Thursday, February 22, 2018

Not in Our Thoughts But in Our Hands

Why is light the most common religious symbol?

This week we read about the ner tamid. This is usually translated as “eternal light” but the Hebrew suggests instead “always light.” The light must always be tended to. God’s light must always be cared for.

We light flames in remembrance. I think of the shiva candles flickering in the homes of five families in Parkland. I look to the candles adorning make-shift memorials in remembrance of those murdered at the most recent school massacre.

Why do we lean on light?

Light itself cannot be seen. We become aware of its presence when we see the other things that it illuminates. So too with God. We become aware of God’s presence when we behold the beauty of the world, or the love of others, or the goodness of our fellow human beings. So too God’s radiance is obscured when people do evil. No amount of thoughts and prayers can illuminate these dark shadows!

And yet in light’s reflection we may discern God’s reality.

It is found in the faces of young students, glimmering with righteous indignation, now taking the lead to advocate for meaningful gun legislation. I share their passion. I too believe that more must be done to change our laws. Thoughts and prayers can perhaps offer healing to the broken families mourning and grieving. But they cannot save the next child. They cannot protect us from future gunmen. That is the role of our laws. Good laws are meant to offer protection from known dangers and evils.

That is why I will be joining with protesters at New York City’s March for Our Lives on Saturday, March 24 beginning at 10 am. Yes, that day is also Shabbat. But on that March day I will be praying with my feet, to borrow Abraham Joshua Heschel’s phrase. Faith is not just about prayer. It must also be about action. And we can certainly do more. We can most certainly do a better job of protecting our children. Contact me if you would like to join me in New York City on March 24.

Fire requires our efforts to tend to it. That is why the ner tamid is better translated as the “always light.” We become aware of its presence when we feel it. Fire is the process of liberating energy from something combustible. Thus, God becomes real in our lives when we liberate the potential energy within ourselves for good.

People often ask where is God? They most often ask such questions in the midst of pain or following a tragedy, when God’s reflection is obscured. Light and fire are often perceived by the glow or warmth they create rather than in their own realities.

What is the Bible’s most familiar image for God? It is the burning bush.

When Moses stands before the bush he is amazed that it is not consumed by the fire. He had to stare a great while before discovering that the bush was not consumed. Miracles are discerned over time and not immediately. Making God a reality requires effort and time. It is a matter of looking carefully. It is a matter of straining through this past week’s darkness for a glimmer of light to emerge.

It is a matter of always tending the fire. It is not a matter of magic. It is instead a matter of searching for the reflection of light.

It is a matter of knowing when to pray with our heart, and when to pray with our feet.

God’s light is not in our thoughts but in our hands.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Joy & Celebration are Sacred Duties

Years ago, my then four-year-old son accompanied me on official business. I was called to officiate at a baby naming. Following the ceremony he found some other children with which to play. Later, a parent reported the following conversation between the two young boys.

Nathan, “Who is your dad?”
Ari, “He’s that guy over there.”
Nathan, “Who?”
Ari, “He is the rabbi.”
Nathan, “What’s a rabbi?”
Ari, “He goes to parties.”

That seems a rather apt description of the rabbinic calling. It also is the essence of Judaism’s central teaching....

We are still dancing!

Thursday, February 15, 2018

School Shootings are Not Normal

A conversation repeated throughout American homes last night.

“Did you hear about the shooting in Parkland?”


“17 people killed. Most of them were teenagers.”

“I know. It’s terrible.”

“Some crazy kid did it. They caught him already.”

“It’s awful. What’s for dinner?”

“Chicken. How was your day?”

“Good. Happy Valentine’s Day.”

If you think such a conversation is normal, that nonchalance in the face of the extraordinary gun violence our society faces is acceptable then expect to have many more such conversations. Since the massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school in 2012, 438 people have been shot and 138 killed in 239 shootings at schools. Since the start of this year 1,834 people have been killed by guns.

Concerts. Nightclubs. Movie theatres. Schools. These places should not be synonymous with gun violence. Lockdown drills should not be part of our children’s vocabulary.

