Thursday, January 29, 2015

Beshalach and Tibetan Shul

This week we begin the wandering that defines the remainder of our Torah.

I am in the midst of reading Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost. I am taken with the author’s meditations on journeying. She quotes a Tibetan sage who lived six hundred years ago. He teaches about the meaning of a path, a track. In Tibetan, this is called, shul.
[A shul is] a mark that remains after that which made it has passed by— a footprint, for example. In other contexts, shul is used to describe the scarred hollow in the ground where a house once stood, the channel worn through rock where a river runs in flood, the indentation in the grass where an animal slept last night. All of these are shul: the impression of something that used to be there.
Too often we pine after such impressions. We long for what we believe we had years ago. We conjure images of the past and mythologize distant events.

After seeing Fiddler on the Roof for the first time I asked my grandmother who spent her first ten years living in a shtetl outside of Bialystok about shtetl life. I walked away from the show believing much of the play’s idyllic portrayal. My Nana immediately disabused me of such notions. “The Cossacks murdered Jews. We were always hungry. No one in the shtetl got along.” (By the way Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman, upon which the Broadway play is based, offers a more realistic and sobering account.)

Our wandering ancestors also reimagine the past. “We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!” (Numbers 11:5-6)

One wonders if the intention of our wandering was to get lost. Then such mythic remembrances could die in the wilderness and only a new future could be seen. Then only the dream would be held in our hearts. Perhaps God sets us out to wander with this purpose in mind. To move forward towards dreams we must let go of our longings for yesterday.

And yet the past appears to offer security. Memory seems more clear than the future’s uncertainty. We cannot know what future will look like. And in this unknowing our discomfort grows. We become nostalgic for the past.  We long for the impression of what used to be there.

Nostalgia pulls us backward. It is emotionally satisfying and perhaps even a times uplifting. But it is also a drug that quickly becomes toxic. Why? Because we mistakenly believe that the past is known and the future uncertain. Our minds play tricks on us. We reimagine events. We write new histories. Thus nostalgia makes for a poor foundation on which to construct a future. In fact the word “nostalgia” came into English usage to describe a medical condition of intense homesickness. During the American Civil War, for instance, Northern doctors attributed a number of soldiers’ deaths to nostalgia.

I require no gifts of prophecy to declare that the future will look different than the past. Do we worry like the Israelites who long for the certainty of slavery or do we ask difficult questions? Do we choose an uncertain picture of an unknown future over an imperfect impression of a worn past? Do we choose a dream, a vision over nostalgia, longing? Do we look to long term stability over short term rewards?

The Talmud teaches:
One day, Honi the Circle Maker was walking on the road and saw a man planting a carob tree. Honi asked the man, “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?” The man replied, “Seventy years.” Honi then asked the man, “And do you think you will live another seventy years and eat the fruit of this tree?” The man answered, “Perhaps not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees.” (Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 23a)
I do not know what the trees I plant will look like in 70 years. Who among us believes that we will live beyond 120 years? I cannot know if the dreams I hold in my heart will flower or even bear fruit. Nonetheless I pledge to choose the future over the past. I knowingly choose uncertainty over fading impressions. I choose dreams!

“So God led the people around and around, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds.” (Exodus 13:18)

I will continue to wander.

And we will write a new Torah.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Bo, Freedom and Meaning

“Let My people go!” Moses declares to Pharaoh. (Exodus 10:3)

This familiar verse is often cited as a defense of freedom and individual liberty. What is the meaning of freedom? Does it mean that we are free to do whatever we want? Is it permissible, for instance, to draw cartoons that others find offensive? Are we free to shout words that others find provocative?

Speech and the freedom of expression have limits. Most of us remember learning how the US Supreme Court drew its few lines around speech. The court affirmed the First Amendment but added that we are forbidden from screaming “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater. In other words speech can be curtailed when there is clear evidence that our words will cause others physical harm. Now that people crowd together in lesser numbers in theaters will the court one day redefine “fire” for the internet age?

Judaism teaches that words can be among the most hurtful weapons people wield. Our tradition argues that lashon hara, gossip, can destroy a person’s reputation, that misplaced words, or even evil speech, can cause irreparable harm to another. Still would we want our country’s legal tradition to limit speech? Would we want our nation to differentiate between sacred and profane and draw lines declaring some words as profanity and others sacrosanct.

