Thursday, April 30, 2015

Achrei Mot-Kedoshim Riots and Earthquakes

This week we read the Holiness Code which details many ethical obligations among them the commandment to love the stranger. “You shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:34) I think of this verse as I read about the riots in Baltimore and the devastating earthquake in Nepal. Our hearts are joined in sorrow, our voices are combined in prayer.

If you would like to support the rescue and rebuilding efforts in Nepal I recommend the American Jewish World Service, a Jewish organization that reaches out to the world and helps to bring it healing.  AJWS responds to the world's trials with a Jewish heart.

We know the feelings of the stranger.  We know the heart of the outsider.  Let us reach out to those in pain.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Yom Haatzmaut and Wandering Home

On this day of Yom Haatzmaut we celebrate Israel’s accomplishments.

In the first years of Israel’s existence the small country of Israel welcomed more immigrants than the number of citizens absorbing them. In its first years the state welcomed 685,000 immigrants. It was to say the least a remarkable achievement. Ari Shavit, in his remarkable book My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, points out that this would be equivalent to 21st century America absorbing 350 million immigrants. Not only was this the fulfillment of the age-old Jewish dream of gathering the Jewish exiles from the four corners of the world, but it was as well the embodiment of the Declaration of Independence’s words:
The catastrophe which recently befell the Jewish people – the massacre of millions of Jews in Europe – was another clear demonstration of the urgency of solving the problem of the Jews' homelessness by re-establishing in Eretz Yisrael [the land of Israel] the Jewish State, which would open the gates of the homeland wide to every Jew and confer upon the Jewish people the status of a fully privileged member of the community of nations.
Israel is first and foremost about building a home for the Jewish people. Zionism is about ending statelessness. It is about correcting Jewish homelessness. Ari Shavit writes about one immigrant’s arrival in 1951. It is the story of Zeev Sternhell:
[A]s we disembarked, a few children knelt and kissed the ground. I didn’t kneel or kiss the ground, but I felt I had arrived. This was the last station— no more wandering, no more transformations, no more false identities. No more fraud and forgery. No more not being myself. For subterfuge and deceit were not needed here. Something artificial and scary fell away from me. Something that had to do with the perpetual need I felt to justify myself. But in the State of Israel I no longer had to justify or explain. It was a great relief. I didn’t speak Hebrew yet, I didn’t know what the future held. I was alone, without possessions or protection. But I was filled with the amazing feeling that the long, excruciating journey had come to an end.
Zionism means no more wandering, no more longing to return. It means we have returned. The State of Israel represents the shift from an imaginary home that is the stuff of dreams to a real home of the land and earth. For centuries the far-flung dream of “Next year in Jerusalem” sustained us. Now it is real.

And yet questions remain. How do we continue to sustain our ideals? It is far easier to be idealistic, to speak about lofty dreams, when one is a homeless wanderer. In the diaspora we only had dreams and ideals. And yet with centuries of idealism came thousands of years of victimization. Zionists were, and remain, brutal realists. Home was transitory. It was impermanent. Zionism corrected this—forever.

Ari Shavit again:
Without a Jewish state, secular Jews like himself would stand naked in the world. They would have no home, no collective self, and no future. Therefore, Sternhell embraced his new identity completely. Only in Israel did he not have to justify himself or hide himself. Only as an Israeli could he turn from being an object of history to being a subject of history. Only as an Israeli could he be the master of his own fate.
We are now masters of our own history. We are not dependent on world powers but instead on Jewish power. Still we continue to ask: how do we wield sovereign power with ethics and justice? How do we transform our thinking now that we are home? How do we shift our age-old beliefs now that we have Jewish sovereignty? How do we exile thousands of years of diaspora thinking no more seeing ourselves as objects but instead as subjects?

We wander no more. Still our thoughts continue to search for a home. Our ideals wander.

We built a state because of our dreams. We survived for the sake of our dreams. Now we are home. And dreams must continue to sustain our souls.

We sing about a better tomorrow.

“May the One who brings peace to the high heavens make peace for us…”

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Yom Haatzmaut Blessings

This evening marks Yom Haatzmaut, 67 years since the State of Israel declared its independence.  On that day David Ben Gurion declared:
We appeal to the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora to rally round the Jews of Eretz Yisrael [land of Israel] in the tasks of immigration and building up and to stand by them in the great struggle for the realization of the age-old dream - the redemption of Israel.

Yehuda Amichai writes:
Visits of condolence is all we get from them.
They squat at Yad VaShem,
They put on grave faces at the Kotel
And they laugh behind heavy curtains
In their hotels.
They have their pictures take
Together with our famous dead
At Rachel's Tomb and Herzl's Tomb
And on the top of Ammunition Hill.
They weep over our sweet boys
And lust over our tough girls
And hang up their underwear
To dry quickly
In cool, blue bathrooms.

I have since visited Israel many times.  I live in a blessed age when I can travel to Israel with freedom and ease.  There is your Rabbi Moskowitz on his first trip to Israel during the summer of 1979.  And yes there he is standing front and center but apparently already distracted and focused by something off in the distance.

