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.


Monday, May 1, 2017

Memorials are Everywhere

When traveling through Israel memorials are everywhere.  When walking through the streets of Jerusalem remembrances are inescapable.  I happened upon this memorial to those who fell in 1967's battle for Jerusalem.


I approached to examine the names more closely and count the fallen.

Were they killed here, in this exact spot in which I now stand?  I do not imagine.  Did they die in one moment?  I do not know.

For their families they are more than names etched on a memorial.  They are sons, and brothers.  They are husbands, and grandsons.


I discovered kittens playing at the soldiers' feet.


Their nursing mother scurried off as I approached.  The kittens were unafraid?  Or unknowing?

Wars intrude on everyday life.  Hanoch Levin writes:

When we go walking, there are three of us –
You, me, and the war to come.
When we sleep, there are three of us –
You, me, and the war to come.

You, me, and the war to come,
The war that is coming for good.
You, me, and the war to come,
Bringing eternal rest.

When we smile in a loving moment,
The war to come smiles with us.
While we wait in the delivery room,
The war to come waits with us.

You, me, and the war to come,
The next war, which will bring us good.
You, me, and the war to come,
Creating eternal rest.

When they knock on the door, there are three of us –
You, me, and the war to come.
And when all this is finally over there will again be three of us –
The war to come, you and the photograph.

You, me, and the war to come,
The war that is coming for good.
You, me, and the war to come,
Creating eternal rest.

Today might very well be Yom HaZikaron, Israel's Memorial Day, but in Israel every day presents memorials and remembrances.  Every day presents the worry of the war to come.  

Israel has become far too expert in building remembrances to the fallen.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Miracles and Prophecies

We celebrate Israel’s independence on fifth of Iyyar, this Tuesday. Although the modern state of Israel was founded on May 14, 1948 (5 Iyyar 5708) Jewish resettlement of the land began much earlier. Throughout the centuries, there were small pockets of Jews living in the holy cities of Jerusalem, Safed and Tiberias, but large numbers did not begin to immigrate until the late 19th century. In fact Theodor Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress in 1897.

Zionism’s intention was to resettle the land of Israel. Its vision was that the Jewish people must return to its ancestral home. And so by the time the state was established some 700,000 Jews lived there. Today, by the way, there are over six million Jews who live in the modern State of Israel.

In the 1920’s there were approximately 150,000 living there.Zionism was beginning to inspire Jews throughout the world. During the winter of 1926, Gershom Scholem decided to visit the land of Israel and see first hand this Zionist experiment. Scholem was a German Jewish scholar and the foremost expert on Jewish mysticism. His works are still considered groundbreaking and required reading for those studying mysticism. He penned a letter to his friend and colleague, Franz Rosenzweig, one of the greatest Jewish philosophers.

This letter was recently discovered....

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Yom HaShoah Remembrance

This evening marks the beginning of Yom HaShoah, officially called Yom HaShoah v'HaGevurah--Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day.  Ceremonies are held at synagogues, Jewish schools, Holocaust museums and many throughout the State of Israel.  The day begins with a ceremony at Yad Vashem.

There are many moving, and even haunting, exhibits there, at Yad Vashem.

When you make your way through the museum you are forced to follow a meandering path.  Although you can see to the end of the exhibits, and the windows that look out on Jerusalem's hills, you cannot walk in a direct, straight line.  Instead you must walk back and forth through the many chapters, and episodes, that mark the Holocaust.  The path is obscured.

Years ago I found myself in the exhibit about the Netherlands.  I was transfixed by this story and video testimony.


 

This is but one episode among millions.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

One Among Six Million

Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Commemoration Day) begins Sunday evening. It is the day set aside to remember the Holocaust.

How does one mark the destruction of much of European Jewry and six million Jewish souls? It is an impossible task. Every effort is but an attempt to comprehend the enormity, to understand the depravity and to give voice to the unfathomable.

And so we build museums. We write books. We grasp at remembrances. All our responses remain inadequate. And so I offer but one story.

Etty Hillesum was born in 1914 to a middle-class, assimilated Jewish family living in Middleburg, Netherlands. She was the oldest of three children. Depression and mental illness plagued her family. Her brothers and mother suffered from these diseases. At the University of Amsterdam Etty studied law, Slavic languages and psychology. She earned a law degree in 1939. She was strongly influenced by Julius Spier, a psychoanalyst from Berlin who became her mentor and then lover. In 1940, after Germany’s invasion of Holland, her studies ended.

Soon the Nazis began rounding up Dutch Jews. The Hillesum family was taken to the transit camp of Westerbork. Here Etty began working for the Jewish Council, the organization charged with deciding their fellow Jews’ fate. Her position gave her some measure of freedom. She was able to travel back and forth to Amsterdam. And yet she steadfastly refused offers of safe haven outside of the camp.

She wrote intensely throughout these excruciating years. She sought to be the “thinking heart” of the camp. She struggled to find a way to understand the horrors she saw with her very own eyes, to accept, and understand, the choices that people made, both the evil and the good. She hoped to maintain a sense of meaningfulness even in the face of death. She filled eight notebooks with her most intimate thoughts. She entrusted them to a friend. In 1981 a selection of her writings was first published. It was entitled An Interrupted Life: The Diaries of Etty Hillesum, 1941-1943. The book received popular and critical acclaim.

She writes on July 12, 1942:
Dear God, these are anxious times. Tonight for the first time I lay in the dark with burning eyes as scene after scene of human suffering passes before me. I shall promise You one thing, God, just one very small thing: I shall never burden my today with cares about my tomorrow. Each day is sufficient unto itself. I shall try to help You, God, to stop my strength ebbing away. But one thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that You cannot help us, that we must help You to help ourselves. And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves. And perhaps in others as well. You cannot help us but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last. You are sure to go through lean times with me now and then, when my faith weakens a little, but believe me, I shall always labor for You and remain faithful to You and I shall never drive You from my presence.
Some believe she purposely chose to board the train to Auschwitz, knowing full well what fate awaited her. Given her position she could have prevented her own name from appearing on the list of those to be deported. She appeared to believe that she could make no others choice. How could she not accompany her family—even to her own death? How could she not accompany her fellow Jews?

