Thursday, August 27, 2020

Indifferent No More!

We offer prayers of strength and healing to our fellow Americans who are only beginning to survey the devastation from Hurricane Laura.

This week we read, Ki Tetzei, the Torah portion containing the most commandments. According to Moses Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish thinker, 72 mitzvot can be discerned from this week’s verses. They offer detailed instructions for how to reach out to others, of how we might best express our concern for other human beings. These rules are about inculcating the value of compassion for our neighbors.

This principle is illustrated by one example: “If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow… so too you shall do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent.” (Deuteronomy 22) The tradition adds several exclamation points to this commandment when it rules that anyone who finds a lost object or animal and does not try to return it to its rightful owner is considered a thief.

The wisdom is clear. If, when finding an object, we say not, “Look what I found!” but instead ask, “To whom does this belong?” we begin to fashion a wider circle of concern. Our failures to correct injustices, whether they be small or large, begins with our indifference. How do we begin to turn toward others and not away?

This week we were confronted by the image of a black man shot by police officers. While the specifics of this case remain obscured, we join in offering prayers for Jacob Blake’s recovery. We pray that his Milwaukee home might soon find peace. We pray for strength in behalf of those who raise their voices in protest. One fact remains startlingly clear. Black men, and women, are far more likely to suffer violent deaths at the hands of police than their white neighbors. I have known this truth for some time, but I feel as if I have only begun to see it this summer.

I shall not remain indifferent.

Do the many objects adorning my home, that bring me a measure of comfort and peace, really belong to me or are they better meant to be shared with others? Does my continued silence, and the seemingly petty efforts to correct past failings, constitute the thievery our tradition admonishes us against?

I shall not remain indifferent.

I desperately want to look away. This is not the America I know. This is not the America I love. But as I am learning more and more this is the America my neighbors know. This is the America they find difficult to love. My dream is tarnished by their pain.

I turn to the wisdom of our tradition. But even Moses Maimonides is failing me. And so, I turn to other voices.

Maya Angelou, the American poet and civil rights activist writes in her incomparable poem, “A Brave and Startling Truth”:

…We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines

When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear

When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.

The miraculous is the neighbor I wish to ignore. I can no longer turn away. I must not turn aside. Their pain must become my pain.

Do not remain indifferent.


Friday, August 21, 2020

Rearrange the Furniture

A familiar Yiddish folktale.

Once upon a time in a small village lived a seemingly poor unfortunate man who lived with his wife, his mother, and his six children in a little one-room hut. Because they were so crowded, the once loving couple often argued. The children were rambunctious, and often fought. In winter, when the nights were long and the days were cold, life was especially difficult. The hut was full of crying and quarreling.

One day, when the poor unfortunate man couldn’t take it anymore, he ran to the Rabbi for advice. “Rabbi,” he cried, “things are really bad, and only seem to be getting worse. We are so poor that my mother, my wife, my six children, and I all live together in one small hut. We are too crowded, and there’s so much noise. Help me, Rabbi. I’ll do whatever you say.”

The Rabbi thought for a long while. At last he said, “Tell me, my poor man, do you have any animals, perhaps a chicken or two?” “Yes,” said the man. “I do have a few chickens, also a rooster and a goose. “Excellent,” said the Rabbi. “Now go home and take the chickens, the rooster, and the goose and bring them into your hut to live with you.” Although the man was a bit surprised, he said, “Of course, Rabbi. I will do whatever you say.”

The poor unfortunate man hurried home and took the chickens, the rooster, and the goose out of the shed and brought them into his little hut. When some weeks had passed, life in the hut was worse than before. Now along with the quarreling and crying there was honking, crowing, and clucking. There were even feathers in the soup and goose poop on the floor. The hut grew smaller, and the children bigger.

When the poor unfortunate man couldn’t stand it any longer, he again ran to the Rabbi for advice. “Rabbi,” he cried, “you should see what misfortune has befallen me. Now with the crying and quarreling, there is also honking, clucking, and crowing, and even feathers in the soup. Rabbi, it couldn’t get any worse. Help me, please.” The Rabbi listened and thought. At last he said, “Tell me, do you happen to have a goat?” “Oh, yes, I do have an old goat, but he’s not worth much.” “Excellent,” said the Rabbi. “Now go home and take the old goat into your hut to live with you.” “You cannot possibly mean for me to do this, Rabbi!” cried the man. “Come, come now, my good man, you must do as I say at once,” said the Rabbi.

