Thursday, June 25, 2015

Hukkat, Forgiveness and Righteous Anger

The rabbis imagine King Solomon, considered the wisest figure in the Bible, saying, “I have labored to understand the word of God and have understood it all, except for the ritual of the red heifer.” (Numbers Rabbah 19:3)

I struggle to understand a great many things. In particular I labor to understand the events of this past week.

These words echo in my thoughts. “I forgive you! You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”

Nadine Collier, the daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance, one of the nine victims murdered at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, uttered these words. They were said at the bond hearing of confessed murderer Dylann Roof. I find these sentiments both remarkable and incomprehensible.

Whereas forgiveness is central to Christian teachings, although the depths of such forgiveness may very well exceed that of many Christians, justice is paramount to Judaism. How can murder ever be forgiven? How can a human being offer something that belongs to God? And yet, forgiveness of another, and especially of such an egregious crime, prevents someone from wallowing in anger.

Then again, the lack of justice, and the familiar repetition of such massacres, gnaws at my soul. I turn angry. Once again the combination of guns, mental illness and racism have transformed hatreds into massacres. Add Charleston to the list of Newtown, Oak Creek and Aurora to name a few.

Forgiveness has its virtues. It is a balm for the soul. Perhaps it allows the mourners to remain closer to those they lost. Their forgiveness makes more room for their remembrances. They can remember their loved ones. They can mourn their losses rather than fixating on the justice that continues to appear ever more distant.

Commentators suggest that the bizarre sacrificial ritual of the red heifer, detailed in this week’s portion, is a method for safeguarding the ritual cleanliness of the priesthood. It guarantees that his sins might not despoil the sacrifices. We no longer offer sacrifices. We have no method for ensuring our purity. All human beings are given to wrongdoing. We cannot be rescued from our wrongs by the sprinkling of blood. Instead we must engage in repentance. The turning of the heart is within our hands. Forgiveness, however, remains in the hands of others. Forgiveness is elusive.

I return to my anger. Some, and perhaps these days we might say far too many,are given to evil.

When will we say, “Enough?” Is removing the Confederate flag enough? Symbols of hate are indeed powerful. But such hatred must be banished from the heart. How can we transform our anger into action and address the constellation of problems (and not just their symbols) that make this a recurring tale.

Even our president has been relegated to the role of chief priest. He leads us in mourning. He intones our tragedies. But such massacres are not tragedies. A tragedy is unavoidable. I remain convinced that we can do so much more to eliminate the litany of such mass murders. Let us say, “Enough!” Let us be stirred to action.

Anger has its merits. It can serve to build a better society. Let our anger be transformed into righteousness. Forgiveness remains with God.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Korah, Arguments and Disagreements

“Jane, you ignorant…” With these words Dan Aykroyd would begin his counterpoint to Jane Curtin’s point on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update. We of course knew this line was coming, but still we laughed. Why? Because we understood that this is not how people are supposed to argue and debate.

This week we read about Korah and his rebellion against Moses and his leadership. History deems it a rebellion rather than a revolution. Here is why. Korah’s followers exclaim, “Is it not enough that you brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, that you would also lord over us?” (Numbers 16:12) They do not argue, they attack. They infer that Egypt, the land of their slavery, is the Promised Land. They lash out at Moses.

I am sure there were legitimate criticisms of Moses’ leadership style. He is overly passionate and given to fits of anger. He is hesitant to share the burden of leadership. He, and he alone, is privileged to speak face to face with God. And yet Korah does not offer such critiques. He attacks the person.

The rabbis draw from this story a lesson about arguments and disagreements. They teach that machloket l’shem shamayim, an argument for the sake of heaven, is how we uncover the truth and strengthen our commitments. “An argument for the sake of heaven will have lasting value, but an argument not for heaven’s sake will not endure. What is an example of an argument for heaven’s sake? The debates of Hillel and Shammai. What is an argument not for heaven’s sake? The rebellion of Korah and his associates.” (Avot 5:19)

Rabbis Hillel and Shammai did not agree on much. Hillel was forgiving and open-minded. Shammai was strict and demanding. The Jewish people required both rabbis. The Jewish people survived because of both of their schools of thought, the Jewish community was strengthened by their divergent interpretations. The truth was uncovered in their fiery debates and frequent disagreements. Hillel and Shammai shared a love of Torah and a devotion to the Jewish people. Both admired the other. These rabbis compromised for the sake of community.

And while I do not wish to return to my parent’s basement and what my imaginations have fashioned into a mythic past in which people only argued for heaven’s sake, I do feel that we have entered a new era in which SNL’s comedy skit has proven sadly prescient. It appears that we argue to destroy the other rather than learning from the debate and dialogue. Today it appears that ideology is more important than community, principles more important than country.

We suggest that those who sit across from us, that those who disagree with us, do not love the United States, the State of Israel or the Jewish people. How many times do we say, “If you really loved Israel then you would not vote for… If you really loved the United States then you would vote for…” Such statements are not arguments. They are attacks. Such exclamations do not lead to uncovering of truths, but instead to its unraveling.

I hold different commitments than I did when I sat watching SNL. I have changed my views. Why? Because I was open to the opinions of others. I did not turn away from disagreement. I listened to those I love and to those who share my passions. Why is it that changing one’s mind or adapting one’s views is viewed as betrayal and disloyalty rather than the badge of honor our community and nation require?

There are many ways to love the State of Israel. There are many ways to love the United States. There are even different ways to love the Jewish community. I do not hold a cornerstone on truth. It is instead teased out in discussion and dialogue.

