Thursday, September 21, 2017

Lines of Hate

What follows is my Rosh Hashanah Morning sermon about the rise of antisemitism in America.

The president of the synagogue stood before the small congregation gathered for Shabbat services and issued this warning: “Leave from the back door. And be sure to leave in groups.” Outside neo-Nazis and KKK members gathered for the hate filled rally. Shouts of “There’s the synagogue.” could be heard. And salutes of “Seig Heil.” could be seen. For thirty minutes three men dressed in fatigues and carrying semi-automatic weapons stood across the street from the synagogue. Nazi flags were paraded past its doors. The Charlottesville police refused the synagogue’s request to station at least one officer outside. The congregation hired a private security guard instead. Alan Zimmerman, the president of Charlottesville’s Reform synagogue, worried about the congregants’ safety. Imagine if that had been our president’s worry or her task.

There are many challenges facing our world. I could speak about the hurricanes that continue to batter our cities. We pray that those whose communities were devastated by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and now Maria may recover and rebuild quickly. We pray that this year’s hurricane season ends tomorrow and that those recovering from the earthquake in neighboring Mexico may find strength and solace. I could also speak about the scourge of Islamist terrorism that continues to attack our cities. There are many topics about which I could dwell on this Rosh Hashanah. I could speak about the growing loss of connection between American Jews and their inheritance. That might be fitting on other years, and during different times.

This morning we need to speak about the rise of antisemitism in our midst, in our very own country. Years ago I never would have imagined the need to speak about this. Today, as one commentator remarked, it is as if someone has taken the lid off the sewer. All the hate bubbling beneath the surface has emerged and been given far too much air to breathe. Last month Nazi graffiti was spray-painted on a Syosset school. We can no longer pretend it only happens there, in Europe or the Middle East. In my hometown of St. Louis, after a local synagogue led by a rabbi who is among my teachers, opened its doors to shelter protesters, the hashtag “GasTheSynagogue” began trending on social media. And prior to that there was of course the vandalizing of a St. Louis Jewish cemetery. I cannot avoid talking about this any longer.

To be honest I have not yet figured out if this hate always existed and that all that has changed is people feel freer to express their views, if social media has opened a window to a cesspool that was always present. Here are some sobering statistics. A recent poll determined that 7% of Americans agree with views expressed by white nationalists. 4% agree with those of neo-Nazis. To put that in perspective, less than 2% of Americans are Jewish. What we witnessed in Charlottesville should be a wake up call. For starters can we get one point straight? We should stop using the term neo-Nazi. It is Nazi plain and simple. If people are sympathetic to this evil ideology they are Nazis. There is nothing new about it. This is an old and dangerous hatred.

This is an ideology that believes in racial superiority, that runs counter to the Jewish ethic that all human beings are created in God’s image, that was responsible for the murder of six million of our people, and against whom our country fought a bloody and costly war. I quote from an email from a long-time family friend: “This one hit me very hard. As a veteran of World War II, and a combat soldier, we fought to destroy the Nazis and what they stood for. Hundreds of thousands of American men and women died fighting this ideology. Seeing these young men and women wearing signs of the Nazis and their salute, uttering such hateful statements, made me see red. There is no place in this country for those who parade using the symbols of the very enemy that we fought, died battling against and finally overthrew.”

Social media has provided a forum that Joseph Goebbels (yimach shmo—may his name be blotted out) could only have dreamed of. This wonderful network that allows me to reconnect with long lost high school friends or those who now live in far away countries, allows sinister people with hate-filled ideologies to connect with one another. It gives them a sense that their views are more widely held. It provides them with a forum where not only is their speech unchecked but also affirmed. I have come to feel that conversations on the Internet, if we can even call them conversations, are like those moments in eighth grade when we had a substitute teacher. It is as if we are at the moment after the teacher leaves the classroom in exasperation after struggling for an hour to control the rowdy group. We are now in that middle school classroom without a teacher. And our leaders rather than jumping to the front of the room to take charge and offer direction instead sit in the back throwing things at each other.

The efforts to shut down websites and pages are doomed to failure. But we must do a better job of policing ourselves. We must model what our tradition calls right speech. If it cannot be said in person, if it cannot be said face to face, then it should not be said on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, or Twitter. Don’t text something that really should be said when looking into a friend’s eyes. Anything that might be difficult to say, or painful, or upsetting, should always be said face to face. Sometimes the old fashioned way is the right way.

Let the rise of hate filled speech be a lesson for how we can correct our own speech. It is the High Holidays of course and these are days when we are meant to look inward and better ourselves.

This brings me to the response of our leaders and in particular our president. President Trump continues to equivocate about the violence in Charlottesville. He continues to equate the violent protestors on the left with the Nazis and KKK supporters on the right. They are not the same. We reject the violence of the anti-fascists, and their methods. They are thugs and perhaps should even be labeled gangs. The police should arrest and jail any protestor who resorts to violence. There can be no war on our streets. But theirs is not the ideology that murdered six million of our people. The line does not get any clearer than that. In a country in which we believe in freedom of speech and freedom of assembly and in which people are therefore allowed to rally in support of their hate filled ideology we have but one recourse and that is to say loudly and clearly to white nationalists and their ilk, “This is not us. This is not what America is about.” That is what I expect from our leaders. And this is what we should demand of them. That is what we heard from virtually every other politician, both Democratic and Republican.

It begins with knowing history. There is a direct line, and if this sermon is about one thing it is about making such lines crystal clear, between the Nazi venom we saw on full display in Charlottesville and the adulation heaped on the heroes of the Confederacy. Let us remember that the spark for this gathering was the planned removal of a statute of General Robert E. Lee. Again there is a clear difference between those who owned slaves in the 18th century and those who led the fight to defend slavery in the 19th. Slavery is an ideology whose premise is that other human beings are property, a belief again that runs counter to Judaism’s foundational teaching. In May of this past year, New Orleans took down such a statue. Its mayor gave the most remarkable of speeches on this occasion. He said, “These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for. The Confederacy was on the wrong side of history and humanity.”

This moment is about standing on the right side of history and humanity. It is about standing for diversity and standing against hate. One side is right and the other wrong. It is that clear. It is about saying “May Heather Heyer’s memory always serve as a blessing.”

But antisemitism is not only on the rise on the far right. It is also found in increasing numbers of the left. There the forum is often the college campus. It is often disguised as hatred of Zionism and the State of Israel. At a growing number of colleges the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement metastasizes into antisemitism. These movements seek to divest from companies that do business with Israel or sometimes more narrowly those who are located in the West Bank. On the surface they seek to raise awareness about the plight of Palestinians and the injustices of Israel’s continued rule over the territories. But if you look below the surface you often find views that demonize Israel and see it as illegitimate.

Let me be clear. That does not make all critics of Israel antisemitic. I have many disagreements with Israel. It is not always right. And that should not make others call me an Israel hater or a disloyal Jew. Loyalty, and devotion, is not synonymous with agreement. It is not treason to raise my voice against what I see as the growing anti-democratic tendencies of the State of Israel and the Netanyahu government. I continue to believe that for Israel to more fully realize its founding dream it must adhere to both its Jewish and democratic principles. The less democratic it becomes the more it will lose the devotion of young American Jews. So one can be sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and be supportive of the Palestinian people’s aspirations for statehood and remain a lover of Zion. Love is not the same as agreement. (Just ask Susie.)

However too often those who support these BDS movements take on antisemitic tropes. Roger Waters, who will be playing at Nassau Coliseum and who I will not be buying a ticket to see despite the fact that I believe Pink Floyd to be one of the greatest rock bands ever, is an ardent supporter of this BDS movement. He recently compared Israel to Nazi Germany and said, “I’m not sure there are any more harsher regimes around the world.” Such exaggerated demonization of Israel qualifies as antisemitism but it’s also just plain old ignorance, given that in neighboring Syria Assad continues to use chemical weapons against his own people and where 400,000 people have been killed. We have to learn how to draw clear and unmistakable lines.

When someone says that Israel is illegitimate or that there is no Jewish connection to the land of Israel this is clearly antisemitic. The attempt to portray the modern state of Israel as a European colonial implant in the Arab Middle East whose existence is only justified as recompense for the Holocaust is antisemitism because it flouts history. To say Israelis are interlopers and are not in fact Jews who have returned to the place from which they were exiled millennia ago, that we are not bound to Jerusalem because our King David first established a capital there, is to deny the historical legitimacy of Zionism. That does not mean, however, we cannot share Jerusalem with our Palestinian brethren. I will leave that arrangement to what I continue to hope will one day soon be the job of peace negotiators who will figure out how to share a place we both call home and how we each can have safe and secure borders.

