Monday, August 18, 2014

Looking Backward, Looking Ahead (Portion Re'eh)

“See, I set before you today a blessing and a curse.”
            -Deuteronomy 11: 26, opening of portion Re’eh

“The past is a source of knowledge and the future is a source of hope. Love of the past implies faith in the future.”
            -Stephen Ambrose

The entire book of Deuteronomy is, essentially, Moses’ farewell speech to the people he has led for the past four decades.  Now 120 years old, he will soon die, and Joshua will lead a new generation of Israelites, born into freedom in the wilderness, into the Promised Land.  As he speaks, Moses recalls the past, again and again, as a source of guidance for the future.  He is afraid that as they establish themselves in Canaan, the people will forget from whence they came and grow ungrateful, taking their manifold blessings for granted.  And so he urges them to remember their history and learn from it.   He teaches us that by reflecting on the choices that we have made—for both good and bad, blessing and curse—we can learn and grow and choose more wisely on the road ahead.

This is critical for us, both collectively and as individuals.  Looking at current events, I often see signs of a deeply disturbing national forgetfulness.  Just consider some of the vituperative rhetoric (and policy) on the subject of immigration.  How have we so quickly forgotten that all of our forebears, save for those of the Native American population among us, came to these shores as immigrants?  When we remember our own history, we should realize how callous it is to deny others the same opportunities that have proven so advantageous for us.

And as individuals, we Jews have a special obligation to reflect on the past in this sacred season.  The Hebrew month of Elul begins in just a little over a week, on August 26.  That marks the commencement of our traditional period of preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—the Days of Awe.  Our tradition urges us to use this time for a spiritual accounting (cheshbon nefesh) of our actions of the past year.  We consider our choices, our blessings and curses, and use our insights to help us improve our deeds in the year to come.

Financial advisors always caution: “Past performance is not a guarantee of future returns.”  To which, in the spiritual realm, I’d say: “Thank God.”  Knowing the past, we can change the future.  Now that’s a miracle for which I’m very grateful, indeed.

Monday, July 21, 2014

My testimony at the sentencing hearing for Add the Four Words

Your honor, my name is Daniel Fink.  I am a twenty-year resident of Boise and the rabbi of Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel.

You have heard (and will hear more) stories of LGBT citizens and their families, detailing the harm that they have suffered because our state does not extend them legal protection from bigotry and injustice.

As a straight male, I am privileged.  I can live and work free of fear, without hiding who I am; no one disputes my right to love and marry and parent and be buried with my partner.  My immediate family and I have suffered no direct harm on account of our sexual preference or gender identity. Why, then, did I end up here in this courthouse today?

I am here because as a rabbi, I speak not only for myself but also for my Jewish community.  I serve all Jews and their families, gay and transgender and straight: LGBT Jews and their parents and partners and grandparents and children and brothers and sisters—and quite a few of these members of my congregational family have, indeed, suffered harm.  I can speak for them here and now because I am privileged and can speak openly, while too many of them still live in fear of bullying, bigotry, and bodily harm.

I am here because I, as a rabbi, know all too well that, alas, the very legal injustices that have caused grievous harm to the LGBT community have often been justified by and even grounded in words taken from my faith tradition.  I am here because I believe this is the worst profanation of God’s name; that bigotry perpetrated under the guise of religion is the most horrific of idolatries.  I believe that if we are honest, we people of faith must see that we bear significant responsibility for the harm done to our LGBT brothers and sisters, and therefore have serious amends to make. My work with Add the Four Words was the least that I could do toward that end.   

And finally, I am here in this courtroom today because I believe with all of my heart that when the God that I serve sees inequality and suffering, She weeps with us and then demands that we, Her partners, do our part l’taken olam—to heal the wounds and bring repair to all that is unjust and broken.  This is the most basic Jewish obligation, a moral imperative born of our own history of persecution.  As Holocaust survivor and Nobel prize winner Elie Wiesel reminds us all, when harm is being done, there is no excuse, ever, for inaction:  “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Your honor, I thank you for this opportunity to share my story, and the stories of those I represent that are all too often untold on account of fear and oppression.  I am inspired by the brave community around me today, and look forward to a time, in the not too distant future, when in the words of the prophet Amos, justice will roll down like a river, and righteousness like a mighty stream. 

Friday, June 20, 2014

Redeeming Captives (Article for July 5 Idaho Statesman)

As I made my way through the supermarket check out line a couple days ago, I was shocked and disgusted to see the cover of Time magazine, which featured a picture of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl and, in large bold print, the question: “Was he worth it?”  Just imagine how you would feel if this were your own son or daughter!  Whatever one thinks about the deal that brought Sgt. Bergdahl home, or even the still unknown circumstances around his service and capture, the lack of basic human empathy behind this headline is appalling.  And the public’s rush to negative judgment in this case, without any significant knowledge of the facts, is most lamentable.
Was he worth it?  My own tradition would overwhelmingly answer: “Yes.”  While Jewish law recognizes that there are real dangers and limitations in ransoming captives—namely, rewarding the captors and thereby unintentionally making future kidnappings more likely—our sacred texts come down strongly on the side of what is known as pidyon shvuyim, our obligation to secure the release of prisoners.  The leading medieval Jewish scholar, Moses Maimonides, wrote: “There is no greater mitzvah (commandment) than redeeming captives, for the problems of the captive include being hungry, thirsty, unclothed, and they are in danger of their lives too. Ignoring the need to redeem captives goes against the Torah’s teaching: ‘Do not stand idly by while your neighbor’s bleeds.’”  To which the authoritative Jewish legal code, the Shulchan Aruch, adds: “Every moment that one delays in freeing captives, in cases where it is possible to expedite their freedom, is considered to be tantamount to murder.”
This is not a theoretical matter.  In the book of Genesis, when invaders take the patriarch Abraham’s nephew, Lot, as a captive, Abraham raises an entire army to free him.  More recently, over the last half century, Israel has released over 13,000 Arab prisoners in exchanges that brought home just 16 Israeli prisoners of war—a ratio of roughly 800 to 1.  As Israeli philosophy professor Moshe Halbertal notes: “These things are in the DNA of our culture.”
One of the Talmud’s most famous teachings—thanks, in part, to the film “Schindler’s List”—is this: “Whosoever saves a single life, saves the world entire.”  Indeed.  Given this Jewish reality, can there be any doubt about the answer to the question so insensitively posed by Time magazine?  Our nation’s commitment to him speaks to the best in our culture.   Should we sink to the point where we fail consider his life to be “worth it”, then we will know ourselves to be morally bankrupt.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

