Friday, September 30, 2016

Rosh Hashanah's Hopes and Prayers

A Hasidic story.

There was once was a villager who, on the High Holidays, would pray in the Baal Shem Tov’s synagogue. His son was not the most intelligent of children and had not yet mastered reading, much less the words in the prayer book. So his father never took him to synagogue. But then the boy reached the age of bar mitzvah and so his father decided to take him to synagogue on Yom Kippur. He was nervous about what the boy might do so he kept a watchful eye on the boy lest he, for example, eat on the fast day.

The boy had a little flute, which he would often play. He would bring the instrument everywhere. The father did not realize that the boy had brought the flute to synagogue—on Yom Kippur. At services boy sat in silence while people prayed around him. During the Musaf service, the boy whispered to his father: “Father, I want to play my flute.” The father then became terrified and reprimanded his son saying, “Not here! Not now!”

This happened again and again. As the concluding hours of Yom Kippur approaches the boy’s pleas became more animated. Each time the boy would make the same request and each time the father restrained him, sometimes grabbing hold of the boy’s arm. Finally, as the Baal Shem Tov began to chant the Neilah prayers the boy forced the flute out of his pocket. He then blew a blast so loud that everyone was taken aback. The Baal Shem Tov abruptly concluded his prayers.

The Baal Shem Tov turned to the congregation and said: This child’s flute lifted up all our prayers. Through the strength of his yearning he played his heart’s note perfectly. And this is most dear to God. All our prayers were only accepted for his sake.

On the High Holidays we spend countless hours fixated on the words of our prayerbooks. We sing, we chant, we read. We recite page after page of our prayers. Some find their way into our hearts. Others feel more distant. And so we must recall, they are but means to an end.

It is the yearning of our prayers that is most dear. It is the desire to reach upward toward heaven and outward toward others that God most desires. These remain the secret ingredient of prayer. The Baal Shem Tov reminds us: if a little boy can discover this secret then perhaps we can as well. That is our hope as we enter the High Holidays.

Five years ago, Shimon Peres said: "I didn’t go after cynicism and skepticism. I think it’s a waste of time. And after 88 years of my life, I don’t regret it. I saw all the great criticizers, all the great skeptics and all the great cynics. They lived in sorrow and they died in sorrow…. I, though, have lived in hope. And I shall die in hope.” May the memory of Shimon Peres serve as a blessing. May his hope help to carry us into this new year.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Ki Tavo and No More Either/Or

This week’s Torah portion begins with the rituals we are to perform when entering the land that God promises.

After harvesting the first fruits of the season the farmer performs a special ceremony. He brings a basket of fruit to the priest who then places it on the altar. The farmer then recites the following ritual formula: “My father was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there… The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Lord, have given me.” (Deuteronomy 26:5-10)

In this brief formulaic encapsulation of Jewish history, the Torah emphasizes our journey from wandering to landedness. God brought us from slavery to freedom and from the wilderness to the land of Israel.

It is interesting, and perhaps curious, to note that when we live in the land, as this Torah portion foresees, we remember our other condition of wandering and when we are in the diaspora we long for the condition of nationhood.

At every Jewish wedding, for example, the ancient rabbis commanded us to sing, “O Lord our God, may there forever be heard in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem the voices of joy and gladness, bride and groom, the jubilant voices of those joined in marriage under the huppah, the voices of young people feasting and singing.” At every Seder we conclude with the words, “Next year in Jerusalem!”

There are two competing paradigms in Jewish history: on the one hand, wandering and the diaspora, and on the other, landedness and Jewish sovereignty. Throughout most of Jewish history our center was a diaspora community, as best exemplified by ancient Babylonia or pre-World War II Poland. There were other times when we enjoyed Jewish independence in Jerusalem, under for example, King David or the Maccabees.

We, however, live in a unique time when there is both a vibrant diaspora community and an equally vibrant, and powerful, Jewish state. Today we are blessed with both paradigms. Today it is not the diaspora or Jewish sovereignty, wandering or landedness. It is both. And so we lack historical parallels to emulate. How do we further our unique historical situation when we only know how to remember wandering or long for sovereignty?

How can we live in both the diaspora and the land of Israel? This is the question for our present age. How can we both affirm Jewish sovereignty in the State of Israel and assert the vibrancy of the Jewish diaspora? And it is this question that hides beneath nearly every Jewish debate, especially those about the modern State of Israel and its policies and most important its relationship with the United States. Democrats shout, “Hillary is best for Israel.” Republicans claim, “Trump will better defend Israel.”