Those discussions begin with each of us acknowledging the legitimacy of the other’s claim and for Palestinian leaders and their supporters to affirm the Jewish people’s rightful inheritance. “We have returned.” sums it up. That phrase should constitute the beginning of our discussions. A line can be drawn between those who saw this country’s first African American president as illegitimate and those who call Israel illegitimate. The delegitimization of the other, the portrayal of those with whom I disagree, or those with whom I quarrel, as illegitimate is not how arguments are won or even more importantly how compromises are hammered out.

On the left, and on college campuses, there is a growing tendency to shout down speakers with whom students disagree. I cite an incident involving one of my teachers from Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute. Moshe Halbertal’s lecture at the University of Minnesota law school was repeatedly interrupted by the shouts of protestors who called him a war crimes apologist. And what was the title of his lecture? “Protecting Civilians: Moral Challenges of Asymmetrical Warfare.” Disagreement does not give one the right to interrupt such a speech. And yet what we are witnessing is the elevation of feelings over thoughtful reflection. My feelings are offended so I will shout and scream. Colleges rush to protect its students’ feelings. They cancel controversial lectures.

Sure students can protest, and they should protest. But everyone gets heard, most especially in the university. There the goal is actually not to affirm my feelings and my convictions but to confront different ideas and have my beliefs challenged and even my feelings unsettled. As American Jews we have placed great faith in the university. Now it seems as if it is abandoning us. In too many instances those who wish Israel be wiped off the face of the earth are given louder voice than those who have spent decades studying history and a lifetime asking challenging questions of ethics and morality. It behooves us to open the dialogue and debate, and listen to those whose views we find unsettling, but whose expertise derives from scholarship.

I fear that that the eighth grade teacher-less classroom so prevalent on social media has found its way into the university. Friendship is not synonymous with like-mindedness. My feelings are offended so I will un-friend her; I will turn my back on her ideas. I will scream at the top of my lungs so that no one else will be offended and only the ideas that affirm my preconceived feelings can be heard.

There is a line between honest debate, between sitting across the table from those who hold diametrically opposed views and those who think that only their truth is legitimate. There is a line between those who support Palestinian’s aspirations for statehood and those who seek Israel’s destruction, whose antipathy towards Israel is tinged with antisemitism and filled with hate, and those who love Israel but are critical of it.

And so what are we to do? What should be our response? I can tell you what I plan to do. I am going to double down on the American dream. I am going to further embrace American pluralism and diversity. I am going to seek out not so much those who say, “Rabbi, I could not agree with you more,” but those who held different ideas and beliefs. I am going to seek out Jews who think my views are leftist, and Muslims who do not share my love and devotion to Israel, and Christians who believe that I am missing out on an even greater part of the Bible.

This place called America is not so much defined by borders and geography. It is not about religion or ethnicity. It is about an idea. It is a sanctuary for all those who wish to embrace this idea, and who come here like my grandparents did, with dreams of a better life for their grandchildren. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

I was reminded of this idea when I saw the pictures of the sailors killed on the Navy warships John S. McCain and Fitzgerald. They were a tapestry of immigrants. There I could see the diversity that makes this country great.

And I am reminded of this idea when I recall the ten years I carried church keys in my pocket. What was normal for a good part of my rabbinic career was extraordinary in the history of religions but then again ordinary for the history of America.

I recall this as I remember my son’s long time friendship with Huey O’Connor. I used to look out of my window and see them sitting on the curb after a playing a game of one on one. I would often ask Ari what they were talking about. I assumed sports. He would often say matter-of-factly, “Religion.” And then he would head up to his room as if this was the most typical and ordinary of things, that two young boys would play basketball together and also teach each other about their differences and most importantly never stop calling each other friends. That is what I am going to hold on to. And that is what I will forever defend.

This is what will strengthen this great nation of ours. And this is what will forever safeguard us against hate.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

New Year's Tune Up

Last week I took my car in for its first scheduled 15,000-mile tune up. The tires were rotated. The oil was changed. The brakes were checked, as well as a host of other things that I don’t pretend to understand. Now it was all set for another year. To be honest part of my motivation was that my father would soon be visiting. I was afraid he might notice my inspection sticker was almost out of date. I did not want to hear his reminder, “Steven, you better get your inspection taken care of. You might get a ticket.” I even threw in a car wash for good measure.

The car would now pass father’s inspection, something far more important than New York State’s. After two hours, and couple of hundred dollars, I was all set. The car was tuned up and could pass any inspection. The new sticker was affixed to my windshield.

If only it were that easy for our souls. A few hundred dollars and a few hours in synagogue would be all that was required.

Most people think the High Holidays are like that tune up. They believe Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur offer us a time to recharge our spiritual batteries. They look at the rabbi and cantor as mechanics. Bring the soul in for a two-hour tune up at synagogue and you are set for the coming year.

In truth these holidays are more like that inspection. And each of us is our own mechanic. The prayers are meant to awaken our self-examination. Why else do we recite over and over again, “For the sin we have committed…” These days are intended as an opportunity to examine our lives.

The Jewish contention is clear. No one is perfect. Everyone is flawed. All need to inspect their souls. Everyone is in need of repair.

The Jewish faith is emphatic. Everyone can do better. All can improve their lives. Every single person can change and correct their failings.

The inspection is these High Holidays. The tune up lasts a lifetime of effort.

And that is all father really asks of us.

“Avinu Malkeinu, be gracious and answer us, for we have little merit. Treat us generously and with kindness, and be our help.”

We Help More When We Feel Connected

We Help More When We Feel Connected to Tragedy.  Why That's Not Enough.  

Leon Wieseltier once wrote: “Ethical life is the transformation of there into here.”

Recently my congregation helped to ship much needed supplies to those in Houston devastated by Hurricane Harvey. We gathered water bottles, cleaning supplies, diapers and canned food. I was struck by the outpouring of support. We rented one truck, but soon realized that we required two. Strangers showed up at the synagogue with gifts in hand. They had heard that we were gathering supplies and wanted to contribute.

Although it was but a small token of what is required to rebuild and help Houston, and now Florida and the Caribbean islands, I was struck by how many wanted to help and how many jumped to participate. How did a once distant city become so near? For some it was obvious. They are from Houston and had family who was affected by the storm. For others, I imagine, it was their memories of Hurricane Sandy that impelled them to participate.

We still recall the flooded homes. We remember the weeks without power, or heat, or decent cellphone service. We still see the mountains of couches and appliances that waited to be carted away by trash companies. We hear the endless hum of chainsaws clearing downed trees and branches. We recall the parking lots converted into lumberyards filled with trees. There is a direct line between trauma and compassion. The wounds of yesterday make us more caring and even more giving.

If I can remember how it feels my hand might be opened to others....

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Standing before the Page

Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, a Hasidic master, was asked: “Why does every tractate of the Talmud begin on the second page? (The first page is not alef, but instead bet.)” He answered: “However much we learn, we should always remember that we have not even reached the first page.”

The greatest lesson our tradition offers is that our learning is never complete. That is why we read the same books year after year. We are always starting again, and again, and again. There are those who read a page of Talmud every day, completing the cycle in seven years. And in synagogue we read the Torah in one year’s time, dividing our study into weekly portions.

There is always more to learn.

This week’s portion states: “You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God—your tribal heads, your elders and your officials…even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer—to enter into the covenant… I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day.” (Deuteronomy 29)

We too stood at Mount Sinai. And each and every time we study Torah we stand again before the Lord our God.

As we approach the High Holidays the question remains, where do we stand? Do we wish to stand before God? Do we wish to renew our commitment to learning? Do we wish to open our people’s book anew?

I understand that it may very well feel daunting that we have not even reached the first page. Why even start a book that I know I can’t complete? Let it instead be inviting. There is no one so wise and of such great learning that they have already reached the first page. Everyone begins for the first time, on page two.

Our books await.

Where do we stand?

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Hurricanes and Doing Right

On days such as these when we watch The Weather Channel incessantly we begin to wonder, “What did we do to deserve such calamities and disasters?” Two hurricanes in a matter of weeks, and another one trailing behind! What’s going on with the world?

We begin to think like the ancients, “Are the gods angry with us? Have we unleashed nature’s fury by failing to better care for our precious world?” Our ancestors did not understand the laws of nature. They sought to draw connections between natural disasters and their own behavior. The Torah makes this line crystal clear. Our moral behavior influences whether or not the rain falls and whether or not, for example, the earth will yield food.

Take a few verses from this week’s portion as evidence.
If you do not obey the Lord your God to observe faithfully all His commandments and laws which I enjoin upon you this day, all these curses shall come upon you and take effect: 
Cursed shall you be in the city and cursed shall you be in the country. 
Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. 
The Lord will let loose against you calamity, panic, and frustration in all the enterprises you undertake… The skies above your head shall be copper and the earth under you iron. The Lord will make the rain of your land dust, and sand shall drop on you from the sky, until you are wiped out. (Deuteronomy 28)
It is a rather unpleasant list. It does not represent my theology.

