Thursday, March 29, 2018

Them Could Be Us

In a remarkable, and startling, and as well unsettling, comment on the ninth plague of darkness, the rabbis teach:
Why did the Holy One bring darkness upon the Egyptians? Because there were wicked ones among the Israelites who had Egyptian patrons. They enjoyed great wealth and honor and did not want to leave Egypt. The Holy One said: if I bring a plague upon them publicly and they die, the Egyptians will say, “What happened to us happened to them as well.” Therefore, God brought three days of darkness upon the Egyptians so that the Israelites would bury their dead without their enemies seeing them and for this they should praise God. (Exodus Rabbah)
When we typically write history, we tell the stories of us versus them. We are good. They are evil. The Israelites are all innocent. They are the victims. The Egyptians are evil. They are all oppressors. This is not oftentimes how the real world operates. History becomes confused with myth.

The rabbis write that there were Jews who loved Egypt and wanted to stay. They were not slaves like the majority of their brethren. Instead they enriched themselves through their people’s slavery.

The rabbis know history. They understand human beings. Evildoers can only achieve their evil ends if they have accomplices. Among the persecuted one often finds collaborators. This was Hannah Arendt’s controversial insight about the Holocaust.

Sometimes we are responsible for our own slavery.

At the Passover Seder we read: “In every generation one is obligated to see oneself as one who personally went out from Egypt.”

In order to go free we must contemplate what enslaves us. How do we enslave ourselves?

How are we accomplices to our own oppression?

In answering this question, we may discover the secret to our own redemption.

Addendum:
In normal circumstances I would be rooting for the team that has a 98-year-old, and saintly, religious figure on its side, especially one whose motto is, “Worship, Work and Win.” but not this year. Go Blue!

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Remembering God

This week I attended the annual gathering of Reform rabbis. I learned from Sister Simone Campbell, an advocate for the poor. I was inspired by the work of Mark Hetfield, the leader of HIAS and a champion of immigrant rights. I heard from John McDonough an expert on health care reform and Dahlia Lithwick, an astute commentator on the Supreme Court. I caught up with colleagues, some of whom have been my friends from our first days of rabbinical school in Jerusalem. I studied with teachers who offered insights on the seder, building community and making prayer more meaningful.

I was taken in particular with Alden Solovy’s insights about prayer. Solovy is liturgical poet and I often share his work at prayer services.  He remarked that most people think that spirituality is about forgetting. A person has to forget everything they used to do and everything they used to believe. They have to forget mistaken notions about God in order to learn a new way of connecting with the spirit. Jewish spirituality, he offered, is different. It is instead about remembering. It is about recalling that God is here right now.

I have been meditating on this teaching.

Think about the prayerbook. In the evening we exclaim, “God, You made the evening.” And in the morning we say, “God, You made the morning.” Our prayer script is about reminding us that God is ever present. God is everywhere.

Long ago we offered sacrifices rather than prayers. The olah sacrifice in particular had to be entirely burned up on the altar. That is why its root meaning comes from the word to go up. Today we struggle to lift our prayers up. We struggle to remember that God is here right now.

The Torah states: “A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out.” (Leviticus 6)

The priests were charged with tending to this fire. But today there is no one to do this for us. Rabbis and cantors are not like the priests of old. They cannot pray for us. Today each of us must tend to our own spiritual fires.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook saw in this altar fire an analogy to the Jewish heart. Just like this ancient fire had to be kept burning, so too must we keep the Jewish flame burning in our hearts. Maintaining our fire is each of our responsibilities. We must each nurture our own spiritual fire.

How do we do so?

Perhaps it is simple as remembering that God is here. Perhaps it is as simple as opening the prayer book and exclaiming, “God, You made the evening.”

It begins by remembering.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

How the I Becomes We

We read about a lot of stuff we no longer do. When we enter Leviticus we dwell on sacrifices. The Torah inundates us with their details. We read about slaughtering animals and sprinkling their blood on the altar. And yet year in and year out we continue to read about these foreign rituals.

