Thursday, December 26, 2019

What's in a Name

Customarily we call people to the Torah using their Hebrew names. “Yaamod Shmaryah ben Tzemach v’Masha.” But we go about our days using our English names. “Stand up Steven Moskowitz.”

Except at synagogue, or perhaps at weddings and funerals, we rarely call people by their Hebrew names. So why are people surprised that our patriarch Joseph goes by an Egyptian name instead of the Hebrew name his parents gave him?

The Torah reports: “Pharaoh then gave Joseph the name Zaphenath-paneah.” (Genesis 41) In ancient Egyptian, this means “God speaks; he lives.” First Pharaoh appoints Joseph as his number two, in charge of shepherding Egypt through the impending famine. Then he gives him a proper Egyptian name, as well as a wife, by the way.

Like Joseph we live in two worlds. We carry two names. Our identities are hyphenated. American-Jew. Which name we rely on depends upon the circumstance. Do I identify as a Jew? Or should I be called by my American identity? It depends on who we are standing beside. It depends upon the environment.

The Israeli poet, Zelda, suggests it depends on even more. We have far more than just two names. She writes:
Everyone has a name
given to him by God
and given to him by his parents

Everyone has a name
given to him by his stature
and the way he smiles
and given to him by his clothing

Everyone has a name
given to him by the mountains
and given to him by his walls

Everyone has a name
given to him by the stars
and given to him by his neighbors

Everyone has a name
given to him by his sins
and given to him by his longing

Everyone has a name
given to him by his enemies
and given to him by his love

Everyone has a name
given to him by his feasts
and given to him by his work

Everyone has a name
given to him by the seasons
and given to him by his blindness

Everyone has a name
given to him by the sea and
given to him
by his death.
Her poem is beautiful in its simplicity. It is thought-provoking, and at times haunting. How many encounters, how many circumstances offer us new names? We are left wondering.

How do we wish to be known?

The rabbis offer an exclamation.

“The crown of a good name is superior to them all.” (Pirke Avot 4)

And that works in Hebrew or in English—and even in Egyptian—or any language for that matter.

It’s really all about earning a good name.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Let's Be Proud...and Be Careful

Although the true history of Hanukkah recounts a bloody civil war between Jewish zealots led by Judah Maccabee with their fellow Jews enamored of Greek culture, we prefer to tell the story of the miracle of oil.  Here is that idealized version.

A long time ago, approximately 2,200 years before our generation, the Syrian-Greeks ruled much of the world and in particular the land of Israel.  Their king, Antiochus, insisted that all pray and offer sacrifices as he did.  He outlawed Jewish practice and desecrated the holy Temple.  But our heroes, the Maccabees, rebelled against his rule.  After nearly three years of battle, the Maccabees prevailed.  They recaptured the Temple.

When the Jews entered the Temple, they were horrified to discover that their holiest of shrines had been transformed and remade to suit pagan worship.  They declared a dedication (the meaning of hanukkah) ceremony.   Soon they discovered that there was only enough holy oil to last for one of the eight day long ceremony.  Still they lit the menorah that adorned the sanctuary.  And lo and behold, a great miracle happened there.  The oil lasted not for the expected single day but for all eight days.    

The rabbis therefore decreed that we should light Hanukkah candles on each of this holiday’s nights, beginning on the first evening, on the twenty fifth of Kislev.  (The customs of spinning dreidels and eating foods fried in oil came much later.)  The rabbis pronounced: “It is a mitzvah to place the Hanukkah lamp at the entrance to one’s house on the outside, so that all can see it. If a person lives upstairs, he places it at the window most adjacent to the public domain.” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 21b)

Contrary to the contemporary ethic of privacy where what we do in our own homes is not to be publicized to the outside world, the rabbis instruct us that we must display the menorah so that others may see it.  Why?  So that the world might also learn about the miracle of Hanukkah.  So that others might see that God performs wonders.

Are not our Jewish identities meant to be hidden?  No, the rabbis declare.  They are intended to be proclaimed to the world.  Even though everyone else appears to be celebrating other holidays at this time of year, we reaffirm that we have our own unique faith, and that we are proud to publicize it.  The rabbis counsel that we should proudly proclaim our Jewish faith—at least during the eight days of Hanukkah.  That is the message of the Maccabees.  That is the import of their revolt against those who wished to suppress Jewish practice.  

