Friday, April 26, 2019

Let's Start Fixing the World

Another Hasidic story. Perhaps this one is my favorite. I first heard it told by Rabbi Naomi Levy.

A wealthy man approached the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, and asked if he could meet Elijah the Prophet, the messenger of God who rose to heaven in a chariot of fire. The man had heard rumors that Elijah wanders the earth to bless people in need of his help. The wealthy man had achieved great success and counted many accomplishments to his name. Everything he ever wanted, he was able to acquire.

At first the Baal Shem Tov insisted he didn't know how to find Elijah. And then one day the Baal Shem Tov said to the man, "You can meet Elijah this Shabbat. Here is what you must do: Fill up your coach with a Shabbat feast. Pack bread, wine, chicken and vegetables. Pack cakes and fruit and delicacies and bring it all to a certain hut in the forest and ask if you can spend the Shabbat there."

On Friday afternoon the wealthy man rode his coach along a winding forest trail until he came upon the hut the Baal Shem Tov had told him about. He knocked on the door and a poor woman in tattered clothes answered. The wealthy man asked if he could spend the Shabbat with her family.

The husband and his wife were overjoyed to have a Shabbat guest even though there was barely enough food to go around. Their emaciated children giggled with excitement. Then the wealthy man showed them the feast he had brought. For a moment they froze at the sight of such abundance. And then the children cheered, the wife wept with joy, and her husband shouted with excitement.

That Shabbat eve was like no other this family had ever experienced. They ate well, drank well, sang, prayed. The wealthy man kept staring at the poor father. Could this be Elijah? He asked the poor man to teach him Torah, but the man was illiterate. The father ate until his belly was full, he drank and belched and picked his teeth. This couldn’t be Elijah. All through that night and the next day the wealthy man waited impatiently for Elijah to appear. But there was no sign of the holy prophet anywhere.

On Saturday night, as Shabbat came to an end, the wealthy man was fuming. "The Baal Shem Tov deceived me. He made a fool of me." And then he said his goodbyes to the family and raced outside in a huff. As he was stomping away, the wealthy man's boot got stuck in the mud. As he leaned down to pick it up, he overhead sounds of rejoicing coming from inside the window. The children were jumping up and down and squealing with joy over the most wonderful Shabbat they had ever seen.

The wife said to her husband, "Who was that man who brought us all that food?" Her husband replied, "Don't you see? It was Elijah the Prophet who came to bless us."

Suddenly the wealthy man saw who Elijah was.

"Elijah is me," he said to himself. “Elijah is me.”

And Elijah can also be you.

If we only sing to Elijah at the conclusion of our Seders, if we only sing “Eliyahu HaNavi” when we make Havdalah, then we have not come to understand the true meaning our rituals and songs.

Whose home will you visit this coming Shabbat? Whose hungry bellies will you help to fill in the coming days? Whose soul will you begin to repair?

Elijah can be you.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Tell Your Story

A Hasidic story. It is among my favorites. When Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov, the founder of Hasidism, saw that the Jewish people was threatened by tragedy he would go to a particular place in the forest where he lit a fire, recited a particular prayer, and a miracle was accomplished, averting the tragedy.

Later, when the Baal Shem Tov’s disciple, the Maggid of Mezrich, had to intervene with heaven for the same reason, he went to the same place in the forest where he told the Master of the Universe that while he did not know how to light the fire, he could still recite the prayer, and once again, a miracle was accomplished.

Later still, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov, in turn a disciple of the Maggid of Mezrich, went into the forest to save his people. There he pleaded with God, saying, “I do not know how to light the fire and I do not know the prayer, but I can find the place and this must be sufficient.” Once again, a miracle was accomplished.

When it was the turn of Rabbi Yisrael of Rizhyn, the great-grandson of the Maggid of Mezrich who was named after the Baal Shem Tov, to avert the threat, he sat in his chair, holding his head in his hands, and said to God: “I am unable to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, and I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is tell the story. That must be enough.”

And this too was sufficient.

Central to our Passover celebrations is the telling of the story of our going out from Egypt. Judaism believes in the power of the story. It is not mere entertainment. It is fundamental to instilling values. We tell and retell. We remember. And we are inspired to act.

We cast ourselves in the story. The Haggadah proclaims, “In every generation one is obligated to see oneself as one who personally went out from Egypt. Not only were our ancestors redeemed by the Holy One of Blessing but even we were redeemed with them.”

