Thursday, June 20, 2019

Gossip Disfigures

How dare anyone criticize our leader!

We read: “Miriam spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married.” (Numbers 12) We learn elsewhere that Moses’ wife is Zipporah. She is a Midianite. This week the Torah suggests that she is dark-skinned and therefore perhaps from Ethiopia. She is not an Israelite. Was this the basis of Miriam’s criticism of her brother Moses? 

How dare he marry a foreigner!

Their brother Aaron joins the critique. He and Miriam pile on more harsh words, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has God not spoken through us as well?” Were they jealous of their brother Moses? Did they want to lead the Israelites as well? Did they believe, as Judaism does, that everyone can have a relationship with God and that anyone, with enough wisdom and learning, can lead?

Perhaps our leader thinks too much of himself. Perhaps he denigrates the holy spark found in each and every person.

Rashi, the great medieval commentator, disagrees. He imagines Miriam criticizing her brother for neglecting his wife. Moses is singularly devoted to his mission. He is on call for God at all hours of the day and night. Miriam therefore worries about her sister in law’s well-being. She worries about her brother’s marriage and family.

I wonder. Is the best teaching offering by the very person who falls short of fulfilling its words? Rashi authored a line-by-line commentary to the entire Bible and Talmud. How did he find time for his own family? Miriam reminds us. No job is more important than family. No task, even one divinely ordained, should take precedence over those closest to us.

God apparently disagrees. Miriam is punished and stricken with leprosy. Aaron is left alone to plea for his sister, “O, my lord, account not to us the sin which we committed in our folly.”

The rabbis suggest that it was not what Miriam said but the manner in which she spoke the words. They see a parallel between this disfiguring disease and gossip. The tradition is clear. Even if the words are true they must only be spoken when absolutely necessary and then only in private. Critique becomes gossip when it finds its way into the public domain. Criticism becomes slander when it seeks to demean others rather than uplift them.

Gossip disfigures. A Hasidic story relates that it is like a feather cast to the wind. Such words can never be collected. Once gossip is shared it can never be withdrawn. The damage to a person’s reputation might never be undone. Beware of what one tweets! Judaism counsels. Gossip disfigures the gossiper.

A person’s character unravels when she or he gossips. The rabbis remind us that gossip not only belittles the person about whom we talk but also damages the person who speaks such words. Gossip denigrates everyone—even and including the person who listens.

And so we must offer prayers of contrition for all the times we resorted to gossip to entertain. We pray for all the moments we gossiped in order to give ourselves a greater sense of self-worth. We pray for all the minutes we inclined our ears to the gossip that others shared. We pray with Moses, “O God, pray, heal her.”

Heal us!

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Making Peace

The Ktav Sofer, a leading nineteenth century Hungarian rabbi, comments: “Peace begins in the home, then extends to the community, and finally to all the world.”

It is a fascinating lesson. Often we speak about bringing peace to the world but forget about making peace with those who stand closest to us. We give lofty speeches and sermons (rabbi!) about making peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, or between Democrats and Republicans but neglect making peace with those we profess love. But such grandiose endeavors are impossible if we do not begin with a foundation of peace in our personal relationships.

If couples argue at home, then they often bring divisiveness to work. If parents yell at their children, then their children bring anger to school.

We cannot make peace if we don’t feel at peace. If our interactions with others are rife with conflict and discord then how can we bring peace or for that matter, negotiate peace? Judaism has long recognized the centrality of peace. It teaches about its necessity. Shalom bayit, peace in the home, is of paramount importance. Other values take second to preserving it.

And this is why so many of our prayers speak of peace. The central prayer we recite whenever we gather concludes with a prayer for peace. The Amidah may offer a litany of requests: for health, forgiveness and justice to name a few, but we always conclude with the words: “Blessed are You Adonai who blesses Your people Israel with peace.” We conclude as well the Blessing after Meals with the prayer: “Oseh shalom bimromav…May the One who makes peace in the high heavens make peace for us, for all Israel and all who inhabit the earth.” The Kaddish also concludes with these same words.

