Thursday, February 25, 2016

Ki Tissa and the Power of Patience

What is the greatest sin ever recorded? According to the tradition it is the building of the Golden Calf, a story recorded in this week’s portion. The root of this sin is impatience. “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.’” (Exodus 32)

If we read even more of the story we discover that it is not only the people, but also Moses, and even God who stand guilty of impatience. If we are honest with ourselves we might also realize that many of our own problems, as well as the vociferousness of our current political debates, are caused by this very same flaw.

The Hebrew word for patience is savlanut. The root of this word is saval, meaning to bear a heavy load or even to suffer. There is much to learn from the Hebrew’s root. Patience does involve great work and at times, even suffering. Waiting is not easy. To quell our desire for satisfaction, and the realization of our goals (both personal and political), sometimes requires pain and sacrifice. It means putting aside my own wishes for another, for the sake of others. It means putting aside our own goals for the sake of the community. This is why the Mussar masters suggested that patience is the most difficult of middot (character traits) to master. Inculcating our lives with more patience is the work we must do. We must train our souls with patience.

Our lives need it. Our community needs it. Our country certainly needs more of it.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Lefin wrote in Heshbon HaNefesh (An Accounting of the Soul): “When something bad happens to you and you did not have the power to avoid it, do not aggravate the situation even more through wasted grief.” Often we compound our difficulties through impatience. We cry and scream about things we have no control to change. The Mussar tradition also imagined that training our souls is sometimes violent and painful. Like Mount Sinai where God revealed the Torah with thunder and lightning, we learn, we gain knowledge when our character is tested.

Again Menachem Mendel writes: “Woe to the pampered man [or woman] who has never been trained to be patient. Either today or in the future, he is destined to sip from the cup of affliction.” We are raising a generation of children (and perhaps politicians) who have never confronted strife and despair. It is inevitable. We will face difficulties. We will be faced with situations beyond our control. We will be forced into discussions and debates with those who hold contrary beliefs, who uphold different commitments from our own. And so we must train ourselves to be patient.

This is not the same as accepting fate. A dose of impatience leveled against the world’s problems is noble and good. This is why I find renewed faith in the revolutionary zeal of our youth who continue the dream of righting wrongs and healing the world. Judaism believes that we can shape our destinies.

We cannot always control every outcome.

We must be patient with those things we cannot control. Forgive the mundane example but it serves no one to scream at a waiter or yell at other drivers. It will not move traffic faster or cause him to bring your dinner any quicker. Accept what cannot be changed. Rise up against what must be corrected. Beware of confusing the two.

Beware of the impatient word.

The Torah reminds us. Had the people exercised even the smallest dose of patience they would not have committed the greatest of sins.

If we are to rediscover renewed faith in our political process, a system built on compromise, a system that demands that we exhibit patience with those holding divergent views from our own, we must relearn the value of patience.

Perhaps we might then steer wide of sin.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Tetzaveh and Making Light Again and Again

Thousands of years ago we decided the Torah is so important that we would read it in one year’s time and that we would repeat this year after year. Every single year we read about Adam and Eve and Moses’ death. Every fall we look anew at God’s promise to Abraham. Every spring the sacrifices and the laws of keeping kosher. Every summer the mitzvah of the tallis and the story of the spies scouting the land.

And every winter we examine the words we uncover again this week, those about the eternal light: “You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly.” (Exodus 27:20)

Regardless of the year the very same stories and the very same laws punctuate our seasons. The portions are how we count the year. They are how we mark time. Their words are married to the seasons as warmth is to summer and snow is to winter. Just as spring will soon welcome us with its flowers, we will continue to march through the Torah. And when, this October, we finish the last chapter of Deuteronomy we will begin again with the first of Genesis.

There is no break in our rhythm. There is no rest in our learning.

It is the same chapters and the same verses year in and year out.

Why? Why not read something different? Why not tell a different story? Perhaps a Hasidic tale might inspire. Why not read other laws? Perhaps a Talmudic discussion might enthrall.

And yet we persist. We refuse to let go. We affirm that everything revolves around Torah. Everything stands on this scroll.