The danger then becomes the words with which I agree are holy and those which I oppose are blasphemous. While I might be sympathetic to Muslims’ feelings I am still unwilling to limit a cartoonist’s right to draw even the most offensive cartoons. Would I still affirm this freedom of expression if the cartoonist rendered caricatures of Auschwitz? I have no doubt that I would deem such cartoons blasphemy. Would I then want my nation’s laws to hue to my definitions of holy and profane? Who gets to define what is blasphemy and what offends religious sensibilities? In liberal democracies we have declared such drawing of lines off limits.

Like all religious traditions Judaism speaks about blasphemy, calling it hillul hashem, desecrating God’s name. Often Jewish literature describes actions as defaming God. If a person is clearly identifiable as Jewish, i.e. wearing a kippah, and cheats in business then this constitutes a hillul hashem. This person dishonors the Jewish tradition and brings shame to God. The object of leading a Jewish life is not only to add meaning to an individual’s life but also, and perhaps more importantly, to bring others to Torah. By doing something unethical we undermine this goal. Doing something unscrupulous amounts to blasphemy.

Like Judaism every religious tradition circumscribes freedoms. The question at hand is the proper balance between individual freedoms and a tradition’s dictates. Although we might disagree about where to draw such lines, the meaning of freedom is discovered when one draws limits and in how one curtails freedoms. That is the contention of the Jewish tradition.

Judaism believes that freedom only gains its fulfillment when wedded to obligation. It is the pledge to others and to God where freedom becomes meaningful. In the devotion, in the choice to do something for another, or for God, meaning is gained.

We discover that the portion’s verse is often misquoted and left incomplete. The Torah declares: “Send My people out so that they may serve Me.”

I must choose service. I must choose to pray. I must choose the ethical. Freedom is the necessary condition for meaningful devotion.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Martin Luther King and Dreaming Big

What follows is the sermon I delivered this past Shabbat.

This weekend we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr Day. On this day we reflect on his achievements. We also ponder what remains to be realized in the civil rights struggle.

As you know Martin Luther King gave his most famous speech in August of 1963 standing before Washington DC’s Lincoln Memorial and in front of the thousands who marched there to further civil rights.

In that “I Have a Dream” speech, he said:
Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.
And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today!
After a particularly dark week, when despair grips us, when we see clear evidence of what happens when antisemitism goes unchecked, when terrorism again frightens us, I want to reflect not on these evils, but instead on the importance of dreams. Faith in general and Judaism in particular is built on the dream that tomorrow can be better than today. For the religious person dreams are not fantasies. They can be felt. They can be touched. Dreams are as real as the earth and sky. We tenaciously hold on to dreams despite what happens around us. We remain undeterred by tragedy. We do not veer because of evil.

Let us take but one example from history. For nearly 2,000 years we prayed, “Next year in Jerusalem!” I am certain there were times when some laughed at such statements, when there were even Jews who lost hope, who despaired and scoffed at such dreams, calling them perhaps fantasies. We have lived through unimaginably dark days and yet we continued to sing, we continued to shout, “We will return!” And now we have returned. Jerusalem is rebuilt; it is a teeming, thriving, modern city. Israel certainly faces its challenges—and that is perhaps an understatement—but let us take heart in the realization of our dream.

Do you think that Zionism could have been successful if not for that ancient hope, that Jewish dream that every child heard at their Seder tables? I don’t think so. Better realities are built on ancient dreams. That is what today’s Jerusalem should loudly proclaim to every Jewish child.

The person of faith does not dismiss dreams. The religious personality does not scoff at visions. They instead embrace them and take them into their hearts. At the darkest times, they don’t resort to cynicism. Instead they sing louder.

Sure there is a lot of work still to be done to realize Martin Luther King’s dream; we always fall short of dreams. Far too many African Americans do not share the opportunities my children take for granted. We can argue about the whys, but that fact remains unaltered. And yet my children really don’t judge others by the color of their skin or by their religion or by their sexual orientation. They look instead to the content of their character. In 1963 few could have imagined such a different reality could be realized within a lifetime.

Hatred, racism, antisemitism still exist; in some corners they even thrive, but we have traveled far. The civil rights dream is not yet fully real but we are so much better because we dreamed. During some days even dreaming is an act of courage! Sure we have to keep working harder to repair a great many things. But we traveled this far because of a dream. That is what must always be held before our eyes. We must keep dreaming. That is the answer.