We have a choice to make. We can be like Korah and Moses or instead Hillel and Shammai. If we refuse to sit across the table from those with whom we passionately disagree then we cut ourselves off from learning.

Truth can only emerge through loving disagreements.

On a tragic note we join together in sadness and prayer for the community of Charleston in which a gunman murdered nine people while praying in church. We pray for those injured, murdered and grieving. We join together as well as in indignation, and even anger, that we live in an age in which schools and houses of worship are not the sanctuaries of safety and security that they should rightfully be. We must do more to safeguard our nation from such murderous hate.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Shelach Lecha, Sailing and Fear

This past Sunday I participated in the annual blessing of the fleet. The clergy from Oyster Bay each took turns blessing the boats that paraded in front of the dock. We blessed kayakers and clammers, yachts and sailboats. We offered spontaneous prayers asking God to provide first and foremost safety and protection, but also sun, wind and enjoyment. In the case of the clammer I prayed for a bountiful harvest as well. (I am sure there is a joke to be found there. Did you hear about the time the rabbi prayed for clams?) It was a beautiful afternoon. There was comradery in our prayers. There was joy on the vessels.

John Augustus Shedd, an early 20th century American author, writes: “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.”

Setting sail presents unexpected dangers. And yet how do we forge new paths and discover new truths if we don’t set out?

Can a blessing offer protection for the journey?

The tradition prescribes the traveler’s prayer: “May it be Your will, Lord our God and God of our ancestors, to guide us in peace, sustain us in peace, to lead us to our desired destination in health and joy and peace, and to bring us home in peace. Save us from every enemy and disaster on the way, and from all calamities that threaten the world….”

Only the harbor offers protection. Only staying at home offers security.

The spies return from scouting the land of Israel with a report: “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size… and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” (Numbers 13:32)

Joshua tries to reassure the Israelites. “Caleb hushes the people.” Moses becomes disenchanted. God grows angry. The people’s fears will not be quelled.

God decrees that they must remain in the wilderness for forty years. Only those born in freedom in the wilderness will journey to the Promised Land. It appears that the heart of a slave only knows fear.

They are unable to set sail. They remain forever in the harbor. They deny themselves the blessings of this new land. They see giants. They view themselves as tiny grasshoppers. They do not take to heart “[the land] does indeed flow with milk and honey!” (Numbers 13:27) They deny themselves discoveries. They remain forever in the known. The future must be for their children to seize.

Fear paralyzes. It distorts our vision. It discolors our dreams. It dissuades us from setting out. How many remain afraid to travel to Israel today?

We remain at home. We stay within the harbor.

If only we could seize the courage to go forward. If only we had faith in the words of our prayers. “Lead us to our destination in peace.”

Peace remains in God’s hands. It remains within our grasp to lift the anchor and raise the sails.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Behaalotecha, Shepherds and Wandering

The greatest of our biblical heroes begin their careers as simple shepherds. Why? It is because shepherding demonstrates the necessary credentials to transform a group of distinct individuals into a community. Abraham, Moses and David gently guide their animals throughout the wilderness, even taking note of a stray sheep or goat. Even God is praised with the words: “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me to still waters…” (Psalm 23:1)

And yet the people often refuse to be guided. The Book of Numbers is a record of these refusals, and rebellions. Moses struggles to lead the Jewish people forward; they over and over again wish to go backward. “The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! 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!’” (Numbers 11:4)

They would rather be penned in as slaves than wandering the wilderness free. How quickly they forget their sufferings and pains! They cling to fanciful imaginations of yesterday. This pull of a mythic past is so strong that they long for what must have been a sliver of fish and wilted leeks. They prefer the certainty of yesterday’s morsel rather than the bounty of God’s manna. Moses grows angry. He struggles to urge them forward. They only want to stay put. They wish to remain in the past.

The Book Numbers elucidates this tension. On the one hand we read of Moses urging them toward the promise and the dream, although the unfamiliar and unknown, and on the other the people clinging to their memories of the past. Memories appear more certain. How quickly yesterday’s troubles become forgotten. How quickly the imagination refashions the past. A meager ration of cucumbers and melons become a meal.

The hand of the shepherd guides them forward. They rebel. “If only we had meat to eat!”

Then again perhaps the true meaning of our heroes being shepherds is that a shepherd is first and foremost a wanderer. I admit that this may very well be my singular theme, but perhaps the spiritual message of the Torah is that God wants us to remain forever wanderers. Moses points to the future. The people look to the past. God affirms the present. Keep wandering. Keep moving, even if in circles. That of course is the Torah’s primary story line. “And whenever the cloud lifted from the Tent, the Israelites would set out on their journey accordingly…” (Numbers 9:17) The Torah is primarily a record of forty years of wandering.

God apparently does not want us to become attached to any one place or location. We remain in each encampment but a few days. The cloud of glory lifts. The people move on. In the Torah the Promised Land remains but a dream.

The dream is held at a distance. We continue to affirm the present.

Thus the defining book of the Torah is Numbers. In fact its name in Hebrew is “Bamidbar—in the wilderness.” The wilderness belongs to no nation. It belongs to no one—except God. It is as if to say the Torah is found both nowhere and anywhere.

And it is there that we must remain—forever wandering, forever moving. Our holiest of books is defined by the midbar, the wilderness. It is defined by a scrappy landscape in which animals roam free although gently guided by the hand of their shepherd.

It is also the place in which our people wander—but free.

The Torah is discovered nowhere and anywhere.  It is found instead in wandering.