Even though, nearly 2,000 years ago we stopped performing these sacrifices. When the Temple was destroyed the sacrificial cult could no longer continue. Some still hope for its restoration. They pray, “Restore the service to Your most holy House, and accept in love and favor the fire-offerings of Israel and their prayer.” I do not offer such prayers.

I want nothing to do with the sacrificial rituals of ancient days. And yet I continue to read about them. Their details are elucidated in the weekly portions we begin this week. The cycle of readings insists that we must find meaning even in what we longer do and in what we do not even like.

I read and reread.

“When any of you presents an offering of cattle to the Lord, he shall choose his offering from the herd or from the flock.” (Leviticus 1) I take note. The opening words of the Hebrew are in the singular. But a few words later the Torah shifts to the plural.

Does the ritual act help a person feel connected to the community? Does it transform the individual? Do the prayers we offer shift our concerns away from our individual pursuits and personal worries?

The Hasidic masters taught that we enter the sanctuary as individuals. But the experience of prayer helps us to become part of the community. We enter as an individual, with singular thoughts and concerns. And then we see others. We offer each other, “Shabbat Shalom.” We catch up on the week.

We hear others. We sing “Oseh Shalom.” We are lifted by their voices. “Make peace for us!” We are transformed by their prayers.

The prayer experience insists that we pronounce “we.” Our prayers avoid the “I.”

We pray, “Find favor, Lord our God, in Your people Israel and their prayer.”

Over and over again we say, “our.” And this is the essence of the Jewish religious experience. It demands that we speak in the plural. It insists our concerns shift from the individual to the group.

We let go of our personal concerns. And we begin to think about others.

An individual may in fact bring an individual offering. The experience, however, transforms the person’s concern. The singular shifts to the plural. The offering ascends to heaven. The individual’s thoughts ascend toward others.


To Make a Torah Scroll or a Community

For Jews, there is nothing more sacred than the Torah scroll. It contains yards of parchment stitched together and bound to two wooden dowels. Upon the parchment, a scribe calligraphies the words of the Bible’s first five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Using a feather pen, most scribes take approximately one year to complete a Torah scroll. Some scribes are better artists than others and their highly stylized letters are beautiful works of art.

Few see their work up close. Their artistry is only evident when the holy scroll is unfurled. In reality it is an art intended to be read, or, to be more exact, chanted. It is meant to be studied. And yet, for a brief moment following the Torah reading at services, the scroll is lifted so that all might see its columns of verses. People can glimpse the few letters upon which the scribe adorns decorative crowns. And then the scroll is covered and dressed. It is returned to the Ark.

The artwork remains hidden. The artist’s name remains a mystery.

Everything used in the scroll’s production must come from the natural world....



Monday, March 12, 2018

Guns and Governments

What follows is my sermon from this past Friday evening.

I would like to speak this evening about gun violence.  To be honest I have thought about little else or read about little else since the murders at the high school in Parkland, Florida nearly a month ago.  I imagine that many are equally preoccupied with this topic.  How can we not be?  17 people were killed.  14 teenagers and three teachers.  My friend was called to officiate at three of these funerals.  One of the teachers, Scott Beagle, was from Long Island and was known to many of us through Camp Starlight.  May his memory be for a blessing. 

We have wavered between feelings of despair over the senseless loss of life and inspiration over the young teenagers taking up the fight for more sensible gun laws.  And so on this Shabbat evening I wish to weigh in with my feelings and thoughts about gun violence and the debates surrounding it, and to as well offer some observations about the arguments we hear.

Let me state my bias.  I do not like guns.  I do not want a gun.  I do not believe it would make me safer.  I do not like hunting—even though I grew up in Missouri.  I am perfectly content to leave guns in the hands of the police and the army.  And yet I know that our Constitution guarantees the right bear arms.  I recognize that some feel a gun guarantees them a measure of self-defense.  I realize that there are plenty of people who like to hunt.  And yet I strongly believe there are some reasonable controls we can put in place that would preserve the second amendment and guarantee our citizenry far greater safety.    

