Thursday, March 28, 2019

Spiritual Cravings

Why should we observe the commandments? Because God says so. This is the wisdom of the Hasidic sages.

In this week’s portion Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, are killed because they offer a strange fire. Why is it called strange? Because God did not command it. The Sefat Emet, Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, comments:
The most important component in the performance of commandments is the fact that one performs them because he was commanded to, rather than any lofty intentions he has in performing them. The proof is here, in that we see Nadav and Avihu, who were great sages, surely had the most lofty of intentions, yet they were punished for doing something they had not been commanded to do. How much more, then, is the reward of a person who fulfills a commandment solely because it was commanded by God, even though he knows nothing about the hidden intentions involved.
Such wisdom contradicts our modern sensibilities. We want to uncover the reasons for the commandments. We wish to unravel God’s intentions.

Why keep kosher?

Because unkosher animals are not healthy. Pigs carry trichinosis. Lobsters are bottom feeders. Owls eat rats. Such are the explanations we offer to justify these ancient laws.

This week the Torah also reveals the lists of permitted and forbidden animals. Nowhere does it say anything about the character of these animals. There is a list of permitted animals: “These are the creatures that you may eat from among all the land animals: any animal that has true hoofs, with clefts through the hoofs, and that chews the cud—such you may eat.” (Leviticus 11) And then there is a list of forbidden animals.

Nowhere does the Torah offer an explanation. Nowhere do we gain a glimmer of why.

Nowhere is there a discussion of the many reasons people so frequently offer. Eat these animals. Don’t eat those animals. That’s it. That’s all the Torah offers.

Why keep kosher? Because God says so.

Then again there is nothing like the taste of crispy bacon. And lobster is so wonderfully delicious.

Why then not eat it? Because God says so.

And so we must now decide. We must ask ourselves, “Do I wish for God to gain some rule over my daily life?”

It is a wonderful, and then again strange, or perhaps mysterious idea to ponder. Saying no to something we love might be the beginning of letting God into our lives.

Why keep kosher? Because God says so.

Is that really enough? Some rabbis suggest that is the only reason that matters.

Then again why does God even care about what we eat?

Because God says so.

Decide if that is the sustenance you seek. Decide if that is the food your soul craves.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Shouting Out Kindness

Today is the holiday of Purim. It is a day that is marked by revelry. And yet the costumes and masks we wear obscure a darker theme.

A quick reminder. A long time ago in the land of Persia a wicked man named Haman wanted to kill all the Jews, but Queen Esther, through courage and wit, as well as the persistence of her uncle Mordecai, saved the Jewish people and killed Haman and all of his followers. The end. Let’s party.

The Torah reading for this day recalls the story of Amalek who attacked the Israelites during their journey through the wilderness. The Amalekites killed the weak, the elderly and the children, who walked in the back of the Israelites. What kind of person attacks the infirm? What kind of person kills the stragglers? And so Amalek has become synonymous with all evil-doers.

In fact the Jewish tradition draws a line from Amalek to everyone, and anyone, who sought to kill the Jewish people. It sees history’s worst and most despicable genocidal killers as Amalekites. It sees Haman as his descendant. How curious then that we don’t drown out Amalek’s name. And yet every time we hear Haman’s name we shake our groggers. Let no one even hear the name of the man who tried to kill us.

Likewise New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, refuses to utter the name of the man who murdered 50 Muslim worshippers during their Friday prayers. He attacked people while they were bowed in prayer. Like Amalek he attacked people from behind. And just as we drown out Haman’s name so must we drown out the name of every evil doers. It is what we should do whenever someone guns down others, wherever that might be, whether it be in church, synagogue, mosque or temple. Too many know the names of the murderers who killed at a Sikh Temple in Milwaukee, a church in Charleston, a synagogue in Pittsburgh and now a mosque in Christchurch.

Just as we must drown out the evil-doers’ names we must embrace those who now feel victimized and hurt. I still recall the outpouring of love and support for our community after the attack at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue. Likewise we must now reach out to our Muslim neighbors and friends. Recall the sympathetic words we received. Recall the words of our local church leaders. Remember especially how those words eased our pain. Embrace our Muslim neighbors who are now touched by an extra measure of grief.

We are so quick to condemn hate. It is so easy to call out antisemitism. Let it be just as simple to shower our brothers and sisters with love and support. Tomorrow afternoon the Jewish Community Relations Council of Long Island is organizing a show of solidarity and support outside local mosques. I will join them at the Islamic Center of Long Island. Regardless of our differences, at this moment and at this hour, I plan to stand with neighbors during their time of grief. I plan to offer my support when they feel so vulnerable. We are bound together by a shared commitment to faith. We are drawn together by a shared attachment to our local community.

Not so long ago people of other faiths offered me their support. Their presence aided my prayers. Their solidarity lifted my spirits. How can I not offer similar support?

Let the names of these evil-doers be erased.