When an individual liberty endangers the welfare of others, most especially our children, then it needs to be curtailed. You cannot drive 100 mph on the highway. It is illegal to drive while intoxicated. No right is absolute. Why then does our country not have sensible gun control laws? Of course the murderer is disturbed, of course too little was done about the telltale signals of his murderous designs, but the underlying fact is that access to military style weapons is too easy to gain.

Semi-automatic weapons too easily transform a shooting into a massacre. Why do we allow this to continue? Can we at least agree that such weapons only be allowed in the hands of the military for whom they were designed? Apparently not.

After Sandy Hook I mistakenly believed that such a consensus might emerge. It has not. We can debate the reasons for the continuation of this tragedy. We can disagree about why we still have not seen any meaningful change about why lethal weapons are so easily obtained. We can argue about why mass murder has become so commonplace in our society.

The notion, however, that mass shootings are normal and acceptable is a stain on the United States of America. The regularity with which this occurs, the ordinariness with which we greet such tragic news is an embarrassment. Our infatuation with violence and our embrace of guns is endangering our children. And our failure to agree on significant legislation that might keep such murderous weapons far from people with murderous designs is a blemish on each and everyone us.

So now, six years after Sandy Hook, has the time finally arrived?

I am hoping. And I am pledging to add my voice and contribute my hands to bring about such change.

The 1929 Valentine’s Day Massacre in which seven gang members were killed with machine guns outraged Chicago. The victims were gunned down in broad daylight. People pressured officials to prosecute those responsible, in particular Al Capone.

When will mass shootings once again become the stuff of history books and not just the ordinary events of an everyday week in 21st century America?

I am praying that one day soon I will only read about such massacres in history books and not the morning paper.

“Grandpa, people used to kill kids in schools?”

“Yes. It happened a lot.”

“That’s not normal.”

Joaquin Oliver looks like every kid I know and love.
May his memory be for a blessing.

Friday, February 9, 2018

A Giving Judge

Most people think that tzedakah should be translated as charity. It should not. Tzedakah comes from the Hebrew word for justice, tzedek. Charity comes from the Latin meaning precious. In Christian theology the term charity became synonymous with the Greek word agape, unconditional love. Thus a gift of charity is more about the giver’s heart than the recipient’s needs. This is not the Jewish notion of tzedakah.

Tzedakah is about the attempt to rebalance the scales of justice. How is this accomplished? By our giving. Tzedakah is also a commandment. Whether or not a person is inspired to give is secondary to the idea of mitzvah and needs of the recipient. I therefore prefer to translate tzedakah as righteous giving.

We are commanded to give because there are people in need. There are people who need food and clothes. There are people who need heat and shelter. How such people arrived at their desperate situation is immaterial to their present need. It is not for us to feel the spirit of giving, or for that matter whether or not the person’s need is worthy of our tzedakah gift. We are commanded to give.

There are therefore extensive laws about giving tzedakah to the poor. Even the person dependent on tzedakah is commanded to give. We are to give ten percent of our income to tzedakah. That is certainly a worthy goal to which we might aspire.

One would think that we are supposed to show deference to the poor. Their needs should supersede all else. They are hungry. They are cold. The Torah retorts: “You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong…nor shall you show deference to the poor in his dispute.” (Exodus 23) Justice is the paramount concern.

The Talmud offers an illustration. A judge might be tempted to say, “The poor claimant standing in my court has no case, but he needs the money more than the rich defendant does. I should therefore rule in the poor person’s favor.” Judges are forbidden to rule in his favor. Instead they are instructed to rule on the merits of the case and if the law requires it, to rule against the poor and in favor of the rich. The rabbis feared that if judges allowed emotional reasons to sway their decisions people would lose faith in the entire judicial system. The integrity of the system is a judge’s most important responsibility.

But what about the poor person? He might go hungry. The rabbis offer this advice. If the law forces a judge to rule against him then the judge should give the poor person money out of his own pocket. The courts are about the laws that bind the community together. They are not about the needs of the solitary individual.

Still, judges must still not look away from the needs of the poor. If they become aware of this need then they must give. Judges are commanded to give tzedakah. They must be scrupulous with regard to the law but also menschen.