First of all I see absolutely no reason why weapons designed for the military should have any place in civilian life.  The AR-15 is a rebranded M-16.  It is designed for soldiers.  It is therefore meant to kill and maim as many people as quickly as possible.  Read the article in The Atlantic by the radiologist who treated the victims of this most recent shooting.  The devastation this weapon causes far surpasses a pistol.  We used to have an assault weapons ban.  We need it back.

Second, the amount of ammunition one should be allowed to stockpile in one’s home needs to be limited.  At a certain point a gun collector becomes what would better be called, an armory.  We should be able to agree what is a reasonable amount of bullets for a person to have in order to guarantee for the needs of self-defense and hunting.  Can we agree that there is something terribly wrong when at a recent gun show in Florida one of the more popular items was a bullet proof backpack meant for children to use as a shield in the event of an attack?  And as well, in a booth nearby another purveyor was selling armor piercing bullets.  That is insane.  The notion as well that arming teachers will somehow make us safer is false.  More importantly it is an ugly transformation of the role of teacher, from one who is supposed to educate and help students realize their potential into a soldier or police officer.       

Third we need better licensing and background checks.  If you want to buy something that is so lethal then you should be required to take regular tests, pay for a license and submit to background checks.  You should have to demonstrate mental fitness.  If you sympathize with the enemies of the United States then you can’t get a gun.  That seems kind of obvious to me.  But that is not our laws. 

By the way Israel, who has been held up as a model by gun advocates, has very stringent laws about gun ownership.  You can only have one gun.  You can only buy 50 bullets.  You have to demonstrate that you really need the gun for self-defense.  All those pictures of Israelis with M-16’s are photographs of active duty soldiers.  In sum, it should not be easier to buy a gun than a car.      

My feelings about all of this should come as no surprise.  For years I have consistently supported the need for better legislation about guns.  I thought that the massacre at the Sandy Hook elementary school would help to change things.  It did not.  And so I wish to also offer some observations about what might be different this time.

The first thing we should say loudly and clearly is this.  Thank God for our youth.  Change is often led by the young.  And perhaps we are witnessing a societal change.  We are seeing a group of teenagers transform their grief into action.  I am hoping that they will succeed as Mothers Against Drunk Driving succeeded before them.  I am praying that they can transform their pain into healing.  However, I am not going to only pray.  I am going to join them at New York’s March for Our Lives on Saturday, March 24.  If you would like to join me I would welcome your company and support.  These teens are an inspiring and articulate group of young people. 

Some have criticized them for being too vocal.  But I bet every one of them would trade their new found fame for their friends.  I am certain they would rather have their friends by their sides and have nightmare free evenings of sleep.  I bet they would prefer to be worrying about colleges rather than rallies.  Emma Gonzalez was quoted as saying, “Adults like us when we have strong test scores, but they hate us when we have strong opinions.”  I for one say, “Keep screaming.  Keep shouting your strong opinions.”  We need lots of righteous indignation at this time.  We need you to fight for what we could not change.

I still believe that governments are supposed to make laws that attempt make us safer.  I am old enough to remember the changes surrounding drunk driving and seat belts.  I remember the days when my brother and I would roll around in the back of the station wagon on family vacations.  I also of course remember my father’s not so occasional threats to pull over if we did not stop wrestling and throwing each other around in the back. 

Then we came to realize that seat belts save lives.  It sounds stupid saying it like that today, but not so long ago we complained about how uncomfortable they were.  For a while we wore the shoulder strap behind our backs.  I recall as well how we began to wear them in the front seats and not the back.  And then laws were enacted that mandated seat belts.  Car manufacturers improved and improved on their cars’ safety devices.  By the way kudos to Dicks Sporting Goods and other retailers for making changes about their gun sales.  I never really understood why a sporting goods store sold any guns but those meant for hunting.   So perhaps we are making progress.  I recall the movement of change.  A generation ago we did not wear seat belts.  And now one generation later the culture has shifted about car safety.  My children put on their seat belts as a matter of habit.  They scold their grandparents if they fail to do likewise. 

