Thursday, March 31, 2016

Shemini and The Fires of Revenge

Leviticus is about rules.  The Torah sets out to govern our lives by legislating even the most insignificant of details.  This week we read about keeping kosher.  This might appear remote and far from our concerns.  And yet the Torah’s contention in general, and Leviticus in particular, is that every detail of our lives matters to God.

These laws suggest that the way to create a civilized, and ordered, society begins with the most mundane of activities.  Otherwise we may very well, like Aaron’s sons, create a self-consuming “alien fire.” (Leviticus 10)

This past week we read reports of an Israeli soldier killing a wounded Palestinian terrorist....

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Purim, Power and Presidents

Power is an illusion.

Last week several Israeli tourists were targeted in Istanbul. Three Israelis were among the four murdered. Eleven were among the thirty six injured. We pray for their souls. We pray for their speedy recovery. (We also pray for the thirty four killed and two hundred injured in today’s attack in Brussels.) And so we have come to realize. Despite the fact that we live in an age that knows unprecedented Jewish power, the security and safety of our people is still not guaranteed. Theordor Herzl’s dream that the creation of a Jewish state would end antisemitism appears a fantasy. Persecution remains a continuing nightmare.

Power is a blessing.

Last week as well most of the remaining Jews living in Yemen, suffering under constant threat of attack, were rescued in a covert operation and brought to Israel...

This post continues on The Times of Israel.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Refugees Still and Again!

Just because today's news reports focus on the presidential campaign does not mean that the flood of refugees has ebbed or that their plight has improved.  There is increasing evidence that it worsens.  The conflict in Syria continues to produce unfathomable human misery.  To date 500,000 people have been killed.  7 million people remain internally displaced.  4 million more have fled Syria's borders.  Most live in makeshift refugee shelters, primarily in Jordan and Turkey.  Too few have made their way to freedom.  A mere 2,500 have found a home in the United States.

I do not know how else to read this story but through the prism of Jewish history.  We too have known suffering and wandering while the world turned an indifferent eye.    

I am the son of refugees. My parents were Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust and came to New York in 1947. I grew up among refugees, and until I was seven or eight, refugees were the only adults I knew. I just want to say a few things that I've learned from my experience about who refugees are.
The first thing I will say about refugees, the most conspicuous characteristic of them is that they love life, and that they are prepared to endure unimaginable hardship, so as to preserve life, their lives and the lives of their loved ones, and the lives of their traditions and their communities. Nobody imperils their children in dangerous sea voyages, and treks across mountains unless they believe they are rescuing their children from an even greater danger that certainly awaits them. So the first thing I learned from my parents and my cousins and the community in which I grew up, is that refugees love life. 
...I also learned that refugees are people who have felt abandoned by the world. It is a terrible, terrible feeling I can report, as the son of people who felt abandoned by the world. And all the rescue efforts, and all the resettlement efforts that will be made, and God knows, there are very, very few for us to boast about, will not erase, ever, that feeling that at some point the world abandoned them.

And this leads to my final point, and this was the thing about the refugees that I knew, that most pained me; it is that they are people who feel that if the entire world had been destroyed, when my parents' world was destroyed, it would have been coherent; it would have been apocalyptic, but it would have been coherent. But what happened was that only their world was destroyed and the rest of the world went along on its course, and so not only were they confronted with the magnitude of the indifference of the world to the destruction of their world, but they also, after death, as it were, had to have a second life, and after had to pick themselves out of the ashes, and then they had to do completely banal and trivial things. Like in my mother's case, run a candy store, and in my father's case run a furniture shop, and then have children, and then buy their children clothes, and then find schools for their children, all the while remembering that everything that they loved had died, had been destroyed. And this was something about my parents and those refugees that I will never forget. There was this haunted quality.
And I would add that I continue to remain haunted by this abandonment and my acquiescence to it. Their abandonment has now become my doing, or undoing.  I stand among those who have abandoned others, who have turned away from the suffering of my fellow human beings.  I go about my ordinary days as others imperil their lives.  These days I go out to restaurants, I watch movies while others run for their lives--literally.  They risk their lives so their children might have a morsel of bread, so that they might know life. I am consumed by my banalities.

Listen to their stories.  Hear their voices.  Take note of their pain.  The second of the refugees, Kassem Eid, gives powerful voice to these feelings of abandonment.  (He begins at minute 18.)  His words sting.

Elie Wiesel reminds us about the meaning of our past sufferings and our current duty to speak out. The disadvantaged and oppressed have few else to serve as their voice. Wiesel states:
Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.
We dare not turn aside.  We dare not return to our trivialities.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Vayikra and Creating Empathy

I approach the Book of Leviticus that we begin this week with a measure of trepidation. It primarily speaks of sacrifices. It details the sprinkling of blood on the altar. It is obsessed with blood. It worries about the categories of pure and impure. There are chapters about leprosy and others about the scapegoat offering. Its sentiments are not my own. It appears foreign and out of sync with contemporary sensibilities.

