Thursday, February 28, 2019

Do Not Kindle Anger

Following the detailed instructions for building the tabernacle we find the command not to work on Shabbat. We are forbidden from performing creative labors. Just as we built the tabernacle so too do we build what Abraham Joshua Heschel calls a “palace in time.” We accomplish this by refraining from work. The rabbis in fact derive the list of forbidden Shabbat labors based on what was done to build the tabernacle.

It is a curious notion. We fashion a holy day by not doing. Sure, there is much that we are commanded to do on Shabbat: recite the kiddush, sing our prayers, read Torah, eat a grand meal to name a few, but the day’s spirit is created by saying no to a long list of labors. It is an exhaustive, and perhaps even tiresome, list of prohibitions.

Among these is the command: “You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day.” (Exodus 35) This is among the more confusing commandments. People will often say, “Driving my car is not work. Turning on my lights is not a labor. Heating up soup on my stove top takes little effort. These are silly prohibitions.” The tradition, however, never defined these actions as work but instead as lighting a fire.

This is why we light the Shabbat candles eighteen minutes before sunset. If we were to do otherwise we would be lighting a fire on the sabbath day. Tomorrow night, for example, the candles are to be lit at 5:27 pm (in Oyster Bay, Long Island).

And yet these are not the rules that govern my Jewish life. We will light the candles at the beginning of our Shabbat services around 7 pm. Better to wait until the congregation is sits together in the sanctuary. Better to gather the family, if even for a brief moment, before everyone goes off to their myriad of activities, and light the candles together. Perhaps this occurs at 6:25 pm. Perhaps in the long months of June this moment is at 5:15 pm (well before the prescribed candle lighting time of 8:11 pm). Better not to worry about exactitudes. Better to gather together.

Shabbat is about bringing us together.

Then again if we say yes to everything and say no to little if anything, can we really build a palace in time?

The rabbis being rabbis of course did not limit their interpretations to fires and flames. They also understood fire to mean anger. I welcome their wisdom.

I imagine a day without anger.

Sometimes we get angry with those we love. Our families can be frustrating, but—I hope—never angering. Too often we allow frustrations to grow into anger. Banish those as well on Shabbat. One day a week—at the very least—command such emotions: you are not welcome at our Shabbat table.

Fashion a sanctuary.

There is plenty to be angry with these days. The news provides us with a multitude of examples. Can we find one day without heaving the remote control at the TV (and the Jets are not even playing during these weeks!) or throwing the newspaper on the floor in disgust or screaming at another email from a friend who sees the world’s events through different eyes? Is this possible? Can we fashion a day without the incessant barrage of notifications and alerts? Can the week’s outrage, and disgust, be forbidden? Is a day of Shabbat menuchah—a day of rest—within our reach?

Can our anger be banished for at least one day?

It is within our hands.

“You shall kindle no fire on the sabbath day.”

No fires of anger shall be kindled on this day.

And then perhaps all days. And then, our tradition dreams, the world.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Failing to Peace

When interviewing for jobs people compile resumes that feature their career highlights, focusing on their many successes. Promotions are featured. Rewards are delineated. Missteps are reframed. Brief tenures are deleted. A recent The New York Times article suggests that we would be better served, and grow and learn even more, if we also tallied a failure resume.

Tim Herrera writes:
Keeping a failure resume — or Anti‑Portfolio or CV of Failures or whatever you’d like to call it — is simple: When you fail, write it down. But instead of focusing on how that failure makes you feel, take the time to step back and analyze the practical, operational reasons that you failed. Did you wait until the last minute to work on it? Were you too casual in your preparation? Were you simply out of your depth? There are countless things that can go wrong when we’re trying to accomplish our goals or advance our careers. But those things are opportunities, not derailments.
I wonder. Perhaps the entire Bible should be viewed as a failure resume. A favorite example. The greatest king, David, has an affair with Bathsheba. When he discovers she has become pregnant, David has her husband Uriah, a loyal army officer, killed. The prophet Nathan confronts David and exposes his sin. King David acknowledges his misdeeds and repents. It is a surprising act—powerful leaders rarely admit their errors.

Could these biblical chapters serve David’s failure resume? Or is this instead the mark of great literature? And yet we learn more from David’s sins than from his many successes. Do his military victories offer us instruction or instead this moment when he acknowledges his wrongs? Our heroes are fallible. They are often quite ordinary and frequently all too human. That is how we learn from Bible. That is how we grow from their example.

Moses is given to anger. God can at times appear vengeful. So too is each and every person. The Bible’s failures are our greatest teachings.

Another frequently cited example. The Torah’s stated goal of bringing the Jewish people to the land of Israel is never achieved. Moses dies, and the Torah concludes, before our ancestors cross over the Jordan River. Is this also a catastrophic failure or like each and every person’s life? Who achieves all their goals? A lifetime is never really enough. Who achieves only success after success, strung one after the other as if in a finely polished resume?

