Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Mollie, Ishmael and Making Peace

I am thinking about food, family meals and the American bounty we are about to celebrate. My Aunt Mollie comes to mind.

I have a particular vivid memory of Aunt Mollie, who was my grandmother’s younger sister. I was approximately eight years old when Aunt Mollie visited our family in St. Louis. Soon after her arrival, the house filled with the smells of stuffed peppers, stuffed artichokes, meatballs, and marinara sauce. She and my mom spent the better part of her visit in the kitchen so that she could teach her favorite niece some of her favorite, and best, recipes.

It never occurred to me to wonder how my Aunt Mollie came to master Italian cuisine. (Actually I never thought much about such culinary distinctions. It was all part of my family’s cuisine.) Some years later the secret was revealed.

When Mollie was sixteen years old she ran away from home and married Joe Ladisio, an Italian man some 25 years her senior. Imagine that! The Greenberg family came to this country in 1911. Ten years later their youngest daughter told the family she was dressing up for a job interview and instead eloped. Mollie was banished. My Nana, angry and betrayed about her sister’s lies, was forbidden from speaking to Mollie.

Some two years later, Joe reached out to Nana. Mollie was hospitalized and gravely ill. The doctors feared the worst. Miraculously she recovered, but as a consequence was never able to have children. She and Nana reconnected. Still, Aunt Mollie, and most especially Joe, was never allowed to attend family occasions. She was never again welcomed into the family home. Bubbe Sarah, the most devout member of the family, and the woman for whom I am named, ruled it was forbidden. Aunt Mollie was forever banished.

Not from my grandparent’s home. There she, and Joe, were welcome. And there she grew close to her niece, my mom. My nana never openly flouted her mother’s edict. She did not argue with her. She just quietly went about doing what she believed to be right. She refused to abandon her sister.

This week we read about the death of both Abraham and Sarah. Sarah dies first. Abraham buys the cave of Machpelah that will serve as the burial plot for all of the patriarchs and matriarchs, save Rachel. Later the Torah reports: “And Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented… His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah.” (Genesis 25:8-9)

It is a curious report. Ishmael, Abraham’s son through Hagar, was banished soon after Isaac was born to Abraham and Sarah. In fact it was Sarah who insisted that Hagar and Ishmael be sent out to the desert. Miraculously, God saves them and promises that Ishmael will become a great nation. Ishmael marries an Egyptian woman and settles in the wilderness of Paran, the eastern Sinai desert. We learn little else about him.

The Torah becomes silent about Ishmael as it takes up the story of Isaac.

The divide between the descendants of Isaac, our Jewish people, and the descendants of Ishmael, our Muslim brothers, begins here. The peace that continues to elude us starts at this moment.

And then, seemingly out of nowhere, Ishmael reappears. The two brothers stand together. They join hands to bury their father.

How did Ishmael know about his father’s death? There is only one possible answer. Isaac informed him. Perhaps it is also possible that Isaac and Ishmael remained in touch. In defiance of their parents, or at least in defiance of Sarah, Isaac maintained contact with his brother Ishmael. I wonder if it is even possible that Abraham knowingly, although quietly, approved of his sons’ connection.

When Bubbe Sarah died, Mollie stood with her sisters and brother, and buried their mother. They once again joined hands.

Perhaps peace will come, between brothers and sisters, and between the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael. Perhaps it will come in defiance of parents.

Enjoy your Thanksgiving celebrations. Relish in family. Give thanks for the promise of America.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Paved with Gold

I retreat to the Torah. It is a welcome distraction from the news and our country’s painful divisions.

This week we read about the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. They are marked by sinfulness. As in the story of Noah, God decides to start all over and destroy these cities. Again God shares the plan with a chosen, and trusted, person. This time it is Abraham. God says, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?” (Genesis 18:17)

God reveals the plan to Abraham. But Abraham pleads in behalf of the people. Abraham argues (and negotiates) with God exacting a promise that if ten righteous people can be found then the cities should be saved. In the end Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed. By the way, some suggest this number ten is the origin of ten for a minyan.