This year, tell another story as well. Tell your story. Tell the story of how you, your parents, your grandparents or even your great grandparents went out from wherever your family emigrated from and how they made it to this country. And then how you made this great country your home.

And perhaps this too will be sufficient.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

The Moon's Pull

I am thinking about the moon.

It is because of the moon that we read about leprosy for two weeks rather than one. Most years this week’s portion, Metzora, is combined with last week’s, Tazria, in a double portion. Both are about leprosy. This year, however, is a leap year when we add an entire month. The month is added in the spring prior to Purim. Why?

The reason is simple. Our holidays are tied to the seasons of the 365 day solar calendar. Passover, for example, is the spring harvest festival. Sukkot marks the fall harvest. If we were only to follow the 354 day lunar calendar, as our Muslim neighbors do, the holidays would wander throughout the seasons. Then every year the holidays would be eleven days earlier than the previous year. And then, for example, Passover might occur during the winter.

Its connection to spring, our agricultural roots, and most importantly the earth would be lost. Therefore every two or three years we add a month. So Rosh Hashanah can wander between the start of September and the beginning of October but no further. Each holiday moves within a month’s window of the solar calendar.

During leap years, like this year, the double portions are separated into single portions. We therefore spend far more time reading Leviticus. So now we have to spend two weeks examining leprosy. And this is an unfortunate occurrence, to be honest.

But I am comforted by the moon.

The rabbis teach. The moon complained to God saying, “The sun is so much bigger than me. No one can even see me during the day.” God comforted the moon and said, “By you shall Israel reckon the days and years.” (Babylonian Talmud Hullin 60b)

Apparently we offer comfort to each other. Israel and the moon are joined. While the sun sustains life, the moon points to our celebrations.

The moon sustains our spirit.

Soon we will gather around our Passover seder tables. Take a moment to look outside. If it is a clear night, you will see a full moon. In fact, you will see a full moon on the first night of Passover, every year. The fourteenth of Nisan, and the fourteenth of every Hebrew month coincides with a full moon. So you will see a full moon on the first night of Sukkot and on Purim for that matter.

The moon marks our holidays. Without it we could not find our way. Without it we would be unable to wander through our celebrations.

This year especially look at the moon with a sense of pride. Although Israel’s unmanned rocket missed its lunar landing, it came very close. Some seventy years ago, when Israel’s existence seemed more hope than reality, more dream than achievement, when the state faced untold challenges, who could have even imagined that one day Israel would send a rocket into space? Who would have dared dream that in the week when Israelis once again exercised their democratic right to vote and yet again affirmed the vision of “to be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem” they would send a rocket to crash into the moon?

The rabbis teach: “By you shall Israel reckon the days and years.”

At this year’s seder, get up from your tables, and look up at the moon and say, “Next year in Jerusalem.”

Next year in Jerusalem—indeed!


Thursday, April 4, 2019

(Re)Kindling the Spark

I just returned from the Reform rabbis’ annual convention. Imagine 600 rabbis in one room! Imagine the lengthy conversations. Imagine all the sermons and schmoozing. This year the convention was held in Cincinnati. It was wonderful to return to Hebrew Union College where Susie and I studied for four years. It was moving to return to the historic Plum Street Temple where we were ordained 28 years ago.

Plum Street Temple was completed in 1866. Its rabbi, Isaac Meyer Wise, founded America’s Reform movement. Isaac Meyer Wise Temple, as it is now called, is an extraordinarily beautiful sanctuary. Its architecture is a combination of Byzantine and Moorish styles that was then popular in Germany. It is meant to echo the golden age of Spanish Jewry. It was Rabbi Wise’s belief that America held a similar promise.

Will my grandchildren feel similarly?

We gathered for services on Monday morning. I was struck by countless incongruities. We sat in what was once the stronghold of classical Reform Judaism where English prayers (and German) were central, yet our prayers were marked by an abundance of Hebrew. Our singing was accompanied by guitar. We sang niggunim, wordless melodies developed by Hasidic rebbes who were an anathema to our founders. I stared at the gleaming pipe organs, whose voice once filled Reform synagogues but now stood silenced. Nineteenth century Reform leaders forbade tallis and kippah, yet virtually every rabbi wore these traditional garbs.