We shout at each other. Those who affirm the vibrancy of wandering and criticize Israel’s reliance on power are called disloyal. Those who relish in the recently achieved Jewish sovereignty and call diaspora Jews’ defense of the stranger are described as weak.

Perhaps we require a new language. We must discover new rituals for this unique, and unparalleled time—if for no other reason than to quiet the shouts and cries at one another. It can no longer be either/or if we are to remain as one.

Wandering and sovereignty must be held together.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Fifteen Years Later: A Prayer

Lord our God, I offer this prayer fifteen years after the 9-11 attack.

On the morning of September 11, 2016, I felt once again the comfortable cool air of a late summer day and turned to look up at the deep blue sky. And all I could think about was that terrible, dark day of fifteen years ago. I thought of the fear and terror of that morning. I remembered those taken from our midst and how they were robbed of their futures. And I was robbed of their companionship. All I could think about were those smiling photographs looking up at me from our newspapers. They were torn from our families; they were stolen from our homes. My heart remains wounded. Now even so many years after that day, I strain to hear their voices. I long to feel their embrace....

Monday, September 12, 2016

9-11 and Making Holy War

The Bible’s Book of Deuteronomy, which Jews are in the midst of reading, details the laws about making war. It is worth noting that although we might prefer to cling to the words of the prophets and their lofty visions of peace: “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation” or “The wolf shall lie down with the lamb,” the Jewish tradition is not a pacifist tradition. It allows for war. The Book of Deuteronomy in fact recognizes that this will be the Jewish people’s lot when they cross the Jordan and conquer the land of the Canaanites. It most especially recognizes that sometimes we must fight wars of self-defense. Of course, before attacking an enemy terms of peace must be offered.

The Bible continues. The priest speaks to the troops and says: “Sh’ma Yisrael—Hear O Israel! You are about to join battle with your enemy. Let not your courage falter. Do not be in fear, or in panic, or in dread of them. For it is the Lord your God who marches with you to do battle…” (Deuteronomy 20) This refrain of “Don’t be afraid, God is with you” is often repeated. Such words make us uncomfortable. This week we are marking the 15th anniversary of 9-11, a day that continues to wound and a day in which our country, and our city, were attacked by people who believed that they were likewise doing God’s bidding, that their heinous acts had God’s blessing. So how do we read our holy books and not cringe at even such vague similarities?

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Shoftim and a Lynching Tree

What is so terrible about a tree?

In keeping with Deuteronomy’s near obsession with idolatry and its desire to eradicate all objects of foreign worship from the land of Israel, we read: “You shall not set up a sacred post (asherah)—any tree-like object beside the altar of the Lord your God that you make—or erect a stone pillar; for such the Lord your God detests.” (Deuteronomy 16:21-22) Last week’s theme continues through this week.

An asherah, sacred post, was apparently a standing wooden object erected at a place of worship. In other words it was a totem pole. It could have also been a particular type of tree that was deemed sacred by the ancient Canaanites. Or, perhaps it was a tree that was planted near their temples. Interestingly the name for a Canaanite goddess was Asherah. Trees, or wooden objects, were thus associated with this goddess and explicitly forbidden.

The sentiment is clear. Anything that even approaches Canaanite religion or worship is forbidden. The message is emphatic. We are going to do things differently, most especially in the land of Israel. And that begins with how we pray.

But a tree?

There are times when hiking in the deserts of Israel one is grateful for the shade of a tree. It is a welcome relief from the afternoon sun. In a hot, dry climate, shade can offer much relief. “And the Lord appeared to Abraham by the terebinths (oaks) of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot.” (Genesis 18:1) Given that this tree, or cluster of trees, had a particular name indicates that they were familiar to Abraham and his contemporaries. Perhaps they were used as a landmark. Then again perhaps these trees were also deemed sacred by his new neighbors.

During Abraham’s time there appears more comfort with the indigenous Canaanite religion. It was not that the patriarchs believed as the Canaanites did. But they do appear more at ease living side by side with competing religious practices and ideas. They allowed such religions to coexist alongside their own. Rather than uprooting these sacred trees Abraham redefines them. There he experiences his God. The Canaanites’ totem pole becomes the site of his covenant with God and the beginnings of our faith.

