Thursday, July 30, 2020

Rescuing History

Today marks Tisha B’Av, the day commemorating nearly all Jewish tragedies, most especially the destruction of the first and second Temples, and the subsequent 2000-year exile from the land of Israel.

Our weekly portion appears to foretell this cataclysm.
Should you, when you have begotten children and children’s children and are long established in the land, act wickedly and make for yourselves a sculptured image in any likeness, causing the Lord your God displeasure and vexation, I call heaven and earth this day to witness against you that you shall soon perish from the land which you are crossing the Jordan to occupy; you shall not long endure in it, but shall be utterly wiped out. (Deuteronomy 4)
Not only do these verses foretell tragedy, they also assign blame. We are the victims of our own wrongdoings. No wonder that the prophet Jeremiah castigates the people and blames them for causing destruction of the first Temple, even though it was the Babylonians who laid siege to Jerusalem. No wonder that some 500 years later, the rabbis again fault the people for the decimation of first century Jewry, the destruction of the second Temple, and the slaughter of Jerusalem’s inhabitants at the hands of the Romans.

It was all because of sinat chinam, baseless hatred among Jews, the rabbis argued. This provided an opening for Rome to conquer Jerusalem. Jeremiah earlier laments: “Jerusalem has greatly sinned. Therefore, she has become a mockery.” (Lamentations 1) We stand guilty. History is evidence of our sins.

Generations of Jews find blame for historical tragedies in our own actions. “If only we had been more faithful to God. If only we had not disobeyed the commandments. If only…” Such are the explanations offered for millennia. And while there is great spiritual power in seeing historical tragedies as occasions to reexamine our ways, and to look within our souls to discover how we might be responsible and how we might even be deserving of blame, it appears blasphemous when looking back at more recent tragedies. To suggest that the Jewish people are somehow to blame for the Nazis murderous rampage is sacrilege.

It may be in keeping with Deuteronomy’s thinking, but it has no place in my faith. Even the teachings offered by the rabbis explaining this day of Tisha B’Av cannot, and should not, be reckoned with the historical record. Sure, it is always better to ask, “What can we learn? How can we do better?” than to point fingers at some mysterious other. Isn’t that what the Nazis did? “Why did Germany lose World War I?,” they asked. And they shouted in response, “It was because the Jews stabbed us in the back.”

“Why is this pandemic raging throughout our country?” we now ask. Do we say, “It is because of him or her or them?” Or do we ask, “Is it because we think too much about ourselves and not about others?” One answer leads to name calling and despair. The other offers the potential for spiritual growth and change. It may not make for the accurate telling of history, but it can offer the opportunity for repair.

And thus, I resolve. No more blaming of victims. Look within for rescue.

The Torah continues, offering an antidote to its own stark theology. “The Lord will scatter you among the peoples…. But if you search there for the Lord your God, you will find Him, if only you seek Him with all your heart and soul…”

When you find yourself distressed and despairing, start up the search once again.

The Hasidic rabbi Menhaem Mendl of Kotzk teaches: “The very act of seeking God, the longing to find God, means ‘you shall find God’; that in itself is enough.”

For now, that will have to be enough.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Waiting for Leadership

I am losing faith in leaders.

I am losing faith in Moses.

He is given to anger. He frequently loses his temper with the Israelites. A few weeks ago, he smashes a rock and God then tells him that he will not be allowed to enter the Promised Land. This week we find him standing on the other side of the Jordan River, offering the Israelites some last tidbits of advice before handing the leadership reigns to Joshua. (The entire book of Deuteronomy is in large part Moses’ farewell address, filled with a lengthy to do list of exhortations: “Don’t forget…. Don’t you ever…. You better not…. Beware of…”)

Moses appears exasperated and even exhausted. I recall that he never really wanted the job. He begs for God to pick someone else. He complains that he is not a good speaker. And now forty years later, Moses appears to be saying, “I told you so.” He castigates the people and exclaims: “I cannot bear the burden of you by myself…. How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering!” (Deuteronomy 1) Was his early premonition correct? Did he know that no matter how much he cajoled and how often he prodded, no matter how many times he shouted and how frequently he commanded, his followers would disappoint?

Or is this the natural course of leadership? The gap between the leaders’ expectations and the people’s behavior is sometimes too wide. It pains the leader to even acknowledge or give voice to this widening gap. I am left wondering.

I am certain that during these days I find myself increasingly disappointed in Moses. I am losing faith in his leadership. Why did he not begin with the words, “I am grateful for the privilege of leading you. We have experienced untold heights. We crossed the Sea of Reeds. We stood at Sinai. We have also experienced unimaginable challenges. I admit. Eating manna gets tiresome day after day. Running out of water on more than several occasions was indeed trying. But here we are, at the edge of what will be our new home, standing at the precipice of our hoped-for redemption. Thank you for the honor of calling me your leader.”

