Friday, July 27, 2018

Over and Over Again

This week we find the Shema and V’ahvata, located in the opening chapters of Deuteronomy.

We read the line: “V’shinantam l’vanecha—and you shall teach them to your children.” On the surface the meaning of this verse seems obvious. Parents are obligated to teach their children everything, in particular Torah. They are commanded to teach their children about their Jewish heritage. They are instructed to teach their children values.

In Hebrew there is a common word for teach, m’lamed. Here the Torah uses the word, shinantam. This word derives its meaning from the Hebrew, to repeat. Why would the Torah use the word, repeat? Why would the Torah command that we repeat these words to our children? Are we to say the words of the V’ahavta over and over again to our children, and even grandchildren?

As a parent I am certain that lessons will most certainly go unheard the moment I have to repeat them over and over again to my children. I say over and over again, “Do your homework. Clean your room. Call your grandparents.” These admonitions are greeted with nonchalance and more often than not go unheeded. Over the years I have learned that my worst parenting moments are when I resort to repeating myself. In that moment I am the only one who is listening to my words.

Then what could the Torah intend? If repetition is the worst teaching method, then what could this unusual word choice mean? The Torah cannot be wrong. An insight must be hidden in its words. This is what I have determined. The best lessons are those that our children see us do repeatedly. Those actions that they see us do are the best Torah we can offer our children. This is what will prove most lasting.

This is what the Torah means by its words, “Repeat them to your children.” The best teaching is what our children see us do, over and over again. If you want your children to be generous, give tzedakah. If you want your children to be learned, then let them see you read and even take classes. If you want your children to be committed to their health, then let them see you exercise. If you want them to find Judaism meaningful then bring Judaism into your own lives.

Over and over, again and again, this is what our children must see us do. They discern what is most important by observing what we do.

“V’shinantam l’vanecha!”

Repeat them to your children.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

History's Warning Lights

Although not widely observed in Reform synagogues, Sunday marks Tisha B’Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar. On this day the first Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. and the second by the Romans in 70 C.E. According to Jewish tradition a number of other catastrophes occurred on this day as well, in particular the expulsion of Spain’s Jews in 1492.

It is a day marked by fasting and mourning. The Book of Lamentations is chanted. In its verses the prophet Jeremiah laments the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. “Bitterly she weeps in the night, her cheek wet with tears. There is none to comfort her of all her friends. All her allies have betrayed her; they have become her foes.”

The destruction of the second Temple by the Romans was even more devastating. Until the return of millions to the land of Israel, and the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty there, in the last century, we forever wandered. For nearly two thousand years, we lost our center. We could no longer worship in Jerusalem’s Temple; we could not pilgrimage there on our festivals. In its place, synagogues were created throughout the lands of our dispersion.

Somehow, we survived, and even thrived. The early rabbis doubted our fortitude. They saw only devastation and destruction. They could not imagine a Jewish life without the central Temple. And so they decreed that a glass be smashed at every Jewish wedding because they believed that our happiness—even that of a Jewish wedding—would never be full again. We defied their worries.

We remade the rituals of the Temple into the familiar rituals of today. We refashioned a new Judaism without one center but instead with many. Our homes came to replace the sacrificial altar of old. There we, like the ancient priests, would wash and sanctify our meals. We turned our creativity into study and prayer. We wrote countless books. We discussed and debated. We looked back at our history and examined our lives. We asked ourselves how this catastrophe could have happened. How could God’s holy Temple be destroyed?

The rabbis answered. It was not the Romans. Sure, that is what history indicates. Look instead within. This is a moment for self-examination. This is an opportunity for self-reflection. We did this to ourselves. They taught: it was because of sinat chinam, baseless hatred. It was because Jews fought amongst themselves, because they called one another traitors. This is why the Romans were able to destroy our Temple and our city. We gave our enemies an opening to destroy us because we were so busy fighting with ourselves.

It is a lesson worth remembering on this day, and in this year.

“The warning lights are blinking red again.”

Thursday, July 12, 2018

The Ocean's Pull

I am meditating on the ocean.  I am thinking about its pull.

Why do we venture to the sea and its shores?

I turn to the ancient rabbis. (That is what Jews do when seeking answers to their questions.)

Rabbi Eliezer responds: “The entire world drinks from the waters of the ocean.” (Taanit 9b). I read on to discover that he and his colleagues were debating where rain water comes from. I am impressed by my ancestor’s understanding of the cosmos. Another rabbi argues with Eliezer. “But the waters of the ocean are salty, whereas rainwater is sweet.” The debate continues. Rabbis!

