Friday, April 8, 2016

Who am I? The Power of Humility (Portion Metzora)

This week’s portion, Metzora, describes one of Torah’s most mysterious phenomena: the appearance of a leprous plague called tzara’at in the stones of a house.  The notion of an inorganic object being afflicted by such a malady struck some of our sages as so bizarre that they questioned whether this ever actually happened.  Some concluded: “Leprosy of houses never really existed and never will exist.”  Given the logical question that follows from this—“Then why is it in the Torah?”—the sages famously added: “Drash v’kabel s’char—Interpret it and receive reward for the act of interpretation.”

In that spirit, consider one small but significant detail in the relevant passage.  Torah teaches that the owner of the afflicted home should contact the priest who is in charge and tell him, “It seems there is a plague in the house.”  Commenting on the language here, Rashi notes: “Even if he is an expert and knows for certain that it is a plague, he should not dogmatically state that there is definitely a plague but should, rather, state: ‘It seems to me to be a plague.’”  To which another commentator, Mizrachi, adds: “A person should not be dogmatic even on something he is sure of, but rather should express certainty as a probability.  As our Rabbis instructed: Teach your tongue to say, ‘I do not know.’

Certainty is dangerous, because it can so easily dull our curiosity, stifle our empathy and, ultimately, blind us to truth.  As an old bit of wisdom advises: “If you’re always right, you’ll soon be left.”   No one wants to spend much time with a know-it-all who is incapable of learning from others.  Too much certainty quashes intellectual curiosity.  Arrogance is incompatible with intellectual growth and learning. 

In his book, I’m God, You’re Not, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner elucidates a commentary by the Hasidic master, Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev.  The subject at hand is Moses at the Burning Bush.  When God calls Moses to lead the Israelites, Moses asks, “Who am I to go to Pharaoh?” and God cryptically replies, “This shall be for you the sign,” without apparently specifying any signs.

Kushner writes: God does give Moses a sign says the Berditchever.  And it has been right there in plain sight all along; we just didn’t notice it.  From his native humility, Moses cannot imagine he is worthy of such a holy task.  But precisely this fear of inadequacy is the source of his true spiritual authority.  It is not an expression of unworthiness; it is a necessary qualification and precondition for the job of any would-be Jewish leader.  Your fear that you are unworthy makes you worthy.   God, in effect, says to Moses, “Your asking, ‘Who am I?’ is the sign that I’ve sent you.”

As we approach Pesach, the season of our liberation, may we remember that a healthy dose of humility can free us from the narrow-mindedness of Egyptian bondage, the state of spiritual bondage that comes with absolute certainty.  As freedom beckons, let us, like Moses, ask ourselves, Who am I?—and in so doing, open ourselves to a world of new possibilities and growth.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

On Solitude (Portion Tazria)

We often fear solitude and loneliness—but sometimes it can turn out to be a blessing.

In this week's Torah portion, Tazria, we learn about the diagnosis and treatment for a disease that afflicts the Israelites through their skin, surfaces and walls: tzara'at—often (mis)translated as “leprosy.”  The Rabbis tend to associate the physical symptoms with an inner, spiritual affliction.  They note that the “patient” with this condition is required to undergo a period of quarantine outside the camp—alone— until all signs of the disease subside.   Many see this temporary banishment as a form of punishment—yet we might choose to view it differently.  Rabbi Yael Shy likens the quarantine to a meditation retreat.  She notes: It is an enforced separation from society so that the person who has erected barriers within oneself is forced to shine the light of awareness on those barriers and the ways they are making her sick. Like meditation retreats, it may not be pleasant or easy, but the process leads to a necessary opening and healing, critical for the person's continued survival and growth.

Many of us are afraid of being alone.   We fear the silence, which may hint at our mortality.  Even when we find ourselves in solitude, we therefore tend to fill our ears and minds with distractions.  We stare at our smart phones, listen to our music and podcasts, watch movies and television shows—all avoid being really present with our deepest, truest selves, even when no other people are around.  Perhaps we might see the Israelite stricken with tzara’at as emblematic of most of us, over-stimulated by material things and therefore in need of a sort of spiritual quarantine “cure.”

Father Henri Nouwen spoke eloquently of this state of affairs—and the rewards for ultimately embracing our solitude and silences.  I’ll end with a favorite passage from an anthology of his wisdom, The Only Necessary Thing:

Solitude is a discipline that helps us go beyond the entertainment quality of our lives.  At first silence might only frighten us.  In silence we start hearing the voices of darkness: our jealousy and anger, our resentment and desire for revenge, our lust and greed, and our pain over losses, abuses, and rejections.  These voices are often noisy and boisterous. Our most spontaneous reaction is to run away from them. . . But if we have the discipline to stay put and not let these dark voices intimidate us, they will gradually lose their strength and recede into the background, creating space for the softer, gentler voices of light.  These voices speak of peace, kindness, gentleness, goodness, joy, hope, forgiveness, and most of all, love.  They might, at first, seem small and insignificant, and we may have a hard time trusting them.  However, they are very persistent, and they will grow stronger if we keep listening. 

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Health Care and Human Rights (Idaho Statesman column for April)

Hillel famously taught: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  If I am only for myself, what am I?  If not now, when?”

While the gist of this teaching is fairly obvious—finding a balance between self-interest and communal responsibility—a subtle reading reveals much more.  It is especially critical to note the shift in pronouns from the first question to the second.  One would expect Hillel to have asked, “If I am only for myself, who am I?”  But the who changes to what—suggesting that when we don’t tend to the needs of others we become something less than entirely human.  Narcissism and greed distort our core humanity.