And finally there is the dream of peace that we must continue to speak of. We don’t dismiss it because of a week marred by unspeakable evils. I admit, on this day this dream could not seem more distant. After this week the dream of peace cannot seem more elusive. What is the person of faith to do? Abandon dreaming? Abandon speaking of visions of a better tomorrow? Never! We continue to sing for peace.

Faith is the stubborn response to human frailty, to human flaws, and to the world’s imperfections. We do not ignore reality. Instead we refuse to be defeated by it. We continue to sing; we continue to dream.

The prophet Isaiah declared:
Let us go up to the Mount of the Lord,
To the House of the God of Jacob;
That He may instruct us in His ways,
And that we may walk in His paths.”
For instruction shall come forth from Zion,
The word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
Thus God will judge among the nations
And arbitrate for the many peoples,
And they shall beat their swords into plowshares
And their spears into pruning hooks:
Nation shall not take up
Sword against nation;
They shall never again know war. (Isaiah 2)
Part of the answer to our times, the response of faith is to dream. We restore hope by dreaming. We continue to sing: “Nation shall not take up sword against nation. They shall never again know war!”

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Vaera, Terrorism and the Hardened Heart

This past week was a painful and harrowing week. The attacks in Paris at Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket remind us once again of terrorism’s reach. In this age of terror the daily routine of going to a supermarket and what should be the uneventful drawing of cartoons become courageous. Ordinary, everyday acts, become acts of bravery.

What do we do? We muster our courage and steel our hearts by saying that it could never happen here. We say, “Paris was heading in this direction.” Or, “I don’t frequent places that are likely to be attacked?” Make no mistake. Shopping at the local kosher butcher is no more dangerous than the frequenting of the nearby Whole Foods. Terrorism instills fear in its randomness.

While terrorism may appear to be directed at harming lives its greatest danger is how it attacks the heart. And it is within the heart that we can achieve victory. Here is how the heart must respond.

First we must come to recognize that there is unmitigated evil in this world. Much of it comes from radical Islam. Calling our current struggle a war against terror is unhelpful. Terrorism is a tactic. It is not an ideology. Just as we once waged war against Nazism so must we battle Islamism. We must therefore wage a war of ideas against this ideology of hate.

Our military and police can prevent attacks and stop the advance for example of ISIS and Al Qaeda, but the war will be won in our hearts. And so we must hold fast to our commitment to a pluralistic society. We must continue to preach the democratic ideal that competing beliefs can not only coexist but also give rise to beauties that we might be unable to see if only surrounded by like-minded believers. In difference, and disagreement, holiness can be realized.

We must not harden our hearts against Muslims or those who are different. The ideas of pluralism and openness are what make us great. This is part of the allure of Paris. Holding such freedoms forever in our hearts is the first response.

The second is also a matter of the heart. We must never lose hope. Hope is the root of faith. Judaism continues to believe that tomorrow can be better than today. Despite the world’s tribulations we defiantly believe that it can be redeemed. The world can be made better.

For two thousand years our people, for example, refused to let go of the hope that one day we would return to our ancient land. Every summer I for one reassert that hope when I board a plane to travel to Jerusalem. Today’s Jerusalem is a modern city built on an ancient hope. That is what our faith is made of.

We waited a long time for the realization of this dream. We witnessed some of the darkest years history ever witnessed. Still hope remained secreted within our hearts.

This is our faith. No matter how vicious evil becomes hope will triumph. “I believe in perfect faith in the Messiah’s coming. And even though the Messiah is delayed, I will continue to wait every day.” One day the idea that harmony will exist in the midst of differently held, and even competing, beliefs will rule the day.

That is a battle of the heart.

This week my heart grows hard. It becomes increasingly inured to death and pain, terror and fanaticism. It responds with statements of distance, “It can’t happen here.”

“The Lord said to Moses: “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart…” (Exodus 7:3)

Can my heart traverse the distance? Can my heart achieve victory?

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Shemot and Saving Names

Why does the most important book of the Torah, the book of Exodus that details our people’s liberation from Egypt and tells the story that we recount at our Passover Seders begin with the most ordinary list of names?

“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. The total number of persons that were of Jacob’s issue came to seventy, Joseph being already in Egypt.” (Exodus 1) Certainly a more dramatic introduction could have been written.

Then again remarkable stories sometimes begin with the most mundane and seemingly ordinary opening lines. “Call me Ishmael.” is among the most famous of such opening lines. It begins the epic story of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The Torah however is more than a literary masterpiece. Each word, every sentence, suggests a lesson. Every nuance points to a teaching.