Such reverence for the ancient word is not unique to Judaism. All religious traditions share the belief that the older the word, the closer you reach the original source of inspiration. Whether it is Sinai, Jesus death or Mohammed’s life, when you read these words our traditions affirm the closer you approach truth. And yet the mere recitation of these words does not offer truth. It is our engagement with the word that allows truth to unfold.

We reaffirm that learning is not about the mastery of new material (should I learn how to code?), but the taking to heart of an inheritance. In our new hearts the ancient traditions are refined. When we read these words from the Book of Exodus—again—we are renewed. The Torah reading is not intended to be a regurgitation of the old. We are not meant to mouth ancient words but instead to make them our own.

We believe that wisdom can only be derived from an ancient pool. Learning can only be achieved by a regular return to a revered text (or perhaps a favorite book). Wisdom is about growing. It cannot be Googled. Answers to questions are not the same as the pursuit of wisdom. If this were the case, if this were our faith, then everyone would shout, “Hey rabbi you read that story last year. You talked about the ner tamid last February. Tell us something new!”

That is exactly the point. We did read this same story last year. But we are different. The word must be married to experience. The same old word must this year be learned by a different older person. Furthermore we might sit with someone else. It is in the music of discussion, and debate, that we truly discover meaning and arrive closer to truth.

We can only learn, we can only grow, we can only become wise if we return, together, to the same words. That is our belief. Torah is supposed to change us. Torah is intended to give our lives meaning.

Recently I read about a university professor who offered his students the following hypothetical. He guaranteed that he would award them all “A’s” in his writing class as long as they promised not to tell anyone. The catch is of course that in addition to no assignments, they would also not receive any feedback. 85% of the students said they would accept the offer. They needed the grade, they argued.

John Warner concludes: “Students are not coddled or entitled, they are defeated. We have divorced school from learning, and this is the result.”

The mystical work of the Zohar writes that the ner tamid, the eternal light, is not really about physical light but spiritual. It is the light of Torah.

The Hebrew of the verse offers a glimmer of this understanding. It suggests that this light must be lifted. The light cannot burn without human agency. It must be maintained by our work.

Every year we must discover new meaning within the same words. We learn. We are renewed.

And perhaps one year we might even grow wise—together.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Terumah, Gift Giving and Valentines Day

Judaism places greater emphasis on deeds rather than inner motivations. No one can know what is in other person’s heart. No one can bring proper intention to every single deed. Therefore Judaism emphasizes action over belief, mitzvot over creed. Abraham Joshua Heschel remarked: “There is power in the deed that purifies desires. It is the act, life itself, that educates the will. The good motive comes into being while doing the good.” (God in Search of Man)

Motivation and intention are shaped by our deeds. Feeling follows action.

Yet this week’s portion suggests otherwise. “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts [termuah]; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.” (Exodus 25:2) Only gifts from those whose hearts are filled with proper intention are accepted by God. Is the construction of the Tabernacle the exception to the rule? Must our acceptance of gifts be dependent on the giver’s “inspired heart”?

Is a gift about the object or the intention?

So much of today’s gift-giving is obligatory. We give gifts for birthdays, anniversaries, b’nai mitzvah, weddings, even mother’s day and father’s day. And if we are to follow the advice of greeting card companies, we also give for secretary’s day, boss’s day, sweetheart’s day, grandparent’s day, every Jewish holiday, and of course the forthcoming Valentine’s Day. Our society attempts to obligate us to buy more. Advertising instructs us to purchase gifts for every imaginable occasion.

The Torah offers a needed corrective. The gifts that God most wants are those that come from inspired hearts. For the construction of the Tabernacle, God’s dwelling place on earth, only those gifts that are motivated by a purity of desire are accepted. Often, the most cherished gifts are those that are unexpected.

The intention of the giver appears more pure when the gift arrives in honor of no occasion nor in thanks for a job well done. There is a purity of motive when the gift is occasioned by nothing except love.

It is for this very reason that magazines offering advice on romance always counsel: “Surprise him or her with a gift.” If it were possible to say, the relationship between God and the children of Israel is in this “young love” stage. The commitment of the Israelites is questionable. And so God instructs Moses to accept gifts only from those whose hearts are in the right place. The people can thereby tangibly demonstrate their love for God.

