Friday, June 27, 2014

Hukkat, Soccer, You and We

The hero of the Torah, Moses, is not allowed to enter the Promised Land. The reason for this is because of what happens in this week’s portion.

The people were once again complaining. This time they were screaming for water. Moses is instructed to order a rock to provide water. Instead Moses hits the rock in anger and shouts at the people, “Listen you rebels!” (Numbers 20) Because Moses did not follow God’s instructions, hitting the rock and screaming at the people he was punished and told that he would only see the dream from afar, that he would not be allowed to lead the people into the land of Israel.

It seems a rather harsh punishment for a man who devoted so many years to leading a rather difficult people through even more difficult circumstances. Then again we can discern a lesson from this: one moment of anger can undo a lifetime of work. On the other hand Moses’ sin might not so much have been about his anger but as some commentators suggest the fact that he separated himself from the community he led. He screamed “you” instead of shouting “we.”

Anger is not always inappropriate. There are many injustices that are deserving of our indignation. Sometimes we can only right wrongs when we sing as one and say, “We shall…” Perhaps Moses was right to get angry but wrong to see himself apart from the community. So much more can be accomplished, and overcome, and even righted when we are joined together as one.

Like many I have been reveling in soccer these past days. (Go USA!) Futbol is a wonderful sport to watch at the World Cup level. Most games are low scoring by our American standards. For a goal to be scored most of a team’s players are usually involved moving the ball up the field (nay, pitch) and then into the net. It is a beautiful thing to see a team of eleven working in concert with another. That is soccer at its best.

This is the reason why the referee can issue a red card if a player hits his own teammate. Such an act happened in a recent Cameroon game. The referee did not see it so there was no penalty, but the sportscasters noted it and replayed it for all to witness. For all of FIFA’s scandals (may the 2022 games be moved from Qatar to the US!) it makes a remarkable statement about the value of teamwork by delineating a penalty for acting so egregiously against one’s own team.

Very little can be accomplished when there is dissension and disunity. Much can be achieved when we restrain our own egos (even the greatest and most skilled soccer players sometimes only pass the ball to the goal scorer; take that LeBron!) and say together, “we.” Leadership must always be about saying what we can do, rather than here is what you must do.

It seems to me that the tone of so many of today’s leaders is more about what the other guy is doing wrong rather than what we can, and must, accomplish together. Too often I hear Moses’ words in the mouths of our leaders, “Listen you rebels…listen you rebels…” We need more to say, “we” and far less to say, “you.”

In the moment that Moses said “you” and not “we” he actually became the rebel and was denied his lifelong dream.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Korah, Revolutions and Altalena Moments

On June 20, 1948 a ship, the Altalena, carrying arms and fighters bound for the fledgling army of the newly founded State of Israel, reached the shore off the coast of Tel Aviv.  There was only one problem.  The arms shipment was arranged by the more radical Irgun led by Menachem Begin and not by David ben Gurion and the Israel Defense Forces.  Begin and ben Gurion had only recently made an agreement to bring the Irgun under the leadership of the IDF.  In addition a truce had recently been brokered between Israel and the Arab armies.

Ben Gurion was adamant that the Altalena and its cargo of weapons and fighters surrender to the IDF.  There could be only one leader and one army during this trying moment in Israel’s history.  Begin refused to compromise.  He insisted that at the very least the arms be guaranteed to the Irgun fighters in their new IDF units.  Ben Gurion believed that such compromises would only create an army within an army.

The IDF concentrated forces on the beach and fired on the Altalena.  One shell hit the ship and caught fire.  Fearing that the ship would explode many jumped into the Mediterranean Sea.  IDF machine gunners continued their fire.  Sixteen Irgun fighters were killed.  Three IDF soldiers were also killed in the confrontation.  The details of this incident continue to be debated; the decisions remain controversial.  Its memories  as well continue to haunt many who struggled to establish the state during its early years.  Yitzhak Rabin was the commander of the IDF forces assembled at the beach. 

I remember meeting an Irgun fighter a year after Rabin’s assassination.  He said in response to my pain about the assassination and what I termed a great tragedy for the State of Israel and the Jewish people, “I will not shed a tear for the man who was responsible for killing my brothers.”

This week we read about Korah’s rebellion against Moses’ leadership.  On the surface Korah’s criticisms appear legitimate.  In essence, he argues that Moses concentrates all the power in his own hands.  God’s judgment is harsh, and even ruthless.  Korah and all his followers, as well as their households, are killed.  “Scarcely had Moses finished speaking all these words when the ground under them burst asunder, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korah’s people and all their possessions.” (Numbers 16:32-33)

Every revolution has such moments of clarity, and yes even of ruthless violence, against one’s own people.  A nation can only be built, a people created if there is a clarity of vision.  Sometimes, history teaches us, such ideals can only be upheld by defending them with arms. Leaders always believe that their decisions are decisive, that they can bend the arc of history, that they, and they alone, are leading their people through such a revolutionary moment and that all who oppose them are rebels.  Who is labeled a rebel and who called a great leader is left to the judgment of history.  It is only looking back through the lens of history that we gain these insights.  In the throes of these moments there is only pain.

Three Israel teenagers were kidnapped a week ago: Naftali Frankel, Gilad Shaar, and Eyal Yifrach.  Despite extensive searches throughout the West Bank and in particular Hebron they have yet to be found.  The Jewish people are united in prayer.  May they soon be returned home to their families in peace and in full health!  And yet I wonder if the Palestinians and their leadership have reached a moment of decisiveness.  The Palestinian Authority Prime Minister, Mahmoud Abbas, directed his ire at the kidnappers and said, “These three boys are human beings like us, and they should be returned to their families.”