The poor unfortunate man shuffled back home with his head hanging down and took the goat into his hut. When some weeks had gone by, life in the little hut was much worse. Now, with the crying, quarreling, clucking, honking, and crowing, the goat went wild, pushing and butting everyone with his horns. The hut seemed even smaller, and the children appeared bigger. When the poor unfortunate man couldn’t stand it another minute, he again ran to the Rabbi. “Rabbi help me!” he screamed. “Now the goat is running wild. My life is a nightmare.”

The Rabbi listened and thought. At last he said, “Tell me, my poor man. Is it possible that you have a cow? Young or old it doesn’t really matter.” “Yes, Rabbi, it’s true I have a cow,” said the poor man fearfully. “Go home then,” said the Rabbi, “and take the cow into your hut.” “Oh, no, you cannot mean for me to do this, Rabbi!” cried the man. “Do it at once,” said the Rabbi. The poor unfortunate man trudged home with a heavy heart and took the cow into his hut. “My Rabbi is surely crazy?” he thought.

When some weeks had gone by, life in the hut was even worse than before. Everyone quarreled, even the chickens. The goat ran wild. The cow trampled everything. (And the poop, well that should not be detailed.) The poor man could hardly believe his misfortune. At last, when he could stand it no longer, he ran to the Rabbi for help. “Rabbi,” he shrieked, “help me, save me, the end of the world has come! The cow is trampling everything. There is no room even to breathe. It’s worse than a nightmare!” The Rabbi again listened and thought. He offered words of support and sympathy.

At last he said, “Go home now, my friend, and let the animals out of your hut.” “I will, I will, I’ll do it right away,” said the man. The poor unfortunate man hurried home and let the cow, the goat, the chickens, the goose, and the rooster out of his little hut. That night the poor man and all his family slept peacefully. There was no crowing, no clucking, no honking. There was plenty of room to breathe. The children no longer fought. And there was no longer anything for husband and wife to argue about. They just wrapped their arms around each other, smiling and breathing in the peace that had enveloped their home.

The very next day the poor man ran back to the Rabbi. “Rabbi,” he cried, “you are so wise. You have made life sweet. With just my family in the hut, it’s so quiet, so roomy, and so peaceful. My home is filled with blessings! You have restored joy to our hearts.” (My retelling is based on It Could Always Be Worse: A Yiddish Folktale by Margot Zemach.)

Sometimes all it takes to see our blessings is a little rearranging.

Blessings are more about perspective than fact. Shaping this perspective is the essence of the Jewish command to recite blessings. We say a blessing so that we are more apt to count our blessings, so we are more likely to see our blessings.

Perhaps for these High Holidays that will be like no other, all we need to do is a little rearranging. Then our blessings will become clearer. Perhaps it is as simple as rearranging the furniture.

Today is the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul, beginning the forty days of repentance that culminate in Yom Kippur’s final shofar blast. Let the rearranging begin. Let us turn toward one another. Let us begin the task of shaping our perspective. Let us begin this new command of transforming our homes small sanctuary.

These days blessings are harder and harder to see, but they are still there, all around us. It may be as easy as moving some things around.

Friday, August 14, 2020

Build Your Own Temple

The Book of Deuteronomy emphasizes that worship in general, and the sacrifices in particular, cannot be performed in sanctuaries throughout the land, but must instead be centralized and moved to one location. That location will later become Jerusalem and its Temple. “When you cross the Jordan and settle in the land that the Lord your God is allotting to you… then you must bring everything that I command you to the site where the Lord your God will choose to establish God’s name…” (Deuteronomy 12)

Why would the one God need to be confined to this one place? Moreover, how can God be limited to one location? Historians and scholars have puzzled over this law. Biblical scholars suggest that the reasons for this law are political. In their view it was written during a time when Israel’s leaders wanted to centralize worship, and power, in the capital. The Book of Deuteronomy reflects this philosophy.

