Thursday, September 19, 2019

Cursing Our Way to Good

I don’t know very much Yiddish except a few words like shayna punim of which my unbiased grandmother believed I exhibited, chutzpah of which I have in apparent abundance and of course tuchus of which I have one. Recently, I learned a few more phrases and although I still have not achieved sufficient linguistic mastery, I have become enchanted with the language of my forebears. Yiddish is an extraordinarily colorful language filled with many creative ways to curse.

Here are but a few:
All problems I have in my heart, should go to his head.
God should visit upon him the best of the Ten Plagues.
He should have a large store, and whatever people ask for he shouldn’t have, and what he does have shouldn’t be requested.
His luck should be as bright as a new moon.
Your stomach will rumble so badly, you will think it was a Purim noisemaker.
And of course the well-known: “Go take a dump in the ocean.” The Yiddish is actually even more unseemly, but I will leave that to your imagination. Clearly this phrase is akin to the less colorful English curse, “Go jump in a lake” and means, “Get lost.”

Still, I never understood why jumping in a lake, or the ocean for that matter, is a curse. I love the water. Perhaps our Yiddish forebears were not very good swimmers and they could imagine nothing worse than being lost in the immense ocean. Then again, it could be because the vastness of lakes and oceans renders the person insignificant. It is as if to say, “Get away from me. You mean nothing to me. You are as insignificant as a small speck in the vast ocean.”

Curses reveal so much about a culture. Take note of the understanding of Jewish tradition found in these Yiddish phrases. The empty night sky of a new moon reminds us that our tradition marks the holidays by the moon. The boisterous sounds of Purim celebrations must be embedded in the Jewish heart. Cursing elucidates a culture.

It reveals hidden secrets. Women, who were relegated to traditional roles in shtetl life, perhaps gained the last word. They said in effect, “Let all the worries I carry, whether or not, for example, our children and friends will have food this coming Shabbat find their way into the mind of that guy who studies and prays all day and night.”

This week the Torah confronts us with a litany of curses. If the people obey God’s commands they are promised blessings. These are succinct and to the point. If not, they are cursed:
May the Lord strike you with consumption, fever, and inflammation, with scorching heat and drought, with blight and mildew; they shall hound you until you perish. The skies above your head shall be copper and the earth under you iron. The Lord will make the rain of your land dust, and sand shall drop on you from the sky, until you are wiped out. (Deuteronomy 28)
The curses continue in inordinate detail, promising boil-scars, itches and hemorrhoids. The intention is clear. If the people do not follow God’s commands then they will be struck with what they most fear. Their crops will not thrive. They will rot as soon as they are planted. Their bodies will be plagued by disease. They will find no relief from their most bothersome symptoms. It hearkens to “God should visit upon him the best of the Ten Plagues.” Again the cursing is colorful and vivid. Little is left to the imagination.

Usually when chanting these verses the Torah reader does so in a quiet voice so as to deemphasize the curses. We say in effect, “Let us not say out loud what can befall us.” I wish instead to think about what all this color, and imagination, reveals. The Torah’s curses serve to accentuate the blessings. They are the dark contrast that reveal the promise.

Without such a bold, and imaginative, list we might remain unaware of the possibility to achieve good. Likewise, Yiddish provides a plethora of terms for underachievers. “He is such a schlemiel” comes to mind. Why? So as to remind us that failing to do good is but one slip up away. The line between success and failure is but one small curse away—and this is always within our reach. Doing good is our most important goal.

And then I remember that I know at least one more Yiddish word. And it is the crowning goal of the Yiddish language. It is what all these curses, as well as the many terms for underachievers, point towards. And that word is mensch. I long to hear my grandmother say, “You’re such a mensch.”

The great Yiddish writer, Isaac Bashevis Singer once joked, “What a strange power there is in clothing.” But he also added: “Kindness, I’ve discovered, is everything in life.”

Be a good person. Be a mensch. The rest is commentary—and of course a measure of imagination and humor can help lead us there.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Eighteen Years Later

What follows is Friday evening's sermon on the occasion of the eighteenth anniversary of 9-11.