We read this week’s Torah reading, Tazria. It contains chapters and verses about leprosy. Leviticus is obsessed with rituals and in particular ritual cleanness. It enumerates countless details about what renders something unclean. Our movement’s first platform, written in 1885, wandered through my thoughts:
We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation.
They believed the ethical should be elevated above the ritual.

I longed for new wisdom. Colleagues quoted Hasidic masters. Rabbis cited modern poets. We danced and clapped to our prayers. We often started our sessions late. The decorum and punctiliousness of our founders slipped away.

Would they recognize what they birthed?

I wish to bind the ritual to the ethical. I long for our prayers to feed our morals.

Every evening was marked by the testimony of remarkable and courageous leaders.

Roberta Kaplan, a civil rights lawyer and Amy Spitalnick, director of Integrity First for America, spoke about how they are using American law to go after the Nazis who organized the antisemitic violence in Charlottesville. Freedom of speech should not protect conspiring to do violence. We listened to Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. He offered compelling words about the need for criminal justice reform. Is the measure of a nation’s greatness discovered in how it treats those accused of breaking its laws? Alabama’s prisons accuse us of falling short. Last night we were honored to meet Jim Obergefell, the plaintiff in the Supreme Court Case legalizing same-sex marriage. It is difficult to imagine the courage he must have summoned to allow a court to judge his love. Should anyone offer judgments about another’s love?

The prophetic spirit is alive. It is part of my prayers.

There is much to repair in our world. I pray for strength.

Would Isaac Meyer Wise recognize what he founded?

I am confident. He would recognize the spark.

And that is what we must kindle—in each and every generation, again and again.

I pray for courage.


Monday, April 1, 2019

The Ghost of Bipartisanship

What follows is this past week's sermon about what I learned and felt at the AIPAC Policy Conference.

This past week I traveled to Washington DC attend the AIPAC Policy Conference. AIPAC is America’s pro-Israel lobby. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee is steadfast in its bipartisanship as it lobbies in particular Congress about all manner of things beneficial to Israel. It has been crucial about gaining funding for Iron Dome. It support is critical for Israel’s defense needs. So let me offer some highlights from the conference, as well as some observations and of course a few my opinions.

On the first day, President Trump recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. This was hailed by Prime Minister Netanyahu. Let’s unpack this decision. Israel captured the Golan from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War. Prior to the war its heights served as a nemesis to Israel given that Syrian soldiers shelled Israeli kibbutzim from there. In addition it served as a buffer to absorb Syria’s attack during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In an age of missiles some have argued that the heights are no longer important as a strategic asset. And there were occasional discussions about trading the territory for peace with Syria. Nonetheless the vast majority of Israelis never favored such an idea.

The Golan is some of the best, and most beautiful, hiking in all of Israel. There water flows from the heights, sometimes cascading down waterfalls, which are extraordinary to swim in. The water eventually makes its way to the Kinneret—the Sea of Galilee. Water that is needed for much of Israel’s population starts its journey in the Golan. For decades Israel has been sovereign over the territory. The world of course did not recognize this but Israel’s sovereignty was long an established fact. Especially in recent years, after the collapse of Syria and given the ongoing civil war there, no one entertained the idea of relinquishing control over the Golan Heights.

President Trump’s decision was a recognition of what was in fact the case. Some might argue that it was ill-timed or that its only purpose was to help Bibi win the election, and while this may be true, the decision was rather inconsequential. Perhaps you can argue that it emboldened Israel’s right wingers who see in this the beginnings of their desire to annex the West Bank. Maybe. But Israelis don’t lump these territories together. The Golan and the West Bank are not the same. Perhaps the decision was a finger in the eye of Arab states, like Saudi Arabia, who are drawing closer to Israel. Again maybe. Don’t read too much into this decision. There are far greater things to get worked up about.

AIPAC also advocated for the US to move its embassy to Jerusalem. Again the Trump administration obliged. This decision was far more consequential. There is good and bad about the embassy move. First the good. Israel should get to decide where its capital is. It has always been in Jerusalem. It’s not in East Jerusalem, the territory captured from the Jordanians in 1967. It’s in West Jerusalem. That’s where the Knesset is. Too many, most especially Palestinian leaders, deny the historic connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel. Jerusalem is not just any city for us. Too many speak about Zionism and the State of Israel as if it is some European colonial implant in the Arab Middle East. It is not. Jerusalem exemplifies our return to Zion. For years US presidents refused to officially recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move our embassy there. President Trump finally did this and he received a lot of adulation and praise from the 18,000 AIPAC attendees for this decision. Again the vast majority of Israelis are also grateful. Most Israelis just want to live in a state like all other states with a capital city that is not deemed illegitimate by world leaders.

