Thursday, February 20, 2020

Listen to the Experts

It used to be the case that when a doctor made a recommendation, we would accept the advice. Now we return home, scour the internet, read patient reviews, search every side effect the medication might cause, or seek out setbacks from others who have had the procedure. And while we should do some research, and garner second and sometimes even third opinions, this trend represents an extraordinary loss of faith in wisdom and experience. We no longer trust experts.

We have forgotten that knowledge and information are not the same as wisdom and experience. Expertise is gained by testing what one learns against what experiences. This is why apprenticeship is an important part of mastering any profession.

And yet we read online, and discover everything that is wrong with the system.

We no longer have faith in government officials. We question the legitimacy of scientific findings. We have lost faith in the experts who must help us navigate the world’s challenges. Sure, part of the problem is the abundance of information, and misinformation, on the internet. But the other part of the problem is how we view others and the world. We open with skepticism. Too often we lead with mistrust.

Relationships are fed by trust. They are nurtured by faith.

The root of faith, emunah, is trust. It begins with an openness to the world, to others and most importantly, to God and God’s revelation.

Still, the Jewish people’s response to the giving of the Torah is remarkable, and unexpected. When the Torah was revealed at Sinai, they responded: “All that the Lord has spoken, we will do and will obey (naaseh v’nishmah).” (Exodus 24)

They require no persuasion, or second opinions. They need no convincing and no arguments. God did not offer for example that keeping kosher is healthier or that Shabbat will restore to them a sense of balance to the week. Instead, God commands. And the people respond, “All that the Lord has spoken, we will do.”

Faith is about taking action before reason perhaps dictates or persuasion compels.

Although a great deal of material can be found online, one cannot always find guidance by asking Google. Too often we turn to our computer screens and seek there knowledge and answers, when we should instead just get started and join in. Faith begins with a measure of trust.

Let’s turn to the expert.

“All that the Lord has spoken, we will do.”

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Father in Law Knows Best

One could argue that this week’s Torah reading containing the revelation at Mount Sinai, and the Ten Commandments, is the most important of portions. And yet is named for Moses’ father-in-law, Yitro. This seems curious. Why would the portion be called Yitro?

One answer is that the names of the portions have nothing to do with their content or meaning. The names are instead the portion’s first most important, or unique, word. The reading is never named for Moses for example because his name appears too frequently. The portion’s names are designed so that the Torah reader can more easily find the beginning of the reading. This is no easy task in a scroll that of course has no pages, but even more significantly no punctuation.

Then again, the rabbis, when dividing the yearly Torah reading into portions, could have begun this week’s reading with the following chapter, Exodus 19, in which the details of the revelation are described. Instead they begin a chapter earlier with the words: “Vayishma Yitro…Yitro priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moses and Israel.” (Exodus 18)

The question therefore remains. Why begin the portion with Yitro? Why name the most significant of readings with Moses’ father-in-law’s name? There must be a reason. Nothing is by chance. Moreover, Yitro is not even Jewish. He is a priest to the Midianites, a future enemy of Israel.

Perhaps Yitro’s words come to remind us that wisdom comes from many sources. It does not always arrive as revelation. It does not just come as Torah from Sinai! In addition, Yitro comes to balance the concluding lesson of last week when we read about Amalek, Israel’s eternal enemy. Everyone who is not Jewish is not our enemy. In fact, some are family. How quickly we forget. Yitro is Moses’ father-in-law. All are not Amalek.

We look to Yitro’s words for meaning. He shouts God’s praises. After Moses recounts all that God did for Israel by freeing them from Egyptian slavery and rescuing them at the Sea of Reeds, Yitro proclaims: “Blessed be the Lord!” He is therefore among the first to use our prayer book’s formulation, “Baruch Adonai.” The rabbis find this quite remarkable. How could Yitro offer words that neither Moses nor the people Israel say? “How shameful that Moses, and the 600,000, did not use phrase!” they remarked. (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 94)

In their harsh judgment of Moses and the people they may have missed the most important of teachings. The nineteenth century Hasidic rebbe, Shlomo of Radomsk, reminds us that the Israelites praised God for what God did for them at the Sea of Reeds. Yitro, on the other hand, shouted God’s blessings and praises, for what God did for others.

It is easy, and to be expected, to give thanks for the blessings we receive. The greater faith is to rejoice in the blessings of others.

Such is the teaching revealed by someone other than Moses and someone who we first expect to be wholly other. Yitro, the priest of Midian, teaches.

The more profound faith is to see the gifts others receive not as the occasion for our own diminishment but instead as moments for our own rejoicing and celebrating.

Blessed be Yitro’s teaching.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Enough of the Outrage

What follows is my brief sermon from this past Friday night addressing our feelings about the conclusion of the impeachment proceedings as well as those about the prior week's unveiling of a new Mideast peace plan.