Let our kindness never be blotted out.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

It's Because of the Mountain

This week we begin reading the Book of Leviticus, called in Hebrew Vayikra.  The opening words are: “Vayikra el Moshe—And God called to Moses.”  Curiously the last letter, alef, of the first word, vayikra, is calligraphed smaller in the Torah scroll.  Why is the alef smaller?

There are no good explanations for this tradition.  There are however plenty of sermons and interpretations.    

The Hasidic rebbe, Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, offers an answer. He discovers a beautiful lesson in the small letter alef.  He teaches:
The letter alef is small just like Moses made himself small.  Even though Moses attained the greatest heights ever reached by man, he was unmoved by that fact and remained as humble as ever. When a person stands at the top of a mountain, he does not boast about how tall he is, because it is the mountain that makes him so tall.  By the same token, Moses felt that whatever he had accomplished was due to God, and he had no reason to feel proud of his achievements.
Imagine if the world had more people like Moses.  Imagine if most people believed that all of their achievements were because of others.  Imagine if we believed that our accomplishments and successes were because we are standing on a mountain top fashioned by God?

It’s an image worth pondering.  It’s a world worth working towards.

It’s only because of others.  It’s really only because of the mountain.  Our achievements are because others lifted us.

On whose shoulders do we stand?  To whom should we offer thanks?



Saturday, March 9, 2019

Antisemitism is a Sin: That's All There is to It

What follows is this week's sermon about antisemitism.

Typically I make every effort to be even handed when discussing contemporary controversies. But when it comes to antisemitism I do not think we should make any such attempt. And so I wish this evening to speak about Representative Ihlan Omar who continues to rely on antisemitic tropes when talking about Israel. She accuses Jews of dual loyalties and suggests that support for Israel is only, for example, about the Benjamins. She has offered apologies, but I think there is something more problematic at work. Representative Omar does not criticize Israel’s policies. For her Israel is more a myth than a reality, more a caricature than a living democratic state struggling with its many challenges.

Bret Stephens writes: 
For those who don’t get it, claims that Israel "hypnotizes" the world, or that it uses money to bend others to its will, or that its American supporters "push for allegiance to a foreign country," repackage falsehoods commonly used against Jews for centuries. People can debate the case for Israel on the merits, but those who support the state should not have to face allegations that their sympathies have been purchased, or their brains hijacked, or their loyalties divided.” (The New York Times)
If Representative Omar had visited Israel and even if she had come back with critical reports we might be understanding, although of course stung by her criticism. She has not. Instead she speaks about Israel as if it’s a cartoon where the good guy and bad are all-too obvious. It is a sad thing to say, and many scholars have noted, but Israel has become the Jew among nations. Antisemitism is now disguised as anti-Israel sentiment. We hear, “I am not antisemitic. “I am anti-Israel. I stand against Zionism.” But Zionism, and Israel, is the belief that the Jewish people have a right to a homeland of their own and that the place where our people exercises that right is in our ancestral land.

Such Zionist commitments are not statements about what may or may not constitute Palestinian rights. One can affirm the right of Palestinians for a state and also be supportive of the Jewish people’s right. The notion that they are mutually exclusive is false. The idea that to support Palestinian rights must mean that the Jewish people’s right must therefore be negated is wrong. And the corollary that to affirm our people’s right to self-determination must mean that Palestinian rights must then be denied is also wrong. People mistakenly think they cannot champion both Jewish and Palestinian rights. But that is not of course the larger problem. Then again perhaps it is part of the problem. People think, I have to choose sides. I am either for the Palestinians or for the State of Israel.

A growing number on the left, both here and now in England, think however that the real conflict is that Zionism is a distortion of Judaism. This could not be farther from the truth. Moreover such an idea is antisemitic. And antisemitism must be called out. Whether it is an offensive carnival float in Belgium in which Hasidic Jews are depicted with money and a rat or words by a representative from the political party you call your own, it must be called out. In fact if you call yourself a Democrat then you have even more responsibility to call out such antisemitism within your own ranks. It’s easy, and perhaps gratifying or at the very least affirming, when it is found on the other side of the aisle, but it’s even more important when it comes from the side for whom you voted. You cannot look the other way most especially when it comes from within your own ranks.

On the left there is this growing tendency to separate the Jewish people from one of our chief commitments and devotions, namely Israel. And I will have none of this. It is antisemitic to say Israel does not belong in the Middle East. It is antisemitc to say our devotion to Israel makes our commitment to this country suspect. It is antisemitic to say that Judaism has little do with the land of Israel or Jerusalem or Zion.

This is why I am so proud that the Muslim leaders who participated in the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative came to Jerusalem to learn about why Israel—that is the modern and the ancient Israel—is so important and so integral to the Jewish people. And this is exactly what Representative Omar does not seem to get. She should similarly go to Israel and see it for herself. And she could then even come back and say, “The US gives too much aid to Israel.” Or, “I don’t want US dollars to be used at West Bank checkpoints.” Or, “I disagree with what the AIPAC lobbyists who met with me this afternoon said.” I might argue with her if she said such things—and I imagine such arguments would be quite heated, but that would be within her rights as a representative. That would even be in keeping with her responsibilities. She is not however doing anything even approaching this.