“This shall be a burnt offering, a gift, of pleasing odor to the Lord.” (Leviticus 1)

Really? God smells? Does God truly require such sacrifices?

No. But perhaps we do. The not so secret purpose of these sacrifices was to create empathy. Here is how it was done. You had to pick the choicest from your flock. Whether it was a bull, sheep or goat you had to examine the animal to make sure it did not have any blemishes. You would then give the animal to the priest who would slaughter it on the altar and burn it up in the sacrificial fires. Yes I most certainly agree. Disgusting!

Let’s look away from the details and instead to the philosophy. The notion of sacrifice is to give something up. Moreover that gift had to be prized. It must be without blemish. In other words a person must look closely at their flock and determine which of their animals is as close to perfect as possible. Somehow this ritual act of offering a prized animal on the altar created empathy.

God noticed. God is pleased.

Despite all of that disgusting blood and guts covering the altar, a connection is made between God and the person offering the sacrifice. The act of touching the animal, of carrying it to the Temple, of giving up something so valuable and so nearly perfect, creates that bond. Sympathy is elicited. Empathy is fashioned. The path begins with giving up something that you would prefer to keep for yourself, something that you value and cherish. You offer it to God.

While I do not wish to bring back sacrifices I find myself, despite my initial protestations, envious of this deep connection with God. Imagine how simple it might be. I offer a gift. God becomes pleased. A bond of caring is formed.

I recently read that there is a direct correlation between our increasing use of smartphones and the fact that the people feel less and less connected to each other. Despite the fact that we live in a hyper-connected society we feel increasingly disconnected.

Sheryl Turkle writes (“Stop Googling. Let’s Talk”):
Studies of conversation both in the laboratory and in natural settings show that when two people are talking, the mere presence of a phone on a table between them or in the periphery of their vision changes both what they talk about and the degree of connection they feel. People keep the conversation on topics where they won’t mind being interrupted. They don’t feel as invested in each other. Even a silent phone disconnects us.
A University of Michigan (Go Blue!) study also reports a sharp decline in empathy among college students. Apparently in today’s world people care less about others. We are most certainly able to reach each other with greater ease, and we speak with one another with greater frequency, although I suspect in abbreviated sound bites, but we have also come to care less about others.

The smartphone appears to get in the way of real caring and true concern. So how might we refashion empathy?

I am not one to advocate winding back the clock. I have no desire to return to the past (or for that matter give up my smartphone). I most certainly don’t want people to start bringing me their animals to sacrifice on the altar! Then again perhaps our ancestors were on to something. All of Leviticus’ details point to something profound. With all its bloody, primitive rituals our ancestors intuited something that remains even more elusive today.

If we want to care about others then it has to involve sacrifice. It demands giving up something that the individual prizes. You can only truly grow to care for another when you give up a piece of the self. Empathy demands the sacrifice of the “I”. This should not be viewed as loss but a gain.

Again, God then becomes pleased.

The path remains the same. The means must change.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Pekudei and Our Imperfect World

The ancient rabbis taught that God intentionally left creation incomplete. On most days I find this teaching inspiring and even comforting.

God granted us free will. God left creation unfinished, leaving room in the world for us to act. God in effect bowed out of each and every detail in this world so that our actions might be our own and so that we might enhance creation. The Kabbalists added to this notion when they argued that God withdrew from the world. Otherwise, they reasoned, God’s presence would overwhelm creation. Then there would be no room for anything else but God.

God made this imperfect world so that there would be the necessity for us to get involved, a call for us to improve ourselves and better the world. God wants us to do more.

But after yesterday’s brutal terrorist attack in Tel Aviv, an attack in which an American (may Taylor Force’s memory be a blessing) was murdered, and another ten severely injured, I find myself wishing, and praying, that God would fix this mess and repair creation. Especially after reading about the failure of Palestinian leaders to condemn these attacks and of Palestinians even offering praise for the murderer, I find myself wanting to retreat into the poetry of prayer.

At this moment I feel willing to forgo a measure of free will if God were to reorder things, right such terrible wrongs, heal the many injustices we see about us and mend this broken world. How nice that would be. How soothing.

But prayer cannot fix the brokenness between us. Perhaps it can mend an individual soul but never a nation. It offers a respite. Prayer provides a goad to action. It must inspire us to act.