This is how we make a better country.  First we write some laws.  Then we revise and refine them.  Eventually the culture shifts.  That is how Judaism thinks the world is supposed to work.  Tzedakah, as I often teach, is a law.  It is a commandment, mitzvah, required of everyone.  The NRA should be working to write gun safety laws.  They should have a vested interest in protecting the rights of responsible gun owners and the safety of the general population.  Good laws balance those two.  There are the rights of the individual weighed against the safety of the group. 

But part of this debate is that many vocal gun advocates harbor a deep suspicion of government and the laws it creates.  They seem to abhor laws.  They find government suspect.  They view their right to bear arms in absolutist terms.  There is no compromise.  Any law limiting their second amendment rights is seen as unjust.  A family friend, who is an avid hunter and of course a gun owner, long ago dropped his membership in the NRA.   He argues, that if you are responsible gun owner you should advocate for good laws. 

Not so long ago I spoke out for better airport security and more thorough searches following 9-11.  I figured I had nothing to hide.  I could sacrifice some individual rights for the sake of the safety of the group.  That is how community and country work, or are supposed to work.  When did controls or limits become synonymous with the elimination of rights?  Speed limits are not viewed as an infringement on individual rights.  When did gun control become synonymous with the abolition of the right to bear arms?   

This loss of faith in government might very well be the largest problem. 

If you are going to live with others, and be part of a community, and be a citizen of a country then you need good laws that guarantee the safety of the group.  Sure we are going to disagree about particulars.  I am going to give more weight to the first amendment over the second and others will reverse the order, but the laws allow us to live together—not so much in harmony but at the very least in safety.  We have to work to restore the premise that governments are to make laws that keep people safe.  The fact that there is so much disagreement over this foundational premise erodes the threads that bind us together as a nation.  You cannot enact good laws if a significant percentage of the population finds government suspect.

Everyone can’t do whatever they want.  The individual is secondary to the community.  That is what Judaism teaches.   

We all have a responsibility to protect each other.  And that is our tradition’s most important lesson.  Pikuach nefesh, the saving of a life, takes precedence over all other commandments.  We have a duty to protect everyone.  That is what Judaism calls us to do. 

We have a lot of work to do.  Let’s get started.  Let’s do more.  Let’s heed our tradition’s call.  Let’s make everyone safer. I pray.  May there come a day—and may it be very soon—when lock down drills are a footnote in our history books and we look back on this day as we look back on the days of not wearing seat belts.        



Thursday, March 8, 2018

Sabbath Island

From the biblical verses detailing the construction of the tabernacle, the rabbis derive 39 labors forbidden on Shabbat. All that the Torah requires the ancient Israelites to do in order to construct the tabernacle we are forbidden to perform on the seventh day.

By not doing we build a sacred day.

The ancient tabernacle is transformed. We fashion Shabbat out of the seventh day. We cannot see it. We are unable to hold it in our hands. And yet this day has the potential to uphold our spirit.

We sanctify time rather than space. Judaism apportions holy days rather than sacred precincts. The Sabbath becomes our sanctuary in time.

We construct it by not doing.

We rest from the toil of our everyday existence. Creative activities are forbidden. We are told not to write, to sew, tear or bake. By saying no, we are offered, the rabbis teach, a neshamah yetirah, an additional soul.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel elaborates:
The seventh day is the armistice in man’s cruel struggle for existence, a truce in all conflicts, personal and social, peace between man and man, man and nature, peace within man; a day on which handling money is considered a desecration, on which man avows his independence of that which is the world’s chief idol. The seventh day is the exodus from tension, the liberation of man from his own muddiness, the installation of man as a sovereign in the world of time.
Even though we do not forgo using money on Shabbat, Heschel’s teaching is still quite profound. The Sabbath is the opportunity to let go of our everyday concerns. It is a day on which we ignore the struggles of our weekday lives. We are instructed (nay, commanded!) to remove the troubles of the world from our thoughts and concerns.