And yet it is a powerful reminder of our responsibilities to the world at large. How might my behavior improve if I imagine that my actions keep the world in balance? If I act unethically, the world might tip toward chaos. I hold the world in my hands. What we do, and don’t do, affects everyone.

Long before the Internet tied the world together and fashioned an awareness of a global community, the Torah bound us together through our morality. My poor decisions don’t just affect me, and perhaps my family, but the entire world.

The corollary is of course also true. If we behave morally, and ethically, then the world might right itself.

This morning, along with the help of so many of you, I participated in that righting. We packed a truck with supplies bound for Houston and those now rebuilding their lives from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey. Even though our massive outpouring of support might only be a fraction of what is needed it inspires me to do more. We participated in repairing the world one small step at a time, slowly helping to right our precious home.

And while I do not believe that my inattention to any of the commandments brings on hurricanes I take heart in the Torah’s notion that I can do something even from afar. I take to heart the Torah’s insight that strangers are bound to one another. If that far away person has fallen down I can certainly do my part to help lift them up.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Standing Against Hate

Prior to the High Holidays American rabbis have participated in a conference call with the President of the United States. This year there will be no such call. Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist rabbis decided to forgo this tradition in an effort to protest President Trump’s handling of the hate rally and violence in Charlottesville and in particular his failure to unequivocally condemn those whose ideology our nation fought bloody wars to defeat. This is a decision I support. On this occasion I am particularly proud of my membership in the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Here is the full statement:
The High Holy Days are an opportunity for reflection and introspection. As the leaders of major denominations in American Jewish life, we have been deeply engaged in both, considering the events of the Jewish year that is ending and preparing spiritually for the year to come. 
In so doing, we have thoughtfully and prayerfully considered whether to continue the practice in recent years of playing key roles in organizing a conference call for the President of the United States to bring High Holy Day greetings to American rabbis. We have concluded that President Trump’s statements during and after the tragic events in Charlottesville are so lacking in moral leadership and empathy for the victims of racial and religious hatred that we cannot organize such a call this year. 
The President’s words have given succor to those who advocate anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia. Responsibility for the violence that occurred in Charlottesville, including the death of Heather Heyer, does not lie with many sides but with one side: the Nazis, alt-right and white supremacists who brought their hate to a peaceful community. They must be roundly condemned at all levels. 
The High Holy Days are a season of t’shuvah for us all, an opportunity for each of us to examine our own words and deeds through the lens of America’s ongoing struggle with racism. Our tradition teaches us that humanity is fallible yet also capable of change. We pray that President Trump will recognize and remedy the grave error he has made in abetting the voices of hatred. We pray that those who traffic in anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia will see that there is no place for such pernicious philosophies in a civilized society. And we pray that 5778 will be a year of peace for all.

Typically I am given to debating all opinions. I welcome disagreement. There is, however, only one response to antisemitism. It must be categorically and unequivocally rejected.

I expect nothing less from my beloved country and its leaders.

There is no room for hateful ideologies within our nation’s tapestry. There were no fine people among those marchers.

I pray that our President will come to see this important distinction.

What My Bike Accident Taught Me

I am an avid cyclist. Perhaps too much, some would say. Over the years I have ridden some 20,000 miles, much of it on Long Island’s roads. I am very familiar with the roads in and around my home. I know where there are rough roads. I know where there are potholes and most especially speed bumps.

And yet today, I crashed on a familiar road and a well-known speed bump. I am fortunately ok, despite a great many scratches and a few too many bruises. Friends offered reassurance, comradery and even some humor, “It happens to everyone. As long as nothing is broken, you will heal quickly. Is your bike ok?” Family offered love and “Thank God’s.”

After a crash, or an accident, or any mishap one reviews the events and plays the scene over and over and over again. Why did this happen?...

This post continues on The Wisdom Daily.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

What the Moon Asks

For a few brief moments nearly every American paid attention to the moon. We looked into the afternoon sky—with our protective glasses of course—and watched as the moon obscured the sun. Although most of us do not live in the path of totality we marveled at this celestial phenomenon.

But if not for a perfect accident of nature this rare occurrence could never happen.

The sun and moon only appear the same size. The sun is actually 400 times larger than the moon. However the moon is 400 times closer to the earth than the sun. And so this perfect accident produced something so marvelous and beautiful that many could come up with no other word to say but “miraculous!” Was it God who perfectly calculated this factor of 400? Do we ascribe the solar eclipse to God’s hand?

We are left in awe.

Long ago, the ancient rabbis imagined, the moon complained before God. “Why am I the lesser of the two great lights? The sun brightens the day. The sun warms the earth. I am left only to mark the nighttime sky.” God listened to the moon’s complaint and said, “The Jewish people will mark their holidays by your light.” And the moon was content.

A fanciful story to be sure. And yet we continue to mark our holidays by the moon. Passover, for example, occurs during the full moon of Nisan. Rosh Hashanah begins on the new moon of Tishrei. And so the day after the solar eclipse the Hebrew month of Elul began. This month marks the forty-day period of introspection and repentance that culminates with Yom Kippur. At this moment of the year we turn inward and ask, “For what do I need to make amends? How might I change and become a better person?”

For all the science, and mystery, of this week’s attention to the moon as it briefly dominated the sun and made it the lesser of the two great lights, for our people the moon continues to ask a more simple and basic question. The moon asks us to improve ourselves.

For what do we need to make amends?

If we are honest with ourselves then the moon’s light becomes the more dominant of lights. And then God is content.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Dangerous Ideology That Is Cause of Charlottesville

Nearly thirty years ago I visited Natchez Mississippi. It is a beautiful and picturesque city situated on the banks of the Mississippi River. It is dotted with grand, historic mansions. We were led around town by a local guide. At one point she made reference to the War of Northern Aggression. I raised my hand to ask about this unknown war. “I have never heard of this war in all my years of study.” She said, “Y’all know, the war that began in 1861 when the Northern states attacked the South.” I said, “Oh! You mean the Civil War.” “No,” she retorted, “The War of Northern Aggression.” I opened my mouth to argue some more, but others advised me to let it go.

Perhaps I should not have.

The Civil War was not so much fought over secession. It was about slavery. Southerners believed that other human beings could be bought and sold like property. They were willing to die to preserve this horrible idea. The South lost. And yet as this weekend attests, the struggle continues. We continue to fight over the idea first taught in the Book of Genesis that all human beings are created in God’s image. All people, regardless of race, religion or gender, contain a divine spark. All are equal in God’s eyes.

In Southern cities there remain statues to heroes of the Confederacy.  These must now come down....

This post continues on The Wisdom Daily.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Breaking Bread

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, the great eighteenth century Hasidic rebbe, once saw a man running around in a great hurry. (He must have visited New York City!) He asked the man: “Why are you running?” The man answered: “I am running because I have to earn a living.” Rabbi Levi Yitzhak asked him: “How do you know that this ‘earning a living’ is running away from you so that you have to race after it to catch it? Maybe it is instead behind you, in which case you are fleeing from it.”

We chase after many things. We pursue career advancement. We run after bonuses and raises. Perhaps instead our livelihoods are behind us. What gives us life might already be present. We may have already gained that which animates our souls. All we need to do is slow down and look at what is right before our eyes.

The Torah concurs: “Man does not live on bread alone.” (Deuteronomy 8:3) This frequently quoted verse suggests that we are sustained by more than just food. And yet this is not what the Torah states. The verse reads in its entirety: “God subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your fathers had ever known, in order to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, but that human beings may live on anything that the Lord decrees.”

The Torah’s intention is clear. We are sustained by whatever God gives us. Manna might not be served at any five star restaurant (or any star restaurant for that matter) but we can live on it for the simple reason that it is a gift from God. The Torah implies that whatever God dishes out, we must take; we should take. Moreover we can live on it; we should live on it.

The Torah’s lesson is clear. Everything is a gift from God. And we should say, “Thank you.”

Still we require more than bread to live. We are sustained by so much more than the food we eat. We require purpose. We need friends and family to surround us. And yes, we even need hobbies.

This is why the rabbis of old counseled that we should never say the blessing for food while standing. Never say a blessing when rushing. Never eat, for example, while standing and waiting for a train. Instead we are instructed to sit. Why? Because when we sit down we transform the food our bodies require into a meal. It is the company of family and friends that changes eating into a meal. The necessity of food is transformed into a sacred occasion by blessings and others.

It is the people who surround us that nourishes us.

