Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The Blessings of 2020

Recently I started giving myself haircuts. (Bring on the jokes!) I soon realized that no one could tell the difference. And so, I declared I will never go to the barber again. 2020 is bringing more than its share of firsts. My 85-year-old father bought a Peloton. (And my mom bought the cycling shoes as well.)  And, he will never again return to the gym for spin classes. I cook more and go out to restaurants far less. I am even thinking of growing my own vegetables in an indoor garden, but so far it is only some mint.

One day we will actually turn the corner and emerge on the other side of this pandemic. I pray that every one of us will emerge with our health intact and that we will not be so scarred that we will be unable to offer each other the hugs our spirits require. I wonder what changes will become permanent. Will family meals regain their exalted place in our homes? Will family movie nights, or game nights, become fixtures of our lives?

Tomorrow’s Thanksgiving will be unlike any other. And while I won’t miss the cursed traffic, I will miss the extended family members that usually gather with us and even the arguments about politics, theology and who best avoided New York’s traffic delays. I will miss the familiarity of it all, of how we never fail to eat more than we should and tell the same stories year after year.

This year, we have a choice to make.

And here it is. We can dwell on who is missing from our small gatherings. Crowds are both a distant memory and a far-off hope. (I really do miss seeing each and every one of you in person!). Or, we can focus on the new-found blessings we have discovered. Everything is smaller and more intimate. Can we rediscover the wonder, and enjoyment, that now sits before us? Will we offer blessings for the intimacy this year offers?

Among my favorite prayers is the almost never used blessing for a king or queen. Our rabbis authored these words to recite when seeing a ruler: “Blessed are You Adonai our God Ruler of the universe who grants a measure of divine glory to flesh and blood.” What is particularly remarkable about this blessing is that most, if not nearly all, of the kings and queens who ruled over the Jewish people did not deserve any blessings. They persecuted us. They expelled us. They tortured us. The list is quite long.

The rabbis reasoned, however, that it is better to be say blessings and shout praises to God. A soul that is filled with thanks and songs can never truly be subjugated. A spirit that offers blessings can never be defeated.

We have the power to make our own blessings.

Sometimes it is really hard to do—like now, like this year—but it is still within our grasp. History reminds us that we have been through worse. History teaches us that a victorious soul remains within our reach.

Make for yourself new blessings. Relish in them. Give thanks for them—however small and unusual they may seem in comparison to other years and other seasons. I learned how to cut my own hair.

Shout words of gratitude for this year’s blessings!

Friday, November 20, 2020

Seeing Is Believing

The cliché “seeing is believing” is an apt description for a prominent refrain the Genesis stories.

In Genesis 21, for example, we read of Ishmael who when dying from hunger and thirst is miraculously saved by the appearance of a well. “Then God opened Hagar’s eyes and she saw a well of water.” Then again perhaps the well was there all along.

In Genesis 22 we read, “When Abraham lifted up his eyes, he saw a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. So, Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son.” Did God make the ram appear out of thin air or was it there all along and Abraham failed to see it because he was blinded by desire to fulfill God’s command?

Most people read the Bible and think that miracles are akin to magic. God magically provides a well and a ram. In my estimation however miracles are about the lifting up of the eyes. The ram was always there. Abraham only needed turn away from his son, bound on the sacrificial altar, and loosen his grip on the knife.

The well was there all along. Hagar only needed to wipe the tears from her face to see what was already there. Sometimes zealousness and grief prevent us from seeing what (miraculously) stand before us.

This refrain is what makes this week’s portion and its story all the more remarkable. Jacob, with the help of his mother Rebekah, tricks his father Isaac and steals the blessing intended for his brother Esau. The story begins: “When Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see…” (Genesis 27) Jacob prepares a meal for his father and dresses like his brother Esau as his mother directs him and says to Isaac, “I am Esau, your first born: I have done as you told me. Pray sit up and eat of my game, that you may give me your innermost blessing.” The Torah continues, “So Jacob drew close to his father Isaac, who felt him and wondered, ‘The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau.’ Isaac did not recognize him, because his hands were hairy like those of his brother Esau; and so, he blessed him.”

Whereas the stories about Abraham are about opening eyes, those about Isaac are about closing the eyes. Earlier Isaac asks his father Abraham, “’Here are the firestone and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering? And Abraham said, ‘God will see to the sheep for the offering, my son.’ And the two of them walked as one.” (Genesis 22)

The haunting question about our patriarch Isaac’s life is does he choose not to see? Was he a willing participant to his own near sacrifice? And in this week’s reading, we must ask: did he choose willful blindness?

