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....