Thursday, October 29, 2015

Vayera and God's Lies

This week’s Torah portion, Vayera, contains four stories: the announcement of Isaac’s birth, Sodom and Gomorrah (it did not go well for those cities), Isaac’s birth and Ishmael’s subsequent banishment, and the binding of Isaac. Let’s examine the first story.

God’s messengers arrive to tell Abraham that he is going to have a son. “I will return to you next year, and your wife Sarah shall have a son!” Sarah, who is nearly 90 years old and happens to be listening on the other side of the tent, laughs (that is why Isaac means laughter) and says to herself, “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment with my husband so old?” God of course hears Sarah’s laughter and what she said and angrily declares to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?'" (Genesis 18)

The ancient Rabbis notice that God does not accurately report what Sarah says and what is the source of her laughter. Sarah suggests that their infertility was due to Abraham’s age. (No Viagra jokes please.) When God repeats her words to Abraham, God instead suggests that she blames herself for their lack of children.

The Rabbis spin lessons and values from God’s apparent mistaken retelling. It can’t possibly be that God did not hear her words correctly. They reason: it must instead be that God wanted to protect Abraham and Sarah’s relationship and so decided that it would be better to lie than inform Abraham of Sarah’s true thoughts and her doubts about his virility.

In Judaism’s hierarchy of values truth takes second place to peace. That may be a surprising lesson, but our tradition counsels that peace is the highest value. It draws a lesson from this very story: it is better to lie than destroy shalom bayit, peace in the home. Truth can be sacrificed for the sake of peace.

The Talmud debates this idea and offers the illustration of whether or not you should tell an ugly bride that she is beautiful on her wedding day. (This of course is only a theoretical debate for there could never be such an occurrence.) Rabbi Shammai, who was known for his zealous commitment to principle whatever the cost, says, “Tell her the truth.” Hillel says instead, “Tell every bride she is beautiful.” Jewish law follows Hillel. He reasons that she is beautiful in her groom’s eyes so it does not really matter what anyone else thinks. On the wedding day every bride is beautiful.

Hillel always seemed to find a way to be as inclusive and welcoming as possible. Shammai on the other hand probably did not get invited to officiate at too many weddings and remained alone with his principles.

Judaism wants us to be at one with others, to stand with the community. This is why peace is valued more than truth. I often think about this when I occasionally watch reality TV shows where guests are encouraged to share their most intimate secrets or hosts harshly criticize their guests. “You’re chopped!” they scream. These truths end up destroying friendships and relationships. It might makes for great entertainment and in many people’s eyes great TV, but it also makes for damaged relationships and broken communities.

Truth does not always set you free. Sometimes it leaves you alone and by yourself.

This is one of Judaism’s most enduring lessons. Beware of the truths you share. Even God sometimes lies to keep the peace.

Shalom is indeed the most precious gift of all. That is why so many of our prayers conclude with the blessing of peace.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Standing with Israel

We join in solidarity and prayer with the State of Israel given these past weeks of terror.

As much as I believe that the settlement enterprise erodes Israel’s democratic character and that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s continued refusal to acknowledge this danger is perilous to Israel’s future, the current wave of terrorism is not about settlements but instead directed against Israel’s very legitimacy. The statements by Palestinian leaders are evidence of this. Their continued denial of the Jewish people’s 3,000 year ties to the land in general, Jerusalem in particular, and the Temple Mount most explicitly, make a mockery of the claim that this intifada is about the occupation. The goal of a separation from the majority of Palestinians living in the West Bank is not only to shore up Israel’s founding democratic principles but to first and foremost create increased safety and security, and then we pray, the space for a measure of hope to emerge on both sides of an agreed upon border and from that in some distant moment, I stubbornly continue to pray, peace.  Nonetheless, my sentiment at present is singular in its commitment: we stand with Israel.

David Horovitz concurs:
They say that this is the latest uprising against the occupation. It isn’t. It’s the latest uprising against Israel. 
Most Israelis don’t want to rule over the Palestinians. Most Israelis want to separate from the Palestinians. If the Palestinians want a state based on the 1967 lines, they have to convince a majority of Israelis that their independence would not threaten our existence. You’d think this would be obvious. Evidently it isn’t. 
This latest phase of terrorism and violence — like the conventional wars, and the suicide bomber onslaught, and the relentless campaign of misrepresentation and demonization and denial of Jewish history in the holy land — sends the opposite message to Israel. Much of the rest of the world — so short-sighted in viewing Israel as the Goliath when it’s a tiny, loathed sliver in a region seething with Islamist extremism — refuses to see it. But in bloody, unmistakable capital letters, the perpetrators of this new round of evil mayhem proclaim to Israelis: We don’t want to live alongside you. We want to kill you and force you out of here.
There are unfortunately too many instances of what Horovitz writes about.  Palestinian leaders incite.  They stand guilty of antisemitism.  There is no other way to label the call to "Kill the Jews!" than the word antisemitism.  It is horrifying to read and watch.  Here is but one chilling example.

