Friday, May 27, 2016

Why Cycling? Why Faith!

Why cycling?

There is nothing quite like riding on a perfect summer morning, along a beautiful stretch of road, most especially along the Long Island Sound’s shoreline. The temperature is a comfortable 70 degrees. The morning breeze offers a cooling balm. On some mornings, the wind can be felt at your back, pushing you along the road (although that inevitably means that there is a headwind on the return journey). The legs feel strong and the cadence of the pedal stroke does not waver. There is nothing left to do but breathe in the air and sense the rhythm of God’s creation.

Why faith?

There is nothing quite like the perspective it offers, the balance it provides....

The Comforting Beauty of Asking Questions

Why me? Why now?

Beset by questions we pine after certainties. Well-meaning friends offer answers. Theologians expound. Politicians offer sound bites and tweets. The questions remain. The search continues.

I retreat to my books.

The Talmud begins with a question. The Talmud is much more than the multi-volume collection of rabbinic opinions completed in fifth century Babylonia. It is no ordinary sacred text. Its premise is that wisdom begins with a question mark. Open any page and discover a question. A discussion ensues. Arguments emerge.

I marvel at the editorial mastery....

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Lag B'Omer and History's Lessons

We find ourselves in the midst of the Omer, the period when we count seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot. The custom originated in biblical times when we counted from Passover’s wheat harvest until Shavuot’s barley harvest. An omer is a sheaf of grain. During this time semi-mourning practices are observed, namely no weddings are celebrated.

The explanations for this are various and somewhat mysterious. I have often thought that it was most likely because there was worry about the upcoming harvest. Others suggest that during rabbinic times a plague afflicted the disciples of Rabbi Akiva. According to some accounts 24,000 students died.

Miraculously on the 33rd day of the Omer the plague lifted. Today is in fact the 33rd day called Lag B’Omer. On this day the mourning practices are lifted. People celebrate and gather around bonfires. We are no longer downcast. Our worry disappears.

The Omer serves to connect the freedom celebrated on Passover with the giving of Torah on Mount Sinai. The Jewish tradition’s claim is obvious. Freedom is meaningless if it is not wed to something greater, to something larger than itself. Passover is not about the freedom to get to do whatever we want. It is about freely choosing Torah.

That is why the tradition stubbornly insists on counting the Omer. We count from freedom to revelation. We march from Egypt to Sinai. Our history is about the journey from this holiday to the next. Our story is reenacted during the Omer.

The rabbis wonder why the plague was so severe. In typical fashion they see its devastation as a critique of their behavior. They see our remembrance of this tragedy as an opportunity to turn inward. And what was the sin that caused the plague? It was that the rabbis and their disciples failed to act respectfully towards each other.

Although such historical claims appear questionable the lesson remains instructive. We are again plagued by the failure to act respectfully towards each other. Our leaders scream at one another. Our politicians call each other names.

Again and again I am reminded that the counting of the Omer offers important lessons for today. We best number our days with the meaning Torah provides.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Emor and Expert Intentions

Noted sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild argues in her recent book The Outsourced Self that we seek professionals for more and more of our personal decisions. She writes: 
As we outsource more of our private lives, we find it increasingly possible to outsource emotional attachment…. Focusing attention on the destination, we detach ourselves from the small — potentially meaningful — aspects of experience. Confining our sense of achievement to results, to the moment of purchase, so to speak, we unwittingly lose the pleasure of accomplishment, the joy of connecting to others and possibly, in the process, our faith in ourselves.
Years ago when I went to my first bar mitzvah there was no such thing as party enhancers. My friends and I made the party. Sometimes we did a good job. Others times we did not. (And by the way sometimes we got ourselves into trouble and other times not.) It did not matter if we danced expertly or not, as long as we danced.

Back in the day (it’s safe to say that I am now old) there were no life coaches (or, for that matter, Siri) offering personal direction and advice. To help answer our questions of what we should or should not do there were instead parents, siblings, spouses and friends. Granted sometimes the advice and counsel was not solicited. Still it was always free and offered with our best interests at heart. Advice is part of what good friends are supposed to offer.

Hundreds of years ago many Jewish rituals were performed in the home and not in the synagogue. The rabbis began to worry. What happens if these rituals are not done properly or even not done at all? And so to be certain that they were expertly observed the lighting of Shabbat candles and morning blessings, to name two examples, were moved into the synagogue. With this move from the home into the synagogue, more fell on the expert hands of rabbis and cantors.

