Thursday, May 31, 2018

Where are the Lamb Chops?

Have you ever walked around at a party’s cocktail hour and said, “What no lamb chops?” Or exclaimed, “Where is the sushi table?”

The Torah portion strikes a similar tone: “Then the Israelites wept and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!’” (Numbers 11)

It is remarkable that people can be so ungrateful. It is remarkable that we are oftentimes ungrateful. The Israelites are unaware of the many blessings they have. They just earned their freedom, and yet all they wanted was to go back to Egypt. They complained and complained, and then complained some more. They could not see their blessings but instead what they no longer had. They could not see their freedom. They grew nostalgic for the foods of yesterday. How quickly they forgot the sufferings of their enslavement.

Freedom is of course an enormous blessing. We often forget that freedom comes with enormous responsibility. At times this responsibility overwhelms the blessings. We rebel under the weight of our duties. We complain, “I have so much to do…”

Abraham Joshua Heschel called this the “insecurity of freedom.” He wrote about our responsibility to speak out against injustices. Freedom is not about doing whatever you want. It is about doing what needs to be done. It is about being inconvenienced to vote in even the most mundane of elections. It is about stopping to aid those less fortunate than ourselves. Give some manna to the hungry and poor! It is about speaking out against Syria’s atrocities (or Syria being named chair of the United Nations Conference on Disarmament).

It is about doing what the world needs you to do. It is rarely about doing what you want to do.

Let us look more at what we have rather than what we do not have. Let us affirm our many blessings each and every day, rather than curse the few things we have not yet achieved. Let us live up to the responsibilities of freedom.

Then we will never say, “What! Where are the lamb chops? Where are the cucumbers or the melons?” You can look at the world like the Israelites did. Or you can look at the world and the many things you still have to do and count them as your blessings. Our blessings are many. Our blessings are especially plentiful when you look at all the things the world needs you to do. Then you will say, “Wow look at the many blessings I can achieve by virtue of the responsibilities God gave me.”

Then nothing is a burden and everything looks to be a blessing.

The 19th century poet and preacher, Phillip Brooks, wrote: “Do not pray for easy lives; pray to be stronger men [people]. Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers; pray for powers equal to your tasks. Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle, but you yourself shall be a miracle. Every day you shall wonder at yourself, at the richness of life which has come to you by the grace of God.”

The world requires some heavy lifting. There is no one but you to do the lifting. There is no one but those granted the responsibilities of freedom.

It is up to you whether you see this lifting as a blessing or a curse.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Just Do It

This week’s Torah portion contains the nazir’s vow. What is a nazir? A Jewish ascetic. As a measure of extra piety a person pledged to abstain from alcohol, not cut his hair and avoid contact with the dead. The most famous nazirites were Samuel and Samson. Samuel anointed David as king. Samson’s long hair was the source of his strength (and an inspiration for a number of songs). If not for Delilah’s seduction…

Today Judaism has by and large excised such ascetic sensibilities. We do not idealize denying ourselves worldly pleasures. The hallmarks of our holidays are kiddush wine and festive meals. What Jewish event does not have great food? Still I wonder about making vows, oaths and promises.

People offer promises all the time. There are the familiar New Year’s pledges of promising to lose weight or work out more. I promise to eat less, or to drink less. I pledge to give more tzedakah. I vow to learn more, or attend services more often. Whatever forms these personal vows take, the central question is about their efficacy and value. Let’s be honest. More often than not such promises quickly become empty and soon go unfulfilled.

We make far more promises to ourselves, our family and friends than we keep. Of course we have good excuses why we could not achieve what we pledged. This is why Judaism actually frowns upon making vows. Our tradition values words. It worries that when words are offered they might soon become false. In fact in traditional circles when someone makes a promise, they will say, bli neder. This phrase means it is not really a vow.

By saying this, our promise is not made to God or using God’s name. If we were to inadvertently make a pledge to God that we do not fulfill we would transgress something greater, namely the third of the Ten Commandments: You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord. This is also the origins of the beautiful Kol Nidre prayer. It serves to nullify unwitting vows.

This is our tradition’s concern. Our words matter; they can shape reality. In our contemporary age when words have become abbreviated in the flurry of text messages, or tossed around so cheaply on Facebook and Twitter, we would do well to recall this message. Be careful of what you promise. Be careful of your words.

Rather than making promises, perhaps it would be better to get out and do stuff. People become disheartened by good that is promised and remains unfulfilled. People become discouraged by good words that never materialize into actions. Our lives, and the lives of those around us, are enriched by goodness that is performed. That and that alone will sustain us.