There is however a measure of light amidst the darkness. There is as well the example of Lucy Aharish, an Israeli Arab newscaster, who speaks forcefully against such incitement.  She also speaks about God!

My devotion at this moment is one: we stand with our people.  I stand with the Jewish people!

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Lech Lecha's Promise of Questions

The political theorist Hannah Arendt writes: “To lose the appetite for meaning we call thinking and cease to ask unanswerable questions would be to lose not only the ability to produce those thought-things that we call works of art but also the capacity to ask all the answerable questions upon which every civilization is founded.” (The Life of the Mind)

Our Jewish story begins this week. It begins with a call. Jewish civilization begins again today, and every day. God speaks to Abraham. “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12) It begins with a journey. It is founded on exploration. Our faith starts with a question.

Why me? (I imagine this was Abraham’s first question.) What am I to make of this life? How might I bring meaning to this journey?

Why us? What are we to make of our world? How might we bring meaning to others?

People think that religion is about answers. People think it is about promises. They cite as evidence the assurances God makes to Abraham. They call to mind the certainties with which the Torah speaks to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah. So this portion first appears as well.

Is our religion about the promises made, or the journey Abraham begins on this day? I choose the journey. I am at home with its questions and even its uncertainties. I am agitated by the certitudes others profess.

Our faith is about the journey of questioning we begin again. Go forth!

Answers prove allusive. Promises might always evade us.

Faith is in the journey. It is about making room for our questions.

Today we are witnesses to, but we should instead be participants in, an epic battle for the soul of civilization. On one side are those who profess a faith of answers. They scream their answers at what they perceive to be the answers of others. They never bother to ask questions. They shout, “We are right. And you are wrong.”

They forget today’s call. They forget the question hidden in every command. They neglect the discovery that is implicit in every journey.

Go forth! Lech lecha!

It is not just the Jewish story that begins this week but the Christian and Muslim stories as well. All look back to Abraham. Some might wish to think that God speaks only to Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation, instead of seeing that God speaks today to the Abraham who is the founder of faith, and the progenitor of a religion in which journeying is sacrosanct. Faith properly understood is a faith of questions. Such is my dream.

And God says, “I will make of you a great nation.”

How will we become great?

Must our greatness come at the expense of others, must it be made great by their diminishment?

Is it instead about the journey? Is it then about striving after some measure of truth, although rarely if ever apprehending it? The quest is not about shoring up our parcel of truth and shouting down the truths of others. It is instead about discovering our divine purpose, our God inspired task. It is about discovering meaning as we go forth.

Our greatness can be realized in renewing the journey.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “Well-adjusted people think that faith is an answer to all human problems. In truth, however, faith is a challenge to all human answers. Faith is a consuming fire, consuming all pretensions. To have faith is to be in labor.” (Israel: An Echo of Eternity)

We begin the journey anew. Today!

Answers consume us. Questions propel us.

Lech lecha. Go forth.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Noach and Babbling Blessings

The concluding chapter of this week’s portion describes the first real estate development project, the construction of the Tower of Babel.

Here is that episode. Humanity bands together to build a tower that reaches to heaven. They say, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.” (Genesis 11:4) God is not pleased with their efforts and says, “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach. Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.” (11:6-7)

Thus this first building project does not fare well. The people want to build the tallest building possible. God apparently sees this as an offense or perhaps even a threat. Only God dwells in the heavens. And so the tower remains unfinished. We remain human. We are left babbling. We are cursed to speak different languages.

The rabbis ask: what was the people’s great sin? It was not so much their goal of building the tallest tower but instead their lack of concern for their workers. A midrash relates: if a worker fell from the tower to his death, the people were indifferent, but when just even one brick fell, they lamented the construction delays. It is for this reason, the legend suggests that God punished them, scattering them throughout the world and confounding their speech, producing the myriad of human languages that we still discover.

Biblical scholars suggest that this story was authored to explain the existence of the many human languages. How could the descendants of one family, namely Adam and Eve, give rise to these different languages? The Bible’s answer is that this was something that we brought upon ourselves. God’s initial desire was unity. Our divisions are our doing. Our attempt to reach the heavens, our efforts to become like God, are our downfall. There was once an idyllic state when all spoke the same language, when language did not create additional borders, when all shared one piece of land, and when communication was easy and never confused by language barriers.

And yet there are blessings in our present, less than idyllic situation. I refuse to believe that the richness of languages is a calamity. So much is discovered in the multiplicity of languages. Every language has its own nuances and offers its own secrets to the human condition. Look what we can learn from Hebrew! Just as Eskimos have numerous words for snow, Hebrew offers a myriad of names for God.

Are the languages that confound our understanding of one another a curse? Are they in fact the punishment that the Book of Genesis suggests? Or do they provide opportunities to learn and grow? Are the many human languages doorways to uncover some nuance and gain some insight into human existence?