Still there are worries about the embassy move. Palestinians hope for the capital of their state to be in Jerusalem as well. They also claim this city as their own. For those who favor the two state solution and for those who believe that a Palestinian state living in peace alongside the State of Israel is the best thing for Israel, and this is by the way AIPAC’s official position, Trump’s decision seemed to push this reality farther away. You can argue that moving the embassy to Jerusalem will force Palestinian leaders to come to terms with the reality of Israel and that this reality is here to stay and not going anywhere. That is now my hope. My fear however is that this decision, as much as I loved it in my Jewish kishkes, will cause those on both sides who say this place is only mine to become even more intransigent. We have to figure out how to share parts of the land with our Palestinian brethren so that we can find some measure of peace.

I admit that seems like a far off dream. Given that this week Hamas fired rockets from Gaza into Tel Aviv peace seems more like a delusion. Then again Gaza is not the West Bank and Hamas is not the Palestinian Authority. Israelis understand these distinctions. Hamas aims to destroy Israel. It rules over Gaza with an iron hand. It kills its own people when they protest, a recent fact that went largely unreported. A rocket fell on a family’s home. Children were injured. Children were targeted. Netanyahu hurried back to Jerusalem and gave instead a video address to the conference attendees. The IDF called up reserves. The air force struck at Hamas leaders. Why? What was different this time? Hamas has fired rockets before. It was because the rocket traveled farther and this may be the more important point, it somehow evaded Iron Dome. The worry is that this could represent a technological breakthrough.

And this cannot stand. There should be no debate about this fact. Israelis should be free to live in safety and security. And their state has every right to safeguard its citizens’ safety and security.

Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s main rival in the coming elections, began his speech by praising Bibi’s decision to return to Israel. It is true that the poverty and despair in Gaza is overwhelming. It is also true that Hamas is largely responsible for perpetuating these conditions. Still I continue to say, something has to be done for ordinary Gazans if for no other reason than to bring some measure of quiet along Israel’s southern border.

Gantz also spoke to diaspora Jews. He spoke about the rights of Reform and Conservative Jews in Israel. He said the Western Wall is big enough for all of us. This is something where Netanyahu has abandoned us. The lack of recognition of other streams of Judaism in the Jewish state is a tragic injustice. Too many Reform Jews like ourselves are made to feel second class in Israel. Why should we not be able to pray exactly as we do here in the Jewish state? It makes no sense. Politics should no longer upend making progress towards a greater sense of Jewish pluralism in the State of Israel.

I thought Gantz’s speech was the best of the conference. His most powerful point was one about unity. He spoke about that being our secret weapon. This is what he argued has enabled Israel to survive. Unity is also what drives AIPAC. Democrats and Republicans are meant to be united in their support for Israel. And this brings me to my greatest worry and fear. Our unity is unraveling. This was by far the most troubling and upsetting take away from the conference. The Democrats who spoke appeared to be playing defense and said in effect, don’t worry, we still love Israel. Republicans were on offense, saying those guys don’t really love Israel. We love Israel the best. Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat this development should be extraordinarily troubling.

The bipartisanship that is the cornerstone of AIPAC’s mission is slipping away. This was so evident when Meghan McCain, Senator John McCains’ daughter, and Senator Joe Lieberman took the stage. This is where we are at? I thought. We have to conjure up the ghost of John McCain to demonstrate bipartisanship. We have to bring out his good friend and Democrat, and who also should have been his running mate, to say look how bipartisan we are. This is the best, and perhaps only way we say, look a Republican and Democrat can stand on the stage together and profess their love and commitment to Israel. Our unity is slipping away.

So let me say this in closing. To Democrats I say loving Israel and making excuses for antisemites cannot go hand in hand. To Republicans I say loving Israel is not necessarily the same as loving Bibi and his vision for Israel. We better figure out how to hold on to all of these things at the same time because what has served the alliance between the United States and Israel so well for so long is that it has always transcended Republican and Democrat. Let’s figure out some measure of unity for Israel’s sake and perhaps for ours as well.