Etty Hillesum and her family were deported in September 1943. No one from her family survived the war.

Her last entry is dated August 24, 1943.
When I think of the faces of that squad of armed, green uniformed guards—my God, those faces! I looked at them, each in turn, from behind the safety of a window, and I have never been so frightened of anything in my life as I was of those faces. I sank to my knees with the words that preside over human life: And God made man after His likeness. That passage spent a difficult morning with me. I have told you often enough that now words and images are adequate to describe nights like these. But still I must try to convey something of it to you. One always has the feeling here of being the ears and eyes of a piece of Jewish history, there is also the need sometimes to be a still, small voice. We must keep one another in touch with everything that happens in various outposts of this world, each one contributing his own little piece of stone to the great mosaic that will take shape once the war is over.
Etty Hillesum was murdered in Auschwitz on November 30, 1943. She was 29 years old.

May the memory of Etty Hillesum serve as a blessing.

Her story is but one story among six million.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Counting from Freedom

We count many things in our lives. We count our years, often marking them with birthday candles on a cake. We count our money, even though we are not supposed to. We count our friends, even though again we are not supposed to. And now we even count our likes and followers.

We count the days to a vacation. We count the years to retirement. We count the days to the end of school, or even graduation. We mark 17th birthdays with special fanfare. Now a teenager can be more independent. They no longer need parents to drive them all over Long Island. We celebrate 21st birthdays as well because on that day a young adult is free to drink alcohol (legally).

All of these examples share a common theme. We mark our days toward freedom. “Now I am free to order a drink. Now I am free to drive a car.”

In the Jewish tradition we count in the opposite direction. On the second night of Passover we begin counting the Omer. We count for seven weeks. We count until we arrive at the holiday of Shavuot. Although Shavuot is far less widely observed than Passover it marks the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. It is the celebration of a detailed list of responsibilities.

To the Jewish mind, freedom is meaningless if not wedded to responsibility. Passover only makes sense when it is connected to Shavuot. The Omer and the counting of the days and weeks serve to remind us that meaning is not discovered in freedom. It is instead found when freedom is pledged to something greater. It is instead when it is married to the mitzvot (commandments) found in the Torah.

The Omer reminds us not to say, “Now I am free,” but rather “Now I am blessed with responsibilities.” The tradition sees meaning in duty, in commandments, in work. We move away from freedom. We move towards responsibility.

That is what we look forward to. That is what we count towards.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Doors and Questions

Many people know the joke about Jewish holidays. “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.” And while jokes often hint at some truth this joke belies the true meaning of Passover.

The intention of the seder is made crystal clear at its outset. Following the breaking of the middle matzah, we declare: “This is the bread of poverty and persecution that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt… Let all who are hungry, come and eat. Let all who are in need, come and share the Pesach meal.”

The early rabbis, who constructed the seder ritual, authored this prayer. Unlike most of our other prayers it is written in Aramaic, a language related to Hebrew and spoken by the rabbis. They wrote this Ha Lachma Anya prayer in Aramaic so that everyone would understand the seder’s intention. How ironic that we are even more unfamiliar with Aramaic, the language of the Talmud, than with Hebrew. 

The seder is meant to inculcate memory. It is meant to remind us that we were slaves. It is meant to teach us the meaning of our suffering. We recall the feelings of our slavery not to dwell on our pain but so that we can be sure others do not endure such cruelties. How else can we understand the biblical command: “You shall not hate an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land.” (Deuteronomy 23)

How else can we understand the opening of our hallmark ritual meal?

Let all who are hungry, come and eat.

We remember hunger. We eat matzah to recall this feeling.

Let all who are in need, come and share.

We recall the feelings of desperation. We remember when the world turned its back.

This elaborate ritual meal is about imbibing the feelings of suffering and slavery so that we might open our hearts to others’ pain. We recall the closed doors so that we might open our doors.

And what do we do next? We literally open the door!

Then again, when we open the door for Elijah, the haggadah offers these vengeful words: “Pour out your fury on the nations that do not know you, upon the kingdoms that do not invoke your name, for they have devoured Jacob and desolated his home.” After centuries of antisemtism and persecution Jews living in medieval times added this reading to the haggadah.

They were understandably afraid to open the door. And so they recalled the fiery vengeance of the prophet Elijah who destroyed the prophets of Baal. Blood libels and Good Friday massacres were commonplace. Their fears were understandable. Their anger becomes palpable in the words of this prayer. It was as if to say, “They are at our doors. They are here to kill us once again.”

But we do not live in medieval times. We also do not of course live in the days of the early rabbis. Today antisemitism grows. Our fears increase. Do we have the courage to open the door? Do we take to heart the intention of the seder? Can we only remember our own pain? “They are at our doors again.” Or do we use this meal to imagine the suffering of others? “Let us open the gates of our nation to the stranger.”

The haggadah leaves this question unanswered. It contains both prayers. It affirms both feelings. In fact it is more about asking questions than offering answers. It wishes to open the conversation. It wants us to ask, and discuss and debate what does the memory of suffering and slavery mean to us today. It wishes us to imagine how we might create a better future.

My teacher Rabbi David Hartman advises: “Don’t let the printed word paralyze the imagination. Talk. Discuss the Exodus. You are free.”

Freedom means the luxury to debate questions. It is about the necessity of discussion.

The questions never go away. 

Is the door still opened?

Each age must continue the search for its own answers.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Giving Up and Gaining Meaning

Today marks the beginning of my eighth year writing Torah Thoughts. During these seven years we have never missed a week. Whether it was a vacation, or even a hurricane, Torah has persevered. Our lives are punctuated by this weekly reading. Our lives gain meaning through the discipline of Torah study.

This project is an affirmation that content is paramount. In an age dominated by 140 character outbursts, Torah comes as a relief. It also comes as a reminder. Content sustains us. Reading nurtures us. Torah must never be relegated to the mere chanting of its verses. This learning discipline comes to teach us.

Words matter. Torah is intended to be discussed and studied. Its words, and verses, and portions are meant to be pored over.

Seven years ago, with the opening portion of Leviticus, Vayikra, we began this project. Perhaps it would have been better if we started with the stories of Genesis or the drama of Exodus. In those books the import of Torah is clear. We often find ourselves in the achievements of Abraham. We often discover meaning in the struggles of a newly freed people.