The poem continues:
Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David's Tower, I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. "You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there's an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head." "But he's moving, he's moving!" I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them, "You see that arch from the Roman period? It's not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who's bought fruit and vegetables for his family."
Perhaps that is what I already saw then, that has captured my heart ever since.  We are home.

The Declaration of Independence affirms:
The catastrophe which recently befell the Jewish people - the massacre of millions of Jews in Europe - was another clear demonstration of the urgency of solving the problem of the Jews' homelessness by re-establishing in Eretz Yisrael the Jewish State, which would open the gates of the homeland wide to every Jew and confer upon the Jewish people the status of a fully privileged member of the community of nations.
You can feel it in the air.

...there sits a man who brought fruit and vegetables for his family.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Yom HaZikaron Fragments

This evening marks the beginning of Yom HaZikaron, Israel's memorial day.  This is a day of mourning set aside to remember the soldiers who gave their lives defending the State of Israel and the Jewish people.

Below is the grave of Hannah Senesh, the poet who gave her life trying to rescue Jews trapped by the Nazi's murderous onslaught of Hungary.

Her words still ring true:
Yesh kochavim…
There are stars
whose light touches the earth only after they themselves have disintegrated
and are no more.
And there are people
whose shimmering memories light the world after they themselves are no more
among us.
These lights
which light up the darkest night

they are the starry lights that illumine a person’s path.

A grave of an unknown soldier who died in the battle for Jerusalem in 1948.

And the words of the unparalleled Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai:
God has pity on kindergarten children.
He has less pity on school children.
And on grownups he has no pity at all,
he leaves them alone,
and sometimes they must crawl on all fours
in the burning sand
to reach the first-aid station,
covered with blood.

But perhaps he will watch over true lovers
and have mercy on them and shelter them
like a tree over the old man
sleeping on a public bench.

Perhaps we too will give them
the last rare coins of compassion
that Mother handed down to us,
so that their happiness will protect us
now and in other days.

The day is also given to mourning victims of terror.  I am proud that Israeli officials have urged us to find room in the Jewish heart to grieve Muhammed Abu Khdeir, the young Palestinian boy murdered this past summer by Jewish extremists.  His name is now etched along side the many Jewish victims of Arab terror on Har Herzl's memorial.  This decision is not without controversy. I however find hope in this recognition.  

Yitgadal v'yitkadash...  Indeed when the heart is opened to all wounds God's name is magnified and sanctified.  

And so I pray. Let there be no more victims.  Let there be no more mothers and fathers grieving young deaths.  I rely again on the poet's words:

Let peace come
like wildflowers,
suddenly, because the field
must have it: wildpeace.

I am saddened to add that Muhammed's family requested that his name be removed from the memorial.  His father Hussein stated: "My son is gone, my son was burned and we were burned with him. I want justice and not honor. What good is it going to do me if they carve his name in stone?"

Friday, April 17, 2015

Yom HaShoah Names

In memory of the six million and in observance of Yom HaShoah, pictures from Yad Vashem's archives.

Thousands of names...

Millions of names...



Thursday, April 16, 2015

Yom HaShoah and Survivor Voices

We say: Never again!

Still we see: Rwanda. Bosnia. Cambodia.

And then we realize.  We have failed to heed this sacred call.  We have failed to teach the world the universal import of the Holocaust.  Never again must mean an end to all genocides.  Evil still persists.

One need only read the newspapers or search the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website to discover the demonic hate that we fear might become future atrocities.  How many more such instances of human beings slaughtering other human beings must our children and grandchildren read about in their history classes until never again becomes a reality? 

And yet for the Jewish people never again has become real.  Because of a vibrant and strong Jewish state, the Jewish people are no longer victimized.  Antisemitism to be sure continues.  Individual Jews are harassed.  Jewish communities are under attack.  But the Jewish people can no longer be persecuted.   Now we can defend ourselves.  Today we know that Jewish life will never again be cheapened.

This is a remarkable turn of events from the tragedy and destruction of a prior generation.  We recall their sacrifice.  We remember the six million lives destroyed for no other reason than they were Jews.  While there are many reasons why the Nazi evil was different than other genocides (factories were built for one purpose alone: mass murder), it remains distinct in our hearts because it happened to our people.  The Shoah stings because it remains our loss.

We recall on this day.  Six survivors. How many millions were silenced?  How many voices stilled?  Let their words be our remembrances. Take a few moments to watch Yad Vashem's torchlighter testimonies. 

Six voices.  Let their survival give us hope. 

Shela Altaraz.
Avraham Harshalom.
Eggi Lewysohn.
Ephraim Reichenberg.
Dov Shimoni.
Sara Weinstein.

Let the world never again know genocide.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Passover, Rains and Miracles

The holiday of Passover brings with it many changes. There is of course the grand Seder meals. We eat matzah rather than bread for eight days (and some seven). We adjust our routines of where we eat out. There is a different air surrounding our kitchens and dining room tables. The week stands apart.

