Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Thanksgiving Poems

As we prepare to gather with family and friends in celebration of Thanksgiving and give thanks for the plentiful food, and wine, arranged before us, we pause to acknowledge the privilege and blessing of calling this country our home.

I turn to my poetry books. Recently I discovered Samuel Menashe.

Samuel Menashe was born in New York City in 1925 to Russian Jewish immigrants. He served in the United States infantry during World War II and fought at the Battle of the Bulge. After taking advantage of the GI bill, he traveled to France and earned his PhD from the Sorbonne. Later he taught poetry and literature at CW Post College. He died in 2011. He is a relatively unknown American poet.

Perhaps reading his poetry might help to remind me of how America has inspired Jews and given rise to untold Jewish creativity. His poems, at times feel playful, but then again religious.

I offer three poems:
Leavetaking
Dusk of the year
Nightfalling leaves
More than we knew
Abounded on trees
We now see through

Hallelujah
Eyes open to praise
The play of light
Upon the ceiling—
While still abed raise
The roof this morning
Rejoice as you please
Your Maker who made
This day while you slept,
Who gives you grace and ease,
Whose promise is kept.
‘Let them sing for joy upon their beds.’— Psalm 149

Now
There is never an end to loss, or hope
I give up the ghost for which I grope
Over and over again saying Amen
To all that does or does not happen—
The eternal event is now, not when.
Each day is indeed a blessing. Every day is an occasion for giving thanks.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

At What Age are We Called Wise?

If we pray every day and offer the tradition’s prescribed set of prayers, we begin with the singing of psalms and the recitation of blessings. The prayer book’s philosophy is that a soul can be both fortified, and unburdened, by the shouting of blessings and praises for our God. Only then do we move on to our requests. And the very first request we make of God is the following:
You grace humans with knowledge and teach mortals understanding. Graciously share with us Your wisdom, insight and knowledge. Blessed are You, Adonai, who graces us with knowledge.
Before asking for health or even forgiveness, we beseech God, and say, “Please grant us wisdom, insight and knowledge.” This is a curious place to begin. Why is this the first of our asks? Why begin the emotional exercise of prayer with a request for the intellect?

Why begin our litany of requests by asking for knowledge, insight and wisdom? Knowledge is something that is gained by study and learning. Insight, which other prayer books translate as understanding, is something that is acquired after much discussion and thought. And wisdom is attained only after years and years of experience.

Perhaps we begin with these words because the rabbis who authored these prayers believed that all knowledge, insight and wisdom begin with God. I now wonder. Can a prayer really be a prayer if it does not connect the mind to the spirit? In the Judaism that I love, and teach, head and heart must be combined. There should be a unity of thought and deed. I stand against thoughtless actions.

Then again, I find that my mind often wanders during our prayers. I discover myself singing the words but thinking of the day’s events or my weekend’s plans. I sing “Adon olam asher malach…” but my thoughts turn to the morning’s bike ride (I crushed that hill) or the evening’s dinner plans (I am looking forward to the tuna sashimi).

Is the unity of thought and deed possible all the time, in every moment?

I pray again, “God, please grant us wisdom, insight and knowledge.”

It is a never ending struggle. It is a daily endeavor. Can knowledge, insight and wisdom be granted by God? Are they not in our hands? Perhaps this first request, this first prayer is a reminder of what I must do each and every day. Commit myself anew to the attainment of knowledge. Read something new. Of insight. Ponder the words I read again and again. But wisdom?

This cannot be achieved in a single moment, or by the performance of a solitary act. It is not acquired by carefully reading a certain book, no matter how important or holy that book might be. Even though the Torah is read again and again, and over and over, wisdom still eludes us.

Wisdom is gained only after years and years. It is the sum total of countless experiences. Can a twenty year old ever be called wise? Can a fifty year old really be imbued with wisdom?

At what age is one be deemed wise?

At seventy? At eighty three? A hundred and twenty?

We read, “Abraham was now old, advanced in years.” (Genesis 24) In Hebrew, zaken, old is associated with wisdom. The rabbis teach that zaken points to an acronym, “zeh kanah hokhmah—this one has acquired wisdom.” Old is not a measure of years but instead a sign of wisdom. Zaken does not mean aged but wise.

And how old is Abraham? 175 years.

I have acquired this knowledge. I have gained this insight. I have achieved this wisdom.

Each of us has many, many more years to go before attaining wisdom and before being called, zaken.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

No Retreat from the World

I retreat to the Torah. It is a welcome distraction from the news and our country’s painful divisions.

This week we read about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. These cities are marked by sinfulness. As in the story of Noah, God decides to start all over and wipe out the sinfulness. Again God shares the plan with a chosen, and trusted, person. This time it is Abraham. God says, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?” (Genesis 18)

God reveals the plan to Abraham. But Abraham pleads in behalf of the people. Abraham argues (and negotiates) with God exacting a promise that if ten righteous people can be found then the cities should be saved. In the end Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed. By the way, some suggest is the origin of the required number of ten for a minyan.

And yet the Torah is unclear about what these cities’ inhabitants did that was so terrible. What were their sins? We are given only hints. “The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave!” Throughout the ages commentators have suggested that the people were guilty of sexual depravity. They cite as evidence the accompanying story that the townspeople attempted to rape the divine messengers who visit Lot, a resident of Sodom and a nephew of Abraham. This explains the English term “sodomy.”

Later the prophet Ezekiel offers more detail: “Only this was the sin of your sister city Sodom: arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility; yet she did not support the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16) He sees their sin in social terms. The cities were destroyed because of their failure to reach out to the needy and most vulnerable. There was plenty of food to share and yet they kept it all to themselves.

They were arrogant. They felt themselves superior. They shared little with the hungry. They turned a blind eye to those in need.