Our lives offer many failures. Examine them. Recount them. And grow from them.

Even the Torah’s successes are nearly failures. Yes, the Jewish people are indeed freed from Egyptian slavery, but it takes ten attempts to convince Pharaoh to let them go. (Is God learning on the job?) And then, soon after gaining their freedom and while waiting for Moses to return from communing with God, the people grow impatient and build an idol. Rather than discouraging them, Aaron tells them to bring him their gold and silver. (Exodus 32)

I imagine a job interview. “Aaron, you apparently feel you are ready to take on a more decisive leadership role. Tell us about that time Moses left you in charge for forty days.” Aaron reframes the episode. He casts it as a success. “The people were on the verge of rioting. They were scared. We were in the middle of the desert. We had little food and water. Moses went off to do one of his ‘I need to talk with God for a few days.’ After a few weeks I decided to refocus the people’s attention so they would not kill each other. Better to give them something to build, I decided.”

The rabbis agree with Aaron’s retelling. They advise: “Be of the disciples of Aaron loving peace and pursuing it.” (Avot 1). Aaron concludes the interview. “It was then that I realized my greatest skill. I am a peacemaker.” Is this week’s Golden Calf episode a failure? Or a success?

Is peace a failure? Perhaps that is the secret. Peace is the recognition that a long hoped for goal will not be achieved (100% security!?), and that our failure to reach that once all-important objective, must be reframed as a success.

We edit our story. The Torah concludes. We refashion our goals. The rabbis imagine. “Enough of blood and tears.”

Is compromise a failure? Aaron thinks not. Others think so.

Is peace a failure? Perhaps it must be. Still it is a resume I dream of reading.

Our failures are not derailments. They are instead opportunities.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Antisemitism, Tweets and Critiques

I have received many emails during the past week regarding Representative Ilhan Omar’s antisemitic tweets. Some were from the many organizations I support. Others were from friends and congregants.

My Republican friends write, “See I told you so. The Democrats hate Israel. They provide fertile ground for a growing antisemitism among liberals.” My Democratic friends, however, find antisemitism on the other side of the aisle and write, “See I told you so. President Trump continues to offer oxygen to racists, neo-Nazis and white extremists.”

Antisemitic hatred grows. Its venom is heard more and more. It exists on both the right and left. It can be found among Democratic and Republican supporters. I remain perplexed. Why must every instance of antisemitism be used as confirmation of one’s vote? Why must every discussion of this resurgent problem begin with the words, “See I told you so.”?

Antisemitism is an increasing threat. Let us be clear and unified about this fact....

This post continues on The Times of Israel.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

The Biggest and Best Sanctuary

Where can God best be discovered?

The Bible offers a multiplicity of answers. It is as my teacher once remarked a symphony of voices. King Solomon suggests we find God in the Temple. The prophet Isaiah among those who care for the downtrodden and oppressed. The psalmist turns to God’s creation.

Moses too first meets God in nature. Of course he discovers God in the most ordinary, and perhaps even lowly, of places—a bush. (Is this to suggest that people can find God anywhere and everywhere if Moses first sees God in a bush? Or is it to teach that people need to develop a Moses-like intuition so that they might discern God’s presence in even the most ordinary of places?)

Mary Oliver writes: “The god of dirt came up to me many times and said so many wise and delectable things, I lay on the grass listening…”

The psalmist affirms her insight. These poets give voice to Moses’ discovery. “The heavens declare the glory of God, the sky proclaims God’s handiwork.” (Psalm 19)

And yet we spend most of our efforts expressing our religiosity in a man-made sanctuary. The synagogue, and the centrality of the prayer services we offer there, appear to suggest that within these walls is where we can best sense God’s presence. Do any of the words we pray, however, even mention this sanctuary?

We gather in the synagogue and sing, “Even if our mouths were full of song as the sea, and our tongues fully of joy in countless waves …we could never thank You adequately, Adonai.” We may gather together in this sacred space but our thoughts are elsewhere. We lean on nature to bring us closer to God’s presence.

Why then would God command us to build a tabernacle? Why would God insist that the Israelites build a sanctuary when wandering in the wilderness? Why would God demand that we find gold and silver, blue and crimson yarns, dolphin and ram skins, acacia wood and lapis lazuli to build a holy structure?

Why would God offer the command, emblazoned above our synagogue’s ark? “Make for Me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them.” (Exodus 25) Do we really need to build something so elaborate and grand in order to sense God’s presence?

Again and again I find my way back to the Hasidic masters. Their synagogues were converted homes. Their sanctuaries were unadorned basements. They ventured into the forest to commune with God. They taught: nothing made by human hands could ever be grand enough. God cannot be confined to any one place.

Rabbi Menahem Mendl of Kotzk remarks, “It says ‘among them’ and not ‘among it,’ to teach you that each person must build the sanctuary in his own heart; then God will dwell among them.”

There really is only one sanctuary that must be built, and rebuilt, over and over again.

It is the human heart.