To have faith in God is to stand in awe, or literally to fear heaven. In Hebrew the words for seeing and having faith are very close and share the same root. What therefore is the relationship between seeing and believing? When is not seeing, as with our patriarch Isaac, a matter of faith and a necessity for life?

When do miracles depend on opening our eyes? 

And when do relationships hinge on turning a blind eye?

Friday, November 13, 2020

We Are All Resident Aliens; We Are All Brothers and Sisters

Heba Nabil Iskandarani recently became a Spanish citizen. The story of how this 26-year-old Palestinian refugee from Lebanon, with no state calling her a citizen, acquired a Spanish passport is a fascinating tale.

After Iskandarani discovered that her Palestinian father had Jewish roots dating back to the Spanish expulsion, she applied for Spanish citizenship. In 2015 Spain adopted a law whose intention was to atone for its persecution and forced exile of the Spanish Jewish community in 1492. The law allowed descendants of Sephardic Jews to apply for citizenship if they could demonstrate Jewish ancestry and a special connection to Spain. In the past five years, over 150,000 succeeded and became Spanish citizens. Of these 43,000 are like Iskandarani not Jewish.

Iskandarani was able to prove her Jewish roots after uncovering her great-grandmother’s old identity card whose name Latife Djerbi references an island off the coast of Tunisia where many Sephardic Jews once lived. In addition, the family observed the curious Springtime custom of dipping hard-boiled eggs in saltwater. Iskandarani now thinks that what the family called a Tunisian tradition was actually a Passover seder ritual. Her mother also always thought it strange that no one in her husband’s family had Muslim names. Her uncles were named Jacob, Ruben, Moses and Zachary.

And so now, with her Spanish passport in hand, Heba Nabil Iskandarani can visit Jaffa, the city where her grandfather was born but which he fled at the start of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. She remarked that her family’s Jewishness exiled them first from Spain and then their Muslim identity forced them out of the nascent state of Israel. She said, “Quite ironic don’t you think being exiled twice for the exact same reason?” Iskandarani continues to be interested in Judaism and fascinated by her Jewish roots.

The journey continues.

After Sarah’s death in the land of Canaan, Abraham approached the Hittites to purchase a burial plot. He said, “I am a resident alien among you; sell me a burial site…” (Genesis 23) And Ephron sold him the Cave of Machpelah in the city of Hebron. It is there that all the patriarchs and matriarchs: Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob and Leah are buried. Only Rachel is buried elsewhere, in Bethlehem.

The term resident alien is a curious term. The Hebrew reads, “ger v’toshav” and can be more literally translated as “stranger and resident.” In some ways this encapsulates Abraham’s feelings and perhaps our own as well. We are all at home and apart. We sometimes feel like strangers and other times feel like citizens. In one generation we feel at home and in another, exiled and without a nation to call our own. We are all indeed resident aliens.

We wander from exile to welcome, from resident to alien.

Heba Nabil Iskandarani’s discovery could have been our own journey. We are more alike than we care to admit.

We are all indeed brothers and sisters.

The Torah reports: “This was the total span of Abraham’s life: one hundred and seventy-five years. And Abraham breathed his last, dying at good ripe age, old and contended.” (Genesis 25) His sons, Isaac and Ishmael, apart for many years, at war for generations, come together. While they do not speak to each other, they do participate in one activity as one.

Together they bury their father.

And I continue to draw hope from these stories.

Monday, November 9, 2020

Thoughts on the Elections

Four years ago, I wrote: “Donald Trump will be our president. He is our nation’s choice. That does not mean we must remain silent—when we disagree. That also does not mean that we can say he is not my president if I did not vote for him. To respect our nation’s institutions means that we must accept the decision of our fellow Americans, even, or perhaps most especially when it is different than our own. I will not scream that the election results are unjust.”

Likewise, Americans should join me in saying, congratulations to President Elect Biden and Vice President Elect Harris. And in addition, we should offer thanks to President Trump and Vice President Pence. That is how we move forward. That is how we leave this increasingly dangerous hyper-partisanship behind us.