We turn to professionals to lead our rituals and celebrations. We turn to experts for the most intimate of advice. And we forget to turn to those whose greatest, and perhaps only, expertise is their love for us.

We are hesitant to dance if not led by the hand of experts.

The Torah portion opens with details about the requirements for the priesthood. In ancient days they and they alone performed our rituals. Only someone descended from Aaron, only a person without any perceived defects could offer a sacrifice. “The Lord spoke further to Moses: Speak to Aaron and say: No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God.” (Leviticus 21) These priests were trained in the intricacies of the sacrificial rites.

The reliance on these experts was because the ancient Israelites believed that the world would collapse if the sacrifices were performed incorrectly. For such important and intricate work only experts would do. The ancients believed that lives depended on their expertise.

There are of course those in today’s Jewish world who view rituals in a similar manner and worry that a misplaced word, an incorrect blessing, forgotten candle lighting might tumble the world toward destruction. Such is not my view. Life is not the same as surgery. It is uneven. It is imperfect. Prayer is not akin to the ancient sacrifices. Rabbis are not priests. Cantors are not the descendants of Aaron. Our spiritual lives should not be left for experts.

And so I would rather we stumble and that we offer these prayers ourselves. I would rather we join with our cantor and sing our tradition’s songs (even if it might be out of key). I would rather we dance—even when it appears out of step. Let joy be our own. Let our people’s rituals and prayers not be left to experts.

Let living our lives not be left to experts. Let our Jewish lives be discovered, and rediscovered, in our own hands.

The Shulchan Aruch affirms: “Better a few prayers spoken with intention than many words prayed without intention.” Focus on the intention rather than the multitude of words.

The intention can always be found in our own hearts.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Yom Haatzmaut Prayers

Israel’s Declaration of Independence, read by David ben Gurion on May 14, 1948, concludes with the words: “Placing our trust in the Rock of Israel, we affix our signatures to this proclamation…” It is an interesting choice of words for God: “Tzur Yisrael—Rock of Israel.”

The early Zionists, most notably ben Gurion, were not especially given to statements of faith. And yet here we see how they bowed to Jewish tradition, selecting the name of God found in our prayerbooks following the Mi Chamocha. This prayer speaks about our redemption. On Shabbat morning we sing: “Tzur Yisrael, rise in support of Israel and redeem Judah and Israel as You promised…”

It would appear that our ancient dreams of redemption are realized in the creation of the State of Israel....

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Yom HaShoah and One Survivor

Two years ago David Stoliar died at the age of 91. Many people only learned of his story this past January when The New York Times reported his death. He spent most of his years in Bend, Oregon and the local paper there offered a brief obituary when he died in May 2014. Following World War II it was in Bend where he settled and raised a family.

And who was David Stoliar?

He was the sole survivor of the sinking of the Struma.

In 1942, the Struma set sail from Romania’s port city of Constantza, packed with nearly 800 Jewish refugees. These refugees had made their way from Romania, Czechoslovakia, Austria and Hungary. Adrift in the Black Sea, the Struma was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine.

The Struma set sail from its port with meager provisions. Each of its passengers paid smugglers up to $1000 for passage to Palestine. The British authorities refused entry to the Jewish refugees. Palestine’s gates were closed. The Struma then set sail for Turkey where it was quarantined for 70 days. Finally the Turkish authorities towed the ship out to sea where the Soviets, mistaking it for an enemy supply ship, torpedoed it.

David Stoliar reports that he was one of the lucky ones. The explosion threw him into the air and he landed in the water. Hours later he contemplated suicide and took out a knife to cut his wrists, but his fingers were so numb from the frigid waters that he could not even open his pocketknife. Finally, 24 hours later, he was rescued by Turkish sailors. Eventually, he was hospitalized in Istanbul.

After recovering, he was jailed for six weeks.

David commented: “I was the only witness to their inhumanity, really, from the beginning to the end.”

The world turned an indifferent eye to the suffering of Europe’s Jews. Nearly 800 refugees drowned. The number of Struma’s dead is still disputed. Everyone agrees: only one survived.

And this story is but one story among millions.

Recall a story from yesterday. Remember the story continues in our day.

May the memory of David Stoliar serve as witness and reminder.

May today's Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, renew our call to bring a measure of peace to our broken world.