We pray for peace so we might have the strength to bring peace.

This week we learn the words for the priestly blessing. These are the words I am often privileged to recite at baby namings, bnai mitzvah and weddings. “May the Lord bless you and keep you! May the light of the Lord’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you! May you always find God’s presence in your life and blessed with shalom, peace.”

These are also the words that parents recite when blessing their children at the Shabbat and holiday dinner table. We begin our festive meals by asking God to bring peace to those we most treasure: our children. We conclude our meal by asking God to bring peace to our people and then to the world.

Perhaps the great Hungarian rabbi is correct. Peace must begin in the home. Then it extends to the community and finally we hope, to all the world.

I offer this suggestion. Try blessing your children at home. It might bring an additional measure of peace to your home and your most prized relationships.

And you never know. It could even be the beginning of bringing peace to the world.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

The Torah of Competing Ideas

People often think the Torah speaks with one voice. They believe it provides answers. They think it is a guide laying out exactly how we might discern which ideas are winners and which losers, which duties are most important and which less. It does not.

Likewise people think that governing is about winning and losing, about voting to determine what is most important and least. It is not.

Democracies are instead sustained by compromise. They thrive when we learn how to live alongside those who hold competing ideas.

In our American system of government, Democrats and Republicans are supposed to spend their years of service hammering out compromises. Congressional leaders from opposing parties are intended to get together and debate, and even argue vociferously. But then they are supposed to offer the country a compromise agreement around which the majority of citizens can rally.

Most Americans agree, for example, that our current immigration system needs fixing. And yet we are unable to come to any agreement. Our leaders shout their beliefs; they hue to their party’s talking points rather than offering compromise proposals. This is because our leaders do not lead. They do not model compromise. They do not say, “Here is a plan to reform our immigration system with which I mostly agree.”

Instead we retreat to the comfort of the like-minded. We remain loyal to ideology and devoted to our own political opinions. We measure leaders by the metric of ideological purity. We believe that compromise signifies poor leadership. We therefore remain trapped in an age of stonewalling, executive orders and emergency powers.

Our system was designed however not so that one ideology would win the day but so that pieces of as many ideologies as possible would have their say. We have forgotten that this was always the intention of American government. It was about compromise. It was about getting to be right some of the time, not all of the time.

Democracies are breaking under the weight of more and more people, most especially our leaders, saying, “I only want to talk to and listen to those with whom I agree.”

In Israel as well its system is faltering. There, compromise is supposed to be worked out when negotiating a coalition agreement. In Israel’s multi-party system no one ever gets a majority of votes and so the leading party must cobble together enough other parties to reach at least sixty-one seats. Knesset members must do much of the hard work of hammering out compromises in order to become part of the ruling coalition.

Never before has Israel had to call elections a few months after an election. And yet this is exactly what happened last week. Why?

It is for the exact same reason that American leaders are unable to achieve meaningful compromise on the many challenges facing our own nation and the world. Israeli leaders were unable to compromise. They forgot that every coalition is imperfect. A leader might be able to be right on one issue but wrong on another. Israel, and Israeli politics especially, was always about holding as many different philosophies together while still clinging to a shared devotion to the same nation.

Today, political leaders instead held fast to their ideologies. Disagreement is now couched as disloyalty. Our systems are breaking.

And so I turn to my Torah. I look toward the celebration of Shavuot when we will once again give thanks for the revelation at Sinai.

The Rabbis comment: Had only one of the six hundred thousand been absent when the Israelites stood at Mount Sinai, the Torah would not have been given.

I recall. The Torah was not given to Moses alone. It was instead revealed to hundreds of thousands.

Rabbi Aaron Halevi, a medieval commentator adds: It is for this reason that the Torah was given to six hundred thousand people. It was the will of the Holy One, blessed be God, that the Torah be accepted by all factions, and the six hundred thousand included all factions and opinions.

We are only one people when all factions and opinions and ideas are welcomed. We are only one nation when all ideas and philosophies stand alongside each other. We must work to recapture this foundation. We must strive to renew this revelation.

Then and only then can we recover Sinai.