Thursday, June 30, 2016

Shelach Lecha, Dreams and Likes

How many times, after posting a picture to Facebook or Instagram, do you go back and check to see how many likes you have accumulated? How often do you read the comments that friends add to your posts or secretly wonder why this friend or that one did not comment on your recent picture? Think for a few moments about how important those likes and comments have become to your day’s mood.

Another example. Airbnb and Uber are built on mutual reviews. Both the driver and the apartment owner rate their experience and impression of the consumer. Leave too many apartments unkempt and you might find it more difficult to rent another Airbnb, or you might be thrown together with apartment owners who likewise don’t clean up. Such is the magic of algorithms.

Likes and stars govern more and more of our lives.

Big data drives the shared economy. That might very well be good for business, but I worry about its effect on people. I worry that our personalities are increasingly shaped by the likes and comments of others. We appear to be building a culture, and society, driven more by what others think of us than what we, ourselves, aspire to be.

This week, in Parashat Shelach Lecha, we read about the spies who Moses sent to scout the land of Israel. Two scouts, Joshua and Caleb, returned with a positive report. Ten came back with negative impressions. These ten spies whipped the people into a frenzy. The people became consumed by fear and were then unable to gather the strength to move forward to the Promised Land.

In that moment, and on that day, they lost sight of their dream.

God, in turn, became so angry with them that God decreed the people would wander the wilderness for forty years: one year for every day the spies scouted the land. Then, and only then, a generation born in freedom would feel empowered to cross the Jordan into the land of Israel. Then they could realize their dream.

Throughout the generations commentators argued about what was the great sin of the spies. Was it that they incited the people and sowed fear? Was it instead that they lacked faith in God and God’s power to lead the people to victory? Was it that their impression of the land, and its inhabitants, was in fact false? Were the Canaanites indeed mighty warriors and the Israelites feeble soldiers?

The ten scouts reported: “All the people that we saw in the land are men of great size…and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” (Numbers 13:33)

The Hasidic rabbi, Menahem Mendl of Kotzk, comments: “That was the sin of the spies. One can understand their statement, ‘we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves,’ for that was the way they really saw themselves. However, what right did they have to say, ‘and so we must have looked to them’? What difference should it make how we appeared to them?”

Indeed, what difference should it make how we appear to them.

When our self-image is driven by how many likes we accumulate, how many followers we amass, and how many like-minded comments we garner, we lose sight of our aspirations. We lose focus on our true inner selves. We take leave of the dreams that animate the heart. We become more about how others see us rather than how we wish to see ourselves.

The Torah reminds us.

Better one dream than a 1000 likes.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Want to Change the World? Learn from Your Kids

We learn many things from our parents: how to eat properly, how to brush our teeth, and, I hope, how to greet strangers. Others we learn through observation: how to love, how to care, and even how to mourn.

Jewish tradition speaks at length about parents’ and elders’ obligations toward children and the young. The Talmud, for example, instructs parents to teach their children Torah, in essence, by modeling proper values. The ancient rabbis expound upon this obligation, adding that parents must teach their children a trade and, according to some, also to swim.

In fact, religious wisdom, adheres to the principle that older is better, and the closer the words are to Mount Sinai, the more revered and wiser they are. It lives by the ideal that older generations must impart teachings to younger generations, that decades of accumulated wisdom count for more than newfound knowledge. It often distrusts the new, the innovative, and especially that which veers from thousands of years of tradition. It looks askance at what we can learn from our youth and contemporary society

The tradition does not imagine the values we might learn from children...

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Behaalotecha and World Refugee Day

On Monday’s World Refugee Day 37 refugees became citizens at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. They fled to this country from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, Laos, Liberia, Mauritania, Nepal, the Philippines, Russia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, and Vietnam. There, in our nation’s capital, in the Holocaust Museum, they stood and pledged their allegiance to the US.

It was a remarkable testimony to what it means to be a nation of immigrants. It was especially fitting that the ceremony took place at the Holocaust Museum. We know too well that the nations of the world, including the US, were silent in the face of the Nazi genocide and by and large turned their back on fleeing Jewish refugees.

These new citizens were embraced and welcomed by Holocaust survivors....

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Spiritual Power of Saying "I Don't Know"

This is Marsha’s story. It is also my story.

It is a story that illuminates the meaning of Torah.

Although we traditionally define the Torah as the opening five books of the Bible, we should not limit it to that in our minds. It should instead be thought of as the wisdom one gains when walking through life in conversation with sacred texts and tradition. For me that discussion begins with my Judaism, its books and its teachers. And so this is that story of my journey.

Twelve years ago I received a phone call from a good friend who said the following, “Rabbi, my next door neighbor is dying from brain cancer...."