Instead he begins with complaints. “I can’t take your complaining and bickering.” He is exhausted by the call. He is tired after forty years. And all he appears able to say is that it’s all their fault. Moses appears unable to share their burden and pain.

The Torah offers a solution. Appoint magistrates and tribal leaders to share the heavy lifting of leadership. Rabbi Larry Kushner comments: “Insulate the leader within a bureaucracy! This is more than the simple delegation of responsibility; it is the creation of artificial, ritual distance necessary for the leader to be able to lead and love.”

Delegating helps to get the job done effectively. No one can, or should, do everything by him or herself. The big job of leading requires the work of many capable hands. Perhaps even more importantly, delegating creates a protective shield around the leader. He is not burdened by all the complaints. She is not beaten up by all the bickering.

When leaders’ hearts become filled with every trouble, they are unable to love.

Thank God for Joshua. He comes on to the scene at just the right time. I take heart in his advice: “Be strong and courageous.” (Joshua 1)

That’s what I am going to have to lean into these days.

Chazak v’amatz—be strong and courageous.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Writing Our Own Torah

We often describe the Israelites journey through the wilderness as forty years of wandering, implying that they were forever on the move. And yet the concluding chapters of Numbers delineate twenty places at which they encamped. There is the wilderness of Sin where the manna first appeared and Rephidim where the people complained about lack of water and Moses struck a rock in anger.

The medieval commentator, Rashi, observes that the Israelites were really on the move in the first year when they left Egypt and the last year when they prepared to enter the land of Israel. During the thirty-eight intervening years they were actually living normally at one place or another. They were not constantly on the run, or even on the move. Instead they journeyed from Egypt to the promised land in stages, stopping for even years at a time at one oasis or another.

Often when recounting a trip, we speak about the destination, we paint a picture of what we experienced there. Perhaps we encountered in this place great natural beauty or met unique and wonderful people in that land. And yet the Torah never arrives at its destination. It concludes with the journey’s goal incomplete. Thus, we imply that its chapters and verses are about aimless wanderings. We never arrive so our journey lacks direction and purpose.

And while there is great value in meanderings, in setting off on a walk that offers no purpose than to be accompanied by others or one’s thoughts, this might not be the most accurate description of our forty years in the wilderness. Instead “the Israelites set out from Rameses and encamped at Succoth. They set out from Succoth and encamped at Etham…” (Numbers 33)

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, teaches: “Whatever happened to the people as a whole will happen to each individual. All the forty-two journeys of the Children of Israel will occur to each individual, between the time he is born and the time he dies.”

For the first years of my life I lived in Northern New Jersey, and then we journeyed to the suburbs of Saint Louis and then back again to New Jersey and then back once more to Saint Louis. And then I spent my years of college in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and then it was off to Jerusalem for the start of rabbinical school and then to Cincinnati to complete my studies where I made the pronouncement, “I will move anywhere but New York.” And then we moved to Great Neck and Dix Hills and now Huntington which are all of course in New York.

Each place, that was more often than not chosen for me by circumstances, offered new adventures: the birth of children and new jobs. Each place offered new discoveries and something even more to learn.

And so now I find myself encamped in Huntington waiting out this unexpected, and unforeseen, pandemic. What will we learn of ourselves? What will we learn of each other? How will we arise from this crisis better than before and better than we can now imagine?

The Torah offers a blueprint for our lives. We find ourselves in its pages.

The destination is always off in the distance, and perhaps even after the conclusion of the book. Life, and meaning, are found in the unexpected places we find ourselves, the places at which we pause. That’s where life happens.

And that is where our Torah is written.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Don't Give the Keys to the Likes of Pinchas

Christians consider Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher sacred. It is there that they believe Jesus was crucified, buried and later resurrected from the dead. And yet the many denominations that comprise Christianity do not always agree about how this place is to be revered. 150 years ago, a compromise was enacted detailing when the Orthodox, Coptic, Ethiopian and Catholic churches are allowed to perform their rituals. A schedule is followed. By and large this has ensured peace in this holy place.

This was not always the case. On a hot summer day in 2002 a Coptic monk moved his chair out of the scorching sun and into the shade. Rival monks accused him of breaking this compromise and disrespecting their faith. A fight ensued. Eleven monks were taken to the hospital. And yet, when I visited the church a few years ago, the church appeared a freer place of worship than either the Dome of the Rock or our sacred Western Wall.

