’s not the kite that I fashioned.  It’s instead the air that carries it throughout the heavens.

That is the primary sentiment of all our prayers.  Shout praises.  Give thanks.  Not because God needs them but because we need them.  On Shabbat morning we offer these words: “Even if our mouths were full of song as the sea, and our tongues full of joy as countless waves, and our lips full of praise as wide as the sky’s expanse…we could never thank You enough, Adonai, our God and God of our ancestors.”  Keep giving thanks.  Never tire of singing praises to God.  Clap along!

“Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof/Because I’m happy/Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth/Because I’m happy.”

Ancient words or contemporary songs, the sentiment must remain the same.  Regardless of the century our spirits require gratitude.  It is good to fill those cups with fine wine, but it is even better and more important to fill the heart with thanks.   

Then there is no choice but to dance and sing: Because I’m happy.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Passover Questioning

On Monday evening we will gather around our Seder tables to celebrate Passover. One of the hallmarks of this occasion is the Four Questions. Usually the youngest child sings the words “Mah nishtanah—why is this night different from all other nights?” This ritual is based on the Talmudic dictum, in Pesachim 116a, that a son must ask his father questions about the Passover Seder. The Talmud then asks, what happens if the child is not intelligent enough to ask questions. It counsels that parents must then teach their children the questions to ask. Still concerned, and uncomfortable leaving anything to chance, the Talmud provides the questions with which we are familiar, or at least three of them. The third question about reclining was substituted by the medieval thinker Moses Maimonides in place of a Talmudic question about sacrifices.

And now in our own day and age we are left with this ritualized asking of questions rather than our tradition’s original intent. We sing the questions rather than asking our own. But our children’s hearts are supposed to be filled with questions. The Seder is meant to prompt them to ask many questions, the first of which is why is this night different? Instead we attempt to fill them with answers. We prepare them for all manners of tests with the admonition that this will prepare you for college and that will prepare you for a career. Answers do not prepare you for life. The foundation of a Jewish religious life is the asking of questions. Encourage them to ask. Urge them to question. The future depends on new answers to questions we do not even know to ask.

Once I learned about Isidor Isaac Rabi, the Nobel laureate in physics, who is credited for not only his work on the Manhattan Project but for also laying the groundwork for magnetic resonance imagery and the microwave oven with which you will soon use to heat up your Passover leftovers. He was once asked, “Why did you become a scientist, rather than a doctor or lawyer or businessman, like the other immigrant kids in the neighborhood?” He answered, “My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: ‘Nu? Did you learn anything today?’ But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. ‘Izzy, she would say, ‘Did you ask a good question today?’ That difference—asking good questions—made me become a scientist.”

That in a nutshell is the essence of a Jewish life. You can know all the answers to the myriad of tests we take throughout our lives and become quite expert at filling in the correct bubbles with pencils but still not be able to tackle the most fundamental questions. Why am I different? What is my purpose in this world? What meaning can I bring to this life and the lives surrounding me? Asking these questions does not mean that answers are always discovered. A lifetime sitting around Seder tables discussing, and sometimes debating, such questions can still leave us without answers and perhaps sometimes even more questions. Still the effort must never be neglected.

You can sing the Four Questions on Monday evening or you can also ask questions that really matter. How is this night going to make me better? How is this night going to make my world better? Just because the answers to such questions appear unquantifiable and perhaps even unknowable does not mean we should stop asking or just keep singing yesterday’s questions.

The essence of our life’s quest is sometimes lost in singing questions that we were given to us. The meaning of our life is discovered in asking, and asking again, our own questions.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Metzorah, Mikvehs and Healing Waters

After five years of tackling Leviticus, I wonder if I have exhausted the appealing topics contained in this week’s portion. I have talked about leprosy and how we approach the sick. I have written about the rabbinic interpretation derived from these verses and the rabbis’ counsel to refrain from gossip. What is left to discuss? Should I venture where few Reform rabbis dare go and discuss the topic I always skip over with my b’nai mitzvah students and my fellow JCB staff urged me to avoid?

In Leviticus 15:15 and following we discover the biblical basis for taharat ha-mishpachah, the family purity laws. These laws prohibit sexual relations between husband and wife during a woman’s menstrual period until after she immerses in the mikveh, ritual bath. The most important detail about the mikveh is that it must contain living waters and so mikvaot collect rain water, but a river or ocean could also do. To the ancient mind these living waters restored life after the apparent loss of life symbolized by the menstrual blood.

To be fair, the Bible also concerns itself with men’s bodily fluids. The rabbis, however, allowed this requirement to fall into disuse. Is this evidence of their sexism? Women are required to visit the mikveh to overcome their “ritual impurity.” But men? Their obligation to visit the mikveh is no longer of consequence. Do you wish to know more? I am not sure I wish to. Still, I request of you, read on. This is Torah too.

By rabbinic times the length of a woman’s “ritual impurity” had expanded to fourteen days. The rabbis added a week to be sure she was no longer menstruating and then said women, in their devotion and religiosity, had added these days. And so two weeks following the conclusion of a woman’s period she visits the ritual bath so that she and her husband are once again permitted physical intimacy. Such laws appear out of step with our contemporary sensibilities. I remain baffled as well. Why would a woman allow a man to determine when her period has ended? And yet today the mikveh is being reclaimed by liberal Jews. Is it possible to infuse these rituals with new meaning?

Part of the reclamation to be sure is that women are now the decision makers. Women are turning to each other for wisdom and counsel—and not to men. Women are deciding if and when they should visit the mikveh. The other piece to our renewed understanding is that we believe that the body’s natural processes do not render anyone unclean. And so in the liberal world the ritual bath is starting to be used by both brides and grooms, as the tradition dictates, to mark the transition to married life. It is being used, again as Jewish tradition requires, to mark the entry into Jewish life by conversion students.

I must admit, there is no more powerful and spiritual moment for me as a rabbi than standing outside the door of the mikveh and listening for the sounds of the water enveloping my conversion student’s body and then hearing the words of the blessing: “Baruch Ata Adonai…who commands us regarding immersion.” “Amen!” And then more gentle splashes. “Baruch Ata Adonai…shehechiyanu v’kiyamanu v’higiyanu lazman hazeh—who gives us life, sustains us and brings us to this very moment.” Again I shout, “Amen!” And then my colleagues and I exclaim, “Mazel tov!” I hear the sounds of rejoicing and laughter and sometimes even sobs of joy. Splashes accompany the exit from the ritual bath. The water soothes. The living waters restore. Healing is uncovered.

The mikveh is finding new meaning for women struggling to overcome abuse, or to mark the conclusion of treatments for breast cancer, or to overcome the loss of a potential life after a miscarriage. Are there even more possibilities for the renewal of this ancient ritual? There is something about the power of water. It rejuvenates. It is restorative. Today we are only weeks away before we once again hear the shouts of joy accompanying our children playing in pools or splashing in the ocean’s waves. I count the days until the open water swimming season begins and I can leave doing laps in an indoor chlorinated pool behind and discover again the freedom of swimming in the waters of the Long Island Sound.

There is meaning to be found in the waters. There is power to be discerned in this ancient tradition. Perhaps the issue was never the mikveh. It was instead the decision makers. If I make the mikvah my own I can discover restoration and even rebirth at the water’s edge. The poet Denise Levertov writes: “Faith’s a tide, it seems, ebbs and flows responsive/to action and inaction.”

And so it remains. The living waters continue to offer us more than we initially thought possible.

And that will always remain my endeavor. “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it.” (Avot 5:22)