When you sit, it is impossible to rush. And then it is much easier to look behind you. It is much easier to give thanks.

Back to Rabbi Levi. Stop chasing after things. Look in the rearview mirror.

All the sustenance you require is sitting there before you.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Teaching Swimming

Twice a day we recite the familiar phrase of the Shema, “You shall diligently teach them to your children.” (Deuteronomy 6:7) What are we obligated to teach? The tradition provides us with specific answers. Parents must teach their children Torah and a craft. Some add, to teach them to swim too. (Kiddushin 29a)

The Talmud asks, why do parents need to ensure their children learn a craft. So that they might be self-sufficient and capable of earning a livelihood. Not to teach children a trade is akin to instructing them how to steal. And why swimming lessons? Because their lives might depend on it. (Kiddushin 30b) Swimming is a basic survival skill. Children who do not learn survival skills such as swimming and the practical skills of a craft can not succeed in any society – ancient or modern. The Talmud is very practical. Like today’s parents it wants to make children into successful, well-adjusted adults.

But the Talmud also wants to be sure these children become Jewish adults.

And this is why teaching Torah is the most important obligation a Jewish parent faces. This is also the most difficult challenge. Our culture values not Torah learning but the practical and survival skills of preparing for a career and saving lives. In fact we have allowed Torah learning to become only a practical skill. Children master Hebrew so that they might have a beautiful bar/bat-mitzvah. Learning Torah means practicing a Torah portion so that on that day the reading will be flawless and the performance masterful.

Yes, Torah is a skill but it is not a reading skill. Torah is a survival skill that also helps to shape success and happiness.

Ours is a generation that was taught only the skills of reading Torah and not an understanding of its beauty and meaning. The power of Torah is not hidden. Torah shapes moral human beings.

Now we are the parents. And we are noticeably uncomfortable and unsure of ourselves when God asks us to teach Torah to our children. If we don’t know, we can’t teach. Hillel responds: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah. All the rest is commentary. Now go and learn.” (Shabbat 31a)

The Talmud further advises: If parents must choose between educating their children or themselves, parents take precedence. (Kiddushin 29b) An analogy: If, in an emergency, the oxygen mask drops, first put on your mask and then your child’s. Why do airlines advise you to discount your instincts? The wisdom is simple: If you pass out from lack of oxygen, you can’t help your child. Instincts are not always right.

And so it is with Torah. Torah is a survival skill. If you don’t learn Torah your child won’t either. All the wonderful children’s programs will only work wonders if parents are there – in body and spirit – with their children.

Judaism’s magic is most felt at home. If there is no Torah at home, Torah will remain a reading skill that one masters by age 13 and then graduates from needing. Why do I need Torah, thinks the recent 13 year old, when my parents don’t?

Why do I love Torah? It is the same reason I love swimming. My parents took me swimming.

Friday, July 28, 2017

The Language(s) of Torah

This week we begin reading the Torah’s final book, Deuteronomy. Moses is now 120 years old and must relinquish his leadership to Joshua. Soon he will die and be buried on Mount Nebo. Beforehand he reminds the Israelites about the many rules they must follow. He recounts the adventures of their forty years of wandering the wilderness. This is Deuteronomy’s plot. “I am about to leave you. Don’t forget to…”

The Torah states: “On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to expound this Torah.” (Deuteronomy 1)

The rabbis ask: How did he begin to teach? Being rabbis they answer their own question and state, “Moses began to explain the Torah in the seventy languages of the ancient world.”

Didn’t the Israelites all speak the same language? Didn’t they speak Hebrew? Of course they did. So why would Moses need to explain the Torah in every language the rabbis believed to exist? It is because the Torah has universal import.

Too often we focus our Jewish learning on the mastery of the Hebrew language. Too often we mistake the Torah’s language for its essence. While Hebrew is of course important it does not always unlock the secrets; it cannot always unravel the mysteries. This is why even Moses taught the Torah in many languages.

The lesson is clear. The most important thing about Torah is its teachings. These must be translated into every language. Moreover these teachings must be interpreted according to everyone’s ability.

Torah was never meant to belong to a privileged few. It is meant for all. It is meant for the world.

It begins with the language we speak.

Monday, July 24, 2017

My Son's Graduation Viewed Through the Torah

For Jews, our most sacred object is the Torah scroll. Every synagogue has at least one. We stand when the scroll is taken from the Ark. We chant its verses at services. We study its words, week in and week out, poring over its stories and rules in search of meaning.

The scroll itself is made from large pieces of parchment that are sewn together so that there is barely a pause within the Bible’s first five books. For Jews, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy are rolled into one. The Torah’s Hebrew lettering is written in highly stylized calligraphy that takes a scribe one year to complete. Even in today’s digital world, the Torah scroll continues to be crafted by hand.

One formula for the manufacture of the ink used to calligraphy the letters on this scroll requires that the nut, which a female gall wasp produces when she lays her eggs in an oak tree, be ground and cooked. Added to this mixture is the gum from an acacia tree and copper sulfate, which is then slowly cooked for approximately a year. The ink is most prized and a small bottle is very expensive.

Once the scribe calligraphs these black letters to the parchment, it will last for 1000 years. That is the black ink inscribed on a Torah scroll....

This post continues on The Wisdom Daily.  

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Advice for Our Leaders

We read this week: “Moses spoke to the heads of the Israelite tribes, saying…” (Numbers 30:2)

It is rare that the Torah addresses the leaders rather than the people as a whole. In most instances the Torah states instead, “Moses spoke to the people, saying…” (Numbers 31:1) Why in this instance would Moses speak to the tribal heads rather than the people?

Perhaps the secret can be discerned in the laws detailed in this chapter. Here we read about the concept of making vows. The Hatam Sofer, a leading rabbi in 19th century Germany, asks this very same question. He suggests the law is directed at leaders because people in public office are more often tempted to make promises that they cannot keep. It is as if to say, “Be on guard of the words and promises you make—most especially if you are a leader.”

I would like to suggest a different reason.

Soon we will mark Tisha B’Av, the day in which we commemorate the destruction of Jerusalem’s Temple. This fast day marks the Jewish people’s greatest tragedy, until the modern period and its Holocaust. The loss of the Temple, the destruction of Jerusalem and the slaughter of so many Jews is still remembered even at Jewish weddings by the breaking of the glass.

It was of course the Romans, and prior to that the Babylonians, who destroyed the first and second Temples, but yet the rabbis engaged in what was sometimes wrenching introspection in order to uncover how the Jewish people might have been at fault for their own demise. They more often than not suggest that it was because of baseless hatred of one Jew for another. The seeds of our destruction were sown by how we screamed and yelled at each other.

The rabbis of course believed in argument and especially passionate debate. They taught that truth can only emerge when we openly argue and debate with one another. We read: “Any debate that is for the sake of heaven, its end will continue; but that which is not for the sake of heaven, its end will not continue. What is a debate for the sake of heaven? The debate between Rabbis Hillel and Shammai. And a debate that is not for the sake of heaven? The debate of Korah and his entire band of rebels.” (Avot 5:17)

There is a fine line between a positive and negative argument. It rests in how we approach those with whom we disagree. The rabbis offer us an important insight. While we might be strengthened by debate, we are weakened by tribal divisions. When we debate we must ask, are we arguing so that truth might emerge? Or are we arguing instead to draw divisions between us?

This is why Moses speaks to the tribal heads.

Our very survival depends on how our leaders argue and debate. It rests in how leaders speak to one another.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Give the Keys Away

Christians consider Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher sacred. It is there that they believe Jesus was crucified, buried and later resurrected from the dead. And yet the many denominations that comprise Christianity do not always agree about how this place is to be revered. 150 years ago a compromise was enacted detailing when the Orthodox, Coptic, Ethiopian and Catholic churches in particular are allowed to perform their rituals. A schedule is followed. By and large this has ensured peace in this holy place.

This was not always the case. On a hot summer day in 2002 a Coptic monk moved his chair out of the scorching sun and into the shade. Rival monks accused him of breaking this compromise and disrespecting their faith. A fight ensued. Eleven monks were taken to the hospital. And when I visited the church a few days ago, the church appeared a freer place of worship than either the Dome of the Rock or our sacred Western Wall.

At the church no one interfered with the many different ways pilgrims prayed. Some took pictures. Some marveled at the artwork. Others posed for selfies. Many fell on their hands and knees to kiss the stone on which Jesus’ disciples placed his body. People were clearly overcome by emotion. There were many tears and many more songs and prayers. I found myself marveling at their religiosity.

I also found myself admiring their freedoms. No one policed behaviors. No one shouted that something was inappropriate. No one said, “Stop doing that! This is a holy place.”