Instead we began with sacrifices. We began with the blood of animal sacrifices and the smoke of burnt offerings. How curious that we started our journey reading about stuff we no longer do. We opened our holy book to discover the killing of animals and the sprinkling of blood on the altar. Pretty gross if you asked me. Pretty foreign if you asked just about anyone. And yet the importance of studying Torah, and wresting meaning from its pages, becomes more apparent.

Its meaning is not found in its literal words.

How could it be when there is so much about priests and sacrificial offerings? We believe there has to be something for us learn even in a portion about laws we no longer do. Otherwise why keep reading Torah. Why keep reading every page of this book year in and year out. Why not skip the portions that we find unedifying? Why not focus on Joseph? Why not dwell on the Ten Commandments? We do not. We cannot.

Torah is also about challenge. It is about struggle.

During good times and bad we must draw from the wellspring of Torah. Often this requires stubbornness. The meaning is not always apparent. The import is not always clear. We must turn it. We must decipher it. We must open the Torah anew each and every year. We don’t get to pick the reading. We don’t get to skip those we don’t like. We must open our book to what is given to us—on this day, in this week.

We turn to Leviticus and its sacrifices.

The Hebrew word for sacrifice is korban. It comes from karov, meaning to draw near. The ancients believed animal sacrifices were about how you get close to God. The term for one of the sacrifices, the burnt offering is olah, meaning to go up. This is because the smoke ascended to heaven.

While I do not believe that the sprinkling of blood or the barbecuing of animals on the altar might help us draw nearer to God, I share my ancestors’ desire. My question is their intent. How do we draw closer to God?

When you offered an animal for sacrifice it could not be any animal. It had to be the best animal, an animal without blemish. You had to give up something that was valued and prized. Perhaps that is how we can draw closer to God. We must give up something we love. We must give up something of value.

Granted this idea can be taken to an extreme. And that is exactly what ascetics do. They give up everything to get closer to God. Giving up everything is decidedly un-Jewish (which is why we don’t have an ascetic tradition), but giving up something, sacrificing something, can bring us closer to God and those we love.

We must make sacrifices in order to gain holiness. This is the import of Leviticus.

We live, however, an age when this notion of sacrifice has fallen out of favor. Perhaps we require it once again. Perhaps we cannot draw near to anything, or anyone, or most especially God, without giving up something. It is more about giving than getting. And in the giving (up) we often achieve the getting.

To sacrifice does not mean to lose but instead to gain. #ThrowbackThursday.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Remembering a Life Guided by Loyalty

As a congregational rabbi, I officiate at many funerals. All are sad. Some are tragic. A few leave deep impressions. Arthur’s funeral was such an occasion.

At his funeral there were military honors. Arthur served in a US Army reconnaissance unit during WWII, fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. It was an experience that taught him about war’s horrors. He would often argue against wars and advocate for peace agreements, even when others offered reasoned skepticism, with the simple words, “I don’t want any kid to experience what I experienced.” These war experiences also taught Arthur that food is precious. His unit was often forced to forage for rations. He therefore savored every meal, always sitting down to three meals a day, and even enjoying chocolate ice cream on his last day.

Standing at the cemetery, I looked to see both soldiers wearing their dress uniforms.  One stood in the distance and played taps.  The other stood saluting the flag-draped coffin....  

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Fire, Fear and Awe

For many Shabbat is defined by the family meal. Its highlights are the foods long associated with Jewish cooking: chicken soup and brisket. In the Torah, however, Shabbat is defined by what is not there.

“You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the Sabbath day,” (Exodus 35) this week’s Torah portion intones.

The rabbis interpreted this prohibition literally. One cannot kindle fire on Shabbat. One may however make use of fire if it was lit prior to the start of Shabbat. In traditional homes lights are therefore left on during Shabbat, but never turned on. Stoves are kept at a low temperature but again never ignited. This is why many Shabbat recipes are of the slow cook variety such as cholent.

There were others who interpreted this verse in a different manner. The sectarian Karaites, who rejected the rabbis’ oral law, spent their Shabbat in darkness. In their worldview no manner of fire could be used on Shabbat. Scholars suggest that our lighting of candles and in particular its accompanying blessing is a response to these Karaites. In this blessing and the lighting of the Shabbat candles we discover the meaning of this prohibition for our times.

Fire can warm but also burn. It can be comforting and dangerous. It is similar to the Hebrew term, yirah, fear. Like fire’s dual meaning, yirah can also be translated as awe. Too often during these days of terror yirah becomes palpable. We are once again joined in sorrow. We mourn and pray for the residents of London as terror once again strikes our hearts with fear.

And yet it is this very term of yirah that the tradition uses to describe a person of faith. It is in a sense one who bows before heaven. They are endowed with yirat hashamayim, fear of heaven.

The great Jewish philosopher, Abraham Joshua Heschel, writes: 
Fear is the anticipation and expectation of evil or pain, as contrasted with hope which is the anticipation of good. Awe, on the other hand, is the sense of wonder and humility inspired by the sublime or felt in the presence of mystery. Fear is “a surrender of the succors which reason offers”; awe is the acquisition of insights which the world holds in store for us. Awe, unlike fear, does not make us shrink from the awe-inspiring object, but, on the contrary, draws us near to it. This is why awe is compatible with both love and joy.
Awe is the more apt description of the faith we strive towards.

We return to the lights of Shabbat.

Fire can be both dangerous and inspiring. The brilliance of the rabbis was to demand a blessing before the lighting of fire. In this way the fire is transformed into an object of holiness. Fire is not be feared. It is to be held in awe. At the beginning of Shabbat when fire is prohibited, and then again at the conclusion of Shabbat when fire is again permitted we thus offer blessings. We elevate fire to the holy. We no longer fear it. We transform the potentially dangerous and bask in its warmth.

Perhaps this is the very task these times demand.

We again turn to Heschel’s God in Search of Man:
The meaning of awe is to realize that life takes place under wide horizons, horizons that range beyond the span of an individual life or even the life of a nation, a generation, or an era. Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness the eternal.
May our Shabbat lights help us to stand in awe before God and God’s world. May these fires only be awe-inspiring.