Deuteronomy sees such an approach as impossible. By this time the Israelites wish to become the dominant religion of the land. They are to be the majority of its inhabitants. Thus the Canaanites are no longer neighbors but enemies. In this week’s portion we sense the moment when the Israelites will reclaim the land for our entire nation. There can be no living side by side with their enemy’s ideas or even with their sacred objects.

Imagine a tall, stately tree that serves as a contemporary destination. Imagine as well that years ago this same beautiful tree was used to lynch an innocent man or even to hang a guilty criminal. Would you want such a tree to continue to serve as a landmark for the place you now call home? An ordinary tree can become deformed by the acts committed under its limbs. This is exactly how the Canaanites were seen. This is exactly how their sacred trees were viewed. In the imagination of the ancient Israelites the Canaanite religion was everywhere and always equated with such evils.

One always imagines an enemy doing horrific and unspeakable acts. (And sometimes they really do. But other times they do not. More often the evil-doers are fewer in number than we imagine.) The Israelites therefore believed that there was no choice but to eradicate even their trees.

Beware of seeing evil lurking under every tree.

The prophet proclaims: “Nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war; every man shall sit under his grapevine or fig tree and no one shall make him afraid.” (Micah 4:4)

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Turning Home

A story by Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, the unparalleled 18th century Hasidic rabbi.

There once was a Jew who lived in the great and tumultuous metropolis of New York. (Ok, I changed the city from Prague). One night he dreamed that he should journey to San Francisco (I think it works better than Vienna). There, at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge, leading to the overpriced homes of that vibrant and bustling city, he would find a buried treasure.

Night after night he dreamed the same dream. The image of that glistening red bridge, shrouded in fog and connecting San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean, occupied his thoughts. He resolved, he must travel there. He left his family behind and traveled west to California. There he was certain he would find the treasure about which he dreamed.

Given the current age of terrorism in which we now find ourselves, the bridge is under constant surveillance. Finding the buried treasure might prove more difficult than he had planned and bargained for. And so, every day he walked the bridge’s expanse; he explored the rocky coastline; he wandered near the bridge’s supports. He wondered where exactly the treasure might be buried. The police began to take notice.

After two weeks an officer approached the man. He turned to run. The officer grabbed the man by his coat and shouted, “You are not from around here. What are you plotting? Why do you keep returning here, to this bridge, day after day?” The man grew afraid and nervous. He revealed his dream of the buried treasure. The officer burst out laughing. He brought other officers over. “Listen to this New York Jew’s tale,” he said.

After what seemed like hours of laughter and the exhausting repetition of his story to what felt like every San Francisco police officer, in particular the tale of his dream, and the travails of his journey from New York to California (Oy the traffic; the delays at LaGuardia) the officer said: “What a foolish man you are to believe in such dreams. If I lived my life by such visions, I would be well on my way to New York. In fact, last night I dreamed that a New York Jew has buried in his very own backyard a treasure waiting to be uncovered.”

The man returned to New York. He immediately began digging in his backyard and there in his perfectly manicured lawn, among the beautiful landscaping, he found untold gold and silver coins; he discovered unimaginable wealth. He sat down and reflected. “The treasure was always here; it was always in my possession. Why did I have to travel so far to discover this? It was always here within my reach?”

More often than not, treasures are found closer to home. They can be found in the tradition that carries us from place to place. They can be found in the homes where we laugh together at holiday meals. They can be found within our own hearts. So teaches Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav.

The High Holidays and the period of introspection they mark, begin with the first of the month of Elul. This day begins on Saturday. The task of turning begins not on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur but this weekend.
What are the treasures waiting to be discovered here and now, at home and at work, within reach of our very own arms and legs? What untold riches are standing here before our very eyes? This is the question we should focus on during these forty days of repentance. This is the gift of the month of Elul.

This is the question that might open our hearts to our tradition’s season of turning. It is not so much about the sermons, the prayers and even the chanting of Kol Nidre as much as the turning of our heart towards the treasures found within, to the riches found closest to home.

And, In memory of Gene Wilder, and to illustrate part of my inspiration, enjoy this clip from The Frisco Kid:

And take to heart some of his witty advice: “If you're not gonna tell the truth, then why start talking?”  It is the perfect reminder about our tradition’s demand to speak honest words.