This day is about rebuilding the spirit. It is about refreshing our souls.

How is this done?

By letting go.

Ignore the news for a day. Don’t watch the TV. Turn off your phone’s notifications for a brief twenty four hours. Trade tariffs, North Korea’s nukes, Iran’s menacing violence, the desperate flood of refugees, millions of AR-15’s and Mueller’s mounting investigation will still be there come Saturday evening.

But one thing will be different. Our spirits will be stronger.

Heschel continues:
In the tempestuous ocean of time and toil there are islands of stillness where man may enter a harbor and reclaim his dignity. The island is the seventh day, the Sabbath, a day of detachment from things, instruments and practical affairs as well as of attachment to the spirit.
And then, perhaps, the following week will look different. The world might again seem brighter. Everything might once again appear infused with God’s radiance.

Our faith is restored. Our spirts refreshed.

Perhaps all we need is a day.

With the setting of the sun on Friday evening, we can begin to look anew, to gaze at the world with new eyes.

And then Sunday will no longer appear as troubling as Thursday.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Laughter Is Needed!

Antisemitism. Misogyny. Violence. All occur in the Purim story.

The tale begins when Queen Vashti refuses to dance naked in front of the drunken King Achashverosh and his friends. Flummoxed by her refusal the king consults with his male advisors who say, “Now all women will ignore men’s commands. They will refuse all of their husbands’ demands, however ludicrous. (God forbid.) The king is easily persuaded and goes along with their advice. Vashti is kicked out of the palace and loses her crown. #MeToo Vashti!

And how does the king pick a new queen? A beauty pageant. Esther of course wins the pageant. Apparently she looks good in a swim suit. The Bible relates that she spent twelve months preparing herself: “Six months with oil of myrrh and six months with perfumes and women’s cosmetics.” (John Lennon sings: “We make her paint her face and dance. If she won't be a slave, we say that she don't love us. If she's real, we say she's trying to be a man.”)

We learn nothing about Esther’s character. We are taught nothing about her wisdom. We know only that she hides her Jewish identity and that is she is exceedingly beautiful. She is selected as queen. #MeToo Esther?

Her uncle Mordecai refuses to bow down to Haman, so the king’s most trusted advisor suggests that the king kill all the Jews. The logic and rationale of antisemites was, and perhaps always will be, elusive. Esther’s character emerges. Her wisdom shines. She fasts and prays. Esther reveals her identity to the king and explains how her life is threatened. The king cannot apparently draw any conclusions on his own. He cannot see the evil that stands before him, that his very own advisor threatens his queen and her people.

“Who is he and where is he who dares do this?” stammers the king.

Esther points toward Haman. “The enemy is this evil Haman!” she declares.

Haman and his sons are hanged. The Jews make bloody war against their enemies. They emerge victorious, and their enemies are routed and killed.

This farcical tale rings true in our own age. Antisemitism, misogyny and violence are present in our own day—in abundant measure. We have spent too many weeks crying. We have spent too many months screaming for justice.

On Purim we are commanded to make fun of these all too serious historical themes.

Today we laugh or at least we try to laugh. Tomorrow we can continue arguing.

The Talmud says that we can only fully accept the Torah on Purim. Why? Because laughter is the key to acceptance. Because not taking ourselves, or even our history, so seriously is the recipe for redemption. Rabbi Michael Strassfeld opines: “Only when we can mock the tradition can we fully accept it. Otherwise we make the tradition into an idolatry rather than a smasher of idols, into frozen-in-stone dogma of what once was rather than a living faith.”

In messianic times all festivals will be abolished except for the holiday of Purim. When the messiah vanquishes evil and eradicates all the injustices about which we continue to despair we will still need to laugh.

We always require laughter.

What is Jared Kushner dressing up as for Purim? My answer: a diplomat.