Forget about making promises. Instead, to borrow a phrase from long ago, just do it.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

On Shavuot's Torah and Gaza's Chaos

On Shavuot we are commanded to study Torah.

We reaffirm our commitment to the centrality of this book. Around the study of its words our lives revolve. That is how the tradition most certainly sees it.

So important is the Torah that the rabbis teach it preceded the world’s creation. They imagine that the Torah was the blueprint God consulted when fashioning the earth and seas, animals and human beings.

The Midrash teaches. (The Midrash is a collection of stories from the early rabbinic period.)
It is a common practice that when a human king builds a palace he does it, not according to his own conception, but according to that of an architect. The architect, in turn, does not work off the top of his head but uses plans and diagrams to figure out where to put the rooms and the doorways. Thus did the Holy One, Blessed be God, consult the Torah when creating the world.
I continue to observe the world so as to uncover this blueprint. I continue to study the Torah so as to understand the world.

The Zohar adds. (The Zohar is the foundational text of Jewish mysticism, namely Kabbalah.)
Once the world was created, it could not have been sustained had it not occurred to the Divine Will to create human beings, who would engage in the study of Torah, for the sake of which the world would be sustained. Now, those who delve in the Torah and engage in its study are as if they sustained the whole world. Just as the Holy One, blessed be God, looked into the Torah and created the world, human beings look into it and sustain the world. The entire world is thus both made and sustained by the Torah. Therefore, happy are they who engage in the study of Torah, for they are upholding the world.
The world is certainly in need of more sustenance.

Perhaps the Torah is the sustenance we require.

Regarding the ongoing crisis in Gaza a few thoughts.

While I am deeply pained by the deaths of other human beings, even though many of those Palestinians killed were rioters rather than protestors, I continue to believe that Israel has every right to protect its borders and guarantee the safety of its citizenry. And while Hamas deserves the largest share of blame for the appalling conditions in the Gaza Strip, it is not in Israel’s interests (both its security and moral interests), to live alongside two million people trapped with a mere four hours of electricity per day, inadequate sewage treatment, debilitating food shortages, severe water problems approaching an emergency, and 60% unemployment among those under thirty.

Again while Israel is not largely to blame, it is also not entirely blameless. A humanitarian crisis marked by starvation, thirst, and disease lurks around the corner. Israel cannot fence out these problems. I understand that people have lost faith with Palestinian intentions. Yesterday, when Hamas turned away Israeli medical supplies bound for those injured I similarly lost faith. People are charging the border shouting their murderous intent to kill Jews. With whom is Israel supposed to make peace? Certainly not with Hamas. Then again, if not with its avowed enemies then with whom?

I continue to believe in the necessity of the two-state solution if for no other reason than I see no other way out for the Israel I so love—or perhaps because I remain stubborn about matters of faith. I wish for the State of Israel to live up to the dream of its founders. I wish for Israel to remain both Jewish and democratic.

Rabbi Hillel teaches: “The more Torah, the more life.”

And that is the faith I most refuse to give up on.

I study the world so as to uncover God’s blueprint. I study the Torah so as to uncover how to approach the world.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Some Talmud in Memory of Rabbi Aaron Panken

“Be of the disciples of Aaron….” And the Aaron I knew would have laughed. “My disciples? That sounds so pretentious.” He saw his work as forever unfinished. So how could others see themselves as his disciples? He would laugh and also say, “Pirke Avot is the best you can do.” But for now, this is what we are left to do. Be his disciples. And so what follows is this Shabbat's offering of remembrance and learning.

At most Shabbat services we often discuss the portion of the week. This week we read the concluding chapters of Leviticus in Parashat Behar-Bechukotai. At other Shabbat services we discuss the pressing issues of the day. This week, in fact, we learned that the Trump administration is not re-certifying the Iran nuclear deal. Seems like a moment for a rabbi to weigh in. I have argued that contemporary politics find voice within the verses of the Torah. On this Shabbat, however, I wish to speak about none of the above. Instead I wish to honor my friend, classmate and colleague, Rabbi Aaron Panken, who died last weekend while piloting a plane. Aaron only recently became the president of the Reform seminary. We knew he was just beginning to steer the Hebrew Union College in new and even greater directions.