Before walking up to Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, from which Muslims believe Mohammed ascended to heaven and Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Ishmael, my bag was thoroughly searched. We were not allowed to take any Jewish religious objects, such as a tallis or prayerbook, up to the mount. Apparently it is feared that we might then recite a Jewish prayer on the mount. It is, by the way, Israeli security officials who enforce this ban.

Once we entered the large plaza Muslim officials approached our group to explain that this is a holy site and what were allowed to do and not to do. They examined the women in our group. Some were told that they were not appropriately dressed. They were given specific directions about how better to respect this sacred place. Some were handed scarves to cover their shoulders. I asked if I could enter the Dome of the Rock, as I had done many years before, but was told, “It is only for Muslims.”

Is it the worry about provocations that makes my entry now forbidden? Perhaps. Certainly after the first and second intifadas there is justified concern about what might lead to another outbreak of violence. Then again non-Muslims are forbidden from entering the holy city of Mecca. Let’s be honest, there is a growing trend among the faithful that the other, the non-Muslim, the non-Jew, the non-Christian, somehow diminishes the sanctity of a holy place. Even the term “non” is the attempt to draw a sacred circle around oneself by drawing others outside. Only those who are inside the circle are holy, or chosen. I reject this tendency.

The Western Wall is little different. I can walk up to these sacred stones wearing shorts and a T-Shirt. Women, on the other hand, must be sure their shoulders are covered and their skirts an appropriate length. If not they are given schmattas to cover themselves. Women must pray in the women’s section. I can roam the much larger men’s section and search its broad length for a private place to pray. (And I found one such spot to offer the prayers requested of me.)

I am not however free to lead a Reform service for the men and women of my congregation at the main Western Wall plaza.

And so this summer I found myself envying my Christian brethren.

Apparently the situation I admired was not always the case. In the 12th century Saladin, then the ruler of Jerusalem gave the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher’s front doors to a local Muslim family. The Joudeh family continues to hold these keys to this very day. And that might be the secret to the freedom I so desire.

It is entrusted to another.

Muslims are the religious authorities for the Dome of the Rock. The ultra-Orthodox control the Western Wall.

Perhaps if we want to restore freedoms to our own faith we need to trust someone else with the keys.

Don’t get me wrong. I do not mean to suggest that we should give up political sovereignty over Jerusalem. What I do mean to say is that spiritual truths are gained and religious experiences heightened when we don’t worry about who is in control, when don’t say so much, “I am in charge and you’re not. You can do this and you can’t do that.” If we are true to our faith we should say, “This house belongs to God alone.”

Doors to our faith might be opened by giving the keys to someone else.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Sailing on Dreams

Today, I am grateful to have rediscovered a twofold blessing.

First of all I am thankful to my congregation and its leaders for recognizing that its rabbi must renew his learning and refresh his spirit every year. I do so by attending the Shalom Hartman Institute’s annual rabbinic conference. I am here in Jerusalem. It is a blessing to learn with some of the Jewish people’s leading scholars and to sit among colleagues who share my commitment to learning and devotion to questioning.

It is as well a blessing to find myself again in the city of Jerusalem. I live in an unprecedented age. Despite this country’s many difficulties, challenges and frustrations few Jewish generations have been privileged to live in, or alongside, a sovereign Jewish nation. In some ways Israel is just a country, and like every other nation a home to its citizens. In other ways this place is about our reengagement with a dream.

For millennia we only dreamed about returning to the city of Jerusalem and the land of Israel. And now with relative ease I travel back and forth. Few generations have had such an opportunity. Through the vast majority of our history most longed for this place but few touched it. Until now! This is a privilege that must never be taken for granted.

Walking Jerusalem’s streets I become reacquainted with my blessings....

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Disagreements and Likes

There is a disturbing trend that is becoming ever more prevalent. It centers on disagreement. We have forgotten how to debate.

We surround ourselves with like-minded people. With the click of a mouse we can unfriend those with whom we disagree. We find it unwelcome to challenge ourselves with divergent opinions or when friends offer us critique. The measure of friendship today is twofold: loyalty and laudation. We only wish to hear the nodding of agreement.

Loving critique is banished from our screens. Honest disagreement is deleted from our inboxes.

Take but two recent examples. At last week’s LGBTQ pride parade in Chicago, several Jewish women who carried a rainbow colored flag with a Jewish star in its center were asked to leave. Why? Organizers told the women that the flag made people feel unsafe. The march is unabashedly anti-Zionist. The Jewish Star of David, they were told, is associated with the State of Israel. The official statement makes the Dyke March’s ideology even more clear: “Zionism is an inherently white-supremacist ideology. It is based on the premise that Jewish people have a God-given entitlement to the lands of historic Palestine and the surrounding areas.”

To say this is disturbing and offensive does not adequately characterize my feelings....

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Soccer, Torah and Life

The Israeli novelist, Etgar Keret, writes:
I love soccer because it is so painfully similar to life: slow, unjust, fairly random, usually boring, but always holding out the hope that, at some moment, however brief, everything will come together and take on meaning. There’s no getting away from it—life isn’t about limber athletes sinking hoops from the three-point arc; life is an ongoing, uncoordinated, anguished effort to transcend our trivial existence, an effort that, if we’re lucky, might lead to one brilliant move by Messi, Kaká, or some other dribbling magician. And then, for one split second, that whole damp 90-minute mishmash will turn into something coherent, beautiful, and worthwhile. And, when that moment and its endless playbacks fade, we will all return to our same drab reality of wasted time, pointless fouls, unreceived passes, and wild kicks that miss the goal by kilometers, only to wait with infinite patience and boundless hope for that next moment of grace.
I do not share Keret's observation that most of life is boring (or his talent for spinning humor out of the ordinary), but I do share the sentiment that life, like soccer, is punctuated with flashes of brilliance and grace when everything seems to work and everyone seems in sync.

Such is not the story in this week's Torah portion, Korah. Our portion is about the greatest rebellion against Moses and the authority God placed in him. In fact one can read much of the Torah, especially the Book of Numbers, as a record of how bad things can really go and how telling Keret's observation may be. Very little goes according to plan. God frees the people from Egypt, gives them the Torah and prepares them to entire the Promised Land. They in turn whine and complain. They gripe about Moses and his leadership.

Korah screams, "You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord's congregation?" (Numbers 16: 3) In the end Korah's rebellion is violently crushed. God does not easily forgive those who question Moses' authority.

The Israelites move on to the next episode. Again they complain; this time about a lack of water. In this episode it is Moses who questions God's authority and is punished.

Where are the flashes of brilliance? Where are the models to emulate? My teacher used to quip, "There is no one in the Bible you would want your son or daughter to grow up to be like."

Then why read the Torah? If it is not to provide us with models to emulate and characters to which we aspire, why read it at all?

It is because the Torah mirrors life. It is filled with ordinary people who occasionally do extraordinary things and more often than not do embarrassing things. We can see ourselves in its characters. We can find ourselves in its pages. How often do we discover the soccer-like quality of present reality in the words of Torah?

There is a little bit of Korah in each of us. There is a measure of Moses in all.

Loving the Torah does not always mean imitating it. Loving the Torah and Bible does not mean saying, "It must be right if David did it. It must be true if Moses said it." Torah means instead learning and growing from its words.

There are times when you can appreciate Keret's observation. It was not so long ago that I stood on the sidelines watching my son slide to make a save or leap to knock the unexpected shot out of bounds. Most of the time it was spent kibbitzing with fellow parents, talking about schools, parenting, the news and weather. To be honest I sometimes had to be told about the slide or leap because the kibbitzing so distracted me. You have to remain attentive. You have to be patient. The moments do arrive.

The hours of driving and watching are redeemed by those brief moments of beauty and grace.

We travel from moment to moment, through ordinariness to such grandeur. We are sustained by the moments of illumination and brilliance. We pray that they might be more frequent. We recognize that they are elusive—and infrequent.

Such is life. Such is soccer. Such is Torah.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Selfies and Spies

“Don’t tag me in that photo; I look fat,” a friend once said. In this social media age, we are especially cognizant of how we appear to others.

Perhaps that is Snapchat’s appeal. The image is fleeting. It is shared with only a select group of friends. On Facebook the image can outlive the individual. After death a community of mourners is born on a page. Facebook thinks friendship is eternal. It continues to suggest that I post on a friend’s wall even though he died several years ago.

We coif our image. We hold our selfie stick in the air. We smile. Then we review the photos to be sure we look good. We post. We await the likes and comments. How much of our time is now spent reviewing photos to be sure we look good to others? How many hours do we spend fashioning our digital self-image?

How many selfies are to be found in your iPhone’s camera roll?