And yet the Torah is unclear about what they did that was so terrible. What were their sins? We are given only hints. “The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave!” (Genesis 18:20) Throughout the ages commentators have suggested that the inhabitants were guilty of sexual depravity. They cite as evidence the accompanying story that the townspeople attempt to rape the divine messengers who visit Lot, a resident of Sodom and a nephew of Abraham. This explains the English term “sodomy.”

Later the prophet Ezekiel offers more detail: “Only this was the sin of your sister city Sodom: arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility; yet she did not support the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49) He sees their sin in social terms. The cities were destroyed because of their failure to reach out to the needy and most vulnerable. There was plenty of food to share and yet they kept it all to themselves.

They were arrogant. They felt themselves superior.

The rabbis expand upon the prophet Ezekiel’s understanding. They saw the cities’ sinfulness in their treatment of others, most especially their failure to fulfill the mitzvah of hospitality and welcoming the stranger. They argue that this sin would have been understandable if Sodom and Gomorrah were poor cities, but they were in fact wealthy. The rabbis weave a midrashic story describing the streets of these cities as paved with gold (my grandfather’s goldene medina!). In addition the rabbis taught, the cities’ inhabitants flooded the cities’ entrances in an effort to prevent strangers from entering and finding refuge there.

In the rabbinic imagination, the cities were destroyed because of their own moral lapses. They were affluent. There was plenty of food for them to eat. Yet they did not share it with anyone. They hoarded it for themselves. They prevented strangers from entering their cities. They thought only of their own welfare and their own livelihood.

Rabbi Gunther Plaut argues: “The treatment accorded newcomers and strangers was then and may always be considered a touchstone of the community’s moral condition.”

And I am left to wonder. Can any retreat be found?

I search in vain for distractions.

The Torah only speaks of today. It only speaks to today.

That is its most important, and powerful, voice.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Like It or Not, It's Still Mr. President

Let me offer three observations about the election now concluded and our soon to be 45th president, Donald Trump.

1. Despite the overwhelming victory for Republican candidates, we are a divided nation. Look to the popular vote. In 2008 President Obama defeated Senator McCain by some ten million votes. In 2012 he won by approximately five million. Secretary Clinton won by less than 200,000 votes, as of this writing.

I have read many commentators, and protestors, who now wish to do away with the Electoral College because Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. They comfort themselves by saying that if you factor in the approximate five million votes for third party candidates you realize the majority of Americans did not vote for Donald Trump. They leave out the fact that the majority of Americans did not then vote for Clinton as well.

For me I read these numbers as evidence of how divided we are. 200,000 out of 60 million is no victory. We are a divided nation. There are some 60 million fellow Americans whose views are not my own, whose visions are not in keeping with my commitments. In the days prior to the election I felt otherwise. I imagine that many of you did as well. That was because we were only listening to other like-minded friends.

Remember that ancient rabbinic text about Hillel and Shammai? Jewish law follows Rabbi Hillel because when he taught, he always shared the opposing view of Rabbi Shammai first. Perhaps we need to forward to friends articles we disagree with. Rather than sitting in front of our computers, and reading our Facebook feeds, and nodding in agreement and liking our friends’ posts, we need to seek out opposing views. We need to engage divergent opinions, if for no other reason than to refine our own.

2. I hope and pray that President Trump is different than candidate Trump. I remain troubled by some of his campaign pledges and rhetoric. If President Trump seeks to codify some of his more bellicose statements, then you will see me protesting these policies. If he attempts to deport my neighbors and immigrant friends then I will rise up in their defense. I wish to live my life as a testament to my immigrant grandparents. My experiences are separated from my neighbors (and yes I do mean Muslim, Latino, Sikh, Asian, Hindu and the many others that call America home) but by two generations. I believe our nation is great because it is a living tapestry of color and culture. I am convinced this is the source of our strength, never our weakness.