But what happens if Jews live in a time and place when placing the menorah in their windows could be dangerous?  The rabbis decree: “And in a time of danger he places it on the table and that is sufficient to fulfill his obligation.”  What should we do now?  Where should we place the menorah today?  Is our own era a time of danger? 

Recently I met with a friend who was visiting from Israel.  He told me that he now covers his kippah with a baseball hat when going out to restaurants in New York.  He is afraid.  I heard as well of young couples who second guess their decision to send their children to a Jewish nursery school for fear that it could be a target of antisemitic attacks.  After years of increasing attacks, after the most recent Jersey City murders and the assault at Indiana University to name a few, fear has come to dominate our discussions of Jewish identity.  Where is it safe to declare our Jewishness?

Should we hide our identity?  Can the Talmud, and Jewish tradition, help us to figure out what constitutes a real danger?  Later authorities suggest that the rabbis understood danger to mean when Jewish practice is outlawed, such as during the Maccabean revolt.  Only then should we move our menorahs to “safer ground.”  But who gets to decide what dangerous means?  Our rabbis?  Our tradition?

Instead it is each of us. Danger is of course a matter of perception.  It is in truth more about feelings than threats.  If a person is afraid, then the threat is real. 

I have been thinking that perhaps my frequent trips to Israel have provided me with some helpful measures of strength and resolve.  The modern era grants us something that our ancient rabbis could never have imagined: a sovereign Jewish state, a state that can fight back against our enemies.  We look to a state that can fortify us and offer us even greater courage in the face of this growing tide of antisemitic hate.

This is why I found it so surprising that it was my Israeli friend who now expresses fear.  Perhaps it is even more a matter of where one feels at home.  If we feel at home we are less likely to feel afraid. 

Today we are called once again to fight back against antisemitism.  Our day demands that we never allow this hate even the space to breathe.  We must stand up.  We must be forever proud.  But we must also be prudent.  The rabbis’ caution is well taken.

The most important point of course is that regardless of where we decide to place the menorah, regardless of whether or not we are afraid, we light the candles.  Find that place.  Find the place where you are comfortable proudly declaring your Jewish faith.  And there light the menorah.  This year most especially, this holiday of Hanukkah demands no less. 

Thursday, December 12, 2019

The Kiss of Reconciliation

The Torah scroll is beautifully calligraphed. Each of its letters is meticulously drawn. It takes a Torah scribe one year to fashion a single scroll. Some letters have small, stylized crowns. The chapters and verses are perfectly arranged in columns, unfettered by punctuation marks. Although each scroll is different because it is fashioned by a different scribe, the letters and words of every Torah are calligraphed in a similar manner.

“Moses” looks the same in every Torah scroll. There is the mem, the first letter of Moshe. Then the shin, adorned with its crowns, and finally the heh. Like all the other words in the Torah, there are no vowels below the letters or cantillation marks above the letters. In fact, only a very small fraction of words in the Torah have additional notations.

Very few words have marks above the letters. This week we discover one of these unique examples: “Vayishakeyhu—and he kissed him.” Calligraphed above each of its letters is a dot. Here is the story that surrounds this kiss. Our forefather Jacob stole the birthright from his brother Esau. Esau then threatened to kill him. Jacob runs and builds a life for himself with his uncle. He marries (several times) and fathers many children. Now, many years later, the brothers are to be reunited, and we hope, reconciled.

This week we read, “Jacob himself went on ahead and bowed low to the ground seven times until he was near his brother. Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.” (Genesis 33) The brothers appear reconciled. What led to the reconciliation? Was it Jacob’s act of humbling himself before his brother? Was it Esau’s embrace? The seventh century Masoretes, who developed the traditions of calligraphy with which a Torah is scribed, suggest it was the kiss.