Aaron loved Talmud. In fact he taught Talmud. And so on this Shabbat I decided that the best way to honor my friend would be to teach Talmud. I therefore looked to Daf Yomi. This is the project in which people read a page of Talmud every single day in order to complete the study of this vast Jewish text. It takes seven years to complete the project. The Talmud is no ordinary book. It is the compilation of rabbinic discussions and debates spanning the formative years of Jewish life, from the first to fifth centuries CE. Imagine rabbis who lived in different centuries and who at times even lived in different towns arguing on one page. The Talmud is a cacophony of opinions. Although I call it formative it would be a mistake to call it a law book. It is filled with tangents. It is riddled with technical and cumbersome language. Moreover it is written not in Hebrew but Aramaic, the lingua franca of the early rabbinic period. At one point you think you are learning about Shabbat when all of sudden you find yourself at Rabbi Hillel’s feet discovering what he believed to be the essence of Judaism. “What is hateful to you do not do to any person.”

I take occasional tours through its pages. I find it at times maddening, and often baffling. My friend did not. This was his home.

And so on this day the assigned reading for the Daf Yomi project is Zevachim 28. Of all the tractates of the Talmud it had to be this one. Zevachim is all about the sacrifices. This would almost certainly be the last of the tractates I would pull off my shelf. I am more comfortable with the discussions in Brachot, blessings. Avodah Zarah, the book on idolatry, is filled with some fascinating debates about how we draw lines between who is a Jew and who is not, about what is Jewish and what is not.  But Zevachim 28 is today’s charge. I quote from the opening lines: “The tail of a sheep sacrificed as a peace offering is burned on the altar rather than eaten. But if so, one who slaughters the sheep with intent to consume the skin of its tail the next day has intent to shift its consumption from consumption by the altar, i.e., burning the offering, to consumption by a person.” Sound confusing and daunting? It is.

Let us unpack its meaning. It is a curious thing that the rabbis would spend pages and pages discussing rituals that they could no longer do or even hope to do. The Temple, where we once offered these sacrifices, was long ago destroyed. Why would they even bother to debate its intricacies? Perhaps one might argue that they still held on to the belief that when the messiah comes the Temple cult will be rebuilt and we will again be able to sacrifice animals to God. Although they, like Jews throughout history, hoped that the future will be better than the past, (that is an essential Jewish belief) I am skeptical that they pored over these details so that they could be ready for the messiah’s arrival. I think there were other interests at play.

The more likely reason is that they wholeheartedly believed in machloket l’shem shamayim, arguments for the sake of heaven. They honed their argumentation over the seemingly mundane and inconsequential. I think this is the root of the Talmud. If you can argue about things that really don’t matter then you can learn how to better argue about stuff that really does matter. Here is an entire tractate devoted to what appears unimportant. Let us argue about it. Here, in the safety of the Talmud, we can debate. Perhaps all our divisive times require is a page of Talmud.

But my friend Aaron saw even more. The rabbis may have ostensibly been talking about sacrifices and the skin of a tail, but don’t let that tail distract you. (Aaron would have made any number of jokes about that tail.) What the rabbis are really asking is, “Does intention matter?” Does the intention of the person offering the sacrifice transform the sacrifice? If you intend to eat part of the animal then is the sacrifice no longer acceptable? Is your devotion tainted because you are looking at the sacrifice more like a barbeque than an offering? The discussion goes on for pages and pages. It is exhausting. I do not have my friend’s patience.

In some ways we have never really solved that question. Does intention matter? Do I have to pray with all my heart? Does my tzedakah donation have to come from a place of really wanting to give or just because I want to get off the phone as quickly as possible? When push comes to shove the rabbis always deferred to the following answer: it is better to do the right thing with poor intention than waiting around for good intentions that they worried would never materialize into actions. Better to just do what is required even with an empty heart than do the wrong thing even if that wrong thing is with a heart full of good intentions.

And yet in the Talmud you discover the rabbis’ uncertainty. You find their debate. You uncover their inner doubts. You think they are talking about the sacrifices that we will never again offer but really they are talking about the whole system and the very foundations of our belief. What if I am here in this synagogue but my heart is in another place thinking about tonight’s dinner and the steak I plan to order?

That is what I discovered today when I opened a page of Talmud in honor of my friend. But my reading remains incomplete. Because you can really only study with someone else. You have to sit across from a chaver, a friend. It’s never just about reading a page. It is always about discussing and debating what’s on the page—with a friend. That is how we have always moved forward.

One page at a time.

And my friend was right. In this book is the secret to how we could live in any place and in any time. In the Talmud is the secret to why we are still here.   


Wednesday, May 9, 2018

The Path of Friendship: In Memory of Rabbi Aaron Panken

I spent the better part of an evening rummaging through closets, shelves and trunks, searching for the photo album from my first year of rabbinical school in Jerusalem. I longed to find a photograph of my classmate and friend, Aaron, who died in a small plane crash this weekend. Although I discovered a number of pictures from my children’s younger years, I never found the album or a picture from the year in Israel. When Aaron and I first met, some thirty years ago, we did not photograph every minute of every occasion.