I acknowledge that some are happy and feeling vindicated by these election results and others are saddened and feeling robbed. My goal remains how best to move past the contentiousness and become more unified. (Read Friday evening’s sermon about my worries that we might tear ourselves apart if we continue to attack each other and forget how the system works, “Beware of Bringing the House Down.”)

I have come to understand that our democracy is far more fragile than I ever realized. I never knew how much it hinges on convention and character. There are no laws demanding that a sitting president concedes and pledges to work on a smooth transition.

What a missed leadership opportunity to echo Senator John McCain’s sentiment from twelve years ago when he spoke about the significance Barack Obama’s election had for African-Americans and when he silenced those who booed the president elect’s name. Imagine how faith and hope could be restored not just for 75 million voters but for Democrats and Republicans alike if President Trump would say, “This is an historic election, and I recognize the special significance it has for women and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight.” A woman has become Vice-President Elect! Then the tears of joy, and sense of pride, could be all of ours to share.

There are as well no rules insisting that an election’s victor offers thanks and praise to his predecessor. As much as Democrats might find the latter distasteful and Republicans the former egregious, our combined trust in America’s democratic institutions turns on these very customs and traits. No laws can serve as substitutes for character. Without this our faith is eroded.

Let me also say loudly and clearly that there is no such thing as an illegal vote in a democracy. There may be invalid votes but not illegal ones. The difference is crucial. The term illegal implies that the person does not have the right to vote. Invalid, however, suggests that there was something technically deficient in a voter’s ballot. Moreover, the outcome will not change no matter how many times we count the tallies. This is not a mere 500 vote difference as it was in 2000. The difference in Georgia, for example, is approximately 10,000 votes.

I did not argue against the election’s results four years ago despite the fact that I may have been angered by the discrepancy between the popular vote and the electoral college results. Four years ago, I argued that Democrats should refer to Donald Trump as our president. Now Republicans should and must do the same—for the sake of a unified country. Soon Joseph Biden will likewise be our president. To nurse a loss or gloat about a victory does not serve our nation. Have faith in those who worked, and in some cases volunteered, at polling stations, spending countless hours ushering us into voting booths and then tabulating these results. Every vote is precious, and every person counts the same. Embrace our system, however flawed and imperfect it is.

So, I remain grateful to President Trump for helping to make peace in the Middle East and for firing up the electorate, most especially our youth. Look at how many millions more voted in this election—and during a pandemic no less. Because of Donald Trump’s 2016 success few will argue that elections don’t matter or that people can rest easy, not get involved and not cast their vote. In addition, Trump won more votes in 2020 than Clinton in 2016. Nearly 10% more eligible voters voted in this election than in 2016. That is cause for celebration in a democracy. That is something in which every American can, and should, take pride.

I wish the system of voting and counting was the same throughout the country, but it is not. How each state’s residents vote and how their officials count is a patchwork of cumbersome laws, but this remains our system. Four years ago, I urged Democrats not to talk about the popular vote or even Russian interference. This year I exhort Republicans not to talk about illegal votes or a stolen election. Work to better the system not to disenfranchise voters. Focus on the 2024 elections. Start organizing now. That’s what the system is about. This is what makes America a thriving democracy.

I pray for a peaceful transition. I pray that President Elect Biden and Vice President Elect Harris will realize their promise of serving our entire nation.

I continue to pray for the day when Democrats and Republicans will unite in common purpose and service to our nation despite never resolving their ideological differences. Remain loyal to these philosophies. Compromise on policies.

I choose unity over divisiveness. I choose our nation over political affiliation.

Saturday, November 7, 2020

Beware of Bringing the House Down

What follows is my sermon from Shabbat evening services, delivered the evening before Vice President Biden crossed the 270 electoral votes threshold.  

On this evening, as we look out on the precipice of discovering who will serve as the president for the next four years, I wish to offer a reflection about our current divisions and urge us, once again, to work towards greater unity. I turn, as I always do, to the rabbis for guidance. Sometimes 2000-year-old stories are the best stories for today’s struggles. I wish to explore one of their most famous stories about community. It is the story of the oven of Aknai, contained in the Babylonian Talmud and told over and over again, most especially if you study at the Hartman Institute. Here is the story.

It all starts with a seemingly innocuous question of whether or not an oven is kosher. The Talmud begins. A question was asked: is the oven clean or unclean? Rabbi Eliezer of Hyrcanus, considered the greatest mind of his day, declared it clean. The other Sages ruled it unclean. Rabbi Eliezer would not accept the majority’s decree. He brought forward every imaginable argument. Still they would not accept his logic. “Even though the oven is constructed of individual tiles, the cement which binds it together makes it a single utensil and therefore liable to uncleanness,” the Sages ruled. They refused to accept Eliezer’s view.