Holding his brother close, Esau kissed Jacob and kissed him again and again, until they both wept. The Rabbis concur: “The word ‘kissed’ is dotted above each letter in the Torah’s writing. Rabbi Simeon ben Elazar said: this teaches that Esau felt compassion in that moment and kissed Jacob with all his heart. (Bereshit Rabbah) Reconciliation can only be achieved when people bring their heart—in its entirety. Repair involves compassion for the other. It necessitates forgiveness. And these must derive from the heart.

A kiss can be perfunctory. The Torah’s calligraphy suggests that, in this case it is anything but. A kiss should be punctuated by intention. Here it offers the compassion and forgiveness that leads to the weeping of reconciliation. The brothers stand together.

We are of course the descendants of Jacob. The tradition teaches that our enemies are the descendants of Esau. I wonder if our ancient calligraphers intended to teach that reconciliation between brothers is our most cherished hope and prayer.

Why else would they notate this word in a different manner than all other words?

Embedded in the kiss Esau offers Jacob is our tradition’s hope that the descendants of Esau will one day make peace with the descendants of Jacob. One day, we pray, we might make peace with our enemies, who, our tradition reminds us, are, and will always be, our brothers.

The Torah wishes to punctuate this hope for reconciliation and repair. One day brothers, and all humanity, will be at peace with each other.

And we will embrace, kiss, and finally weep as one family.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Finding Our Shul and Our Path

Among my favorite, and often quoted, books is Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost. (The title alone is enough to get me to pick it up again and again.) Solnit offers a number of observations about travel, nature, science and discovering ourselves. She begins: “Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go.” The question is the beginning of apprehension. (And this is exactly why apprehension has two meanings.) Journeying, and the curiosity that must drive it, leads to wisdom.

Uncertainty is where real learning begins.

Our hero Jacob stands at the precipice of an uncertain time. He is running from home. He has just tricked his brother Esau out of his birthright. Esau has promised to kill him. Their mother, Rebekah, urges Jacob to leave and go to her brother, Laban. Their father Isaac instructs him, “Get up! Go to Paddan-Aram.”

Jacob is alone. He wanders the desert wilderness. Soon he stops for the night. Jacob dreams. He sees angels climbing a ladder that reaches to heaven. He hears God’s voice saying, “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham, and your father Isaac. Remember. I am with you.” (Genesis 28). Jacob awakes. He recognizes God’s presence. He has found God in this desolate, and non-descript landscape. He exclaims, “How awesome is this place. This is none other than beth-el, the house of God.”

Rebecca Solnit again. She leans on Tibetan wisdom: “Emptiness is the track on which the centered person moves.” Is it possible, I wonder, that a journey precipitated by feelings of anxiety, bewilderment, and even abandonment (I imagine our forefather thought, “Now my brother wants to kill me. My father tells me to get out. Where am I to go? What am I to do?”) leads to finding one’s bearings? Jacob’s uncertain path is becoming clearer.

In Tibetan, the word for path is “shul.” Solnit continues:
[Shul is] a mark that remains after that which made it has passed by—a footprint, for example. In other contexts, shul is used to describe the scarred hollow in the ground where a house once stood, the channel worn through rock where a river runs in flood, the indentation in the grass where an animal slept last night. All of these are shul: the impression of something that used to be there. A path is a shul because it is an impression in the ground left by the regular tread of feet, which has kept it clear of obstructions and maintained it for the use of others.
It seems to me that this is how we also view shul (the Yiddish term for synagogue). It is a path left by others. And now, I am left wondering.

How does our shul not become an “impression of something that used to be there”? If synagogue is only about our imaginations of yesterday, then how do we carve our own path? If authenticity is only driven by what we believe our parents, grandparents, and great grandparents did, and did not do, then how do we create our own impression, in our own image? Too much of what we expect, and want, from our synagogues revolves around the question of how they honor the past. “There is not enough Hebrew at that synagogue” is, for example, a common refrain.

I am thinking. How can we carve a path while looking backward? How do we find our way when looking back, at some impression of yesteryear? How then do we find our own shul?

It is not just a building. It is not as well a destination. It cannot only be the impression made by others, long ago.

It is instead a path.

Jacob awakes, startled, but perhaps more aware. He exclaims, “Surely the Lord is present in this place.”


Exactly where you are standing.

Just leave the door open.

And heed the voice.

Get up. Go.