Thursday, September 17, 2020

Rosh Hashanah from Home

This Rosh Hashanah will be like no other. The Cantor and I will be standing in our sanctuary. And you will be watching our services on your TV's, computers or even iPhones. You will be participating from your homes.

If you have not yet registered to access the livestream link, please do so on my congregation's website.  Rosh Hashanah begins tomorrow evening with services at 8 pm and then morning services on Saturday and Sunday at 10 am. Children's services are on Saturday at 1 pm. We will gather for in person Tashlich services at Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park beach on Saturday at 4 pm. Please wear a mask and bring breadcrumbs so that you can symbolically cast your sins into the Long Island sound.

Judaism teaches that our homes are a mikdash maat, a small sanctuary. The meals that we share, the blessings that we recite, the love that we discover there, help to sanctify our homes. Our tradition has never believed that you can only observe Jewish rituals in a synagogue, or that Jewish bests can only happen in our beautiful sanctuary. In fact, it is the day of Rosh Hashanah that is holy, not the place where we observe it. Judaism sanctifies time not space, we teach over and over again. This year we are really going to have to take this principle to heart.

Given that we will not be together and that you will be celebrating Rosh Hashanah from the comfort of your homes, I wanted to offer some suggestions for how you might make your home feel more like a sanctuary. Think about which room in your house would be best to help you feel like this is a prayer experience. Discuss this with your children. Entertain a debate about this question. And then watch from there. If you are able to stream the services to a TV, do so. If this is a technological leap for you then don't do it for the first time on Rosh Hashanah.

Still this is not a Netflix movie, so I would not recommend a bowl of popcorn by your side to watch services. Then again do what you are comfortable doing and what will help you make this into a meaningful and uplifting experience. If you usually wear a kippah and tallis in synagogue then put them on. If you like to dress up for services, then do so. I know no one will see how stunning you look, but it might help to get you into the right frame of mind. But certainly, don't make outfits a fight with your kids. Let them enjoy the service and take in the music of our prayers however they are comfortable.

If you like to follow along in the prayerbook then have your prayerbook open or download the Kindle or free Flip versions.  Some of the prayers will be shown on the screen. Sing along, and sing really loudly, when you see those words. Listening to our cantor will help to lift your spirits. But singing along with her will add to your experience.

God hears all prayers wherever they might be offered—and however they might sound. When it comes to prayers it's first and foremost about the words and the intentions.

When we light the Rosh Hashanah candles on the bima, you can light your candles. When we drink the kiddush wine, you can drink some wine. Of course, you can start earlier with the wine if you like. And by all means have a plate of apples and honey, and maybe even a round hallah, waiting to enjoy for what will be your own private oneg.

If you are watching these services by yourself, and you're missing the opportunity of seeing your fellow congregants, then call them or FaceTime them before or after services. And if you know congregants who are watching services by themselves then call them before or after services. Or even call them during services. If kibbitzing with friends during services is part of what makes Rosh Hashanah enjoyable then do it.

The only rule for this year is that we need to grab as many opportunities as possible to lift our spirits.

May these services help to strengthen our spirits. May this Rosh Hashanah help to carry us toward a year of health.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Finding Kindness

This week was a good week.

I discovered a poem.

It was revealed to me as I turned through the pages of our new prayerbook, Mishkan HaLev. It called to me as I prepared for the upcoming High Holidays.
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
I endeavored to learn more about the poet who until this blessed hour was unknown to me. Naomi Shihab Nye was born in my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. Her father was a Palestinian refugee and her mother an American who traced her lineage back to Germany. Nye spent her teenage years moving between Jerusalem and San Antonio, Texas.

I learned more about the inspiration for the poem. While traveling on her honeymoon in Columbia, the bus on which she and her husband journeyed was robbed. A man was killed, and all of their belongings were stolen. Left alone when her husband went searching for how to get themselves out of this mess, she met a stranger who listened to her tale, despite her broken Spanish, and offered sympathy and compassion in return.

The poem emerged. It was if it scribbled its own words in her journal.

I started wondering.

Is every revelation born of serendipity? Is compassion best felt from those we least expect? Can kindness only be learned through pain?

The Torah declares: “Therefore, write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, in order that this poem may be My witness against the people of Israel.” (Deuteronomy 31)

Is the Torah’s journey of pain intended to teach kindness and compassion?

I recognize. This is not the poem the Torah intended. And yet I remain thankful for the teaching.

I remain grateful for small discoveries—and poems that uplift a week and offer reminders that kindness can transform us, and even something so seemingly small as listening to another’s pain can redeem our burdens.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Say Your Blessings Slowly

This week we read a lengthy list of curses, beginning with what the Torah imagines to be the worst kind of people: “Cursed be the person who misdirects a blind person on his way.— And all the people shall say, Amen. Cursed be the person who subverts the rights of the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.— And all the people shall say, Amen.” (Deuteronomy 27)

It continues with a list of what will befall those who disobey God’s command: “Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl.” And an abbreviated list of blessings that those who heed God’s mitzvot will enjoy: “Blessed shall you be in the city and blessed shall you be in the country.” (Deuteronomy 28)

The theology is crystal clear. Obey God’s commandments and blessings will follow. Disobey God’s mitzvot and you will see a long, detailed list of curses. It is not a very comforting thought. The graphic curses are in fact frightening. They make one recoil. Perhaps they even make people uncomfortable with the Torah and its stark theology. I for one don’t find the threat of cures a particularly effective way of motivating me to do good.

The tradition appears to recognize this dilemma. When chanting this portion, the Torah reader chants these lengthy curses in a very soft voice and in a rushed manner. To recite these curses in a loud and commanding voice would be to suggest a confidence in this theology. It would be to affirm something we experience to be false. Everyone can cite examples of people who follow all the commandments and yet experience far too many calamities and likewise those who appear to subvert the rights of the stranger and appear to enjoy untold blessings. And so, what do we do? We recite these words in hushed tones.

It is almost as if the tradition is instructing us to dwell on the blessings and rush past the curses.

The Hasidic master Simhah Bunim of Pshischa notices something more. He teaches that these detailed punishments are only attached to one specific command. He hears the Torah shouting: “Because you would not serve the Lord your God in joy and gladness over the abundance of everything.”

Perhaps the rebbe is correct. And all we require is the ability of the Hasidic masters to rejoice with even the most meager of blessings. They teach. All it takes is the posture of joy and gladness.

And I am beginning to detect how to begin and how to reorient this cursed year. Quickly, and softly, detail the curses. Slowly, and loudly, enumerate our blessings.

And then let joy and gladness fill your hearts.

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.

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.