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.