May all of our fears be transformed into awe.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

A Broken and Whole Heart

Everything is going well for the Israelites. God freed them from slavery in Egypt. God reveals the Torah. God provides them with food to eat (manna) and water to drink. Dayyenu! Moses climbs Sinai in order to commune with God for forty days. He leaves his brother Aaron in charge. You know the story. All hell breaks loose. Those teenagers throw a wild party, building a golden calf, dancing and drinking. They blaspheme God. Let’s go to the videotape.  The narrator intones: “They were as children who lost their faith.”

They lost their way, as youngsters and people often do. All they had to do was say, “Dayyenu.” That would have been enough. Thank you. Instead their first impulse is to do what they saw and learned in Egypt, namely bowing down to idols.

This God idea is a difficult notion to understand and comprehend.

Moses is unforgiving. He becomes enraged. (He has some anger issues.) He smashes the tablets. The leaders, and many of the participants, are killed. God is also quite unforgiving.

Moses returns to the mountain. He quells God’s anger. God instructs Moses, “Carve two tablets of stone like the first, and I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you shattered.” (Exodus 34) These tablets are then placed in the Ark. And what happens to the broken tablets? They too are placed in the Ark. Rabbi Meir teaches that both the broken and the whole tablets are placed in the Ark of the Covenant. (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Batra 14b) This is then carried by the people throughout their wanderings.

Why save the broken tablets? Move on from your mistakes. Forget your transgressions is the counsel we often give and receive. And yet the tradition thinks otherwise.

There is no greater sin than that of the Golden Calf. But why dwell on it? In fact, it is one of the six Torah episodes we are commanded to remember each and every day. The teaching is clear. You are only complete with your flaws. No one is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes. A complete person holds the broken and whole together. That is the message contained in the Ark.

Jewish mystics take this notion even further. A 16th century Kabbalist, Eliyahu de Vidas, teaches:
The Zohar states that the human heart is the Ark. And it is known that in the Ark were stored both the tablets and the broken tablets. Similarly, a person’s heart must be full of Torah. And similarly, a person’s heart must be a broken heart, a beaten heart, so that it can serve as a home for God’s presence. For the divine presence only dwells in broken vessels, which is a broken and beaten heart. And whoever has a heart filled with pride propels God from him, as it says “God detests those of haughty hearts”.
I like this idea. Then again I don’t like it.

I like it because it suggests that brokenness leads to a closeness with the divine. I don’t like it because it implies brokenness leads to greater religiosity.

Who wants to be broken?

Then again there are undoubtedly moments in all of our lives when we feel hurt or broken, when we feel we are guilty of far too many mistakes. It is in those moments when should recall the lessons of the broken tablets.

The shattered tablets were never discarded. It is only taken together with the whole tablets that we are able to approach the divine. 

It is with a simultaneously broken and whole heart that we better approach God.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Vashti and Today's Woman

Purim begins on Saturday evening. It is a holiday marked by frivolity. Among its highlights are drunkenness, and even cross dressing. It is punctuated by laughter. And yet the story on which it is based is characterized by extraordinarily serious themes. The megillah of Esther spins around the question of antisemitism. You know the story.

The evil Haman gains a seat of power next to the King of Persia, Ahasuerus. He clamors for the death of the Jews. His reason is simple, although one might ask, “Are the reasons for antisemitism really understandable and ever simple?” Haman becomes enraged when Mordecai, the Jew, refuses to bow down to him. Meanwhile Mordecai’s cousin Esther, who has hidden her Jewish identity in order to win the king’s favor in a beauty contest, has gained the king’s ear. She is able to persuade Ahasuerus that Haman represents a threat. He allows the Jews to defend themselves and defeat the antisemite—until next time.

Most people read this story and believe Esther is its hero. Perhaps, some see the hero as Mordecai. Clearly both save the Jewish people from an existential threat. They defeat antisemitism. And yet nothing is clear when you examine the story in detail. Much is hidden. Even more is forgotten.

Vashti is also its hero.

Who is Vashti? She is the queen who precedes Esther. Why is she dethroned? She refuses to dance before the king and his drunken friends. Yes, that is the story. The king throws a wild seven day long party. He brags to the assembled men about his wife’s beauty. In order to show off how good looking she is, he commands her to dance in front of her friends wearing (only) her crown. (Go read Esther 1 if you would like to double-check my retelling.) And what does Vashti say, “No!”

What happens next? The guys say, “Hey king, you better get your wife in line! If she is allowed to refuse your command, who knows what will happen next. All the women of Persia will stop listening to their husbands. They might want to start driving. They might want to become doctors, lawyers, CEO's, rabbis or even the president.” (Ok. I added a few lines.) So the king listens to his drunken friends and advisors and throws Vashti out of the palace.

But then our drunken, and irredeemably sexist, king becomes lonely. “Throw a beauty pageant and find a new wife,” advise his friends. And who shows up at the beauty pageant? Esther. She parades herself in front of the king. She does exactly what Vashti refuses to do. She demeans herself in order to become queen. And herein lies the disturbing, and often hidden, irony of the Purim story. Her debasement leads to our salvation. The woman who uses her beauty, and hides her Jewish identity, is the one who achieves power and saves the day. It is Esther who rewrites history. But at what personal cost?

I have often wondered what happens to Vashti.

We don’t hear from her again. I would like to. These days I long for Vashti. She is the model to which we aspire. She chooses justice over power. She is true to herself. She is loyal to the women of the kingdom. No woman should be asked to do what she is asked to do, or for that matter what Esther in fact does, at her cousin’s bidding.

And yet we don’t speak about this. Vashti remains the forgotten hero of our Purim story. Her truth is glossed over. It is banished from the headlines.

I would like to rediscover her truth. I would like to find Vashti—once again.

Turn back to the opening chapter. Reread the book. Look with new eyes.

These days I could really use Vashti’s truth.

Despite all its frivolity, there remain troubling and serious questions hidden within Purim’s story.

Regardless I am going to join in the laughter. History is so cruel. Politics are so serious. Sometimes the only medicine is the prescription Purim offers.

Laughter!