Perhaps Eliezer means his teaching metaphorically. Our spirit drinks in nourishment from the oceans. Every summer we wait in hours of traffic just to make our way to its beaches. It is calming. The waves are restorative.

The poet, Mary Oliver, offers a teaching. (That is what I also look to when searching for answers.)

I am in love with Ocean
lifting her thousands of white hats
in the chop of the storm,
or lying smooth and blue, the
loveliest bed in the world.
In the personal life, there is

always grief more than enough,
a heart-load for each of us
on the dusty road. I suppose
there is a reason for this, so I will be
patient, acquiescent. But I will live
nowhere except here, by Ocean, trusting
equally in all the blast and welcome
of her sorrowless, salt self.

The ocean is the antidote to grief. It is the answer to what ails us. No amount of tears can ever fill its depths.

Rabbi Judah states: “A person who sees the ocean recites the blessing, ‘Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who has made the great sea.’" (Berachot 54a) We are commanded to say a myriad of blessings. When seeing a rainbow, when eating an apple, when seeing a mountain, when sitting down to a meal, but regarding the ocean the sages offer a clarification.

A month must have passed since last seeing the ocean. Most people read this emendation as a warning. You should not say this blessing everyday as you should, for example, the motzi. I of course read it differently.

Don’t let a month go by without seeing the ocean!

Find its waves. Seek out its shores. Touch its waters. Cast your grief to its depths. Our souls require nourishment. Our spirits need renewal.

And it can be discovered a few short blocks from our homes.


Thursday, July 5, 2018

A Zealous Father

I don’t very much like Pinhas. And yet year after year I find him in my Torah.

Here is his story. The people are gathered on the banks of the Jordan River, poised to enter the land of Israel. They have become intoxicated with the religion of the Midianites, sacrificing to their god, Baal, and participating in its festivals. Moses tries to get the Israelites to stop, issuing laws forbidding such foreign practices, but they refuse to listen. God becomes enraged.

"Just then one of the Israelites came and brought a Midianite woman over to his companions... When Pinhas saw this he left the assembly and taking a spear in his hand he followed the Israelite into the chamber and stabbed both of them, the Israelite and the woman, through the belly." The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Pinhas has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I do not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion.’ Say, therefore, ‘I grant him a covenant of peace.’" (Numbers 25) Pinhas' zeal tempers God’s anger. Thus Pinhas renews the covenant between God and the people.

It is a horrifying story. Zealotry is condoned. Murder in God’s name is rewarded.

I recoil at this story. I am taken aback, once again, to discover these words in my holy Torah.

I recall my bris. (Ok, not really. But still I know what was said.) When I was carried into the room the mohel extolled Pinhas’ example. He recited the Torah’s words and repeated its conclusion. “I grant him a covenant of peace.” I would like to think that the Torah’s words were recited because of its concluding promise of peace. And yet I wonder. Is the mention of Pinhas a tacit recognition of the passion and zeal required to perform the circumcision ritual?

Let’s be honest. We hand over our newborn, week old infant, to a stranger and ask him (or her) to remove something from the most sensitive part of his body. The rabbis justify this ritual by adding the notion that in performing the circumcision we are perfecting God’s creation. They argued that God made the world, and human beings, intentionally imperfect to leave room for us to perfect the world, and ourselves. And yet I better recall Ari’s bris.

I remember thinking.

There is only one reason why I am doing this (violence?) to my son. God commanded me to do so. I remembered the Torah’s command. “You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you. And throughout the generations, every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days.” (Genesis 17) I got up early in the morning to do God’s bidding. I did not question. God’s promise was my only reassurance.

Did I become a zealot in that moment?

Perhaps Pinchas is a part of me as well.

And he forever remains in my Torah.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

The Value to Share Meals with Those We Disagree With

This week my thoughts turn to Hillel and Shammai. I am not thinking about these famous first century rabbis because of their wisdom but instead because of their relationship. They stood on opposite sides of virtually every issue they faced. They led competing schools of Jewish thought.

The Talmud reports that their disciples argued for years. In fact, they never resolved the debate about whether it was good or bad that God made human beings. Given that their arguments were for the sake of heaven, a divine voice weighed in and determined that both of their opinions were valid and were apt reflections of God’s living words. Still, Jewish law almost always follows the opinions of Hillel.

Why? It is because, the Talmud reports, he would not only share his own interpretations but first the opposing opinions of Shammai. The lesson is clear. One’s opponents must always be given honor and respect. Perhaps, it was also because Hillel was known to be a nicer, and more open, rabbi. Shammai, in contrast, is described as sterner and given to rebuke.

That is the Talmud’s record of their debates. 2,000 years later we are left with the impression that their disagreements were friendly, and civil....