In the prayer service as well we make some adjustments. At Pesah we stop reciting: “You cause the wind to blow and the rain to fall.” This line is added to the second paragraph of the Amidah in which we extol God’s power and might. We add this prayer for rain beginning in the fall with the holiday of Sukkot. Why recite a prayer for rain during the winter months?

It is because in the land of Israel the rainy season begins around Sukkot and concludes around Pesah. Many of our prayers continue to focus on Jerusalem and Israel. Even though we do not live in Israel our prayers direct our hearts toward there. Our dreams, and the prayers that give life to these dreams, are wrapped up in that place. Even though our winters are filled with snow (and this past winter far too much snow) we still pray for the life giving rains our holy land desperately requires.

This additional prayer teaches us two things. 1. No matter where we live the Jewish soul reaches out to touch the land of Israel. This is why I continue to observe eight days of Pesah. The additional eighth day is only added for those who live outside the land, for those like ourselves who live in the diaspora. With the advent of computers there is no confusion about the calendar and no delay in the message broadcast from Jerusalem that the holiday begins, eight days remind us that as much as I love my home and this extraordinary country in which I live, every place, every land, every synagogue, every home, is but a fraction of the Jewish ideal found in eretz yisrael.

And 2. We only pray for what is likely to occur. Let me explain. We do not pray for rain during the dry, summer months when if you ever visited Jerusalem during these months you would know that even the air is devoid of humidity. Instead we pray for rain only when we expect it to rain. This is an important lesson about prayer. We do not pray for miracles. Even though our prayers describe an all-powerful God that we believe is capable of anything and everything we do not ask God to exert these powers.

Instead we pray that the world, and nature, might follow its established patterns. In a sense our prayer is: God, please keep this beautiful earth that You created harmonious. Let there be shalom, peace and wholeness. Let me discover evidence of Your hand when the expected rains fall, the flowers’ buds emerge and the grass returns to green.

When nature is again restored, when it rains when it is supposed to rain my prayers are affirmed and my faith is fortified.

During the holiday of Sukkot, when we peer through the flimsy roofs of our temporary booths and see the full harvest moon, we do not add the prayer for rain. We wait until we go inside from our sukkot that we add this prayer. Even though the rainy season begins with this holiday we delay our prayers so that our joy might not be diminished and our holiday will not become ruined.

And then when the stars are not obscured by rain we discover one small miracle. When we leave our Seders and see again that full moon, we discover miracles in the sky. The world remains ordered. Our holidays continue to brighten our year.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Passover Questions

Isidor Isaac Rabi, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1944 for his development of MRI technology, was once asked what made him become a scientist rather than a doctor, lawyer or businessman, like all the other immigrant kids in his 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.’”

The entire Passover Seder is structured with one goal in mind: to elicit the asking of questions. We open the meal by washing our hands without reciting a blessing. We taste bitter herbs. We eat matzah. The Haggadah was written in fulfillment of the command to tell the story of our going out from Egypt. Central to this retelling is the asking of questions.

And yet in the vast majority of Jewish homes we simply turn the Haggadah from one page to the next. We look ahead to see when the meal might arrive. We even recite a formula of questions rather than asking ourselves: Why indeed is this night different from all other nights?

Long ago the rabbis began writing the Haggadah and developing the rituals that define our Seder meal. They were educators. They sought to teach. They understood that the asking of questions is how each generation remakes the tradition and refashions a Jewish life for their own age. But questioning makes us uncomfortable. We shy away from asking. We are so afraid that our children’s Judaism might look different than our own that we recite line after line. Instead we should be asking more questions. We might ask how we are still slaves.

Long ago there was a discussion about the meaning of slavery. “Which was worse,” our ancestors debated, “political enslavement to Pharaoh in Egypt or spiritual slavery to the idols Terah, Abraham’s father, once worshipped?” The argument continued until the early hours of the morning. Thus the commandment to retell the exodus was fulfilled. Later generations made this debate into our ritual. We recite: “In the beginning our ancestors were idol worshipers…” The debate is relegated to the past rather than brought to life in the present.

The Seder and its companion the Haggadah are meant as discussion starters rather than a detailed script. And yet now these words have achieved sacred status. We have grown afraid to ask. I am tempted to cast the words aside and argue, “Why is this night different? Indeed why are we different? What can we offer to humanity? How will these traditions help my children bring healing to our broken world?”

Questions are the essence of who we are. In every generation we have asked anew what kind of Judaism does the future require? The Seder suggests an educational philosophy that empowers our children, our students. It recognizes that our children will be different than ourselves. It insists that they are meant to be different. It reflects a thinking in which questions are the cornerstones of teaching.

We seek not to mold our children into carbon copies of ourselves but instead provide them with invitations to ask. The Seder imagines a child saying, “Mom, why did you forgot to say the blessing after you washed your hands?” I imagine then a discussion of blessings. Why do we wash? Why do we say blessings? Why should we pray?

Are there wicked questions? Can there be a wicked student? I don’t believe so. There are no limits to what may be asked when sitting around the table surrounded by friends and family. Do not be afraid. Be courageous.

Ask. Discuss. Question. Debate.

If we are open to our children’s why’s we invite a better, and more lasting, future.