Thursday, March 2, 2017

God is Everywhere and Anywhere

Written in Hebrew above our congregation’s ark are the words from this week’s portion: “Make for Me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them.” (Exodus 25) While I was obviously not present when the sanctuary was built I imagine this verse was selected because it is located within the detailed instructions for building the tabernacle, the mishkan.

Soon after leaving Egypt and the revelation at Mount Sinai, God instructs the Israelites to build this mishkan. This tabernacle was intended to accompany the Israelites throughout their wanderings in the wilderness. It was not found in a fixed location but instead was carried with the people. While the mishkan was extravagantly detailed (it had a lot of gold!) its single most important quality was that it was portable.

Throughout the Torah no place was more holy than another. We no longer even know, for example, where Mount Sinai is located. Revelation was about the gift of Torah not the mountain on which it was given. Holiness was connected with wherever the tabernacle rested. And the greatest of all sanctity was attached to our dream. We dreamed of touching the land of Israel. It is interesting and important to recognize that for the ancient Israelites the holiness of place was attached to a dream not in fact to a location they experienced.

Our identity is fashioned in no particular place but is instead founded on a dream.

It was only after the entering into the land and then some 300 years later in the age of the kings that the centrality of Jerusalem gains prominence. It was during the reign of King Solomon, David’s son, that the first Temple was built. Its dedication is described in this week’s Haftarah. There we discover echoes of the verse inscribed above our Ark: “Then the word of the Lord came to Solomon: ‘With regard to this House you are building—if you follow My laws and observe My rules and faithfully keep My commandments… I will dwell among the children of Israel, and I will never forsake My people Israel.’” (I Kings 6)

Whereas in the Torah God’s presence was dependent on movement (we had to schlep the mishkan from place to place), in Solomon’s day it becomes dependent on our actions and behaviors. Once the place becomes fixed it is our movement between right and wrong that controls God’s presence. And then the Temple is destroyed, and soon rebuilt, and again destroyed. We are exiled from the land of our dreams. We are banished from the city of Jerusalem.

We return to the wandering. Building on Solomon’s understanding, the rabbis teach that God’s presence can be anywhere and everywhere. We take up—again—the Torah’s wandering narrative. No place is more holy than another. What matters is not where we meet, but when. What matters is that we hold the book in our hand. What matters is that we continue to learn from this Torah. Abraham Joshua Heschel writes that we sanctify time, not place. We elevate the Sabbath day over all other days of the week.

In our own day people too often associate synagogues, and the values they are intended to teach and the people who see it as their spiritual centers, with the buildings that house their activities. But Jewish devotion is not about the sanctuaries in which we gather. Jewish commitment moves with us. Jewish devotion must accompany us. It is dependent on the choices we make between right and wrong. It is attached to following God’s demands.

Too often we also confuse our presence with God’s presence. Our synagogues are about discovering God’s presence in our midst. It is not about us. It is about God.

When looking at the verse inscribed above our Ark we might come to believe that God is only here in this sanctuary, and not as well in our homes, our businesses, and in nature. Why can’t you sense God’s presence on the ocean’s shore? Why can’t God become more visible when you reach out to someone who is sick, or another who is hungry and homeless, or another who is in desperate need of comfort and consolation? Those are just as much Jewish commitments, as the prayers we recite in our sanctuaries.

If God’s presence only stays in the sanctuary, if the Torah remains some scroll we only study in our synagogues, then the notion that God can be anywhere and everywhere is lost, then the command that God should be everywhere and anywhere is lost.

God’s presence must be taken with us wherever we travel. It is not located, and fixed, in one place. It is instead something carried. It is something we must carry.

And it is something that carries us—on our journeys and wanderings.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Make More Room for Mystery

The Zionist thinker, Berl Katznelson, wrote (and it is among my favorite quotes):
When I see a person walk among us as though he has solved all riddles and conundrums, or as one for whom a new “Guide of the Perplexed” has been written…or one who really doesn’t need any such guidance at all, since his mind is clear and relaxed and he has never known any sort of confusion, I think of him as someone who lives in another world, beyond the reversals, torments and hopes of our own muddled world, or perhaps someone who has solved all problems by chewing some magical cud. As for myself, I’m happy with my confused, uneasy soul.
This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, elaborates many laws and introduces the Jewish notion called by this name. According to tradition it is these mishpatim, laws, for which there are rational explanations. An example: “When a person’s ox injures his neighbor’s ox and it dies, they shall sell the live ox and divide its price; they shall also divide the dead animal. If, however, it is known that the ox was in the habit of goring, and its owner failed to guard against this, he must restore ox for ox, but he can keep the dead animal.” (Exodus 21)

There are certain laws by which a just society is built. How can you build any community where people do not take responsibility for each other? How can you build a society where people murder? Or where people steal? Or for that matter, where people do not prevent their animals from injuring others? The reasons for these laws are obvious. They are mishpatim.

If you know that your ox (perhaps your dog or then again, your car) is a menace then you must guard against it injuring others. Perhaps we should understand this law to mean, if you know a friend is a dangerous or reckless driver then you have a God given responsibility to keep them from harming others. In the Torah there is no such notion as “It is none of my business.” Everyone is responsible for building a just society. The mishpatim, laws, are where we begin. They are our society’s foundation. They are the building blocks of any community.

There is another category of rules, however, called hukkim, for which there are no rational explanations. Our Torah portion provides another example. “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” (Exodus 23) This verse, repeated three times in the Torah, is the basis for the kosher dietary laws preventing the mixing of milk and meat. According to the rabbis this threefold repetition offers additional meaning. One must not eat milk and meat. One must not cook this mixture. One must not derive any benefit from the mixing of milk and meat.

And yet the rationale for this rule remains obscure. There are many interpretations justifying this observance of not mixing meat and milk but all are attempts to explain what will forever remain mysterious. This law remains part of the group of laws whose reasons remain obscure, perplexing and mysterious.

Let us be honest. Observing the dietary laws does not help us build a just society. Instead the refraining from eating milk and meat together affirms mystery.

Too often we think that all problems can be solved, all questions answered. Sometimes we even think that we control every aspect of our lives, that everything is in our hands. This is (sometimes sadly, better mysteriously) not the case. Everything that happens does not happen for a reason. Everything cannot always be explained.