Compassion and justice must always be balanced. Judges must rule according to the strictures of the law. They must also give tzedakah because people in need must be cared for.

The scales are made even.

Everyone is commanded to give.

Justice is achieved.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Diversity of American Food Shows What Makes Us Great

At its best Long Island is a stew of different people where former borders are irrelevant. It is the place built on a shared love of the American dream but flavored by former locales and imported traditions. At its worst these New York suburbs are a hodgepodge of ethnic cantons that rarely mix and where people view such intermingling as forbidden. Each town and village has a unique ethnic makeup that is then closely guarded and protected. One town is Italian. Another Jewish. Over there it is Latino. And that neighborhood, Asian.

I wonder. What is authentically American? What makes America great? What makes America America?

Most will watch this weekend’s Super Bowl. We are told it is the quintessential American event. Is the pizza that millions will eat during the game what defines us? At one time pizza was likewise deemed foreign. It of course originated in Italy (Naples to be exact) and could not be found in the United States until the early 1900’s. And yet now, over 100 years later, it is considered an American staple.

Who is authentic? Who is an American?

Recently I traveled thousands of miles within a few miles of my home....

The Super Bowl's Victory and Verses

I am sure many people have seen the meme floating around the Internet about the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots. Outside of Philadelphia’s First United Methodist Church, the sign reads: “Bible Quiz. How many verses in the Bible are about ‘Eagles’ and ‘Patriots’? Eagles 33. Patriots 0.”

Nothing would make me happier than to see the Super Bowl’s score mirror these numbers. It is not that I am a devoted Eagles fan. It is instead that I always passionately root against the Patriots. I realize that many Giants fans dislike the Eagles even more than the Patriots. My disdain for the Patriots, however, is most profound. It does not even matter that Brady went to Michigan. How many more championships do they need to win before Brady and Belichick can retire? They have already proven their football acumen and machismo many times over.

And they will undoubtedly be inducted into the Football Hall of Fame. Even definitive proof that they have bent or broken rules will not block their admittance. So let me look away on that future day when they are inducted. This Sunday, during the Super Bowl, I will be cheering loudly for the underdogs. Even though football and the Super Bowl are not that important, they come as a welcome distraction from the world’s troubles and where I can comfortably hold on to insignificant grudges and outsized passions. Come Super Bowl Sunday, I will be hoping and praying that the Bible offers hints of victory for the Philadelphia Eagles.

That would of course be an absurd notion. Or would it? Some most certainly believe that the Bible predicts the future. Everything that happens is pointed to by our sacred text, people contend. This is the fascination with the so-called Bible Codes or with the evangelical love for the modern State of Israel.

The problem with this view is that the Bible does not speak with one voice. My teacher, Israel Knohl, calls the Bible a divine symphony. It is a potpourri of voices. Sometimes they appear in sync and other times not. Sometimes one voice rises above the others. Other times it is a discordant mess. And this is the central dilemma. To which voice do we pay attention? Which verse makes music in our ears betrays our theology.

An example. The Bible states that the land of Israel is given to the Jewish people alone. It also commands us to love the stranger. Whose voice do we bend our ears towards? The prophets admonish us to feed the hungry. They also prophesy that God’s wrath will be meted out upon Israel’s enemies. Is the stranger’s hunger a punishment or a command for me to open my hand?

The Bible is at times a cacophony of voices. I am certain of the music.

And yet I can rarely hear the violin over the cello or the clarinet over the tuba. I am convinced it is an extraordinary melody. I am sure the Bible is a beautiful symphony that I struggle still to understand. Through its voices I can make sense of my life, I can better understand the contours of my path, but I cannot know the future. All I can cherish is the symphony of voices struggling like me to grow closer to God.

Still come Sunday I am going to hold on to this week’s verse: “The Lord called to Moses from the mountain, saying, ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me.’” (Exodus 19)

And come next year I will enter September with renewed hope. In the early fall there is always a glimmer of promise for New York Jets fans. It does not matter that Jets are nowhere mentioned in the Bible. Every season is a new beginning. Every year offers new hope.

Let’s cheer for the underdogs. Go Eagles!