What might we uncover about our God as we enter another year of paging through the Torah and hearing the music of its Hebrew?

The language beckons.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Too Much Light!?

Another interpretation of the creation of light in the Torah's first chapter by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner.  Enjoy this G-dcast video!

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Bereshit and Creating Good

We begin the Torah anew. We start with the first chapter of Genesis. We read about the creation of the world.

God fashioned the world in six days. “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth…” We read about God creating the land and the oceans, the birds and the fish, animals and plants. We see God fashioning human beings. We ask: six days? Really?

In school we learned about evolution and the big bang. We discovered how human beings evolved from animals. We found out that the world is in fact billions of years old not as Jewish tradition suggests 5776 years. I find the science very compelling. I trust you do as well. So why do we keep reading the Torah and its account of the creation of the world in six days?

It is because the Torah provides meaning. It grants purpose to creation. It adds direction to our lives.

Take the fourth day as an example. “God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate day from night; they shall serve as signs for the set times—the days and the years; and they shall serve as lights in the expanse of the sky to shine upon the earth.’” This details the creation of the sun, moon and stars. This raises a question in our minds. Why would God need to create these lights if on the first day the Torah states: “And God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light…”

It is because the purpose of the sun and moon is not to provide what we think. They are to provide guidance. We mark our seasons by the sun. We count our holidays according to the moon. We navigate by the stars. (Well, at least we used to.) According to Genesis the sun does not provide warmth. It is not connected to plant life or the photosynthesis I still remember from my science classes. The sun marks the day. The moon and stars distinguish the night.

A divine light illuminates the earth. And this was fashioned and proclaimed on the first day.

Believing this does not change my conviction in science. Today’s arguments are wrong. The debate should not be whether creationism or evolution is right. I believe in science. I believe in the Torah. The question is instead how does seeing the world as a reflection of the divine influence my perspective. How does this view add meaning to my life?

To that question the answer is simple yet profound.

If the natural world serves as a reminder of God, then perhaps I can see more good than bad. Perhaps I can see blessings in the everyday. Perhaps these navigation tools can lead me to fill my heart with thanks and my soul with gratitude. I can look up at the moon and see God’s brightness. I can feel the sun’s warmth and sense God’s nearness.

That is the Torah’s purpose. It is not to set out the contours of how the world was created but instead why. It is to instill faith. It is to create the belief that no matter how bad the world might appear, there is light, there is good.

The Torah’s objective is to fashion hearts that proclaim: “…And behold, it was very good.”

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Simhat Torah Joy

We have come to the conclusion of the Tishrei marathon. We observed Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and now finally, Simhat Torah. We travel from personal introspection and repentance to fasting and the recounting of our many failings to the wandering and fragility of temporary booths (nothing like a week of wind and rain to remind us of that!) to now the joy of Simhat Torah.

We celebrate the conclusion of the Torah reading cycle and its simultaneous beginning. On the day of Simhat Torah we begin the cycle all over again. We believe that everything we ever wanted to know is in this scroll. It is only perhaps a matter of reading it at a different angle if the wisdom is not immediately apparent.

We confirm our faith on this day: all wisdom and teachings are contained in this book. Thus we are privileged and blessed to begin this journey of exploration once again. This day is therefore cause for great celebration. Simhat Torah is the quintessential Jewish holiday. It is about dancing and singing. And these, more than the fasting and recounting of sins on Yom Kippur, are the more authentic Jewish postures. We are supposed to celebrate. We are commanded to rejoice.

In fact the Talmud Yerushalmi states that we will be held to account for all the joys we neglected to celebrate. When we approach the heavenly court we will be asked in effect, “Did we rejoice enough?” That in a nutshell is the Jewish message. Do you say “L’Chaim!” every time you were offered the opportunity?

The Babylonian Talmud offers a story to emphasize this message. Rabbi Beroka used to visit the marketplace where the Prophet Elijah often appeared to him. Once Beroka asked Elijah: “Is there anyone here who has a share in the world to come?” He replied, “No!” While they were talking two men passed by, and Elijah remarked, “These two men have a share in the world to come.” Rabbi Beroka ran after the men and asked, “What is your occupation?” They replied, “We are jesters. When we see people depressed, we cheer them up.”

The easygoing jester has more a share in paradise than the hard-working butcher. The jester adds joy to the world. Even though his humor can at times be silly, and seemingly inconsequential, his jests add smiles and laughter to the world.

The Hasidic masters see important truths in these teachings. They remind us again and again that joy is essential to the spiritual quest. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes: “The Baal Shem [the founder of Hasidism] proclaimed joy to be the very heart of religious living, the essence of faith, greater than all other religious virtues.”

This is what Simhat Torah reaffirms.

Revel in life.

Laugh. And smile.

Most especially celebrate the gift of Torah.

And never pass up an opportunity to join in the dancing.