At the church no one interfered with the many different ways pilgrims prayed. Some took pictures. Some marveled at the artwork. Others posed for selfies. Many fell on their hands and knees to kiss the stone on which Jesus’ disciples placed his body. People were clearly overcome by emotion. There were many tears and many more songs and prayers. I found myself marveling at their religiosity.

I also found myself admiring their freedoms. No one policed behaviors. No one shouted that something was inappropriate. No one said, “Stop doing that! This is a holy place.”

Before walking up to Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, from which Muslims believe Mohammed ascended to heaven and Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Ishmael, my bag was thoroughly searched. We were not allowed to take any Jewish religious objects, such as a tallis or prayerbook, up to the mount. Apparently, the authorities fear that we might then recite a Jewish prayer on the mount. It is, by the way, Israeli security officials who enforce this ban.

Once we entered the large plaza Muslim officials approached our group to explain that this is a holy site and what we’re allowed to do and not do. They examined the women in our group. Some were told that they were not appropriately dressed. They were given specific directions about how better to respect this sacred place. Some were handed scarves to cover their shoulders. I asked if I could enter the Dome of the Rock, as I had done many years before, but was told, “It is only for Muslims.”

Is it the worry about provocations that makes my entry now forbidden? Perhaps. Certainly, after the first and second intifadas there is justified concern about what might lead to another outbreak of violence. Then again non-Muslims are forbidden from entering the holy city of Mecca. Let’s be honest, there is a growing trend among the faithful that the other, the non-Muslim, the non-Jew, the non-Christian, somehow diminishes the sanctity of a holy place. Even the term “non” is an attempt to draw a sacred circle around oneself by drawing others outside. Only those who are inside the circle are holy, or chosen. I reject this tendency. I reject the sentiments of Pinchas who killed those he believed defamed God. “Pinchas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me…” (Numbers 25)

The Western Wall is little different. I can walk up to these sacred stones wearing shorts and a T-Shirt. Women, on the other hand, must be sure their shoulders are covered and their skirts an appropriate length. If not, they are given schmattas to cover themselves. Women must pray in the women’s section. I can roam the much larger men’s section and search its broad length for a private place to pray.

I am not however free to lead a Reform service for the men and women of my congregation at the main Western Wall plaza.

And so, I find myself envying my Christian brethren.

Apparently, the situation I admired was not always the case. In the twelfth century Saladin, then the ruler of Jerusalem, gave the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher’s front doors to a local Muslim family. The Joudeh family continues to hold these keys to this very day. And that might be the secret to the freedom I so desire.

It is entrusted to another.

Muslims are the religious authorities for the Dome of the Rock. The ultra-Orthodox control the Western Wall.

Perhaps if we want to restore freedoms to our own faith, we need to trust someone else with the keys.

Perhaps spiritual truths are gained, and religious experiences heightened when we don’t worry about who is in control. If we are true to our faith we should say, “The house belongs to God alone.”

We might discover that doors to our faith might be opened by giving the keys to someone else.

Friday, July 3, 2020

The Voice of Others

A few poems.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, a nineteenth century Jesuit priest and English poet, writes:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And, for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And through the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
And Denise Levertov, a twentieth century American poet, offers:
Faith’s a tide, it seems, ebbs and flows responsive
to action and inaction.
Remain in stasis, blown sand
stings your face, anemones
shrivel in rock pools now wave renews.
Clean the littered beach, clear
the lines of a forming poem,
the waters flood inward.
Dull stones again fulfill
their glowing destinies, and emptiness
is a cup, and holds
the ocean.
Hafiz, the fourteenth century Persian poet, affirms:
What is the difference
Between your experience of Existence
And that of a saint?

The Saint knows
That the spiritual path
Is a sublime chess game with God

And that the Beloved
Has just made such a Fantastic Move

That the saint is now continually
Tripping over Joy
And bursting out in Laughter
And saying, “I Surrender!”

Whereas, my dear,
I am afraid you still think

You have a thousand serious moves.
And this week, in our Torah, we discover another poem:
How fair are you tents, O Jacob,
Your dwellings, O Israel!
Like palm-groves that stretch out,
Like gardens beside a river,
Like aloes planted by the Lord,
Like cedars beside the water…
They crouch, they lie down like a lion,
Like the king of beasts; who dare rouse them?
Blessed are they who bless you,
Accursed they who curse you! (Numbers 24)
So said Balaam, the foreign prophet sent by Israel’s sworn enemy, the Moabites. King Balak instructs Balaam to curse the Jewish people. Instead the prophet provides us with a prayer.

“Mah tovu ohalecha, Yaakov…” With these words we begin our morning prayers.

So records our Torah.

And so, we are reminded. Torah is about more than just listening to our own voice.