Rabbi Eliezer became enraged and said: “If the law agrees with me let this carob tree prove it.” A miracle occurred and at that very instant a carob tree was uprooted from its place and moved 150 feet. Some say it moved 600 feet. (The Talmud often preserves debates within debates.) The Sages scoffed at Eliezer’s magic and declared: “No proof can be brought from a carob tree.” Eliezer became even more adamant and summoned all of his miraculous powers, saying: “If the law agrees with me, let this stream of water prove it.” Thereupon the stream of water flowed backwards. “No proof can be brought from a stream of water,” the Sages rejoined. He screamed: “If the law agrees with me, let the walls of the academy prove it.” The Sages looked up in alarm as the walls began to fall in. Rabbi Joshua ben Hanina, however, rebuked the walls saying: “When scholars are engaged in a legal dispute you have no right to interfere and take sides!” Thereupon the walls stopped falling.

This only further incensed Eliezer and he turned toward heaven and cried: “If the law agrees with me, let it be proven from heaven.” A voice from heaven (a bat kol) responded: “Why do the Sages dispute with Rabbi Eliezer seeing that the law should agree with him?” Rabbi Joshua then jumped out of his seat and with passion and even some fury, quoted the Torah and screamed: “Lo ba-shamayim hi! Lo ba-shamayim hi! Lo ba-shamayim hi! It is not in the heavens! It is not in the heavens! It is not in the heavens!” (Deuteronomy 30:12) What did Rabbi Joshua mean by this? Rabbi Jeremiah answered: “Since the Torah has already been given at Mount Sinai, we pay no attention to a voice from heaven.”

The law follows the majority even when God sides with the minority. God gave us minds with which to reason and faculties with which to discern the truth. Miracles only distract us from this holy task. We do not hear God’s voice through our ears or see God’s miracles with our eyes but instead discern God’s truth through eyes open to studying the law and ears attuned to our friend’s wisdom.

Given the stubbornness of Eliezer’s position, the rabbis felt they had no choice and voted to ostracize him. The great Rabbi Akiva was given the sorry task of informing his beloved teacher of the council’s vote. Rabbi Akiva donned a black garment and sat at a distance from his teacher and said, “My rabbi, I think your colleagues have abandoned you.” Upon hearing this Eliezer tore his garments, sat on the ground and wept bitterly. And it is said that his sorrow was so great that his gaze wilted everything his eyes fell upon and even caused the seas to storm. (Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 59b)

I share this story, on this occasion, because it illustrates something we desperately need to remind ourselves of over and over again. There are right ways to argue and there are wrong ways. Of course, I don’t expect that this story is trying to tell us that some people can summon miracles to support their positions. I read the Talmud’s story and its portrayal of Eliezer more about a rejection of how he argued. He was an extraordinarily talented and learned rabbi. But his opinion about this oven remained his own solitary opinion. He was unable to convince others of what he believed. The majority voted about the issue of the day. All the ranting and raving and screaming, “How can you not see it the way I do? How can you think what you think?” will not change the mechanism of how a community, or in our case, a country, must function. The majority votes and the majority of voters, albeit in our case in each of our fifty states, determines who will serve as our president.

The moral of our tale is not that we can best even God with our reasoning and erudition or in this week’s Torah portion, argue with God like Abraham does. It is instead that Eliezer’s screaming, Eliezer’s willingness to bring the walls of the study house down forced the community to cast him aside. It is not to say that the community, and country, cannot, and should not, sustain arguments and disagreements. We need these. We desperately need them so that we can best figure out how to overcome the challenges of our day. But we must never argue like we want to tear the community apart. Eliezer was willing to destroy everything, including all of his colleagues, in order to prove he was right. That is not loving a community. That is not arguing so that you can better understand how your friend thinks. That is seeing being right as the end rather than the betterment of the community or the country.