And while I recognize and am deeply pained by the celebrations of the kidnapping in the Palestinian street and as well by the unity government formed between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, I offer this tentative hope that this moment can become one of decisive leadership when those who wish only for the destruction of Israel rather than the creation of a Palestinian State are excised from the Palestinian polity, when a clear vision of something beautiful and lasting is offered to the Palestinians and to this conflict filled region.  That would be such an occasion to offer sweets to one another.

Revolutions require such decisive moments. 

I continue to hope and pray that one day I will look back on these days, through the blessing of history, and see today’s moment as the time when the vision of two states for two peoples was clarified and reborn.

For more details on the Altalena Affair visit the Jewish Virtual Library.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Shelach Lecha, Wild Things and Faith

“And the wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws.” (Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are)

And ten of the spies sent by Moses to scout the land report: “The land that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers.  All the people that we saw in it are men of great size; we saw the giants and the children of giants, and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” (Numbers 13:32-33)

Max, the hero of Sendak’s book, overcomes his fears, and in particular his anger, by imagining that he is their ruler, that he is their master.  Imagination is a powerful tool.  Within it we discover the secret of our success.  Within it are the sparks of creativity.  This is exactly the wisdom of Judaism’s insights about the yetzer hara, often translated as the evil inclination.  Within this we discover, for example, desire and drive.  These traits can lead us toward passion, commitment and love, or lust. They can move us toward invention and achievement on the one hand, or jealousy and vengeance on the other.   The creative spirit hovers between these extremes.

We learn as well that imagination can conspire against us, creating fear in our hearts.  That is part of the lesson of Maurice Sendak’s brilliant book.  The line between fear and hope is thin.  It is also the lesson of this week’s portion.  It is hard to believe that there were in fact giants who ruled the land of Israel.  The evidence of this truth are the Torah’s words: we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves.  Faith is about how we perceive ourselves.  Ten of the spies lacked faith in their assigned task and in their ability to achieve their destined goal.  This is why the people are condemned to wander for forty years before returning to this crossroad once again.

Only Joshua and Caleb believed that the people would succeed.  They scouted the same land and saw the same sights and yet they returned with a message of hope.  Curiously the details of their report are not found in the Torah.  We only read: “Caleb hushed the people before Moses and said, ‘Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it.’” (Numbers 13: 30)  Perhaps they, like Max, mastered their emotions, summoned their faith and overcame their fears.  Perhaps the men of the land were indeed giants, but Joshua and Caleb nonetheless did not see themselves as grasshoppers.

Although Hebrew offers the term emunah for faith, the tradition more often uses yirah and in particular yirat hashamayim.  This phrase can be translated as fear of heaven or as I prefer, awe.  Yet the lesson remains. Fear and awe are near to one another.  Faith is a matter of how we regard heaven, of what we believe our relationship is to God, of how we imagine ourselves in regard to the Almighty.

It is true God is a giant by comparison.  And yet this does not mean we must see ourselves as puny grasshoppers. 

Fear, and faith, are a matter of how we see ourselves.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Shavuot and All Night Study

This evening begins the holiday of Shavuot.  Although it celebrates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, it is not widely observed.  Why?  Unlike Passover with its Seder and four cups of wine and Sukkot with its booths and four species (the lulav and etrog), Shavuot offers little more than an all-night Torah study session.  That is to be honest a difficult sell.

And yet what could be more defining than the study of Torah?  More than anything else Talmud Torah, the study of Torah, is what makes us a Jewish people.  This act has allowed us to breathe new life into an ancient text for generations.  It is not an easy task of course.  Study is challenging.  The meaning discovered in these words can sometimes be elusive.  But we continue to pour over the words of Torah.

Year after year we read the same portions.  Generation after generation we uncover new, and different, meaning in the Torah’s words.  This is what Shavuot celebrates.

The freedom we mark on Passover discovers its true importance when wedded to the gift of Torah.  This is why the date of Shavuot is given in a different manner than all other holidays.  We count from the second night of Passover seven weeks (shavuot) until arriving at the holiday of Shavuot.  The holiday’s name intimates this important connection.  Even the wandering we celebrate on Sukkot is given fuller meaning by the celebration of the fact that as we wander we continue to carry the Torah in our arms. 

What we most prize is a book. 

It is not just the act of carrying this book, even though throughout our history, and in too many instances, we did so under duress and even threat of persecution.  It is not simply holding this book close to our hearts and carrying it from one place to another, or even lifting this scroll into the arms of our children, but instead pouring over its words and wresting meaning from its pages.  True, study can be difficult and challenging, and sometimes because of the Hebrew and the verses’ ancient constructs, appear off-putting and uninviting.  And yet Talmud Torah remains defining.  The study of Torah leads us to everything we must do, to everything we are required to do, to all that we envision for our most noble selves.

The Talmud teaches: These are the things that are limitless of which a person enjoys the fruit of the world, while the principal remains in the world to come.  They are: honoring one’s father and mother, engaging in deeds of compassion, arriving early for study, morning and evening, dealing graciously with guests, visiting the sick, providing for the wedding couple, accompanying the dead for burial, being devoted in prayer, and making peace among people.  But the study of Torah encompasses them all. (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 127a)

For the Jewish people it begins and ends with the study of Torah.