The spies scout the land of Israel. Ten return with a negative report. They say: “All the people that we saw in it are men of great size…and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” (Numbers 13:33)

How did they know how they appeared to the inhabitants of the land? Such knowledge is impossible to gain. In fact the Haftarah contradicts their impression. The Book of Joshua records that the citizens of Jericho are afraid of the Israelites and terrified to confront them.

It is clear that the Israelites’ self-image is negative. It is obvious that they see themselves as a weak people. This negative impression colors how they view the world. They run away from the Promised Land.

Success begins with what one sees in the mirror. Is it beauty one sees? Is it confidence that shines through? If you look in the mirror and see beauty and confidence then the world appears conquerable. If you see yourself as a little grasshopper then that is how you imagine everyone sees you. Then the world makes you cower in fear.

Can a Facebook photo change your world?

The Hasidic rebbe, Menahem Mendl of Kotzk, imagines God saying to the Israelites: “Why are you so concerned with how you look in the eyes of the Canaanites? Such concern distracts you from your sacred task.”

Spending too much time worrying about how you appear to others can very well divert you from the sacred work God intended for you to shoulder.

Years ago I read a story about a musician who played the violin in a subway station. In the 45 minutes he played, only six people stopped and stayed for a while. About twenty gave him money but continued to walk at their normal pace. He collected $32. When he finished playing no one noticed it. No one applauded. There was no recognition. No one knew this but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the best musicians in the world. He had played one of the most intricate pieces ever written and with a violin worth 3.5 million dollars. Two days before his playing in the station, Joshua Bell sold out a Boston theater. The average price of a ticket was $100.

People just thought he was a street musician and not a famous violinist. That did not deter him. He played as masterfully as ever. He did not allow how others viewed him to effect his self-perception. He did not allow the lack of recognition or the absence of the usual applause and standing ovations to divert him from his God-given talent of bringing music to people’s hearts.

The world must be conquered each and every day. It must be bettered each and every day. That is what God calls us to do. The strength to do so begins with how we view ourselves.

It does not matter how others see us. What matters is how we see ourselves.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Shira, She-Ra and Wonder Woman

Some twenty-four years ago when my daughter Shira was born my mother announced her new granddaughter’s name to her high school English class. One of the students said, “You mean like She-Ra, princess of power.” My mother responded, “No. As in the Hebrew word shira, meaning song.” Her students returned baffled looks. The class clown raised his fist and shouted, “She-Ra, princess of power, twin sister of He-Man!” The students laughed. A young girl said, “Congratulations, Mrs. Moskowitz.” “Enough class. Open your books. We are reading The Canterbury Tales today.”

She-Ra was developed by the toy company Mattel to appeal to young girls. If boys could have the powerful He-Man then girls could buy the protective She-Ra. He-Man carried the sword of power and She-Ra the sword of protection.

She-Ra was portrayed as extraordinarily powerful. She was able to lift not only buildings and mountains but men. Her powers were supernatural. Girls could discover in her a positive role model because she, like her male counterpart, made the best use of her God-given talents. She saved the day, and of course the world, in each and every episode.

I just saw the new “Wonder Woman” movie. I felt compelled to go. I grew up watching Lynda Carter transforming into Wonder Woman. Cue the music. “Wonder Woman!”

Time marches forward. Shira joined me.

In this year’s movie, the lead actress is Israeli and the villain German. Like She-Ra, Wonder Woman has supernatural powers. She fights alongside the United States against its enemies. In the 1970’s TV series she fought against the Nazis. In the movie the enemies are WWI Germans. I wish the scriptwriters kept the villains of the original TV series. WWI Germany was not the evil Nazis.

Why choose enemies that history deems more benign? It is because the 2017 battle is against war. It is not against a specific enemy. Have we forgotten the message of the TV series? We continue to face specific enemies. To name but one example, Lebanon banned the showing of “Wonder Woman” because Gal Gadot is Israeli. There are far too many who declare our way of life their enemy. While we might pray for peace and an end to war we recognize that war is a sad feature of humanity.

How else do we explain the Torah’s discussions of war? When the Ark was carried into battle, and to this day in traditional synagogues when the Torah is taken from the Ark, we say: “Vayihi b’nsoa ha’aron… Advance, O Lord! May your enemies be scattered. And may Your foes flee before You!” (Numbers 10:35) We can remove these words from our prayer books, as our Reform Siddur does, but the reality is sadly here to stay. War continues. We have self-described enemies.

Today’s Wonder Woman fights to end war.

Towards the end of the movie she kills the man who she believes to be Ares, the ancient Greek god of war. (Sorry if you have not seen the movie yet.) But the war continues. The killing does not end. Wonder Woman is baffled. That would have been a fitting conclusion to the film. End on a question mark.

Surgical strikes will not end today’s war. Larger bombs will not decide the battles. They might make us feel safer and they might event prevent another attack. But the war against terror is won by banishing fear, by going about our everyday lives, by embracing the pluralistic society that is the greatness of our country (and Britain’s, France’s and Israel’s) and the most powerful sword we can wield against our enemies.

But Hollywood has to tidy up the conclusion. Its films cannot end on a question mark. Ares appears. War can indeed be defeated. And then Wonder Woman, after gaining renewed strength because of her love for Steve, kills the god of war. Killing Ares vanquishes war. The Americans and Germans embrace. War is banished from their hearts.

I prefer questions. Does Wonder Woman represent progress? Yes and no.

Yes because Wonder Woman and the Amazon women successfully defend their island against German invaders. As many reviewers have noted, they do so without any assistance from men. They are extraordinary fighters. Never is Wonder Woman portrayed as a damsel in distress. Moreover she leads the charge through no man’s land and against impossible odds. She does so not to regain a few feet of territory but to rescue a town and save its inhabitants. Her cause is noble.

No. War cannot be erased from men’s hearts. Our Torah in contrast offers realism. It affirms questions. It rejects fantasy. Only in comic books is history so tidy and neat. While war cannot be eradicated, people are indeed capable of unimaginable good. Still it is nice to have a two-hour respite from the news of war. And it is not all bad to have superheroes.

When Shira was born familial priorities were reordered. We were now parents. And my parents were now grandparents. Shira’s grandparents (and of course later Ari’s) became the most esteemed of titles.

It is wonderful, and really not all that mysterious, how one woman can reorder a world.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Sparks of Holiness

The Levites were divided into three clans: Gershonites, Merarites and Kohathites. They were charged with the priestly duties. Some of these tasks apparently required some heavy lifting. So Moses gave the Gershonites two carts and four oxen and to the Merarites he gave four carts and eight oxen. But to the Kohathites he gave nothing. They had to do everything with their own arms and legs.

“But to the Kohathites Moses did not give any carts or oxen; since their duties were to the most sacred objects. They had to carry these on their shoulders.” (Numbers 7) Was it because the Kohathites were particularly strong? Or instead because these objects were not very heavy? It appears not. They were charged with carrying the ark, lampstand, altars and sacred utensils.

It was instead because their responsibilities were most sacred. They therefore had to do everything with their own hands. No matter how heavy these were, the Torah’s intention appears to be that when it comes to these particular objects, an ox or cart will not do. Only one’s own hands could carry these.

I once read that the Hasidic rabbis would sweep the floor of their sanctuaries themselves. They left this to no else. I suspect that it was because their synagogues could not afford a custodian. In impoverished Eastern Europe they could not afford much. And yet this is not how these rabbis chose to understand their task.

They saw instead the mundane and every day care of the synagogue, from cleaning up after services to turning on the lights, as holy work.

They decided that no task was beneath them. No job was beneath any person. When it comes to the religious life of the synagogue no one should see any duty as beneath them. Lifting a heavy load must be done with one’s own hands. Carrying the sacred objects must be done on one’s own back.

The Hasidic Rabbi Menahem Mendl of Kotzk comments: "All work for any holy cause requires extra effort. One must harness all one’s powers to do this work. One does not acquire a spark of holiness without effort."

Holiness is not a divine gift. Sparks of the divine must be gathered up and carried. They are the result of hard work. They are the result of even the most seemingly mundane and menial tasks.

Gather them up. Carry them. They are everywhere and anywhere.

Monday, May 29, 2017

My Relationship with a Tree

It was many, many years ago that I read the line, “I consider a tree.” In Martin Buber’s I and Thou. And it was as well not until many, many years later that I understand its import, if only partially.

Buber, the great 20th century Jewish philosopher, argues that relations are the foundation of life, that we are most human in relation to others. There are encounters with others when all that exists is the relationship. “All real living is meeting,” he states. It is in our meetings with others that we most experience life and even sense a glimmer of the divine.