Of course people often get carried away with gift-giving. “The people are bringing more than is needed…” So Moses instructed them: “Let no man or woman make further efforts toward gifts for the sanctuary!” (Exodus 36:5-6) Ah, young love!

To nurture a loving relationship between God and the Jewish people, God makes allowances. God permits an overflowing of gift-giving, even though it might lead to a poverty of circumstance.

Furthermore, God allows the people to construct a home for God. Why else would God command them to build the Tabernacle? God does not really need a specific place to dwell. God lives nowhere and everywhere. The midrash observes: “Has it not been said: ‘The heaven is My throne…Where could you build a house for Me…?’ (Isaiah 66:1) What then is the purpose of the commandment: ‘And let them make Me a sanctuary’? To enable them to receive reward for fulfilling it.” (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael)

Perhaps their gift giving might shape their love.

We rediscover. It is all in the name of love. It is all in the name of God’s love for us.

And some friendly advice: don’t forget to buy a gift for your love. It does not matter if it is large or small as long as it is accompanied by “I love you.”

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Rabbi David Hartman z"l

On this, the third yahrtzeit for Rabbi David Hartman, I recall his words and teachings with fondness. I long for his words to resound throughout our synagogues, this nation and the State of Israel.
Each generation has to receive the Torah in its time. 
One must renew the interpretative boldness that has always existed within the Jewish tradition.    
We have never been fundamentalists.  We have never been literalists.   
Fundamentalism is grounded in ignorance, in the false need for feeling I've got the final word.  I don't have to think anymore.  I can now go to sleep because the truth is in my pocket.  
If you go to sleep because the truth is in your pocket that is the best way to lose it.

I continue to relish Rabbi Hartman's teachings and his call for a courageous faith replete with far more questions than answers.

In fact, I rest better because of our questioning.  I rest easier because of our reasoned and loving discussions and debates.

I thank my colleague Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan for reminding me of this video.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Mishpatim and Its Contradictions

There are two contradictory impulses within our beloved Torah.

On the one hand, we are better than them.

“Whoever sacrifices to a god other than the Lord alone shall be utterly destroyed.” (Exodus 22:19)

And on the other, we can do better for them.

“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:20)

The two verses stand side by side.

Within our tradition (as well as other religious traditions), we see interpretations of chosenness colored by chauvinism and exclusivity. God’s love and concern is only befitting those who worship like us, those who behave like us, those who are like us. With the drawing of such lines, we become like privileged royalty, elevated above all others.

We also see chosenness as elevating our duty to others, as requiring of us an even greater responsibility to others. Yes this can at times be a burden, but it also provides a path to meaning. Chosenness then becomes a call to protect the ill treated, as personified by the stranger, and to better the world.

On which verse will our Torah rest? Do we wish to elevate the lives of others or do we see ourselves as elevated above them?

I am no longer sure that we can hold on to both, that we can affirm these opposing sentiments.

I recognize that most do not wish to hear such blunt honesty, but as we approach the third yahrtzeit of my teacher, Rabbi David Hartman, I wish to honor his memory by giving voice to such truthfulness. My rabbi was courageous and fierce, passionate and at times angry. There was at times an uncomfortable honesty about his teachings. He would scream at us about the dangers within our own tradition. I came to love that Rabbi Hartman was both Judaism’s fiercest critic and its most devoted believer. Even though most might prefer a feel good faith that caresses us with approval and asks little of anything of us, I prefer an honest and courageous one.

Perhaps there is reward discovered in such honesty.

Let me be forthright. There are those who see in our Torah evidence of their privilege. This is not what I choose to read. The Torah is meant to elevate our behavior. It is intended to call us to action. It is meant to ennoble our lives with a call to do better for others.

If we are to be a kingdom of priests it must not be about what we get but instead what we must do. If we are to be a holy nation then it must not come at the expense of others but rather from what we can do for others.

There may very well be these two impulses within the Torah, but we must choose one.

I know the choice I must make.

I will sing: “You shall not wrong a stranger…”

I choose the verse that uplifts all. I know of no other way of upholding the Torah’s import for the world at large. I must work to better the world.

Perhaps in the process I might even elevate my life and infuse it with added meaning.

For additional inspiration, take a few moments to watch this brief interview with Bernie Marcus, the founder of Home Depot.