Moses Maimonides, on the other hand, argues that sacrifice is an inferior form of worship. Prayer is the ideal. Over time Jewish law works to limit sacrifice. Deuteronomy is therefore a step in this educational process. Before eliminating sacrifice entirely, it is limited. Sacrifices can only be performed in this one location.

Sefer HaHinnukh, a medieval commentary, offers an interesting explanation. It suggests that a sanctuary can only inspire people. It does so if it is unique and unparalleled. When we can do something anywhere and everywhere it loses its power and grip over our lives. This is of course why the Western Wall is such a powerful place and why it holds greater meaning to far more Diaspora Jews than Israeli Jews. For us it is a place of pilgrimage. For Israelis it is their backyard.

Yet, with the destruction of the Temple in the second century, Judaism became purposefully decentralized. Many rituals were moved to the home. Each and every home became a sanctuary and is called by our tradition, mikdash maat, a small temple. The sanctuary became not so much about location but instead about experience. Place became secondary to time. This is how Judaism remains. We mark days as holy.

The Israeli songwriters Eli Mohar and Yoni Rechter capture this sentiment when singing about Tel Aviv, a city that a mere 100 years ago was only a patch of sand.
My God—here we have no Wall, only the sea.
But since you seem to be everywhere
you must be here too.

So when I walk here along the beach
I know that you are with me
and it feels good.
And when I see a tourist
beautiful and tanned

I look at her not only for myself, but also for you
because I know that you are in me
just as I am in you
and maybe I was created
so that from within me you can see
the world you created
with new eyes.
In Tel Aviv there are no ancient walls. And yet this city is also holy becomes it teems with renewed Jewish life.

Thus, wherever we might find ourselves we mark Shabbat as holy. This day is called by Abraham Joshua Heschel, a sanctuary in time.

And so, wherever these words might find you, whether we see each other in person or virtually, I wish you and your family, a Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

No More Tests and Trials

Really? Another calamity? Now you throw hurricanes at us too.

The Torah responds: “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, that He might test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts…” (Deuteronomy 8)

And I shout back, “No more tests.”

Our prayer book adds: “Purify our hearts to serve You in truth.”

Why must there be so many hardships? And why must there be any hardship at all? How do these challenges purify our hearts? At the very least can these difficulties be spread out. Why does tzuris appear to come in successive waves? Just when we feel like we are gaining enough strength to stand up again another wave comes crashing in and knocks us down.

The tradition suggests that the righteous are tested even more than the wicked. Abraham was, for example, tested not one time but ten. Who then would we want to aspire toward righteousness? The tradition counters that what makes people truly righteous is that they do not seek the title of tzaddik. They do good for its own sake. They do not wish to acquire status and stature. Their suffering becomes added proof of their righteousness.

Still these days I find myself wanting to run in the other direction. 2020 is exhausting. It is bedeviling. Enough! No more!

Then again if we are able to find meaning in even the most difficult of challenges, and amidst this current piling of incremental difficulties, we will better for it. When we are tested our hearts grow stronger. The problem is not these tests and trials. It is found instead when we offer meaning and lessons about other people’s challenges. When we offer a cliché to a friend, “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” Or when we try to interpret someone else’s pain or explain away their difficulty, we add to the pile of tzuris. In that moment, when we think we are offering a healing explanation we do more harm than good. No one wants their pain to be justified.

During Tuesday’s storm our beautiful apple tree was uprooted and fell on our neighbor’s property. Yesterday our neighbor walked over to our house so we could strategize about the tree’s removal. I had never met Dan before. I only saw his family playing on the other side of our fence.

Perhaps a new friendship will take root. After five years of living on either side of the fence a tropical storm forced us to strike up a conversation.

The wilderness, and the tempestuous challenges found therein, is indeed where life is lived. It occupies the majority of the Torah. There is no Torah found after this last book of Deuteronomy when we cross over to the Promised Land. Our Torah is only discovered in the hardships of the wilderness.

While I am exhausted by this year’s unending tests, I have faith I will emerge stronger and even better.

Your heart is likewise in your hands. Your challenges are yours from which to wrest meaning. You must carve your own path through the wilderness.

But you never know. A new friend might be found on the other side of the fence ready and willing to walk by your side.

Together we can hope, and pray, there is not too much more wilderness ahead.