Doing things whose reasons are mysterious does not make them irrational. It makes them unexplainable. It offers an opportunity to affirm the mysterious.

We observe hukkim. And we affirm mystery.

I avoid magical cud. I find myself happy with my confused, uneasy soul. Every time I pause to think, “Do I use the meat or milk utensil?” I am reminded that even the most ordinary act of eating can affirm mystery and give voice to what might forever remain my many, unanswered questions.

In an age of shouting certitudes, and a cacophony of reasons (“It’s her fault. It’s his doing.”) I must make even more room for mystery. I gain this affirmation in of all places, the kitchen.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Blessings of Others

One could argue that this week’s Torah reading containing the revelation at Mount Sinai, and the Ten Commandments, is the most important of portions. And yet is named for Moses’ father-in-law, Yitro. This seems curious. Why would the portion be called Yitro?

One answer is that the names of the portions have nothing to do with their content or meaning. The names are instead the first most important, or unique, word in the portion. The reading is never named for Moses for example because his name appears too frequently. The names are designed so that the Torah reader can more easily find the beginning of the portion. This is no easy task in a scroll that of course has no pages, but even more significantly no punctuation.

Then again the rabbis, when dividing the yearly Torah reading into portions, could have begun this week’s reading with the following chapter, Exodus 19, in which the details of the revelation are described. Instead they begin a chapter earlier with the words: “Vayishma Yitro…Yitro priest of Midian, Moses’ father in law, heard all that God had done for Moses and Israel.” (Exodus 18)

The question therefore remains. Why begin the portion with Yitro? There must be a reason. Nothing is by chance. Moreover, Yitro is not Jewish. He is a priest to the Midianites, a future enemy of Israel.

Perhaps Yitro’s words come to remind us that wisdom comes from many sources. It does not always arrive as revelation. It does not just come as Torah from Sinai! In addition Yitro comes to balance the concluding lesson of last week when we read about Amalek, Israel’s eternal enemy. Everyone who is not Jewish is not our enemy. In fact some are family. How quickly we forget. Yitro is Moses’ father-in-law. All others are not Amalek.

We look to Yitro’s words for meaning. He shouts God’s praises. After Moses recounts all that God did for Israel by freeing them from Egyptian slavery and rescuing them at the Sea of Reeds, Yitro proclaims: “Blessed be the Lord!” He is among the first to use our prayerbook’s formulation, “Baruch Adonai.” The rabbis find this quite remarkable. How could Yitro offer words that neither Moses nor the people Israel say? “How shameful that Moses, and the 600,000, did not use phrase!” they remarked. (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 94)

In their harsh judgment of Moses and the people they may have missed the most important of teachings. The 19th century Hasidic rebbe, Shlomo of Radomsk, reminds us that the Israelites praised God for what God did for them at the Sea of Reeds. Yitro, on the other hand, shouted God’s blessings and praises, for what God did for others.

It is easy, and to be expected, to give thanks for the blessings we receive. The greater faith is to rejoice in the blessings of others.

Such is the teaching revealed by someone who we first expect to be wholly other. Instead Yitro, the priest of Midian, teaches.

The more profound faith is to see the gifts others receive not as the occasion for our own diminishment but instead as moments for our own rejoicing and celebrating.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Prophecy, Poetry and Trees

Abraham Joshua Heschel once remarked that the prophets speak one octave too high. I have been thinking about this phrase these past weeks.

We read the prophets’ words for inspiration. Jeremiah thundered:
Thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: “Mend your ways and your actions, and I will let you dwell in this place. Don’t put your trust in illusions and say, ‘The Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord are these.” No, if you really mend your ways and your actions; if you execute justice between one man and another; if you do not oppress the stranger, the orphan, and the widow; if you do not shed the blood of the innocent in this place; if you do not follow other gods, to your own hurt—then will I let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers for all time. See, you are relying on illusions that are of no avail. (Jeremiah 7)
2500 years later the prophet’s words continue to stir my conscience. And yet Jeremiah’s own generation ignored his shouts and screams. He had few if any friends. He was persecuted and jailed. (He was eventually rescued from captivity when the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. His prophecy comes true!) Heschel’s insight bears remembering. The prophet sings a lonely tune.

And I recall that Rabbi Heschel, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in support of civil rights and who protested against the Vietnam War, was often criticized. Many of his contemporaries shunned him. I begin to think that he is more influential today than he was in his own day.

My Facebook feed is awash with indignation. Gone are the family photographs and the smiles of friends’ adventures. There is only the shrill prophetic voice. It speaks of justice but frays communal lines.

Perhaps this is why the rabbis ruled that the age of prophecy ended. We read the prophet’s words. They comprise the Haftarah portions that punctuate our week. They shout from its pages—although too often we chant their words in Hebrew and never bother to discuss their meaning. The people must sing together, the rabbis reasoned. Let no one sing “an octave too high.”

Leon Wieseltier shouts in my ear: “It is America, its values and its interests, whose success matters most desperately to me. No cooling off, then. We must stay hot for America. The political liberty that we cherish in this precious republic is most purely and exhilaratingly experienced as the liberty to oppose.” (Stay angry. That’s the only way to uphold principles in Trump’s America.)

My son Ari counters: “You might as well have written last week’s post in all caps!”

I retreat to poetry. Tu B’Shevat, the holiday of the trees that begins tomorrow night, comes as a welcome relief. I find solace, and comfort, in nature—although today only through the window’s glass. I find myself turning away from the computer screen and to my books of poems. Emily Dickinson. Denise Levertov. Rainer Maria Rilke. Yehuda Amichai. Billy Collins. The Psalmist—I nearly forgot. “Let the sea and all within it thunder, the world and its inhabitants; let the rivers clap their hands, the mountains sing joyously together.” (Psalm 98)

I read my newest discovery: the poetry of Mary Oliver and her most recent collection, Felicity. I have as well found comfort in Rebecca Solnit’s writing and in particular her A Field Guide to Getting Lost: “For many years, I have been moved by the blue at the far edge of what can be seen, that color of horizons, of remote mountain ranges, of anything far away. The color of that distance is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go.” More about that another time—and when the horizon returns to the sky.