Still, I wanted to uncover a picture to add flesh to my memories. One day in the not too distant future, I am sure I will find that album and its collection of photos. For now, I am left with the images imprinted in my thoughts.

I recall the New Year’s Eve party I hosted at my Jerusalem apartment. We had no TV on which to watch the festivities in Times Square and the ball drop. Aaron improvised. He lifted the large paper lantern that adorned many of our apartments and slowly dropped it from the ceiling as we counted down to a new year. And then he offered that mischievous grin and that signature laugh which approached a giggle.

It is a strange thing that this is the memory that continues to play over and over again in my mind....

Thursday, May 3, 2018

The Holidays' Fruits

This week we read about the holiday cycle. "These are My fixed times, the fixed times of the Lord, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions..." (Leviticus 23:2)

The following holidays are described: Shabbat, Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. Notice that our favorites of Hanukkah and Purim are not mentioned. These, it should be noted, are nowhere to be found in the Torah. This is why they are accorded minor status, despite our fondness for them and especially our children's love for them.

During biblical times our holidays were constructed around our people's agricultural sentiments. For farmers the year began with the spring and was marked by the holiday of Passover. With the exception of Shabbat there were no holidays during the winter. Sukkot marked the end of seasons, and the conclusion of the harvests, in the fall which is why it was the most important holiday called, "he-chag," the holiday. Shavuot marked the summer's first fruits. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur rather than being the most important days of the year were instead a prelude to the concluding holiday of Sukkot.

As the Jewish people moved farther away from the land, and in particular from farming the land, the calendar shifted. Rosh Hashanah became the season of personal introspection and repentance. The holidays of Passover, Sukkot and Shavuot came to emphasize their roots in the Jewish history of slavery, wandering the desert and receiving of Torah rather than their agricultural themes. Passover was once connected in particular to the beginning of the barley harvest, Shavuot the first fruits and wheat harvest and Sukkot the conclusion of the farming season.

We of course live in a time when we are disconnected from the agricultural calendar. Our children have little sense of connection between the foods they eat and the seasons that give rise to particular fruits and vegetables. They have no idea that strawberries, and blueberries, are summer fruits. In our supermarkets you can find strawberries all year round. They are imported from other countries or grown in hothouses during the fall, winter and early spring. We can now enjoy summer fruits all year round.

Something is lost as consequence of our detachment from growing our own food. It is obvious what we have gained. (I love blueberries and strawberries!) We are losing a connection to the natural world. We have become keenly unaware of nature's ebb and flow; we no longer see ourselves as dependent on the vicissitudes of the natural world. How many have stopped eating lettuce, for example? If the lettuce crop in Arizona becomes tainted we import it instead from California.

We have to reclaim our connection to nature. I know very few are going to become farmers, (I certainly am not) but perhaps a vegetable garden might restore something to our lives. Or it could be as simple as walking to a friend's house rather than driving. Take in the blooming trees on this walk. Slowly breathe in the natural world. Then again it could be as easy as reclaiming our holidays' roots in nature's seasons. The holidays were attached to the seasons because our lives were once dependent on the fall, spring and summer crops.

Just as we depended on the season's crops so too we depend on the holidays. We desperately need to recover a consciousness about nature. It's not only about the summer fruits I so often crave, but instead about our dependence on the world and its seasons.

The purpose of our tradition's blessings is to remind us of this connection to nature. Every blessing for food speaks of how the food is grown. For wine, we say, "...who creates the fruit of the vine." And for cantaloupe (I anticipate the local harvest this summer), "...who creates the fruit of the earth." For bread, we recite, "...who brings forth bread from the earth." Imagine that. Bread does not emerge from the earth. And yet we insist on emphasizing God's ingredients rather than the baker's craft.

Most people do not know that the shehechiyanu blessing is said to mark a new season and in particular when eating its fruit for the first time. In an age when you can eat every fruit in every season we no longer need to say this blessing for food. It is now only reserved for joyous occasions. But it is the perfect expression of what should be our wonderment in the natural world. "Blessed are You Adonai our God Ruler of the universe, who gives us life, sustained us and brought us to this very time."

Have you ever gone strawberry picking? Have you ever eaten berries off the vine? Sure, you can buy more strawberries at Costco; sure you can buy the super-size pack of blueberries. They will not taste the same. The experience will not feel the same. If you were to go berry picking, there in the field, with the sun beating on your back, you can savor those beautiful, and delicious fruits planted by our hands but nurtured by God's earth.

That is the sense our holidays must recover. An appreciation of the natural world is what the holidays were also intended to inculcate.