The rabbis expand upon the prophet Ezekiel’s understanding. They saw the cities’ sinfulness in their treatment of others, most especially their failure to fulfill the mitzvah of hospitality and welcoming the stranger. They argue that this sin would have been understandable if Sodom and Gomorrah were poor cities, but they were in fact wealthy. The rabbis weave a story describing the streets of these cities as paved with gold. They taught that the cities’ inhabitants flooded the cities’ gates in an effort to prevent strangers from entering and finding refuge there.

In the rabbinic imagination, the cities were destroyed because of their own moral lapses. They were affluent. There was plenty of food for them to eat. Yet they did not share it with anyone. They hoarded it for themselves. They prevented strangers from entering their cities. They thought only of their own welfare and their own livelihood.

I hear Rabbi Gunther Plaut teaching, “The treatment accorded newcomers and strangers was then and may always be considered a touchstone of a community’s moral condition.”

And I am left to wonder. Can any retreat be found?

I search in vain for distractions.

The Torah appears to speak of today. It continues to speak to today.

That is its most important, and powerful, voice.

Perhaps I should give up the search…for distractions.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Two States for Two Peoples

Last week I attended JStreet’s National Conference in Washington DC. What follows are some of my impressions. First a word about JStreet’s mission. JStreet was founded a little over ten years ago to advocate for, and lobby in behalf of, a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In other words, it supports the creation of a Palestinian state in a large portion of the West Bank, as well as perhaps Gaza, living alongside the Jewish State of Israel. AIPAC by contrast, although officially affirming the need for two states, avoids prescribing a solution to this conflict, claiming instead that this is for Israelis, and Palestinians, to decide. AIPAC’s mission is to make sure there is strong bipartisan support for Israel, and in particular for Israel’s security, in the United States Congress.

I will also be attending the AIPAC Policy Conference the beginning of March. Unlike AIPAC which both Democrats and Republicans attend, there were only senators and representatives from the Democratic Party at JStreet. There were also only Israelis from the center and left in attendance. While I recognize that many find JStreet controversial I struggle to understand why it is deemed out of bounds. Among those in attendance, and those who spoke to the 4,000 participants, were Ehud Barak, former Prime Minister and Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, and Ami Ayalon, former director of Shin Bet (Israel’s internal security service) and admiral in Israel’s navy. Their security credentials are unmatched. More about that later. First a few details about my personal journey regarding the question of two states for two peoples.

I have long believed that the two state solution is the only answer, albeit an imperfect one, to the conflict....

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Road Trips

One of the most important discussions on any journey, most especially a road trip, is where to make stops. “We’re coming up on a rest stop, does anyone need to use the bathroom?” is a frequently heard question. And, “No,” is the typical response, most especially when your passengers are fixated on watching their YouTube videos. And then five minutes later, after flying past Molly Pitcher (do I hear any cheers for the Jersey Turnpike?), a small voice is heard, “I have to go to the bathroom.” And now, you are twenty minutes from the next rest stop, assuming the ideal, and unrealistic, scenario that the Turnpike is empty of traffic, and you have to make an unscheduled stop.

Or the fuel light comes on, and it is time to refill the gas tank. Or the passengers complain that they are hungry, or they appear cranky, and you decide that everyone needs a break, a chance to stretch their legs, and an escape from the crowded car. “Ten minutes and then we are back on the road,” you shout as they bolt out their seats.

But here is exactly where the adventure might begin. Here is where a discovery might occur. Where the destination is delayed, a story often breaks free.

“Then Abram journeyed by stages toward the Negev.” (Genesis 12)

And I am left wondering about those stages. Where did our forefather stop? What caused him to delay? What place grabbed hold of his heart, or his imagination, and called to him, “We should camp here. We should pause in this place.”

I am certain some of these unforeseen stops, and stages, were made for the most mundane, and routine, of reasons. Even in ancient times, someone must have shouted about a bathroom break. Or the animals needed to rest. Or the food and water had to be replenished. Or, our ancestors were simply tired and exhausted and they could drive on no further. Other times, I would like to imagine, there was something about the place, or the people they encountered on their adventure, that made Abram and Sarai stay longer. “In this place, we should take our time. We should linger.”

So much of our lives are spent searching for a goal and heading toward a destination. So much of our lives are encapsulated by that often heard statement, “Ten minutes and then we are back on the road.” Life is truly lived not in these achieved destinations, but in the stages, and pauses, taken along the way. Meaning is found in the steps discovered along the journey. Life is in some very important ways about the pit stops.

It is in the unexpected conversations found, in the chance meeting made on our way to something else.

And so I am now wondering what it would be like to travel the world without purchasing a return ticket home. I wonder what it might be like to see the world not according to some prearranged itinerary (“Day one: the temples of Kyoto.”), but instead to see what place might call to you and what site might beg you to linger.

For two thousand years the Jewish people have prayed, and in many ages, hoped beyond any realistic hope, that we might return to the land of Israel. This was, and still is, our destination. It figures in so many of our prayers. And now we are there. But there were so many stages along this journey. We built homes in Russia, Iraq, France and Syria. We founded communities in Spain, Turkey, England or America just to name a few. In some of these places there is no longer a Jewish presence and in others we are still there, journeying. We are still lingering.

And now I realize. This is what must define us: the pauses, and the unexpected turns. How is it that your family made their way to this place and found itself in this home? Look back on your own personal stories and histories. Was everything so carefully planned? Or did they only have enough money to make it to New York and no further. And so they stayed, and lingered.

Those stops might be as important as the final, intended, destination.

So next time, don’t just run in and out of the rest stop so you can get back on the road as quickly as possible. Linger. And learn.

The truth is arriving offers far less journeying. And learning is perhaps best discovered when lingering.

The stages have always defined us.