I discover anew, Mary Oliver's “Leaves & Blossoms Along the Way:”
If you’re John Muir you want trees to
live among. If you’re Emily, a garden
will do.
Try to find the right place for yourself.
If you can’t find it, at least dream of it. 
When one is alone and lonely, the body
gladly lingers in the wind or rain,
or splashes into the cold river, or
pushes through the ice-crusted snow. 
Anything that touches. 
God, or the gods, are invisible, quite
understandable. But holiness is visible,
entirely. 
Some words will never leave God’s mouth,
no matter how hard you listen. 
In all the works of Beethoven, you will
not find a single lie. 
All important ideas must include the trees,
the mountains, and the rivers. 
To understand many things you must reach out
of your own condition. 
For how many years did I wander slowly
through the forest. What wonder and
glory I would have missed had I ever been
in a hurry! 
Beauty can both shout and whisper, and still
it explains nothing 
The point is, you’re you, and that’s for keeps.
I love that line “all important ideas must include the trees.” I will have to ask the cantor about Beethoven. I will hold on to “beauty can both shout and whisper.”

The verses are a balm. I hold that near shouts of indignation.

This week I will hold fast to some poems. I will look out at the trees—now glistening in white. A winter’s snow can refresh. I am restored—if only momentarily. Justice and righteousness can be exhausting. This trek can be lonely.

The Torah reminds us: “God led the people around in circles.” (Exodus 13) The wandering begins anew.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Open the Door!

The Bible proclaims: “There shall be one law for the citizen and for the stranger that dwells among you.” (Exodus 12:49) Moreover, the Bible commands, no less than 36 times, “Love the stranger.”

Many are the strangers who wish to make this great nation their home!

And yet America remains divided. There are those who wish to open our country’s borders to immigration. On the other side, there are those who wish to secure our borders, afraid that Muslim immigrants in particular will bring terrorist attacks.

In case there is any doubt, I stand with those who wish to open our doors. I stand against President Trump’s recent Executive Order banning immigration from seven Muslim countries for four months and in the case of Syrian refugees, indefinitely. In this great country of ours we are not meant to discriminate. And so on Saturday afternoon, I joined the protesters at JFK airport to raise my voice in support of my Muslim brothers and sisters. (You can read more about my experience.)

My stance should come as no surprise to those who have heard my sermons and read my writings. I remain deeply committed to the ideal that America is first and foremost a nation of immigrants. My family was welcomed here. I in turn must welcome others....

Responsibility to Protest

The signs stood as my accusers.

A young woman held a hastily scrawled placard, “They warned me about this in Hebrew School.” Another held, “Remember the St. Louis.”

On Saturday I found myself at the impromptu protest rally at JFK airport. The anger was palpable. The indignation continues to simmer. It boils over on social media. It is heard from other nation’s capitals. A few lawmakers speak out. Governors weigh in. More and more raise their voices.

I had spent the better part of Saturday afternoon reading the newspaper about Friday’s executive order. I became increasingly agitated. Soon I heard about the rally forming at Terminal 4. I thought, “I will go next time. It’s not in today’s plans.” I read some more. I grew enraged. I paced back and forth. I became indignant. I put on a warmer pair of socks, grabbed some gloves and headed for the door. I drove to JFK. I wondered if I would be able to find what I expected to be a small group of hundreds.

As soon as I pulled into the parking garage I heard the shouts....

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Miles of Indifference and Cruelty

4.1 miles is the distance that separates the Greek island of Lesbos from Turkey.  Between 2015 and 2016, 600,000 people traversed this distance in efforts to save themselves, and rescue their families primarily from their war ravaged Syrian homes.

Leon Wieseltier once observed: 
[T]he most conspicuous characteristic of [refugees] is that they love life, and that they are prepared to endure unimaginable hardship, so as to preserve life, their lives and the lives of their loved ones, and the lives of their traditions and their communities. Nobody imperils their children in dangerous sea voyages, and treks across mountains unless they believe they are rescuing their children from an even greater danger that certainly awaits them.  
To believe otherwise is to be indifferent.  To act otherwise is to be cruel.  Under President Obama we were indifferent.  Under President Trump we are now cruel.  I do not wish to be either.

Watch this documentary!

Thursday, January 26, 2017

I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar

Who is the first to oppose Pharaoh’s rule?

It is not Moses. And it is not, you will forgive me from saying, God.

It is instead Shifrah and Puah. They are the Hebrew midwives who defy Pharaoh’s ruthless command to kill the Israelite’s first-born sons. Who is the next to oppose? It is Moses’ mother. She stands against Pharaoh. She fears for her son’s life and so places him in a wicker basket along the Nile, in the hopes that he might be spared the Egyptian’s murderous intent. By the way, we do not learn her name until this week. We learn Moses’ mother is called Yocheved. Only Shifrah and Puah are named.

Moses’ sister is also not named when she positions herself along the river to make sure her younger brother Moses is saved. Later we read her name is Miriam. She watches as Pharaoh’s daughter lifts her brother from the river. Pharaoh’s daughter remains nameless. She opposes her father’s command. She may in fact hold the key to our future deliverance. She goes to the river to bathe herself and there sees the baby Moses and takes pity on him. She states, “This must be a Hebrew child.” (Exodus 2) Imagine that. She loudly proclaims her defiance. She knows her father’s command and still publicly defies him. She names the Hebrew child, “Moses.”

We know the rest of Moses’ story. We never learn, however, the name of the woman who reached into the river and showed compassion for this Hebrew child. We never learn the name of Pharaoh’s daughter. She represents the many women who fight for what is right and what is true. She affirms life without seeking recognition.

The Rabbis wonder. Why would Pharaoh’s daughter go to the Nile to bathe herself? She could have sent her slaves. Perhaps as well there was risk to her life, given the growing disaffection in the kingdom. They suggest that she opposed her father’s policies from the start. She therefore went to the river to purify herself of her father’s sins. It was there, at that moment, that her heart was stirred to rescue Moses. According to legend, so meritorious was her defiance, and so great was her attachment to the Jewish people, that she accompanied the Israelites when they left Egypt.

Our freedom and salvation begin with a nameless woman. She hears the cry of Moses. Her compassion mirrors God’s. This week God’s concern is awakened. God says to Moses, “I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Lord, I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage.” (Exodus 6)

God responds to our suffering. God’s concern, however, follows the acts of many human actors. God responds to our compassion. It’s almost as if Moses must bring our cries to God’s attention. God follows. We lead. Moses awakens God’s concern.