After Twenty Years (Portion Beha'alotechah)

At my rabbinic ordination, twenty six years ago, my father delivered the sermon on the weekly portion, which we read again this Shabbat—Beha’alotechah.

The portion describes the ordination of the Levites, declaring: “Bring the Levites forward before the Eternal One.  Let the Israelites lay their hands upon the Levites…that they may perform the service of the Eternal One.”
God is not content to bestow divine authority upon the Levites; such authority must come from the congregation as well.  In his ordination sermon, Dad drew a lesson from this populist passage for all of us rabbis-to-be, noting:

“The people ordain.  People will teach you about God, and their lives will be Torah.  You will share in their joys and bring them comfort in their sorrows, for they will give you access to themselves that they will extend to no one else, in the highest and lowest moments of life. They will shape you, and you will become different because of those whose lives touch yours.  You will then teach, not so much by what you say, but by who you are—the way you live.”

In recent days, I’ve often reflected on this passage that launched me into the rabbinate, for this month marks my twentieth anniversary as your rabbi at Ahavath Beth Israel.  During my two decades here, my father’s words have proven prophetic.  Together, we have shared joy and sorrow, and you have been my family and my teachers throughout.  This community has loved and supported me through thick and thin: I have raised my children here, divorced and remarried, mourned my father’s death and celebrated births, Bat Mitzvahs and graduations.  When I arrived in June of 1994, I was still, on occasion, told, “You seem too young to be a rabbi.”  I suppose that one of the perks of middle age, with its sundry aches and pains, is that at least I now look the part.

Throughout this time, it is been an enormous honor to share in your lives.  Dad was right: you have been generous beyond measure.  It is a rabbi’s unique privilege to be with his or her community in the most significant moments in their lives.  You have taught me so much Torah in our time together.  In you, our tradition lives, as flesh and blood.  Together, we have experienced pleasure and pain and everything in between, and through all of it, sought meaning and even, I daresay, holiness.  For my failures, I ask your forgiveness.  And for your gifts, I offer my thanks.

The writer Anne Lamott, whose faith is both deep and iconoclastic faith, suggests in a recent book that the heart of all religious life boils down to three words: “Help.  Thanks.  Wow.”  And so my prayer looking back on the past twenty years, and forward to our continued Jewish journey together, is just this: “May I be able to offer the kind of loving help and support that you have given me in such abundance.  May I always feel and express my heartfelt gratitude for your love.  And may I never fail to be struck by the miraculousness of these blessings.”

Sunday, May 18, 2014

In the Wilderness (Portion Bemidbar)

Next Shabbat, we will begin the book of Numbers, which is known in Hebrew as B’midbar, meaning “in the wilderness.”  That is also the name of the week’s portion, and, in a sense, it captures the theme of the book as a whole, which focuses on the narrative of our wanderings, between leaving Egypt and arriving in the Promised Land.

Our Rabbis ask: “Why was Torah given in a wilderness?” and the Talmud, in Nedarim 55a, answers that if we want to learn Torah, we have to emulate the terrain where it was given, by making ourselves open and ownerless.  As the commentary in Etz Hayim notes: It is intimidating to open oneself to the demands of God, to a new and morally demanding way of life.  Torah portrays the people as periodically wishing they were back in the predictable, morally undemanding servitude of Egypt.  Yet Israel’s willingness to accept the Torah, to be open as a wilderness, was the essential first step in God’s remaking the world.  Perhaps this kind of openness is the prerequisite for all real learning and personal growth.  If we wish to move forward, it is important to be able to let go of our hardened assumptions and be willing to let the world act upon us in new ways.  Many of us find it easier to do just this when we take time to experience the power of wild places. 

In this spirit, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner offers a related insight into the connection between Torah and wilderness: The reason Sinai is so special and the reason why we are unable to hear Torah all the time, suggests Eliyahu KiTov, is because the noise, static, and muzak of this world drown out the sound of God’s voice.  At Sinai, not a bird chirped or a sound [other than God’s voice] was heard.  At Sinai we could hear what had been there (and continues to be here) all along.

We all have our own personal Sinai spaces and times, where we are able to step away from the chatter of daily live and reflect on what matters most.  A few weeks ago, I went paddling in Oregon’s John Day Wilderness, spending three days and seventy miles with good friends and colleagues.  We didn’t see or hear another soul the entire time.  And in the quiet of the canyon, or sitting together by a campfire, we heard God’s voice, in our own conversations with one another and with ourselves, and in the spaces between those conversations.

Not all of us can—or wish to—take time off the grid.  But even if we do not leave our homes, we can create our own wilderness times, disconnecting from the world of technology and reconnecting with God, with family, and with our own still, small voices of conscience and vision.

Henry David Thoreau famously declared: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”  As we enter the wilderness this week with portion B’midbar consider ways that you might make yourself more open, more ownerless, and more still, like that sacred space.