Thursday, July 30, 2015

Vaetchanan and Swimming Torah

This week we find the words of the V’Ahavta in the week’s portion. “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions which I charge you this day... (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)

Two words found in the V’Ahavta summarize life’s most important work: v’shinantam l’vanecha—and you shall teach them to your children. On the surface the meaning of this verse seems obvious. Parents are obligated to teach their children everything. The Talmud explores the specifics. Parents must teach their children Torah. Okay we expected that answer from the great repository of Jewish wisdom. The Talmud continues: parents are required to teach their children a craft. Why? Rabbi Judah responds: Those who do not teach them a craft teach them thievery. And some say: to teach them to swim too. Why swimming? It is because their lives may depend on it. (Kiddushin 29b)

I love that ancient rabbinic statement—and not just because I am an avid swimmer. It is instead because it encapsulates much of what I believe our tradition is supposed to represent. Judaism sees Torah not only as the imparting of values but also of providing our children with practical skills (craft) and even with survival skills (swimming). To raise up our children into independent adults they must be able to discern right from wrong on their own. They must be able to fend for themselves, facing challenges—again on their own. They must be able to survive without us—yet again, on their own.

Sure you can swim with friends but no one, not even parents, can do the swimming for you.

The teaching of values, the imparting of traditions can continue between parents and children well into adulthood but children must carve out their own path and make their own way. They must meander through life’s struggles on their own. Today it sometimes appears otherwise. Nonetheless I continue to believe that despite technological innovations, a parent might not be, and perhaps should not be, a phone call (or text) away. Let go. Let them swim into uncharted waters. Trust in your teachings. Take faith in your Torah.

Curiously the Torah uses shinantam for teach rather than the more common m’lamed. This particular word derives its meaning from the Hebrew, to repeat. Why would the Torah use the word, repeat? My repeated admonitions to my children are more often than not my worst parenting moments. “Do your homework. Clean your room. Call your grandparents.” These exhortations are greeted with nonchalance and more often than not go unheeded. I am the only one who hears my repeated words. “Don’t swim so far from shore!”

Then what could the Torah intend? If repetition is the worst teaching method then what could this unusual word choice mean? An insight must be hidden in the verse’s words. The best lessons are those that our children see us do repeatedly. Those actions that they see us do are the best Torah we can offer our children. This is what will prove most lasting.

This is what the Torah portion means by its words, “Repeat them to your children.” The best teaching is what our children see us do, over and over again. If you want your children to be generous, give tzedakah. If you want your children to be learned, then let them see you read and even take classes. If you want your children to be committed to their health then let them see you exercise. If you want them to find Judaism meaningful then bring Judaism into your own lives.

Over and over, again and again, this is what our children must see us do. They discern what is most important by observing what we do over and over, again and again.

So let them see you swim.  And get them swimming on their own.

Take this to heart. Our children are supposed to swim farther and faster than we ever could have managed, and than we ever could have imagined.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Tisha B'Av, Tragedies and Celebrating

According to tradition Tisha B’Av marks far more than the destructions of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. by the Babylonians and the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E. The Mishnah adds even more calamities. On this day the ten spies returned to Moses with a negative report about the land of Israel, sowing discontent among the people and ensuring our wandering would last 40 years. On this day in 135 C.E. the Romans crushed the Bar Kokhba revolt, killing over 500,000 Jews and leveling the city of Jerusalem and its Temple Mount. In 135 our wanderings outside of the land began yet again and did not of course end until the modern era with the birth of the State of Israel.

Later tradition suggests even more tragedies occurred on Tisha B’Av. The First Crusade in which nearly one million Jews were killed in Europe began on the ninth of Av. On this day as well, the Jews were expelled from England in 1290, France in 1306 and Spain in 1492. On this day, in 1941, Heinrich Himmler (y”s) received approval for the Nazis’ murderous final solution. And in 1942 the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto began on Tisha B’Av.

How can this be? How can all these tragedies begin on this same day? To be honest I am skeptical about the historicity of these ascriptions. It is doubtful that all these events did in fact begin on Tisha B’Av. So the question is what does this conflation of all these tragedies into one day say about our tradition. Why does our tradition fold all these calamitous events into Tisha B’Av?