On Wednesday Susie and I dropped Ari off at JFK for the beginning of his year long journey. Aside from the emotions of seeing our son off as he begins his travels around the world, it occurred to me how ordinary this occasion was. I am not speaking of course about Ari backpacking to as yet unknown destinations and our expectations that we will soon receive random texts at some odd time of day and night saying something like, “Leaving Singapore, heading to Hanoi.” Or, “Decided to stay longer in Palermo.” I am instead speaking about how ordinary Wednesday, September 11, 2019 seemed. The airport provided its usual frustrations with all its boisterous honking and jockeying for a spot to drop him off. We hit traffic on the way home. I looked up when we were stopped on the Belt Parkway to see a large plane making a slow leftward turn on its approach to the airport.

Eighteen years ago I could not have imagined such a moment. I can still see the empty, blue skies over our backyard, after we had collected our then five and seven year olds from school. “Can we let them play outside?” Susie and I debated. I looked up from our backyard, and marveled at the sky’s blueness and its emptiness, save the occasional military helicopters loudly hurtling towards Manhattan. “We can’t keep them locked inside,” we finally decided. And then we hurried them in and out as we struggled to make up our minds over and over again. Everything stopped on that day. We felt as if it might forever stop.

Ten years ago we would have protested the day Ari decided to begin his journey. “Wait until Thursday to leave,” we might have said. This year I could not get over how ordinary and routine the day seemed. Of course I cried all over again as I tuned into the countless services, and most especially the service at the 9-11 memorial. I watched with renewed pain the remembrances held throughout the country, and even the one held in Israel. Still I did what I always do on any given Wednesday. It seemed like any other September day. I am not saying of course that the day 9-11 is not among our most wrenching and sacrosanct days. Americans attended services, watched any number of memorials on TV, or not so great made for TV movies. On Wednesday we reacquainted ourselves with the pained stories of those lost and those who died trying to save others. I think of the firefighters running up those stairs, sensing they might never walk down. Their photographs arrayed in The New York Times are still etched in my thoughts; they are forever before my eyes. I think of all those rescue workers, police officers, construction workers and volunteers who rushed to Ground Zero to help but now, years later, are plagued with unimaginable health consequences.

And yet, on this past Wednesday most of us went about our day like any other Wednesday in September.

Some things return to normal. We go to work. We go out to dinners. We go into the city for the theatre. There were days back then when I never could have imagined that someone could create, or would create, the most beautiful and moving show about that dark day. And, until this past Sunday I refused to go see Come from Away. We go to the beach. We go to the airport. And then again, there were days back then when we thought that going to the airport might never again be possible. We laugh. We sing. We cry—but no longer only about that Tuesday from eighteen years ago. Everything has not stopped.

And some things are never again the same. We are still afraid. We are afraid of travel. Before that day there was no place on earth beyond the travel destinations of our American can do attitude. Now we take those State Department Travel warnings seriously. Fear is lodged in our American hearts. We hesitate. Everything has not stopped, but there is a pause in our step, a hesitation in our decision making. “Is it safe?” we ask over and over again. “There are so many people there. It might not be safe to go watch the parade,” we think. We hesitate to meet new people. It is easier to stick with the friends we know. We pause before opening our hearts to strangers. “They could be…you know…” we think, sometimes quietly and sometimes not so quietly.

The hope that was the defining characteristic of America, the hope that inspired my grandparents to traverse the ocean and build a life here for themselves, their children, grandchildren, and now great grandchildren, is now overwhelmed by fear. Now our children openly say what would have been blasphemy to my grandparent’s generation, “Is this country really the best country in the world?”

Eighteen years later, I am not sure how to help banish this fear. But I have learned this. Fear is a matter of the heart. It has nothing to do with metal detectors, armed guards and bomb sniffing dogs. There can never be 100% safety and security. Not when riding a bicycle, driving in a car, flying in an airplane or walking on the sidewalk. There is no place on earth that is not touched by suffering and pain, violence and terrorism. We cannot run. We cannot hide. Eighteen years ago, we were naïve. We did not know then what we know now. That recognition, that knowing, that painful experience has made us fearful and afraid. But the heart is not our master. It does not rule our lives. We can control the heart. We can master our feelings and most especially our fears. As the Psalmist said, “Though they might surround me, my heart shall not fear. Though war should rise against me, even then I will be confident.” (Psalm 27)

And so we can banish the terror; we can rid our hearts of fear. How? By not stopping. By not pausing. By at the very least, not hesitating so much and so often. By approaching the world, and other people, with more hope. By seeing in others the possibility for new insights and new loves. By looking to the world, and its many destinations, not just as potential enemies who may very well be arrayed against us, but as beacons for discovering some new truths. We must once again open our hearts to the world's nuances. We must no longer divide the world into us and them.