In an “I-Thou” encounter the “I” does not exist and the “Thou” does not exist. All that exists is the “I-Thou,” the relationship. Anyone who has experienced the love between one spouse and another or the bond of parents with children can appreciate Buber’s insight. Yet the perfect relationship, where all that exists is care and concern for each other, is fleeting. We cannot sustain this perfect moment.

We strive for perfection. We hope and pray that the knowledge of these perfect, fleeting, moments, when all that appears to exist is the relationship, forces us to reach out to others. I continue to marvel at the insight. It marks a breakthrough. I came to believe that the “I-Thou” commands us to treat others with respect and concern.

Then I read Buber’s insights about a tree....

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Jerusalem, Manchester and Concertgoers

Our hearts are again saddened and sickened, and terror stricken, by yet another murderous attack. This time against children, and youth, enjoying a concert in Manchester England. We stand in solidarity with the people of Manchester. We pray for healing for those injured. We pray for solace for those whose lives have been taken. We pray for justice!

Lost among this week’s news was the word that 34 people, again mostly children, drowned in the Mediterranean. These refugees were attempting to reach Italy when their overcrowded boat capsized. They were fleeing Libya. The same murderous hatred that propels these refugees to flee their homes targets concertgoers. And yet the victims of the Arianna Grande attack find our sympathy. They could be us. We have taken our children to concerts. We have attended shows at the Garden, Jones Beach and Met Life Stadium.

We are separated from these refugees by two or three generations. They could have been my grandparents. Is our compassion only a matter of generations? I am called to have sympathy for all human beings. All of life is sacred. A murderous hatred, wrapped in the guise of Islam, seeks to engulf the world. It drowns and murders children. It targets the freedom to gather, to revel in music and speak our mind. We must be vigilant. We must be compassionate. I pray for peace.

Yesterday's Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day, marks the 50th anniversary of Israel's victory in the 1967 war. It is a complicated day. While it commemorates Israel’s victory, it also marks the stalemate that has existed for the past fifty years. Peace between Israel and the Palestinians remains a distant dream. I hope and pray that President Trump’s efforts prove successful. Will moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, for example, advance the peace process?

Today, I do not wish to focus on such questions. Instead I wish to dwell on the following. I have never known a Jewish world without the State of Israel. I have been privileged to witness, and celebrate, many of its milestones. I have been privileged as well to debate many of its controversies and even swim in its contradictions. I have also been fortunate enough to travel there frequently.

I have only known a Jerusalem since 1967. I have read about Jerusalem’s no man’s land that separated Jordanian forces from Israel’s, and that now is home to Mamilla Mall. Many have walked through this corridor of shops and restaurants as they make their way to the Old City through the Jaffa Gate. No area of Jerusalem has ever been no man’s land to me.

Years ago I attended a concert in this very area. I then attended the opening of the Jerusalem Film Festival in this very spot. Here is that story from the summer of 2007. It illustrates what modern day Jerusalem represents. It tells a story that we will not read about in our newspapers.

We sat in Jerusalem’s outdoor amphitheater, Sultan’s Pool. Now Sultan’s Pool is no ordinary theatre. It was constructed by the Ottoman ruler Suleiman, nearly 500 years ago, who also rebuilt the Old City’s walls. It is a magnificent amphitheater that sits outside the Old City. Prior to 1967 it marked what was once the heart of no man’s land. The theatre sits in the valley of Hinnom, a valley referred to by the prophets of old, a valley whose ancient practice of child sacrifice gave rise to the Jewish image of hell, Gei-Hinnom, the Valley of Hinnom. The prophet Jeremiah’s harsh words and Amichai’s lyrical poems swam through my heart.

Yehuda Amichai writes: 
An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion
And on the opposite hill I am searching for my little boy.
An Arab shepherd and a Jewish father
Both in their temporary failure.
Our two voices met above
The Sultan’s Pool in the valley between us.
Neither of us wants the boy or the goat
To get caught in the wheels
Of the “Had Gadya” machine. 
Afterward we found them among the bushes,
And our voices came back inside us
Laughing and crying. 
Searching for a goat or for a child has always been
The beginning of a new religion in these mountains.
It was a cool evening and blankets were given away to help keep out the chill of Jerusalem’s desert evening. The Old City’s walls were awash with lights. I remembered sitting in this very spot some twenty years prior with my then girlfriend Susie (Susie and I met in Jerusalem) and watching Santana perform. There were no seats then, only the ancient stones of the pool—and Santana jamming and talking about peace. “I say to these walls, man, let there be peace.”

The film festival began with a few speeches. First a petite 90-year-old woman, Lia Van Leer, chair of the festival spoke about her passion for Jerusalem and film and how especially proud she was that next year the festival will mark its 25th anniversary. An achievement award was presented to Avi Lerner and Danny Dimborf, Israeli born producers who have made it big in Hollywood. Their company has produced such classics as “Delta Force—1, 2, 3 and 4.”

The final speech was delivered in broken English by the chair of the Berlin Film Festival, Dieter Kosslick. He spoke about his long time friendship with Mrs. Van Leer, making some embarrassing slips because of his command of English, telling the crowd of nearly 10,000 how he looks forward to sleeping with Lia when they both attend Cannes. (I presume it sounds more appropriate in German.) He laughed when he realized his gaffe and then told this story.

When he was a young boy he witnessed the rise of Nazism and the devastation this ideology brought to the world and his country. He spoke about how the Nazis once burned Jewish books in his native Berlin. Because his birthplace saw the destruction of Jewish books he vowed to rectify this wrong. Every year Mrs. Van Leer brings him a gift. It is a book written before 1933 and written by a German Jewish author, a book that is tattered and worn, a book that seems beyond repair and that can no longer be read. Every year he lovingly takes this book and has it restored by a bookbinder in his native home. Every year books that would have been burned by the Nazis return to their native home and are there restored and I imagine thereby restore a piece of this man’s tattered soul. There was silence and then a standing ovation.

He declared the festival open and we watched the opening film, “Ratatouille.” Yes that’s right. Only in Israel would the Jerusalem Film Festival open in an ancient Turkish pool with speeches by an elderly Jewish woman and a repentant German and culminate with a Disney movie. In Israel one of the greatest compliments you can offer is: “This is American.” Israelis’ love of everything American is proof that an important part of Zionism is: “Let’s just fit in.”

On the other hand, unlike any other nation, Israelis feel that their everyday actions redeem the atrocities of a former century. On that cool desert evening I participated in redemption. I witnessed a German man publicly offer atonement. I watched a Disney film in an ancient pool and declared, along with 10,000 other Jews: “We can laugh and play just like you.”

Yes indeed, we can still laugh and play.

Perhaps that is the justice we seek. Perhaps that is the peace that so eludes us.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Holy Earth

The Torah portion makes clear that the land of Israel is particularly dear. It is of course the holy land. This is why it alone is granted a sabbatical year. One might therefore think, especially given the success of modern Zionism, that only the land of Israel is holy. But in fact all lands are holy. The earth, the very ground beneath our feet, is sacred.

Our blessings do not say, for example, “Thank You God for the fruit of Israel,” but instead “for the fruit of the earth—borei pri ha-adamah.” The Psalms declare, in a decidedly universal tones, “The earth is Adonai’s and all that it holds; the world and all its inhabitants. For God founded it upon the ocean, set it on the farthest streams.” (Psalm 24) Another psalm provides a litany of God’s earthly creations. “How many are the things You have made, O Lord; You have made them all with wisdom; the earth is full of Your creations.” (Psalm 104)

I have been thinking about the power of nature. Often it is nature’s fury that reminds me of its majesty. Recently, we have witnessed, tornadoes and flooding, earthquakes and hurricanes. The psalmist’s words again come to mind: “You make springs gush forth in torrents; they make their way between the hills.”

The psalms remind us again and again. “God looks at the earth and it trembles; God touches the mountains and they smoke.” And so I have no choice but to: “I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; all my life I will chant hymns to my God. May my prayer be pleasing to God; I will rejoice in the Lord.” (Psalm 104)

As we stand before the awesome power of nature, we have no choice but to sing God’s praises. At times that is all we can do to rescue us from the earth’s fury. We require such reverence not only before God but before nature.

For too long we have believed that we are masters of nature, that we can control its fury, that we can tame mighty rivers and hold back oceans. We might be able to build better locks and even higher levees, but nature cannot be controlled. In fact some have suggested that our lock and dam system has made catastrophic floods more likely. Furthermore we know now that Army Corps of Engineers lock and dam system prevent vital nutrients from reaching the Mississippi river’s delta and enriching its delicate ecosystem.

I am not of course suggesting that we give up the effort of building levees and dams. However, reverence combined with knowledge, and scientific learning, might be in fact a much better approach. We would do well to remind ourselves of God’s admonition to Job: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Speak if you have understanding.” We require such humility!