This week we read about the completion of the Tabernacle: “When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle…” (Exodus 40)

The tabernacle was the vehicle by which God led the people on their journeys. It became synonymous with our house of prayer. In fact the Hebrew word for tabernacle, mishkan, is related to the Hebrew “to dwell” which is connected to one of our tradition’s names for God, Shechinah. This is the name that we use when we want to suggest God’s presence is felt. And all of this is tied to the building of the mishkan, tabernacle. All of this is tied to the work that we do.

God only dwells when we do the hard work. God is only felt when we do the mending with our own hands.

The Torah also suggests an additional meaning by its choice of words for Moses finishing the work. The Hebrew, “vay’khal,” means to complete or even to perfect. By this word choice it draws our attention to the creation account when God finished that first, although imperfect, building project: “…the heaven and the earth were finished.” There is of course meaning to be found in this comparison.

When we build and create, as Moses and the people did with the mishkan, we imitate God and God’s creation. Part of our creative efforts must be to complete and perfect creation, to bring a measure of holiness into our lives and a measure of goodness to the world.

Making or dreaming up something new is the greatest of human achievements. It is what makes us uniquely human. It is how we achieve repair. We reach for perfection. Albert Einstein said, “If at first, the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.”

I pray that God will fix our world. I cannot rely on prayer alone.

I must work to fix the world.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Vayakhel and Inspired Leadership

Sometimes the people are right. And sometimes the people are wrong.

We can gather for good. We can gather for bad.

The mob can riot. The crowd can protest.

“The people gathered against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make us a god who shall go before us…’” (Exodus 32)

And the throng cheered. The people jeered with wild abandon. And their leader became more and more animated. He shouted and screamed.

“Aaron said to them, ‘Take off the gold rings…and bring them to me.’”

And they can come together for good.

“Moses then gathered (vayakhel) the whole Israelite community… Take from among you gifts to the Lord, everyone whose heart so moved him shall bring them.” (Exodus 35)

In Hebrew the difference between the construction of the tabernacle, detailed in this week’s portion, and the building of the golden calf turns on a vowel. The root is the same. The line between good and bad is sometimes as thin as a breath.

There is another difference between these stories.

It is the difference of leadership.

It is whether the leader follows the people’s fears or inspires them for good.

Israel’s president Reuven Rivlin comments: “We need leadership that is not motivated by and does not fuel fear; that is not led, but which leads.”

Aaron follows. Moses leads.

About Moses the Torah concludes: “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses—whom the Lord singled out, face to face…” (Deuteronomy 34)

For all the trials and tribulations, the good and the bad that a community or nation must endure, achieving greatness, arriving at the edge of the Promised Land and realizing dreams depends on one thing and one thing alone.

The people require inspired leadership.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Not So Super

Super Tuesday 2016 might very well become the day when liberals and conservatives stood united in common cause. It took their shared opposition to Trump of course to bring this to fruition.  Read here but a few examples.

Roger Cohen in today's Times.
This disoriented America just might want Trump — and that possibility should be taken very seriously, before it is too late, by every believer in American government of the people, by the people, for the people. The power of the Oval Office and the temperament of a bully make for an explosive combination, especially when he has shown contempt for the press, a taste for violence, a consistent inhumanity, a devouring ego and an above-the-law swagger.
And Bret Stephens in this morning's Journal.
That’s the future Mr. Trump offers whether his supporters realize it or not. Bill Buckley and the other great shapers of modern conservatism—Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, Robert Bartley and Irving Kristol—articulated a conservatism that married economic dynamism to a prudent respect for tradition, patriotism and openness to the wider world. Trumpism is the opposite of this creed: moral gauchery plus economic nationalism plus Know Nothingism. It is the return of the American Mercury, minus for now (but only for now) the all-but inevitable anti-Semitism.
Let us heed the warnings of both right and left.

I understand the anger.  I recognize the frustration.  Trump is the anti-politician.  

But politics is how we get things done.  It is the messy business of democracies. It is how communities survive and countries thrive.  It means that we will not always get what we want.  If we are to live with others we cannot always have everything we want.  We must compromise.

Trump represents the apotheosis of the self-curated individual in which the world is shaped around personal wishes.  The wants of the individual, and all those who "like" his or her views, replace a faith in the common good.  We assemble worlds around individual desires and shared likes.

Compromise is not a dishonor.  It is not the abandonment of my faith but instead a reaffirmation of my commitment to country, community and even family. 

This isn’t just an American phenomenon. Politics is in retreat and authoritarianism is on the rise worldwide. The answer to Trump is politics. It’s acknowledging other people exist. It’s taking pleasure in that difference and hammering out workable arrangements. As Harold Laski put it, “We shall make the basis of our state consent to disagreement. Therein shall we ensure its deepest harmony.”
Today I will allow those who sit opposite from me to have the last word.  And I will continue to welcome those who do not share my beliefs to my table.  I continue to believe that reasoned disagreements make us stronger and better.

Perhaps this day can still become super.