How do we banish fear? By not stopping. By not pausing. By not hesitating. Perhaps that answer was only just discovered this past Wednesday. Perhaps that answer can only begin to be discovered eighteen years later. This truth might still be found. It is found in going about our day like it was just another Wednesday in September. That is the most important thing we can do, and perhaps even the bravest thing we can do. We can push fear aside.

Fear need not rule our hearts.


Thursday, September 12, 2019

Let Them Eat Grapes

Years ago when hiking through Israel, my guide would sometimes take a detour through a field. There she would reach up and take an orange from a tree, immediately peel off its skin and then eat it. I protested. “This is not your field. These oranges are not yours to take.” She would then correct my understanding. “Our Bible permits it.”

And the Torah proclaims: “When you enter your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat as many grapes as you want, until you are full, but you must not put any in your vessel.” (Deuteronomy 25)

Our Bible has a different understanding of ownership. We do not own the land. The earth belongs to God and we are but tenants. So when I look to my backyard, the trees, and vines, might very well be mine but the food they produce is not just for my benefit.

The Torah makes clear. If you are hungry you can take the fruit from a tree. Even though the farmer has expended all the effort, and expense, to grow and nurture the tree, its fruit must be shared. Still you can only take a little bit, only enough to satiate your hunger. You may not take so much that you can fill a basket so that you are then able to sell the fruit in the market. That would be stealing.

And stealing is forbidden. Sharing is demanded.

While very few of us have vineyards or even know how to grow grapes, or even for that matter have fruit trees, imagine how different the world might be if we shared some fruit with our neighbors.

I dream.

And then I recall the fruit that spoils in my refrigerator, and the bag of half eaten grapes that makes its way into our garbage pail. I discard my dreams.

I must dream. I imagine. A world where all it takes for no one to know hunger is for each of us to offer one or two grapes here or there is within reach.

Sharing is commanded.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

The Word is Our Ruler

I spend my days trying to uncover contemporary meaning in the weekly Torah reading. I pour over the Bible’s words to discover modern resonance.

This week I unfurled our sacred scroll and revealed these words:
When the king is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Torah written for him…. Let it remain with him and let him read it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Torah... Thus, he will not act arrogantly toward his fellows or deviate from the instruction to the right or left… (Deuteronomy 17)
When Saul is anointed the first king of Israel, God acquiesces to the people’s desire to be like all other nations. Appointing earthly rulers is a compromise. The Torah reminds us. Rulers must always remember that they serve a higher authority, that they serve the rules and laws given to prior generations.

Even the greatest king of Israel, David, is no greater than God’s Torah. Let’s take but one example. First, he commits adultery with Bathsheba. Then David has her husband, and loyal soldier, Uriah murdered. The prophet Nathan rebukes the king, reminding him that he is not above the law. Murder and adultery are forbidden for everyone—even the king.

In many other cultures, both then and now, such rebuke would be dismissed. And the prophet, or protester, would be jailed or killed. And herein lies David’s uniqueness, and perhaps his greatness. He repents. He admits his error. He atones for his sin. David bows to the law.

The Torah is our ruler. The law is our king.

Often when I take our students into the sanctuary, I open the Ark to show them our beautiful Torah scrolls. We discuss the colored robes that cover the scrolls. I point out the shiny silver crowns and breastplates that adorn them. I ask the students, “Who else wears a crown?” And they respond, “A king or a queen.” “Exactly,” I say.

Then I remind them that this is exactly Judaism’s most important teaching. We look up to the Torah as one might look up to a queen or king. The chapters and verses in these scrolls, the words inscribed by centuries of meaning, are what we worship.

One might think that such veneration, especially that of an ancient calligraphed scroll, means we live in the past. We do not. We live in the present but are nurtured by ancient words.

Yesterday’s words inform tomorrow’s promise.

Rabbi Ben Bag Bag said: “Turn it over, and again turn it over, for all is contained therein. And look into it; and become gray and old therein. And do not move away from it, for you have no better portion than it.”

To discover meaning all we have to do is to look at these ancient words anew. To recall our sacred task all we need do is unfurl this sacred scroll.

A book is our king. The word is our ruler.