And so we must relearn this truth. All lands are indeed holy. It is not just one land. It is not just our own backyard but all the earth.

Why was the Torah revealed in the wilderness of Sinai? It was revealed there to make clear that it was given to all. The desert wilderness belongs to no one. The Torah therefore is for everyone. It was given there moreover so that no land can claim the Torah as its alone.

Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel, is of course my favorite land. So much of Jewish history occurred there. I love nothing more than to hike its wadis and swim in its waterfalls. But it is not the only land.

The reverence for the land that the sabbatical year suggests is something we must apply to all lands. We must restore a sense of reverence for the earth and the land.

We can no longer afford to do whatever we want with our precious earth.

It is not just about my own backyard. It is not just about my own holy land.

Let us restore reverence in our hearts. Let us infuse humility in our souls.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Holy Terror

The Book of Leviticus is singularly obsessed with ritual. It is filled with laws about sacrifices and ritual purity. There are the occasional details about the familiar: keeping kosher and the more frequent unfamiliar: the mixing of wool and linen.

It contains only two stories. Both are tragedies. Both involve incidents where ritual goes terribly wrong.

The first is the story of the priests, Nadav and Avihu. They offer an alien fire. They die at the instance of the Lord. (Leviticus 10) Little explanation is offered. We are left wondering what they did that merited the punishment of death. I remain baffled.

I remain troubled.

The other story appears in this week’s Torah portion. It offers more details but is equally troubling. “The son of the Israelite woman cursed the Name of God, and he was brought to Moses—now his mother’s name was Shelomit—and he was placed in custody, until the decision of the Lord should be made clear to them.” (Leviticus 24)

And what is God’s determination? “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Take the blasphemer outside the camp; and let all who were within hearing lay their hands upon his head, and let the whole community stone him.” Sadly, the Israelites did as God commanded and stoned him to death. Again what did he say that merited death? How can a curse deserve such punishment? What was so offensive about his words?

Perhaps his blasphemy was only inadvertent. Perhaps he sought to praise God but in his zealousness said something that others deemed inappropriate. What could have been so terrible that there was no other fitting punishment? I am baffled.

I am troubled.

What is blasphemous or alien are subjective determinations. What is labeled as foreign can only be discovered in the eyes of the insider. Such determinations draw a line between insiders and outsiders, between us and them. The Torah offers a counter impulse. It seeks to bring more inside. It repeats over and over again the command “There shall be one law for stranger and citizen alike.” While Leviticus is obsessed with ritual, the Torah as a whole is determined to establish one law for all. No distinction must be drawn between citizen and stranger.

The judgments of blasphemy and alien require an insider perspective. What I deem holy you might view as profane. What you view as a curse I might view as sacred. What you call alien I might call ordinary. What you deem foreign I might see as uplifting.

We are left perplexed. Do these stories contradict the law?

On the surface these episodes can be read as cautionary tales. Take God’s instructions wrong and death ensues. Curse God and you will be punished. Do a ritual in a foreign way and you will be killed. These stores are warnings. But what is a curse and what is foreign are matters of interpretation.

The plain meaning of these tales appears too severe. Too often the law writes people out. And then the narrative writes the unexpected in.

There is only one woman who is named in the entire Book of Leviticus. It is Shelomit, the mother of the man put to death for blasphemy. Why do we know her name? Why do we know the name of the person who suffers the unimaginable horror of witnessing her son stoned to death? Her name leads us to a discovery. There are times when the law turns tragic, when its observance can cause pain. Its terror is humanized. He had a mother!

And we are also intimately acquainted with the father of Nadav and Avihu. It is Aaron. He too sees his sons killed for what was perhaps only a youthful mistake. Perhaps they became carried away with their singing and dancing.

Aaron and Shelomit share a sad, and tragic, connection. Their children die. And their deaths are (apparently) sanctioned by God. We are left wondering. Can law lead to tragedy?

I remain baffled. I remain troubled.

“And Aaron fell silent.” And I imagine, Shelomit watched in horror.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Love Your Neighbor!

The Torah commands: Love your neighbor as yourself. (Leviticus 19:18)

And the Talmud weaves stories to illustrate the importance, and perhaps difficulty, in observing this command.

It is told that Rabbi Hillel was open to any question, and welcomed people with open arms. Rabbi Shammai, on the other hand, focused more on his books and a strict interpretation of the law.

Here is their story (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a).

One time two people made a bet about whether it was possible to anger Hillel. They shook hands and agreed on the amount: 400 zuzim. One Friday evening, as the rabbi was bathing and preparing for the start of Shabbat, the man stood at the entrance of Hillel’s house and in a demeaning manner said, “Who here is Hillel, who here is Hillel?” Hillel wrapped himself in a garment and went out to greet the man. He said, “My son, what do you seek?” He said, “I have a question to ask.” Hillel said, “Ask, my son, ask.” The man asked, “Why are the heads of Babylonians oval?” Given that Hillel was from Babylonia, he could have viewed this as an insult, but instead said, “My son, you have asked a significant question. The reason is because they do not have clever midwives. They do not know how to shape the child’s head at birth.”

Our hero gets an A for patience but unfortunately an F in science. This goes on and on. The man asking more and more ridiculous, and politically incorrect, questions. He finally stammers and says, “I have many more questions to ask, but I am afraid because you will certainly get angry.” Hillel responds: “All of the questions that you have to ask, ask them.” The man became angry and went to pay off the 400 zuzim bet.

Another time a gentile came before the two rabbis. The gentile first approached Shammai and said: “How many Torahs do you have?” He said to him: “Two, the Written Torah and the Oral Torah.” The gentile said to him: “With regard to the Written Torah, I believe you, but with regard to the Oral Torah, I do not believe you. Convert me on condition that you will teach me only the Written Torah.” Shammai scolded him and cast him out with shouts and reprimands.

The same gentile came before Hillel, who immediately converted him and began teaching him Torah. On the first day, he showed him the letters of the alphabet and said to him: “Alef, bet, gimmel, dalet.” The next day he reversed the order of the letters and told him that an alef is a tav and so on. The convert said to him: “But yesterday you did not tell me that.” Hillel said to him: “You see, it is impossible to learn what is written without relying on an oral tradition. Didn’t you rely on me? Therefore, you should also rely on my teaching with regard to the matter of the Oral Torah, and accept the interpretations that it contains.” Nothing can truly be understood without interpretation, nothing can fully be explained without a teacher. This is why we need the Oral Torah and the body of rabbinic works, most especially the Talmud and Midrash.

There was another incident involving another gentile who came before Shammai and said to him: “Convert me on condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I am standing on one foot.” Shammai pushed him away, swinging at him with a yardstick. The same gentile came before Hillel. He converted him and said to him: “What is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, all the rest is commentary. Now go and study.”

Years later these converts gathered together. They reflected on their experience and said, “Shammai’s impatience sought to drive us from the world; Hillel’s patience brought us beneath the wings of the Divine Presence.” Who knows where even the most seemingly ridiculous question might lead. If it serves as an entry to more learning, to a life of meaning then it is not demeaning of even the greatest of scholars.

True learning begins with a question.

The sages advise: A person should always be patient like Hillel and not impatient like Shammai.”

I have learned. There is a little of Hillel in each of us. There is a little of Shammai in all.

And the Torah continues to demand: Love your neighbor as yourself!

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Spiritual Truth of the Desert

Recently my wife and I visited Southern California’s Joshua Tree National Park. As we entered the park we briefly noted the sea of yellow wildflowers covering the desert floor. I wondered why so many were stopping to take pictures. Flowers are not so rare on the east coast. What are called wildflowers in the desert may very well be weeds in the green expanse I call home.

Later we were told that we were privileged to witness a once in ten-year bloom. The winter rains had produced abundant flowers. We initially took little notice. We were busy speaking with our son on the cell phone as we drove into the park. It was not until we lost reception that we began take in the desert’s beauty. I wonder how much is missed because we insist on remaining connected to those thousands of miles away rather than the world that stands before our eyes.

It was also not until were told by residents, “We have never seen anything like this before,” that we began to breathe in the beauty. Why is it as well that we must be told, “This is extraordinary!” in order to appreciate beauty? The Jewish tradition recognizes this impulse. It offers a myriad of blessings to recite before the wonders of nature. There is a blessing when seeing a mountain. There is a blessing for a rainbow. There is a blessing for the ocean. It is almost as if the ancient rabbis, who composed these blessings, are instructing us, “Get off your cellphone. You are standing in front of the ocean. Pause. Breathe. Look at God’s extraordinarily beautiful world. Say, ‘Thank you.’’

That’s not of course the words to the blessing, but it is perhaps the intent.... 

This post continues on The Wisdom Daily.