And so we learn that every story must begin by honoring those who came before us. The Talmud for example expends great effort discussing which rabbi authored an opinion. Before even beginning a debate the Talmud’s discussion frequently digresses to questions about authorship. “Did not Rabbi Michael Moskowitz say in the name of Rabbi Steven Moskowitz? Others say it was Rabbi Susie Moskowitz in the name of Rabbi Michael Moskowitz.”

Before we can march forward we must remember and honor those who came before us. Naming those who preceded us begins our story; it solidifies the lesson. We give honor to our predecessors. The secret to redemption, which is the theme of the Book of Exodus, turns on remembrance. Zachor, the command to remember, is a core Jewish belief. Forgetfulness on the other hand leads to ruin.

The story continues. “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” Pharaoh erases history. He forgets Joseph and the good he performed for Egypt. Pharaoh’s forgetfulness leads to our suffering.

Our salvation begins with remembrance. “God heard the Israelites’ moaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.” (Exodus 2) God remembers the promise made in prior generations, the pledge made to our forefathers. Pharaoh forgets. We suffer. God remembers. God names Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And we are redeemed.

The names become intertwined. The story unfolds.

The Exodus story hinges on the names we recount. In Hebrew the Book is called Shemot—Names. We name the children of Israel. And so begins the story of our redemption.

Our most important story, the story of our freedom from Egypt, begins with the recounting of names. We in turn begin the telling of our own history by naming our parents and grandparents. We recall our ancestors. Only by naming those who came before us can we find redemption and write a better future.

A prayer. We are saddened that once again we have witnessed another barbaric terrorist attack. Terrorism continues to strike at Western values. We mourn the murders of twelve people at the French magazine, Charlie Hedbo. We mourn the cartoonists, writers, editors and police officers. We pray for healing for those injured in the attack. We pray: may terrorism fail in its intent to strike fear in our hearts. May we instead find the strength to renew our faith in the values we hold dear: democracy, pluralism and freedom of the press.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Vayehi, Euphemisms and Truth Telling

Happy New Year! May 2015 be filled with good health and much happiness. May the world see at least a measure of peace!

I find myself wondering about euphemisms, the common phrases we use to shroud uncomfortable truths. Chief among these are those that we use to report death. “He passed,” we say. “She passed away,” others recount.

I wonder: do such phrases make the loss any less real? Do they shield us from the pain? And yet we continue to speak these words. Even the Bible mirrors these phrases. It appears to echo our discomfort.

The Torah reports: “When Jacob finished his instructions to his sons, he drew his feet into the bed and, breathing his last, he was gathered to his people.” (Genesis 49:33) The Haftarah affirms: “So David slept with his fathers, and he was buried in the City of David.” (I Kings 2:10) This is how the Bible reports the deaths of our forefather Jacob and King David.

But Judaism insists that we not shy away from confronting death. We must face its stark truth. There is no mitzvah more difficult than placing a shovel of earth into a loved one’s grave. Why do we do this? It is because we leave this act to no one but ourselves. We assume this responsibility with our own hands. We do not leave this task to strangers. We return the love given to us in life with this act of hesed, with an act that can never be repaid. By doing so we also, and perhaps even more importantly, help to see the reality of the death standing before our eyes. When taking the shovel into our hands there is no longer mistaking the truth that lies before us.

Still we continue to rely on euphemisms. We turn aside from truth. Our language obscures stark realities. In the newspapers we read about enhanced interrogation methods when we mean torture. We write of collateral damage when it is the violent deaths of innocent human beings we mean. Euphemisms obscure the truth that we must confront. I understand that in war soldiers must dehumanize their enemies with slang terms to obscure the horrible deeds they must do to defend our country and our lives. Their commanders as well come up with acronyms such as KIA to cover up the truth that they send good men and women to their deaths.

Such euphemisms continue to obfuscate the realities about which we must speak. Can we repair our world, can we bring even a measure of peace, when we are unable to speak with honesty and clarity?

The poet Peter Cole writes:
And may my love and language lead me into
that perplexity, and that simplicity,
altering what I might otherwise be.
But let it happen through speech’s clarity—
as normal magic, which certain words renew. (Things on Which I've Stumbled)
The truth about death is always harsh. It continues to sting. There is no mitigating its barbs.

Language always falls short.

“Joseph flung himself upon his father Jacob’s face and wept over him and kissed him.” (Genesis 50:1)

He was gathered to his people. Still the son mourns the father.