This is worth remembering in the aftermath of the 2016 legislative session.  Once again, our representatives refused to extend health care to Idaho’s poorest citizens.  Then, adding insult to injury, Governor Otter called a press conference to affirm that callous decision.  Senator Jim Rice of Caldwell captured the prevailing ethos of the Idaho Republican party when he declared: “There is no right to health care. Not one of those who left the bloody tracks in the snow at Valley Forge did so for free health care.”

If I am only for myself, what am I?  Apparently, for starters, a Republican member of the Idaho House of Representatives.

In Jewish tradition, the saving of human life is known as pikuach nefesh.  This obligation overrides virtually every other religious consideration.  When a person is in danger, it is permissible to violate almost every commandment in the Torah to rescue them.  We derive this imperative from the Torah’s teaching: “You shall not stand idle while your neighbor bleeds” (Leviticus 19:16).  By this understanding, health care is absolutely a basic human right, and denying it to those in need is disgraceful.  Idaho’s leaders are, indeed, standing idle while the most vulnerable of the citizens they serve are bleeding.  When Idahoans die needlessly, due to lack of access to healthcare, as too many surely will in the coming year, let there be no doubt: the bloodguilt is on the heads of those who voted to deny them.

This is not just bad policy—it is moral bankruptcy.

Shame on our legislature and governor.

And shame on us, for continuing to elect them to high office.

We can do better. 

And if not now, when?

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Purim E-Torah

I’m proud to announce an extraordinary new fundraising opportunity for CABI, thanks to America’s first serious Jewish presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders.

During his recent campaign swing through Boise, I was blessed to receive a personal visit from Senator Sanders.  After we schmoozed for a while about important things like our shared dedication to excellent posture, our conversation turned to Idaho politics.  I described the lamentable record of our chief executive and legislature on a whole host of issues: their failure to add the words extending protection to LGBT citizens, consistent underfunding of public education, refusal to expand healthcare for low income Idahoans, continuous harassment of women’s reproductive freedom, and dogged determination to ensure the right of every lunatic in the state to own and operate an entire arsenal of assault rifles.

Senator Sanders listened with remarkable empathy and then decided to act on our behalf.   On the spot, he picked up his phone and called his old friends (and longtime Jewish activists and philanthropists) Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream fame.  He told them about CABI’s commitment to human rights and they, in turn, immediately agreed to add two new treats to their line, for sale in supermarkets in the Gem State and beyond: Chock Full O’ Nuts Legislative Lemon Sorbet and Bananas Butch Otter Pops.   True to their names, both of these treats will be full of nothing but artificial ingredients and empty calories; Ben and Jerry guarantee that they will be certifiably unhealthy to everyone except radical patriot survivalists living off the grid in Outer Kamiah.

The good news?  Fifty percent of all profits from these confections will go to fund CABI social action projects.  There is one catch, though: this is a true partnership, so we will be producing Chock Full O’ Nuts and Bananas Butch Otter Pops right in our own CABI kitchen, with volunteer labor provided by our own membership.  That’s right—we need you, CABI members, to sign up for ice cream making, preferably once a week.  I promise that it will be fun and satisfying, raising valuable dollars for a good cause.

So please join me in the kitchen and, as Ben and Jerry and Bernie all put it:


Happy Purim,

Rabbi Dan

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Two Truths--Or One? (portion Vayikra)

Every person should hold two truths, one in each pocket, and take them out according to the need of the moment.  One should say, “The world was created for my sake” and the other should say, “I am dust and ashes.”
                        -R. Simcha Bunam

I have always loved this teaching but over the years, I have also come to realize that it is, like most Jewish wisdom, more complicated than it first appears.   The challenge is that the “need of the moment” is not always obvious and may, in fact, be paradoxical.  Someone who seems to be acting arrogantly—and therefore in need of the “dust and ashes” truth—may, in fact, be overcompensating for a deeply-rooted insecurity that actually calls for “the world was created for my sake.”  And sometimes when we find ourselves in the throes of depression, an awareness of our mortality—“dust and ashes”—can offer a perspective that is comforting, much like listening to the blues.  Knowing which truth to pull out at any given time is a fine—and essential—art.

This week’s Torah portion, which begins the book of Leviticus, opens with the word that bestows its name, Vayikra—God called. . . .  It starts with the Holy One calling to Moses to teach him the laws that he will transmit to the Jewish people.  But there is an interesting anomaly in the way the word Vayikra is written in the Torah scroll.  The last letter, aleph, is inscribed in a small, undersized script, as if it is a sort of afterthought.

The Rabbis offer an abundance of commentary on this phenomenon but my favorite connects that aleph with the ego, as it is the first letter in the word anochi—“I” or “self.”  Like R. Simcha Bunam’s teaching, this reminds us that our ability to hear and respond to the call of the Divine depends on having our ego in proper proportion.  If we have too much ego, we are so full of ourselves that we leave no room for God (or anyone else).  If we have too little ego, we assume ourselves unworthy of being called in the first place, and shy away from the encounter.  We can only harken if we possess a strong sense of self that is balanced by compassion and genuine curiosity about others.  When we can see that we are, simultaneously, dust and ashes AND the reason the world was created, then God calls to us and we respond, Hineni—Here I am, ready for service.

This week, as we begin the book of Vayikra, consider: How can you better prepare to hear the call of the sacred in your life—and respond to it?