We are living in an age of outrage, in which we move from one outrage to another. We shake our heads in disgust at this injustice or that. On Tuesday evening we were outraged by some of our President’s claims or alternatively outraged by the Speaker’s tearing up of his speech. On Wednesday, we were outraged by the Senate’s vote to acquit the president or outraged by the House managers’ arguments to impeach him. Last week we were either outraged that Jared Kushner thought himself sufficiently well-read and experienced enough to offer a Mideast peace plan or on the other hand that every attempt this administration makes at solving an intractable problem is met with disdain and immediate rejection. We no longer live in a time of reasoned debate. But if we cast the outrage aside, there are reasonable takeaways from these events.

First and foremost, we are a nation of laws. And whether you thought the Democrats, or the Republicans were on the right side of history, the law and in particular the constitution is what governs our society. We can disagree about policies, about ideology, about what’s best or what’s worst for this country, but we must never forget it is the law that allows us to be one United States of America. It is a devotion to certain ideas that makes us a nation and those are enshrined in our constitution.

Second, regarding the peace plan again there are some reasonable takeaways. What this plan manages to do is to elevate Israel’s legitimate security needs and say that they must be held alongside the Palestinian’s desire, and right, for a state of their own. For too long, perhaps, peace plans sought to primarily undo injustices felt by the Palestinians rather than giving equal voice to Israelis desire to live in safety and security. For too long Palestinians’ refusal to come to the table has been excused and Israel’s march towards annexing the territories has been highlighted. To be sure, annexing the territories would be devastating for Israel’s democratic ideals. But Palestinian leaders need to come to the table and argue their case. Enough with the being outraged. Perhaps this plan can help move us forward.

As my teacher Yossi Klein Halevi argues that this plan has effectively exposed myths long held by both sides. He writes,
The Israeli myth is that the status quo can be indefinitely sustained and that the international community, distracted by more immediate tragedies in the Middle East, is losing interest in the Palestinian issue. But the Trump administration’s considerable investment of energy and prestige in devising its plan has reminded Israelis that the conflict cannot be wished away.
Regarding the other side, Halevi writes, 
The Trump plan also challenges a key premise on the Palestinian side – that Palestinian leaders can continue to reject peace plans without paying a political price… It is long past time for Palestinian leaders to do what they have never done in the history of this conflict – offer their own detailed peace plan. We know what Palestinian leaders oppose – but what exactly do they support?
That is my hope on all accounts on this Shabbat. Enough of the outrage. Get down to talking and arguing about how we are going to move forward. Let’s stop pointing fingers at how bad the other side is or how outraged they make us feel. Peace is in everyone’s interest. The rule of law is what allows societies to thrive.

Save the shouts not for our political opponents but instead for perhaps some good old-fashioned miracles. Take a cue from this week’s Torah portion. Moses, Miriam, and all the Israelites took their timbrels in their hands, started dancing with great joy, and most of all began to sing. They prayed, “Sing to the Lord, for God has triumphed gloriously.”

Perhaps this is the advice we most need. Calm down and sing a song. This is what this Shabbat evening might be best about. Sing. If we saved our shouts for something like that, we might be better served than shouting at each other and accusing one another of this outrage or that. I pray. Please God give us the strength to shout songs of joy in Your direction rather than shouts of outrage at one another.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Jump Into History

Yesterday Senator Mitt Romney said, “We are all footnotes at best in the annals of history.”

When the Jewish people approached the Sea of Reeds, with the Egyptian army pressing behind them, they feared that their liberation from slavery was a terrible mistake and that they would soon meet their deaths in the churning waves. According to tradition it was not their leader Moses’ outstretched arms that parted the seas. It was instead another man, named Nachshon.

Among rabbis, and historians, he is a well-known figure, but among many he is a forgotten footnote to our most famous tale. Looking around him at the fear among his fellow Israelites, seeing the doubt written across their faces about the journey upon which they had just embarked, Nachshon jumped into the waters.

“Nachshon has lost his mind,” the people shouted. “He is most certainly going to drown. Let us look away.” Meanwhile most of the Israelites could only see Moses standing above the crowd, arms outstretched to the heavens. Nachshon struggled in the sea’s waves, fighting to keep his head above the water. And then, just as the waters reached up to his neck, a miracle occurred. The seas parted. The people crossed on dry land.

We know this part of the story. The people broke out in song. They sang, “Mi chamochah ba-eilim, Adonai—Who is like you O God, among the gods that are worshipped!” (Exodus 15)

The few who witnessed Nachshon’s daring act, muttered to themselves about his gumption. Some lamented his contrarian spirit. (And I admit I am partial to such a spirit that swims against the currents—both literally and figuratively.) Others praised his faith. A few offered private words of thanks for his chutzpah. The majority, however, never discovered his name or found out that it was his solitary act which provided the required salvation and allowed the people to move forward toward freedom.

Sometimes the most important act of the day is a footnote.

I realized. Everyone knows Moses’ name. More should know Nachshon’s.

Perhaps we should reread our books beginning with such footnotes. Perhaps we should tell our histories beginning with these forgotten tales.

They may very well provide a way toward freedom.