Her words are antisemitic. Moreover her antisemitism cannot be excused because she has suffered anti-Muslim attacks as for example what happened in West Virginia where she was likened to Islamist extremists who perpetrated 9-11. She should also not get a pass because she is a freshman in Congress. Antisemitism is antisemitism. It is the same whether it’s a Republican or Democrat, a liberal or conservative, the old or the young.

I don’t know what is in Representative Omar’s heart. I can never know that. I do not know what motives her. I can certainly judge her words and her actions. And on that count she comes ups woefully lacking. And that brings me to this week’s Torah portion. We read that the Israelites finished building the tabernacle, the portable sanctuary that accompanied them on their wanderings. The Israelites gladly donate to this project, giving of themselves in order to complete the project. The problem is that they had the exact same intention when they gave beforehand to another project. That time it was to build the golden calf. And that was of course the greatest sin the Israelites ever committed.

The Talmud comments: “One cannot understand the nature of this people. If they are appealed to for a calf, they give. If appealed to for the Tabernacle, they give.” (Jerusalem Talmud Shekalim) Both acts are motivated by the people’s desire to give. If we were to judge these acts by their motivations we might claim they were both good. They are of course not in any way the same. One is entirely sinful and the other entirely good.

People say that politicians on the left, such as Representative Omar, are motivated by their desire to seek justice for the Palestinians. And alleviating the suffering of Palestinians—the Gaza strip is for example becoming increasingly uninhabitable— is a noble goal. Alleviating suffering is always of course an unqualified good. This may or not be what is motivating Representative Omar. The larger issue is that this is entirely beside the point. Antisemitism is a sin and that’s all there is to it.

I pray. May we find the strength to say antisemitism is a sin in a loud and clear voice. May we find the courage to say this whether it is directed at our friends or neighbors, whether it is directed at leaders who agree with us on all other matters or leaders who disagree with us on every manner of thing. Antisemitism is a sin and that’s all there is to it. This is something that must never be papered over by high minded intentions.

Antisemitism is a sin and that’s all there is to it. Say this loudly. Say this clearly.    

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Finishing the World

The ancient rabbis taught that God intentionally left creation incomplete. On most days I find this teaching inspiring and even comforting.

God granted us free will. God left creation unfinished, leaving room in the world for us to act. God in effect bowed out of each and every detail in this world so that our actions might be our own and so that we might enhance creation. The Kabbalists added to this notion when they argued that God withdrew from the world. Otherwise, they reasoned, God’s presence would overwhelm us. If God did not withdraw, there would be no room for anything but God.

God made this imperfect world so that there would be the necessity for us to get involved, a call for us to improve ourselves and better the world. God wants us to do more.

But after weeks and months of reading the news, of poring over the details about antisemitism, terror attacks, gun violence and climate change, I find myself wishing, and praying, that God would just fix this mess and repair creation. I find myself wanting to retreat into the poetry of prayer.

At this moment I feel willing to forgo a measure of free will if God were to reorder things, right such terrible wrongs, heal the many injustices we see about us and mend this broken world. How nice that would be. How soothing.

But prayer cannot fix the brokenness between us. Perhaps it can mend an individual soul but never a nation. It cannot repair hatred. Prayer cannot rebuild the glaciers. Instead it offers a respite. Prayer provides a goad to action. It must inspire us to act.

This week we read about the completion of the Tabernacle: “When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle…” (Exodus 40)

The tabernacle was the vehicle by which God led the people on their journeys. It became synonymous with our house of prayer. In fact the Hebrew word for tabernacle, mishkan, is related to the Hebrew “to dwell” which is connected to one of our tradition’s names for God, Shechinah. This is the name that we use when we want to suggest God’s presence is near and felt. And all of this is tied to the building of the mishkan, tabernacle. All of this is tied to the work that we do.

God only dwells when we do the hard work. God is only felt when we do the mending with our own hands.

The Torah also suggests an additional meaning by its choice of words for Moses finishing the work. The Hebrew, “vay’khal,” means to complete or even to perfect. By this word choice it draws our attention to the creation account when God finished that first, although imperfect, building project: “…the heaven and the earth were finished.” There is of course meaning to be found in this comparison.

When we build and create, as Moses and the people did with the mishkan, we imitate God and God’s creation. Part of our creative efforts must be to complete and perfect creation, to bring a measure of holiness into our lives and a measure of goodness to the world.

Making or dreaming up something new is the greatest of human achievements. It is what makes us uniquely human—and perhaps most like God. It is how we achieve repair. We reach for perfection. Albert Einstein said, “If at first, the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.”

I pray that God will fix our world. And yet, I cannot rely on prayer alone.

We must work to fix our world.