Thursday, August 24, 2017

What the Moon Asks

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

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

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

We are left in awe.

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

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

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

For what do we need to make amends?

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

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Dangerous Ideology That Is Cause of Charlottesville

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

Perhaps I should not have.

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

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

This post continues on The Wisdom Daily.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Breaking Bread

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is the people who surround us that nourishes us.

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

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

All the sustenance you require is sitting there before you.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Teaching Swimming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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