Over the centuries the narrative is further enhanced. Our victimization comes to revolve around this one day. There are those who even see in these tragedies the sins of our people. Our victimization then becomes our responsibility. These tragedies become our doing. The Talmud blames the destruction of the Temple on sinat chinam, baseless hatred among Jews.

Thus Tisha B’Av is the antithesis to modernity and Zionism. We have now a sovereign nation. We have now a strong State of Israel. Of course there are threats. But with sovereignty we will no longer be victims. We are no longer at the mercy of foreign powers. It might, especially during these days, appear otherwise but Zionism teaches that history is now ours to be written. Our generation can defend ourselves like no prior generation. Zionist philosophy refuses to see the Jewish people as eternal victims. Current threats must not transform us once again into seeing ourselves as victims.

Perhaps that is the intuition of our tradition. Why one day? To suggest that one day is enough. Yes there are other days associated with historical events (Tzom Gedaliah, Tenth of Tevet and Seventeenth of Tammuz), but these are minor fast days and do not have the import of Tisha B’Av. And so this single day suggests that one day is in fact enough to beat our chests and lament our losses.

The hallmark of our tradition is that it codifies joy over mourning, celebration over tragedy. A single day is enough to mourn the many catastrophes that have befallen our people for we could in fact fill a calendar year with a list of tragedies. And so myth and memory are folded together and wrapped into the Ninth of Av. We observe all calamities on one day. The rest of the days in the calendar are reserved to affirm the present and look toward the future.

The tradition suggests that if every today becomes the eighth of Av with its trepidation and fear and every tomorrow the ninth of Av with its mourning and lament, we will be unable to celebrate, we will be unable to sing. And then we will be unable, or unwilling, to march forward toward the tenth of Av.

One day is enough to look back and cry. The remainder must be left to celebrate.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Mattot-Masei, History, Hope and Worries about Iran

On the day that images from Pluto were beamed back to earth from 3 billion miles away, we are debating the inner workings of something far closer to home, the intricacies of the human heart. It is around our view of the heart that the arguments about the recent Iran nuclear deal spin.

President Obama appears to believe that within every human being there is a seed of evil and that therefore all people are redeemable because all are sinful. It is this view that colors his foreign policy decisions and in particular his approach to Iran. Prime Minister Netanyahu by contrast believes that some are unredeemable, that there are those so inclined toward evil that we can only say, “Do not cross this line.” While hope might be on Obama’s side, history stands on Netanyahu’s.

I do not trust the intentions of Iran’s leaders...

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Pinchas, Shas, Reform Jews and Our Inheritance

Yesterday Israel’s Religious Affairs Minister David Azoulay, from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, suggested that Reform Jews should not be considered Jewish. He said, “Let's just say there's a problem as soon as a Reform Jew stops following the religion of Israel. I can't allow myself to say that such a person is a Jew."

This week we read about Zelophehad’s daughters. They approach Moses demanding that the law of inheritance be revised so that their father’s memory will endure. They say, “Our father died in the wilderness…. Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!” (Numbers 27) Justice demands the law be changed.

Right wing parties often criticize Reform, accusing it of picking and choosing from the tradition...

Friday, July 3, 2015

Balak and the Eye of Faith

I am presently in Jerusalem studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute where I am once again participating in its annual conference. I feel privileged to return to this place year after year to recharge my spiritual batteries and reacquaint myself with the tradition I so love. I am surrounded by colleagues who share my love of learning, debate and even argument, as well as devotion to Israel. I remain grateful to my congregation and its leadership for allowing me this time for rejuvenation.

Given this yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem, I realize that for the past fifteen years I have only observed July 4th from afar. Every year I have found myself here in Jerusalem for July 4th. I have also by the way marked Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, in May while at home on Long Island. It occurs to me that these days look far different from a distance. I cannot of course see the fireworks from here, but I wonder is it possible that the miracles of Israel and the United States shimmer more brightly from afar? From this distance, I only see successes rather than struggles. When nearby the flames appear far more intense, and perhaps even frightening. From afar I tend only to see the glow.

Balaam looked out at Israel and rather than curse the Jewish people as his king had commanded him, offered words of blessing: “Mah tovu…