This post continues on The Wisdom Daily.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Orlando's Fire

The world is on fire.

And I feel the need to write.  All I can do is write.

Yet our words feel so inadequate in the face of the massacre in Orlando’s Pulse nightclub.  All responses appear to fall short. Every word misses the mark. 

49 people were murdered.  We must be more specific in our remembrances.  When giving voice to memory we must avoid abbreviations.  49 young, primarily Latino, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgenders, queers, or questioning, and perhaps straight, human beings were massacred.  49 souls were taken from their families, from their friends, from their community.  And 53 were injured.

All by one person....

Friday, June 10, 2016

Shavuot's Wilderness Torah

On this day our thoughts are with Tel Aviv.  We pause to mourn those murdered and pray for those injured.  I turn to the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who writes: “When religion turns men into murderers, God weeps.”  And we continue to cry.

This week we begin reading the Book of Numbers, in Hebrew bamidbar—in the wilderness.  It is here, in this wilderness, on an ordinary and nondescript mountain, called Mount Sinai, that the Torah was given.

The ancient rabbis wonder:

Why was the Torah not given in the land of Israel?  In order that the nations of the world shall not say: “Because it was given in Israel’s land, we do not accept it.”  And lest others say: “In my territory, the Torah was given.”  Therefore, the Torah was given in the desert wilderness, publicly and openly, in a place belonging to no one. (Mekhilta)

In the rabbinic imagination Torah has universal import....

Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Real 400 Pound Gorilla in the Room

Let’s talk about the gorilla in the room. On this occasion I don’t mean this as a metaphor. I mean it quite literally. I am referring of course to the story of Harambe, the 400 pound gorilla who was shot and killed by Cincinnati zoo officials after a four year old managed to get into his enclosure. It is a sad story. The zoo is a wonderful place. We enjoy watching animals doing their animal things. We are especially enthralled by chimpanzees and apes because they appear almost human. But they are not. And many seem to be forgetting this point.

If we are going to have zoos then sometimes these sort of accidents are going to happen. I assume that the zoo has experts and has people who know gorillas quite well and that they therefore had no choice but to shoot the animal so as to be sure to save the child. No one wants to have to make a choice between lives, between that of their pet dog over a human, but the choice should be crystal clear. Many seem to be losing this distinction. There are hundreds of thousands of people who have signed an online petition demanding justice for Harambe.

It is so easy to judge others....

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Bechukotai and Walking My Speed

The Book of Leviticus concludes in a shrill and angry tone. The portion opens with a brief promise of blessings for those who observe God’s commands: “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit.” (Leviticus 26)

The Torah then turns to a litany of curses. This lengthier list is leveled against those who break the laws. “I will wreak misery upon you—consumption and fever, which cause the eyes to pine and the body to languish; you shall sow your seed to no purpose, for your enemies shall eat it.” Commentators ponder the meaning of these blessings and especially explain (away) the curses. Many suggest that the blessings are of greater quality so it does not really matter that the list of curses is longer or that their content is so unforgiving.

Still in many synagogues the curses (called tokhechah—rebuke) are read in a hushed tone. This custom tempers the Torah’s harshness. Or does it?

On the High Holidays we read:
On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass on, how many shall come to be;
Who shall live and who shall die;
Who shall see ripe age and who shall not;
Who shall perish by fire and who by water…
And our cantor often leads us in an upbeat rendition of these phrases: “B’Rosh HaShanah yikateivun; uv’Yom Tzom Kippur yeichateimun…” Does this as well temper the harshness of our machzor’s words? Can the music overwhelm the theology?

Many are the attempts to soften the literal meaning of our tradition’s words. Many are the customs to temper the harshness of their rebuke. We adjust the music. We whisper the words. I continue to wonder if such techniques can truly diminish the sting. For those recalling a recent loss does this Untaneh Tokef prayer deepen the wound?

In an age of religious extremism, when these very words are used by some (and on some days it appears, far too many) to rebuke others, castigating them for their failure to observe, we would do well to raise our voices in protest and not speak in hushed tones. Such extremists are really saying, “You should observe more like I do. Everyone should believe as I believe.” It is this ideology with which we must do battle. How can any person know God’s design or intention? How can anyone be so certain about divine judgments?

So how do we approach the harshness? How do we respond to the occasional sting of our tradition’s words?

Perhaps there a clue can be discovered in the very portion that raises these questions. The opening verse should better be translated as the following: “If you walk by My laws…” The Torah does not say “follow” but instead “walk.”

Some people walk fast. Others walk slow.

Everyone must walk at their own pace. That is what I continue to believe.

All we are called to do is walk.