If President Trump attempts to roll back LGBTQ rights, if he seeks to erase the gains of Roe v. Wade, if he announces plans to undo the small steps undertaken to fight climate change, then again I will raise my voice. If he continues to allow antisemitism to go un-criticized, then I will not remain silent. It is my right to protest. It is my right to criticize the president’s policies. In case one forgets, I have offered criticisms of both Democratic and Republican presidents. This is our right—and our duty—as Americans. Donald Trump will be our president. He is our nation’s choice. That does not mean we must remain silent—when we disagree. That also does not mean that we can say he is not my president if I did not vote for him. To respect our nation’s institutions means that we must accept the decision of our fellow Americans, even, or perhaps most especially when it is different than our own. I will not scream that the election results are unjust. I will not say as others said to me these past eight years about President Obama, “He ain’t my president.”

That will lead nowhere. The Electoral College is how we do things. Instead, I resolve that come four years from now I will not draw so much comfort from my far too many likeminded friends’ posts. I will not nod in agreement as I read yet another missive that affirms my views. Instead I will march off to Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania or wherever the battleground states might be and I will work to make it easier for all to vote. I will work (although I am not sure how yet) to alleviate the simmering anger that Donald Trump so masterfully tapped.

There is a lot of hurt in our country—and I don’t mean the hurt of seeing your candidate defeated. We need to do a lot more “praying with our feet” as Abraham Joshua Heschel once said. Nothing will ever be solved by blaming others, by scapegoating this or that group. We can only be healed by the recognition that red or blue should never be our primary identification.

3. I will pray for President Trump’s success. I may like him. I may not. You may like him. You may not. He is, however, the president for all of us—those who voted for him and those who voted against him and even those who did not vote. Our tradition demands that we pray for the President of the United States. I pray. May President Trump be blessed with wisdom and patience. May he be quick to forgive and slow to anger. May he listen to the counsel of both Republicans and Democrats. May he become a great president for all Americans.

This week we read about the first Jew, Abraham. He is called by God to be the leader of the Jewish nation. It is unclear why he is called. The Torah tells us very little about him before the moment of his call. The rabbis suggest that God saw in him glimmers of the belief in one God. They wrote a story about him working in his father Terah’s idol shop. You know the story. He smashes the idols because he think it is silly to pray to statues. Most forget that this story is nowhere found in the Torah.

The call comes out of nowhere. He is called to greatness not by birth or belief but by circumstance. He is not a calculating politician, and schemer, like many believe Hillary Clinton to be (or I would add, King David most certainly was) but is called. Abraham is not called because he is great. He becomes great.

Many people, like the Torah, gravitate toward the outsider. That was most definitely part of President Obama’s appeal. And that is most certainly the image Donald Trump fashioned about himself. People are moved by the story of an outsider—most especially when they feel pushed outside.

This leads me to my prayer—and one that I hope all of us can share. May President Trump become great—for all Americans.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

American Dreaming

The Internet is an angry place.

I find myself retreating to my dreams.

And I am dreaming about my grandfather.

In my grandfather’s final week, after he was hospitalized by a stroke, I would read the day’s newspapers to him. I would first read the headlines. He would then indicate which article I was to read out loud, with the specific instruction that I always read the designated article to the very last sentence. We would then discuss the article. We would analyze it. We would sometimes disagree. More often than not I would listen to his thoughts, to the wisdom of his 86 years, to his many years living in this country and taking in the American political scene.

Today I would not know where to begin....

Thursday, November 3, 2016

God's Mirror

When does a child become self-aware?

When a child first sees himself in a mirror he touches the mirror. He does not know it is his reflection. Later, around the age of two, when the child looks in the mirror she instead touches her face. In that moment her self-identity begins to take shape. The child says, “I.” Self-awareness begins to form.

In Hebrew “Ani” means “I.” This word does not appear in the Torah until this week. There appears little self-awareness exhibited by Adam and Eve, who are unaware of their nakedness and blame each other, as well as God, for their own failings. There is plenty of “you” but no “I.” Cain and Abel are so lacking in introspection that they do not understand the pain they cause each other, leading to the first murder.

And then the “I” appears....

This post continues on Patheos.