It is in our hands. It starts with our work.

And this begins not with the Torah’s avowed hero, Moses, but instead with Shifrah and Puah. It continues with Yocheved and then Miriam. It reaches a crescendo with Pharaoh’s unnamed daughter. It is of course true that Moses occupies the majority of the Torah. His name is uttered in every Torah portion that follows. The book is called the Five Books of Moses.

Too often this plain fact misleads. We think that concern begins with leaders. We imagine it begins with God. We think it begins with the names everyone knows. Instead we learn that compassion begins in the most unlikely of places. Concern, the fight for justice and righteousness, does not always begin with the famous, and with the known.

Moses is not the first to be called. Politicians do not begin the struggle.

History, it seems, too often forgets the names of its most significant actors.

Concern begins elsewhere. Compassion calls the unnamed. Unknown people lead the fight.

The struggle for righteousness lends us our name.

The women marched.

And we will march some more.

And then the women danced. (Exodus 15)

Soon we will dance as well.

(If only such dancing might appear in the week following as if we are merely reading a story, and progressing from one portion to another.)

The Torah reverberates with meaning. Still!

Friday, January 20, 2017

How Hatred Begins

What leads to Pharaoh’s murderous hatred of the Jewish people?

The Torah suggests it is not antisemitism as many think. He does not hate the Jewish people because they are Jews. He instead fears their growing numbers. Pharaoh proclaims, “The Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies.” (Exodus 1)

Pharaoh’s worry is the all too common fear of a fifth column. He worries that the Jewish people will grow so large that they will attack his country from within. I wonder. Is this threat real or imagined? Is it possible that Pharaoh is so insecure about his power that he looks out at the Israelites and his concern grows? Does he begin to see everyone in a similar manner? Pharaoh enacts legislation against the Israelites. They are enslaved. Their suffering increases.

Pharaoh’s worries, however, can never be quelled. Imaginary threats can never be sated. His fear turns murderous. He instructs the Hebrew midwives to kill every first-born Israelite. Where does such murderous hatred begin? It forms in the mind.

And that begins with forgetfulness. The Torah affirms: “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” Pharaoh forgets his history. He does not remember Joseph and by extension the Jewish people’s contributions to his society. Without the blessings of memory he begins to see Joseph’s descendants not as an asset but a threat.

Slavery becomes possible because he did not observe an essential teaching: Remember! Suffering does not begin with hatred. It follows from a lack of historical memory.

Pharaoh does not know Joseph. He does not remember. And then he looks at Joseph’s descendants and sees not blessings but threats.

Forgetfulness leads to hatred. And hatred too often leads to murder.

Remember!

We were slaves in Egypt.

Love the stranger! (Leviticus 19)

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Blessings of Peace

Our hearts are once again joined in sorrow as we watch our brethren in Israel mourn four young people murdered by a terrorist. Anyone who has visited Jerusalem has most certainly stood in this very spot on the Tayelet (Haas Promenade) where the terrorist drove a truck into a group of soldiers. From there we have looked to the north and marveled at the Old City’s walls. While anger, and despair, is an understandable emotion the most important thing is for us instead to steel our resolve. Terrorism can only attack the heart if we allow it in. Add extra songs and prayers to help calm your fears and strengthen your hearts.

This week we conclude the Torah’s first book. We say goodbye to the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs and turn to that of the Jewish people. And then slavery. Freedom. Revelation. Wandering. Some more revelation. And wandering. And a whole lot more wandering. Until we turn once again back to the patriarchs.

Prior to Jacob’s death he offers a blessing to his grandchildren: Ephraim and Manasseh. He tells his son, Joseph: I never expected to see you again, and here I get to see your children as well. He concludes his blessing with the words: “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.” (Genesis 48:20)

Following the lighting of the Shabbat candles, parents therefore bless their sons with these same words: May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh. For daughters we add, May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. For both sons and daughters we then say the priestly blessing: “May the Lord bless you and protect you; may the Lord deal kindly and graciously with you; may the Lord bestow favor upon you and grant you peace.” (Numbers 6:24-26)

Why does the tradition assign this weeks’ words to the blessing of sons? Ephraim and Manasseh are born in Egypt, not the land of Israel. Moreover they are born to Joseph and his Egyptian wife, Asenath. It remains a curiosity.

There are two possibilities. These words are first spoken by a grandparent, Jacob. When parents bless their children they invoke the blessings of prior generations. The parents are the link between grandparents and grandchildren. They are the conduit by which the values they inherited are brought into the future. Parents make sure that children live up to their inherited responsibilities.

More importantly Ephraim and Manasseh are the first brothers in the entire Book of Genesis who get along and live in peace. When we bless our children we hope and pray that they too will live in peace, that they will not know conflict. While we know and understand that that a life devoid of struggle is an impossibility, this remains our prayer. We pray that our children might know peace.

Knowing otherwise this hope remains our most steadfast prayer. “Peace, peace to those far and near, says the Lord.” (Isaiah 57:19) 

Parents thus place their hands on their children’s heads and recite these words. Susie and I continue to observe this ritual, at least when our children are home and we are celebrating Shabbat and holidays together. It punctuated the week during our children’s younger years. I find myself growing nostalgic. They sat still if but for a brief moment and received their blessing, an extra Shabbat kiss and another “I love you.” The rhythm of the week is punctuated by blessings. 

While most argue that the tradition’s intention is to make our lives more Jewish I believe otherwise. Instead they add meaning to our lives. They demand a pause. They insist on reflection. They turn our thoughts to what is most important, in this case: family. And that is a measure of holiness everyone requires.

There are many blessings to add to your lives. The tradition is filled with hundreds. There is the blessing for the ocean, for the wine, and for the bread. The list appears daunting. Rather than becoming overwhelmed, it is better just to begin. Say it in English if you are more comfortable. This week we are reminded of a great starting point: the words for blessing our children. No matter how old your children might be, it is never too late to start.

Everyone can use an added dose of meaning. Everyone deserves a moment of reflection. Everyone requires more “I love yous.”