In our sacred, but fragile, democracy everyone’s opinion is valued and counted. Soon, half of us will be happy, and half of us will be saddened. Unless all of us can see this not as “I won and you lost,” but as “We won because every voice was counted and every vote was tabulated,” we will suffer the same fate as Rabbi Eliezer. The system only works if we believe in it. Democracy can only be upheld by our faith not just in my vote but in your vote and everyone’s vote. Otherwise we will end up shunned like Eliezer and mourning like Akiva. And then, I fear, the world will see similar disasters: everything will likewise wilt, and the seas will once again become tempests. Yes, it does very much begin with how we argue. It does start with a seemingly mundane disagreement over something as small as an oven.

The way forward is through unity. I offer this prayer once again. May the person who recites the oath of president of these United States in January, come to recognize that the way forward is indeed through unity, and the way out of despair is to argue as if your life, and the wellbeing of the nation, depends on both the justness of your convictions and the love of your (disagreeing) friend.

And may Rabbi Eliezer’s fate not become our own. May we remain forever on guard never to allow a Rabbi Eliezer to tear our house down.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Every Vote Counts

Never before have I spent so much time coloring in circles and making sure that my pen never once went outside the lines of the bubbles and that each was perfectly painted in black. Never before have I felt that an election matters more or that my vote was so consequential. Such were the feelings that accompanied me as I entered the voting booth.

Our democracy is surprisingly fragile and yet remarkably durable. It has survived many tumultuous episodes, the Civil War and Vietnam War come to mind.

It is also far more fragile than anyone cares to admit. It depends on the belief that each of our votes matter and that each and every vote counts. And while states have the right to determine the rules by which they tabulate the results, every ballot must be counted. It is this tenet that binds us together, whether we call ourselves Democrats, Republicans or Independents.

Let no one declare that votes should not be counted. Let no one proclaim victory before every vote is recorded.

Each of us entered the voting booth, or sealed the envelope weeks ago, believing that the future of our country rides on the results of this election. Regardless if one voted for President Trump or Vice President Biden all appear to agree that their vote was a matter of saving the republic from the dangers of the other side. It is a remarkable, and somewhat frightening, thing that despite our political affiliations everyone seems to agree that victory for the other side will doom the country.

Come the day (may it be very soon!) that Biden or Trump wins the presidential election, half of the country will rejoice, and the other half will mourn. And that fact remains one of my greatest worries. We are divided and polarized. I recognize this is not an insightful or revelatory observation, but I wonder how are we going to rally together to fight this current pandemic, or any of the many other looming challenges, if half the country will be devastated by the election’s results and believes the country is doomed because their guy did not win?

I believe. The most important, and consequential, way to fight a life-threatening, and world shattering, crisis and is through unity.

We can of course argue about how we arrived at this point. Watch “The Social Dilemma” if you want to place blame with social media. Listen to the shouting and screaming on cable news if you want to discover more evidence of how we talk past each other rather than to each other. There is indignation, and vitriol, sitting before you on your computer or TV screen. Walk around any corner and you will find it. And while I too have offered indignation aplenty, on this occasion I wonder more about how such attitudes are tearing at the fragile threads binding us together.

So, let the unity begin here with us. Let us resolve to argue with friends, and even family, not to convince them how wrong they are but to understand what they think and why they believe different than we do. I wish to imagine a world where we argue not to convince or level judgement but to understand.

Sure, vote as if the other side is misguided and the life of our country depends on your guy wining. Talk to friends, however, as if your life depended on their love. Sure, protest as if the other side is dangerous and destructive. But sit down with friends, most especially those with whom you disagree as if your community, and country, cannot withstand the end of your friendship.

Our tradition elevates argument to the level of the holy. Abraham even argued with God for the sake of the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah. (Genesis 18) The rabbis called such disagreements as machloket l’shem shamayim. This is translated as argument for the sake of heaven and understood to mean that we must always argue with heaven in mind. We argue to understand the other. We argue to better ourselves and sharpen our opinions, as well as the commitments of our ideological foes. Disagreement does not make someone an enemy.

It instead means this is someone from whom I can learn.

I recognize how difficult this attitude can be, especially as we anxiously await the election results. And I do not proclaim myself to be a saint, empty of partisan commitments, devoid of exasperation with my ideological foes, and renouncing of indignation with my political opponents. I do however proclaim this commitment. The way forward is through unity.

The way forward is to reclaim our heritage, to argue with each other while loving each other.

I pray. May the person who recites the oath as president of these United States come January, come to recognize that the way forward is through unity, and the way out of despair is to argue as if your life, and the wellbeing of the nation, is dependent both on the justness of your convictions and the love of your disagreeing friend.